Look who's been painting

by Lorin Michel Wednesday, July 17, 2013 12:34 AM

Meet Dee Dee Murry, a realism artist who works in acrylics, painting primarily animals and wildlife. Horses, dogs, cats, birds. Hired often to paint portraits of beloved pets, she sits in a studio in the upstairs of her home, in front of an easel, working intently, painting every piece of fur, every nuance to an animals’ coloring.

Murry was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives and paints in Centralia, Washington. According to her website, she has achieved many regional and national awards for her art, including the Washington State Ducks Unlimited Artist of the Year, Best of Show at the Puyallup Art Show over 1,000 entries, 1st in the Artist's Magazine national competition over 1600 entries, the top 20 in the highly competitive Federal Duck Stamp competition, as well as many others. I came across her and her work just this morning when a friend of mine in Washington sent me several emails. This friend and her partner run a dog rescue group, and Murry’s story had been on the local news, causing an increase in donations to their cause.

Kevin and I and Roy and Bobbi do quite a bit of pro bono work for dog rescues. This particular group is run by friends of ours, Deb and Sandy. It’s called Purple Heart Rescue and they are tireless in their efforts to rescue, rehabilitate and rehome dogs that have been abused, neglected or abandoned. Murry is evidently a friend of theirs and she is lending her support for what they do via paintings. Hers? No. Her roommate’s, who is also a painter.

Meet Hallie. Where Murry is a realist, Hallie is more abstract impressionist. Where Murry pays exquisite attention to detail, Hallie is more free form. Where Murry is focused, Hallie paints for food. Where Murry has laser eyesight, Hallie is blind. Perhaps even more interestingly, where Murry is a woman, Hallie is a little girl, in the form of a long-haired dachshund who Murry rescued some eleven years ago.

These days Hallie paints downstairs. Murry puts a brush in a jar of paint, right at Hallie’s level. She makes sure there is a fresh canvas and a bag of nearby treats. Murry puts a red tam atop Hallie’s head, to ensure that she looks the part of the artist, positions her in front of the canvas and says these magical words: “Paint? Can you paint, Hallie?” Hallie picks up the paintbrush with her teeth and begins poking it at the empty canvas. Murry changes the colors, gives Hallie a treat or three and gives the command again. In a matter of minutes, after a dozen such paint-changes, there is a new painting.

According to Murry, Hallie paints faster depending on how good the treat is. Mostly she gets treats made of cauliflower and turkey. Her paintings evidently sell for more than Murry’s and last year, Hallie actually made more money.

The money Hallie makes is donated to Purple Heart Rescue. Last year, Hallie, herself a rescue, donated $15,000.

Hallie is blind because of sudden acquired retinal degeneration syndrome, a disease that causes sudden blindness in dogs. She is losing her hearing as well. And like a lot of elderly ladies, is starting to lose her hair – er, fur. And she’s short. What does she have going for her?

She sees the love of her dedicated roommate, who would do anything for her, and the gratitude of a rescue group, one like Hallie came from, that knows who’s been painting … for them.

Celebrating Dee Dee Murry, Hallie and Purple Heart Rescue today. They know the meaning of living it out loud. 

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live out loud

Back in the saddle again

by Lorin Michel Thursday, July 11, 2013 12:35 AM

Being gone from one’s life is strange. While away, you spend a good deal of the time wondering what’s happening at home. What’s happening with work. Is there anything weird with the weather. Is the house OK. When you live in California and you’re out of state, you worry about an earthquake happening while you’re gone. Or at least I do. When we went to visit Justin in May, I had Kevin ask our neighbor Dana to keep an eye on the house and in the event of an earthquake, to turn off the gas. The valve is on the side of the house. We were leaving on Friday morning. On Thursday morning, Dana knocked at the door, holding a wrench. For some reason he had it in his head that he was supposed to turn off the gas and that’s what he’d done. He and Kevin turned it back on and relit the pilot light on the hot water heater.

It’s even stranger to be gone from your life when most of your life, meaning the people you’re closest to, like a husband and a dog, are still back where you live. Such was the case with me last week. I traveled alone back to Pittsburgh and then onto Maryland to spend a too-short amount of time with my good friend Pam. I stood in the terminal on Wednesday early afternoon, waiting to board my Southwest flight east, with a stop and plane change in Denver, and I couldn’t help but think that I was already ready to go home. I missed my husband and my dog and I hadn’t even left yet. I missed my bed.

I am a home body. I prefer being home to being anywhere else, except maybe Maui. I’m comfortable here. I like my stuff. I like the security. I like my bed, as previously mentioned. I like that I have all of my clothing available to me whenever I want it rather than only what I happened to bring along. I love to cook, to lounge, to have access to my wine cellar. I like that my office is in my home. I like that my dog goes to work with me. I like – correction, love – being home.

When I’m away, I get away from everything I have to do and for a few days I can forget about all those things. But on my way back, I start to remember and then I start to panic just a little. There is always a growing to-do list and nothing has been crossed off in days. In Baltimore on Monday morning, I stood at the gate with my iPhone, making a list of what I needed to remember to do, work wise, once I got back to my office, just in case I hadn’t written things down elsewhere which is impossible since I have a running to-do list and my to-do list has addendums.

As soon as I got home on Monday, around noonish, I went to work. I was actually good for a couple of hours, and then I crashed. By Tuesday I was fairly back to my old self with my old hours. By today, I was back in the saddle again.

As many know, Back in the Saddle Again was the theme song of Hollywood singing cowboy Gene Autry who released it as a single way back in 1939. Back in the Saddle Again is about getting back on the horse after being thrown off, committing one’s self to a goal, refocusing to get there. Autry personified the idea of a straight arrow, a straight shooter, a hero who was honest, brave and true. I honestly don’t know if he ever fell off of his horse and had to get back on. I suspect his reference was more about getting back out on the range, where the deer and the antelope roam (and yes, I know that’s a whole other song), getting back to his roots. In some ways, the meanings are much the same. Getting back to what you know, recommitting yourself to what you want.

Today I was back in the saddle again, refocused on the tasks at hand, recommitted to what needed to be done, refocused on what my ultimate goals are. It felt good; it felt right. Maybe because I’m also back in my own bed and I always sleep so well in my own bed. Maybe it’s because I’m just back.

I think Gene Autry was really onto something.

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live out loud

The dance

by Lorin Michel Wednesday, June 12, 2013 12:36 AM

One of my favorite poets has always been William Carlos Williams. I was first introduced to him in college and I continue to read his “Selected Poems” on a regular basis. My copy is well-leafed, dog-eared, smudged. In this collection he has two poems entitled The Dance. It is the second one that is my favorite, the one that has been read and savored the most.

the mind dances with itself,
taking you by the hand
your lover follows
there are always two,

yourself and the other,
the point of your shoe setting the pace,
if you break away and run
the dance is over


…only the dance is sure!
make it your own
Who can tell
what is to come of it?

I love that it talks about romance, about dancing around one another, about everything else in life being unreliable, but for just a moment, there is the dance between two people. That dance doesn’t have to literal but rather figurative. The way two people think as one, move as one, become as one when solving a problem, when faced with improbable possibles; when deciding what to do with the rest of their lives.

The rest of our lives. While I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a happy dance of a poem, it is a real dance of life, and I appreciate it. In fact, I celebrate it. Because the ambiguity of life is the dance.

Another The Dance was sung by Garth Brooks in 1990. It was a song written by Tony Arata, and the biggest single on Brooks’ debut album. It is considered by many to be his signature song, and every time it comes on in our house, wherever Kevin is, he stops, comes into the living room and cranks the volume. He loves this song, about both the end of a relationship and the story of another dying because of what they believe in. He loves the melancholy of it. And the reality.

And now I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end, the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance
I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance

This song, and the Williams’ poem, are both about life, about all that we go through each and every day as we struggle to make a life, together and apart. Dance, then, is but a metaphor for the daily movements we engage in to not miss a moment of what it means to be alive.

The dance of life, the dance of love, the dance of possibility, the dance of inevitability, the dance of procrastination, the dance of food, of drink, of music. The dance of imagination, the dance of work, of art; the dance of children, the dance of marriage, of compromise, of opportunity. The dance of lions, the dance of swans, the dance of whales, of humans. The dance of good, of bad. The dance of death.

We all dance every day. We talk to people on the phone and we feign appropriate moods and indulge in boisterous laughter. We work, we play, we live and we die. In the beginning, the middle and finally the end, it is only the dance that matters. It is only how we live – how we dance – that means something.

dancing, dancing as may be credible.

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live out loud

Our continuing need for a blankie

by Lorin Michel Thursday, June 6, 2013 12:55 AM

The idea that children need a security blanket is something even those who don’t have children know. Parents usually call them blankies. It’s a bit like baby talk but it’s a name that has stuck.

When Justin was little he had something we called Pillow. It was a pale blue satin pillowcase with ruffles. Because it was satin it was even softer and silkier than the standard blanket. Pillow went everywhere with us. It was tucked into his backpack when he went to preschool. It moved from his bedroom to the living room and back again. It went in the car, on the airplane. If he didn’t have Pillow, he couldn’t sleep. I worried about when Pillow would wear out because occasionally the thing had to get washed and enough washings of an old satin pillowcase can cause it to shred.

As he got older, I convinced him that maybe we needed to upgrade Pillow, sort of like how we upgraded his JumpStart software each year to match his grade level in school. That made sense to him. We tried a number of different things and finally settled on a navy blue fleece blanket. I was pleased because I figured when he grew out of it for security purposes he could use it on his bed at night to keep warm. Pillow got washed one last time and another official blankie was introduced. He quickly outgrew it, as I suspected. It’s now Cooper’s.

I still have Pillow. Its remnants were carefully folded and put away for safe-keeping.

I’ve come to realize that kids aren’t the only ones who have blankies. Adults have them, too, though they’re almost never in the guise of blankets or pillowcases. More like security items we have to have in order to feel like we can function properly.

In the movie The Natural, Roy Hobbs needs to have his special wooden bat in order to work his magic. It’s always there for him, until one night when he hits a long ball that eventually tweaks foul. When he trots back to the plate to swing again, he stops dead. His beloved bat is in two pieces on the ground. For a moment there is sheer panic in his eyes.

I talked to Therapist Bobbi about this today. I wondered if she had anything that she needs to have with her when she works and if she feels as if she can’t function properly if that thing is missing. The answer was yes, a bottle of water. She has to have one always, even in therapy, or she’s missing something that allows her to do her job correctly.

She told me of a fellow therapist who sees clients while rolling a ball of silly putty in her hand. She doesn’t do anything with the silly putty. She doesn’t stretch it into obscenely long strings, or try to take copies of her notes by pasting a flattened putty onto the paper in front of her. She simply has this malleable item in her hands. It’s actually an interesting metaphor for therapy.

According to the website LiveScience, in an article published in 2010, a survey of 6,000 adults was conducted by the hotel chain Travelodge. It found that 39% admitted to still sleeping with stuffed animals. A study in the Journal of Judgment and Decision Making revealed that people who held a mug for at least 30 seconds before bidding on it in an auction offered an average of 83 cents more for it than people who held the mug for 10 seconds, which suggests that our tendency to love and need inanimate objects goes far beyond the soft and cuddly.

A professor of behavioral sciences at UCLA has done studies finding that people get more attached to a pen with a “nice, smooshy grip” than an identical, gripless pen.

Which is a nice segue into my own blankie, a blue mechanical pencil with a nice, smooshy grip. For some reason, I have become ridiculously attached to this pencil to the point where I can’t work without it. Yes, I work on a computer all day long and rarely actually use an old-fashioned writing utensil. But I need to have it lying on the desk in front of me as I type. I need to have it within reach should I need to scribble a note, or simply to think. It actually helps me work through problems, come up with ideas, etc.

This morning I took all of my stuff back up to my office (I bring it down at night to work). My computer, my invoicing ledger, several notes, my cell phone, coffee and my dog. I plugged in the computer and hit the power button. I opened my PC laptop and turned that on. I sipped my coffee. I absently petted Cooper’s head. When the computer was up, I opened all of my necessary programs, checked my email and prepared to work. I stopped dead. Where was my pencil? I ruffled through the thick piles of paper on my desk. I picked up notebooks; I checked my invoice ledger. It wasn’t there. I opened the drawer. No. I looked behind the PC. Huh uh. I turned to Cooper. Where’s my pencil? He simply stared at me.

I got up and went downstairs, into the kitchen, and there it was, tucked in the valley of an open book on the table. My beloved pencil with the smooshy grip and the almost finished eraser. I felt my heart beat slow; I relaxed. I picked it up, trudged back upstairs, laid it in front of my computer and proceeded to work all day long, picking it up between projects, twirling it in my fingers, writing notes in my notebooks and appointments in my calendar. Then I’d lay it back down and work some more. It’s my blankie. It makes me feel secure and confident when I work, and I’m OK with that.

Justin and I have even more in common than I thought, and it’s all blue. Definitely something to celebrate.

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live out loud


by Lorin Michel Sunday, June 2, 2013 12:26 AM

I sometimes forget the abundance with which I am surrounded. Over the past few days I have casually written about all of the fresh fruits and vegetables that we have been consuming. I’ve talked about how we’ve been preparing them in different ways, stir-frying, serving in salad, grilling, marinating, kabobing. We’ve been to the grocery store twice this week, on Monday and again yesterday, and both times were heavily weighted toward the left side of the store – the produce department – with a brief foray into the gourmet cheese section.

The produce department, even in the chain store that we usually frequent, a Safeway, is always stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables. We can find any number of lettuces, onions, mushrooms, squashes, peppers and more. The tables and bins are equally plentiful and always piled high with neatly arranged fruits. Some are there year round, like lemons and limes, and bananas. Others are more seasonal. Right now, for instance, there is a plethora of peaches, nectarines and plums as well as apples. The melons are all in season, too, so we can buy watermelon and cantaloupe with wild abandon. In the vegetable section, the white corn on the cob is particularly excellent right now. Sweet enough to not need butter.

The cheese section is dangerously and purposefully close to the bakery where they churn out fresh loaves of sourdough and French bread, ready to be served with some smoked gouda, cave-aged gruyere, brie, or whatever you fancy. We’ve been on a bit of a gruyere kick lately, so I always get that. We’ve also picked up some apple-smoked extra sharp cheddar, and some aged irish cheddar. The one extravagance we’ve allowed ourselves, food-wise, this week has been the addition of cheese. We can live without a lot of things but cheese isn’t one of them.

We also haven’t given up wine. After all, if one is having wine, having some cheese to go along is nice even if there is no bread or crackers.

My point is that our regular neighborhood grocery store is fairly overflowing with an abundance of fresh, healthy, wonderful food at a fairly affordable price. I’ve been particularly cognizant of this as we’ve shopped this week. We have been able to implement this new eating order of ours with relatively little hardship, other than missing things like pasta and potatoes. It has been easy to find what we want and even what we didn’t know we wanted; perhaps just what we decided to try.

California is a state with an abundance of riches, not the least of which are fresh fruits and vegetables year round. We have the ocean, the mountains and the desert, beautiful lakes and streams. Trees, more flowers than just about anywhere, citrus groves, strawberry fields, and wine-growing regions that produce some of the best wine in the world.

The country in general is abundant in terms of what we have and what we can offer. Yes, there are many who are not able to share in the abundance of which I write; there are those who simply do not want to share, and we as a society should and must do better. I believe we will. Someday. With all that we have, it is unconscionable that children go hungry, that people are homeless, that there are so many lost, neglected and abused humans and animals.

We have much to be thankful for. We have resources. We have technology. We have relative equality, as opposed to some places in the world. We have access. I’m not blind to the problems we face as a society; quite the opposite. But I do believe that despite all of the abundance we have in our lives, we spend way too much time being angry, confrontational, fighting instead of accepting.

I look at all of the fruits and vegetables and cheeses in our grocery store and I think we’re blessed. We live in abundance, we live with abundance, and we should embrace that and every once in a while be happier because of it. We should be more content. We should share. We should rejoice because of all that we have.

And I do. I know that my life is good, that I have family and friends who love me; a good job, an adorable dog. I have a husband whom I adore. I have a son who is passionate about what he wants to do, and is smart and funny. I have abundance.

It’s good. And tonight, in addition to our abundance of fruits and vegetables, we’re going to have salmon. Talk about living it out loud. 

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live out loud

I've been thinking about Cast Away

by Lorin Michel Saturday, June 1, 2013 1:30 AM

Chuck Noland is a systems analyst for Federal Express. He travels the world resolving any number of problems at shipping locations. Involved with a woman named Kelly, they’ve decided to finally get married but Chuck’s busy schedule keeps them from tying the knot. During a Christmas celebration, as they’re trying to coordinate their schedules, Chuck gets paged and needs to leave to resolve a problem with Malaysia. Kelly drives him to the airport, he kisses her goodbye, and he boards a FedEx flight. The plane gets caught in a violent storm and it crashes into the ocean. Chuck escapes, clinging to a life raft that eventually washes up onto an island. A deserted island.

For the next four years, he learns to fend for himself. How to make a fire from nothing but wood he can scavenge; how to fashion a spear that he can use to catch fish and crab. He learns how to open a coconut in order to get the milk out, and how to use the shells as canteens, catching rain water with leaves. He keeps a pocket watch, something that Kelly had given him for Christmas with her picture inside and he stares at it even though the watch no longer keeps time. Eventually he figures out how to escape the island, is rescued and has to try to assimilate back into life.

This is the essential plot for Cast Away, the 2000 film starring Tom Hanks. Kevin and I saw it when it first came out, and were very affected by it. It made us think about what it might be like.

Everyone always talks about what books they’d take to a desert island, what music they couldn’t live without. It’s a parlor game, something to amuse a group of people with, and I’ve played it myself a number of times. I think I may have written about it here a time or two. My desert island songs would be Rod Stewart’s Maggie May, Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, Don McLean’s American Pie, just about anybody’s version of Fly Me to the Moon.  For books, I’d take The Poisonwood Bible, The Road, anything by Alice Hoffman, The Prince of Tides, the long version of The Stand, The Witching Hour, Great Expectations.

But what would I want to eat if I was on a desert island? I’d need a never-ending supply of pasta instead of coconuts, and potatoes. I’d need extra sharp cheddar cheese and lots of Roma tomatoes. I’d need red wine, and I’d find a way to keep it cool since the heat from the island could ruin it.

This week we’ve been eating lots of fruits and vegetables, and for some reason, I’ve been thinking about the movie Cast Away. As I’ve been preparing various things to eat, and wishing I could have a big plate of spaghetti and meatballs or penne with pesto, I’ve been seeing Tom Hanks standing on a rock with four years of hair growth on his head and on his face and a spear in his hand as he prepares to fish. Because all he has is the fish he can catch, the coconuts that fall from the trees. It’s very primal. As I’ve complained about my fruits and vegetables, I’ve also wondered how long it would take me to get used to eating just a few things for a very long time. I wonder how I would survive on a desert island and I’ve realized that it has nothing to do with music or books, but everything to do with eating naturally.

Tonight we’re making an Eggs Benedict salad. Poached eggs on a bed of mixed greens that have been tossed with mushrooms, tomatoes, onions and balsamic vinaigrette; topped with a gentle stream of hollandaise sauce. For dessert we’re slicing fresh pineapple and grilling it, with a rum glaze. Neither is particularly lo-cal, but it’s Friday and we’re cheating a bit.

Chuck Noland didn’t have an egg poacher or hollandaise sauce or wine or rum. All he had was time. Time to think, time to experiment, time to come up with new ways to cook what he had. I wonder what I would do in his situation. I wonder how I would do without a kitchen of spices, a refrigerator of cheese, a wine cellar; without music and books. I wonder if food would simply become something needed for survival instead of something I enjoy creating. I wonder if that survival instinct would top any boredom that would creep in after a week or two. I assume it would. The instinct to stay alive tops the need for hollandaise sauce.

These are the things that have been rattling around in my head this week as I contemplated my life on a desert island where my choices for food would be very limited. I think it’s time to celebrate the fact that I’m not on an island. This time we’re spending eating fruits and vegetables is something to enjoy because it has been in our power to choose every meal, to go to the grocery store and get fresh produce. I don’t have to stand on a rock with a spear, and with hair that hasn’t been cut or colored in four years.


Now that’s something to think about.   

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live out loud | The cooking of joy

In which I try to find something positive to say about all of the noisy landscaping equipment used by all of the various landscapers on all of the tiny yards in our neighborhood

by Lorin Michel Wednesday, May 22, 2013 12:21 AM

I think it’s a uniquely California thing. Those of us lucky enough to live in a single family home live in one that is between 1500 and 2200 square feet, on average, on a postage stamp of dirt. The houses are squishily close together. Kevin often jokes that when the neighbor sneezes, he can reach out the window to hand him a tissue. The little stamp of dirt is divided into a front yard, the corner of the stamp, and the back yard, a slightly bigger piece of the stamp. Sometimes there is a bit of yard on one side, not usually on both sides. In track housing, one side of the house is usually concrete for storage of trash barrels and other stuff.

The yards need to be tended because many of the tracts of homes, ubiquitous dwellings all with red tile roofs jammed together in an impossibly small area, have a little something called CC&Rs, or covenants, conditions and restrictions. Most of them will tell the home-dweller what they can and can’t do, and that they have to keep their lawns, at least the front lawns, well taken care of and manicured. For this privilege, many get to pay a monthly fee (we don’t here).

We also get to hire gardeners because dog-forbid we cut our own grass. California is a gardener-rich environment. Drive through any neighborhood between the hours of 7 am and 6 pm, Monday thru Saturday, and you’ll hear the grind and growl and whine and snarl of lawn mowers, weed whackers and leaf blowers. Our own gardeners for our little postage stamp of a yard come on Tuesday afternoon, usually around 3 or 3:30. They pull up in their non-descript and unmarked white van without windows but chock full of gardening stuff. Tools and machines and buckets and barrels. Three guys de-van, all in long sleeves regardless of the temperature, all with big, dirty white canvas hats that provide a little shade to the backs of their necks and keep their faces shielded from the sun. Very dark sunglasses are always perched on their noses. They smile, say hello, and show off very white teeth. Then they fire up their equipment and make my teeth hurt.

On Saturday morning, the people behind us, and I mean reach-over-the-wall-and-touch-something behind us, have their lawn done at around 7:30 am. It’s a little rude especially since our bedroom is in the back of the house so we’re in prime hearing location for the growl and whine of the lawnmower. I hear the truck pull up. Lug to a stop. The doors open. The hatch of the truck creaks. A piece of wood is pulled out, scraping across the metal. A lawnmower wheels down, clunks onto the asphalt. The cord rips from the engine. The engine sputters, cries, and then starts to clamber. As it is pushed through the yard, it spins as the grass is munched. The weed whacker whirs and slices; the leaf blower blows everything into a nice, neat pile so that it can be scooped up with a mostly quiet rake that simply scrapes across the ground.

The whole process takes 10 minutes. It takes 10 minutes at our house, and the house next door. It takes 10 minutes everywhere, unless there’s a bigger yard but people who have a bigger yard, like my old bosses who have 30 acres, also have people that live on the property with the sole purpose of caring for the grounds.

I listen to this equipment daily. I can stand just about everything but the leaf blowers. They make my head ache. But I understand why all of this exists and if I have to find something positive to say because I said I would and because this is a positive blog, then it’s this: the grass always looks good and smells good and grows greener because of the noise of the mower, the screech of the whacker and the deafening wind of the blower.

These guys are doing the work that most people don’t want to do, and they do it with a friendly attitude. I like that. I appreciate that.

Still, I celebrate desert landscaping and can’t wait to someday have it, because there will be no need for power mowers or blowers ever again. That may be the greatest reason of all to celebrate.

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live out loud

Sol searching

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, May 14, 2013 1:08 AM

With the passing of winter comes summer. In some parts of the country, and the world, there is a lovely breeze of a season known as spring. Not here. Here, in the golden state, we go straight from chilly nights and frosted mornings to heated days. Yesterday and today both topped out at 102º in Oak Park.

We like the heat. I’ve said before that I believe I was born to live in the Southwest. The climate suits me. There is no snow to speak of, unless one travels to the mountains to ski. And that is where snow should be. Not clogging the roads that lead to the mall or to work. It should only bury the areas where one can slap a board or boards to one’s feet and shoosh down a hill.

I like the dry heat of an environment where the daytime temperatures can climb to over 100 but the nights cool down to the low to mid 60s. Yes, it’s hot. The house gets oppressive and we’re not big on air conditioning (I suspect that will change if and when we move to Tucson) but once it cools and the air starts to flow through the open windows, it becomes comfortable. At night, we still usually need a blanket on the bed when we sleep.

The sun and I have a long history together. I grew up when there wasn’t so much sunscreen as there was suntan lotion and oil. Most of it smelled like coconut and salt water. If we were going to the beach, we slathered on the oil. If we were laying out by a pool, we used lotion because oil left a film on the water. If we didn’t have Coppertone, we used baby oil. It was all about the tan.

It’s no wonder that I have had skin issues with bad moles and a non-staged melanoma. The dermatologist and I are good friends.

I don’t “lay out” any more. I simply don’t have the time, nor the desire to waste precious time doing nothing but burning my skin. But I still love the sun, that low-mass star that sits on the outer edge of the Milky Way, some 93 million miles from California, and consisting of mostly hydrogen (74%). The rest is helium (25%) so that it floats, and 1% of something else undefined. It’s 4.5 billion years old, and still looks fairly good for its age. It rotates completely once every 26 days, which evidently is one reason it is considered a fairly mediocre star. I’m not sure why since it completely supports life on this planet; without it, none of us would exist. Neither would the plants, the other animals or even the life in the oceans. At this point in its life, the sun has another 5 billion years in its own lifecycle before it starts to substantially change. I think it’s safe to say I won’t be around to see it.

At the rate we’re going, the human race won’t be around to see it either.

Perhaps then it’s time to do a little sol searching, to find what it is that is most important to us, to discover the lives we’re meant to lead. To change when we need to change; to think differently. To embrace the sun; to live, truly, soundly, roundly; out loud. Our lives may be predestined by fate, or they may be changeable. I believe both, just as I believe in helping keep the planet cool when and where it’s supposed to be cool, and warm and tropical when and where it’s supposed to be such; and blistering hot under the dusty desert sky of the Southwest.

I’m not searching for the sun today; nor will I for several months. I search instead for the clouds that offer a brief respite. I search for the shade on a hot summer day; for the breeze to cool the air. I know where the sun resides and I am happy to see it every day. It fills my soul with its sol, and even though the heat has been blistering these last two days, I celebrate it. I love it.

Because I love the desert Southwest. I was born to live here.

Of shower caps, instant coffee and bottled water

by Lorin Michel Monday, May 6, 2013 11:43 PM

In our room at the Chautauqua Suites in Mayville, there were the usual amenities in the bathroom including a small green tea shampoo and accompanying conditioner. Both sat in a basket of wash clothes on the vanity sink, under the hairdryer. Inside the basket there were also several items in sealed plastic bags. When I travel I usually bring everything I need and if I’ve forgotten something else, it usually isn’t in the amenities. But I always look to see what they’re supplying, if for no other reason than I’m curious. Inside one of the bags was a disposable shower cap. I smiled.

I smiled because it made me think of my Aunt Beryl. I remember her wearing a shower cap when I was young. It wasn’t disposable and flimsy like the one at the Suites, but rather a slightly heavier fabric with a sturdy elastic band that allowed no errant hairs to escape when she was in the shower. Important because, like so many of her generation, Aunt Beryl didn’t wash her hair every day.

She was born in 1919, in a very small town near McKeesport, Pennsylvania called Port Vue. There she lived with her mother and father, at least for a while, along with a sister and two brothers. One brother died as a baby, leaving just Beryl, Eleanor and Jack. Jack would eventually be my mother’s father. They didn’t have a lot of money. In fact, their mother worked as a housemaid for a wealthy family nearby, cooking, cleaning and even taking care of their children. In those days, the days before the great depression, before the industrial revolution had truly begun to rage, there were great class distinctions. The wealthy were incredibly so. And then there was everyone else. Much like today’s society.

My mom, Iris (Aunt Beryl's daughter) and Aunt Beryl

Families in the early part of the 20th century didn’t have nearly the luxuries that we have now. Many still didn’t have indoor plumbing, including my Aunt Beryl’s family, at least while the kids were all relatively young. Eventually they moved, and water did run through steel pipes, gushing along when called. But it was something new, and they had learned how to do things a certain way prior to this modern convenience called a bath room. That included bathing only once a week, at which time the hair would also be washed. During the week, a sponge bath sufficed, and hair got oily.

As she got older, and she and Eleanor married and bought a house that they all shared, with one floor for Beryl and her husband and the second floor for Eleanor and hers, the routine varied slightly. They now had their own bathrooms, with tubs and showers. But old habits die hard. So while she bathed more often, rather than using a wash cloth and a wash bowl, the hair ritual remained largely the same. So she wore a shower cap.

To this day she is shocked that people even in my mother’s generation wash their hair daily. She’s nearly appalled at such a waste. When I told her that I do the same, she was amazed. I found – find – her incredulousness charming.

Last night, after our visit with Aunt Beryl in the nursing home in Pittsburgh, and the long drive back to Chautauqua, I didn’t have time to take another shower before going out to dinner so I donned the shower cap in order to wash my face without getting my hair wet. I thought of Aunt Beryl then, as I have so often in the last 24 hours.

Yesterday was the last time I’ll see her; probably the last time I’ll ever talk to her, and if I am lucky enough to talk to her again, it won’t be for the marathon calls we used to have when she would tell of her travels to Pasadena by train in the 1940s, about the camp she and her husband had, the trips around the world she took once retired. We won’t be discussing old movies or Clark Gable, or spend 40 minutes on the fact that Wynonna Ryder and Ashley Judd are not related but that Ashley Judd is related to Wynonna.

Me, Khris and Aunt Beryl

In her now quiet kitchen, there are jars of instant coffee. None of that brewed stuff for her. Just put a kettle on the stove, dear, and boil some water. Tastes just as good.

My mother talks of going to visit her Aunt Beryl, one of the women who helped raise her after her father was killed in World War II. She talks of the shower that now runs at a trickle through long rusted steel pipes, of hardly being able to get her hair wet to wash it when she wants to. She speaks of bringing bottles of water to drink for much the same reason: rusted pipes do not make for crisp, clear, cool water.

My mother will miss that trickle of water and remember it fondly, just as I remember the shower cap. And who knows, maybe it was those pipes, those long rusted, somewhat corroded pipes that have pumping water through the house on Arlington in McKeesport for some seven decades, along with her instant coffee and her refusal to wash her hair every day that kept her healthy for her 93 plus years. It’s something to consider, to celebrate, along with the woman who has lived her life out loud for nearly 94 years. 

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live out loud | relative celebrations

Beautiful abandon

by Lorin Michel Thursday, May 2, 2013 12:39 AM

Imagine driving through a desolate area and coming upon a house. The grass has long turned to weeds that have browned and died. Still tall, they seem a camouflage jungle, pale and unintimidating, barely concealing the house that is closed up. The windows have the haze and cast of glass that hasn’t been cleaned in perhaps decades. The door is weather-worn, though still closed. Shutters hang even though they’re still attached. It’s obvious that no one lives here and hasn’t for some time.

Now imagine parking your car, opening the door, getting out and standing in front of such a structure. Eerie in its beauty, haunting in its ghost-like state. You walk up to the front door, turn the knob and find that it opens. You step inside to discover that the house is indeed abandoned, probably several decades ago, and that it is pristine. It’s as if the inhabitants simply evaporated one day, mid-life. You move easily and yet uncomfortably from room to room finding it strangely in-tact, from the shoes at the foot of the still-made bed to the books stacked near the radio. You’re sure that if there was still electricity you could turn on the radio and perhaps hear an address from Roosevelt, or maybe Fibber McGee and Molly. Or a broadcast from a far off land, spoken in another language.

What would you do in such a place? If you’re Dutch photographer Niki Feijen you grab your digital camera and start taking pictures. A photographer who specializes in something called urban exploration, he is drawn to places like closed-off tunnels, boarded-up churches and ghost towns. He recently found an abandoned farmhouse and of course, promptly went inside. Brave lad, he. The only downside, according to him is that there were “about 60,000 dead flies and an incredible foul smell coming from the two freezers downstairs.”

I have a fascination with things that have been abandoned. I always want to know why. I find myself drawn to these stories that have no beginning and no end, simply a middle. I’ve read novels, usually apocalyptic, where survivors wander the landscape in search of home. When I read Stephen King’s The Stand, first in high school and then several times since, I was intrigued by the idea that some sort of virus could wipe out most of the world’s population and that those who were not affected walked through the country, finding homes where there were no longer people, staying for an hour, a day, a week, a month. It was like finding themselves in the middle of someone else’s story.

When I first read, then watched The Road several years ago, it was much the same. An unnamed catastrophe made the world nearly uninhabitable. The man and the boy trudged through a desolate country, finding what they could. They came upon countless houses, the occupants long since dead, the buildings standing stark against a white and burning sky. The two found a hidden bomb shelter stocked with food where they slept at night. During the day, they took a bath in the house, using soap and shampoo from other people. They lived the lives of others, the lives of once upon a time.

I read somewhere once that writer’s have a fascination with the end of the world, with what happens and how those left behind survive. Perhaps it’s because it’s the ultimate story, one where the imagination can go anywhere it wants, creating worlds that it wants because they don’t actually exist.

Except that, evidently, they do.

Celebrating the abandoned beauty and the other worlds as captured by photographers like Niki Feijen, urban explorers and story finders.

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live out loud

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