Archive for the 'Miscellaneous' Category


New Meadows

I have a friend from home whose whole family comes from a little town in Idaho. She needed a change of pace for the summer, so she spent 3 months with her relatives there. I flew out to visit her for a few days and accompany her on the 14-hour drive back to the Bay Area. Her pace had slowed so much by the time I got there that we barely built up enough momentum to make it home.

Most people probably don’t think of excitement or variety when they think of Idaho—especially if they’re familiar with Napoleon Dynamite—but it was certainly unlike any place I’ve ever been. I like to pretend I’m from a hick town; I tell people that our high school mascot is the Cowboy, enjoy mentioning the pig races I saw at the county fair this year (called “poetry in motion” by the announcer), and brag about our award-winning rodeo team. But while that’s all true, in reality my hometown is a modern suburb, a comfortable city with a new restaurant every couple of months and easy access to a major metropolitan area. We may have a rodeo parade every year, but it’s no Idaho.

This Idaho town is called Council and has a population of 816, less than half the size of our high school. It’s where my friend’s grandparents live, where both her parents grew up, and where her older sisters were born. When we first drove through the main drag—consisting mostly of one bar called the Ace (grandma’s favorite hang out), a coffee place, and one or two general stores—a man wearing overalls and shaggy hair crossed the street slowly in front of our car. “Hey, Overalls!” I said, already enjoying the local Idaho charm. “That’s my uncle,” my friend said. And it was. We stopped and had a chat.

I met most of the other family members as the weekend went on. We stayed in a spot outside Council called New Meadows with Aunt Janice and Uncle Dave in their beautiful home overlooking an expansive valley that looked like you might see it on a postcard with “Welcome to Idaho!” stamped over it—fuzzy cows and their calves grazing and lolling around under patches of sun and shadow, butterflies and hummingbirds dancing across the pinks, oranges and yellows that flower the soft hilltop. All quiet except the dull, fast thumping of tiny wings, the occasional moo, and the melody of crickets.

Some critters aren’t always so welcome, however. It’s not a Disney movie, after all. One morning as we enjoyed the view over waffles, bacon and eggs, Aunt Janice tromped outside in her bathrobe and slippers armed with a pellet gun and, after pumping it ferociously, took aim at a big blue jay who apparently had been causing quite the uproar for weeks, scaring off the other birds and acting like he owned the place. Lucky for him, he’s gotten pretty good at dodging fire. Also elusive is the notorious and legendary Payette Lake monster, a relative of the Loch Ness monster whom everybody knows as Sharlie. This sounds more like a drag queen than an aquatic beast to me, but I kept an eye out for her from my jet ski nonetheless.

The next day we had a picnic by a creek and picked wild huckleberries along the bank as a fisherman dangled his line in the little waterfall. It was truly lovely, but when I say fisherman I don’t mean a sweet old man with a vest covered in feathery fishing lures. No, I mean a fat, red, shirtless man in his 30s, with about a foot of crack stretching above his faded white jeans—though he did have a very friendly smile, despite all the holes in it.

Finally, stuffed with huckleberry dumplings and pie—heavenly down-home treats made with those tiny berries, perfectly purple and juicy—we stuffed the car with a summer’s worth of Idaho fun and headed for California. As we drove down the dirt lane away from Aunt Janice’s house, one young buck bounded effortlessly in the field along side the car, as though offering a gallant farewell and urging us not to forget the beauty, vigor and grace of his home state.

The sun soaked the brown hills in light as it rose above us, coloring the backs of the horses and cows (and even 3 head a’ bison!) that spotted the pastures in white, black and brown, feeding themselves in order to feed and provide for their owners as they always have. The highway crept on, and as our car winded smoothly over it, toward our first stop at the Just Say When Casino a few hours south, Fiona Apple sang her Beatles cover through the speakers: “Nothin’s gonna change my world, nothin’s gonna change my world…”

Apparently, though, in addition to satellite TV, a new attraction does roll through town from time to time. We passed a church on the way out of the state that advertised “GOD: Alive and in Person HERE!” We were in a hurry, so we drove on past, but I’ll always wonder if maybe that little church in the middle of nowhere had the secret, the answer that everyone’s been looking for in all the wrong places.


A Sweeter Song

Last weekend I took a trip to Idaho to visit a friend, and I had the good fortune of making a new one before I’d even boarded my plane in Oakland. It was an early flight, and I sat at the gate in between two empty chairs trying to stay awake when a big group of fly-lookin’ gentlemen strolled up. They were about to sit on either side of me so I offered to move over and give them at least two adjacent seats. I dropped my iPod and a member of the group reached down to grab it, saying “well thank you, pretty lady” as he took the chair next to mine. He then asked how I was doing, where I was going, and told me I was a “wonderful person” for  paying a visit to a friend. Of course I liked him already.

I don’t always enjoy conversations with strangers in airports or on planes; needless to say, some of the people I meet are rather annoying. Nonetheless, I try to be polite and at least exchange niceties – and although I’m aware of the risk of cornering myself in an awkward (or worse, boring) conversation, I’m always willing to see if it might turn into a pleasant chat. The risk is worth the possible payoff that you might get lucky and meet someone interesting.

And last Friday morning, I struck gold. This fellow was pretty charismatic for a man in his sixties making an early connecting flight, but I suppose I should have guessed based on the big diamond rocks in his ears and black and yellow sunglasses that matched his outfit. He had it goin’ on. When he mentioned that he was also going to Boise to play a show before moving on to the next city, I asked him sweetly what kind of show. “Oh we’re playing the state fair out there,” he said, then paused for a second and turned to me, looked over the rim of his glasses and added, “We’re The Temptations.”

I reacted accordingly, and quickly realized I couldn’t let this conversation die. We talked for about 20 minutes until it was time to board the plane, covering the following topics: Idaho, Los Angeles (where he’s lived for over 30 years), the hot weather in Texas (where he was born), Detroit (including Motown and the riots), the Olympics, Michael Phelps, Shawn Johnson (whom he adores), travel in general, his favorite places to perform (Rio, London, Paris, Hawaii), Amsterdam, drugs, my tan, my job as a swim instructor and whether I wear a bikini while teaching, my biceps (which he felt), and what it takes to throw a good punch.

My favorite story was what he told me about his first time in Amsterdam. Their host greeted them when they arrived for a performance in the early ’70s, and took them to see a “movie.” He thought this was weird, and I guessed right that it was actually a live sex show. “Yep!” he said, “They were on stage makin’ love to one of our hits!”

Yes, this was a charismatic individual. I imagine it’s a prerequisite to be a part of the Temptations. About midway through our conversation, he started pointing out his fellow band members, one he called “Old Man River,” one he told me to watch out for, and he raised his voice to say “Hey guys, this is Shannon.” Of course I liked this too. Then my new friend turned to me, offered his hand like a gentleman, and said in a sweet, sonorous voice, “Otis Williams, nice to meet ya.” I could just barely see his eyes through his sunglasses, but they certainly had the wisdom, charm and sparkle of a man who’s been singing love and soul to the world for 47 years.

So, I offer this advice to myself and others: talk to strangers in airports, because one of them might just turn out to be a living legend singing a sweeter song than the birds in the trees.


Adverbs are Ridiculously Overused

The Vons grocery chain and I have something in common, I’ve observed. A generous professor recently used some of his summer hours to review the senior thesis paper I wrote to help me improve it for graduate school applications. He suggested some restructuring and pointed out that I use too many adverbs, throwing any credibility or authority I might have had right out the window. I’ll admit I often turn to them as an easy way to emphasize a thought, but I try to be creative about it and I wasn’t aware it was such a problem.

Shortly after he alerted me to this – suggesting I comb through the paper and simply pluck each adverb out – I was driving to LA and noticed a couple new Vons billboards for their current ad campaign. The first is a close-up of some nice red cherries, next to a picture of cheesecake with cherry topping. It looks delicious and all that, but it’s hardly noticeable behind the giant and absurd description the Vons marketers placed over it: BRAZENLY SCRUMPTIOUS.

I scoffed, rolled my eyes, wondered who comes up with this stuff…then I realized with terror that my paper is like one enormous Vons ad! I could have written that line! Because I had to turn to marketing slogans because I never got into a literature program at a graduate school because my writing sample was littered with adverbs! I’ve been pulled from a horrible downward spiral from which I might never have escaped on my own.

Having made this brutal realization, I calmed myself knowing that it’s not too late to change my ways. On my way home from LA I saw another billboard: slices of watermelon that are LUDICROUSLY REFRESHING. Ludicrously? Are they kidding? I vowed once and for all to rush home and revise my paper immediately. I would go shopping down every line for all the adverbs, tossing the rotten “immensely’s” and “enormously’s” out, and keeping only the ripe stand-alone adjectives and verbs in my cart.

While cherries and watermelons might be must-have summer favorites, somebody should tell Vons that ridiculous adverbs are not ingredients for life, and certainly don’t make fruit sound any more appealing.


The Color Game

Color is something that I think a lot about – whether it’s the topic of race, trying to keep my eyes open to find art in the everyday, or just selecting my accessories every morning, it’s frequently on my mind. In any context, I prefer a bold combination of brightly contrasting tones – not one thing (or person) matching with anything else – rather than a flat blend of similar hues. I recently made my first visit to the Getty in LA, and spending a whole day alone surrounded by a myriad of stimulating art, color, and people, I got to thinking about how important the awareness of art – and by extension, color – is to a healthy and enriched understanding of the world. Color makes things vital and striking, prompts us to feel in ways that we don’t notice or understand. It brings the world to life; there is a reason, I might venture, that blood is red.

I play a game with the little girls I babysit where we take turns listing every color we can think of. It started with the 5-year-old wanting to name the colors of the rainbow – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet (though, I think one of those has been voted off the spectrum since I learned ROYGBIV in 1st grade) – and when she started to realize how much farther the list can stretch, it turned into a game, a challenge. We began with the obvious additions like brown and black, then got a little crazier with colors like magenta and turquoise. After a little while, her limited knowledge of color names had run out, and my mental catalog of Crayola’s inventory had been exhausted. (Fortunately, the 3-year-old was content recycling the few pinks and purples she could think of.)

Because I’d been channeling my elementary school coloring fests and tossing out crayon names like “robin’s egg blue” and “granny smith apple,” I was accused by one very skeptical kindergartener of cheating, of making things up. I told her those were real colors, at least according to the company who holds the monopoly on the industry, and then realized that if Crayola can do it, then we should too. I wanted to see her consider every object, image, place she’d ever seen and remember the color of it, turning whatever it was into its own special shade, removing it from the absolutist, over-simplified umbrella colors that make up our rainbow or any basic box of markers.

She took to this with great enthusiasm, embracing the challenge and appreciating the endless scope of possibility. I shared her excitement and we would congratulate each other with each clever suggestion. “Moon silver!” she would shout victoriously. Despite her fervor, however, she would pause and question the validity of almost every color she offered, asking, puzzled, “Does that count?” Yes, they all count. As far as we know, with our weak human vision, everything is it’s own unique color, and may as well be labeled as such.

When our imaginations began to drag, I suggested we look around the backyard for different colors to use. She’d been collecting big fuzzy caterpillars all week in a small, blue plastic bucket with the little mermaid on it. She peered into this home-made sanctuary full of dead flowers and abducted insects and her face lit up – she announced with bright zeal her crowning achievement, her proudest discovery: Caterpillar Brown. I was delighted and intrigued by this, because although caterpillars come in dozens of different colors, the ones in her little pail were brown, and so this becomes the defining color of caterpillars.

But here is where this game gets risky. It is important that we differentiate between a Caterpillar Brown that refers to just one type of caterpillar that is colored with just one type of brown, and a Caterpillar Brown that assumes all such insects are this one color. I was reminded of the other day when she’d been watching me color a picture for her. I used the Peach crayon, and she observed out-loud that I was using the “skin colored crayon.” I told her that, well, yes, this crayon is similar to the color of my skin, but it’s very different from the color of many other people’s skin, including her own – a perfect soft blend of browns from India and the Philippines. She acknowledged the truth in this, but maintained that it was still the skin-colored crayon because that’s what everyone else in her class calls it.

So, we can have a brown named after caterpillars, but not one named after her beautiful skin, because that is already taken by the Peach crayon – already deemed by her fellow 5-year-old California kindergarteners as the only shade worthy of being both a fruit, and the color of, well, humanity. Before the 1960s, this crayon actually did carry the official Crayola label of “Flesh.” Fortunately, the company volunteered a more politically and ethically correct option. The trouble now, in the 21st century, is getting those impressionable minds who actually use the crayons to recognize and understand the colors that are all around us, to appreciate and enjoy each one uniquely.

"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" -Henry James, The Art of Fiction
January 2019
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