Friday, December 26, 2014

2014's Last Bad Poem

Another year through which we've slogged.
The homefront loses cat and dogs.

The world's sorrows too increase.
We tortured for the sake of peace.
I only hope we see a time
to try Dick Cheney for war crimes.
November elections sure weren't mobbed
by folks who work at minimum wage jobs.
Cynicism it seems trumps fear
in the worst voter turnout in 72 years.

Worldwide tragedy, turmoil and crisis.
Fear of Ebola, ISIL (or is it ISIS?)
Putin's gone postal and insane in Ukraine
and will the Malaysians ever find that plane?

Robin Williams and Phil Seymour I miss a whole bunch.
Mr. Mickey Rooney, not so much.
But worst of all, I have to swear,
What will I do without Colbert?

Clamor and paranoia about cyber attacking.
But is Kim Jong Un smart enough for that hacking?
The Interview though is back down from the shelf
but would have been funnier had Un played himself.

There's freedom to marry in 34 states
but if you're black don't go out in a hoodie too late.
And if you want to study or learn a vocation,
don't be a girl in a number of places.

But here in the States we educate girls and they think.
Just don't let Bill Cosby prepare you a drink.
And if you're of color and don't wish to offend,
Don't pose for pictures with Donald Sterling's girlfriend.

A tough year, leaves us scarred and battered,
we grieve and chafe at a world in tatters.
A new age harkens, a change in the climate.
Now, inside your head is the only place private.
But for self-comfort, we don't have to go far
to score Denver pot and Cuban cigars.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Passing, Pets and Potato Pancakes

My senior employee Bryce's mother passes away and I attend the service at Forest Lawn. There are wakes, viewings, novenas and other events I'm invited to but I opt only to attend the service with another of my employees. I contrast the extravaganza of this death with the simple service held for my dad. After my mom 's slow unraveling the connections she'd had were either dead or distant. I marked her passing only by sending a few notes informing the last vestiges of friends and relatives that she was gone. My employee is Filipino and my colleague and I are the only white people in the crammed chapel. The casket is open but fortunately not visible from my seat in the back row.

Bryce has worked for me over 25 years. We like each other just fine but I have never been to his home. His free time is devoted 100% to family, which is huge, extended and primarily comprised of households of three or more generations. We understand that this is not necessarily harmonious but just the way it is. Bryce never reports, “I saw a friend from high school” or intimates any social interactions with non-relatives. The SRO service is led by a Filipino priest. One of Bryce's daughter's sings and the other recites a psalm. Bryce eulogizes his mother. During her medical decline and after her death, Bryce is absent from work many days. I confess to being a bit resentful about this but when he speaks, through tears, about his mom, I feel guilty for having begrudged him this time off.

The parents move to Los Angeles from the Philippines when Bryce is a toddler. His mother doesn't drive and newly arrived in Los Angeles she is dependent on public transportation. When Bryce is five or so he accompanies his mom to run errands and she takes the wrong bus. They end up stranded at the freeway bus stop on the 101. Mom has no command of English. She holds Bryce's hand tighter. He senses how frightened she is as she tries to hold back tears and reassure him. She closes her eyes, prays and determines to try to walk home. Despite feeling his mother's fear, Bryce remembers feeling certain and secure that his mom would take care of him. Her prayers are indeed answered and a lady stops for them and offers to drive them home.

Bryce's mom undergoes a number of procedures before it is concluded that further life saving efforts are futile. Still stifling sobs, Bryce goes on to describe his mother's last days in the hospital. He holds her hand and encourages her to be strong and fight for her life. Finally, he has a sad epiphany. His desire for his mother to soldier on, despite the odds, harks back to her clasping his hand on the freeway. He is accustomed to his mother's firm grasp and her prayers but he realizes that his pep talks come from a selfish place. It is time for his mother to be at peace and time for Bryce to let her go.

After two weeks of liquids, my stitches are removed and I am given the green light to return to solids. I have salivating dreams about hamburgers, although I almost never eat beef. I head straight from the dentist to The In-N-Out and order the #2 combo. I've done stuff like this before and still haven't gotten it through my head that food that I don't make myself is almost never as good as I imagine it. The burger is gristly and the fries are lukewarm and limp. Fortunately, it is Hanukah. Although I hate making them and particularly spending a week cleaning the grease out of the kitchen, homemade latkes and donuts do not disappoint sense memories and I will likely pass on the Weight Watcher's scale this week.

Joe College is home. This is the first time he's been there without Spuds or Girlfriend In-Law in many moons and he is quite chill and remarkably studious, working arduously on some paper with Himself, having made it clear that the subject matter is well beyond my meager grasp. I ask him if he wants to learn to make latkes and he is indifferent. “But who,” I ask, “is going to make them when I'm dead?” I'm not sure if he's just trying to placate me or if he realizes that there might be a point after I am gone that he might actually want some latkes and in that the current inamorata is a shiksa, it might be prudent to learn. He peels and grates the potatoes and pays attention to the frying process and confers in me a slight sense of immortality.

In his first concentrated time stuck with us, the boy is getting a sense of our devolution. I don't think Himself has left the house in over two weeks and I often work from home for a couple days in a row. We hardly ever go to movies or eat out. We watch a lot of TV and dote on the remaining dog and cat.

The last couple of weeks are dedicated to encouraging Gary the cat, who has been relegated to our bedroom for over a decade, to come downstairs, despite the presence of Opie, the dog. The cat sequester was due to Rover and Taffy's failure to master cat etiquette. With the two elder gents gone, we decide that perhaps gentle Opie is young enough to learn not to chew up a cat. At first I bring Gary down and hold him swaddled in a blanket and let him and the dog sniff each other. We leave the door open and after about a week, Gary ventures down to the living room on his own volition. We talk about this for days. Even more miraculous is the day when Gary not only descends into the living room, he actually jumps into Himself's lap. Joe College is indifferent to the cat/dog integration project. A friend comes to watch a movie and sits in Himself's chair. Gary not only comes downstairs but he jumps into our friend's lap and cuddles. Himself and I shriek like little girls at this miracle. Joe College rolls his eyes and suggests that perhaps we should get out more.

Bryce is back at work now. He's been helping his dad go through his mother's stuff. Someday I guess my kids will be going through mine. I have a couple of big purges every year and try to get rid of that which is neither functional or beautiful, but there is still a lot of crap. I remember my irritation at my own mother's accretion of junk. I try to be a better steward but there are all those nearly empty bottles of shampoo, underpants with stretched out elastic and funky little jars of makeup. Who will discard these sad worn vestiges? I grow more and more mindful about making my passing less of a nuisance for the sprats. I don't want to cloud their memories of how much I love them. I hope the dumpster full of my garbage is disposed expeditiously and that the kids never have a Chanukah without latkes, despite the greasy mess.

Illustration by Paula Rego (again...)

Friday, December 12, 2014

Cookie Momster

All I have to look forward to is the removal of stitches from my gum and the green light to eat food. I want a hamburger. I don't usually eat beef but I may stop at In-N-Out and yes, I'll have fries with that. I suspect being unable to eat solids is more traumatic for me than it would be for most people. It's such a stupid thing to feel sorry for myself about and I attribute this to a lack of character and willpower. How many people go from a Weight Watchers meeting directly to a restaurant to order flan AND ice cream? Despite this little spree, essentially I subsist on fat free yogurt, sugar free pudding and jello plus mashed sweet and russet potatoes.

There are some popsicles and ice cream in the freezer but this appliance has been an ongoing source of frustration since its purchase last year. Helpful hint: It is not prudent to purchase a refrigerator only because it's a cool color (Wasabi). We've gone round and round with different service companies. The retailer we purchased from has been more than supportive. They've even offered to replace the unit with a brand new one but Wasabi has been discontinued so my only option is stainless steel. Nope. The problem du jour is that the freezer won't close unless we prop the bottom up with tuna cans and books. This means that in order to fetch a popsicle I have to jam objects under the heavy door in order for it to shut fast. This requires Himself's grudging assistance so I limit my popsicle intake to one a day.

Working at home is very easy these days so I decide to stay there for the service call. Himself could likely handle it but because he has so much less invested in the refrigerator than I do, I don't entirely trust him. As we've had so much trouble with the fridge, a service supervisor directly from the Viking Company has been summoned. I wax on a lot about the advantage of being old is that you no longer are bound to give a rat's ass what anyone thinks. The anticipation of a service call proves how full of shit I am. First of all, I notice that there are smudge marks on the fridge and fingerprints on the handle and take to it with a sponge. But the interior too has remnants of little spills so I move stuff around and clean the shelves. A lot of the jars and containers look less than pristine so I wipe these down too.

There is an accretion of dog hair, dust and popcorn kernels jammed underneath the freezer which I lie on the floor and dislodge with a toothbrush. I mop the area and while I'm at it, scrub down the rest of the kitchen and then the living room floor. I spy some coffee stains on the counter adjacent to the fridge and end up cleaning all of the kitchen counters. I worry that the serviceman will think that we're pigs or worse, that our lack of cleanliness is somehow at fault for the appliance malfunction.

When I stay home I wear a house dress, rubber flip flops and eschew makeup and a bra. I have a prosthetic front tooth that fits over an incision site. I only wear it when I'm out in the world in order to accelerate healing. The TV is usually on while I sit on the couch parsing through business e-mails. My inclination, when someone is expected, even a service person, is to put on real clothes-including bra, apply makeup and fake tooth and turn off the TV. It occurs to me that even if the repairman were to cast judgment on me, it doesn't matter. It is not a social interaction or a job interview. It is an accomplishment that as the hour of the scheduled appointment approaches, I remain on the couch in my schmata, sans bra and tooth. At least the kitchen is clean. There is a knock at the door and I make a split decision to turn off the TV. It is Forensic Files and experts are discussing DNA evidence gleaned from a rape kit. Fortunately, it's a rerun.

The repairman informs me that mainly his job is advising other repairman and it's been a long time since he's been out in the field, implying how special I should feel to merit his personal service. He goes to work confidently on Wasabi, all the while grunting, panting, sighing and talking to himself as he dismantles the freezer and diagnoses its problems. His vocalization is so continuous that I miss the cues as to when he expects me to respond to his patter. Nevertheless, the repair is complete and there is no comment about the cleanliness of the kitchen or the slovenliness of my person.

I can have a popsicle now whenever I want but I am still deprived of chewable food and am not finding much equanimity regarding Spuds departure next week for Israel. Yes, I traveled a lot and to more remote places when I was younger than he is. There were no cellphones or ATMs in those days. He will be on a Birthright program for the first ten-days so it is likely that a potential Jewish parent will be keeping an eye on the lad. After though the boy will be traveling and staying with a friend's family for ten days. He assures me that he will be fine but when I ask him to call me he says his phone is dead and he's been sending text messages via his laptop (which I confess I wouldn't know how to do.) BUT, the kid who is traveling half way across the world and will be at least on the periphery of dangerous territory and he doesn't even have it together enough to keep his phone charged. And if I didn't have concerns about his competence, Spuds has been gone since early August. He was absent for his birthday and Thanksgiving and will miss Hanukah, Jewish Christmas and New Years. I know that the kids will spend more and more time away but this long stretch is radical. I expected to ease into this new life stage more gradually. No, I don't want them home still when they're in their forties, cutting up my food and trimming my nose hairs. I've just spent over two decades in the frenzy of raising them that it never really dawned on me that I wouldn't really know what to do with myself when they left.

Deprived of kids and food and travel plans I seldom make it off the couch. It takes enormous will to get myself off the sofa and upstairs at bedtime. The effort required to wash my face, brush my teeth and change into my nightgown is daunting. I wake in the middle of the night unable to turn off lists of possible catastrophes. My phone whines with an emergency flood alert at three in the morning. Rain is pounding. I commit to not getting back to sleep and drink coffee. It is cookie baking season. For years I've sent my best clients and business associates baked good for the holidays. While the kids were home I handled concessions for their theater group and did large scale baking several times a year. Now the business baking is my only big kitchen project.

I did a complete kitchen remodel about eight years ago and I still appreciate how lucky I am every time I cook or bake. I throw an apron on over my nightgown and arrange all of my ingredients and bakeware on the counter. The rain doesn't let up. The oven is pre-heated. Butter and sugar are creamed in the mixer. Dry ingredients are sifted. Cookie sheets are lined with parchment. In an even rhythm I shape cookies and roll them in sugar and line them up in even rows. I have baked so many cookies in my life I don't even need to use a timer. The aroma tells me when the trays need to be rotated in the oven and when they're ready to come out. Cooling racks laden with warm cookies, even if I can't eat them, the familiar repetition of the baking process, knowing that something I do well makes people happy...This simple, trifling thing restores my soul and the dark clouds are only outside. But I'm still pretty set on that burger.

Friday, December 5, 2014


I transition from road trip aftermath into Thanksgiving mode. Both of the two families who usually join us are elsewhere so our event is scaled down. Nevertheless, I make the same stuff I always make in smaller portions and the week is absorbed by cooking and shopping. Spuds spends the holiday with a friend's family in New York. He describes a bustling houseful, including a high maintenance toddler. I am tempted to pry from him for every detail of the experience. The exact menu. The layout of the house. The guest list. He has been at home for eighteen celebrations. I am nervous that the food might not be very good or that there might be an awkward family scene of the sort that it is not uncommon this time of year. Perhaps this first elsewhere Thanksgiving is not as monumental for Spuds as it is for me. But, there is a tiny pang of wistfulness in the boy's voice so perhaps he too senses the shifting sands.

I soften now when I remember my mother watching me set out myself into the world. At least I have Himself. My mother had intermittent boyfriends and intermittent contact with my sister but I was the only constant. She watched me travel alone to Mexico and Europe back before cell phones, e-mail and ATM machines. I always interpreted her worry as a lack of confidence in my ability to navigate the world. Such a misplaced fear, as I knew everything and more. In guilty hindsight, had she known my actual travails she should have worried even more. She was cowed by the force of my will and my demand for, what I perceived in the day, as freedom. Now I see that I was just another fat girl trying to create allure and mystique. I was hellbent, relentless to mold an image that would combat my real sense of myself. I even manipulated Mom to bankroll some of my adventures. How often did she lie awake fretting about where and how I was? Yet she never discouraged me from traveling off the beaten path. When I think back on all the trips I made my memories of scenery and people are scant. Returning I recounted wild adventures but I see myself sitting cross legged on a bed in a crappy room in London or Guatemala or Amsterdam and feeling desperately alone.

Unlike my poor mother, I have instant contact with both of the kids, and can put money into their accounts via my phone. Still I am ill at ease when they are in transit or somewhere that is unfamiliar to me. They create and amass indelible images that I am no longer a part of. I changed their diapers and now they are the captains of their own fate. Except for cellphone, health and auto insurance and tuition. Sometimes they gang up against me and recount something awful I said or did that I have no memory of. My own mother plays the heavy in many of my own memories but as I watch my own kids and experience their different phases I suspect that the woundings have historically and unfairly been given more weight than the warm and fuzzy. Sorry Mom.

Joe College returns with some friends for the holiday. He is graduating from college in May although we are not permitted to discuss this and I guess I don't blame him. Nearly forty years ago I was in the same predicament and my recollection is of very little mirth. Joe College is visited by a smart kid who graduated last year from a school better than either of my kids could have gotten into. Now he's settled in Brooklyn where he has some sort of gig that involves music criticism and undoubtedly hefty subsidies from home. He and Joe College drink beer and sit on the couch and converse for a couple of hours while I cook. They go back and forth trying to best each other with uber-obscure bands. Both however appear to have heard everything worth hearing and most artists are proclaimed as being,“tight.”

It sort of makes me want to slap my own twenty-something self. It was not relevant how my opinions were formed. They just had to be the right ones. I'd find an attraction that synthesized the aesthetic I could only vaguely sense but was unprepared expound upon. Everything overlapping in the Venn Diagram of the admirable talent was added to the list of that which was “tight.” But perhaps this was not shallowness, nor laziness but the right instincts minus the maturity required to give voice to gut feelings. I can't remember any of the bands that are mentioned as they go on and on well in my earshot. I am unsure of how my presence registers to them. Are they performing to remind me that I am an anachronism or am I completely invisible? I take a bit of comfort from observing that the friend, despite being a year ahead of Joe College and having a more prestigious alma mater, seems to possess no greater gravitas.

The fondest wishes my depression survivor parents had for me was to lose weight and marry well. I endured a lot of self destruction coming to realize that for all my hippie college aspirations, my own hopes for myself were more in line with my parents' then I could bear to admit. I do spend a lot of time imagining where Joe College will land post-baccalaureate. I am somewhat ill at ease as I recall the weird, and sometimes profoundly unhappy, places I slogged through in my twenties. Perhaps my eldest will learn earlier down the road than his mom did that the satisfaction of being curious is equal, or greater, to that of being an authority. I know that he has to make his own way but maybe having parents who root for him discovering who he is and what it is he does best, rather than becoming who we think he should be, will be to his advantage. Maybe though it's inevitable that kids perceive any parental input as controlling or belittling. Certainly, I will become more and more hands off and perhaps it will be a challenge to find the right place between indifferent and control freak. Having two kids who can be categorized as “creative types” I wonder if they are particularly susceptible to glamorizing angst. I guess kids of any generation are at the risk of succumbing to the affect of disaffectedness. This dark for dark's sake can sully what, particularly when you look back from your fifties, should have been a fucking fantastic time of life.

I guess it is unfair to the kids to expect that they'll inevitably flounder like I did. I do the sprats and myself a disservice by indulging in fixation on their futures. They are smart and resourceful enough to thrive without my micromanagement or perhaps despite it. The nest has been empty now nearly two years and I would have expected the fog of purposeless to have subsided. Indeed, there's been some amazing kids gone off to college travel, which has been satisfying and wonderful and lightyears from the lonely expeditions of my teens and twenties. The house however, is huge and quiet. It is not as clean as it would be if I didn't spend so much time playing Scrabble on my Kindle or watching tv. I make lists of things to do but accomplish only the bare minimum to keep us fed and clothed. I grouse bitterly when writers I deem lesser are published or win awards but I binge on crap TV or trolling Facebook instead of writing, or reading. I can tick off the phases and milestones the sprats pass through but as I approach sixty I am unsure whether I'm supposed to take a last grab at the gold ring or just enjoy my dotage and make sure there are fresh batteries in the remote. Back in my twenties I felt like I had become the person I would always be. I had no inkling as to what my 50s would feel like. I write this post oral surgery and all puffed out like a pumpkin and knowing that my teeth will continue to plague me and inevitably other body parts will start crapping out too. But for all my griping, it is better to be 57 and not giving a rat's ass what the world thinks than 22 or 19 and a slave to public opinion. I do not know if the next year will bring a magnum opus or a couple more HBO series binges. I'm old enough to know better than to make ambitious proclamations. As my memory goes sketchy and the body shows wear and tear, I know that whatever course Life: Part Two takes it is good to in a place where I can cultivate myself and not the image I present to the world.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Big Plans

The epic “now that the kids are gone journey” begins and ends in Albuquerque. When we arrive just about the first thing I notice at the airport is a big display of Breaking Bad merchandise. We return to Albuquerque and Rachel, my old friend from Johnston College, takes on a Breaking Bad tour. Our first stop is the car wash. In front there is a big official tour conducted in huge trailer, similar to the one Walt and Jessie cooked meth in. A large group of tourists take photos. Blue smoke gushes out of a vent on the top of the trailer. There are “no trespassing” signs in front of Walt's ugly cul de sac home. There is no parking anywhere and a small crowd takes pictures. We also see the cafe where Walt met with Lydia, the site of Pollo Hermanos and Hank's house. The RV tour is rated on Trip Adviser as one of Albuquerque's most popular attractions, second only to the Balloon Festival. When we return to the airport, Himself is disappointed to learn that the shop is out of Breaking Bad magnets. The clerk tells them that it's impossible to keep souvenirs of the program in stock.

I marvel at what a grip Breaking Bad has in establishing the city's identity. Himself says he's not surprised although he is nearly militantly nonplussed by anything I find uncanny. When I ask him however, he is unable to name another TV show that has etched itself upon the city where it filmed so indelibly. The fact that Breaking Bad is a cable show and is probably one of the blackest comedies in the history of television, increases my wonder at the phenomena.

After nearly four weeks of motels, it is good to be home and while I am, per usual, struck by the quietude sans kids, it is nice to be able to navigate fearlessly to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Opie whines shrilly with delight for hours after we return. Gary, the cat, bites both of us, although he has no history of being a biter. After an hour though, we are forgiven and Gary pesters us, purring loudly and kneading in the bed for most of the night.

We've drive nearly 5000 miles and visit 16 states, only two of which I'd been to previously. As we drive we listen, via Audible, to the entire Dos Passos U.S.A. Trilogy and then, after visiting his home town of Sauk Center Minnesota, Babbitt and Main Street by Sinclair Lewis. It is remarkable how all of these quintessentially American novels hold up and add poignancy to our journey through Grand Rapids, Chicago, Minneapolis and seemingly infinite small towns where often we are regarded as a novelty. I am surprised at the ubiquity of water towers. It seems most towns have them as well as an “Historic Main Street.” With few exceptions though, on the periphery of these little bergs are endless strip malls of Walmart, Home Depot and myriad chain stores and restaurants. Hence, vacant storefronts come part and parcel with “Historic Main Street.”

In my mind's eye, the small towns and Econo Lodges run together. Breakfasts buffets with waffle machines,shitty coffee, Fruit Loops, fake maple syrup and margarine. Except for the big cities, we are usually the only visitors at local attractions. We stop for gas in Faith South Dakota. There is no credit card slot on the gas pump. I walk into the station. Four men are playing cards at a table in the back. There is a list of names accompanied by the DVD titles that are late being returned. Grumpy Old Men is nearly three weeks overdue. I foist my credit card at the clerk and tell her we're going to fill up. She looks at me quizzically and tells me to come back with the card after we're finished pumping the gas.

A lot of America is crammed down our throats these past four weeks. Each little town is in so many ways like every other little town. Chicago bleeds into Minneapolis. Woebegone museums of emptied attics and the giant institutes crammed with dirty money art. The Waffle House. Cowboy hats. Highway Burma Shave signs have morphed into anti-abortion campaigns featuring cuddly infants. Homogeneous Silver Lake and hipster Park Slope are a million years away from so much of what's in the middle. I am conflicted after having dipped my toe in. I struggle not to judge people by their beliefs and institutions and whether they shop at Walmart instead of Costco.

During the last week of travel Joe College and I text back and forth tensely and continuously. Girl-friend-in-law is returning from four months in Prague the last week of December and he has it in his head that they will spend a few days sequestered in a mountain cabin, preferably well decorated and with snow on the ground. This escalates for me emotionally because the boy is single-minded and stubborn. The popular New Year's period is chosen. Prices are up and most owners won't rent to a person under 25 years old. He visualizes the cabin he wants and is unwilling to compromise, despite the infinite number of more practical alternatives that I pose. Dozens of e-mails and text messages are exchanged. It is crazy making not because the boy wants a romantic getaway with Girl-friend-in-law but because his inflexibility and doggedness so parallel my own.

I feel bad that the plans for their reunion have resulted in so much sturm and drang. Wanting him to avoid the self-sabotage that has plagued me for as long as I remember, I write him, “I really want this for you but because I see so much of myself in you, seriously, take it down a notch (As I also have to remind myself.)  You're going to want what you want but you will wake up one day I'm afraid and realize that sometimes treating your “wants” as “needs” is short sighted and self destructive.   I've resumed a few relationships (YES BECAUSE OF FACEBOOK!) with people from my college days so suddenly the place you're in is particularly resonant to me. I remember feeling that my 20s would last forever. It is shocking to find myself this old.  Nevertheless, while striving for a place of moderation, you absolutely should wring as much pleasure as you can, now in this final year of college and the beginning of the next part of your life.  This brings you another step closer to where I am now.  Getting to where I am now comes very fucking quick.  One day you will remember that I told you this. It will be shocking. Anyway, I hope at least at my age you will know, like I know, that if nothing else, your life has been worthwhile because you had a kid. Or two.

Friday, November 14, 2014


November 8, 2014

We spend the day with our friends who have been transplanted from Silver Lake to administer the Grand Rapids ArtPrize program. This ambitious art event is primarily sponsored by Richard DeVos Jr. and his wife Betsy. Dick is the son of Amway co-founder Richard Senior and Betsy was chairperson of the Michigan Republican Party. I read their biographies and also about the history of the often legally troubled multi-level marketing company Amway and derive nothing the least bit warm nor fuzzy. ArtPrize however, has essentially put Grand Rapids on the map and draws thousands of visitors. It differs from most art competitions because the public participates in judging the artworks and some of the prizes are in the six figure realm. A lot of the art is more than a little edgy but it is reported that there has been no conservative pressure or attempts at censorship in curating the project. More than any endeavor I can think of, ArtPrize makes art fulfilling and enjoyable to an audience that is not necessarily a museum frequenting crowd. This year, nearly 400,000 votes are cast.

Another wonderful attraction in Grand Rapids is the newly opened Downtown Market. The downstairs offers prepared foods and specialty groceries. There is concern that the offerings might be too unfamiliar and expensive for the lion's share of Grand Rapids citizens but the market is bustling on the chilly Saturday morning of our visit. The upstairs offers several public meeting rooms with gorgeous views. Also, there are several different fantastically equipped kitchens, including an incubator and children's space. Cooking lessons and demonstrations are offered frequently and there is a verdant greenhouse with flourishing herbs and vegetables. The Market, like Art Prize is also funded largely by the DeVos family.

This is a challenging things for those of us of liberal inclination. These are conservative people. Their business thrives on practices that are ethically questionable and depend enormously on political influence. Money has been used to buy sports teams and for lots of Christian causes. But there has also been a $22 million contribution to the Kennedy Center in addition to ArtPrize and The Downtown Market. My friends, who are employed by ArtPrize assure me that there is no conservative religious doctrine in play in the commitment to arts and the urban renewal of Grand Rapids. It's just not black and white. People can stand for good and bad things at the same time. It's ok I guess to appreciate the former and rail against the latter.

Michigan is cider country and we are surprised how quickly leaving Grand Rapids that we enter a rural landscape. We drive through Ada Michigan, home of the Amway Company and site of one of the largest buildings I have ever seen. A few miles from there, through beautiful country, with a bit of fall color left, is the Sietsema Orchard. In the height of the depression, Jerry Sietsema took a risk and planted an apple orchard. Today they manufacture a number of different hard ciders, a flight of which is incredibly pleasant on a brisk fall day.

November 9

Jackson Michigan is the site of the Cell Block 7 Museum. This is an actual cellblock that was decommissioned in 2007. It has been preserved in tact except for a couple of historical exhibits that have been added. While the prison museum we visited in Canon City Colorado was also housed in an authentic former prison, Cell Block 7, due to it's enormous size (and the fact it is surrounded by ten other buildings of the same size which continue to function) and the recency of operation is as horrifying as it is fascinating. The cells are as they were and I presume as they are, a metal bunk, a toilet, a small desk, a plastic chair and a locker. Inmates are not permitted to hang anything on the walls but there are traces of drawings and graffiti.

There is one exhibit about a chaplain from the forties who bucked against the punitive ethos and opted for compassion. He caused a big stir in the town of Jackson when he hosted a number of inmates in his home for Christmas dinner. There is also the story of Dale Remling's 1975 escape from the prison, via helicopter. He was apprehended, alas, a few hours later.

One of the cells has a pen and a stack of Post-its for visitors to share a message. I can think of nothing worth writing but notice that a number of the visitors are former inmates. One has written, “I was here for nearly five years. It was for marijuana which is (almost) legal now.” There are four tiers and we are on the top. A man yells from the bottom floor, “I want to show you something!” We think he wants us to come downstairs and we head in that direction but half way there, he yells again, “Stop!” He points to a discolored spot on the floor. “This is a blood stain they could never get out. A guy fell from the top tier. We don't know if it was a suicide or he was pushed.”

Our next stop is Louisville Kentucky. We dine on fried green tomatoes and local beer at an historic downtown eater. Like Grand Rapids, there is an enormous amount of construction which bodes I guess congestion but is nevertheless an indication of increased prosperity. We stay at a particularly crappy Econo Lodge so we're happy to get an early start.


I had never thought much about Kentucky except for horse racing and mint juleps. It is however extraordinarily lush and beautiful. The gentle landscape along the highway, unlike other places we've driven through, is largely unsullied by strip malls and trailer parks. Some backroads take us to the Abbey at Gethsemini, where Thomas Merton was a monk. There is a little video about a monks daily life. The day begins with Virgil, at 3:45 a.m. There are six other times for prayer and singing and a mass each day. The monastery produces cheese, fruitcakes and ceramics so in addition to prayer, singing and meditation, most of the monks work four to five hours a day. There is no unnecessary conversation and meals are spartan and vegetarian. Monastic accommodations used to be referred to as “cells.” I don't know if this is still the case. But, the rooms at Gethsemini are about as small and spartan as the cells we enter at Cell Block 7. And the monastery schedule is as rigid and unchanging as the daily prison grind. How queer that some men experience torment and others grace in lives that are so parallel.We cross into Tennessee and make our way into the tiny town of Bells to a cabin on a blueberry farm.  I drink my coffee now as fall leaves flitter over a tiny pond.

The owner of our cabin is the author of a number of self-published Christian themed books. They are displayed on the coffee table with price tags. He is also the curator and creator of the tiny village of Green Frog, a couple steps from the cabin. He has established a tiny village with a school house, chapel, general store and a restored cotton mill. The keys for all of these buildings are left for us so we can explore. Some of the buildings are original to the spot and others have been moved there and restored. Also on the property is The Cotton Museum of the South. This is a huge cotton mill which closed in 1957 but has been preserved. An older man is fiddling with some lights and invites us to come inside. There are two floors of giant machinery. He describes carefully how everything functioned but it is over my head. There are huge cotton bales and a dead bird which he steps around without acknowleging. He reminisces about picking cotton. He remembered how pleased the family was when one of the son's tiny brides proved able to pick two hundred pounds a day.

We cross from Tennessee to Mississippi. Our destination is Holly Springs, the setting of the film Cookie's Fortune. It is Veteran's Day and the town square is festooned with flags. One of my revelations of this trip is that almost every town has a water tower and most have a square. I can't describe how the center of Holly Springs feels different than anywhere I've ever been. There are remnants of gracious living, the sense of a completely different pace and a weird poignancy.

Our destination is the Marshall County Historical Society Museum. After four weeks visiting oddball museums, this one takes the cake. Community members sought to save the former dormitory of a girl's school from the wrecking ball and succeeded. It was determined to convert the site to a museum but there was no funding for the project. The families of Holly Springs and surrounding bergs simply went through their attics and relics from the Civil War era up though the sixties are crammed into three floors. Because the museum is largely unfunded and a labor of love, things are just sort of lying around. Some objects have descriptions, many of which are handwritten using all caps in a rather unsteady hand.

There are military uniforms from the Civil Era War, the Spanish American War, World Wars One and Two and Vietnam. A retired history teacher is our guide. The durability of some WWI military breeches is remarkable. Our guide says we're really not supposed to touch things but she lets us.
There are letters, photos, ration books and memorabilia carted home by American soldiers from all over the world.

Upstairs is filled with costumes, many delicate ones, hanging out in the open. They have no resources to preserve them but it is remarkable to be able to look so closely at handmade garments from the 19th century. There is a case with just gloves and a shelf with hats. There are cases jammed with costume jewelry and fans. There are rooms choc a block with household objects, one with toys and children's readers, the recreation of a turn-of-the-century physician's office and even a funeral room.

There is a Ku Klux Klan robe and only token nods to the black community. One of the handwritten descriptions of a photo refers to “colored people.” There are photos of the local high school's senior class from the early 1900s through the 1970s. Except for a couple in the late 1970s, all of the students are white. There is another wall containing other class photos from another local school. All of the faces are black.

The handwritten description that says “colored people” is yellowed. The KKK robe is accompanied by a long explanation describing the shame of the south. Our guide apologizes that there are no artifacts representing local black people who served in the military and she adds that many did. I'm not sure what to make of it. I loved looking at the three floors crammed with stuff. I am moved that people saved so very many things and the pride of place that makes this weird museum possible. I am aware though while it would be impossible in a single visit to really examine everything the museum contains, that still it only tells part of the story.

From Mississippi to Arkansas. Our intention is to drive until we get tired. Friends from the south have always raved about Waffle House and I am determined to try it. The waitress is a complete doll and there is a customized Waffle House juke box with even a special country song. “Pretty lady...workin' at the Waffle House."  As sweet as the waitress is, the food is tragic. We land at an Econo Lodge in Brinkley Arkansas. It is just like the other Econo Lodge's we've stayed at and I'll only remember the names of those towns by going back and rereading here.

It's a long drive West on Interstate 40 to Bentonville, made longer by a traffic jam caused by a terrible accident. The Ozarks are still in autumn technicolor, the best fall color I've ever seen. Our destination is the newly opened art museum Crystal Bridges. The location is spectacular and designed with walkways through verdant Ozark hills and streams. Unfortunately the weather is in the 20s so we remain inside the spectacular building designed by Moshe Safdie, who also designed Yad Veshem,  and was a protegee of Louis Kahn. Bentonville is a company town. The company being Walmart. This is in the great tradition of dirty money philanthropy. Walmart made 17 billion in profits in 2013 yet most employees receive Food Stamps and Medicare. Essentially then, the American taxpayer subsidizes the huge company. Admission and parking at Crystal Bridges is free at least and it is spectacular to behold. While our friends in Grand Rapids report that the ultra-conservative DeVos family does nothing to censor the submissions to ArtPrize, while the Crystal Springs collection is impressive, the offerings are tame and non-controversial. Even a large gallery of contemporary works emphasizes happy and whimsical pieces instead of more challenging or controversial.


We stop by Springdale to visit the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History. There are letters and artifacts from the Civil War which reveal how tragically the area was decimated. Much emphasis is placed on, what in addition to Walmart, is Arkansas' biggest cash cow--chicken. There is a display of Tyson products and a film from the 50s about developing the chicken of the future. A group of children are being taught about pioneer life. The costumed docent says, “We don't shoot cows because we eat them but we shoot bears.” The children stand at the window holding toy rifles and watching for bears. Corn cob pipes are offered in the toy section of the gift shop. I know I'm not in Silver Lake.

From Springdale we make a long trip West. Orange and red cotton woods turn to grazing land as we cross Oklahoma. The night is spent in Shamrock Texas which has no distinction except for being midway between Arkansas and Albuquerque. We have dinner at a steak house, probably the only ones in the joint eschewing red meat. There is excellent Texas beer served in enormous Texas sized goblets. Other diners eat giant steaks and sport camouflage prints and cowboy hats.

We resume our trek down Interstate 40. Route 66 ran through the center of Tucumcari New Mexico. There has been some funding to create murals through the down and restore many of the original neon signs but it is a sad lost place. There are so many burnt out buildings I cannot help but think insurance arson. The historical museum is similar to the one we visited in Holly Springs Mississippi. There is obviously very little funding and it looks like everyone unloaded the crap from their attics and there it landed. Nevertheless, there's tons of interesting stuff just lying around. The museum also has a collection of wagons, an airplane and a Union Pacific caboose. A local nun's sewing machine has its own little display, as does a dismantled post office. There's tons of fossils, rusted farm equipment, home appliances and random letters, telegrams and newspaper clippings.

There is an impeccably inscribed journal from a hospital. Beautiful handwriting lists the patient's name, age, religion, illness and disposition. Most were Protestant or Catholic but we leaf through all the pages and find two Jews and two Mormons. There's a lot of pneumonia, ranch accidents and a couple of “therapeutic abortions.” On every page there are a number of patients who have expired. I suspect that these willy nilly historical museums are not unique to small hard luck towns like Tucumcari or Holly Springs.

Saturday, November 8, 2014


November 4,
Next stop Minneapolis. After over a week of cheapo motels with translucent sheets and polyester plush blankets I score a miraculous same day deal at the Hyatt Regency, ifor an enormous suite no less. One thing about staying in barebones roadside hostelries is that there is genuine motivation not to hangout in the room. Alas, the quality linens and gorgeous towels are a trap. We are less voracious in Minneapolis than we've been in other places. There's a dinner in a huge British style pub where I have a good cider and himself samples the local brews. It is mostly business guys watching a football game on giant TVs. One of the few ladies in the joint orders a Corona.

The Minneapolis Institute of Art is gigantic, wreaking of old money. The huge collection takes up most of the day. There are a number of wonderfully done “period rooms” which incorporate art, household items and furnishings from a number of different eras. I am particularly fascinated by one called “The Curator's Office.” The first director of the institute, the bookish Barton Kestle boarded a train bound to Washington D.C. and was never seen or heard from again. During some remodeling in 2011 his office, which had apparently been inadvertently boarded over, is discovered, completely intact. There's an old typewriter, cameras and other relics of what the 1950's office of an artsy individual would contain. I totally buy it and am captivated by the story. Curious about this mysterious disappearance I poke around online and discover that this period room, including the back story, was created by artist Mark Dion. The museum has taken on the theme, per Stephen Colbert, of “truthiness.” I am embarrassed yet exhilarated to have been so hoodwinked.

We dine at the very nice Sea Change Restaurant at the Guthrie Center. I want to see the Stone Arch Bridge but we are advised by our server that it is mighty cold to walk near the river. An alternative she suggests is to use the elevators in the Guthrie Center for an excellent view and the enclosed “Endless Bridge.” There is no performance at the Guthrie this night but there are some kids waiting to be picked up. We are admitted and ride up in the elevator. A security man stops us and tries to kick us out. I whine a bit and we are allowed sixty seconds to view the bridge. Himself is surprised at how fast I am able to run.

Some Johnston College alumni live near by and we stop by and have a chat. I am always pleased by how many JC alums dedicate themselves to service. We met Hetel at the Durrell Conference over the summer. She's an attorney working in fair housing and helping homeowners avoid foreclosure. Her husband Kevin is a community organizer, also working with the impoverished.

November 5
We set out for Chicago passing through Wisconsin. Warrens is the state's cranberry center. All of the cranberry related tourism is closed for the season but we drive around the bogs. A gas station offers a big jar of cranberries macerated in moonshine. I ask the clerk how one would use this. The gal says she has no idea and that she doesn't like cranberries. Although I'm still intrigued, I pass on the concoction.

The next stop is Wisconsin Dells, which is sort of like Big Bear on steroids. Enormous, garish tourist attractions surround the dells of the Wisconsin River. Most of the town is shut down for the season but we find a giant moose themed brew pub. Again, we enjoy excellent libations. The barkeep expounds articulately and passionately about the different brews made on the premises. His two customers at the bar order Coors Light.

November 6
We are invited to stay in Glencoe with the parent's of one of Joe College's friends from Johnston, Sara and Chris. They are incredibly gracious, although we've shown up at an inconvenient time. Both have just returned from New York and a few days ago Sara made an emergency trip to Israel where one of her friends was gravely injured while on a bike tour. Chris leaves Chicago again the next morning but Sara takes the time to give us an incredibly erudite driving tour of the city which we are thankful for because it is pretty friggin' cold. She drops us to spend a day at The Institute of Art. We barely make a dent. I have my first in person encounter with “Nighthawks” and am impressed by the extensiveness of the impressionist collection. There is a special multimedia exhibit “The American City Lost and Found: New York, Chicago and Los Angeles 1950-1980. It's an objective look at urban unrest and renewal. There are a series of some Helen Leavitt color portraits from early 1970's New York that are particularly breathtaking.

We return to Glencoe and attend the play Isaac's Eye at a community theater group. Chris and Sara are very dedicated the theater group. A gorgeous new theater is being constructed and until it's completion, performances are being held in the back of the homey bookstore from which the theater group emanated over twenty years ago.
November 7
I make a wrong turn and we end up touring The Loop in bumper to bumper traffic on our way out of town. Gary Indiana looks grim and we skip the Michael Jackson birthplace attraction. Our first stop is in Elkhart Indiana, known as the RV capital of the world. Our destination of the Midwest Museum of American Art. The museum occupies a 1920's bank building which has been refitted rather modestly. The collection is small but sort of mind blowing for a town that is known primarily for recreational vehicles. Represented are Grant Wood, Norman Rockwell, Reginald Marsh, Grandma Moses, Andy Warhol, Jim Dine and Helen Frankenthaler.

There is also a large collection of the Indiana manufactured Arts & Crafts style Overbeck pottery. The firm was run by three sisters and their work was celebrated at the Chicago Worlds Fair. There are some gorgeous large William Morris inspired pieces but also some small whimsical pastel toned miniatures that convey a charming and feminine sensibility.

Our eating proclivities, outside of major cities, relegates us mostly to vegetarian pizza, In Elkhart however this is accompanied by some outstanding beer and cider and an amazing homemade pretzel in a convivial brewpub. From here, we venture to Amish country. There are many horse-drawn buggies on route to a supermarket known as the Amish Costco. After having sample Amish provisions at the Reading Market in Philadelphia, I have come to associate Amish cuisine with a homespun, healthful heartiness. The market does carry a number of wholesome Amish products but the bonneted ladies and bearded gents were filling their carts with soda (called “pop” here), Top Ramen and frozen pizzas.

The final stop is with some friends recently moved from Silver Lake to Grand Rapids. They've purchased an enormous historic house and turned it into a lovely and comfortable home. I write this sitting next to a gorgeous tile fireplace. I am intimidated by the number of rooms and am nervous about opening the wrong door but we are given a lovely guest room and enjoy a restful night. Ike, the Wheaton terrier I was friends with back in Silver Lake has made the transition beautifully and stretches out languidly in a warm spot near his people.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014


November 2, 2014
I never thought we'd end up in North Dakota but Himself decides he wants to see the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn so it's another long day on the road from Wall South Dakota. As is usually the case when we visit off the beaten path attractions in November we have the museum to ourselves. I learn that to a large extent the expedition was under the aegis of Thomas Jefferson and that prior to departure Jefferson made sure that Meriweather Lewis studied with the nation's top scientific minds. More than most other expeditions into Indian territory, the objective was the acquisition of knowledge and not profit. The expedition is excruciatingly well documented and the logistics of preparing for it are mind boggling. Adjacent to the center is a replica of the fort constructed for the expedition at Mandan. During the season there is a separate visitor center there but in November we just follow a guy up there in the car and he shows us around.

It is funny to think about how the age of enlightenment had really taken hold in the 18th Century. There was no formal religious observance at the fort and the bible sent along on the journey was more for behavioral instruction and not spiritual succor. We are both struck by a large statue commemorating Seaman, Meriweather Lewis's Newfoundland dog who was a member of the expedition. Legend has it that when Lewis died, Seaman waited on his grave until his own time came.

November 3, 2014
We spend the night in Jameston North Dakota, site of the Buffalo Museum and the world's largest buffalo which we hail from the highway without stopping. It is a long ride to Alexandria Minnesota to visit the Runestone Museum. A huge Viking greets us as we arrive in the little town. Again, we are alone in the museum although the lady in charge is very chatty. Ohlof Ohman freed the stone from a clump of roots while he was clearing land on his farm in 1898. A controversy went on for years and Ohman was branded a forger. The public humiliation caused one of his children to leave the area and another to commit suicide. It wasn't until 2004 that it was concluded that the stone is a genuine Viking carving from around 1362.

Besides the Runestone the little museum is choc-a-bloc with artifacts from the little farm town including a lot of household objects, clothing and weapons. An ancient telephone is accompanied by a sweet sentimental story about a little boy calling the information operator when in need of advice or comfort. There was a wired-haired terrier named Scotty who was such a good little dog that when he died he was preserved for posterity. He still wears his license.

The lady in the gift store doesn't want us to leave. She tells us about relatives in S. California who live in Venice. She is relieved they live there because the area isn't vulnerable to mudslides. Are we known for mudslides? She is a PBS devotee and while she had never heard of him, she noted that on the PBS show “Finding Your Roots,” Nas discovers that he has Viking blood. She segues into Antiques Road Show and Irish Minnesotans. I'm afraid she's going to follow us to the parking lot. She is a sweet lady and I hope that there some other weirdo tourists to come keep her company.

The last empty museum we visit is the Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center in Sauk Centre Minnesota. Life in the little town inspired several of Lewis's best known novels which don't pain the town in a particularly positive light. Originally, the citizens of Sauk Centre were outraged by what they perceived was Lewis's defamation of their town but it didn't take long for him to become a favorite son. We see his writing desk and the incredibly detailed notes and maps he created before embarking on a novel. Main Street is largely preserved and many things, including Sinclair Gas has been renamed to honor the town's most celebrated son.

Saturday, November 1, 2014


October 31, 2014

The tiny bunkhouse in Hot Springs North Dakota is part of a large horse ranch. We head up to the main house to seek John, the owner's itinerary advice. A retired civil engineer, the horse ranch is John has been in love with the west since childhood. The big house has stunning enormous western style chandeliers and other amazing details hand hewn by John. There is also a tiny ghost town he's constructed. Our bunkhouse is chock-a-block with cowboy memorabilia. Even the switchplate covers have cowgirls. We wake to neighing horses, penned several feet from the cabin.

After a morning of laundry, in a Hot Springs laundromat you can buy for $217k if you're looking for a change of scene. We have the road to Mount Rushmore mostly to ourselves except for bison and wild burros. The route up to the monument is full of hairpin turns and cunningly crafted tunnels. The idea for a large monument carved out of granite in the Black Hills was conceived to draw tourists to South Dakota. It is sculpted by Danish-American Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln. Construction began in 1927. The original conception was that the full bodies of the four presidents be represented but in 1941 it was determined that the four heads sufficed.

November 1, 2014
After nearly a week of cheap motels on interstates we are sad to leave the cozy bunkhouse. We cruise through the sprawling Rapid City surrounded by prefab housing and long strips of chain stores. The town of Surgis is famous for a February motorcycle festival and the town is full of shops with cycle merch. A few miles away is Deadwood. The town is well preserved and westerns are still shot there but behind most of the authentic facades are casinos and this is the only tourist attraction in the state that is bustling. We cross again through Rapid City to reach Badlands National Park, which we nearly have to ourselves. Vast grasslands surrounded by eroded buttes and pinnacles extend for as far as the eye can see.

After a barrage of highway signs we make the obligatory stop at Wall Drug. There are parking lots all over the town and the dining room seats over 500 people. We are the only diners when we arrive at 4:30 on Saturday. A Yelp review aptly notes that the food is quite inferior to MacDonalds but we haven't eaten all day and want to see what all the fuss about Wall Drugs is about. Most of the stores are closed but we pick up a few kitsch souvenirs for the kids. The salesman who I presume has had a very boring day is chatty. We tell him we're from L.A. This is the first time I've ever been asked if I'm traveling in an RV.

We notice Ann's Motel which is more removed from the highway than the rest when we enter the town. It is good ratings on Trip Advisor and I call to book a room Ann tells me that she won't be back from church until 6. We kill some time walking around the town. Like in other markets we've been to I notice that there is a lousy selection of lousy produce. Two loud guys in filthy overalls buy a beer suitcase and rolling papers. There is a dinky library and giant grain silos. The Badlands are the backyards to the houses on the edge of town.

Ann returns late from church, saying that the priest went on longer than usual. Despite a huge sign in the room that there is a $200 fine for smoking we reject a room that reeks of tobacco. There is also a sign that says checkout is at 10:00 and there is a $20 fine if you're late. Himself advises me not to hold up to Ann that she was late back from church if we're running behind schedule.

Friday, October 31, 2014


Wednesday October 29
We breakfast on fruit, instant oatmeal and yogurt and head off to the Colorado Museum of Corrections. I am absolutely shocked that we are the only patrons. The museum is actually fascinating. Colorado has a huge prison industry but the museum's presentation is quite unbiased. There is a replica of a device used at the turn of the century to flog prisoners and a couple of genuine nooses from actual hangings. But there are also remnants of a kinder gentler era when women inmates decorated their cells with curtains and doilies and the recreation areas held pianos and other musical instruments and a juke box. Perhaps the most moving thing was a recorded interview with a former warden. He acknowledged the controversy about capital punishment but accepted that it was part of the position he'd agreed to fulfill. His mother, he added, was vehemently opposed to the death sentence and he found out after he retired that she had written a letter of comfort to each of the men whose executions he'd overseen. Like with the folkart museum, I am enchanted with the human need to create decorative objects with whatever is available and I am charmed by inmate crafted items made of wood scraps and cigarette wrappers.

We cross then the Colorado plains and stop in the tiny town Simla for lunch at the Hen House. Himself again discovered that the single vegetarian dish available at most roadside stops is covered with shredded lettuce which he despises. He has done quite a bit of lettuce picking but I think he's learned now to order more wisely. The meal concludes with pie. I don't even like pie but I couldn't turn down strawberry rhubarb and when the girl asks if I want it heated with some ice cream, I say,"what the hell?"

The next stop is The Best Value Inn in North Platte Nebraska. Driving into the down reminds me of Vegas, aglow with bright neon although instead of casinos, North Platte offers every conceivable brand of fast food and chain motel. Our motel is sui generis but the owner is friendly and tells us about his days in Camp Pendleton. We are so full from the Hen House that dinner is popcorn and tangerines from the provisions we've amassed along the road.

Thursday October 30
We visit first thing the Golden Spike Railroad Observation Tower. North Platte has the world's biggest rail yard, having been in the heyday of the railroads a prime stopping location for many routes. At the top of the eight story tower there are rail tracks and repair buildings for as far as the eye can see. The ladies of North Platte had a well organized program during the Second World War to deliver baskets of candies and cookies to the many troop trains that stopped at the depot.

We cross the Colorado Sand Hills for a hundred miles and arrive at the well preserved brick town of Alliance. Our lunch at Newberry's is served by a curious waitress and we get the impression that not many Californians pass through the sweet little town. Another hundred or so miles of Nebraska plain bring us cross the South Dakota border and into the Black Hills. We stop at a small market in Hot Springs for provisions before we set out for our cabin on a horse ranch. Our little cabin is done up with kitschy cowboy d├ęcor and our host is helpful and genial. I'd failed to notice that there is no stove so our dinner is improvised. I soak pasta in a bowl with boil water from our kettle and cook some onions in the microwave. I defrost some frozen spinach using the water poured off the noodles, throw in a can of tuna and a little cheese. We have no salt and pepper but I shake off a bit from the bottom of a pretzel bag and while it is far from haute cuisine, it isn't the worst dinner we'd ever had. We walk among the horses, surrounded by huge ranches and wild country. A horse kisses Himself and we end our first day in South Dakota.


Sunday, October 26
Himself's conference is over and we pick up Bill and head towards Taos. We traverse the Carson National Forest and stop at the Sanctuario De Chimayo. Himself and I were there years ago and there was only a tiny chapel where people left offerings and collected healing, holy dirt. The site, which figured prominently in a Breaking Bad episode, has expanded and there is now a gift shop and a number of other buildings. The sanctuary is filled with photographs of loved ones, mainly men, a lot of soldiers and a few guys in prison uniforms. There is a wall lined with crutches, ostensibly of those healed by the sacred dirt but I notice that there lots of single crutches and almost no matched sets which Bill attributes to the supplicants hedging their bets.

From the Sanctuario we continue to thousand year old Taos Pueblo, dramatic red adobe structures surrounded by jagged mountains. There remains a ruin of a church that was the center of an Indian rebellion against the Spanish during the 17th century. The Pueblo has no electricity or running water but there are still over 100 full time occupants. There is a small Catholic church which seems to now coexist with the native faith. There is no written language and the heritage and ritual are passed from generation to generation orally.

We return to Santa Fe and dine at another recommended New Mexican Restaurant, fittingly called Chimayo. This restaurant has no liquor license and instead of margaritas, they offer “ritas” which are made with agave wine. I guess I'm no connoisseur of tequila because I can't really tell the difference between the supposedly primo version from the extensive menu from the night before and the ersatz tequila free version. Both are equally inebriating. After we stroll the plaza, mostly deserted except for a couple of guttersnipes begging for change. We walk around the modest state capitol building and explore silent residential areas, free of streetlights.

Monday October 27
Bill and I explore the newish Railyard area. The old Santa Fe Depot is preserved and surrounded by art galleries, boutiques and performance spaces. There is a beautifully landscaped walking trail and an innovative park, all relatively deserted on a Monday morning. We have a nice breakfast at The Flying Star Cafe and then Himself and I bid Bill farewell and hit the Turquoise Trail toward Albuquerque. We've reserved a room via Air B&B that's been excellently reviewed by other travelers. My friend Rachel who lives in Albuquerque tells me that the house borders the barrio and tells me to expect lots of low-rider cars and neon, which isn't all that different from where we live. We have to switch rental cars, from the one paid for by Himself's employer to one we've gotten a good deal on for a long term rental, at the Albuquerque airport. There is a bit of drama of the sort one expects during such transactions and then we get caught in lots of traffic when we make our way cross town to the Auto Club to pick up maps. There is more traffic and road construction when we make our way to our accommodation. We arrive and notice that the front yard is torn up and there are various piles of rubble surrounding the ramshackle stucco house. Two workers are digging in the front yard and the second I step out of the car one emits a loud belch.

Our room has a private entrance, through a partial bathroom with a toilet beside an uncurtained window. The shower is through the kitchen. The sink is filled with dirty dishes and the counters are covered with plates of food and open jars of condiments. There are piles of dirty laundry in the living room and the whole place doesn't smell very good. A million years ago in Dublin, after navigating for over an hour in a terrible rain storm I refuse to stay at an otherwise charming guesthouse because there is no private bath. Himself still hasn't forgiven me. I am literally trembling when I tell him that I cannot stay at the Albuquerque AirB&B and he is a remarkably good sport about it. Online I find a barebones motel that is less expensive than the icky room and actually includes a free breakfast.

We meet fellow Johnston alum, Rachel, who despite being on crutches (actually a single crutch, perhaps the other one is at Chimayo) and she takes us to a swell neighborhood Mexican joint. We catch up and talk about music. Perhaps the little remaining feminist credential I have left will be rescinded but I have very few women friends with whom I can talk about music. Rachel is a dj and has broad eclectic tastes and a wide realm of knowledge.

After we drop Rachel at home we head to the Baymont Motel. The check-in guy has greased up spiked hair. I guess I look reputable because he doesn't ask me for id or a credit card, although he admits that last week someone stole a TV. Hip hop blares from a couple of room as we make our way down the hall to our room. The room however is enormous and clean. And the TV is so large that I admire that ingenuity of anyone who was able to remove one.

Tuesday October 28
Breakfast at the Baymont is the usual commercial muffins and sweet rolls. I try the wafflemaker but even if there had been real butter and maple syrup instead of margarine and “maple flavored” it wasn't really edible. There are some foreigners and a number of large families. I suspect that the Baymont may serve as a welfare residence because a lot of folks are barefoot and in pajamas and seem to have made themselves at home. One large lady is very concerned about her kids' manners. She tells us that she is half black and warns us against ever putting your fork on a black person's plate. When a group of European's leave their breakfast table strewn with wrappers and styrofoam plates and cups she is disgusted by their arrogance.

We bid farewell to Albuquerque and head northeast to Pecos National Monument. This is another site where the Indians went at it with the Spanish and there are the remains of another red adobe church overlooking a vast expanse of verdant mountains. Pueblos stood four to five stories high and fragments and bits of foundation remain. Himself climbs down a ladder into an underground ceremonial kiwa but I take a pass. There is a plaque commemorating a Civil War Battle and the adjacent Gloriana is referred to as the “Gettysburg of the West.”

Miles of juniper and ponderosa line the road from Pecos to Las Vegas. Years ago my father visited New Mexico. He took a road toward Las Vegas and was surprised he didn't end up in Nevada. We find a sweet Mexican restaurant called Kochina de Raphael and here the diet goes off the rail when I order a chicken taco plate. I suspect that they will be fried but “forget to ask” and devour the lovely greasy crunchy things.

We veer off the main road to visit the memorial of the Ludlow massacre. John Dos Passos U.S.A. Trilogy is our audio book so this is a good fit for stories of the labor movement and Ludlow is actually referred to in the novel. Eleven children and many men and women died in a gruesome standoff against the mine owners. The notoriety at least helped the unions make some inroads in improving mine conditions.

Our final destination is the Travel Inn Motel in Canon City another spartan, albeit comfortable motel room. We buys some snacks and breakfast fixings. Being on a budget and knowing we'd be staying in modest surroundings I pack a small electric kettle. This is, if you should ever travel with such an item, better packed in checked luggage as the TSA agent informs us that when sent through an x-ray machine it sort of resembles a bomb.