Wednesday, May 30, 2007

May 30, 2007

OK! Now we're cookin' with gas! I hope this is an easier way for you to read my letters and see my pictures, too! I've put the May 17 letter on this blog, as well as a letter about the last leg of our Mexican trip. Robert put in some pictures--they're not ones I would have chosen, but he tried to show some of the things I wrote about. The first picture shows the Queretero acquaduct, and the second one is the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. We haven't figured out yet how to put in photo captions.

I've been extremely busy lately with volunteer work--most of it involving the cat shelter. When I get home at night I make dinner, then disappear into the basement, where I'm putting together hundreds of pins and magnets shaped like kitty faces. I make them out of painted poker chips, on which I glue whiskers, noses, ears and eyeballs. I'm also making "grown-up" kitty pins, of two cats with their arms wrapped around one another. These are cut out of clay, cured in an oven , then painted. They require a lot more work. I'm also crocheting dozens of colorful pouches, to be worn around the neck, and used to stow sunglasses or cell phones. I've got to get all of this stuff ready for Beacon's hippie-dippy Strawberry Festival on June 10, where I'll be manning a booth, selling the pins, T-shirts and other cat stuff. I may also be painting cat faces on kids again. I am expecting I'll be good and exhausted after six hours or so of that.

The Strawberry Festival is a fun day, down on the waterfront, with music and lots of kids and dogs running around. It is run by the Beacon Sloop Club, an environmental group. They sell homemade strawberry shortcake and give free rides on their sloop, "Clearwater." Later in the year the same group puts on a Corn Festival and a Pumpkin Festival. I hope we have good weather.

Two weekends ago was the Beacon Hat Parade. Beacon was once a big hat manufacturing center, and the home of many famous hat designers, back when everybody wore hats (Quick! How many famous hat designers can you name?) (Yeah. Me, neither...) and the parade is supposed to celebrate that part of the town's history. I thought it might be a good opportunity for some goodwill for the cat shelter, so I made myself a chapeau covered with cats and flowers. You would think a hat this gorgeous would have won an award, but I couldn't compete with the guy who wore a ferry boat and Bannerman's Island, or the lady wearing a horse barn and paddock, or the guy who had a whole working puppet theatre on his head. It was still fun.

This last weekend I volunteered to work at the SCATS sale. This is a combined yard sale, held by an animal rescue organzation across the river. They run a second-hand shop, and once a year they set up a huge yard sale in the parking lot of a pet food store, and invite local rescue groups to set up tables there. At the end of the day all the money is pooled and divided among the groups, and best of all, SCATS loads up all the stuff that doesn't get sold, and hauls it back to their store! We had about a dozen people there from our cat shelter, working all day. We worked hard, got sunburned, and made about a thousand dollars.

I also offered to sell raffle tickets for a Mets baseball game to the millionaire attorneys at my office. You know, it's DANGEROUS, trying to sell Mets tickets-- to Yankees fans! I practically got blasted out of a couple of offices!

You would all of these activities are enough volunteer stuff for one person for one month, but no. My high school class is celebrating its 35th reunion, and I offered to put together a booklet, updating what my classmates have been doing all this time. The internet makes it a little easier, I suppose. It has been fun, trying to find people. I've sent out a lot of questionnaires, but people are taking their time to respond. I'm afraid I'm going to get buried in them at the very last minute.

I called my Mom to tell her that Robert and I will be driving in on the weekend of June 23rd, for the reunion. She then called me, twice, to ask if we couldn't possibly come on another weekend, instead. Our dear pipe Major, Ken Jones, was being honored at the Highland Games in Alma, Michigan, and his three daughters were coming up from Virginia for that. There was going to be a band reunion of sorts, and Mom wanted the whole family to go to that, also she said there was going to be a family get-together involving my nieces from Chicago. So Robert and I changed plans. We told her we'd drive out for the Memorial Day weekend (Robert HATES to travel on holiday weekends, with the increased traffic) and I bought a non-refundable plane ticket for myself, for just one day, so I can attend the reunion later on. We had theater tickets that we couldn't change for a different date so we gave them away (the THIRD play we would have missed this season from our season ticket subscription) and got vacation time approved and did all the stuff necessary to take off on Thursday after work.

Then everything got confusing. It seems there wasn't really any family get-together planned, and Mom wasn't planning on going to the reunion. We decided not to drive out, under those circumstances, and we'll try to do that later on thjs summer. Maybe we'll throw a big party to celebrate my mother's new deck. So Robert and I spent the long weekend doing what we NEEDED to do--backed-up house and yard work. Our neighbors saw us, still at home, and insisted on giving us our theater tickets back (a musical based on Jekyll and Hyde) so we got to go to that, and enjoyed it.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

May 18, 2007

May 18, 2007

Here’s the rest of our Mexican trip:

The third city we visited was Querétaro. This is an important city, historically. It is where Emperor Maximilian was executed, among other things. Previously, Robert had us booked at a fancy hotel, but there were no rooms available when we had to reschedule the trip, so we stayed at someplace that SOUNDED like it might be interesting. It was touted as an eighteenth-century former convent, but they managed to cover up or destroy any vestige of that past when they turned it into a hotel. Our room was literally four times the size of the one we had in San Miguel, and four times as expensive. It was like a McMansion hotel room, with soaring ceilings, a second floor “loft,” and a whole lot of wasted space. It also had two TVs and two leather couches. It seemed to me they designed over all the things that might have made it interesting. There had originally been a huge central courtyard, but now they use it to drive cars through, so it wasn’t very pretty, and they installed a lackluster bar and restaurant in the middle. Although some of the rooms opened onto little courtyards, with perhaps a small tiled fountain in the middle, all the window glass was frosted, so you couldn’t look through them. There were topiary trees in pots, but hardly any flowers. Even the tulips in vases on the restaurant tables were fake. There was no place to sit down in the courtyards, to enjoy them, and no shade plants on the roof.

We went for a walk and saw more plazas and churches, and a very ancient and impressive two-mile long aqueduct. We also walked around the Pantheon of Heroes, with statues of famous people who’d lived in Queretaro. It made us wish we knew more about Mexican history. My impression of the town was that it is about as interesting as downtown Fresno. I especially didn’t care for our hotel, and I think we paid way too much for it. However, on a walk we passed by an intriguing place that looked like a Moorish palace inside, with a courtyard filled with flowers and fancy tiled walls and fountains. I commented to Robert about how lush and gorgeous it was, and he told me that was the place he had originally intended us to stay. Pooh! I bought some postcards of it. It would have been fun to stay there.

We visited a museum called Casa de la Zacatecana. It is an old hacienda that had belonged to a wealthy couple from Zacateca, a nearby city. There’s a rather dramatic history to the house. The woman’s husband went away on a business trip and never came back. Later, she was found stabbed to death in the street. She had been murdered in the house, and hauled outside. People didn’t like her because there had been a rumor that her husband didn’t just disappear–that she had actually convinced her servant to kill him for her. So the neighbors strung her body up in front of the house and more or less let her rot there, as a warning to others about being evil. Years later, when someone bought the house, they dug up the garden and found the remains of both her husband and the servant, so I guess la Zacatecana deserved her post-mortem shame after all. Now her house is supposed to be haunted. The docent showed us a place where, if you look up at a reflection from a little round window in a tower, you were supposed to be able to see her face. (We didn’t.)

Anyway, the place is now a museum featuring antique furniture and decorative objects. We started our tour watching a fairly high-style movie of the story of the Zacatecana, then walked through the house. Rooms were done up in different styles and time periods, and a couple rooms held collections, such as one with was completely covered with crucifixes. The darkened rooms lit up as you approached the doors, so it was rather spooky to approach one with 120 antique clocks in it, because you could hear all the furious ticking before you ever saw the contents.

We walked into several impressive churches, including one I really liked that looked as if it had been wallpapered throughout with pink and red patterned paper. It was really stenciling, but looked very nice. I think that church was called San Antonio. We also saw one that didn’t have an impressive main altar (it had been “improved” and modernized) but there were five older altar retablos on the side walls that were absolutely amazing. They were roiling with life-sized saints and angels, and cute little cherubs who were playing peek-a-boo with one another.

We decided to cut our visit to Queretaro shorter, to spend a little more time in Mexico City. We took a bus, then a taxi to the airport, where our hotel was. It was too early to check in, but they held our luggage for us, and arranged for a driver (Enrique) to take us to Teotihuacan. Enrique was a big guy, very nice, and he and Robert talked about religion and cannibalism in Spanish on the way there (about 55 miles). He took us to a small anthropological museum on the way, where we saw 12,500-year-old skulls, then to the ancient city. I had been there once when I was a little girl. My Dad was curator of exhibits at the MSU Museum, and he made a diorama of one of the pyramids, with hundreds of teeny little Teotihuacanians climbing all over it. I didn’t remember much about the actual place, except that there were pyramids and scary snake heads made of stone.

We walked to the top of the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl. This gave us good views of the two-mile-long Avenue of the Dead, lined with hundreds of smaller buildings, and two large Pyramids at the far end. Instead of being made of big chunks of stone, like at Chichen Itza, these pyramids are fashioned out of smaller, irregularly shaped stones, mortared with lime. In the mortar joints, tiny red stones have been pressed in a design, so it is very colorful and pretty. Over that, there had once been a thick layer of lime, brightly painted. The pyramids are very attractive and architectural.

Instead of walking (which we could have done, because it was pleasantly cool) Enrique drove us around the compound to the Pyramid of the Sun, the tallest one. The steps varied but most of them were about 12" high, so that was hard on my “old lady” hips. We went up to the first level. I told Enrique that was far enough–we had no desire to climb it, but he grabbed my hand and HAULED me up to the next level. I was glad he did, later. The views were great, and we walked around to the back of the Pyramid. Going back down was scary, in general, but not so bad if Robert and I held hands, and only looked at the next step we were stepping on, otherwise–aaaargh! There is a sort of optical illusion you experience staring down from the top of a pyramid–it feels as if you are on a sheer cliff, even though you know you aren’t. So even though the steps here are wider than those at Chichen Itza (about ten inches wide as opposed to about eight) and there was a raised handrail you could use, not just a chain lying on the steps, it still caused increased heart-pounding.

We got back in Enrique’s van and he drove us to a factory where they made obsidian objects and silver jewelry. A woman showed us the different colors of obsidian and explained how they carve and polish it. She also showed us how they smelt silver and make tiny chain links, and later we watched an artist put them together to make chains and other jewelry. The most interesting thing she showed us, however, was the maguey.

A maguey looks like a six-foot-tall aloe plant. When the plants are eight years old, people cut out the newest growth in the center, and use a tool to scrape the inside. The cavity fills up with sap, providing about two liters a day for each plant. In a matter of only a few hours, the nectar ferments into a kind of natural beer called pulque. A few hours after that, it’s spoiled, so it has to be drunk fairly quickly. After about three months of being used to make pulque, the plant dies.

Then the leaves are crushed and the fibers woven into fabric. There is a transparent layer inside the leaf that can be peeled off and used as a type of nearly indestructible waterproof paper. It dries hard and feels a lot like plastic. Also, the spine on the end of the leaf can be cut off in such a way that a few long fibers are left attached, and they use this as a pre-threaded needle! What a useful plant! We each had a tiny sip of pulque–very good! The nectar of the Aztecs tastes quite a bit like champagne.

We visited a very nice museum that explained all the phases of habitation of the area. It went from a population of 85,000 at its heyday (one of the largest cities on earth at the time!) down to about 2,000 when the Aztecs finally took it over. There were a lot of beautiful pots and pieces of murals on display, but the most impressive exhibit was a model of the entire complex, completely filling a room about 60 feet long by thirty feet wide. You crossed the room by walking across a glass bridge, so you could look down at the little temples under your feet. It was the same thing my Dad made for the MSU museum, multiplied eight-hundred times. Quite amazing!

We arrived at the Pyramid of the Moon just as it was closing. There, it was possible to go inside the pyramid, but all we could do was peer through roped-off doorways at some murals and beautifully-preserved carved columns. Oh well, next time.

We were starving by then, and Enrique suggested a restaurant. I had been noticing the topography as we were driving around. It looked as if there were dry stream beds running alongside the road, with the sides pitted with small caves. We arrived at the restaurant–that appeared to be the size of a two-car garage, until we walked up to it. Rather than being a hole in the wall, "El Gruto" is a hole in the ground. It is a 100-plus-year-old restaurant situated inside a giant cave. What a fun surprise! The floor of the cave was filled with tables, covered with bright pink, orange and green tablecloths, and the chairs were painted very bright colors, too. It was too dark to take a good photo. Too bad, because it was a marvelous sight. Waiters were running up and down long flights of stairs, carrying trays, and there was a stage where native dancers perform. This time, however, the stage had been taken over by a bunch of energetic little kids, who were showing off, dancing to the Jalisco music. They were cute and funny.

The menu was interesting. For thirty dollars we could have a small serving of "Mexican caviar." Robert said this was actually ant eggs. Enrique did his best to get us to order some, but it was a little too expensive for us, even for a special treat. We had great meals, perhaps the best of our whole trip. Robert had lamb, cooked in a pulque sauce in a buried clay pot. He said it was very tender. I had beef with mole sauce that was extremely chocolatey, and also delicious. It began to rain while we were there, and when we left, we saw a neon-orange sunset–just huge–with bands of navy blue across it.

We drove back into Mexico City at dusk. The traffic was tight. You couldn’t pay me to drive there. We saw what looked like a bad accident–a little car more or less embedded into the front of a bus. Earlier in the day we saw three police cars and six policemen trying to capture a scared little spaniel dog that had gotten onto the freeway. He was cowering in a corner while they tried to coax him out of danger.

It was a treat to see Mexico City at night. It’s the second largest city on earth now, I think (up there with Sao Paulo and Shanghai). Little lights covered the entire floor of the valley, and completely covered two mountains. The air was less polluted than I remember as a child, but maybe we were just there on a good day.

We went to the hotel and got checked in. Our room was nice, but I didn’t sleep well because I was worried about whether we’d make our flights from Mexico City to Acapulco, and from there to NYC. Rather, I was nervous that our luggage wouldn’t make the flight. We only had about an hour and a half to get our stuff off the domestic flight and onto the international flight. I was worried about being stuck in Mexico (during Spring break–God knows when there might finally be room for us to get on another flight) and about not finding our car keys and all sorts of stuff like that. I kept waking up. But when we got to the gate in Acapulco with NO TIME TO SPARE, we found our departing plane had not even arrived yet. It had been delayed. [Robert cannot help interjecting: It was an airline flight in the 21st century, yet somehow it had been delayed! Who would have guessed!?] There is a God! Our flight home was hitchless.

Well, it’s late now, and I’m going to bed! I’ll let Robert read this in the morning and add comments if he wants. As ever, we hope you are feeling well and happy.

Love, F (and R)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

May 17, 2007 etter

May 13, 2007

Here's a letter I wrote and forgot to mail out! Only new news since is that my high school is having a reunion, and I offered to put together a booklet updating the lives of everybody in the class. (Maybe that's why I'm to busy to send out a letter in a timely fashion!) Also, my story "The Copyist," about an art forger, will be published by Deadly Ink Press at the end of June. "Mr. Beak's Treasures" got an honorable mention from them last year, and was also published in their anthology, but they are being more "sneaky" about what they are telling me this year, and I think I may be one of the place winners. I'll find out some time after June 30.

The library's done–for real! We took pictures and everything! I must ask Linda Sharkey to show me how she puts pictures in letters (sigh.) I have about seven hundred different photo programs on my computer and twelve hundred places where photos get stored and no idea how to find one once it's in there. But I'll try to get it together, soon.

Anyway, back to April 29th...

April 29, 2007

The rain stopped, and the pump in the basement kept everything under control (we did have to keep it running night and day for almost a week, though) and we've had two wonderful spring weekends in a row. I spent the day yesterday dividing the hosta plants that I dug up at my old house in Detroit, and planted all along our front fence. I hate having to weed a fence, and had hoped that the hosta would grow in so thick that weeds wouldn't be able to take hold there. It worked pretty well, except that the City came put in a new water meter and killed a bunch of the plants in the process. So I dug up some of the big, healthy ones and divided them, to fill in the thin areas. It was like trying to divide iron with your bare hands. I am still achy. It looks great, though.

Last weekend was so pretty–perfect temperature and sunny. I opened the doors to air out the place. Mabel takes advantage of every opportunity to streak out of the house (there are all those things outside she has to smell, you see), but old Alice is happy to sit inside, in a windowsill. I never thought Alice might also be tempted to explore, so I didn't look for her last Saturday night, when I finally got Mabel coaxed back inside for the evening. I didn't think it was particularly odd that Alice didn't show up for breakfast at the crack of dawn. By about ten a.m., though, I started looking through the upstairs rooms for her. I finally found her, poor little baby, snoozing in a cardboard box on the back porch. She'd spent the whole night out there, and the temperature had gone down to forty. I felt really terrible about it, as Alice is about 100 years old, and this is no way for me to treat my favorite feline senior citizen!. I think she has forgiven me.

I've not really forgiven Mabel. It is my plan to have only indoor kitties, and we do our best not to let her outside. But her will is strong. When we come home from work, we try to block the door with our briefcases as we open it, but she is usually too fast for us. Then it's a big pain getting her back into the house, as she likes to play a little game called "hurry up and wait." In this game, we open the door and call her. She comes bounding up the stairs, then stops, three feet from the door, to smell a leaf on the porch, rub her head against the railing, or pretend she hears something. Then she just saunters away. If we try to go after her, she scampers away. Somehow Robert and I do not enjoy this game as much as Mabel does. We usually end it by yelling, "Fine, then! See if I care!"and slamming the door, only to try her again in another half-hour. This is how the evening had progressed last Sunday, when at ten p.m., she finally dashed into the house when I opened the door to call her. As is her practice, she runs into the dining room, falls on her side on the rug, and expects to get her tummy scratched. This time, however, she was acting really goofy, talking and zipping around the room. Then she tossed something through the air that landed, writhing, at my feet. She had brought one of those mean little snakes into the house. It was coiling and striking and hissing, and Mabel was having a blast.

I have never been particularly bothered by snakes until my experience in the backyard where one chomped onto my big toe and wouldn't un-chomp. And I've run into nests of them (Northern brown snakes) while weeding, and ended up with a handful of them once, when I was putting raked-up leaves into a bag. Having this thing flipping around in the air and being tossed at me freaked me out a little bit. I got all girly, and made Robert come downstairs to remove it from the house. By the time he got to it, the poor thing was dead. Mabel was hopped up all night, running around the house, calling for her lost victim/playmate. Now, of course, she'll be wanting to do this all summer. (Don't worry, Dawn. By the time you get here in November, snake season will be over.)

We had great birthdays. For some reason, so many of you remembered! Without being prodded! We got lots of phone calls and cards and e-mails, and some cool presents! Robert got me a fancy label-making machine (which I find too intimidating to learn how to use), a new (used) camera of exactly the same model that died in Mexico, a jacket, and a pair of wireless earphones, so I can listen to a book on tape while I do housework, and I don't have to keep stopping the tape or CD when I leave a room. Yay! I am hoping I can wear them on the treadmill in the basement, and hear the TV over the roar of the furnace. I got Robert some Charles Dickens books on tape, and I filled a bunch of plastic Easter eggs with promises, such as "I'll mow the lawn" and some more risqué offers. We had a couple of nice restaurant meals, and our friend Ruth gave us a fabulously expensive juicer. All the better to make grape jelly with!

What else? The library continues. I took some pictures with the digital camera of Robert, organizing books, that I will TRY to send along with this letter. The picture will probably be gigantic when you try to open it up. I am such a cyber-moron. Anyway, every day I think he is nearly done, but the next day, the exact same number of stacks of books are on the floor again. I don't know where they come from. We have bookcases in every room, sorted by subject (travel books in the TV room, poetry in the guest room, humor in Robert's music room, architecture in the parlor, etc., etc.). Robert is trying to take the best advantage of space, so he's not just filling up these bookcases, he's shifting books all over the house. It's the curse of the literate. But the end is in sight, I think.

My friend Dee, who had applied for a job in New York with the Girl Scouts, instead accepted a job at an Indian school on a reservation in Arizona. She's miles from any store, and as part of her compensation, they offered her a horse! So far, her cat Oliver doesn't like being indoors all the time, but there are rattlers under her porch.... I sent her dozens of little bottles of shampoo and lotion that I collected during my three weeks living at the Hilton Hotel in Hackensack. I thought she might like to give them as gifts to the women she meets there. I'm glad she has a job, and I hope she enjoys her time there–she'll be there for at least three years.

We are members of a chamber music society. The concerts are held in the Howland Art Center, that used to be Beacon's public library. It is a fabulously ornate carpenter Gothic structure, a gift to the town from Victorian millionaires back when being a millionaire really meant something. In addition to being a concert venue, they have art shows there. We sit on the second floor balcony, that runs all around the room, below a gorgeous intersecting vault ceiling, made of cedar, and arched windows decorated with wrought iron filigree. It's a beautiful place, with great acoustics. We always enjoy the performances, though we haven't made any real friends through our six-year involvement there, because frankly, people in that group are snooty.

At the last concert it had been a beautiful day, and we had been off on some adventure, getting back to town just in time to grab our tickets and run. We didn't have time to get gussied up or anything, and in fact, I was feeling rather self-conscious about how informally I was dressed. The musicians–two young cellists--played beautiful, somber music, and came back for an encore. They started out with the usual stuff, playing something that sounded familiar, but I couldn't place it. Then they played faster, and people started grinning. It took a moment for me to recognize it was the theme song from "The Simpsons." By the end, everybody was laughing. It was a fun.

Well, I've got a little more Mexico adventure for you, but no room left in this letter. We hope you are well and enjoying good weather!

Love, F and Robert.