The Walmart Parking Lot

My husband is getting a bit restless to go on a bigger caching trip, but I like these small ones that help me explore our new surroundings. We went out to shop for a new bicycle for our 12-yo son. He has been biking to school, periodically but not totally enthusiastically. It didn’t help that the bike he was riding was too small and was inherited from his older sister.

We drove out to a Walmart several miles away. My husband picked this Walmart because of its proximity to some caches. If you looked up, it seemed to be on the edge of civilization.


But the first store we tried didn’t have a bike we wanted. They had mostly bikes with cheap-looking components, even the tip of the kickstand of the one we tried was falling off. So we had to drive to the other side of town. Before we left, we went to find the caches. One, down by the river:


Another, concealed in a birdhouse (no spoilers here, though).


Trips to Walmart in Boston weren’t like this.


What Makes You Feel Loved?

Last Tuesday’s question was interesting, so I’m going to keep doing these for a while on Tuesdays. This week’s Impromptu Promptlings question is, “What Makes You Feel Loved?

Gifts are nice. Pictures. I’ve been putting up pictures in lately in preparation for our housewarming on Friday, and in the process I’ve come across a collection of pictures my kids have given me for either my birthday or Mothers’ Day. This collection is a series of pictures of the two of them and they are usually accompanied by some craft item: a construction paper heart, one year it was clay, another it was a frame decorated with sequins. The decorations say “we love you!” That these projects were inspired and aided by our au pairs of the time, doesn’t take away from their ability to make me feel loved.

Another thing that makes me feel loved is when someone makes me a meal, serves it, and cleans up after it without my having to do any of that, or answer any questions.

I do appreciate big or expensive or complicated gifts, and I recognize intellectually that they are evidence of my being loved, but I don’t always feel that way spontaneously when I receive such a gift. I have not always understood why this would be the case, and sometimes felt awkward or guilty about not feeling more appreciative.

I’m starting to get an inkling of a reason why. If a gift is large, or expensive, or complicated (or all 3), it usually means I had to ask for it, even research it myself, and probably at least discuss it with the giver beforehand if not fully participate in the acquisition.

I was engaged once to a man who took me shopping for my engagement ring. I didn’t want to know how much the ring cost, but I found out. I didn’t want to witness the price negotiations, or have to choose the stone or the setting myself. If I was to get a ring at all, I wanted to see it for the first time in a gift box, or on a beach, or in a glass of champagne–somewhere other than in a jewelry store. It wasn’t actually that important to me to get a ring in the first place, which just compounded the awkwardness of my having to shop for it.

And yet, I also believe now that from my then-fiancee’s point of view, taking me shopping for the ring and asking me to pick it out was a very sure and true gesture of love on his part. It is what would have made him feel loved, were he in my position. This can be such a complicated question. While there were certainly other factors, I believe that this shopping trip was one of the reasons the engagement did not ultimately work out.

Anything But a Car

Since moving to California, we have been trying to interest our middle-school-aged son in riding his bike to school. In Massachusetts, I’d been the Walk to School coordinator for years while my kids were in elementary school. I became familiar with International Walk to School Day in early October, when we would have major events. One year I guest-blogged on Free Range Kids about it: Non-Sanctimonious Blog about Today: WALK TO SCHOOL DAY!  Even on regular days, I would walk with my kids, drop them off, and then catch the bus to work.

But biking has been another story. It’s been an uphill battle, metaphorically, if not literally (our area is quite flat). When we lived in Massachusetts, our kids never really took to cycling either, for various reasons. We lived on a hill, the streets around us weren’t all that quiet or car-free, it was cold and/or snowy a lot of the year, you had to find your helmet, and, most distressing to me, the culture around biking had changed.

As a kid growing up in the 1970s and 1980s I remember riding my bike alone or with friends at a surprisingly young age. For example, when I was in elementary school, my next-door neighbor and I rode our bikes alone, without adults or helmets, to Carrols, a fast food restaurant a little less than a mile away and collected the Looney Tunes glasses that you could get with the purchase of a large Pepsi. Today’s eBay listings for these glasses say they were made and sold in 1973, which would have made me 7 or 8 years old when this was happening. Yes, at age 8, I helmetlessly rode my bike almost a mile each way with only a similar-aged friend for company, in order to purchase and consume a large sugary beverage in a commercial tie-in glass. The horror!

Even more horrifying to me is the fact that neither of my children, born in 1999 and 2003, respectively, have ever done anything like this.

When we first got here I had high hopes. California culture seems a lot more conducive to biking in many ways: there are bike lanes all over the place, the weather is always good, and the school district heavily promotes biking to school. In fact, just last Tuesday, I spent a half hour handing out raffle tickets to all the bikers, walkers, and skateboarders for “ABC: Anything But a Car” day at my son’s middle school. But that school is too far for our son to walk, and he was not enthusiastic about biking, at all.

He finally did it for the first time a few weeks ago when he had to get to school early and I had to go to work even earlier, so I couldn’t drive him. But it was not without a lot of foot-dragging and whining. He biked for ABC day last week, and now he has a new bike to replace the old one that he might have felt was too small and embarrassing to ride to 7th grade. At least the helmet is a non-issue: everyone wears them and he wouldn’t even be interested in trying to go without. The latest challenge is that it’s now so dark in the morning that the sun has barely risen by 7:20 when he has to leave for school. If we can just get through this week to the fall back, he’ll have some daylight again for biking.

I am trying to get used to using my own bike for errands too. Here we are in the land of the endless freeways, hopefully riding our bikes!

What Fascinates Me?

Just for fun, I’m going to try to answer the question posed by the Impromptu Promptlings Sandbox Writing Challenge 11: What Fascinates You?

I am fascinated by hidden patterns and connections in things. I’m fascinated by the brain. I’m fascinated by tests that divide people up into interesting categories, like the Myers-Briggs test, or Gretchen Rubin’s 4 tendencies, even if there is no scientific basis for the results of these classifications. I’m fascinated by self-knowledge. I would like to have my genome sequenced.

I’m fascinated by theories of the origin of consciousness. I met Julian Jaynes and took a course from him in college, but I still don’t know what to make of his theory of the breakdown of the bicameral mind. I’m fascinated by the neuroscience of mindfulness.

I’m fascinated by the “Problem of Evil” and the literature of theodicy. Whenever I have what I think is an original thought on the subject, I always find that there is someone else who has written about it, in great detail, first.

Doesn’t Everyone Climb Trees after a Concert?

In spite of the days getting shorter, it’s still warm and sunny out. It just doesn’t feel like time for a concert yet. But it is.


FullSizeRender 63This was my first concert in California, with the Nova Vista Symphony. The West Valley College Theater is not Symphony Hall, but it is a nice theater, with good acoustics and an air of excitement. It’s also not the church I’ve been used to playing in for the past 8 years. Gathering in the theater were the orchestra members, veterans, an honor guard, a chorus, and service dogs from Canine Companions, who are in training to help wounded vets.

I’ve been very impressed with how well thought-out this season is, the orchestra’s 50th. The whole season has a theme (Season of Heroes), and each concert itself has a sub-theme. This concert’s was a tribute to those who have served in the armed forces. Our conductor, Anthony Quartuccio, gave a pre-concert talk about the music, and then Mr. Tuttle introduced the service dogs from Canine Companions, the co-sponsor for the concert.

IMG_3400Everyone knows two of the pieces on the program, Rossini’s William Tell Overture and Beethoven’s Eroica, and I’ve written about my experiences with those pieces before, so I’d like to say a little bit here about the other major piece we played, “Symphony for the Sons of Nam” by James Kimo Williams. Williams is a Vietnam Veteran, and a graduate of the Berklee College of Music. He wrote the piece about his own experiences in Vietnam. It is intended to have 4 chapters, but only 2 have been completed.

The two chapters are written in a wide variety of styles: ominous, elegiac, martial, triumphant. It begins with a snare drum and a rousing fanfare-like melody in the brass. One section, depicting the jungle, is marked to be played “ominously” and it doesn’t disappoint. The sheet music itself looks plenty ominous already. A steady drumbeat of 16th notes starts low in the cellos and spreads to the violins and woodwinds, the pattern rising in pitch until it hits a high A and slides back down in a siren-like portamento. A beautiful violin solo memorializes fallen soldiers.

You can listen to it here (not us playing), accompanying Williams’ own photos from his time in Vietnam:

In the past several years I have been pleasantly surprised by how listenable and relevant the contemporary orchestral music is that our conductors choose. It’s probably past time to get over my lingering hesitations against it. I was glad to have been introduced to this piece at this concert. I thought it worked especially well to have the juxtaposition of a contemporary work on the same program with something so well known and loved as the Eroica. I’m guessing there were some in the audience who enjoyed the Williams even more than the Beethoven.

My feelings playing the Beethoven were complicated. It’s one of my favorite symphonies, possibly the favorite, although its melodies are not necessarily as beautiful as those of the 9th, or the 6th, or the 7th. It’s a cliche, but I still marvel at how I can leave everything behind, fly 3000 miles, and walk into a room full of strangers whom I’ve never seen before, and in a few short weeks, still do something as complex as play the Eroica with them. Are we all–the Greater Buffalo Youth orchestra, the Belmont Music Festival orchestra, the Nova Vista Symphony–and all the orchestras back to the private orchestra of Prince Lobkowitz, at the castle Eisenberg where the Eroica first premiered — still all somehow playing together through the ages, linked by this universal language of music?

Clarence: one of the service dogs in training to help wounded vets. Only 11 months old, he's still a puppy!
Clarence: one of the service dogs in training to help wounded vets. Only 11 months old, he’s still a puppy!

The problem is, when you start thinking about things like that in the middle of the concert, you can lose your place in the music. (Or at least I can). The need for concentration really never lets up. I am curious what other people, including professionals, think about when they’re playing. Just the nuts and bolts of putting the music together? Or is it more?

My family came to the concert too, and afterwards, while we were enjoying the nice reception with Halloween cookies, peppermint bark, coffee, and other goodies, and more visiting with the puppies, we noticed this tree. So climbable, but not while wearing long black.

My daughter and I, after the concert
My daughter and I, after the concert

Exercise Non-responders

I’m learning a lot since I started blogging here on Word Press. For example, I started following a fitness blog called “Fit is a Feminist Issue” a few months ago, and from it I just found about a group of people called exercise non-responders. The “Fit” blogger calls these people “rational couch potatoes,” because they don’t get more fit or stronger with exercise. Some of them might even get worse, worn down and exhausted by fitness programs. She linked to an article by Gretchen Reynolds from earlier this year: Exploring Why Some People Get Fitter than Others.

This was an interesting and eye-opening article, although not because I am surprised that non-responders exist. After all, I’ve been living with the condition myself, or something related that I will call “low response” rather than “non response,” for almost 50 years. Mostly, I’m annoyed that in all this time, I had never read a serious NYT-level, or even Word Press Blogger-level, article about fitness from this angle before. I almost feel as if there’s been some massive gym teacher and fitness-enthusiast conspiracy targeted at me and my fellow low- or non-responders, aimed at dismissing us, excluding us, and making us feel crazy, lazy, and bad about ourselves.

For example, I’ve been telling people for more years than I’d like to remember that I don’t get “runner’s high.” If I didn’t have some good runner friends whom I consider trustworthy sources, I would say that “runner’s high” is a complete myth promulgated by fitness magazines and personal trainers. But as it is, I’ve come to view runners’ high as being like certain religious ecstatic experiences that I’ve never had either. It’s not that I disbelieve or discount that others are telling the truth when they say that they have had these experiences. But such experiences remain outside my personal ken. And I’m not going to fake it, or lie, until I “make it,” just to jump on the bandwagon and avoid whatever personal hell the enthusiasts seem to be so afraid of.

I need to sit with this idea of exercise non-response being a thing for a while and process all the ramifications. I don’t think the right response is to stop exercising altogether. The way I have been behaving, before this knowledge, has been as follows. I keep exercise very light and moderate. I walk instead of run, I bike slowly and without toe clips.

I have been trying to follow a push-up app called 100 pushups for the past 3 years. This app claims to be able to get you from zero to 100 in 6 weeks. There is a graph function for your progress, but the x-axis is not proportional to time spent:




The beginning of the graph shows me, during the first several months that I tried, progressing for a little while, repeatedly hitting a wall, and going back to the beginning. That one ridiculously high peak that got up to 200 reps a day came when I switched to doing pushups from my knees rather than doing full-body pushups, because I just couldn’t keep up with the program doing the full-body ones.

The graph does not show the long, sometimes months-long, gaps between crashing and burning, and starting over again, over the course of 2 years.

About midway through the graph is what I started doing this year, in 2015. I started slow and just kept repeating levels over and over again. I didn’t move on to the next set of reps until I really felt like I could do the level I was at. This usually took 5-10 repetitions of the same level. I found it absurd that these levels were called “days” and that some people spent only one day at a particular level and then felt able to move on two days later. Again, I still wonder what mythical people the app was written for. Bodybuilders, maybe? Or maybe just high responders?

In any case, I’ve actually stopped doing the app again recently in favor of doing sets of 10 full-body pushups at random times of day. I do 10 when I get up and I do 10 before I go to bed, every day. I sometimes do 10 in the middle of the day at lunch too.

What I like about this method is that I have, after 3 years of doing pushups, gotten to the point that 10 quick full body pushups is, literally, no sweat. I can do them anywhere, anytime, no matter what I am wearing. They are like brushing my teeth. This is absolutely progress from when I started and could barely do even one. I even like the way my arms look, no middle-aged lady flabbiness. And I’m getting more core strength, which in my case was an even bigger problem than lack of arm strength. So, I can’t say that I’m a non-responder to this type of exercise. I do respond, but apparently not on the time scale that people seem to expect.

I’m assuming this research was rarely reported or written about in the past because it was assumed that people would use it as an excuse to give up and stop exercising. That makes me angry. I appreciate this research because I could really do without the shame, guilt, low self-esteem, and feelings of being defective and doing it wrong, that have accompanied exercise for me in the past. This knowledge makes me more likely to keep exercising (exercising my way), not less.

Biking to an Earth Cache

This past weekend got me outside and into the California lifestyle in a couple of ways. First, it was International EarthCache Day, which meant that if I found an EarthCache, I would get a souvenir on my geocaching profile.Screen Shot 2015-10-16 at 1.35.36 PM

EarthCaches are slightly different from regular geocaches, in that there are no containers to find. You go to a location and answer some questions about that location to the cache owner. Sometimes you have to take a picture of yourself at the location and post that. Often there are EarthCaches around interesting geological sites. And you can learn a lot from answering the questions. Sometimes the kids think it’s a little too much like school, but the teacher in me thinks I will probably be setting up an EarthCache of my own someday, if all the good sites aren’t already taken.

I don’t have alerts for new caches set up on my phone, the way my husband does, but some of our new area geocaching friends had already chosen a suitable Earth Cache to go after: Santa Clara Sub-basin. I loaded my bike in the car and went over.

It was an easy ride, and then we had to answer some questions about water. The subbasin is a recharge zone, where water pools in recharge ponds and then gradually seeps back through rock into the aquifer to recharge the ground water. There was still a surprising amount of water in the recharge ponds. Enough for a turtle to swim in!

FullSizeRender 62
Swimming turtle. You could see it from the bridge.

I’m glad to be getting back in the swing of cycling, too. I used to ride my bike to work 5 miles each way, when I worked in Cambridge MA. The Boston winters were hard on the bike. I realized the rear brake was almost completely frozen, and got it fixed this week.

The four of us at the Earth Cache, I’m in the back on the left.

And, it was another day in paradise: gorgeous fall weather. It’s not New England foliage, but it’s pretty all the same.IMG_3339


If it be not ripe, it will draw a man’s mouth awry, with much torment, but when it is ripe, it is as delicious as an apricot.–Captain John Smith

Our new house is full of surprises. One of those was a weird bay window in the upstairs shower that we ended up replacing. (“What were they thinking?” “Who knows, it was the 1980s in California!” was a common refrain among people who saw this window).

A nicer surprise is the persimmon tree in the backyard.

I’ll pause here to note that up until a few days ago, I had never eaten a persimmon and barely even knew what a persimmon was. Now I’m swimming in them. The land where our housing development is located used to be an orchard. We also have a couple of orange trees in the backyard too, in homage to those old orchards.

I wasn’t sure how any of them would be doing after this long, hot, dry summer. But we’ve taken to watering the trees with gray water from the kitchen. We have a big blue bowl in our kitchen sink and we collect water from rinsing things, or from boiling things, or lightly soiled/soaped dishwater. Periodically, we go out and dump this water at the base of some lucky foliage.

And the persimmon tree is heavily laden, groaning under its bounty. We realized there was no way we were going to be able to pick all of this, so my husband went out and bought a tool.


My first attempt at picking a persimmon with this tool had predictable results:


But after practicing with the low-hanging fruit (in a situation where that is not a metaphor–ha!) I got the hang of it and saved at least a few from the rapacious squirrels to be eaten by humans.

According to the internet, these look like the Fuyu variety, one of the Asian persimmons native to China that arrived in California in the mid-1800’s. And unlike American persimmons, Fuyus are non-astringent. Yay! These aren’t John Smith’s persimmons. Even if we don’t put them in a paper bag with a banana to ripen, they can still be eaten while firm.

It’s taken me a while to get around to looking for recipes, since I tend not to get too excited about desserts that don’t contain chocolate, especially if they require effort on my part. But some of these look like they would be easy to make and taste good too:

Grandma Edith’s Persimmon Cookies

Persimmon Pie

Martha Stewart has several different salads using persimmons, such as Persimmon and Pomegranate Salad with Arugula and Hazelnuts.

Something new for Thanksgiving, maybe. But I’m still going to try that paper bag banana thing. I’d like to taste a ripe one all by itself.


Morning Pages

Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, has been a part of my life for a long time. I read it during my first sojourn in California (where else?)  Then I read it again about a year and a half ago when Savvy Authors was offering a free course using the book for premium members.  The book was helpful to me both times, but not in the ways one might expect.

One of the centerpieces of the book’s advice is to do “Morning Pages.” Cameron defines Morning Pages on page 9 of The Artist’s Way: three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness. She also calls them “brain drain.” Both times I seriously engaged with this book, I tried to do morning pages. Or, I guess, since “there is no wrong way to do morning pages,” I did them. For a while.

“Although occasionally colorful, the morning pages are often negative, frequently fragmented, often self-pitying, repetitive, stilted or babyish . . . All that angry whiny, petty stuff that you write down in the morning stands between you and your creativity.”

My problem (if it was one) with this whole concept was that I didn’t feel this way in the morning. Even before having children turned me into a “morning person,” I tended to wake up happy; sleep heals my mind, knits up the raveled sleeve of care. Rather than my getting to the other side with this exercise, the “angry whiny petty stuff” acquired new legitimacy, and new brain real estate, when it was written down, especially in the morning. I felt like I was dragging myself down, rather than lifting myself up.

So, so much for Morning Pages, I thought. I’m just not cut out for this. I gave the book 5 stars on Goodreads anyway, because, well, I still really liked the concept of Morning Pages.

Another year and a half has gone by, NaNoWriMo is coming up, and I’m trying to get writing going on a larger scale than I have in the past. I’m also, whether it’s from the move, from current events, or some combination thereof, knee-deep in “angry, whiny, petty stuff.” Over the weekend I was angry with my husband because he said he was unwilling to schedule time when we were both available to work on organizing and cleaning out the garage. He said he would only do this task when he had “nothing better to do.” He said that scheduling it was a “waste of time” and he refused to do it. He then criticized me for not having been available when he wanted to do it on the spur of the moment–for example, not doing it one evening when it was already dark and late and I was tired after a long day, and not doing it another random morning when he’d happened to be uncommitted at work, but had not told me in advance, so I had other plans.

He left the house for the day, but I was still so angry that I played the interaction over and over in my mind for the rest of the morning, trying to figure out how I should respond. Most of my responses would likely have made the situation worse. Then I coached a soccer game. Time, physical activity, work, distraction, and sleep made the rumination slow down and eventually stop. The next day was better. I decided that moving forward I would continue to work on this myself when I felt able to and had time. I would schedule it myself, even if my husband refused. I would hire a handyman for that which I don’t want to do myself and I would continue to enforce protective boundaries around my own time so that I don’t get caught in other people’s burdensome last-minute expectations. And, I would ignore any blame or criticism that resulted from any of that, because it was unjustified and not about me in the first place.

I got to the other side: I stopped feeling blocked and angry. But I didn’t write about it at all, until now. I wonder if doing morning pages would have gotten me there faster. Maybe now I’ve found out why some people like them so much.

Review of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I started reading this for a book group, which I then missed because I had to do something for my son. But by then I was hooked. This was a wonderful book in many ways. In spite of being about World War II and the Nazis, it is not primarily a book about human evil. Rather, it was a hopeful book that expresses a faith in the goodness of the universe, and of the people in it. This is both its strength and, in a way its one weakness.

The author does a good job of getting inside the good characters’ heads and creating sympathy for them. However, I didn’t think he was as convincing with the evil characters, of whom there was only one whose viewpoint he used. There was also a certain similarity to some of his characters, in particular Werner and Marie-Laure. Both of them were intelligent outsiders, listening to the radio to bring them in touch with the larger world. These scenes were all beautifully written in the same poetic language and style, and they seemed to take place in parallel. Perhaps this was meant to highlight that Werner and Marie-Laure were kindred spirits who had some sort of cosmic connection above and beyond the radio, but I don’t buy that. I think it’s much more interesting that their incredibly different lives touch serendipitously in this way.

One thing that bugged me was the author’s switching back and forth between timelines at the beginning. I felt manipulated by the decision to start with the attack, like the only reason for doing that was that in creative writing classes they always tell you to start “in medias res” because that’s supposed to “hook” the reader. I found this tactic more confusing than riveting. I didn’t care enough about the characters yet to care whether they survived the attack or not. Then later I started to care about them very much, and remembering the opening gave me this uncomfortable feeling of impending doom, which doesn’t really go with the theme of the rest of the book, which is hopeful.

Overall, I thought this book picked up and became more riveting as it went along. Adding the 2014 postscript was very moving in spite or because of its mundane content. I got a sense of the scope and ambition of the novel, and of how much the world has changed since the main events of it took place. These people truly lived in another world , one that we are lucky to get a glimpse of through this novel.

On a personal note, this book was especially interesting to me for family reasons. My husband grew up in the Ruhrgebiet (Ruhr river area) of Germany, where Werner and Jutta Pfennig grow up in the novel. In 2011 we visited the Zollverein, where Werner listens to and learns to repair radios, during a family visit. The coal and other heavy industry described in the novel is still very much present.


industryEarlier this year, my father-in-iaw passed away. He was born in 1929, and so would have been just the age of Jutta Pfennig, a couple of years younger than Werner. While still a teenager, he was captured by the Russian army and spent the time the novel takes place as a POW in Siberia.  Last Thursday, October 8 2015, would have been his 86th birthday. We discovered this map in his personal effects.



“They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs, and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.”

–Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See, p. 559

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