Things that go grrrrrrr in the night

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, February 5, 2013 8:46 PM

I have always been a bit of a night owl. I can’t stay up as late as I used to for a number of reasons, mostly due to the fact that by 11 or 11:30 I’m pretty tired. I start my days early and no matter how much a person loves the night, that person needs to go to bed in order to recharge her batteries. When I was in college, it was much easier to be up until all hours of the night, especially since I worked in a restaurant. Restaurant people never go to bed until the sun is coming up. I made sure to never schedule early morning classes because of it.

Maybe it’s because I’m a writer but there’s something about the night that is both comforting and mysterious. It obscures so much of what is normally visible during daylight hours and it offers the chance to imagine, to live and breathe during a time of reflection and great quiet.

But last night, the great quiet was interrupted by something going grrrrrr or scrape or drag. It was around 3 am, which seems to be when most things happen to awaken me when I’m supposed to be sleeping. Often times, it’s biological. Sometimes, it’s neurological, and occasionally it’s visceral. Sometimes these things happen, where I think I’ve heard something and I come to realize that it’s just me, in my brain, perhaps a dream. But last night, it wasn’t just me. Cooper heard it, too. From his kennel in the corner of the room, he began to elicit a low barklll, which is what I call a bark followed by a short guttural growl followed by another bark. It was the kind of bark he uses when he’s not sure if he needs to be concerned. The concerned bark is ferocious and loud.

Once again, as always, I sat up in bed, listening. I was sure that I’d heard something, I just couldn’t figure out what it was. Maybe something I have propped up against a wall slid down and the noise came from it sliding across the floor or down the wall. But I couldn’t figure out what I had propped that was heavy enough to growl. I did give Kevin an engraved wine barrel head that is against the wall in the dining room, but it just didn’t seem right.

Maybe the 1948 bicycle we have secured on the bridge above the entrance way somehow started to break free and drag. But I quickly dismissed that, too, since when Kevin hooked that very heavy steel to the wall, it was into a wall stud. There’s simply no way it could be on the move.

It could have been a tile, sliding down the other tiles on the roof I supposed but that would have to be discovered in the morning.

“What are you doing?” Kevin whispered.

“I heard something that sounded like a growl.”

“It was probably Cooper.”

“It wasn’t Cooper.” But he was already asleep, his breathing easy and steady, also not concerned.

And then my imagination started working as it so often does in the middle of the night when I’m wrapped up in darkness with only occasional sounds to distract me. I had heard a growl, I was sure of it. But what was it?

Suddenly, my mind saw a cat. No! A mountain lion. Somehow one had gotten into the house and was stalking through the hall, low and menacing. No. That’s ridiculous. First, we don’t really have mountain lions and even the rare one couldn’t get into the house. It’s way too suburban, too civilized. Couldn’t happen.


Once we move to Tucson, that will change. We’ll be in the middle of nowhere. Our four acres are on the edge of town. The hills to the east are dense with cactus and trees and rocks. Our property is much the same. We already know we have deer. When we’ve been out there at night, we hear other noises crunching around above us; we’ve heard the call of something. We’ve heard growls.

When we’re finally in our house, we’ll be all alone. If a creature gets in to our home, and growls on its way to finding us, we’ll be ALL ALONE. In the middle of NOWHERE. It could happen. It could. I can see it, or rather hear it. OMG. IT’s coming.

Cooper gave a final ruff and a heavy sigh and settled back into his kennel to go back to sleep. Whatever he heard, he decided it wasn’t worth risking his life to investigate. Soon he was snoring, along with Kevin. The danger had evidently been averted. It was time for me to turn off my imagination and settle back down to sleep.

I snuggled under the covers, found the perfect spot and allowed sleep to wash over me.

GRRRRRLLLLLLL! Wide awake and awaiting the lion.

Sometimes having an imagination is nothing to celebrate. Especially when it’s living out loud at 3 am. 

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live out loud

A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!

by Lorin Michel Monday, February 4, 2013 10:11 PM

Today comes the news that the remains of the controversial Medieval king, Richard III, found in September of 2012 under a parking lot in Leicester, England, have been officially identified. I admit to being fascinated by the middle ages, mainly for their exquisite brutality. I am amazed that humans could be so barbaric. I know I shouldn’t be; humans are still being barbaric all over the world. But there was something intriguingly vulgar about the barbarism of that particular time in history.

Richard III was king for just two years, between 1483 and 1485. He began his reign by essentially stealing the crown from 12-year old Edward, the son of King Edward IV who was Richard’s brother. He is thought to have killed the young boy as well as the boy’s brother, Richard. Others have speculated that when the boys’ mother, Elizabeth Woodville, was declared to actually not have been married to Edward IV, the coronation of Edward V would have been invalid, making Richard the legitimate heir to the throne.

The king was killed on the battlefield, during the Battle of Bosworth Field, and treated quite badly in death, according to legend and as evidenced by the remains. He was also portrayed as a tyrant in the play Richard III by William Shakespeare where he was purported to exclaim that he could and would give his kingdom away if he could just get a horse to take him away from the battlefield.

The exact line was: “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” from Act 5, Scene 4. It occurred during the final battle. Richard III’s horse, Surrey, had been killed and he was unable to flee to gather more troops. The Earl of Richmond, who would then become king, Henry VII, was the man who killed him. In Richard’s mind, he would die and his kingdom would go to the enemy, the conqueror, because of his horse. There was something a bit gallant in that and perhaps a bit pathetic as well.

I’m a huge fan of Shakespeare and also a fan of huge horses, as in Clydesdales. Each year I wait for the holiday commercial featuring the famous horses with the long silky fur flowing over each hoof, prancing through a snow covered landscape, or a Currier & Ives painting, pulling a big Budweiser sleigh. There are no words, only the lovely jingle of bells, and a melodic chorus of humming voices. The words on screen wish us Happy Holidays.

The Clydesdales, so named because of where they’re from – Clydesdale, Scotland – are big horses, standing well over 6 feet tall and weighing over 2000 pounds. They were originally used for agriculture and for hauling coal in what is now called Lanarkshire. They’re still used for logging, though they’re also shown and ridden in shows. Budweiser first used Clydesdales during prohibition. They introduced them to the public in April of 1933 to celebrate the repeal of prohibition. The horses, pulling a red, white and gold beer wagon, carried the first case of post-prohibition beer from the famous St. Louis brewery. They were so well received that August Anheuser Busch, CEO and son of the company founder, had the horses sent by train to New York where the horses picked up two cases of Budweiser beer and delivered them to Al Smith, the former New York governor and one of the most influential voices in the repeal. The Clydesdales then traveled through New England and the mid-Atlantic states, even delivering a case of beer to President Roosevelt at the White House.

The ancestors of those horses still live in St. Louis and are boarded in the same brick and stained glass stable built in 1885.

I watched the second half of the Super Bowl yesterday and was treated to one of my favorite sites: a Budweiser Clydesdale commercial. I don’t like the beer – never have – but the horses draw me in every time. I sit transfixed, as if I’ve never seen them before. Their beauty and elegance moves me. All horses have this affect on me. We often ride through an area just west of here called Hidden Valley, where the parcels of property are upwards of 25 acres each. Most of these properties have horses; one ranch has had Clydedales in the past. I always want to stop and just watch them. I could do it for hours.

Instead, I watch them on television. For one minute and thirteen seconds yesterday I stopped and watched. The spot was called Brotherhood, and in it we see a man with a newborn colt, a Clydesdale just seven days old. The man raises the horse, trains it and then sends it off to fulfill its destiny. As the big red Budweiser truck drives away, the man watches wistfully, holding the bridle the horse used to wear. Three years later, he sees that the Clydesdales will be in Chicago and he travels to see them. The colt he raised is now at the head of the team, and turns his head, as if he recognizes the man as the man walks away. Sadly happy, the man gets in his car to drive away but then sees an incredible sight: the horse, his horse, galloping down the streets of Chicago toward him. They meet in the middle of the street. I was in tears.

It’s totally implausible, even bordering on ridiculous, but it is highly effective. Watching it yesterday and remembering it today, I could understand why a man in the 15th century, a king even, would call out for his horse, would need a horse in order to save his own destiny. The horse becomes king.

The power and wonder and joy and strength of these creatures is nearly mythical. It makes me want to harness those same feelings. Perhaps then I can achieve my own destiny. For that, I might also be willing to forsake my kingdom. For that, I would definitely celebrate.

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live out loud

Mistaken for what? Observations from outside

by Lorin Michel Saturday, February 2, 2013 10:17 PM

Guest post by Squire Squirrel

The Squire here. I understand from Hey Lorin that everyone, including her, was starting to get worried about me. I have been laying a little low and here’s why: at this time of year, I always get mistaken for something called a groundhog. Now I know that he’s a dude who generally lives underground and just comes out every once in a while but really – he can’t possibly look a thing like me.

Still, I know that groundhogs get grabbed up and put up on a stage and then they have to parade around and wait for the sun to come up and see if they see their shadow. Something about a shadow meaning that there’s going to still be lots more winter and no shadow meaning the spring is coming early. I don’t know how it could come early since according to my calendar, it comes the same date as it does every year, shadow or not. But whatever.

Me, a little heavier than usual

The most famous groundhog doesn’t even live around here. He has a first name I can’t even pronounce like Hunkytony and then his last name is Phil. I think that’s kind of a weird last name but maybe his parents thought it would make him memorable or something. I guess he is pretty smart because according to everything I read, these German people from some place called Yourup but who lived in Pennsylvania believed that when this Phil guy came out of his hole on February 2 – that’s today – and the sun came out and cast a shadow that he’d go right back underground for another six weeks. At least that’s what Hey Lorin was saying today. But I don’t think that makes any sense. I mean, if he’s so smart, why’s he coming out of his hole anyway, especially when it’s cold and especially when there are all kinds of people around to grab at him and take his picture. Plus, why does seeing a shadow make you smart? I see shadows all the time. I’m pretty smart but it’s just a shadow. It’s not like it’s rocket squience or something.

When Hey Lorin saw me today, she was so relieved. She asked where I’d been and I said I was keeping a low profile because of the groundhog thing. Then I asked her what is a groundhog anyway. She told me that groundhogs are also called woodchucks and whistle-pigs, and they’re actually related to me cause they’re also ground squirrels called marmots. They live in a hole, like Hunkytony and they can weigh as much as 30 pounds. That’s like me times at least 10. Now I know I’ve put on a little weight this winter but I’m not that big. Still, I decided to ask Hey Lorin since she hadn’t seen me in a while.

“Hey Lorin,” I asked as I crammed an acorn in my cheek. “Do you think I look fat?”

She looked up at me and smiled. I noticed she didn’t answer me right away and I was starting to get worried that maybe I was fat.

Finally: “I think your fur is just thick for the winter,” she said.

Ha. That’s exactly what Mrs. Squirrel said. Girls are all alike I guess.  I decided not to point out that the Red Furred one also looked like his fur has gotten a little thick lately.

So maybe I need to lose a little bit of weight. I mean, Hunkytony Phil didn’t see his shadow so spring is coming and that means something called bathing suit season is coming next. I don’t know what bathing suit season is and I don’t think I want to. But since it was cloudy today and I didn’t see my shadow either, no matter how hard I looked, I guess I better get ready.

At least now nobody will think I’m a groundhog, though they may think I’m a whistle-pig, if Hey Lorin is right. I hope they don’t think I’m that but just in case, maybe I should start eating more berries.

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live out loud

Writer as bully

by Lorin Michel Friday, February 1, 2013 10:09 PM

When I was little, I was going to be a famous actor. After that I was going to be a rock star. Both of these fancies had passed by the time I was 12 or 13. Yes, I was in several drama productions during high school and it was fun; and sure, I continued to lip sync into a hairbrush in my room, but I knew neither of those would become an actual profession. I didn’t have the talent, nor the desire to be the center of attention, always on stage. I wasn’t designed for it. What I came to know I was designed for was something behind the scenes, something that involved words. It’s something I actually knew as a little girl.

From the time was I was seven or eight, I was writing stories. With a small pocket notebook crammed into the back of my wrangler jeans, and the nub of a pencil slid down next to it, I would find the tallest tree I could, climb as high as I dared, position myself on a branch and write stories of intrigue and mystery. The heroine’s name was always Julie, for the heroine on TV’s The Mod Squad. I thought she was hopelessly glamorous and cool. I thought the stories they did were exciting. At seven, I didn’t yet know or appreciate good acting in equally good stories. In my tree I would write and write and write until it was time to climb down and go inside for dinner.

As a teen, I graduated to writing horror and ghost stories. There’s something about ghosts and death and vampires and monsters that intrigues all teenagers, then as now. I seemed to always get an A on those tales and won several awards. Then I went to college, enrolled in their art program. I didn’t know what I was going to do with such a degree. I also enrolled in English classes. Before long I realized that I wasn’t a very good artist and didn’t even like it that much. I wasn’t visually creative. I threw myself into writing instead, graduating with a degree in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing. I didn’t know what I was going to with that either, but at least I was happy.

I have always been driven to write. Whenever I have tried to veer away from that path, it has not fulfilled me. I have returned time and again to story telling, in one form or another. It’s not always a literal story though sometimes it is. Often times it’s story telling in the form of a company story. I do many of those and enjoy every one because each involves creation, the suspension of disbelief; it involves words and the art of stringing them together to form sentences, paragraphs, pages.

It’s a passion, a sickness, a need; an addiction. A day does not go by that I don’t write something, even if it’s just for this blog. Every day I am driven to the written word. I no longer sit in a tree. Instead, I sit in my loft. But there is something inside me that makes it impossible for me not to write.

I often wonder if I’m any good; if I’m really just lucky. I’m sure that I’m nothing more than a hack. Someone able to put sentences together nicely but without style; sentences that are fine but don’t sing. I question constantly whether this addiction is good for me. But like any drug, I must do it daily and have no desire to stop.

Several days ago, a book was released called “Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Writers on How and Why They do.” It’s edited by Meredith Maran. Inside, writers like Susan Orlean, Rick Moody, Jane Smiley, Walter Mosley, and Armistead Maupin among others, discuss the craft of writing and of being a writer. It’s a fascinating look into the sickness that is writing.

In it Water for Elephants author Sara Gruen writes that: “The only thing that makes me crazier than writing is not writing.” Memoirist Mary Karr says: “I write to dream; to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead. I have a kind of primitive need to leave a mark on the world. Also, I have a need for money.” I can relate.

Joan Didion who is sometimes one of my favorite writers because of her brutal honesty wrote this in her 1976 essay Why I Write: “In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives with ellipses and evasions – with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating – but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”

It’s an interesting observation and I think a correct one. When I read I am looking to be convinced, to be transported, to be illuminated. As such I suppose I am being bullied a bit by a particular writer’s point of view. And as a writer, I equally suppose that I am bullying others to see things my way, to remember instances from their past because I suggest that they do. Does that really make me a bully? I don’t know.

James Frey, the acclaimed then humiliated writer of the false memoir A million little pieces admits: “I’m really not qualified to do anything else.” I suppose there are worse things to do than bully with the written word. Would that all schoolyard bullies could write to entice someone to see their point, rather than intimidate with fists and worse.

That would be a story to tell. Those would be words to celebrate

The one where we have to find a can

by Lorin Michel Saturday, January 26, 2013 10:25 PM

For Christmas last year, which was only a month ago, my husband gave me a pizzelle iron. I’ve written before of my love for the Italian waffle cookies, a love that started when I was a kid. I’m sure my grandmother made them, though I don’t remember her sitting in front of the stove. I do have fond memories of my mother doing just that, with her hand-held iron that made one pizzelle at a time. It would take her hours but it was worth it, at least for those of us not doing the ironing.

Flash forward some 40 years and there, under the tree, was a Cuisinart pizzelle iron. It’s electric, so right away I knew it would be easier than what my mother used. It also cooks two at once, which I figured would cut down on the time needed to bake. I hadn’t used it yet; hadn’t even taken it out of the box, at least not until this morning.

I’ve been planning to try my pizzelle skills for weeks now. I had looked at the recipe that came in the box. Pretty straight forward. I made sure we had all of the ingredients. Even bought unsalted butter about three weeks ago. But each weekend would come and go and no pizzelles would be made. I don’t know what was holding me back except that I had visions of pizzelle-making taking all day long. See above comment about my mother.

Today, we took Cooper for a nice long walk and then settled into the kitchen for some coffee. I fed his dogness while Kevin poured some java and sat down at the table to peruse the paper. Suddenly I had a thought. I believe it went something like this: Hmmmm. I don’t want to read the paper because I’m tired of the news. Hey! Maybe I’ll finally make pizzelles!

“I think I’m going to make pizzelles,” I said out loud. Kevin nodded and proceeded to read me an article about LA mayor Villaraigosa and his plan to make bicycle lanes more prevalent and more safe.

I pulled the box out of the pantry, took out the iron, and the recipe. Full disclosure: I was supposed to ask my mother for her recipe but I kept forgetting. I figured they must be similar. I read it a couple of times and started getting out everything I was going to need. Eggs, butter, flour, baking powder, sugar, pure Anise; bowls; measuring cups and spoons; the electric mixer. For someone who doesn’t bake, I’m always kind of amazed that I have all of the accoutrements, like an electric mixer. I have no idea where it came from.

A very short time later, I had batter. I plugged in the iron and waited for it to heat up. And then, I had my first two cookies. I couldn’t believe how quickly they cooked, or how quickly I went through the entire bowl of batter. I started at 11:20 and was completely finished and cleaned up by noon. Not at all what I remember from when I was young.

So there I was, standing in the kitchen, staring at my two nice neat stacks of near perfect pizzelles, and I hear my mother’s voice: “You can’t store pizzelles in Tupperware or any kind of plastic including plastic bags because they get soft. And pizzelles should never ever be soft. They should be crisp. They should snap.”

Me: “Well, what do I put them in?”

Mom’s voice: “You need a coffee can.”

Me: “But I don’t buy coffee in a can. I buy it in bags and we grind our own.”

Mom’s voice: “Well, you must have some sort of popcorn tin around, from a Christmas gift.”

Me: “We do, but I keep the dog’s food in it.”

Mom’s voice, now exasperated at having this imaginary conversation: “How about a tin that other cookies came in?”

I turned to Kevin, who was happily munching on his fifth cookie: “Do we have a cookie tin? My mom says we need a tin.”

Kevin: “When the hell did you talk to your mother?”

Me: “Never mind. We need a tin.” And then I explained why and that we didn’t want soggy pizzelles and he agreed so we started looking through the cabinets. Actually he started looking through the cabinets while I poured a cup of coffee. After all, I had just finished slaving over a hot pizzelle iron. I needed a break.

Within seconds my wondrous husband had produced … a cookie tin. Something I didn’t even know we had so of course I had to ask: “Where did you find THAT?!”  And he smiled and reached for another cookie and told me that he couldn’t tell me or else he’d have to kill me and then he’d have to make his own pizzelles and to be quiet and just load up the can already.

Just like that we had both pizzelles and a proper storage facility for them. Life is good on a Saturday in Michel-land.

The simple joy of a squeaky clean car

by Lorin Michel Sunday, January 20, 2013 9:34 PM

I am a car snob. I am also a hotel snob, but for purposes of this post, let’s stick to the four wheels rather than the four-stars. My cars don’t have to be new, and in most cases, I don’t want them to be. I have had mostly used, or pre-owned, cars in my driving history and I’m just fine with that. They’re a better value and if you have the time to search, you can find just what you want.

I’ve had Porsches and Toyotas, Mazdas, BMWs and Land Rovers. Out of all of those, three were new: a Mazda MX-6, a BMW 330i and a Land Rover Discovery Series II. I’ve had two used Porsches (both 944s, one Before Kevin, one with), two used Toyotas (one BK, one with), one used Mazda (my beloved RX-7), two used BMWs (both with Kevin) and two used Land Rovers (our first Range Rover and our current one).

A good used car can be cosmetically and mechanically excellent. The key, then, is keeping it that way. Obviously we make sure the oil is changed. If there is ever any kind of issue, we immediately have it checked out. Both of our cars are garaged (as is the motorcycle), and we keep both as clean inside and out as possible. We take great care in vacuuming as well as washing. We always do it ourselves for two reasons: 1) we do a better job; and 2) we do a better job.

Some of the car washes around here are fine, but we’ve found that mass car washing places tend to lead to things not getting as clean as we’d like, like the wheels. Yes, if you look up anal-retentive-when-it-comes-to-their-cars in the dictionary, you’ll see a picture of Kevin and I. It’s actually a really nice pic . Too much brake-dust doesn’t get washed away. And too much water remains either on the car or in the various crevices of the metal or fiberglass which leads to water spots. Maybe this is a California problem, because of the near-constant warmth of the sun, but water spots on an otherwise clean car makes the car look less clean.

The Porsche is having some health issues so it doesn’t get driven very much. Around the block every week or so just to keep it running. Thus, it remains clean. Occasionally we dust it. The Range Rover, the workhorse, gets all the heavy lifting. It hadn’t been washed since sometime before Christmas. Since then it made several trips back and forth to the airport, went to several holiday parties and a wine tasting trip north of Santa Barbara, not to mention meetings and just general living trips like to the grocery store. It was rained on, sat out in near freezing temperatures, and had countless bugs commit suicide on its windshield.

It was dirty.

Actually, it was filthy. The beautiful powder-coated chrome wheels were black with dust that had also been kicked up onto the paint. The finish was both dusty and water-stained. The cover over the headlights was also dusty, watermarked and sporting the remains of bugs. We don’t normally let the car get that bad. Last summer when we drove to Tucson and got caught in a thunderstorm, we washed the car while on vacation. But it has been so cold, and the idea of being wet outside, with cold spraying water just wasn’t appealing. Then came yesterday.

The day was in the high 70s; a gentle breeze was blowing. We backed the car out into the driveway, brought Cooper out and hooked him to the tree so he could be with us, then set about our task. We vacuumed, we windexed, we dusted. Then we moved to the outside. First the wheels, then the rest of the car. Soap and spray, soap and spray, climb up on a ladder to do the top. Once it was clean and rinsed, Kevin pulled out the leaf blower, plugged it in and essentially gave the car a nice blow dry, put a little finish of Armor-all on the trim and it was pretty as new.

It took two hours. I can wash, blow dry and finish in 30 minutes. I guess the Rover has more hair.

We put its shiny self in the garage and closed the door. Ever since and every once in a while, we open the door that leads out to the garage, turn on the light and admire our work as the paint glistens under the electric sun. There’s something to be said for physical exertion that leads to the completion of a task. It can be easier than mental exertion. Perfect for a sunny weekend day.

It’s simple things like washing the car that can bring abundant amounts of joy. My husband calls them ergs of pleasure. I call it living out loud.

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live out loud

The tattoo dilemma

by Lorin Michel Wednesday, January 16, 2013 8:14 PM

There are many things in my life that I’m not sure of. My future comes to mind. Will I be able to continue in my success? Will I ever be a real writer? Will we ever be able to move to Tucson? Will we ever stop worrying about money? Will my health insurance finally get to the point where I simply can’t afford it anymore? Will Obamacare really help or am I just naïve? What the hell am I going to make for dinner?

But there is one thing I’ve always been sure of and that’s thinking that tattoos are not for me. I don’t necessarily have a problem with tattoos on other people though I sometimes think– perhaps judgmentally – that athletes who have too many look like they’re trying to hard to be bad-ass. It’s not just athletes, either. When I see someone in a restaurant, a waitress, who has tattoos up and down both arms, forming a kind of ink shirt, I can’t help but wonder what the point is. It’s completely unfair, I realize. After all, I don’t even know these people. And it’s their body. They can do whatever they want to it and it should be no concern of mine. That I’m definitely sure of.

Maybe I just wish I were that bold. 

Tattoos are created by inserting colored materials beneath the skin’s surface. Today that material is generally ink, though when the art first began it is widely thought that tattoos appeared because a wound was rubbed with ashes and soot from a fire. When the wound healed, a mark was left permanently behind. The word itself is said to have two major derivations, one from the Polynesian word “ta” meaning to strike and the other from the Tahitian word “tatau” meaning to mark. The process began at least 5000 years ago, a timeframe attributed to a five-thousand-year old frozen man discovered in 1991. Dubbed “Otzi the ice man,” he made headlines when he was found on a mountain between Austria and Italy. He had 57 tattoos, the positioning of which suggests they may have been applied for therapeutic reasons like treatment of arthritis.

Russian archeologists discovered mummies high in the Altai Mountains in 1948. Thought to be in the vicinity of 2400 years old, each sported tattoos mostly of animals. The mummified remains of the Egyptian princess Amunet was discovered at Thebes in 1891. She lived between 2160 and 1994 BC, and her mummy also showed lines and dots tattooed around her body, marks that formed abstract geometric patterns thought to be ritualistic.

It was the Egyptians who actually spread the practice of tattooing to the rest of the world, first to Crete, Greece, Persia and Arabia. By 2000 BC, the art of tattooing stretched to Southeast Asia and into Japan where the first written record of tattooing was found in a Chinese Dynastic history compiled in 297 AD. The Japanese were interested in tattooing for decorative reasons and called it irezumi, or the insertion of ink. The practice spread from there, through the dark and middle ages and the Vikings and the Celts, into the cultured societies of England. In 1862, the Prince of Wales who later became Kind Edward VII, had a Jerusalem cross tattooed on his arm, starting a tattoo fad amongst the aristocracy. My judgment is obviously ill-judged then when it comes to the celebration of body ink.

Today, tattoos are mostly used for decoration, but in the not too distant past, they were used for evil purposes. The identification numbers tattooed on the arms of the Jews by the Nazis in World War II comes to mind. Pets and animals are also sometimes tattooed with identification marks.

The people who have tattoos on their face worry me. I always wonder how those tattoos will look once the person begins to age and the skin begins to sag. A once tight red rose will begin to droop. That dragon across the back will lose some of its fire-breathing power. The serpent writhing around on the chest will become a sad little worm losing its skin.

Still I’m fascinated. When I see certain tattoos, especially the full body ones, I admit to a passing intrigue, a flight of fancy. I wonder how long it took and how much it hurt. I wonder why, but since it’s not my skin, I simply gaze at the art of it. Some tats are actually quite tasteful and kind of sexy. The little flowers or dolphins that women sometimes put on their ankles, on their hip or the small of the back can be lovely. I have a lot of friends with such tattoos and I always look at them with a bit of envy. There. I said it.

I don’t have any tattoos though I confess to sometimes thinking that having a little one somewhere hidden from most people would be fun and kind of sexy. Since many tattoos serve as rites of passage, I wonder if maybe I should get one, to show off my status of uncertainly, to be daring, live on the edge, be a little bit bad, less predictable.

Then I remember what I told Justin when he was in high school. Well, there were two things actually. One, as long I’m paying for your life I get a say in everything involving your life, so no tattoos. Because two, tattoos are permanent. And I think doing anything permanently to your body, unless it’s for medical purposes, ends up having odd consequences.

Maybe I’ll just get one of those temporary tats instead.

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live out loud

Panic at 3:54

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, January 15, 2013 8:40 PM

It doesn’t happen very often but every once in a while, in the middle of the night, I wake up badly. By badly I mean that I’m jolted awake, mostly by some unseen force buried deep within my brain. It has happened when the earth moves, too, of course, but the earth has not moved substantially here in quite some time (that sound you here is me and everyone else in California furiously knocking on any piece of wood within reach). Last night, I was in bed, minding my own business, all snug and warm under my multiple layers of blankets. I think I was dreaming. Then all of a sudden a very loud horn blared and I woke up with my heart pounding.

At first I thought it was in the house and I sat up straight, listening. We don’t have anything in the house that makes a blasting horn sound so the rational part of me knew that it probably hadn’t come from the house. Still, I was anxious. I glanced over at my nightstand clock. It was 3:54.

The room was inky black. I could hear Cooper huffing in his sleep and knew that soon his feet would start to race as he dreamt of whatever it is he dreams of when he sleeps. Kevin’s steady breathing came from the other side of the bed, juxtaposed with my now panicky breathing. Where had the sound come from?

As I seemed to be the only one awake and anxious, I quickly surmised that it was all in my head and that the horn had sounded in my dream, but why? It was as it my subconscious did it purposely, to wake me up so that I could be drenched in anxiety and fear of something that didn’t even exist.

I laid back down and pulled the covers up. It always amazes me how quickly I can become cold just by becoming conscious. I was very still, willing my body to rediscover the warmth that I’d had just moments before. I was also still listening for the horn. Even though I had pretty much decided I had either dreamt it or imagined it, I still thought I should err on the side of caution.

And as I was lying there, trying to alleviate the panic, trying to reassemble the warm, it happened. My brain caught fire and began to race around in my head in a desperate attempt to put itself out. This is a freak thing that occurs more often than I’d like and almost entirely when I’m stressed or worried or stressed and worried; when I have too much to do; when I’m hopelessly behind and have pressing deadlines that I can’t imagine I’ll meet; and when I purposely and purposefully didn’t do as much as I should have during the preceding day and know that I didn’t – knew it when I was actively not doing it – even try all that hard.


My heart began to race and I could feel the panic flooding through me anew. My on-fire brain was quickly darting from one project to another, and I knew that if I didn’t find a way to extinguish it, I would be up the rest of the night. That would render me virtually worthless during the day and I would have yet another work period where I was hopelessly unable to accomplish anything of substance.

I finally started to get warm again, probably because of my brain fire and all, but I knew if I didn’t get all of this stuff out of my head, I was doomed. Luckily, for Christmas, my son gave me a new handy, dandy light-up pen, specifically for panic attacks like this. I keep paper on my nightstand as well. I reached over, grabbed the pen, took a minute to remember how to turn on both the light and extract the ballpoint, and suddenly my entire side of the bed was bathed in white light. It was like ET had come to visit. In the process, he had practically blinded me.

After I screwed my pupils back into place and was able to see the paper, I began to scribble furiously, one thing after another, one reminder after the next, and as the list of things I needed to do when the sun came up, after I walked the dog and checked my three email boxes and my voice mails and my incoming text messages, took shape the fire in my brain started to burn out. Soon, I was simply burnt.

Now it was time to tackle the arduous task of talking myself back to sleep. Sometimes this works, often after I’ve dumped whatever is in my head out onto paper – I call this, appropriately, paper-training – but sometimes it doesn’t. I’m too far gone. But I was determined to talk myself into the fact that yes, I had a lot to do but no, doing it in my head over and over and over again at now 4:21 am wasn’t the best use of my time.

The last time I looked at the clock, it was 4:36. All in all, not a bad mid-night panic attack.

And by 9:15 this morning, I had already crossed four things off of my scribbled list. It’s amazing what you can do when you panic, when the senses are highly attuned, when every cell in your body is on alert. It’s called focus. And it can work, but only if you have a light-up pen from your kid.

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live out loud

Let's go

by Lorin Michel Monday, January 14, 2013 8:58 PM

Somehow our walk-talk today turned to roller coasters. Kevin was recounting a story of taking his elderly parents to Disneyland when Justin was but a baby. His dad, Tom, had already had at least one heart attack, but after six bypasses, he was healthier than he’d been in a while. He was walking daily and eating better. Kevin asked him about riding the roller coaster, something Tom had always liked to do and Tom said he wanted to do it. They got in line for the Big Thunder Mountain Railway. As they got closer to getting on the ride, there was a sign: If you have a heart condition, you may want to reconsider. Kevin asked again: “Dad? You sure? We can exit right through that door.” Tom shook his head and grinned. “Let’s go!”

That’s how I’ve always felt about roller coasters. From the time I was little, and we would visit Kennywood Park in Pennsylvania, somewhere near Pittsburgh, I was ready to go. I loved the lurching motion, the slow mechanical climb toward the sky, the anticipation when the cars in front started to roll over to the other side and could no longer be seen. And the rapid descent that pulled my stomach into my throat even as I screamed gleefully and involuntarily, my hair being whipped around in a frenzy, my heart pounding. For a moment I was weightless, exhilarated. I’d catch my breath just long enough to begin the next mechanical climb and the next dash toward the earth until finally, the train of cars would pull back onto the platform and everyone would exit on the right side of the car while those waiting in line entered on the left side. Let’s go. Let’s go again.

Thompson's 1884 Switchback at Coney Island

Roller coasters are descended from something called Russian Mountains, specially constructed hills of ice around Saint Petersburg. They were built in the 1400s and 1500s, when slides became very popular with Russia’s upper class. Catherine II of Russia was such a fan that she had several built on her property. They appear to have been little more than toboggan hills.

Many historians say the first roller coasters, with wheels on the sleds or carts, were built in 1784 by order of James the III in the Gardens of Oreinbaum, also in Saint Petersburg. Others believe the first roller coasters were French as Les Montagnes Russes à Belleville and the Promenades Aeriennes both featured wheeled cars securely locked to a track, with guide rails to keep them on course, and to keep them careening off into wherever when the carts reached higher speeds. That was in 1812.

Today’s modern roller coasters owe their heritage to John G. Taylor of Baltimore who was issued the first patent for a switchback coaster, constructed at West Haven’s Savin Rock. The year was 1872. LaMarcus Thompson built a switchback railway at Coney Island in 1884, and became known as the father of the roller coast, not because he was the first to build one but because he was the first to promote one. Passengers from all over traveled to Coney Island in order to climb up a platform and ride a car down 600 feet of track. The speed carried them up to the top of another platform where the track was switched and the passengers took a return trip back to the original platform.

The Thunderbolt at Kennywood

In 1885, Phillip Hinkle introduced a complete circuit coaster with a lift hill and it became more popular than Thompson’s coaster. Both were at Coney Island. In 1886, Thompson patented a design to use dark tunnels with painted scenery, and “scenic railways” were soon found in amusement parks across the country.

Of course, the first official scenic railway actually happened in 1850, when the Mauch Chunk railroad was built. It was a downhill track used to deliver coal to what is now known as Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, but by 1872, thrill seekers were shelling out $.50 per ride.

The 1880s saw the introduction of the vertical loop and by 1895, The Flip Flap, at Sea Lion Park in Brooklyn, debuted, followed shortly thereafter by Loop-the-Loop at Olentangy Park in Ohio. The rides were dangerous, passengers suffered whiplash and loops were discontinued for decades.

The oldest operating roller coaster is Leap-the-Dips at Lakemont Park in Pennsylvania. It originally opened in 1902. The best-known historical roller coaster is probably The Cyclone, which opened at Coney Island in 1927. It was made of wood and is still operational, though it has been updated and upgraded. Many old wooden roller coasters are also still operational including the ones I rode at Kennywood when I was a kid. These were all ushered in during the first golden age of roller coasters, an age that ended during the Depression. But in 1972, The Racer was built at Kings Island in Mason, Ohio and the second golden age of coasters began. It continues to this day.

The Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Matterhorn Bobsleds and Space Mountain, all at Disneyland, are but three of the hundreds of roller coasters that can be found all around the world. Some are old, some are very modern, some I would ride in a minute, others I have no desire to board. Part of the thrill of the roller coasters of old was the simplicity of them, and the sheer joy of racing forward at what seemed to be phenomenal speeds. In actuality it was around 30 some miles per hour but the ride was always an adventure no matter how many times I went. This was the feeling that Kevin and his dad experienced so many years ago. It’s a feeling that says let’s have fun, let’s not look back, let’s go.

Perhaps, then, the roller coaster is just a great metaphor for living it out loud. 

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live out loud

Let me be perfectly franc

by Lorin Michel Friday, January 11, 2013 10:46 PM

We like wine. Nothing especially earth-shattering or revelatory about that statement. We primarily like reds. Rarely does a white get past our lips. We just don’t care for the taste or the lightness of being that often accompanies a white. Yes, a chardonnay can be deeply honey colored and taste of oaky butter, making it a bit more substantial than, say, a sauvignon blanc or a pinot grigio. Still. We have nothing against these wines, not really. They just don’t fit our palette.

We like big, fat, tannic, hair-on-your-chest, stand-a-fork-up-in-them red wines. Syrahs are a favorite, especially syrahs from Santa Ynez and especially from Zaca Mesa. They make a Mesa Reserve that is so exquisitely deep and inky, both in color and flavor, you don’t even want to eat lest you spoil the taste of the wine. Ditto their Black Bear Block syrah. These are their top of the line, Black Bear Society wines. You can’t find these in most stores; they’re reserved for club members and the winery. Their regular syrahs are nearly as wonderful. They have an added note of sage and some other spice that is so subtle and yet so powerful, you just want to sniff and sip all night long.

Syrahs are a small, tight, round, dark purple grape that makes big, bold, dark purple wine.

But let me be perfectly franc. Syrah is only one of the varietals that we have come to treasure. The other is a Cabernet Franc and believe it or not, these are even harder to come by. Evidently it is a stubborn grape to grow and the fruit is small and biting. In the wrong hands it can be bitter. In worse hands it can lose all of its peppery, deep forest flavor. We’ve been on a quest of late to find a really good one. Several years ago, we discovered Niner, a winery up in Paso Robles. They have a Cab Franc, especially their 2007, that is velvety smooth with a dangerous taste. We have one or two still in the cellar; we drink them sparingly. When we were up there in December, we bought their 2008. Not quite as good since 2008 wasn’t quite as good a harvest, but still luscious.

Another new favorite is also from Paso Robles and it’s from a winery called Sculpterra. As the name implies, it’s a winery that makes its grounds home to some amazing sculptures. Huge bronze jaguars lounge in trees; a bronze horse rears up toward the sky. As you walk through the sculpture maze into the winery, it’s hard to keep your mouth closed, such is the awesomeness of what your eyes are taking in. Inside, the tasting room is equally sculptured, with a metal studded counter that wraps around wine racks behind. They don’t have a big case production – less than 5000 if memory serves – but what they make is extraordinary. One of our new favorites was their Cabernet Franc.

Smooth, subtle, thick, with the telling notes of pepper and cassis, blueberry and burnt maple syrup. When we went to their Christmas open-house, they were tasting all of their wines. Bobbi and I drank only their Cab Franc.

Cabernet Franc is a black-skinned grape, native to France. It is actually quite famous in one of the most famous wine-producing countries in the world, known as the third grape of Bordeaux and found in many of top Bordeaux blends. It’s primarily used in blends because it has a medium body and sports vegetal characteristics, like green peppers. As a grape, it is sometimes compared to Cabernet Sauvignon. Interestingly Cabernet Sauvignon is a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Recent profiling has also shown that Cabernet Franc is one of Merlot’s parents. I’d want to see a bit more evidence of that before I believe it.

The grape made its debut in the Libournais region of southwest France in the 17th century when Cardinal Richelieu transported cuttings of the vine to the Loire Valley. They were planted at the Abbey of Bourgueil under the care of an abbot named Breton, whose name became associated with the grape. Known as Bouchet, Cab Franc was making quality wines by the 18th century. That’s when it got together with Sauvignon Blanc to create Cabernet Sauvignon.

It’s been called the grape that’s hiding in plain sight because it’s fruity and austere, approachable and complex. Highly drinkable because it often has lower acidity, less harsh tannins, and rich color extraction. It’s not for everyone, but it’s for us.

We love Cabernet Sauvignon. Now we know why. And perhaps even more importantly, we know why we’ve become so enamored with Cabernet Franc. It’s what Cabernet Sauvignon was before it was Cabernet Sauvignon. 

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live out loud

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