Monday, January 1, 2018

THOMAS: the Perfect Fire, Part 2.

I cannot recommend trying to sleep in a car, even next to such an enchantingly picturesque beach as Carpinteria. This is especially true if you have a cat yowling at full volume in the back seat. I wondered dimly if a towel draped over the carrier would shut him up, as it does a parrot, but was far too cold and stiff to go to all the trouble of finding out.

Our first day as refugees from the fire: actually, I suppose "evacuees" is more accurate than “refugees", which I think implies something political. Nuances of vocabulary aside, once a brief glance at the fire map had dispelled all hope of returning home in the foreseeable future, we needed two things in fairly short order: breakfast, and a bathroom.  (How I felt for families wjth babies or small children to care for!) The first café we tried could not serve us breakfast because power outages had played havoc with their computers, which were down for who knew how long. I briefly considered volunteering to scramble any number of eggs with no help from a computer whatsoever, but thought better of it. Which is quite possibly why I’m still alive today.

We were relieved to find a Motel 6 with a vacancy, and planned to spend the next night there. But ever-vigilant fire watcher Lorna had other ideas: parts of US 101 had been closed, or were in danger of being closed; Thomas was roaring north and would soon be threatening Carpinteria. She strongly advised that we move up the coast to Goleta, just north of Santa Barbara, and adjacent to the airport.

Ah yes, the airport. For, in an act of cosmic serendipity, we were booked to fly up to Seattle from Santa Barbara that very Thursday, returning on Monday.  It seemed downright cavalier to leave our pet sitter in charge of a house that might burst into flames any moment, but she insisted she was up to the challenge. Knowing how much the dogs loved and trusted her, also that there was still absolutely nothing either Robin or I could do apart from look anguished and wring our hands - and I’m none too sure how to do even that. (Note To Self: watch more Victorian melodramas), we reasoned that, once evacuated, we might as well be in Seattle as in a motel.

Meanwhile, we looked into having the Humane Society go and rescue the dogs, as they were picking up large animals (horses, zebras, giraffes etc.) in the evacuation zone: they refused, unimpressed by my argument that both Great Danes were easily the size of a small horse. I'll swear I shrank a good three inches under the withering glare of the H.S. rep when I admitted that yes, we no longer owned a vehicle big enough to transport both dogs.

My special relationship with my clothes was getting pretty intense by now, and we were both longing for a shower; thus we disobeyed Lorna's explicit orders and drove home. That was probably the most extraordinary drive of my life. The air, as we crossed the Ventura County line, became putrid with smoke. Where it was thinner we saw evidence of the firefighters’ extraordinary work: over and over again, fire blackened hillsides reached right down to houses that stood unharmed at their base. But tragically, some still smoking piles of rubble amid charred trees marked the spot where a family’s life-as-they-knew-it was terminated, an enforced fresh start imposed

Hopes of a shower were thwarted yet again: Lorna told us that all four exit roads had been closed an hour or two previously, sealing off the flaming Ojai Valley from the outside world. One exit was now open, and we should take it while we could. Pausing only to grab a few clothes for our Seattle trip, and to reassure the dogs of our fundamental, all-appearances-to-the-contrary-notwithstanding dependability,
we bade our home au revoir, hoping it would not prove to be adieu.

I can prevaricate no longer: I must tell you about Tuesday and Wednesday nights. But first, a slightly more intensive geography lesson: the Ojai Valley sits roughly 750 feet above sea level and is approximately 3 miles wide and 10 miles long. To the north are mountains ranging from four or five thousand feet to the imposing Topa Topas, visible to the north-east from our dining room window, at close to 7 thousand. Mountains to the south, which our kitchen looks out on, are not to be sneezed at, checking in at around 3 thousand.

Only one road, the 150, traverses the valley, providing the sole exit to the east; to the west it is briefly joined by the 33, which offers a straight run to Ventura in one direction, a “gee, it sure looked shorter on the map” mass of sudden inclines and hairpin bends leading – eventually – to Maricopa in the other. Firefighters were making a desperate effort to redirect the fire to bypass Ojai to the south. That is to say, within a few hundred yards of our house. This critical time was to occur on Tuesday night; danger was directly proportional to wind speed.

Tuesday evening's weather forecast was far from reassuring; in fact, it was downright terrifying. The Chief Weather Guru waved his arms at a map featuring a massive, immobile high pressure area centered on us which, he stated bluntly, meant inevitable winds of at least thirty mph blowing the fire from the mountaintops, down the valley, straight at our little town. Losing our home looked like a certainty. “It’s only stuff” was the mantra I had heard repeated. True, true, but we are at heart a sacramental people, imbuing our “stuff” with all the power of the memories that it invokes.

We went to bed dreading what the morrow would bring – and yet when we awoke, the weatherman had been dumbfounded, the “inevitable” winds had failed to materialize. Ojai was saved! The fire chief himself called it “miraculous”.

To cut a very long story short, we had an almost exact replay on Wednesday, with the exception that the fire, driven by winds of 3-4 mph (not 30-40, thank you CWG) and strongly encouraged by legions of fire fighters, skirted Ojai to the north, threatening our good friends’ homes, but ultimately leaving most of Ojai standing.

Postlude:  January 1, 2018
And there the story of the fire – or at least, our involvement with it - comes to an end. Still no rain, but the winds finally show signs of abating, giving firefighters a chance to contain the active edges of the fire. But back in early December, Thomas was till 100% unchecked. We flew out of Santa Barbara the next day, Thursday, on a packed plane, returning on a half empty one four days later (funny thing – nobody wanted to be in Santa Barbara anymore). Our car was covered in ash, which blew off as we drove. Breathing masks were essential, both indoors and out; the air in town looked like diluted porridge, and was chokingly hard to breathe (shades of Beijing). Everywhere we went, we were acutely reminded of our good fortune: so many people were homeless, or had lost their livelihood – a car mechanic’s garage with all his tools, a potter’s barn, burned to the ground; a craft shop aimed at the tourists who ordinarily flock to Ojai, closed for lack of customers. Restaurants with a freezer full of spoiled food and no patrons. It has been inspiring - and truly humbling – to see how the community has rallied to help those affected by the fire.

Incidentally, the entire firefighting system was incredibly impressive – they fought with brains, not just water and fire retardant. Foreseeing a problem, they moved to extinguish it like a panther closing in on its prey. Would that our government acted with such grace and economy of movement! The police too were phenomenal, maintaining order and preventing looting.

It could have been so much worse, but Thomas still stands unchallenged as the biggest and most destructive wildfire in the history of California.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Story of a Fire: SoCal, Dec 4 - ?? '17

THOMAS:  the Perfect Fire

I had a strange feeling that Monday as I picked out my clothes for the day: a suspicion that I would feel rather differently about these clothes when I took them off; that I was entering into some kind of a special relationship with them.

That evening, around 9 o'clock, a friend texted me: "Have you heard about the fire?" No, indeed I had not. I pushed aside a gnawing sense of unease – Santa Paula was 15 miles away, surely a comfortable distance -  and called Robin who was still at work,  blissfully ignorant of the fire. He told me he would come home directly. By now my sense of dread was had grown to unbridled fear; I wished Robin would hurry up  and  come home. Surely once he was home, everything would go back to normal! But news grew still more dire: much of Santa Paula was under mandatory evacuation orders, while Ventura  - well, it was hard to know what exactly was going on in Ventura. We heard rumors – a brand new apartment building  burned to the ground; bone dry vegetation erupting in flames at the touch of a single spark. dozens of homes in flames, the fire, 100% uncontained, spreading like . . . , well, like wildfire.

Helpless to do anything to help apart from pray and stay out of the firemen’s way, Robin and I sat on our patio praying the rosary, and watched the orange glow move along the mountain peaks at an alarming rate.  I went to bed with my clothes on, (see “special relationship” above), just in case we needed to evacuate, while Robin made himself fairly comfortable on the sofa in the living room, setting his alarm to wake him every hour to check on the flames’ progress.

He never got the chance: at 2 AM the sheriff knocked at the door.  “Evacuation in your area is not mandatory, but if I were you I would get out now, and I wouldn’t stop to think too hard about what to take with me.” That was enough for us!  I stumbled about, trying to think of things I would need and, for the most part, failing miserably.  My own personal Eeyore was silent, replaced by a sort of desperate positivity: "We'll just have to spend one night out, and then it will be all clear and we can go home.. So I don’t really need to worry about clothes, do I? " Meanwhile, Robin grabbed the yearbooks that were the record of our homeschooling years, and which, I am happy to say, came quite willingly. 

Not so Pyga the kitty cat, a hissing, spitting ball of fury who, lacking any clue as to Robin’s good intentions in cramming him into his cat carrier, let out a shout of protest on every outbreath. I know, I know, cats don’t “shout”, they “meow”. Not Pyga. He shouted. It was the most unearthly racket – I later tried to imitate it, but try as I might, could not attain the decibel level Pyga achieved so effortlessly.  At least, I assume it was effortless – he was able to keep it up for hours on end, with no appreciable wear to his vocal cords.

Another indefatigable family member was our daughter Lorna. From her apartment in Seattle, she kept us informed of damage thus far, of  the fire’s progress, and road closures. Thank God for a computer literate daughter! It was eerie, driving through the night in pitch darkness with only Lorna’s voice for company. And Pyga. Mustn’t forget Pyga . . .

The Ojai Valley is ringed with mountains, and there are only four roads going in, much the same number coming out. (Thank you, Fiddler on the Roof). Hwy 33, the main road, was closed, so we took our chances with Hwy 150, the grossly contorted hypotenuse of the triangle formed by Ojai, Ventura and Carpinteria, bordered by Hwys 33, 150, and US Interstate 101.

News relayed by Lorna was increasingly grim: the fire (nicknamed "Thomas") was spreading at the rate of one acre per second (you read that right - one acre per second), fanned by winds of 60 mph, gusting up to 80. Hundreds of homes in Ventura were in flames, the firemen too occupied with their efforts to prevent Thomas from spreading to deal with houses that were already ablaze - a sort of real estate triage, in effect..

We reached Carpinteria, pulling to a halt  by the sea, not far from where Eldest Son Iain had camped with his family last summer, under somewhat rosier circumstances. I didn’t know what the morrow would bring,  but one thing was clear:

Thomas looked as if he was planning to stick around for quite a while.

To Be Continued   .

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

"I can't believe I've lived all these years without knowing this word". . .

Today's "I can't believe I've lived all these years without knowing this word" (courtesy, as ever, of Anu Garg’s magnificent A.Word.A.Day) is . . . wait for it . . . 'tenesmus'.

It is a noun, and it means, "A distressing but ineffectual urge to defecate or urinate."
There - see what I mean? Only think about where and when you might have used this truly remarkable word, and I fully expect you will find possibilities stretching in an unbroken line to the horizon and beyond. (Kindly do not ask me how I know what lies beyond the horizon: let's just say, I have my sources.)

And so I exhort you - make up for lost time, for all those squandered opportunities when you could have used 'tenesmus' and didn't (admittedly for good reason, since up till now you had never heard of the word), and beginning today, simply insert 'tenesmus' into your everyday conversations! Your friends and family will be gobsmacked, as will any potential job interviewer with an ear for unorthodox vocabulary. (You may want to consider carefully the  tension implicit in the phrase, “distressing but ineffectual”;  does this really imply, as indeed it seems to,  that something distressing will, in the normal run of things, be effective?) 

 Also, if indeed you find yourself in a job interview and the subject of tenesmus is raised, consider carefully whether you ought not look for a different job.

And now it’s time for our Exciting Contest: just use “tenesmus” in a sentence of any length, preferably in English, using words containing not more than 15 syllables,  and add it to the Comments section. 
You’ll be glad you did -

And so will I!

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

In Which I Consider The Possibility That I Have Gone Completely, Stark Raving Bonkers.

Yesterday I opened an email from my friend “Cicely” (names changed to avoid embarrassing innocent victims), and noticed with some surprise that, while it was dated May 1, the previous email was from February 2. Had I really not communicated with Cicely in those three months? Of course I had – but here was proof positive that I had not. How could this be? What did it signify?

Feeling just a wee bit queasy, I opened the email: it told me that she and her husband “Cuthbert” were going to San Juan on Thursday, returning on Friday, to check on the new renters. Now, bear in mind that this was first thing in the morning and my brain was still more than a little groggy from sleep and caffeine-insufficiency, also that for quite some time now my mind has (quite of its own volition) been taking mini-vacations in the Pacific Northwest where we lived for twenty-four years and all six of our children were born, and you will understand what happened next: I thought she meant the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington and British Columbia!

Beyond gobsmacked, that I was! How could it be that in all the years I had known her, Cicely had never once let slip that she and Cuthbert own a rental property on the San Juans? Moreover, they were flying up to Washington on Thursday and back on Friday. Highly uncharacteristic – there was definitely something fishy going on. Add to this the missing three months of emails, and you will get some idea of my complete bewilderment and confusion.

So this is what it's like, I thought. This is the beginning of the end, of the utter mental chaos and inability to manage one's environment that gives dementia such a bad name.

Maybe, I thought, I am misremembering the islands’ name: maybe the San Juans are actually the California islands – could that be it? Hastily, I Googled San Juan Islands. Sure enough, there they were just as I remembered them, firmly plunked in the Puget Sound. Not only that, but Oh Glory! As my eyes traveled down the list of San Juans, they came to a screeching halt at San Juan Capistrano. Aha! Capistrano I know about: our family spent three months there living in a house right on the beach, while my husband was running an anti-euthanasia campaign back in ’92. San Juan Capistrano was where I bathed our then youngest in the kitchen sink and practically wiped out my right knee on a rock, body-surfing.

San Juan Capistrano is also where Cicely’s mother’s house is: a house that has been rented out for some years, ever since Cicely’s mom moved on to a place where she has no need of an earthly dwelling.

Even the three months of missing emails had a benign explanation: Cicely had been clearing out February’s emails, found “If you loved ‘LaLaLand’ you’ll love . . . “, and forwarded it to me to see if any of their movie suggestions appealed.

Ta-da – vindicated! Guess who isn't crazy after all – but when I looked up LaLa Land in the dictionary and learned that it is “a euphoric dreamlike mental state detached from the harsher realities of life”, I think I may just pay it a visit.

I’ve had about all I can take of the “harsher realities of life” for the time being.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017



Like a thunderbolt out of the blue it struck me: Waltzing Matilda, which is practically Australia’s national anthem, is in duple time. That's right, two beats per bar! All my life, I have unquestioningly believed that it is in triple meter – after all, that's what a waltz is, isn't it? ONE – two – three, ONE – two – three . . . and now I put on my critical listening ears, I find it is actually a march: ONE – two, ONE - two, LEFT- right LEFT - right. What, Waltzing Matilda not a waltz? Next, you’ll be telling me that Brighton rock is not made in Brighton, or that toad-in-the-hole is not now, nor has ever been, an amphibian.

What's up? Have the Australians, with their highly developed sense of irony, been playing an elaborate practical joke on the rest of the world? I found the answer here, in Rolf Harris’s entertaining and highly informative preamble to his inimitable rendition of the song:

Aha! All stands revealed: a “swagman” (wandering hobo) carries his meager belongings, and such tucker (food) as he possesses, in his “swag”, a ragged blanket tied around his shoulders, which he mockingly refers to as his “Matilda”, or life companion. So “waltzing” has nothing to do with dancing, but rather evokes a slow, weary trudge through the Australian bush, whose grimness is briefly relieved every morning by such magical sounds as these:

Alas, we learn that our hero has run afoul of the law – he has stolen a jumbuck! What is a jumbuck, I hear you ask. Hmm, should I tell you, or make you listen to the song? I’ll tell you this much: the penalty for stealing one in 19th century Australia was death . . . and uh-oh, here comes the “squatter”, or landowner, (strange isn’t it, how the meaning of the word has changed?) mounted on his thoroughbred. Choosing a quick death by drowning over a protracted one ending with hanging, our lamentably uncatechised swagman leaps into the billabong, crying, “You’ll never take me alive!”

So there we have it: a rattling good song, a brief foreign language lesson, and an introduction to Australia’s unique wildlife (be sure not to miss the Thorny Devil.) And if you’re still itching for a waltz, try this one: Tchaikovsky - Waltz of the Flowers

Friday, January 13, 2017

How Rude - or then again, Perhaps Not!

I’ve been thinking about words that appear to be rude, but aren’t. Words you can use with impunity in front of your Great Aunt Bertha, knowing full well that, when she fans herself and reaches for the smelling-salts, you’ll be ready with the perfectly innocent definitions culled from For your convenience, I replicate them here:

adjective: Sick from excessive drinking or eating.
From Latin crapula (drunkenness), from Greek kraipale (hangover, drunkenness). Earliest documented use: 1540. Also crapulent.
Modern Usage: (Mother): All right, Timmy, go ahead and have another slice of cake; but don’t blame me if it makes you crapulous!
Bonus: We learn the Greek for a hangover: Kraipale. You never know when it may come in handy.

1. A sharp point or spike for holding a candle.

2. A male deer in its second year, before the antlers have branched.
Diminutive of prick/prik, from Old English prica (point). Earliest documented use: 1331.
Mod Use: “This pricket’s way too small – the candle keeps falling off!”

verb tr.:
1. To apply makeup.

2. To embellish or gloss over.

From Old French fard (makeup), from farden (to apply makeup), of Germanic origin. Earliest documented use: 1450.
Modern usage: “Will you please stop farding in the bathroom and come for breakfast?”

Cunctation - noun: Delay; procrastination; tardiness.
From Latin cunctari (to hesitate, delay). Earliest documented use: 1585.
Modern Usage: “Even as a baby he was given to cunctation: he’d wake me up at 2AM, but not to nurse; he’d just yawn three times and go back to sleep.”

Cock up – noun: Something going horribly wrong, e.g. this definition, which the computer stoutly refused to provide. Instead, I was treated to those infuriating whirling circles – definitely a cock up. And I can provide no “earliest documented use”, either.

Now, about those two bonus words I promised you. Here they are:

Bonus Word #1: verb: formicate, To swarm like ants.
Modern usage: At graduation, visitors beheld the campus covered with formicating students.

Bonus Word #2: absquatulate: verb: to make off with something.
Modern usage: “I say, that bounder just absquatulated with my cricket pads!”

Enjoy introducing your friends to these words – but don’t be surprised if you get a few strange looks along the way!

Saturday, August 27, 2016

How to Catch A Seagull

At no point in my adult life have I devoted significant mental energy to contemplating how to catch a seagull. Never, that is, until I found myself discussing this very question with some newfound friends at the beach one Sunday afternoon in early August. It turned out that not only had they captured a seagull in the past, but they were willing to try it again. There was even a teenage boy (let’s call him Hamish), eager to make the attempt. My sole job was to observe from a respectful distance and take scrupulous mental notes.

Here's how it's done: first, Hamish selected a part of the beach with few humans, especially of the junior variety who like to run around screaming. Ensuring that there were sufficient seagulls in sight, both airborne and waddling along the sand, he scooped out a shallow trench more or less the same length as himself, and lay down in it. Taking a large towel, he covered himself from feet to chin. Both arms lay cunningly concealed beneath the towel. One arm sneaked out, bearing a succulent morsel of leftover foodstuff designed to titillate a seagull's taste buds into paroxysms of delight (in this case, the remains of a chicken wing with just a hint of Alfredo sauce), and placed it on the towel, right over Hamish’s stomach.

Now came the hard part: we waited. And waited. And while we waited, (it being rather a hot afternoon,) my lunchtime beer kicked in and I began to fantasize. Suppose we get lucky, I thought; suppose a gull spies the morsel with its beady eye, and swoops down to claim it as its own. The moment for action has arrived! Like a coiled viper, Hamish unfurls his betoweled arms and seizes the hapless bird in his steely embrace. He has our seagull!

Okay, so now what? What exactly does one do with this very unhappy captive bird, whose mighty beak is thrashing around, inches away from Hamish’s eyeballs—eat it? Sorry, seagull pie is out of the question: when asked by a journalist why seagull meat never put in an appearance on the daily menu, a Devon fisherman replied in his broad West Country drawl, “If ‘ee puts a seagull int’ oven wi’ a brick, th’ brick ‘ud be done first, and it’d taaste better.”

Perhaps it could be tamed and kept as a pet! I looked up “domesticate” in the massive dictionary (which, thanks to the marvels of the common cell phone, I just happened to have with me) and found that the process of domestication generally involves such a close association with human beings that the animal loses its fondness for living in the wild. One look into that flashing eye, one ear-piercing, raucous shriek, one moment’s contemplation of their disgusting personal habits that make them about as desirable a pet as an airborne dung beetle, and I was convinced—there would be no seagull perched in my kitchen, screeching incessantly, taking enormous pecks out of any human foolish enough to venture within striking range, making vast, splashy messes of fishy-stinky seagull poop all over the floor . . .

 My reverie was cut short by Joe’s return. Dusting sand off himself, he admitted defeat: perhaps there had been one too many children running on the beach; perhaps it was the wrong brand of Alfredo sauce; perhaps the birds simply weren’t in the mood . . . Whatever the reason, the seagull-capturing quest had proved a failure.

And I couldn’t honestly say I was sorry.