Saturday, July 21, 2012

All I Need to Do is Breathe

Recently, my husband and I helped our friends drink a bottle of Shiraz and address invitations for their August wedding. “Thirty-four days,” my harried friend reminded me. Like in so many second marriages, the date is a decision made in committee, and nailing down a venue in Wine Country with short notice is nerve wracking—pass the bottle, please.
 I re-filled Linda’s wine glass, “It’s pretty good, once it breathes.” I said of their first attempt at wine making.
“Like organizing a wedding at the last minute. All I need to do is breathe.”
Or medicate, I thought. David and I negotiated our August date while we pre-honeymooned in Tuscany the May before—with twenty-three of my closest relatives. We could pull it off in two months, couldn’t we? We pondered this over white truffle ravioli in sage butter washed down with a lush Sangiovese from the Montepulciano region. August 1st would work, although I’d have preferred later in the month—we didn’t want to conflict with the July 31st opening of the latest Harry Potter movie and we wanted to avoid the wind and chill of fog. Summer in the shadow of Sonoma Mountain can be so iffy.
Back at home we sipped Chianti and hand made one hundred seventy-five invitations. (If you’ve kept your invitation, may I have it back? I never got one!) My nephew, then newly graduated from the California Culinary Academy, and I tasted brews at Lagunitas Brewing Company while we conferred about the menu— yes, he could duplicate the ravioli in sage-truffle beurre blanc, and it would pair well with the apple notes of the Pils—a Czeck style pilsner. But wouldn’t I rent a grill and let him barbeque some beef?
“You know we don’t eat red meat—tequila-lime shrimp skewers?” I negotiated.
“Only if you make it Herradura tequila,” Chef replied. 
One hundred fifty RSVPs arrived. Wow! I didn’t know we had so many friends. The problem was, on our sloping gopher field, where would we put them all?
 “Deck over the yard,” my problem solving near-husband said. “Dad and Den can do it; give them the keg.”
 Amid the circus of construction and in-laws-to-be staying with us for the week preceding the wedding—David’s revenge for the pre-honeymoon—it was hard to tell that our day had come.
Tentacles of fog arrived with the guests, most driving too fast on our unpaved lane and churning dust all over my tables. The family was still slapping paint onto the deck railings; Chef shambled in three hours late looking hung-over without the tequila-marinated shrimp. My hairdresser plied me with wine and held me hostage in the house, insisting that it was bad luck for anyone to see me in my flounced, Victorian-inspired dress before the ceremony. I missed all the photos with David’s family.
The band, which included the Phoenix Theater’s Music Director, Gio Benedetti, on bass and Petaluma guitarist, Alec Furhman, (check out his 80s cover band, Choppin’Broccoli) struck up the processional. My Man of Honor, leading Chocolatte, our mortified Lab who carried the rings pinned to a heart-shaped pillow tied around her neck, started the procession down the eucalyptus-chip path toward the creek and the gazebo where our officiate waited. David was not in sight.
As I searched the sea of smiling faces for my betrothed, I noticed a billboard that must have gone up during the night, looming over the treetops:  Planning a wedding? Call 1-800-RUN LIKE HELL. Had David seen that? I clutched my vows in my fist and considered trading in my jeweled flip-flops for Nikes. But the music stopped and he stepped off the stage to join me—my Bart Maverick in scruffy tennis shoes. I really wanted him to wear that hot pair of snakeskin cowboy boots we saw at Jay Palm, but the collarless shirt and wild west vest were as far as he would go.
The setting was magical with Sonoma Mountain and Pam Bell’s magnificent flower arrangements as backdrops. The Flamenco guitar was sensual food for our ears as Chef’s grilled salmon (and ravioli) was for our tongues, and people are still talking about that Harlequin wedding cake custom designed by Patisserie Angelica. No one twisted an ankle in a gopher tunnel and no one missed the shrimp skewers. It may have taken us a week to clean up the mess, but we had in-laws to help.
Next month, when David and I celebrate our 6th anniversary, the party’s going to be with our dear friends at their homegrown wedding (local French gypsy band, Dgiin is playing!) But for that special toast to us—our marriage and the blessings of our lives in Sonoma County—it’s not going to be over dinner at Cucina Paradiso like last year. Instead we’ll celebrate the first flush into our new septic tank—and I’m hoping that the sixth anniversary gift isn’t toilet paper.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Too Good to Pass Up

Morning traffic was orderly, as I headed south on Sonoma Mountain Parkway. My husband lounged in the passenger seat either asleep or sulking. I’d bribed him with a promise of a visit to Copperfields if kept me company shopping and dropping old clothes at COTS, an outing he generally avoids, and it wasn’t turning out to be such a bargain. In silence, we crossed onto Ely and I admired the clouds billowing above Sonoma Mountain like cream mounded on a yerba mate latte.
 “Pull over.” David, suddenly animated, waved his arms toward the curb. Had I blown a tire? Was the car on fire? I threw on the blinker, aimed the Prius into the right lane and skidded into a parking place. David jumped out. I stabbed the power-off button with my index finger and scrambled out before the Prius blew up, running to the sidewalk. Where the heck did my husband go? 
“They’ve got a good price on an entertainment center.” David’s voice filtered through a tall hedge separating two homes. “It’s just what you want. Bring your purse!”
A yard sale—I should have known. Sonoma County is great for secondhand, but Petaluma reigns queen of bargain hunting. On any Saturday, April through October, there are dozens of sales—moving sales, estate sales, even auctions; everybody opens for business, and the goods are all “collectible.”
 Later, I checked and found eighteen garage sale listings for the long weekend. But it’s early yet; more ads will show up on Friday. Along with the ads for the usual clothing, furniture, jewelry, toys, tools, I discovered scrubs, gumball machines, vintage clothing, 50 different models of vacuum cleaners, and parking meters offered at basement prices. Maybe I could buy a couple of the meters to encourage those guests who don’t know when to leave. (Is it even legal to sell these?)
David can sniff out the sales like a bear after honey, and he loves to browse the bargains. During yard sale season, he disappears for hours at a stretch.
 “I thought you were picking up a valve at OSH,” I might mention casually, glancing at the tools strewn about a still-leaking sprinkler in the lawn.
 “Come see the egg incubator I found over on Western. It was free!” He grins. “I’m going to make a coffee table for the living room.”
 I’ll believe it when I see it, but suppose there’s certain symmetry to his idea since the directions to our house include “across from the yellow chicken coop.” And I agree, “free” is unbeatable. 
 David’s attitude is, “If I buy it, I need it.” And often it’s true. The strange bits of architectural odds and ends wind up in the theatrical sets he builds. His office has the feel of a traveling minstrel show, decorated with old steamer trunks, collections of masks and theater posters—all terrific secondhand buys.

Now and then, I enjoy bargain hunting, too. My favorite find is a larger-than-life sculpture of The Who in concert created by Healdsburg artist Martin Kiff, that we recently picked up for a song (Teenage Wasteland). But I try not to spend on things I don’t need. How much of a bargain is it a couple of years later if I have to pay to haul it to the dump? Right now, the carport is filled with my damaged doll house no one is going to fix, the same yoghurt maker I sold in 1980, a set of hideous plastic chairs, David’s bike rack that doesn’t fit the car, the kids’ blood-dripping Halloween stuff from the ‘80s, and best of all: my mom’s complete Encyclopedia Britannica circa 1955, in it’s own case. Recycle Town, here I come—and I’m not taking David on this errand.
I’m putting my foot down—my feng shui practitioner accuses us of stagnating ch’i from too much stuff. So keep on the lookout for our ad in the paper now that it’s yard sale season—we’ll make you a great deal on an entertainment center.

PS: I never made it to Recycle Town but my complete set of  
Encyclopedia Britannica circa 1955
makes a great altar to 
Knowledge and a Successful Writing Career

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Pollen Capital of the World

I think I’ve landed on Dagobah when we arrive home from our two-week vacation in Mexico at the end of April. You know, that overgrown planet where Yoda lived in Star Wars? Ok, so I don’t actually find any trees growing out of my roof, but it takes a machete to hack a path to the door.
Weeds, tall and tangled, sway gently in the breeze over the sprawl of growth hugging the ground.
“What happened to the driveway? Where’d this meadow come from?” I ask my husband in horror, noticing milk thistles, the prickly bane of my garden, already taller than I am. “I could harvest those for liver supplements,” I add, eying the lifetime supply growing along the carport.
“Late rain,” he replies as the Prius bounces over tufts of grass patch-worked with super-sized dandelions and bittercress.
David holds the door while I wrestle my suitcase across the pea gravel. The wheels catch in a tangle of burclover that sprawls across the welcome mat. Was this noxious weed here when we left? I can already see the tender-looking seedpods that will ripen into nasty brown burrs and lodge into everything—my feet, the cat, the carpets.
The sight of this herbaceous splendor causes my eyes to water, my sinuses to clog. And then, “Ah-ah-ah-choo!”
I yank my bag over the jamb. “It’s hay-fever season,” I lament and slam the door behind me, bolting it against the spring menace.
 “Welcome to south county—Pollen Capital of the World,” my allergy-free husband jokes.
I’d have laughed but laughing makes me cough. Sonoma County, with its beautiful expanses of grass and forested hills, is one of the worst places for seasonal allergy sufferers—about a quarter of our population, not counting the dogs. My head pounds and my eyes itch just thinking of the days to come. I read that 70% of the pollen in the air comes from grass. The late rains have made mine lush, thick, and bursting into flower.
In normal years, whatever that means these days, the grass starts to bloom about mid-April and continues through Memorial Day, but I’ve heard tell that the misery could continue into July this year. Just thinking about that makes me run to the medicine cabinet for a saline snort off the neti pot.
 I unpack my suitcase into the laundry and empty the contents of my cosmetics bag back into the bathroom—shampoo, toothpaste, aspirin, razor blades. I’d forgotten to pack my antihistamines for the trip and I hadn’t missed them. Two weeks of Mexico City smog, blooming jacarandas, dust, bougainvilleas, and nary a sneeze. Was it the tequila, I wonder as I slip the bottle of Herradura Añejo—thankfully intact—out of my bag.
I give my theory a test. The first medicinal sip of the smooth tequila warms my scratchy throat. My headache disappears with the next. This stuff really works! I’m ready to brave the outdoors and visit my California native garden: ceanothus, monkey flower, Cleveland sage and poppies all in bloom. But the bed is so choked by non-native grasses, bristly ox tongue, and sow thistles going to seed that I can’t see my beautiful flowers, not even the taller gooseberries and wild currants.
My oaks and willows that crowd the banks of our creek are in pollen-spewing flower, adding to the miasma of allergens in the air. Soon, I’ll see the pollen blowin’ in the wind, a yellowish particulate smudge. Next it will be the olives, emitting more pollen into my atmosphere. I shoot my little orchard a dirty look.
“Ah-choo. Ah-Choo. AH-CHOO.” My head feels like it’s exploded. Maybe another shot of tequila will help. I flee back into the house.
 “Aren’t you teaching tonight?” David asks.
I’ve got my hand on the Herradura bottle, but release my grip. He’s right. Instead, I’ll take a shower and make a cup of hot tea with the Tolay Star Thistle honey a friend gave me. The pollen in this local honey is reputed to help minimize the effects of our local allergens.
I sit in my living room, sipping my honeyed tea, watching weed seed float across the yard on the breeze. My sinuses cleared up in the shower steam and I feel good. Outside the window, a tiny breeze riffles through the tops of silvery eucalyptus, and the green, green grass running up Sonoma Mountain bobs its bloomin’ seed heads, welcoming me home.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Loud Quiet

In all the years I lived in cities, I never had a problem sleeping—traffic, sirens, dogs barking, doors banging, people yelling, loud music—I slept through it all.  It wasn’t until after I moved to the quiet of Sonoma County that sleep eluded me. I was staying up later than usual, cramming to complete the work for my M.A. degree. Over the tap-tap-tap of my keyboard, I often heard a little party going on in the wall between our two bathrooms. The rustling, scrabbling and peeping sounds would start about midnight, just when I was putting my thesis to bed.

“We have rats in the walls,” I announced one morning at the breakfast table.

“No we don’t. You’re imagining it,” my husband said.

“How would you know? You’re asleep by the time the party starts.”

“I’ll look into it,” he said and stuck his nose back into his morning paper.

The fiesta continued. Word got around and all the neighborhood rats showed up, while my husband slept on, and the bags under my eyes started carrying backpacks. Lying in bed, I listened to the raucous rats and brooded over the endless stream of ideas that were not materializing onto paper. 

Sleep deprived, I wondered if I was hallucinating from exhaustion when I noticed tiny red dots move on the bathroom walls.

“David, there are red dots crawling around our bathroom. Some kind of mite. I think they’re coming from the rats.”

“There aren’t any rats.”

The rats hired a DJ. The reddish dots danced around the electrical outlet, crawled into the towels, and lounged in our bathrobes hanging on the back of the door. I developed a rash that covered my mid-section and looked like measles. I itched. My husband snored and I scratched and thrashed, keeping my head under the pillow so I wouldn’t have to listen to the drunken brawl going on inside the wall. Did I hear those rats laughing at me?

My husband finally heard the rats about the time the rash covered a significant portion of my torso and my insomnia complained it was sleep deprived. He set traps; the party quieted down, but I remained wakeful. In between tosses and turns, I heard the thwack of the trap springing above my head in the crawl space.

Eventually, night-time silence returned; the red dots vanished and I didn’t itch from their bites anymore. Bedtime became my favorite time, that is, until the owl moved into the barn. Hoo-hoo. Hoo-hoo, all night long.

“Be grateful. Owls eat rodents,” David said brightly.

The owl moved over to the neighbor’s apple orchard and our young cat took over rodent control in the yard. A good hunter, she shared every success by carrying her live catches into the bedroom for praise and play. Have you ever heard a mouse scream? No sleep that night! Can you sleep with birds flapping into the walls over your head, their downy feathers floating up your nose? And who could sleep through the scrabble-hiss of gophers attempting to dig their way below the carpet? I started running a midnight catch-and-release program, not being able to kill those hapless creatures.

I’d finally started sleeping through the sounds of the night when David reported a strange nocturnal bark. Armed with a flashlight, he investigated, returning to bed to swear that the creature stood up on two legs and flew away, emitting its hoarse call.

“I think it was a chupacabra.”

“There are no chupacabras. They’re imaginary,” I said and rolled over into slumberland.

But the story bothered me. I’d heard about the mythical beast that lived off the blood of farm animals. I wouldn’t let my old deaf dog outside after dark. Several nights later, David and I were both outside with flashlights. The rasping bark sounded first from the bottom of the yard by the creek and came toward us. I clutched my husband’s arm. Then suddenly, two grey foxes and their tiny cub bolted under the gate into the lane.

The foxes moved on, and after almost a decade of living in the shadow of Sonoma Mountain, I’ve come to love my noisy nocturnal neighbors. I still have restless nights, but they are rare. Although sometime I’ll tell you about the frogs in the hot tub.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Shining Moments, or How I found Love in Petaluma

Catching up on email this morning, I found an announcement about this year’s Butter and Egg Days, “Petaluma’s Shining Moments.” I went to the Petaluma Downtown Association website, to check out the event and reminisced about my first Butter and Egg Day.

By 2001, I’d had it with Marvelous Marin. Between the gridlock and oblivious drivers, I battled every time I went out, and the all-pervasive “Me” attitude of my neighbors, my county had become a hostile, foreign place. I wanted a slower paced life—a garden, birdsong, quiet.

Why not Petaluma? I remembered Petaluma from the seventies, when we piled into someone’s car to attend movies at the Mystic, and later, to Rock ‘n Roll the night away. My mom owned a store in the Great Petaluma Mill when it first converted to retail. I hitched a ride through Nicasio to work for her twice a week and fell in love with stately D Street. In those days, the area was more farmland than suburbs, and chickens still lived in chicken coops, but by the beginning of the new millennium, Petaluma had more going for it than my town. Mine didn’t even have a bookstore.

“I mean, how many times can you be run off the road by a cell phone-wielding soccer mom in a Hummer? I’m moving to Sonoma County,” I announced to my best friend over our biscuits and gravy at the Two Niner Diner. “And I’m starting by hooking up with that guy I met on-line.”

 “You’re crazy! He might be a serial killer.”

“He sounded nice. Anyway, we’ll meet somewhere in public. It’ll be a great opportunity to get to know the area.”

David-from-Petaluma called me on Monday night to arrange our first date the following Saturday. “That’s Butter and Egg Day. The town will be mobbed. Let’s meet after the parade.”

An old-fashioned hometown parade? Oh, boy! But I agreed that it would be too hard to meet a blind date in a crowd. He suggested the Tea Room Café on Western.

What does one wear to a tearoom? Hat and heels? I wanted to look hot—make an impression. Saturday dawned overcast and I tossed aside the sundress and sorted through my closet in hopes of finding something to wear that would keep me warm without looking like I was on winter expedition. I settled on the old standard, jeans—I was going to a western town, wasn’t I?

As David had said, Petaluma was jammed with people. I found parking near City Hall and wandered toward Kentucky through streams of folk (also wearing jeans, I was relieved to note) leaving the parade route. I wasn’t exactly sure where the restaurant was located, but I noticed a crowd relaxing at tables on the sidewalk across the street from where I stood and saw the sign: Tea Room Cafe.

I started to cross the street. Anxiety instantly attacked my stomach. What on earth was I doing? Me, a middle-aged woman dolled up in tight jeans and cute shoes to impress some strange David-from-Petaluma who was probably a serial killer!

Run away. Run away! My mind admonished me, but the patrons of the Tea Room appeared to be in high spirits. The place looked fun. The waitress was laughing and relaxed. The coffee smelled delicious. I stepped up onto the curb.

You’ll never find him. Go home, that recreant voice in my head shouted. I shifted my weight to turn back toward my car.


A pleasant-looking, bearded man smiled and held out a metal bistro chair at his table. I liked his wavy chestnut-colored hair, flowing down his back, and the way his skin crinkled around his eyes.

“Hi, David,” I said and sat down. “How are you?”

“Happy to be in the world.”

Serial killers aren’t happy, I told the petty-spirited voice, still nattering behind my consciousness.

“So what’s Butter and Egg Day about?” I asked.

Petaluma might not spread the news of David-from-Petaluma and my attendance as one of its shining butter-and-egg moments, but Butter and Egg Day 2001 shines in our lives. Three years later, we celebrated our marriage with a country barbeque on our own gopher field (flat shoes only) in the shadow of Sonoma Mountain.