Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Napa Conference a Go-Go

Our conference is in full swing. Day One was, as usual, organized chaos: welcoming newcomers, greeting returnees and old friends, handing out packets and name tags, steering people to the correct rooms at the right time. The weather was rather perfect, warmish-to-hot for us, yet a welcome relief to those coming from Texas (hotter than a pistol) or the East Coast (muggy as hell). After Orientation (first for the entire conference, then for each workshop), and then a pouring of notable Napa Valley wines to accompany a very delicious Mediterranean-inspired meal on the verandah, we gathered our chairs to sit on the lawn under the slowly deepening sky to listen as both Carl Dennis and ZZ Packer gave bang-up readings, the Mayacamas mountains a purpling backdrop behind them.

It doesn't get much better than that.

But ... there's more, like about four more days worth.

To be continued.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Quiet Ruckus of Nature

I have the great good fortune to spend a few days at a nature preserve spelling a friend who needed a few days out of the woods. I'm only too happy to go into them. Not that this is so far out in the woods in the physical sense; town is really only a boulder-roll downhill, yet it seems another universe away. No traffic, few people (maybe once a day), plenty of critters: skittering lizards, birds galore, deer crashing around in the brush. The lack of civilization’s noise is disconcerting at first, but soon enough my ears give up scanning for screeching cars, cooped-up dogs, unhappy children, construction clamor, someone else’s tv or radio (always tuned quite loudly to the wrong station). Suddenly the racket of nature comes to the forefront: rustling leaves, rattling dry-grass, zooming bees, whining flies, chirping, trilling, whistling birds, the Woodpeckers Chorus drilling on the oaks across the stream bed. Sometimes a random dog barks from a ranch way across on another hill, and yes, airplanes do rumble and buzz across the sky, but these noises seemed dialed down as the rustling breeze seems dialed up.

I'm staying at what might be termed a Researcher's Residence. This is a far cry from the cozy country cabins one rents for vacation, yet no tents are involved. It’s much closer to camping with some decent amenities, such as a real bed, fridge, stove, bathroom, mudroom, washer and dryer. No need to go downhill into town for anything other than consumables and your choice of beverages. That said, one has to be prepared for what these amenities might be used for. The mudroom hosts nets and containers, boots, bib-waders, boxes of mysterious (to me) contraptions, all with the accompanying odor of muck and marshbottom. The freezer, handy for leftovers and coffeebeans, is also home to a variety of Tupperware containers and Ziploc bags labeled cryptically with numbers and dates. Some of the smallest containers hold desiccated bees and other critters I didn’t look at closely enough to identify.

There is, I notice, a distinction between Inside Bugs and Outside Bugs, with a sincere effort made to keep the Outside Bugs out and the Inside Bugs in. Tight screens and door seals work for the Outside Bugs; the Inside Bugs are trapped in more of those plastic tubs spread out on the kitchen counter, some large enough to serve as mini-ponds for the water bugs, others are those tiny little condiment containers we get with take-out.Most of the containers are labelled with black marker on blue carpenters tape: Whirligig beetle, Diving Beetle, Stonefly. Still other bugs have been identified and pinned into the display cases, with the tiny neat tags indentifiying species and location of capture. Every surface has reference books on insects, pollinators, flowers, local geography.

We humans get to occupy the DIZ (De-Insectified Zone) between the two, which surprisingly enough only has a few spiders in the corners, like any normal house. And here I sit amongst the bugs, inside or out, content to breathe the quiet ruckus of nature.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Can't help myself

...after dinner tonight (carnitas, Mi Pueblo, yes!), stopped in at Copperfield's, my favorite indie bookstore, where they were having a 2 for 1 on all sale books.Yowzers! Even though I'm reading my brains out, I didn't make it out of the store without these six books: Cheating at Canasta, William Trevor; The Florist's Daughter, Patricia Hample; Run, Ann Patchett; What Now? Ann Patchett; Peterson's Field Guide to Birds of North America (2002) and The Welsh Girl, Peter Ho Davies.

Okay, so I've read Run, but I don't own it. Want to keep my Patchett up to date and current. One can always use a good Field Guide. And Peter Ho Davies is teaching at the Napa Valley Conference! I've been reading a library copy of The Welsh Girl and I can tell already it's a keeper. So now I have it. And maybe I'll ask Peter Ho Davies to sign it.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Antonya Nelson

Only ten days away, that Napa Conference. Whooeee! I'm so ready!

We have a great group of faculty again, both fiction (Robert Boswell, Peter Ho Davies, Antonya Nelson, ZZ Packer) and poetry (Elizabeth Alexander,Carl Dennis, Jane Hirschfield, David St John) and I've been treating myself to reading their work.

Toni Nelson..well, I've been a fan since stumbling across her stories in the New Yorker way long ago. Her stories have a taint of nightmare about them, those oh-so-real nightmares: a dead cat in the swimming pool just before the family moves out, or a woman sharing an apartment for one month with a stranger, a woman undergoing radical elective cosmetic surgery and who appears for a good part of the story swathed in bandages. (Both of these stories appeared in the New Yorker and are in her latest collection, "Nothing Right," from Bloomsbury). Yet her work is firmly rooted in perceived experience, in our realities. Nelson has an astute understanding of the our emotional drives; she has a way of putting her characters in a heightened state of internal conflict, catching them at the pivot points, when their emotional stews are all stirred up. She understands that little bit of outlaw in all of us and lets it out; her people are always in a twist, whether they know it or not.

She also writes some bang-up sentences.

So, using a method running around Facebook; I've opened "Nothing Right" to page 56. Here is a passage beginning with the third sentence on the page:

"Abby investigated, the ample evident of plenty behind every door she tentatively tapped upon and then opened: the closet full of Christmas gifts that Santa would bring to the little children, the linen cupboard, currently depleted as sheets and towels had been distributed throughout the house, and in each of the five children's bedrooms the same-yet-different clutter, the way all of them had sprung open their luggage and left their intimate aricles everywhere--jewelry, pajamas, makeup, pharmaceuticals. The last, largest bedroom belonged to the patriarch; it alone was orderly, chilly as a tomb. On the mantel a clock ticked, and the air smelled of soot from the fireplace, of camphor and dust and the cool steam of a humidifier. A bathrobe hung from each of the footboard posts, two ghosts, and a large wooden cross was propped menacingly in a corner. In the top drawer of the dresser Abby found a stack of mint-fresh twenty-dollar bills--stocking stuffers, she wagered, slipping one in her packet. She'd taken less obvious things from the other rooms, pills and an earring and a pair of pantyhose, but from the genreation that occupied this room she wanted nothing but cash."
---from the story OBO by Antonya Nelson in "Nothing Right."

If you're in the neighborhood the last week of July, you'll have a chance to hear Toni Nelson read at the Robert Mondavi Winery, Thursday, July 29th. See Calendar of Readings and Lectures for more info on all events open to the public during the Napa Valley Writers Conference.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Cat's Meow

While we all know it is pretty difficult to train cats (they have to be in the mood, they'll do it in their own time, on their own terms, they can't be observed doing it, they have to be about to do it anyway), scientists have recently confirmed (see article here) what all cat owners have always known: they train us.

And boy howdy, it sure doesn't take long for us to learn that we are their scullery maids, doormen, butlers and cooks. Though, on occasion, they will dispatch a rodent or two in honor of our services.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Where it's at:

We steer our life through so many dichotomies, asked to choose between Dem or Rep, vegetarian or omnivore, plastic or paper, Beta or VHS, BlueRay or DVD. Our choices describe us: Democrat, vegetarian, BlueRay, maybe one who’s jumped the fences and brings a bag to the grocery store. Perhaps no other choice, though, defines the techie-generations than Mac or PC.

Usually, I let my pocketbook dictate my choice of computers: PC, PC, PC. But now, my decade-old machine, so lovingly assembled by my son, then in high school, and for the most part a stalwart beast, has gone beyond limping along; it is stumbling all over itself begging for the misery-ending bullet. I’m sure its innards are thick and crusty with parasitic viruses and leeching worms; it can barely boot up half the time and once going, it usually takes the first opportunity to freeze and quit. Without a doubt, it’s time for a new computer.

This time I’m going Mac.

So of course the curious bystander wants to know why. Aesthetically, of course, any Mac is heads and shoulders above the rest, no doubt about that. But my tipping point boiled down to engineering: I’m sick of all these viruses (pun absolutely intended; don’t you too get sick when your machine has been attacked?), tired of repairs, burned up on updating and installing the latest point-whatever of another version of Windows, which then rearranges all the lines of communication within my poor beast.

Like a million other end-users, I just want a machine that works, works well and never stops working. I want the Maytag, not the Sylvania. I’m not interested in re-coding, inserting new cards, coaxing it tho function using a screwdriver and voodoo rituals and holding interventions to make it speak politely to the printer. Printer, say you’re sorry for going offline; CPU, say you’re sorry for setting the parameters too wide. The fact that Macs just plain work, don’t take sick-days and look gorgeous while doing it put them miles above PC’s and most of my old boyfriends. Even my son, PC-maniac that he once was, encourages me towards a Mac machine, any Mac machine. Yes, they cost more. But it’s a well-deserved investment in my sanity and patience. Not to mention that, with all this talk of furloughs and layoffs on campus, I may not be buying another computer for a very very long time; this one has got to last.

So here I am: liberal, Dem, bring-my-own-bag, omnivore, Mac-ecstatic: Mac-tastic!