Dreams of my ...

by Lorin Michel Saturday, October 20, 2012 10:42 PM

On this late, groggy Saturday night, I’m reclined on the love seat in the great room, my slippered feet stretched out over the edge, my body wrapped up in sweatpants and an oversized flannel shirt. My laptop is on my lap, living up to its category, and I am listening to the sounds of sweet jazz and the remnants of rain, leaves heavy with moisture dripping down onto one another and finally to the ground. The skies are cloudy. From my perch I can’t see them but I can feel them, the heaviness of the sky invades the backyard and oozes in through the sliver of the sliding glass door that’s open and inviting the fresh damp air.

It’s been a long day. The grapes were pressed this morning and we now have nine gallons of syrah grape juice. The fermenter and various pieces of equipment are clean and stored; the juice sits in glass carboys on the workbench in the garage. It will sit there for several days before entering the next phase of its young life.

Once we returned from our pressing journey, we showered, changed and went out again for a phone bank for Organizing for America, calling people to urge them to continue their support of President Obama. My friend Connie went with us. For three hours we dialed phone numbers on provided sheets in the hopes of someone picking up on the other end to speak to us nicely, without malice of interruption, without having decided to vote to the right. It was an interesting atmosphere. The building we were in was a call center by trade. Each day, dozens of people sit at the same desks we occupied and call people to try to sell them, convince them, connive them into buying something they’re not sure they want or to support something they’re not sure of. The irony was not lost.

I found myself drifting into daydreams several times as I waited for someone to answer a number I had dialed. In my dreams, I saw the rolling desert of Tucson, covered with Saguaros as they reached for the sky, and Kevin and I in our new home, waiting for the wonder of an encroaching thunderstorm, enjoying the anonymity of our home on the hill. I saw my niece at her Halloween party last night, dressed as a flapper and enjoying herself with her girlfriends. I wondered what she looked like and sent a text to my sister between phone calls. She promised to send photos.

I let my mind wander to my family, so many of whom are no longer with me, with us, and I wondered how they would see the world these days. The anger, the resentment, the entitlement, the hope. My grandmother, my dad’s mom, who died in 2001 at 93. I wondered if she was a democrat and decided she probably was; she had been a teacher. My great aunt, my dad’s mom’s sister, who died just a couple of years ago, also in her 90s. I wondered how she saw the world when she was still in it. My grandmother, my mom’s mom, who died several years ago as well, at 91. I wondered if she had ever really enjoyed her life. I wondered if any of them had.

My thoughts drifted then to my dad, who died in 2002, and who would have absorbed the news of the day with hardly a mention of how it made him feel. I admired that in him, and yet, I think keeping all of that in – his joy, his anger, his hurt, his dreams – contributed to him dying at such a young age.

How had any of them dreamed of … ? Had they dreamed at all?

Today I dreamed of grapes and wine, of rain and wondrous gloom, of phone calls to strangers who became instant friends, albeit virtually, and co-conspirators in this 17 days until the election. I dreamed of spending time with friends, of sharing wine and cheese and politics and more wine and funny stories. I dreamed of my future and my past, of my father, my grandmothers, others lost, those still living and full of love. My mother, my sister, my niece and nephew, my brother; my son. I dreamed. They dream.

“With our eyes closed, we uttered the same words, but in our hearts we each prayed to our own masters; we each remained locked in our own memories; we all clung to our own foolish magic.”

The quote is from page 163 of the book Dreams from my father by Barack Obama. I don’t know if it’s foolish to dream or foolish not to. But I do believe in magic, and I will cling to it as long as I have dreams.

On this Saturday night when the weather is drifting and the air is chilled and fine, I am dreaming of so much.

I am dreaming of … 

A king fit for a queen

by Lorin Michel Monday, October 1, 2012 9:34 PM

So I’m exhausted. I traveled back and forth to the east coast over the course of the last four days and spent three nights not in my bed, which means not sleeping very well. Being in one’s own bed is like being in one’s favorite jeans, as far as this blogger is concerned. The fit is perfect, there is a major comfort factor and I feel better for having slept there, dressed like that.

The reason I didn’t sleep well is hereditary. Yes, that means I blame my mother. Typical adult. I have a problem, it must be the fault of my parents. I know it wasn’t my dad’s fault because he could sleep basically anywhere. In a chair, on the couch, leaning against the wall, standing up (I’m guessing on that last one). But my mother has never been the world’s best sleeper. I’m not sure if this is a problem that started back when she was a child, in college or after she and my dad got married. My dad was a snorer, my mom a worrier. Between the two, it’s nearly impossible for a person to sleep well especially if one is worrying while attempting to sleep next to one who is snoring, loudly – actually attempting the relatively unknown art of peeling the paint off the walls with sound. Maybe she got into the habit of not sleeping then. Whatever, and whenever, she formed the habit and it’s one that persists.

Even when she does sleep, it has to be done in her own bed. She doesn’t do well in hotels, or when she visits someone else. I tend to have a similar issue, though usually only the first night I’m somewhere new and in an unfamiliar bed. I think it’s the feel of the bed – always different – and the sounds – always weird. I get used to the sounds of my house and my ‘hood. When I’m somewhere new, so are the house and ‘hood sounds. I have gotten better though. When we stay at the Westward Look in Tucson, I have no trouble at all; ditto the Fairmont in Chicago. Maybe because I’ve stayed there before.

But I’ve stayed at my mother’s house before. I sleep, just not well. In addition to blaming my mother, I also blame the bed and the sounds. It’s a twin, it has a nice firm mattress, the bedding is always crisp and cool, the blankets plentiful (it’s New England after all). The room itself is dark, which I like. It’s all very comfortable.  But it’s still a twin mattress, which I’m not used to, and all the noises are different and so I slept OK while away but not well enough to ward off the inevitable exhaustion that follows a whirlwind trip back east.

By the time I was 35,000 feet, give or take a foot or two, above Kansas I started to get misty, nostalgic even. By the time I was over Pennsylvania, I was jonesing for my big beautiful California King with its firm mattress and soft pillow-top, all held in place by a big wrought iron sleigh bed. I couldn’t wait to climb between the cool, crisp sheets and listen to the sound of the vacillating fan, the crickets chirping in the back yard, the steady breathing of my husband asleep next to me.

The Bed by Toulouse Lautrec; painted in 1893

A California King, also known as a Western King, is about 4” longer than a Standard King; the Standard is 4” wider. A California King is 12” wider than a Queen. It is the longest bed available, unless you order something custom. It’s 72” wide and 84” long, and was first made in Los Angeles in the 1960s by a furniture company making oversized beds for celebrity mansions; hence the name California King. It is fit for a queen. Or at least for me.

I got home last night after 11 pm West Coast time. I had been up forever, or at least it felt like it, and had traveled some 2500 miles. I dumped my bags on the floor, brushed my teeth, washed my face and then slipped between the sheets. I sighed, content. I’m not sure if my husband heard but I know he understood. My comfort was written all over my body.

And then I suspect I snored enough to make my dad proud. 

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The dusty sweet smell of rain

by Lorin Michel Wednesday, September 5, 2012 10:35 PM

We had something wonderful happen today, something unexpected, something glorious. It rained. Pause for dramatic effect.

Rain doesn’t happen here all that often. We live in the desert and our annual rainfall totals are usually only around 15 inches a year. Some years are more, some are less, but it doesn’t really matter as the rainfall totals aren’t actually important; it’s the snow pack in the Sierra Nevada mountains. When there is a deep pack that melts and winds its way down here into the basin, we don’t have drought conditions. When the snow is as stingy as the rain, we do. It’s that simple.

Rain begins to fall here in the desert right around the time that snow begins to flurry in the mountains. Sometimes we get a few sprinkles in November, occasionally a full-on storm in December. I remember one Christmas when it rained so hard, I thought the greenhouse window in the kitchen was going to shatter. It didn’t. The high deserts can have thunderstorms in August. Arizona is famous for its torrents during this month, when the skies paint themselves black, the winds whip up, overturning anything that’s loose, and the thunder rolls. Suddenly, there is rain. But it doesn’t accumulate and it doesn’t last.

Today we woke up to cloudy skies and cool air, though we weren’t surprised. Dallas, our intrepid weather dude (endorsed by the American Meteorological Society), told us it might be cloudy and it might rain before the clouds burned off and the sun once again bathed us in extreme heat. Only that never happened. While we were walking, big drops pelted us. All morning, a gentle rain fell. And a wonderful dusty sweet smell filled the house.

I’ve always loved that. I think you can smell rain before it even arrives, just as I think you can smell snow. It begins right before the rain hits the ground, when it’s just making the air damp but the ground is anticipating its arrival and it’s waiting for a drink after a very long dry spell. It’s a smell that’s damp and dusty, with a little bit of a tingle when it gets stuck in your nose. I know that sounds odd, but think about it. Other things can smell damp and dusty, like a forest or even a part of the kitchen counter that hasn’t been cleaned in a while. We have such a part in our kitchen, in the corner, under the television. No food prep goes on there, but because of where it’s located, dust collects. When I take a damp sponge to it, the smell of water hitting dust rises, but it’s not the same as rain.

The smell before it rains, when it’s both sweet and pungent and fresh all at once, is ozone. If there is lightning, it splits atmospheric nitrogen and oxygen molecules into separate atoms. Some of these atoms react with other chemicals to produce a molecule made up of three oxygen atoms, or ozone. When storms push ozone down to us mere mortals, we can smell it.

When the rain arrives, there’s another smell and it’s called petrichor. It’s the dusty sweet smell that happens when airborne molecules attach to surfaces like hardened earth, rock, cement, and asphalt and then rain hits the dry earth, roads and sidewalks. Ultimately, it’s an earthy-musty wetness. It smells green and brown all at once. It smells like nature.

It’s a smell that only happens once each time it rains after a long stint of dryness. It’s a smell that only happened once today, even though it rained on and off. It’s a smell I forget about when it’s gone but welcome back with open arms each time it arrives. It’s not a smell that’s unique to the southwest, nor one that’s unique to the US. It’s a smell that makes me celebrate petrichor, a word I didn’t even know of until today.

It’s a smell I love and one that makes me happy to live it out loud.

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We’re thinking something in bomb-shelter chic

by Lorin Michel Sunday, August 19, 2012 10:14 PM

One of our new favorite things is the Houzz app on the iPad. We can spend hours with it, just surfing through its over 634,000 photos of all things house related, from exteriors and landscapes to porches and patios to interior wall and floor treatments, fireplaces, bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, media rooms and wine cellars. We have started a folder for our favorites. At this point we have at least one hundred photos cataloged with notes as to why we find them so fascinating. Occasionally we also scroll through our folder to see if there’s a pattern emerging. There is and it’s mostly one of clean lines and modern designs. Except for the wine cellars.

It will probably come as no surprise to you, dear readers, that the majority of our photos are of wine cellars. Many are fairly straight-forward; most are not modern but lean more toward traditional. The racks are often identical save for the color of the wood stain and placement, depending on the size and shape of the cellar. Most have tile floors, some also have tiled walls. We came across one today that had stucco for walls and liked that very much. It would add great texture and might actually serve to make our eventual cellar more cellar-like, more cave-like.

Some cellars are created by using otherwise wasted spaces, like putting something underneath a staircase. Our current cellar, if it can be called that, is under our stairs. Kevin built the small room that’s more like a closet in unused and thus wasted space. He stuffed insulation in between the wall studs, sealed them with moisture-resistant plastic and used thin plywood to create walls. The front of the closet is about five feet high and it slopes down as the stairs above it ascend up to the second floor. The solid door to the room is at least two inches thick. He built wine racks inside, on both sides of the door. In the back there is space for several cases that we leave in the boxes. The room holds about 300 + bottles, all kept at a balmy and constant 58º, the best temperature for storing red wine.

Many of the photos we saw today do something similar. Some are visible to the world, and show off the wine through a glass door. Some become little circular caves with stone encasings. There are cellars that spiral down into a seemingly finished hole beneath the house; some are actually in a cellar, or basement. Others are off of a game room; some are near the kitchen or dining room. When we eventually build our house in Tucson, our wine cellar will be off the dining room, and we’re obsessed with how it will look.

The space is 13’ X 7’ and will hold up to 2,000 bottles. The floor will be the same tile that flows through the house, big and ceramic. The interior will have racks. Whether they’re wood racks or perhaps something a little more modern, like steel rods suspended vertically from the ceiling with wooden pieces placed horizontally to actually hold each bottle. We’d like the walls to be textured. We’ve looked at paint, which is always an option, more tile, the aforementioned stucco, or some combination thereof. But there’s another idea that presented itself this morning as we browsed through Houzz. We’re calling it bomb-shelter chic.

The exterior of the house will be stucco with some additional stonework for texture. Mike, our architect, wants to bring the stone into the house, pulling through the motif in order to keep the house even more fluid. We’ve talked about putting the same stone on the wall of the fireplace in the great room as well as the outdoor fireplace and the outdoor kitchen. Today, we wondered about also bringing the stone in on the wall just inside the entry way, in the dining room, then having the stone taper off so that it looks unfinished in a highly finished and on-purpose way. This wall is where the door to our cellar will be. The doorframe for the arched door will be inset and house, most-likely, a solid door, maybe one with a window to allow the exterior world to look in and the interior world to look out.

We’re thinking this could be very interesting, very chic, especially if the interior looks a bit like a cave. As far as bomb shelters go, this is one we would gladly spend time in until it was safe.

Or until we ran out of wine. To run out of wine would be oh-so shabby (chic). 

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Sand castles in the sky and other places of interest

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, July 17, 2012 11:25 PM

I am both a realist and a dreamer. I suspect there are many in the world much like me. I dream of a stunning home on our nearly four acres in the foothills of Tucson, where the views stretch for nearly 300º and the sunsets are purple and orange and pink, where the sky is on fire during the day and streaks of high clouds tease. I dream of standing in my living room, looking out my floor-to-ceiling windows as the monsoons pound out their vengeance on the hardened desert; of sitting in my office with my dog at my feet, snoozing happily as I write my next successful novel.

I dream of spending a month in a Tuscan villa, eating pasta every night and drinking Italy’s best red wines.; of getting fat and not having to worry about cholesterol or high blood pressure.

I dream that my husband and I will live to be old but always healthy, and never have to the face the idea of living a day without the other.


I dream that Justin has a wondrous life and exotic career that takes him everywhere he dreams of; that he’s happy in his choices; that he one day knows the unconditional love of a great dog.

I dream that I will never have to worry about money or work or love or my family.

I dream of living forever.

I’m also a realist though and understand that dreaming about something and actually making something happen are separate entities. I’m fond of saying that life is what happens when you’re busy making plans. I’m equally fond of saying that if you lose sight of your dreams, you die. I think that was in a movie but I can never remember what one. It’s something I believe deeply, and so I nurture my dreams, I work at them and believe that they will eventually become reality. All except, probably, the living forever. From what I’ve seen in movies and read in books that feature immortal characters, it’s probably not something I would like. Still.

Imagine being able to see the world as it has evolved and changed and invented and re-invented itself. Imagine being able to see it in one hundred years, one thousand years. It’s the stuff of great science fiction, something I admire when it’s done with poetry and song but not when it’s done with spaceships. The film Contact may be an exception, but that had Matthew McConaughey. Also, Alien and Aliens, the first for the creep factor, the second for the kick-ass factor.

Still imagine the things to come, the wonder of what will still be invented, the joy of humanity if we ever get the living-together-on-one-planet thing right. The realist in me doesn’t see it happening any time soon; the dreamer dreams.

There is a saying about building castles in the air. It’s used to describe something that is nothing but an illusion. It’s a flight of fancy and a phrase found in both English and French literature. The earliest use was by Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592) who wrote that all “religion is but a castle in the air.” Some say Cervantes was the first to use the phrase as related to Don Quixote, when he spoke of “building castles in the air, and making yourself a laughing-stock.”

Don McLean wrote in his song Castles in the Air: “And if she asks you why you can tell her that I told you; That I'm tired of Castles in the Air; I've got a dream I want the world to share in castle walls; Just leave me to despair.”

Rita Rudner said once that neurotics build castles in the sky and psychotics live in them; that her mother cleans them. She didn’t mention sand castles, which are firmly grounded, at least until the next waves come in to wash it all away.

Is that destined to happen to most dreams? Or, like the sand castles built in competitions, can the dreams survive the force of reality? I like to think they can. I like to think that the castles I’ve built in my dreams will withstand the rip tides of life and perhaps instead be more like skyscrapers. Those are also castles in the air that someone once dreamed of and was able to make real.

I like what Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “if you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

Sunset on our property in Tuscan

In other words, celebrate your dreams. I know I do. And I’m building as many foundations as I can to keep my castles in the air high and beautiful and real. Strong and able to withstand the waves. 

As if someone took a paintbrush

by Lorin Michel Saturday, July 7, 2012 2:06 AM

Since I’m still in the desert, in all of its hot, glorious wonder, I write today about its colors. Harsh whites, deep blacks, vibrant reds and more. These colors paint the rocks that surround the sands and can positively make you sigh even as they make you wonder.

When I was a kid, I dreamed of the west. I don’t know why. I always thought it was because I had been born in the wrong place; that I was suppose to live out here. I had never been west until college, at least no further west than Western Pennsylvania, but there was something haunting about the west, something magical, something that drew me here. I’ve said before that I packed my 1979 Toyota Celica hatchback a week to the day after I graduated from college and started my trek to the western states of this fine country of ours. I was supposed to drive with my good friend Jennifer but she bailed on me because of her boyfriend, who, coincidentally, also lived in California. I decided to go anyway, and managed to convince my mother to drive with me.

Truth be told, I think she wanted the temporary escape. She and my dad were separated at the time and had been for several years. She had begun a relationship with someone else. I think she was having a mid-life crisis. But I welcomed the company. My mother is only 20 years older than me and when we drove across the country she was only 42. Young, vibrant, beautiful; full of energy and a desire for change. We were quite the team; Thelma and Louise minus the crime and minus the vintage T-bird. Still, it was fun. I didn’t mind then staying in cheap motels (there were still motels then; don’t know if there still are); my mother did. I thought she was a snob. As I’ve gotten older I realize exactly what she felt. I wouldn’t be caught dead now in the places I stayed then. She was a good sport; much better than I would have been.

We drove through Pennsylvania and stayed with some friends. Then we went through Ohio and stopped to see a soccer buddy of mine from college. He lived in a fleabag apartment in Akron. I think his name was Mel. Again, when I think back I can’t help but wonder what my mother must have been thinking. Since I was just 22, I didn’t even think about it then. It was all about me and what I wanted to do, who I wanted to see, where I wanted to go. She was simply company.

Horrible child. Typical of the age. Unfortunately.

There was no internet then, no cell phones. We planned the trip with AAA books, taking a route that went largely through the center of the country. We hit Indianapolis on the weekend of the Indy 500. We went through St. Louis and stopped to gawk at the arch. We went through Kansas, which was endless and nothing but cornfields and wheat. I remember wondering what would happen if the car broke down, if we ran out of gas.

Then we ventured across the border into Colorado. I remember being surprised that it was so brown. I had always thought Colorado was green and had lots of tall mountains covered with snow regardless of the time of year. We pressed on and eventually found Colorado Springs. I didn’t know anything about the town but mom remembered that friends of ours from when I was just a kid had moved out there. She remembered that the woman, Marla, was a pharmacist. We had no idea how to find her so we pulled into a mall. It had a pharmacy. Mom went in and said she was looking for Marla Payne and had no idea how to find her but wondered if there was a way to find her through pharmacies. Turns out, Marla worked at that pharmacy. She wasn’t there, but the person called her and told her that Joyce Shields was there. Marla drove to meet us within 15 minutes. We stayed with them for at least two days, visiting the sites around the area. We went to Aspen. Gorgeous. We shelled shrimp and ate them by the pound. We had a wonderful time.

From there we headed south. My ultimate destination was San Diego. It was where I had secured a room in a house (which was a real sh*t hole but I didn’t know that at the time). South took us to Arizona.

At sunset one night as we were getting very tired and just needing to find a place to stay, we stumbled upon a bunch of people pulled off to the side of road. We had no idea where we were but thought maybe we should stop and take a look. We parked, and got out of the Celica, shaking the miles from our legs, and walked to where everyone was. We were at the Grand Canyon. Imagine the shock of walking up to something, having no idea where you are, and seeing that. The sheer depth, majesty, color and wonder of it is nearly impossible to put into words. Even at 22, I was astounded. I don’t know that I’ve seen anything so profoundly moving since. It was both one dimensional and 3-dimensional at once.

The next day, we drove through the Painted Desert, a multicolored layer cake of rock. It’s narrow, just 160 miles long, and begins just 30 miles from the Grand Canyon. Wind and rain have made the rocks erode, hastened by the torrential Arizona monsoons, and the deeply cut, narrow gullies of sandstone and mudstone show off iron and aluminum in hues of red, orange, pink, blue, gray and lavender. It looks as if someone took a paintbrush to the landscape, a landscape you’re living in.

I remember standing there and breathing in the color, astonished by it, frightened by the strangeness that is the west, and yet exhilarated by the possibility.

There is nothing like the color of the desert; nothing like the rock formations. It is haunting in its beauty, beautiful in its color and always a surprise.

Tonight, our last in Tucson, I’m celebrating the painted colors of the desert. Living it out loud. 

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Things I see and saw

by Lorin Michel Thursday, July 5, 2012 1:10 AM

On the road today, driving east about 500 miles through the desert on the way to Tucson. Fascinating place, the desert. It’s flat and desolate, nothing for miles and miles on either side of the freeway. The navigation on the dashboard has nothing on it but two orange lines for the 10 freeway. There’s a yellow arrow on our side, showing us the direction we’re traveling. In case we didn’t know. It’s literally due east.

Off in the distance, seemingly all around us, are the small rock formation cum mountains that are so famous in the desert southwest. We’re driving under cloud cover, something new for us as the desert always seems to be scorching. There is sun highlighting one of the rock formations to the northeast. All around it, the other rocks are in shadow, flattening them against the depth of what’s been exposed by the sun. Heavy thunderclouds are tucked behind the rocks, like clouds below the clouds, nearly touching the ground. We’re supposed to have thunderstorms tonight and tomorrow. It’s already rained a bit, just enough to put spots on the clean car.

Along our two-lane side of the road there are countless pieces of black rubber, some quite large, nearly a tire. There is little else save for tumbleweed that has not yet broken free to tumble, desert brush and the occasional cactus. We haven’t yet gotten deep enough into the desert that we’re surrounded by the towering saguaros that can grow to nearly 100’. Soon.

There are tons of 18-wheel trucks, surprising for a holiday. Though as Kevin said, if they’re long-haulers, it’s just another day in the week for them. We cruise alongside them, passing nearly every one. Occasionally one pulls into our lane to pass another and we have to get off the cruise control. But only for a minute.

It’s 82º, cool for the desert in July.

Off to the right is what appears to be the remains of a building, made of stones. It has no windows, no doors and no inhabitants save for the creatures of the desert. Maybe not even that. It’s desolate. I wonder if anyone ever lived there and why.

The satellite radio is set to channel 32, The Bridge. It’s billed as classic rock meets mellow, and it plays music only from the 60s and 70s, maybe early 80s. Groups like Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Blood, Sweat & Tears, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Carly Simon. You get the idea. We’re in heaven. We love this kind of music. I was never big on hard rock, nor did I like the bubble gum pop that was popular in the 70s, before, during and after the dreaded disco era. Chicago is on now. Feeling stronger every day.

On the ground, a shattered box spring and destroyed mattress, collateral damage from an ill-fated moving trip. Above it, a billboard for mattresses.

78º. The air looks heavy. I used to run when the air was like that. It always felt as if it pushed ten pounds into my lungs. I know that wasn’t the case; but it felt like it. It didn’t feel that way when I ran in the rain. Just the threat of rain made it harder to move; the actual rain made it easier. I wonder if the heavy air makes it more difficult for the car to cut through. No matter. We’re still getting better gas mileage in this car than in the other. About 20 miles per gallon. It may not seem like a lot but for an SUV weighing 6000 pounds, it’s better than we expected; better even than what was advertised.

We had a bit of lunch, ham and cheese, grapes, blueberries and bottled water. We never stop for fast food. Instead, we pack a picnic of sorts. The new car has a refrigerator in the center console. Kevin wondered about having a martini in about two hours. I told him we’d need an emergency martini kit, which he promptly named MIT. Martinis in transit.

We’re getting close to Phoenix. The traffic has picked up. We’re still moving along at about 75 but there are significantly more cars in front of and behind us. If someone spooks and hits their brakes, there’s going to be trouble. There are also more billboards, and now, finally some cookie-cutter houses beginning to appear in clumps of desert brown and dusty orange stucco. Rain has again begun to dot the windshield.

The first time I drove east to Phoenix from San Diego I remember crying when I got there. The now discarded first husband and I were moving there because he had gotten a job. The west side of Phoenix was the ugliest, raunchiest place I could remember being in and I had been to some real fleabag places on the drive across the country just a year earlier. Gallup, New Mexico comes to mind. Luckily, as we drove further east, it got prettier. In the twenty-five years since that first trip, Phoenix has expanded significantly. It got caught up in the splendor of the 90s and early 2000s and built itself up and out. It got caught, though, doing that, and is now suffering quite a bit. I’m not a fan of Phoenix; never was, even when I lived there for a year.

But Tucson is different. Yes, the west side of town is decidedly unattractive. Drive along the foothills though, to the north of the city, nearly on the county line, and it gets quite beautiful. Small, unassuming. Pleasant and polite.

Eric Clapton is singing Wonderful Tonight. I think I’ll use that as our theme song for tonight, this July 4th, when we stand atop our property and, should the storm not materialize, watch the fireworks in the distance. Wonderful tonight. Wonderful tonight.

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A place on the sun

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, May 22, 2012 1:40 AM

It happened last night. For days the news had been talking about this seminal event, happening at approximately 6:38 PDT on May 20th. The annular eclipse of 2012, this year’s version of an event that actually happens fairly often – about every year and a half or so – occurred high in the Pacific sky. At 6:38, the moon completely covered the sun but because the physical size of the moon is smaller than the sun, a ring of fire appeared around the blackened outline of the moon. This ring is called the annulus, which is Latin for blindingly bright ball-of-fire-like ring, and it’s dangerous to look at without special glasses like those worn by arcwelders.

An annular eclipse doesn’t cause the sun’s light to be completely obliterated. Rather, it just sort of cools the light, makes it less yellow and warm. That’s what it did for us last night as we were perched high atop Piuma Road looking down at the steady stream of cars winding through Malibu Canyon, driving in and out of sunlight they probably didn’t even realize was changing. Further out, the Pacific Ocean was grayish blue, waves lapping lazily at the shore. I wondered how the eclipse might effect the waves since my understanding of waves and tides is that they are somewhat governed by the gravitational pull of the moon. From where we were, they looked pretty normal.

Piuma Road actually runs off of Malibu Canyon, but whereas Malibu Canyon cuts through the mountains and runs low and south, Piuma runs up the mountains and just south east. At its highest point, it is miles above the coast. We had been to this particular spot before. Several years ago, when Mars was visible in the night sky, we packed up the telescope and some wine and cheese and took the Rover up high. We used the open tailgate as a table – we even had a candle – and set up the scope to see the red planet. It was pretty cool, but we lost interest after a while. Then we trained the telescope down toward Malibu to see what we could see. At that time, there was a castle-like structure high atop one of the hills just above the city. They were having quite the party. We could see all the way through the house, though couldn’t make out any specific faces. I’ve often wondered if there were any celebs at that party. Malibu is famous for celebrities and we’ve seen our fair share in restaurants as well as just driving along Pacific Coast Highway. The castle burned down in the big fire of 2007. The site has since been razed.

Yesterday, we took the motorcycle back to that same spot. We had created our own “projector” to view the eclipse: a piece of cardboard with a pinhole and another piece of white paper. We had no idea how this would work, even though we had tested it at home, viewing the sun in all its glory as an image less than the size of a pencil eraser as projected through the tiny hole and out onto the paper. When we arrived, dismounted, removed our helmets, and took our projector out of the saddlebag, it was about 5:30 or so, right around the time that the eclipse was supposed to start. Eclipses, it seems, take some time to complete their eclipsing. We watched occasionally through our projector, our backs to the sun, holding the cardboard up to it, supplementing our time by chatting, watching Malibu below us and as the eclipse got closer to being done, marveling at the change in the light and the change in the temperature. It had been relatively warm yesterday. As the moon tried its best to block the sun, the temperature dropped at least 10 degrees. The light, as I said, also cooled. The shadows lengthened and blurred.

I remember thinking that if this is what happens during a regularly scheduled eclipse, imagine what would happen if the sun was permanently blocked, like in the event of a nuclear winter or some environmental catastrophe. The world would wither and die without the warmth and wonder of the sun. I know this is what scientists and environmentalists talk of regularly; it’s what I have long believed to be true. I wondered if non-believers had ever experienced the relatively innocuous nature of an annular eclipse and then thought about something lasting much longer.

Once the eclipse was over, at 6:39, we climbed back onto the bike and headed home. I celebrated the universe last night, the incredible nature of how things work. I don’t understand it, don’t claim to know anything, but I do understand the wonder and awesomeness of it all.

Today, I celebrated the photos that people, both professional photographers and amateurs alike from all over the west, took with their special cameras.

Our beloved Tucson, as photographed yesterday by Chris Heising

Truly astonishing and life affirming. I’m amazed that in the dead light of the eclipse such warmth and fire emerged. It’s a little like what we celebratory humans do every day.

Living it out loud.

My love affair with a certain city in the 48th state

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, February 14, 2012 11:32 PM

Today is the 100th birthday of the red state of Arizona, and I don’t mean red just in terms of politics. This state, which sits just to the east of Southern California and, like us, also borders Mexico, is home to the Painted Desert and the exquisite Grand Canyon. It also offers the red rocks of Sedona, just north of Phoenix and Scottsdale. Yes, a good portion of Arizona is in the Sonoran Desert, but even more of it isn’t. There are the mountains of Flagstaff, where snows fall regularly. Snow also falls in the Canyon, and rains fall regularly in the areas north of Phoenix. But from Phoenix south to our beloved Tucson, the rains come in the form of monsoons, gale force winds and suddenly blackened skies that break open to release the driving storms that flood the roads and rush down the washes.

Arizona became a state on February 14, 1912 so today is their centennial celebration. I don’t know what they’re doing, if anything, but I imagine somewhere, some of their nearly 6.5 million people might be doing something fun. It’s probably not the Native Americans of whom there are nine different tribes including the Navajo Nation, the Hopi, Apache and Yuman tribes, the Yaqui peoples and Tohono O’odham. Maybe it’s those of Mexican ancestry (27%), German (16%), Irish (11%), English (10%) or Italian (nearly 5%). Maybe it’s some in the biggest city, Phoenix, or the second biggest city, Tucson. Maybe it’s all.

Downtown Tucson in winter

It was Marcos de Niza, a Spanish Franciscan, who first explored the area that would become the 48th state. It was 1539. Fortified towns were established first in Tubac in 1752 and in Tucson in 1775. When Mexico achieved its independence in 1821, Arizona became known as Arizonac derived from the O’odham name ali sonak, and became part of Nueva California. It was recognized as a Confederate territory by Jefferson Davis on February 14, 1862, the first time its name of Arizona was officially used. After the war, when President Lincoln signed a bill recognizing the territory, names like Gadsonia, Pimeria, Montezuma and Arizuma were also considered but the bill read Arizona and Arizona it became. When it became a state 100 years ago, it was the last of the continental states to be admitted.

Like so much of the west, Arizona has a long and storied history. It had German and Italian POW camps during World War II as well as Japanese-American internment camps. It has a history of forcing Native American children to assimilate into Anglo-American culture. It is home to many retirees because of its warm, dry climate – evidently good for arthritis and other ailments – and it is the name of the ship that lies at the bottom of Pearl Harbor with hundreds of sailors’ remains still entombed.

It is also the home of the previously mentioned Tucson, a city we have absolutely fallen in love with. Both Kevin and I have been to the Grand Canyon. I lived in Scottsdale for a year in the mid-80s, a year when I spent many weekends in Sedona to escape the heat of the valley. I’ve been to Prescott and Jerome. But neither of us had ever been to Tucson until we took Justin to the University of Arizona in August of 2009. We drove the 525 miles from Oak Park across the desert, pretty much a straight shot east, with a sharp right turn south at Phoenix, and got off at Speedway, the main drag leading to the college. From the 10 Freeway to the school is maybe a mile, two at the most, and it’s a horrible street. The bungalows that line the road are run down, bars protect the windows and doors. Kevin and I exchanged worried glances. We weren’t sure this was such a good idea. But the school was lovely, and after Justin kicked us to the curb because he wanted to set up his room and get to know the school, we went to the place we had chosen to stay, a place north of the UofA and in the foothills, and as we drove the roughly 8 miles to reach the Westward Look, we gradually began to change our minds. The scenery got prettier, the hills beckoned, we explored, and by the time the next morning rolled around, we were in love.

The backyard of our Tucson property

Tucson is just 60 miles north of the border and has 520,116 people according to the most recent census report. The northern part of the city traces the line of the Catalina foothills, the southern nestles itself firmly into the Sonoran. It has no grass, save for the golf courses. All yards are populated with saguaro cactus, mesquite and organ pipes, another type of cactus. There is a dark skies ordinance that keeps the ground dark and the night sparkling with stars. And the people we have encountered are quite simply lovely, helpful, willing. Real.

While we’re not fans of the political climate of the state, we are huge fans of our adopted city, so much so that we bought several acres in the far northeast corner. Someday we’ll build a house and we’ll watch the sunrise in the east and see it set in the west. We’ll watch the twinkling lights of the city from afar. We’ll drink wine on our patio, under the cover of the stars, and we’ll fall in love again every night.

Arizona’s red is most often attributed to politics, especially lately. But on this Valentine’s day, I’m attributing it to love, to our love of our next adopted state and our Tucson.

Happy Birthday, Arizona. Happy Valentine’s Day, Tucson. We love you.

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