Sunday, November 19, 2017

Last night

Lunapic Sketches

I'm no artist. I loosely copied a sketch I found online and made it into an old lady crook from Las Vegas.
Inspirational sketch. Character design:

My sketch
I ran the sketch through a number of Lunapic filters and kind of liked this one which I used in a blog post.
This filter— "night vision" seemed to fit the spirit of the blog but it's too hard to see. Duh. I guess that's how it got the name.
 I really liked this filter in the style of Frida Kahlo. "I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality."
 Here's a collage Lunapic made of my original sketch, the Frida inspiration and my finished sketch.

My life of crime - part 2
My take for that first unplanned criminal act netted me $368.00. It was easy money and I knew insurance would cover everything in the coffee shop blow-up. A victimless crime, but still my conscience was killing me. Would I do it again? I thought not. It was a unique opportunity, too easy to pass up. I wasn't willing to take that kind of chance again, not with my own scruples nor with the law I loved.

Another two weeks passed; two weeks closer to getting my checks. Other than Cocaine Nose, my husband, and Ginnie, my ex-partner, nobody knew of my plight. I decided it was wiser to suffer alone through my troubles without answering questions. Most importantly, I didn't want to confess to anyone in my family about how another of my marriages had gone bad.

Ginnie invited me to stay in her guest house but I'm not one who mooches. I deplore a free-loader and Ginnie wouldn't take money from me. I had an obnoxious brother-in-law, always dropping by for a "surprise" visit with nothing but a toothbrush in his shirt pocket. Not only a mooch, he was a pompous know-it-all. He liked to bloviate on any subject at any opportunity whether he knew anything about it or not. Most of my ex-in-laws I remember fondly but this one was for the birds. No, I'd have to be on the streets before I'd stoop to his tactics. I couldn't accept Ginnie's offer.

Reluctant to return to Ocean Beach on the slim chance that I might be recognized, I was walking around downtown San Diego for two hours each morning to get exercise and burn off my anxiety-generated adrenaline. On the plus side, I was getting to know the city a little better. You can drive around a town for years but you never know a place until you cover it on foot. Logan was only two blocks away from the promenade; I enjoyed walking along the water and around the outside of the convention center. Once in a while, I'd spot an unexpired entrance badge in the trash, pin it on and go inside. Energy at conventions ran high and rubbing shoulders with happy people improved my outlook. The religious articles convention was fantastic—yarmulke salesmen displaying their wares right next to the rosary manufacturers; the home show was fun—I filled out a hundred "Win this or that" forms, all with fake names and numbers.  Natural Food Expo was the best of all, where I filled a shopping bag with free energy bars, colon cleanser pills, exotic vitamins and tea bags...enough to keep both me and the roaches with clean guts and full of energy for a few weeks.

Most days, I ended up at the library for a few hours. I knew just how long I could sit there before the librarians gave me the fisheye. During all the years working the beat in Las Vegas, I didn't have enough time to read. Now, at last, I had all the time in the world. I read the periodicals: The New Yorker; The Atlantic; Granta. It's likely you didn't think I was that kind of girl, but you'd be surprised by the reading material both cops and the bad guys enjoy when nobody's watching.

Maybe you're wondering about the cancer. I was one of the lucky ones. Skin cancer on my right arm, the one I dangled out of the car window for 25 years. One day an ugly growth popped up and I went straight to the dermatologist. They took a chunk out of the arm and sent me on my way. That was three years ago and the spot was back. If you're going to have cancer, skin cancer is the best option. You can see it and the surgeon can see it, unlike most forms of the stinking disease, rotting away inside somewhere, discovered too late. No, I considered myself lucky on the cancer front.

Last Friday, I was sitting in the library in my favorite chair in a shaft of sunlight contemplating the word "bloviating". Warm and full of energy bars, I was dozing when I heard the scrape of the chair next to me being pulled back. I looked up from my magazine into the bright blue eyes of Bob Davis."How're they hanging?" asked Bob sitting down in the chair. Bob was a well known small-time hustler in Las Vegas. We'd picked him up a few times for scams. He stretched out his legs and settled himself into the chair."You're probably thinking by now you can relax after your little heist in the coffee shop.You sanctimonious cops always turn out to be the worst." he said, shaking his head. Suddenly my guts turned to water and I hustled off to the ladies.

I returned to the chair because I realized there were eyes on me and it didn't matter if I ducked out of the library - wherever I turned, they would follow. I decided to go for sympathy and dump all my woes on this guy. Things were looking bad—could I make it any worse? "Listen, Bob. The worm turned on me and I'm in bad shape—my husband sniffed our savings up his nose, I was forced into retirement and I've got cancer. Could you cut me a little slack here? I don't know what you've got in mind, but please forget it and leave me alone."

Was I surprised to see Bob here in the San Diego Library? Many of the long term hardened con guys spent winters in Vegas on the hustle, then moved operations over to San Diego to relax during the summer months. But were these guys readers? No way. I was being tailed.

Bob was low on sympathy. He laid out his latest ratty scam and let me know where I was to fit in. This one was so full of logic holes it already stunk like old cheese. But….I would make some quick cash...enough to move out of the shithole and over to a decent place in Point Loma. Maybe I could talk them into a smarter plan.


Saturday, November 18, 2017

Fiction - Fleshy


I waited in the cardiologist’s small examination room stuffed with furniture and equipment used for repairing worn out and exhausted hearts. A tall medical cabinet on one side of the room was fitted with small drawers, each bearing a plastic label strip naming the contents and hinting at awful things ahead. “Gloves, mirrors, clamps,” were stored in the drawer at my eye level. I sat in the designated patient chair. A wheeled swivel stool with a black vinyl seat—the seat of authority—awaited the doctor.

The plastic labels reminded me of Nick, the man who sold us our house, described by his wife as a picky Virgo. He owned a vintage Dymo label maker a nephew had given him for Christmas in 1967. The Dymo company would never find a more enthusiastic user. He identified every drawer, cupboard, and electrical outlet in the garage. Once the garage was finished, he moved indoors where he named the light switches by sticking the labels directly onto the painted drywall. If we pulled them off, an ugly paint-stripped scar would remain. We left them and with time, became nostalgic about them. Fran, Nick’s wife, must have banned him and his device from the kitchen otherwise I’d have cabinets dotted with red strips reminding me that “large spoons, small spoons, steak knives” belonged in a particular drawer. I wonder what Nick would think today about his organized garage now heaped with stuff all willy-nilly. Over the years, just as the organization system he’d left us had gone to hell, so had hundreds of his labels lost their grip. When a drawer became jumbled, its label would curl up and unstick as if embarrassed to be proclaiming order where only confusion reigned. When we swept, the dried-up red plastic strips looked like discarded cocoons.

The doctor’s assistant, a perky blond, entered the room, her ponytail swinging. As she recorded my vitals on a clipboard, I noticed her eyes were the same dreamy blue as her uniform, the eye color that ran through the Irish side of my family, but skipped me.

My eyes were the reason I was visiting the cardiologist. When my optometrist checked my vision a month before, he commented the rings around my eyes—he called them cholesterol rings—were increasing in size. A corona of watery, yellowish-blue stuff, circled my brown irises and gave me a vacant look. “No one’s home,” they seemed to announce when I checked my face in the mirror. Everybody in my family had the cholesterol rings. Every one of them died of a heart attack.

The assistant pushed the stool aside as she left the room. The seat did a solo pirouette, like a figure skater, and wound down just as the doctor entered. He lowered himself onto it and pushed himself from the cabinet to me. Arms crossed, he asked me a few questions, then used his foot to glide back to the cabinet where he made notes on the clipboard. I guessed he was jotting reminders next to my name . . . “likes to travel, has a cat.” My friend who worked for a Korean veterinarian told me the vet stuck a star on the corner of the pet’s chart if the owner was an “ashhole” as the Korean pronounced it. I hoped I wasn’t getting a poor grade. The doctor wheeled back with a muted flourish. You could tell he enjoyed the short rides.

As he scribbled, I looked over at the examination table. Menacing clamps adorned the sides; wires coiled out from beneath into black boxes covered with knobs and dials. What were those headphone things? It looked like the scene for a lobotomy. I began to sweat.

“Fleshy.” I heard the cardiologist mumble as he made another note.

“What?” I asked. “Was I supposed to hear that?”

“Well,” said the doctor, doing a half-twirl toward me and looking at his clipboard. “You have . . . fat, around your middle that I don’t like.”

“Well, I don’t like it either,” I added. “But fleshy? Is that a medical term?”

The cardiologist explained that I was turning into an apple—the worst shape and highest risk for heart attack. “Less fleshy would be better.” he said with a straight face. Whatever name you want to use, I was entering the dark side. Ahead lay a whole new set of euphemisms to explore for my fleshy stomach roll: belly, gut, paunch, spare tire and the most naively optimistic of all, love handles.

I called my slim husband and told him I was walking home and why. “It’s only ten miles,” I said. He reminded me that walking one mile burned sixty-five calories. I’d burn up only six hundred and fifty calories for all the risks on the road. “It’s not the end of the world,” he said. “Do you want to chance getting hit by a car for the caloric equivalent of a loaded baked potato?”

“Hmmm . . . not something I’d want on my tombstone,” I replied.

I got into the car and thought about resurrecting Nick’s Dymo marker to make reminder labels for my freezer and refrigerator. FLESHY— the red strips would warn. 

Gaining Weight

On The Road
Fiction: A Storm

I knew John was flirting with a woman seated behind me without looking back to check her out. When he reached up for his glasses, he revealed his intent. Removing them slowly, he unhooked one side then the other, like a stripper lowering her bra straps. Uncovered by the thick glasses, his naked blue eyes were his most appealing feature. He looked past me to the woman, aware of the effect of his practiced gesture. I knew it well. His routine opening salvo, I’d fallen for it myself years before. “Hello there!” he was communicating to her with eye-to-eye hubris. “Look at me. I’m looking at you.”

I expected his next move. He’d lean toward me, feigning interest, so the woman would see he was a nice guy, the sort who listens to his wife—a bitch, he’d tell the woman later, who doesn’t understand me. I sighed and wiped my forehead. Our Costa Rican get-away to save the relationship wasn’t working. And now rain was in the forecast—lots of rain.

The air in the restaurant was sultry and still. We’d climbed over a sandbag barrier stacked at the front door. Workers were installing sheets of plywood over the large windows. Waiters were lighting candles.

John continued his blatant preening as I clutched the menu. I hoped the woman behind wasn’t falling for his tawdry come-on. Oblivious to my awareness, he turned sideways to present his best profile. He pushed up his sleeves and flexed, swaggering though still seated. Glancing her way again, he stretched himself to his fullest height in his chair. A glass of wine arrived. I gulped it down to dull my embarrassment and anger.

The woman must have paid her bill and left because John put his glasses back on, slouched in his chair and stopped pretending an interest in our conversation about the weather. I made a few sarcastic remarks about his conceit and his dangerous over-confidence. He shrugged. Back to normal, our relationship was gasping its last. The lights went out in the restaurant.

We ran back to our hotel room as the rain shifted from torrent to deluge. Dirty water seeped under our door and despite using towels and the bedspread as a dam, we couldn’t hold it back. Our bed became an island, water creeping up the legs. Like Zombies we lay side by side on it, afraid to sleep, carping about each other’s mistakes.

At daybreak, we couldn’t open the door blocked by a wall of mud. We climbed out the window and wallowed through slippery muck to the hotel lobby where we joined a crowd of marooned guests and staff. Mud-spattered and sleep-deprived, everyone waited for rescue. I turned to speak to John. He looked past me to someone behind and undaunted by the disaster, began his ocular strip-tease. I heard a distant peacock crowing.

Eleven inches of rain fell in eight hours. The banana crop, backbone of the economy, was destroyed. Bridges collapsed; roads washed out. I flew home alone.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Ruffles to Ripples

The prompt photo this week features an exceptionally beautiful garment. The ruffles are lovely, cascading down the bosom and over the shoulders of the attractive subject. For my eye, all the other elements of the photograph faded away. I mentally jumped from ruffles to reflections and tried out an effect available from the on-line photo editing site, Lunapic, which I like very much. Exceptionally easy to use, it enables me to be a little creative and turn my ordinary photographs into more interesting images. The ruffles turn into ripples.

I searched through my photo stash and could find nothing that could even come close to the featured gorgeous garment. I did find a photo of my Aunt Nita wearing a dress with a draped collar. My best match. 

Nita was married to my mother's brother, Louis. She and my mother were good friends before Nita and Louis married. Their family—Nita, Louis and their five children—lived in Kenora, Ontario in Canada where my Uncle managed the Kenricia Hotel for many years. Here's Nita and her reflection.

Nita was born in 1911 and died in 1978. Her maiden name was Sharpe. Her father was Howard Sharpe and he was the CPR Telegrapher in Kenora when she was born. I have fond memories of Nita, in particular, she and my mother singing Whispering Hope together. 

Here she is with her sisters. All three must have had their hair "marcelled" into waves, or you could view them as ripples for the sake of matching today's theme. 

From Wikipedia: Marcelling is a hair styling technique in which hot curling tongs are used to induce a curl into the hair. Its appearance was similar to that of a finger wave, but made by a quite different means.

I overdid the reflections, I know. I find them mesmerizing.

 For more interpretations of today's theme, meander over to Sepia Saturday.


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Tune Up

Tune-up time. Plagued by unpredictable bouts of tachycardia for many years, my cardiologist suggested I have an electrophysiological evaluation and cardiac ablation, if necessary.

The procedure was done last Wednesday and while not painful, was uncomfortable. It took a couple of hours while I was under the influence of a nice mixture of drugs which kept me in a dreamy condition, but aware of what was happening and able to answer questions. I wish I could have seen them, on the screen, actually ablate the tissue in my heart but I was prone and fixed in place.

I felt good right away and as soon as the anesthetic effect wore off the next day, I walked my usual four miles. It's probably imagination but my heart feels better, steadier.

We were both well treated at Tri-Cities. The nurses who prepped me and guided me through everything were great. They kept up a steady chatter with me over the prep time which is quite long as you are virtually wrapped from neck to ankle with electrical monitors. I was as distracted and relaxed as I could be under the circumstances.

Richard's waiting experience was pleasant and he was kept well informed. My doctor spoke with him immediately after the procedure, while I was recovering. The nurses called him to come in and help me get dressed to go home.

All I have as battle scars are two little slits in my neck and three in my thigh where the catheters went in.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

We had an Acoustic Neuroma support group meeting on Saturday at UCSD. The two foremost AN surgeons in the world are now located in San Diego and establishing an Acoustic Neuroma center there. They've generously offered us space for support group meetings on the medical campus. Most of my efforts for these group meetings involves finding free space to hold the meetings. That problem is now history.

We arrived for the meeting arms full of materials—these two unpretentious doctors met us in the lobby and helped us get a meeting room ready. Instead of a formal meeting they stayed for two hours and answered everyone's questions. We're so lucky to have them in San Diego.

Rick Friedman and Marc Schwartz to Lead Acoustic Neuroma Center

August 11, 2017 | Lindsay Morgan
Building on a strong interdisciplinary tradition in Neurotology and Skull Base Neurological Surgery, UC San Diego's Department of Surgery is excited to announce the recruitment of Dr. Rick Friedman, MD, PhD, and Dr. Marc Schwartz, MD, to UC San Diego. Together with teams from the Division of Otolaryngology and the Department of Neurological Surgery, Drs. Friedman and Schwartz will build a world-class Acoustic Neuroma Center to provide destination care in the new Jacobs Medical Center. This program will feature use of a state-of-the-art imaging center, operating rooms, and surgical equipment.
Drs. Schwartz and Friedman will begin November 1, 2017 and practice on the La Jolla campus.
Dr. Friedman was an Associate at the prestigious House Ear Clinic for 15 years and Head of the Section of Hereditary Disorders of the Ear at House Ear Institute. During that time, he became one of the most well-known acoustic neuroma surgeons in the world. Four years ago, he was recruited to the USC Keck School of Medicine to be the Chief of Otology/Neurotology and continued to perform complicated skull base surgery. Today he has one of the largest Acoustic Neuroma practices in the United States. The Division of Otolaryngology is proud to claim Dr. Friedman as one of its own residents and gratified to have him back home.  
This program is further fortunate to reunite Dr. Friedman with Dr. Marc Schwartz, who is currently the senior Neurosurgical Associate at the House Ear Clinic.  Dr. Schwartz has practiced at the House Clinic for 15 years and expects to perform his 2,000th acoustic neuroma resection during the first few months after his arrival at UCSD. In addition to his acoustic neuroma experience, Dr. Schwartz has developed an international reputation in the treatment of patients with Neurofibromatosis Type 2 and in surgery for implantation of Auditory Brainstem Implants.
This reunited team will immediately establish UCSD as a leading national and international presence in the field of acoustic neuroma and lateral skull base surgery.  This stellar team has spent many years together refining acoustic neuroma and skull base tumor surgery. In addition, they will establish Auditory Brainstem Implant and Neurofibromatosis Type 2 programs. These multidisciplinary programs will incorporate other specialists from within the University.

A few photos from the meeting.....

Saturday, November 11, 2017

A trip to Walmart

Cakebox Tales

From the Road: A Trip to Walmart

When my globe-trotting husband and I first met, I was surprised to learn that he’d never been to WallyWorld, aka Walmart. In disbelief, I wondered how you could reside in America and have missed visiting the world's biggest and most successful retailer. He’d been to Harrods; the notorious “wet” markets in Asia; chaotic fish auctions in Tokyo, and the Huaxi Street Market aka Snake Alley in Taiwan . . . but he’d never been to the Walmart store, fifteen miles away in Temecula.
“Where do you buy cat food, fizzy drinks, pool chemicals, Campbell’s soup and wine?” I asked. He shrugged, shot his cuffs and smoothed his hair. His retail needs had been met by Home Depot, Major Market, Joe's hardware, Costco, and a yearly visit to Macy’s menswear in the mall for clothes. Tolerating my enthusiasm (we were still dating), for what he clearly considered a second-rate experience, he agreed to give the store a try.
I began planning his virgin trip. For this excursion, the shopping list had to be carefully planned. I wanted to make sure we’d be visiting all the highlights and that he’d be seeing them in the best possible order—in a crescendo.
For example, would you take a first-timer to Rome and begin with the Vatican? No! You’d likely get in the mood at the Spanish steps, follow with a walk in a funky neighborhood, do a tour of the Colosseum, and end up at the Vatican with all its splendor.
Thus, we would begin our WallyWorld tour with the garden department, progress to men's wear (underwear and socks), customer service (wire money to France, get an advance on a paycheck or an income tax refund, buy stock), and the grand finale—the grocery department—where you could buy frozen herbs from Israel, inexpensive unsalted butter and the cheapest name-brand bacon in the county.  
“Think of it as visiting a foreign country,” I said.
I planned to have my tires rotated so he could get a whiff of WW testosterone and enjoy the sweet sound of air guns and tools clinking against metal, every gearhead's dream.
It was a bright sunny day when we climbed into his shiny black BMW and drove the twisty roads from De Luz to Temecula. Once a backwater, now you can get anything you want in T-town: Learn to speak Russian, go to a jazz concert, catch a wine tasting or gamble in a casino. We parked at the back of the lot to be sure his car wouldn’t get dinged.
         A big smile from the official Walmart greeter launched our exploration. A paunchy man, he heaved himself out of his chair and adjusted his ball cap. We could see his five-year pin glinting. While we breathed in the comforting aroma of french fries from the McDonalds just inside the door, he rolled a mammoth cart in our direction. Puffing from the exertion, he passed the cart to Richard. 
          “Welcome to Walmart folks. Have a good day."
Richard laughed at the size. “Not subtle,” he murmured.
I had to remind myself that this was his first time. “You’ll see...we’ll need it.”
We pushed the cart together over to the gardening section where I pointed out the many sights including the generic brand pool salt stacked two bays high.
“Notice the price,” I said, swinging a forty-pound sack into the cart. “And the bags have handles.” Left unspoken was the comparison to the name-brand product he regularly purchased at Home Depot, slippery and awkward to move around. He raised an eyebrow at my grandstand move. In our courtship phase, as we were, this could have been a serious strategic error. "I get the point," he said. I moved us along briskly to the pet food section.
Richard’s Somali cat, Baci (Italian for kiss) ate well and preferred an expensive brand of cat food. Pleased at the low prices, we filled our cart with cans, added a couple of cat toys and a bowl. The display of branded pet fashions left us both open-mouthed.
“Dolman sleeves?” Richard asked, rolling up his own, suddenly aware of his conservative blue button-down shirt. We resisted buying Baci a Dodger’s jacket and matching cap.
The rest of the sections held their own delights, including the garage where a skeptical Richard agreed the staff was polite and efficient. “I’d come here for some things,” he admitted, reading the price list for oil changes and tire rotation. I was excising the snob right out of him, pulling it out of his persona via his calf-skin wallet—a gift from a former girl-friend who shopped at Nordstrom and Whole Foods.  

He continued to walk the aisles for the rest of the trip, hands clasped behind his back, Prince Charles-like, stopping occasionally to shake his head in wonder. His single biggest find was a loaf of Pumpernickel bread, a bit of bakery exotica rarely spotted in Fallbrook. “Who would have guessed?” he said with a grin as he tossed a loaf into the cart.
It was mid-afternoon when we checked out; we were whisked through a little too fast for shopping tourists. There wasn’t sufficient time to look over the As seen on TV items; to appreciate the vast array of electrical charging devices, or to scan the lurid magazine headlines (Ted Kennedy’s Alien Love Child Confesses); nor did we spot any of the WalMart shoppers made famous on the internet. Despite searching up and down the aisles, not a single sight of the freakish species Walmart Gigantopolis occurred. It was regrettable but as it turned out, Richard became a convert and has exotic sightings since on his monthly excursions. I enjoy his return home, arms laden with bags, smiling and ready to report.
“You wouldn’t believe what I saw at WW today!”

Walmart Temecula: 32225 Temecula Pkwy, Temecula, CA 92592
Nearest hotel: Ramada Temecula Old Town
Nearest airport: San Diego

Friday, November 10, 2017

Writing - Pain and Suffering

Skin bag of Regret at work
Quoting Vivian Swift. "But writing is basically a horrible profession that turns people into skin bags of regret...."
And Vivan continues..."I’ve written three books, and the process is so horrible that I am loathe to subject myself to it for a fourth time. I don’t want to sit in a room for three years by myself, doubting every damn word I write, for less than minimum wage, just so some half wit can plaster a bad review about it on Amazon because she didn’t like it that I packed a cashmere sweater when I went to Paris. (True story.)"

I share some of Vivian's feelings even though my time at writing has been short. It's thankless in most ways and ego bruising. For me, it's an engrossing hobby and an artistic outlet—I hold out hope that I'll develop a recognizable style. So far, that has eluded me. For the past year, I've been embroiled in writing craft and have been simultaneously thrilled with the new knowledge gained and frozen in place by the very same stuff. Frustrating.

I've taken a number of workshops and writing classes which I've enjoyed immensely—the teachers in all cases were excellent and kind.  My writing group, spawned from a workshop, has turned out to be the best of all the learning experiences. I'm forced into productivity—writting every week—and improved by their reaction to the content and their editing.

Along the way, I've acquired a small library of writing books...some really excellent, some not so hot.

The young woman in the below video is so enthusiastic about writing, I found her inspiring. She's fun to watch and if she doesn't make it as a writer, she's already a skilled teacher. I read one of her stories... imaginative, clever and unique.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Sepia Saturday 393: Perspective

"Perspective" was a suggested approach to the prompt this week. I immediately thought of my husband's gopher shot.

At times we feel that gophers are taking over our grove. Not because of their size of course, but their numbers. They burrow everywhere but are most destructive when they go to work on the hillsides. A decent rain will collapse the burrows and cause incredible erosion. We try various means to get rid of them...traps work best. Oh, the life of a farmer.

And here are a few camera shots. I've used the one below several times. I'm admiring one of my brother-in-law's large cameras. 

 Debra, using my small camera, after hers fell into a pile of yak dung in Tibet....not your ordinary camera incident. Thanks to her excellent eye, we had much better photos of the travel experience than we would have had with me using the camera.
My sister, Eilleen, who dutifully lugged a huge video camera around to every family occasion. Thanks to her for recording all the fun.

Me with kids and camera in Ghana. They probably all have cell phones with cameras by now.
 Richard, confronting a large, empty perspective and fulfilling a dream to fly over the Skeleton Coast in Namibia.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Writing Prompt: A Scary Thing that happened to you......

I woke up at two in the morning to the sound of footsteps on my shake roof. As I lay unmoving in bed, terrified, rustling noises and hoarse whispers curled over the eaves and wafted into the bedroom window. It was 1970 and the Charles Manson trial was in full swing. Fir trees and eucalyptus surrounded my little house in Glendale up the Chevy Chase Canyon, a dozen miles north of the site of the La Bianca murders. Tucked away in the hills I prized my privacy. But not tonight. I huddled under the covers, my imagination running helter-skelter. Were Manson gang members trying to break in? 

My fears weren’t unfounded. Vince Bugliosi, the prosecutor in the Manson trial, lived in my neighborhood, a few blocks away. He was being threatened by Manson gang members still at large. I was spooked. Vince was too close for comfort. Would these fiends murder randomly? Visions of blood-smeared walls raced through my brain. 

On an adrenaline surge, with a dry mouth and ringing ears, I tried to think clearly. That very day, out of fright, I’d decided to quit stopping for coffee on my way to work because Manson’s lawyer had become my seatmate. I had my own stool at the coffee shop—I was a regular. A month before, Irving Kanarek began sitting next to me. I didn’t know who he was—just a guy in a rumpled suit. We engaged in the customary morning conversation—the weather or the L.A. traffic. Then he introduced himself. A strange person with funny stories, at first I enjoyed his company and the information he disclosed about the infamous trial. 

He had an unconventional approach to Manson's defense. which included wearing the same suit for days on end. “Part of my strategy,” he said, “to keep the jury distracted.” Objection was another ploy. I heard on the daily news about the records he set in court for the number of objection raised. He even questioned people’s names. “How do you know you’re Helen McHargue?” he might ask. “The evidence you present is hearsay.” The jury requested No-Doz. They were being bored to death.  

As the trial dragged on, his bad reputation spilled out of the courtroom and into the press. Everyone was sick of him— the court, his fellow Manson defense team, and the general public for wasting everyone’s time and money. It dawned on me that it might be dangerous to be seen with him. My home’s location, near Bugliosi, was problem enough . . . I didn’t need to increase my peril by be-friending Kanarek. If there was killing taking place, as retribution by the murderous gang, I’d placed myself in the line of fire.
Back in my house, I crept low and slow to the kitchen to call 91l. Atremble, I picked up the phone and whispered. “Help. Someone’s trying to break in.”

The police arrived minutes after my call. Shivering in my pajamas, I sat outside in the police car watching flashlights scan my yard and garage. The tall eucalyptus trees up on the hill cast long shadows over my roof. The scene was eerie.

“They were trying to break in lady. You were right,” the officer said returning to the car. “It’s a gang. A gang of raccoons.” 

  I was embarrassed and apologized for my over-heated imagination and for disturbing the peace. Even my explanation about Vince Bugliosi's home so nearby did nothing to mitigate my foolishness. 

“You’re better off close to Vince than further away,” one officer commented. “We’re keeping an eye on him.”

Soon after, Manson was sentenced and his wretched band became a historical footnote. I returned to my regular coffee shop stool and slept well. Life rolled along, until five years later when the body of Lissa Kastin, a Hillside Strangler victim, was dumped at the foot of my street. 
I decided to move. 



Cakebox Tales

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Sepia Saturday #392. Hallowe'en 1950

Cakebox Tales
Memoir: Hallowe’en 1950

“Hallowe’en Apples!” I sang to Mrs. Hawkins’ storm door.
There was no answer so I shouted as loud as I could, “Hallowe'en Apples.” The door opened and Mrs. Hawkins’ hair-netted coiffure appeared--she opened the door only a crack because the wind was blowing hard. A whiff of denture soak and mothballs escaped from inside. I shivered in the cold.

“’s Helen.” she said squinting behind her glasses, appraising my seven-year-old self.  “Look Harry . . . she’s dressed like a good little housewife with her apron and…” she trailed off, out of superlatives.

“But I’m a princess, Mrs. Hawkins,” I explained as she dropped two apples in my bag. She slammed the door before I could point out my tiara and the rhinestone bracelet on my wrist.

I had to explain my outfit at every neighbor’s door. I should have chosen the monk costume. People seemed to get that one right away.

My sister and I had the choice of three costumes every year: the puffy snowman; the big monk or the fat princess. All the costumes involved a white sheet with a hole in the middle for your head. Mom sewed big black buttons down the front for the snowman; the big monk got all the family’s rosaries around the neck and a rope around the middle; the princess involved my mother’s pink organdy apron, a plastic tiara and a lot of explanation. Puffiness was unavoidable because it was cold in late October on the prairies in Canada. There could be snow. In those days, before Gore-tex and wind-resistant textiles, we depended on bulk to keep us warm.

On that Princess Hallowe’en, I lumbered out of our house and down the icy stairs, the tiara perched on my toque. I rocked from side to side under the masses of clothing Mom piled on me. The organdy apron kept slipping undone and flapping open in the wind. I held the tiara in place with one hand and clutched my bag with the other. Somehow I made my way around the block and came home triumphant with thirty apples, enough for five apple crisps.

Next year Woolworth’s introduced paper costumes to our town. Understanding their market, they stocked XXL sizes, large enough to cover our winter clothes, but far too long in the legs and arms. We cut the excess off, but the scissor surgery made the costume fragile. In our flimsy paper suits we left the house looking passable --my sister like a fat Superman and me, a fat Snow White but after five minutes in the wind, the costumes ripped. With shreds and tatters flapping we looked like resurrected zombies, shuffling from house to house.

In the Sepia prompt, the witch claims her charms are "new and right up to date." Well, our tattered Zombie rags would have been up to date today—the costumes were perfect for 2017. We were sixty years too early.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Memoir - A Cooking Lesson

Another writing exercise - a piece of memoir as accurate as my memory gets these days. Was it just a cooking lesson? Much more than that. 


  At the breakfast table, Dad was twirling his orange juice glass and watching my mother wait on me. “It’s about time you learned to cook,” he said, peering at me from under his shaggy eyebrows.  
“But Dad—I know how to make toast,” I whined.
“You make nothing,” he said. “A baker made the bread. We bought a loaf, your mother sliced it and you put it in the toaster. That’s what you did. You toasted bread.” He paused and glared at me, “Ten-year-old girls world-wide make bread, sew clothes, sell vegetables and take care of their siblings while you can’t even make your own bed.”
I sulked. He used his family lawyer voice, the one I heard on the phone when there was trouble in his large unruly Irish family. By trouble, I mean when someone needed bailing out or worse when someone died. 
Until then, grades were the measuring stick of accomplishment in the family and I earned good grades. My sister and I, pampered and spoiled, were lazy and unskilled in the household arts but that hadn’t mattered until now. Educated in a strict convent school, Mom vowed to raise her own daughters with more love and less discipline than she’d experienced. My father realized she’d swung too far in the opposite direction. 
Later, my mother told me Dad was going through a rough spot, forced to defend a veteran who’d molested his own daughter. My father found the man disgusting. “He should be tattooed on the face as a warning,” Dad told my mother. The case disturbed him and in the face of such evil, he’d realized how overprotected and unprepared for life my sister and I were. He decided he was negligent; we should grow up fast and he was beginning with me in the kitchen. 
“We’ll make a cake together this afternoon,” he announced. Mother, a fastidious housekeeper cringed. She foresaw a flour storm in her domain, the tidy kitchen. Many years later she confessed they’d come close to separation after Dad retired and took up baking. He kneaded his bread dough while sitting on the living room couch watching game shows on TV. She’d stood with the vacuum at the ready wondering where her skilled, natty husband had gone. Now, she was sharing the house with a curious unshaven old creature, a sloppy amateur baker, enthralled with Monty Hall. It was hell for a while until they agreed on a lifestyle tolerable for both. 
Dad brought a Betty Crocker yellow cake mix home. My mom and older sister laughed. “You call that making a cake?”
“You have to begin somewhere,” he said. He dragged a stool into the small pink-tiled kitchen and made me sit at the linoleum counter. It was three o’clock in the afternoon, the best time for fun and games outdoors. On the radio, Johnny Ray was singing Cry, the perfect song for the way I felt. The front yards in our neighborhood stretched for blocks without fences in both directions. Every post-war bungalow housed a kid or two ready to play our massive hide and seeks, rope pulls, ball games. But I was stuck in the kitchen with my father, turned stern teacher. We gazed at the image on the box front of a perfect slice of two-layer yellow cake, the icing between the layers even and glossy, the top decorated with artful swirls of chocolate icing; not a messy crumb in sight. A food stylist, not a home baker, created that memorable cake slice, but we were oblivious to pictorial tricks when he began his lecture.   
“This is what we’re working for. It’s vital to have a target in mind before you begin to make anything otherwise you might finish with a Rube Goldberg thing, no matter if it’s a cake or a dress.” 
How he decided he was the one who should teach his fidgety, unfocused daughter to bake, I can’t fathom. He displayed little prior interest in domestic matters and left everything about our kitchen to my mother. What an absurd pair we were—Dad, dressed in suit trousers and suspenders; me double wrapped, like a cocoon, in my mother’s apron, so long it hung to my ankles. 
“Let’s get everything we need,” he instructed. Everything we needed was a pan, the electric mixer, a measuring cup, water, the Crisco can, vegetable oil and two eggs. My father was a careful planner. He was fifty-three in 1952 and faced a dozen years of law before he retired. Scribbling on the back of an envelope, he’d work on his plan to reach the magical financial goal of a thousand dollars a month. My mother, a saver, squirreled away every penny she could; Dad had luck dabbling in the stock market.
The years sailed by and he retired with his thousand, but giving up his work wasn’t as satisfying as he’d hoped. Thanks to careful preparation, his successors did well; he was shocked he wasn’t missed. “It’s like a hand in a bucket of water. You remove it and the void fills instantly as if it was never there. Try to do something lasting,” he advised me during one of our last visits.
Back in the pink kitchen, we read the cake mix instructions together: Empty the contents of the box into the mixing bowl, add water and two eggs. Beat on medium speed for three minutes, pour into a greased pan and bake in the pre-heated 350° oven for thirty-five minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
My mother, unable to stand the kitchen scene, retreated to our basement where she knit and tuned in the Plouffe Family on her transistor radio. My sister, at the stage in life where my suffering gave her supreme happiness, gloated behind the door of the bedroom we shared. In peace, she could practice posing and admiring herself in the full-length mirror. 
I tore at the box in my usual style: Act first. Think later. Dad stopped me and made me follow the dotted lines, cutting with scissors to remove the top. Through the open window, I could hear my friend Earl playing Stretch on the lawn. I wanted to play the game with him. 
“Let’s get that pan greased,” Dad instructed. I smeared Crisco in the middle, missing the corners. Dad made me repeat the process, covering every inch, every nook and cranny. 
If he hadn’t followed orders carefully during the war, he told me, he wouldn’t have made it home from France. If he’d failed to grease his gun correctly, he wouldn’t have survived. 
“What will happen if the corners aren’t greased?” he asked.
“We’ll finish faster and I can go out,” I smirked.
“What will happen if the corners aren’t greased,” he repeated.
I burst into tears of frustration and wondered how many grease stories one man could tell.  Sobbing along with Johnny Ray, I said, “I guess the cake will stick.”
“And then what’ll happen?”
“The cake will break apart when you try to get it out.”
Dad smiled. “I rest my case. Is it worth taking the time to grease the corners?” I nodded, forced to answer every one of his questions. On we plodded, yoked together, father and daughter, teacher and reluctant student. He must have been as frustrated as I was. In his zeal to teach me, he’d forgotten I was a child.
Of course, I didn't measure the water correctly. He made me get it right. We bent down to see the level in the measuring cup. It would be right once the bottom of the meniscus lined up with the one-cup mark. While in the army in England, waiting to turn eighteen, he worked as a pharmacist’s assistant measuring out doses of cough syrup. He gained a measuring skill and a small pharmaceutical vocabulary. A word maven, he retained the specialized terms in his working vocabulary and they became ours too. For fun, we tossed around jewels like aliquot, ampule, deciliter, sublingual, formulary, and cathartic.
 “Hand me an aliquot of butter, will you?” Dad asked my sister.
“Oui oui,” my sister replied. “How about a deciliter of milk with that?”
During the cake making, after getting the correct water quantity, he asked if the water should be hot or cold? Now he asks me?
“It doesn’t say,” I cried. “How should I know?”
“Use your head,” he said. “What do you think?”
“I guess—cold. It’s supposed to be easy,” I said blubbering.
All instructions, he declared, no matter how simple, required study and we should have read them through once before acting, expecting questions like the water temperature. 
“Next— the eggs,” he announced as if I’d be thrilled. “We’ll split the job,” Dad winked at me. He cracked one. I did the other and dropped eggshells in the batter, which he had me pluck out with Mom’s tweezers. I could barely see the shells through my tears. He patted my shoulder as if he’d turned back into the old Dad, the pre-teaching Dad. 
“Now you’ve made something,” he said.
It was five o’clock. I’d been learning for one hour; crying for another. My sleeves were snotty and my eyes were swollen. We put the cake in the oven. Dad let me remove my apron but he made me responsible for the time. When the timer dinged, and I removed our creation from the oven, my heart sank as low as the cake. An ugly swale ran across the middle, the sides and bottom were too brown and the center was pale. It resembled a cheap copy of our target—the picture on the box. My sister, a budding scientist, opined that my tears diluted the batter.  “It even tastes salty,” she quipped after sampling it. “Sublingually,” she added, looking back over her shoulder. 
Dad didn’t live long enough to see me apply the important lessons he taught me in the kitchen that day. He’d be amused that I cracked over ten thousand eggs (leaving no shells behind) during my time with a state egg promotion board; that I collaborated with the World’s Fastest Omelet maker—an epic planner—and that I once earned a living formulating generic cake mixes, low-cost copies of those Betty Crocker beauties.