Coffee heat rising

So this is retirement?

With retirement like this, who needs work?

I read student papers till 11:30 last night (the result of having loafed half the day before, if reading page proofs can be called loafing); leapt up at 6:00 a.m.; shot across the city with La Maya to an estate sale (nice stuff: too expensive); shot home, delivering edited page proofs to a publisher on the way; worked till class met; collected another mound of papers to add to the mound from the other class (yet to be read); shot back out to Scottsdale to a business reception; flew back; fed the dog; took the dog for a walk, wherein we witnessed the immediate aftermath of a three-fatality wreck (teenagers from the tenements across 19th Avenue); trudged home; sat down to write a few lines of copy I’d said I’d do on a volunteer basis for the choir director; listened to the clock tick while trying to figure out what to say (it ain’t easy to praise God when you’ve just seen the end of three kids); heard the Mac boing at the arrival of a new e-mail message bearing not one, not two, not three, but twelve new documents from a client…

Oh, God. At this rate, I’m not going to live through retirement!

Ghost stories

Now, I’m not a believer, as you know, but…

Who’s to say there are no ghosts?

When I was pregnant with M’hijito, his father and I lived in beautiful high-ceilinged old house in an elegant midtown historic neighborhood. Being centrally located and full of pretty 1920s and 30s homes, the area was very hot with the young professional set…and it was a playground for the homeless mentally ill, had the highest per-capita rate of drug use in the city, and was served by an unsafe and unusable public school. With a baby on the way, we considered moving.

But we loved the house—loved it to the point of distraction—and really didn’t want to leave. So instead we decided to add on to create a little more room for the new family member and then hunker down and learn to live with the facts of life in the big city. We hired my best friend’s father-in-law, an underemployed architect, to design the addition.

Bob came out of retirement (it’s hard to be “retired” when you’ve never worked, to speak of) and created exactly what we wanted: two large rooms added to the back of the house, one a spacious nursery and bedroom for the pending baby, and one a custom-designed office for me, appointed with a vast built-in desk, matching cabinetry, ceiling-to-floor bookcases covering an entire wall. What we didn’t know—no one knew—was that during this project Bob was suffering from terminal cancer. He seemed perfectly well as he supervised our contractor and ran interference with the city inspectors. But within a few weeks after the addition was completed, Bob died.

By the time we moved into the rooms, my son was born and six months old. Because I was finishing my dissertation, M’hijito was farmed out to a wonderful, grandmotherly neighbor for several hours a day, so I could write uninterrupted. I had a big old German shepherd, Greta, the only dog I’ve ever known that truly rose to the level of greatness. Greta saved my son’s life once…but that’s another story.

So on this quiet autumn day, I was working in my office, writing, frantically writing, with Greta dozing in her usual spot near my chair.

Suddenly, Greta sat up, her ears at attention and her gaze fixed at a point in space near the door to the room. She seemed to be watching something. But nothing was there. Not that I could see, anyway.

Her eyes tracked across the room, as though she were watching someone or something enter and walk across the floor.

She rose to her feet. And I rose to my feet. She didn’t appear to be alarmed. She made no sound. She didn’t lift her hackles. Strangely, I didn’t feel alarmed, either, even though this was very odd behavior. She started to walk around, in the same way she always followed me around. She moved back and forth in the room and then walked out through the door and into the baby’s room, where she paused, walked around a bit, paused.

I knew it was Bob. He’d come back to look at the rooms. He hadn’t seen them after we moved in—he’d died soon after the project’s completion. He came back to see what the place looked like with people living in it.

So convinced was I of this conceit that I actually spoke his name aloud. Greta again moved across the room as though she were following at someone’s side. At that point I said something like “Thanks, Bob. You did a beautiful job. We love the new rooms.” A few seconds later, just as abruptly as she’d gone on the alert Greta lost interest, came back to me, and sat at my side. Whatever it was that had happened was over.

We walked back into the office. I sat down and went back to work. Greta went back to sleep.

Who knows? Maybe she was having some sort of waking doggy dream, a canine hallucination. But the sense that someone was there—and the sense that it was Bob—was inescapable.

Still: if humans can have dreams and visions of the dead, why can’t a dog? It’s easy to understand how people living in less skeptical times believed the dead could return to visit in dreams. Dreams like that can be extremely vivid.

The other night, I experienced such a dream. For me to dream at all is unusual: as you get older, you dream less and less, and in my dotage I hardly ever dream, and almost never in color. But here was this dream: not only in color but with imagery so tangible it felt three-dimensional—not at all like the usual movie reel.

In the dream, I had gone to Texas to attend a professional conference, which took place in the hotel where I was staying. I hate going to conferences. Few things bore me more intensely than sitting through endless presentations at conferences. So I was less than thrilled to be in this old-fashioned, historic-looking hotel, though it was a handsome old place, its walls painted a creamy color with deeply polished walnut trim complemented by thick, rich carpeting.

Morning having dawned on what I expected would be a tedious day, I got up, showered, dressed, and walked down the stairs that led from the upstairs rooms to go to breakfast. Already pre-bored, as it were, I dawdled on the steps, playing like a little kid with the wooden banister. When I reached the bottom, where the staircase curved out into the lobby, I looked up and there was my father.

My father, a Texan fond of saying the best thing about being from Texas is being as far from it as you can get, has been gone for so long that I can barely remember what he looked like. In a waking moment, I couldn’t conjure his face to save my life. But there he stood, clear as day, in full color and three  dimensions, absolutely recognizable.

He looked just as surprised to see me as I was to see him.

“What are you doing here?” I asked. I didn’t give voice to the words in my mind: What are you doing here? You’re dead!

He said he was in town to see his mother, who was ill and needed someone to visit her.

My grandmother died long before I was born.

Shortly, I awoke. The image of my father’s face and the sound of his voice were as clear and sharp as if I had just seen him alive.  And who knows? Maybe I did.

Have you ever had an experience where you thought, seriously, that you were visited by the dead?

Another little roommate

{sigh} A new little rat has moved in behind the washer and dryer, out in the garage. She (I’ve decided it’s a girl, for no good reason) was wooed by the garbage, which I keep in the garage, just on the other side of the kitchen door. She’d carried various delicacies to her dining table behind the dryer, where she evidently enjoyed them with gusto.

The last roof rat who lived out there came in to eat the dog food. That was when the German shepherd and the greyhound were consuming about 20 pounds of kibble a week. I murdered him—the rat, I mean, not one of the dogs. Pizzened the little guy. He croaked over under the dryer. I had to drag the machine out from the wall in order to retrieve his ripening remains and inter him in the garbage can.

Anyway, the neighborhood is enjoying quite the roof rat infestation just now. On the phone yesterday, La Bethulia said she’d found not one but two of the little charmers…inside the house!!! One of them was after the dog food—her house has an indoor utility room, not a washer-dryer hook-up the garage. And the other was, hevvin help us, nestling in the linen closet.


Another neighbor e-mailed to say he’d found rat signs around his house.

Well, what to do with Our Rattie? She was out at the time I discovered her dwelling behind the washer and dryer. I’d had to move my car out of the garage, because the tree guys’ equipment and debris blocked the driveway. This provided an opportunity to break out the shop vac and thoroughly clean the garage. That was when I discovered her pellets and the remains of her lunch.

She must have been utterly terrorized, between the unholy racket the men made cutting down the huge tree outside the garage, the banging and thumping of the washer and dryer running (it was a multitasking day), and the roar of the shop vac. She ran off. One of the men pulled the washer and dryer out so I could clean up the mess behind them, and there was no sign of her underneath the machines.

So I hauled the garbage to the alley and determined to keep each day’s kitchen trash in the kitchen and trot it out to the alley each evening. I really don’t like to go out there after dark—don’t know which I’d less rather encounter: a four-legged rat or a two-legged one. But obviously nothing even vaguely edible can be left in the garage.

Poisoning rats is not the ideal strategy. If one of the little guys passes not through the Veil but through a hole in your wall, you’ve got a major stench that you can’t easily get rid of. Rat traps are supposed to be effective, but I can’t set a mouse trap without slamming my fingers…just imagine what a rat trap would do to a finger! I picked up a pair of glue traps at Home Depot, but they seem inhumane, to say the least.

But I had an idea.

This is gross. If you’re already grossed out by this conversation, by all means avert your eyes here!

It occurred to me that a dog is a predator. A rat, which is much like a rabbit with short ears, is prey. No prey animal with will sleep in a den decorated with fresh predator markings. Dogs mark their territory not just with urine but also with feces—the glands around the anus dispense pheromones that say “I was here.” Or, more precisely, “Get off my property!” Cassie’s little mounds, in contrast to those of a 90-pound shepherd or hound, are so small they’re fairly inoffensive. To the human nose, that is. But what if…

Next time I took Cassie for a walk and gathered one of her gifts off the neighbor’s yard, instead of tossing it in the nearest garbage can, I brought it home and deposited it in a disposable paper bowl. Slipped this into the nest area behind the washer and dryer, and then snuck away to wait.

I think Rattie may have been back once or twice—a few more of her pellets showed up around the washer. But they could have been old ones. She certainly isn’t hanging around, because there’s nothing to eat.

Gerardo blowered out the garage when he came by to clean up the yard, removing those last few pellets from sight, and I deposited a fresh dose of predator pheromone behind the washer. So now we shall see if this scheme works!

Neighborly Hallowe’en

This Hallowe’en Cassie and I will hang out in the neighborhood just to the south of us, where a nifty thing goes on.

The neighbors decorate their yards with orange lights and weird hoo-dahs. Then they bring tables and chairs out to the driveway or yard, stack the candy on the tables, and sit outside to greet the trick-or-treaters. This strategy serves all sorts of excellent purposes:

They have an impromptu, loosely organized block party. Neighbors get to know each other and each others’ kids, and a good time is had by all.

Everybody gets to enjoy all the kids frolicking around in their costumes.

The kids are safer, because a lot of grown-ups are outside watching.

The grown-ups are safer, because no one is opening their doors to strangers.

The obligatory vandalism goes someplace else, where fewer eyes are upon the perps.

It really is a great idea. It combines the fun of door-to-door trick-or-treating with the relative safety of an organized party. As a single woman, I never open my door to anyone I don’t know, and so on Hallowe’en I  turn off the lights and hole up in a back room. But I love to see the children showing off their costumes. This is a fine opportunity to do that.

Image: Toby Ord. A Jack o’ Lantern made for the Holywell Manor Halloween celebrations in 2003. Creative Commons.

Caught in the act!

My criminal career proceeds apace. The other day I breezed past a camera in a Tempe speed trap and got a nice candid portrait of myself behind the steering wheel.

Get this: when you turn north off University onto Rural Road, you turn onto a seven-lane thoroughfare. It’s large, it’s broad, it’s well marked, it has a center lane devoted solely to left turns. It goes past no schools, no residential neighborhoods: it’s flanked solely by light industrial development and mini-shopping malls. Everyplace else along Rural and Scottsdale (as the road is called after it passes under the freeway a few blocks to the north), the speed limit is 40 to 45 miles an hour. That’s a reasonable and prudent speed for the entire length of the large main drag.

But right around the intersection with University, the limit on Rural drops to 35 mph.

Nowhere near the turn, as far as I can tell, is the speed limit posted. The first speed limit sign appears several hundred feet north of University…on the far side of the traffic camera!

In other words, you don’t get to see what the speed limit is until the camera snaps your photo!

If that’s not a speed trap, I’d like to know what it is. Indeed, the worthies of the Tempe City Council have actually described it in so many words. According to the minutes of their April 9 meeting….

Councilmember Shekerjian stated that this has been one of the top three things she has asked about on a regular basis and she appreciated staff’s efforts. People assume these are speed traps for revenue….

Mayor Hallman added that most people think a reasonable and prudent speed between University on the south side and the 202 Freeway is not 35 mph but 40 mph. Priest Road [the next main drag to the east of Rural, similar in size and design] is an example of being signed at 40 mph, just as University used to be, and part of his concern is the way in which staff’s memo suggests that maybe this was a City Council-driven matter when in 2004, Council requested that staff review speed signs.

He continued that in looking at a chart that shows 120,000 violations between December 2007 and January 2009, it doesn’t look good that the next southbound location gets only about 35,000 citations.

Doesn’t that frost your cookies? Today a ticket arrives, grâce à this bureaucratically sanctioned speed trap: $171.

In Arizona, you can keep points off your driving record and avoid having your insurance shoot through the stratosphere by taking a Mickey-Mouse “defensive driving” course. For a person who hasn’t had a fender-bender or a traffic ticket in over 30 years, such an activity amounts to a mind-bending waste of time. The face-to-face class occupies an entire day; the on-line version is said to consume a mere 4 1/2 hours.

Not only that, but if you opt to take the course rather than just paying the ticket, the cost adds up to more than the fine! Which itself is steep. This wee fiasco is going to cost me $188, plus a minimum of $270 worth of my time.

For nothing.

It’s pure extortion. They set up cameras where no limit is posted, give you a ticket for going a speed normal everywhere else on the road and on roads similar to it elsewhere in Tempe, and then force you to cough up a gob of cash if you don’t want to see your insurance rates skyrocket.


Okay, I’m forced to admit it: Rural Road actually is posted before the camera, just a few feet north of the intersection with University. Baaad dinosaur! But that notwithstanding: everywhere else the road is posted 40 or 45 mph, and in the absence of a school zone or residential area, there’s no reason to suddenly drop it to 35 mph along this seven-lane stretch. Posted or not, it’s still a speed trap.

Image of Maserati: public domain

The High Cost of Culture: 16 low-cost routes to the better life

Frugal Scholar reports on a wonderful day at the New Orleans Jazzfest (and ancillary activities), a good reason to live in or visit New Orleans. In passing she remarks that folks grouse about the $43–$50 ticket prices. That sounds like quite a bargain for twelve stages (!) hosting over seventy performances.

Some months ago my friend Kathy and I bought tickets to see Joshua Bell perform with the Phoenix Symphony, an event that coincided with a visit from her now-married daughter, who by the end of high school had become accomplished enough with the violin to consider a professional career. The concert was last night. When I pulled out my ticket, I was reminded that we paid $85 apiece. Parking was $12 in a garage whose elevator didn’t work, so, in high heels, we had to walk down and later up five flights of fire-escape stairs inhabited by bums, one of whom amused himself by filling up the stairwell with cigarette smoke. 

On reflection, I thought…good heavens! If you were a couple and you wanted to go to a symphony performance, it would cost you $182, and that’s before you’ve had dinner or spent the gas to drive downtown. Most people like to have a nice dinner before a concert or at least dessert or drinks afterward; around here you can easily spend $40 or $50 apiece on dinner, especially downtown. By the time they’d paid tips, a couple could have invested another $100 in the evening: almost $300!

It makes $43 for a daylong festival of jazz look like a mighty bargain, eh?

I certainly can’t afford to pay almost $100, exclusive of dinner, to go to a classical music concert very often, and I make a decent salary. The message is that “cultchah” is only for the rich. 

More plebeian pursuits will set you back a pretty penny, too. A single seat at an Arizona Diamondbacks baseball game at an elevation that does not require you to bring an oxygen tank can run $50 to $70. Apiece! Imagine bringing the whole family to that game: Mom, Dad, and two kids: $200, before you get to the hot dogs and Crackerjack!

Where do people get that kind of money?

I see the New York Times is about to jack up its subscription prices to almost $60 a month. Mine is a cut-rate deal for university employees, but I’m sure it will rise, too—after you get through the punch-a-button phone maze, the robot voice flicks you the gesture by informing you that no one’s there to speak to you, so it will be Tuesday before I find out whether I have to cancel the paper or not. I sure can’t afford sixty bucks a month…but then, just a glance at the Times‘s advertising tells you the news is not addressed to the peasantry, anyway.

PBS has been taken off the air for people who receive their TV by antennas. The new digital incarnation does not come in on my flicking “box.” I can’t afford cable, nor can I afford an expensive new antenna and a workman to install it, so apparently PBS is already a thing of my past, as the Times is about to be.

These developments impoverish America far more than does the general collapse of the economy. When people can’t get exposure to great music, can’t see a decent television program, and can’t even go to a damn baseball game because the better things in life are priced out of reach, we’re all dumbed down. We don’t need as much money as we imagine we do, but we do need access to the things that matter in life: music, art, serious news reporting, drama, sports. 

Fortunately there are a few back doors into some quality cultural events. The Phoenix Art Museum has a freeby night once a week, although of course we bums aren’t allowed in to see the major traveling shows. Several churches in the Valley have such high-quality music programs that attending a service is akin to enjoying a free chamber music performance—albeit, nonbelievers have to sit through a lot of hoopla for the privilege. Some church music ministries bring guest performers or engage Phoenix symphony professionals to put on religion-free concerts at reasonable prices. And there’s a surprising wealth of jazz in Arizona, much of which can be enjoyed in relatively affordable venues. And sporting events, not on the professional level but maybe so much the better for that, can be caught at nearby colleges and universities.

In most cities you can find guides to these events and activities at your local NPR station’s website, in events listings in “alternative” newspapers, and in handouts available at local libraries. Just because you can’t afford rich folks’ entertainment is no reason to sit at home. Here are a few places to look for free or low-cost cultural events, with examples from my part of the globe. Google…

  1. Your local NPR station(s); look for an events calendar at each station, since they may differ.
  2. Local museumsbotanical gardens, and zoos    
  3. Events calendars at local colleges and universities  
  4. A nearby university + the team name  
  5. A nearby college + sports events  
  6. Your city’s Parks and Recreation Department  
  7. Your city + events  
  8. Event calendars for cities within day-trip driving distance  
  9.  Chamber of Commerce events calendars  
10. Volunteer gigs as ushers or ticket-takers at concert halls and theaters.
11. Nearby cultural centers  
12.  Jewish Community Centers   
13. Your local YWCA or YMCA  
14.  Local church events and music calendars   
15. Special interest groups such as the Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy, or the Sierra Club  
16. NPR online, PBS online, and Hulu   

Et vous? How do you find kultcher on a shoestring?

Oops! By light of day, I see I repeated myself in (2) and (10)! Sorry about that. Safari crashed just as I finished that list, the first time around, erasing the whole thing. So, with great disgust and impatience, I had to try to remember and then rebuild all the suggestions I’d dreamed up and relocate all the links I’d dredged  up. Sooooo… Let’s change numero (10) to the hint I remembered after I first published this post.

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