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!