Friday, June 3, 2011


I took my first ocean cruise—from New Orleans to four Caribbean ports—from May 8-15, thanks to the generosity of my friend, Anne Bryson, who won a cruise for two from Harrah’s Casino and invited me to go with her.

I flew to New Orleans on Saturday, May 7, and arrived at the airport in late afternoon, an hour after Anne had arrived.  We met in the baggage claim area and took a shuttle to Harrah’s Hotel, a block away from the French Quarter (map).  
We had dinner that night at the buffet at Harrah’s Casino, across the street from the hotel, and I focused on seafood:  crab legs and shrimp. Then, before leaving the casino, we stopped at a slot machine where Anne put in a $20 bill and was rewarded—in less than two minutes—with a $410 win.  Then Anne said, “We should leave now,” and so we did.

Day 1 (May 8)
Jen and Anne at Café du Monde
Jennifer, my sister-in-law, walked to our hotel mid-morning and took a taxi with us to Café du Monde for beignets and café au lait.   

Next, we browsed nearby shops for hats to take on our cruise since neither Anne nor I had thought to bring one.  Then Jen wished us bon voyage, and Anne and I took a taxi to the pier to begin our 7-day cruise.

We went through security at the Erato Street Cruise Terminal and at 2 p.m. climbed the inclined ramp that brought us onto the Norwegian Cruise Lines ship, the Spirit.
Ship's reception area
staircase and elevators

We spent the rest of the day getting to know the ship, but first toasting each other with “Hurricanes” to wish ourselves a great cruise, then eating a late lunch in the Raffles Court buffet, and afterwards finding our cabin on the eighth floor of the forward part of the ship, where our luggage had already been delivered
We unpacked our clothes to drawers and closet to reduce clutter in our small cabin, which nevertheless wasn’t as small as I’d feared. 
The window side of our cabin
The door side of our cabin

The large window in our cabin gave a constant view of the land and water we traversed during the next seven days.  It let in sunlight during the day and, at night, lights from the shore—if we were near land—telling us we were passing a city or refinery or pueblo.  The direction of the sunlight from our window also oriented me to the ship’s direction.  Sometimes at night, the only light to be seen came from the stars overhead, just enough to illuminate the white froth bubbling up at the tops of waves.  A lifelong resident of the hinterland, I never ceased to be fascinated by the show of the sea.

At 5 p.m. of that first day, the ship’s engines started up with a deep, trembling growl as though a great beast were coming to life, we inside it like Jonah, feeling the thrum of life in that leviathan. 
A carved mermaid looks out to sea
Anne and I went out on the promenade to watch the ship begin its long trip down the Mississippi River, and later we watched the setting of the sun in the comfortable observation area at the bow of the ship.  
Actually, I had mistakenly thought that New Orleans sat close to the mouth of the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico, but I learned otherwise that night as I looked out our cabin window at intervals to see if the lights from the land had receded.  Not until nearly dawn did I look out on nothing but water.  (Here's a map that shows New Orleans and the long stretch of the Mississippi as it meanders to the Gulf.)

The first day on board ended with an excellent dinner in La Trattoria Restaurant, where we were especially impressed by the smiling, gracious, attentive but not obtrusive service, which we would receive from the wait staff and cabin stewards throughout our cruise. 

And so to bed, rocked gently to sleep as the Spirit made its way to sea .

Day 2 (May 9)
Monday was our first full day on the ship, spent at sea with no stops at any ports.  Our first stop at a port would be at Costa Maya in the state of Yucatán, México, on the following day, Tuesday, May 10. 

The view from the aft deck outside Raffles Court buffet
Anne had risen earlier, tip-toeing out of our cabin to get herself some coffee and breakfast while I slept.  When I awoke, I showered, dressed, and went to Raffles Court for breakfast:  lox and bagels, bacon, watermelon, orange juice, and coffee.  I ate on the deck outside the restaurant and then wrote in my journal over more coffee.  [See the photo to the left.]

Then I checked out the library where computers and internet access were available.  Creating an internet account aboard the ship cost a reasonable one-time fee of $3.75 and then—or so I thought—75 cents an hour to access the internet.  So I checked my email and mailed a few replies and was about to read the news on Google News when I overheard a woman explain to her husband as they walked by that it would cost 75 cents per minute to get online.  I quickly reread the fee notice and discovered that, sure enough, she was right!  I logged off a few minutes later.  So much for my idea of posting to my blog each day on the cruise itself.  But it was probably for the best, giving me more incentive to do than to sit in front of a computer during this cruise.

Around noon, Anne and I lunched together at Raffles again, and she said she was feeling a lot better.  After lunch, she went to the Star Dust Theatre to watch a magic show and then to the casino.  (Because of gambling laws in the U.S. and in the other countries we visited, the ship's casino could operate only when we weren’t stopped at a port.)  Since I’m not much into magic or gambling, I went swimming in the ship’s pool instead.  (Dang, sure wish I had a picture of me in my bathing suit to post here, but I don’t.  )  

The pool was deep—5’ 5” at the shallow end—and I’m only 5’ 1” tall, but I soon discovered that the water was so salty that I didn’t have to do anything—swim, tread water, or make any movement whatsoever—to stay afloat.  All l had to do was “stand” vertically and do nothing.  But where’s the fun in that?  So I swam and splashed around and watched the crowds of people, young and old, in bikinis and trunks, shades and hats, swim, sun themselves, and people-watch as I did.   And after a while, a band of musicians in brightly flowered shirts started playing lively reggae music from the bandstand next to the pool.  After an hour or so in the pool, I got out and lay in the sun to dry off, get some sun, listen to the tropical music and continue to observe the people around me. Here's a little bit of what I saw and heard:

When I realized that I was getting sunburned, I returned to our cabin to rinse the salt off my burnt skin and my swimsuit.  Anne wasn’t back yet, so I took my book of short stories—Close Range by Annie Proulx—to the observation area, where we’d watched the sun set the day before, to read and soak up the sight of the sea in all directions.   How comforting at intervals to lift my eyes from a page of Proulx’s vivid descriptions of a blinding Wyoming blizzard and behold  the vivid reality of tranquil, tropical waters overhung by a blue sky and bright sun.

I went back to the cabin at about 5 p.m., and Anne showed up soon after, feeling seasick.  When she’d showered in the morning, she’d taken off her seasickness-preventing wristbands and forgotten to put them back on.  I brought her a Sprite to calm her stomach and then went to dinner on my own—back to La Trattoria, the Italian restaurant I’d enjoyed so much the night beforeordering seafood fettuccine with shrimp and calamari.  Delish!

Anne was still feeling queasy and went to sleep soon after I returned to our cabin.  I read Proulx for a while, plunging into each story and better understanding the empty vastness of Wyoming for having observed the empty vastness of the sea around me earlier in the day.  Before going to sleep, I wrote in my journal, trying to chronicle the day's activities.

Shortly after midnight, I woke up to go to the loo.  When I returned to my bed, I lifted the window curtain and looked out, surprised to see lights all along the Mexican shore we’d neared while I'd been sleeping.  I watched our swift southern progress for a while before falling back to sleep.  At one point, I saw a row of bright yellow lights laid out horizontally at regular intervals, like pearls on a necklace, and in the middle of the necklace and above it, an elongated rectangle of even brighter lights, suggesting an enormous theatre or carnival marquee.  What could this place have been?  I still have no idea.  I should have asked our cabin steward the next day but didn’t think to do so.  Does anyone out there know?

Day 3 (May 10)

I woke around 8 a.m. on Tuesday, aware that I needed to shower, dress, and eat breakfast in time to go on my first excursion—biking and kayaking—when we docked at the port of Costa Maya, Quintana Roo, México, around 10:15 a.m.  Anne had risen, dressed, and left before I even woke up, as she had the day before.  I ate breakfast in one of the two main dining rooms, Windows, where as usual the food and service were excellent.

Passengers who wanted to visit Costa Maya had two choices:  (1) explore—shop, dine, walk around, people-watch, whatever—on their own, or (2) sign up for one of 20 or more organized shore excursions.  Months ago, I had signed up for a biking-and-kayaking excursion.

Shopping center at Costa Maya

We disembarked, hundreds of us, walking a short gangplank to the concrete pier and thence to a tourist area—about 10 minutes away—centered around a large swimming pool that was encircled by restaurants, cafes, bars, and shops of all kinds, from costly jewelry stores to liquor stores to souvenir shops.

In front of this tourist area, large signs—each of which listed a particular shore excursion—were posted.  Each of us lined up in front of the sign that named the excursion we’d signed up for.  About 16 people of all ages had signed up for the biking-and-kayaking excursion, and our guide, Miguel, and his assistant, Edgar, quickly gathered us up and directed us to an area behind the shops where the bikes were parked. 

Our biking/kayaking guides
Miguel (far right) and Edgar

Miguel began by wishing those of us who were mothers a Happy Mother’s Day because, as he explained, May 10 is Mother’s Day in México, and it’s an important day in that country.  Then, he introduced himself and his assistant and gave us an overview of our excursion.  Then he said we should choose a bike for ourselves. 

Happily, the bikes were the comfortable touring kind:  high handlebars, thickly padded seats, and no gears to shift.  In short, they were the kind of bike that anyone who’d ever ridden a bike could ride.

Me and my bike
Before taking off, we stowed our stuff—water bottles, tote bags, cameras, hats, etc.—in the back of Miguel’s red pickup, and he drove behind us bikers to a place on the beach about three miles away where kayaks awaited us.  Edgar, on the other hand, rode ahead of us on his bike, leading us through the small town behind the tourist area, into the countryside, and then to a small town, Mahahual,  whose beach was lined with more shops and street vendors.  It took us perhaps a half hour, just enough time to work up a light sweat in the mid-morning heat but nothing too taxing.

MIguel briefed us about our kayaking
excursion here in the Luna de Plata Hotel
Arriving at our destination, we parked our bikes and were guided into the upper room of a thatched-roofed building (known as a palapa in Spanish, according to Miguel) whose sign announced it to be the “Luna de Plata [Silver Moon] Hotel.”  There, each of us was given a bottle of water and a document to sign, releasing our guide from legal responsibility should we come to harm during the kayaking excursion.  After we all signed the document, Miguel said, “Now that I have you in my power…!”  We had to laugh, of course. Obviously, our guide Miguel knows how estadounidenses [people from the USA] operate. 

In México, people aren’t as litigious as we are here.  I commented one day, while I was living in Xalapa, Veracruz, México, during the 2007-2008 academic year, to Margarita, my dear friend and helper—and sister of Isabel Macías González, my Fulbright Exchange partner—that in the USA, a person who suffers injury in a store or on public property would likely hire a lawyer and sue the store owner or the government for damages.  “Does this happen in México?” I asked, stepping carefully around a hole in the sidewalk that we were walking. 

“No,” Margarita said.  “Here, store owners and the government can always afford to hire a better lawyer than a private citizen can, so it’s a waste of a person’s time and money.”  And while it's true here in the U.S. too that money buys the best lawyers, in many cases poor people's suits bring restitution for harms suffered due to a company's or government's negligence.

I learned a lot about Mexican society—and the contrast between it and that of the USA—from Margarita that day.  And so, I understood Miguel’s precaution in requiring us estadounidenses to sign release forms before he took us kayaking. 

Our kayaks were lined up on this beach, and we
paddled one-quarter mile toward our ship,
seen in the background

After signing our lives away, as Miguel had joked, we were directed to the kayaks lined up on the beach across from the hotel.  Miguel taught those of us who had never kayaked before how to do it before we took off.  Everyone except a young woman from Germany and me was part of a couple or a family so, kindly, Miguel said I should go in his kayak and the young German woman should go in Edgar’s.

We kayaked about a quarter mile through beautifully blue-green water to a place where we could swim.  At times, we could see the pasto marino (sea grass) below us and at other times only pure white sand.

At a certain point, Miguel stopped our kayak and the others’ so that we could get out and swim for 30 minutes in the cool water, which was shallow enough in most spots so that we could stand on the sea bottom.  During that time, I enjoyed talking with Miguel and the others and soaking up the sun and the sights of the tropical shore.

Miguel, our excellent
guide, and me

Then we kayaked back to our starting point, the Luna de Plata Hotel.  There we spent another 30 minutes or so, relaxing on the beach, taking pictures, and shopping.  I ended up buying a coral necklace for $30 (down from $78).  I don’t know if I got a good deal, but I do like the necklace. 

After we biked back to our starting point, we were free to shop some more, swim in the pool, or whatever.  I window-shopped a bit and then stopped in an open-air restaurant, covered by a huge palapa roof, and ordered chips and salsa and a chelada:  a Tecate Lite (but any beer would do) served in a beer glass with a salted rim, over ice into which about a third cup of fresh lime juice had been squeezed.  I’m not a beer drinker, but I do love a Mexican chelada.  (Here’s a chelada recipe that seems very authentic.

My view from the restaurant; the beach is a
stone's throw away
When the salsa arrived, however, I thought better of eating it.  I figured my gringa gut had lost its immunity to the indigenous bacteria in Mexican food during the years I’d been living back in the U.S., so as tempting as it looked and smelled, I left it alone, eating only the chips.  My friend Margarita had long ago taught me the wisdom of going slow in introducing new foods to my stomach.

Palapa interior view
While I was drinking my chelada, a woman I’d met while resting in a hammock on the beach after kayaking--Sandy, from Texas—appeared in the restaurant with her husband, Lon.  I invited them to sit at my table.  Lon wanted to take a photo of the palapa of palm leaves or pasto rojo, but his camera battery had died.  I said I’d mail him the picture I’d already taken, and I said I’d take of photo of the two of them since they were celebrating their fortieth wedding anniversary—but then I got caught up in talking with them and forgot, darn it.

From the restaurant, I walked back to the ship.  Anne was already back from her excursion—I forget which one she went on—but said that the heat had been brutal and she’d decided to cancel her excursion to the Tulum pyramid on Friday. 

Anne in the Windows Main
Dining Room on the Spirit

Anne then went to swim in the pool, and I showered, dressed, and went to eat in Raffles Court.  Afterwards, I wrote in my journal and then took a rest in our cabin.  At 7:15, Anne and I met up again in the Windows Main Dining Room for dinner.  I began with a “Mediterranean sampler” as an appetizer (hummus, roasted red pepper salsa, and lamb sausage wrapped in a grape leaf) followed by an entrée of salmon fillet with broad noodles.  I also had two glasses of Hangtime Pinot Noir—yum!  And I was too full for dessert.

After dinner, I went back to the cabin and got ready for bed.  I had gotten quite sunburnt on my face, arms and especially my legs while kayaking, so I took some aspirin and rubbed lotion on my reddened skin.  Anne went to an acrobatic show in the Star Dust Theatre and then to the casino.

Day 4 (May 11)

The ship captain had advised over the loud speaker the previous night to set back our watches by one hour because we would be crossing into a new time zone.  Unfortunately, I trusted my iPhone to do this automatically, but that didn’t happen.  Also, unfortunately for Anne, she relied on my iPhone alarm to wake her at 7:00 p.m. but discovered after dressing, eating, and meeting on board at the appointed spot for her Roatán, Honduras, excursion that she’d gotten up an hour earlier than she’d intended.  (Roatán is a Honduran island located 30 miles north of the country itself.) 

The excursion I'd signed up for—to go kayaking, hiking, and snorkeling—didn’t begin until after 11 a.m., so after a room-service breakfast, I got back into bed to write in my journal and read.  As I noted, “I’m loving the short stories in Proulx’s Close Range.  And I love lying here with nothing better to do than write and read.”

I almost missed my excursion because I had trouble finding the location where my group was to meet on ship before disembarking.  And then when I found the place, I had to make a dash back to my cabin to get my photo ID, a requirement for getting off and back on board.  Luckily, I was able to wave down one of the two buses, packed with people, that were already leaving the parking area for Luna Beach.  All the other seats were taken, so I sat up front between the driver and a guide.

After the short, jouncing ride to Luna Bay, we got out of the buses and were assigned to two groups, each led by a guide and two helpers.  At a restaurant close to the beach, our guide  instructed us in how to kayak, and then we stowed our stuff—cameras, totes, etc.—in a locked closet before trooping across the street to the beach where the kayaks awaited.  Alfredo, the guide for my group, took me under his wing (as had Miguel during my previous excursion) since I was there on my own while most of the other tourists were parts of couples or family units.

We kayaked for 20-25 minutes to another spot on the beach where we cooled off with a short swim and then set off on a 30-minute hike into hilly terrain above the beach.  As we walked, Alfredo and his helpers pointed out some of the fruits that grow abundantly on Roatán:  bananas, pineapples, mangos, papaya, and noni fruit.

After the hike, we kayaked back to the beach where we’d started and returned to the same restaurant, where we were served quesadillas, chips and salsa, fresh fruit, and iced tea or lemonade before being issued snorkels and fins for the next part of our excursion.

Our group was divided into three smaller groups so that each of us could get more individualized snorkeling instruction and help from our guides.  Alfredo was in charge of the more experienced group, people who had snorkeled before, but he included me as well (I suspect he was tasked with helping the aged and infirm).  The plan was for us to swim out to the coral reef where the most beautiful fish and coral formations are found. 

Although Alfredo tried to prepare me for the swim to the reef and the snorkeling when we got there, I decided not to go with the rest.  The snorkeling wasn't hard to do, but I couldn't get the hang of righting myself from a swimming position while wearing fins.  I feared I might forget to only breathe through my mouth and end up instinctively breathing through my nose, inhaling water, if I were struggling to right myself in deeper water.   

So I told Alfredo and the others to go on and I would practice snorkeling in the shallow waters near shore. A young woman of 22, who like me wasn’t a strong swimmer, stayed behind as well.  For the next 40-45 minutes, I snorkeled without fins.  The sights were less than stellar:  stretches of white sandy bottom interrupted by large patches of sea grass; tiny nearly transparent fishes darting and disappearing within it; and one slightly larger fish gulping down a smaller one.  Yet I felt elated at having mastered the use of a snorkel and told myself I’d master fins another time.

Bingo in the Galaxy of the Stars Lounge
Our excursion took a little longer than was planned, but we made it back to our ship by the deadline, 4:30 p.m.  (Whew!  Can you imagine our relief?  What if we'd had to stay on that tropical island for more than a few hours?) Anne’s excursion had ended before mine, and she had gone after that to the Galaxy of the Stars Lounge to play bingo, which is where I found her after I’d shower and dressed again.   

View of the Garden Room, one of two main dining rooms
I was too late to buy my own bingo cards, so I helped Anne keep track of the four she’d bought.  I brought her an extra pair of eyes but not any good luck.  Having lost at bingo, Anne decided to go to the casino. She’s already eaten dinner, so I suited myself by going to the Garden Room, where I had cheese tortellini.  It was good but not as good as the spaghetti carbonara I’d had at La Trattoria.

After dinner, I went back to the cabin to read awhile but fell asleep early, tired from the day’s fun.

Day 5 (May 12)

On Thursday morning, our ship anchored outside of Belize City.  None of the excursions there had appealed to me so I hadn’t signed up for any , but I planned to go ashore to look around.  Anne and I had breakfast in the Windows Main Dining Room, and then I returned to our cabin to stretch out on my comfy bed to read a bit.  I was enjoying Annie Proulx’s short stories more and more.  Eventually, though, languor overtook me, and I napped until lunch time.

After lunch in the Raffles Court buffet, I went back to the cabin to read and nap some more.  I had decided not to go ashore in Belize, a decision I regret now because when will I get back there to see this country?  When I was a graduate student at New Mexico State University in 1990-1992, I had met and become friends with Isabel, a woman from Belize, but as I was preparing to take this cruise, I couldn’t for the life of me remember her last name.  I had wanted to contact her and perhaps meet with her when I was in her country, but all I could remember was her first name, so I had no way of contacting her. 

An aside:  Wouldn’t you know:  two weeks ago when I was going through old papers, I found an index card with Isabel Tun’s name on it!  How great it would have been to see her again and find out what’s going on in her life.  I was able to google her name and find a short biography and list of her publications as a professor at the University of Belize on this website:  But I haven’t been able to find an email address for her yet.

"A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou"--or rather, a Nook for a book,
a margarita, and Reggae playing in the background--and "wilderness
[or in this case, the vast sea] is paradise enow.*"
Later that afternoon, Anne and I went to the card room and played a couple games of Scrabble.  From there, we adjourned to a table on a covered deck near the pool to read our books, listen to the Reggae music, and sip margaritas.  Ah, what a life!

Dessert at Le Bistro--I think Anne
had mousse, and I had profiteroles
For dinner that night, we went to Le Bistro, a French restaurant that charged a $15 cover charge per person.  Not only that; two entrees on the menu came with additional charges (all other entrees were free), and I had to have the lobster bathed in an alfredo sauce to the tune of $10—and worth it.  Add to that a glass of wine ($7 or $8), and the meal cost $32 or $33.  Although that's a modest amount for a good meal at a French restaurant, it drove home to me the realization that a cruise is definitely not the all-expenses-paid proposition it would appear at first.

Anne and I ended the day in the Star Dust Theatre watching a show, “Second City.”  Or rather, I tried to watch it but started feeling a little seasick as we sat in swivel chairs in a balcony.  I moved to a stationary seat, but my stomach still felt unsettled—and perhaps it was because of too much food and wine.  At any rate, I left Anne there and returned to the cabin—and so to sleep.

Day 6 (May 13)

Day 7 (May 14)

Day 8 (May 15)

Friday, May 6, 2011

Cinco de Mayo cooking class at Los Poblanos Inn & Cultural Center

Yesterday, I celebrated Cinco de Mayo by taking a cooking class at Los Poblanos Inn and Cultural Center here in Albuquerque.  It was especially fun because a friend and fellow BookBabes book club member, Muriel Carpenter, took the class with me.

About 12 people showed up for the three-hour class.  Executive chef Jonathan Perno and sous chef Jaye Wilkinson taught us how to make the following recipes: 

  • Pico de gallo
  • Guacamole
  • Taquitos
  • Ceviche de calamari
  • Wild halibut tacos garnished with coleslaw
  • Fried ice cream
As the grand finale, Molly Ater, dining room manager, taught us how to make Los Poblanos’ signature “lavender-infused margaritas.”

Here are some photos taken as we sat down to taste all we’d made.  What a wonderful meal—and what a gorgeous setting on the grounds of Los Poblanos!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Readings on the Rio Grande: Annie Proulx

I went to hear Annie Proulx (pronounced Prue and rhymes with true) speak last Monday night at UNM's Woodward Hall as part of the "Readings on the Rio Grande" series ponsored by Bookworks and ABC Libraries.  Couldn’t talk anyone else—niece Jenny nor one of four CNM colleagues—into going with me so, like the Little Red Hen, I did it myself.

Proulx began by reading pages 15-22 of her new nonfiction book, Bird Cloud.  I enjoyed hearing stories from this literary elder in the company of 100-150 other members of the book tribe.  All we lacked was a bonfire, and that was for the best since the lecture hall is equipped with an overhead sprinkler system.

After reading from her book, Proulx introduced the subject of books in general and read parts of a newspaper column on the topic of—or similar to—‘50 things you can do with a book’ as opposed to an e-book.  I thought it odd that she made unfavorable comparisons between the two; after all, both are books, and both require reading.  A more suitable comparison, in my opinion, would have been between books and movies.  (I’m reminded of the statement—I forget who made it—that “There are worse things than illiteracy—such as aliteracy.”)

An aside:  in my online search to find the actual newspaper column Proulx excerpted, I came across this comparison between e-books and traditional books. As this webpage shows, authors earn less money when a reader buys an e-book instead of a hardback book whereas publishers and readers save more money on e-books.  But I sensed that Proulx objects to e-books not out of greed but out of love for bound, print-on-paper pages that hands can pick up, hold, riffle, and annotate.

At the end of the event, Proulx took questions.  Someone asked, “Who are your favorite writers?” and she answered with a long list that—drat!—I wasn’t prepared to write down.  Since she is one of my very favorite writers, I was keen to know from whom she draws her reading pleasure and inspiration.  I remember only these three:
  • Aidan Higgins
  • Dagoberto Gilb, one of the few writers, she said, who write about working class people. (When she mentioned his name, I remembered reading and enjoying a book of his short stories back in the ‘80s or early '90s and hearing him read at a New Mexico State University event sponsored by the English Department when I was a graduate student there.)
  • Francisco Goldman, Guatamalan/Jewish American writer whose wife died in Mexico during a resort vacation three years ago and whose novel, Say Her Name, about the tragedy is being published imminently

I did note that most of the writers on Proulx's list were men, and that makes sense to me since I’ve found her to be a “masculine” writer.  That is, if I hadn’t known her name, I would have assumed that Shipping News and Postcards were written by a man.  Why?  Because the writing is so technically precise and knowledgeable about traditionally male pursuits and because it describes men so insightfully.

Another person asked her if she works on more than one writing project at a time, and she said she did—that when she comes to a hard place in one piece of writing and doesn’t know yet how to proceed, she turns to another.

The last person asked what a typical day of writing looks like for Proulx, and she replied that she has no typical days because she travels so much, admitting that it’s not an ideal situation for a writer.

I bought two of her books and stood in line to get her autograph on them.  I was probably the eighth person in line, and she signed quickly.  As I stood in line, it occurred to me to ask her if she has a favorite aphorism or proverb and, if so, request her to write it above her signature.  (I’m a collector of quotations and sayings, and they often spring into my mouth on suitable occasions:  “A stitch in time saves nine.”  “Better to do and regret than not to do and regret.”  “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”)  But the question I asked—“Do you have a favorite proverb?”—wasn’t clear enough to express my request.

“No,” she replied.  Pause.  “Do you?”

“Many,” I said, surprised by her question and then realizing she was being polite.  I decided not to take more of her time by explaining myself.

In hindsight, it may be best she didn’t respond with a proverb.  She could have written, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool that to speak and remove all doubt.”  Or “There are none so blind as those who will not see.”  Or “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

As another proverb advises, “Be careful what you wish for.”

One of Proulx’s books that I bought that night was Close Range: Wyoming Stories, a book of short stories that includes “Brokeback Mountain,” which first appeared in the New Yorker magazine and then was made into a movie.  I loved the movie but had never read the short story until yesterday.  As I did, scenes from the movie flooded back to me, and I felt again the pain of Ennis and Jack’s loss--pain that Ennis endures because “if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.”

Proulx spoke of how she came to write “Brokeback Mountain” and her other stories and books, fruits of her choice to write about the lives of people in isolated rural communities.  And perhaps that’s one of the reasons I like her writing so well:  she writes about the kinds of people and communities I grew up in:  Park River, ND, and Clayton, NM.  

Sunday, January 30, 2011

¡Jubilación! How can I keep from singing?

On January 10, 2011, the spring term began at Central New Mexico Community College (CNM) here in Albuquerque--without me!  That afternoon, I sat in a movie theatre instead watching "True Grit" to celebrate my retirement.

On my last day of work, Dec. 17, 2010, I was inspired to crash a meeting of English instructors long enough to sing a few bars of "How Can I Keep from Singing?" out of sheer jubilation. (Here’s a version of it sung by Eva Cassidy.  -I didn't sound anything like that.) 

I used the word jubilation, above, on purpose:  the Spanish word for retirement is jubilación (pronounced HOO-bee-lah-see-OWN). And what a difference a word makes!

We’ve been reminded in the national news recently that words matter.  And it’s not just the strict meanings (the denotations) of words that matter but their connotations, which lard words with extra meanings. These accreted meanings cling to words like cigarette smoke clings to a person’s hair, clothes, and breath. 

Or as John Steinbeck put it more instructively, words “pick up flavors and odors, like butter in a refrigerator.” 

For example, the plain definition of the word retirement, according to is “withdrawal from one's position or occupation or from active working life.”  In the refrigerator of my mind, however, the word has taken on unpleasant flavors and odors--negative connotations--suggesting that "retirement" is a withdrawal not just from work but from productive life. 

So I prefer the word jubilación, which carries a sense of celebration and rejoicing.  How, then, can I keep from singing?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Mother's Day

I woke up on Sunday to the smells of coffee and bacon.  Jay and Val were already up and had gotten Mom up, too.  I joined her at the kitchen table for French toast, maple syrup, and turkey bacon.  Then Jay built a fire in the woodstove, and we sat in the sun room awhile.  In this photo, Val, Mom, and I are toasting ourselves with mimosas.

Jay and Val had planned to take us to Lake Tahoe for a tour of the lake on the MS Dixie , a large paddleboat, later for a Mother’s Day outing, but by noon the wind was strong, and they decided it wasn’t a good day for going on the water.

Instead, we—Jay, Val, Julianne, Jaime, Mom, and I—drove up to Lake Tahoe, enjoyed the view of the lake, and then stopped at a shopping center to visit a few shops and have a late lunch at the State Line Brewery & Restaurant.  We stopped at this fountain, and Jason gave us pennies so that we could make a wish.  [If we have an easy, uneventful flight home today, Monday, I will have gotten mine.]

We got back to Carson City around 5 p.m. and just hung out, talking and listening to mellow music.  Then at about 7 p.m., Kevin and Jen called us via Skype from Sakhalin to wish Mom a Happy Mother’s Day.  We probably talked for 45 minutes of more.  The video picture was excellent, as you can see from this picture.  Mom also got calls from Katie and Guy in the evening.

To cap off the night, Jaime made angel food cake with Cool Whip, strawberries with chocolate dipping sauce, and piecrust cookies for us as our last Mother’s Day treat.  M-m-m-m!  It was all delicious—and so thoughtful of Jaime to turn her new interest in cooking and baking into a gift for her mom, grandmother, and aunt—and, of course, her dad.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day weekend in Carson City, NV

To celebrate Mother’s Day, Mom and I flew to Carson City on Friday, May 7, arriving mid afternoon. Jason and Jaime were at the Reno airport to pick us up and drive us the half-hour trip to Carson City. Val and Julianne were waiting for us at home. Ever since we arrived, we’ve been pampered.

Jay and Val built a sun room onto the back of their house about two years ago, and that’s where we’ve been spending a lot of our time. The room is mostly made of windows and sky lights, giving a view of the mountains to the north and letting in lots of light at every moment of the day.  Here’s a photo of Mom and Jaime, with Ollie—one of two cat siblings who are part of the family—cozying up to Mom. Never fond of cats, she allowed Ollie to sit in her lap at least long enough for this picture to be taken. [Click on any photo to see it enlarged.]

Here’s another photo of Mom talking with Jaime and Julianne in the sun room. Notice Tucker, one of their two Labrador retrievers, resting in the yard outside.

The first evening, we sat in the sun room and visited. For supper, we ordered spaghetti and meatballs and Italian sausage and Caesar salad from a nearby restaurant and then wandered back to the sun room to lounge and talk some more. We learned that Julianne was going to the prom the next day, so we were going to be able to meet her boyfriend Johnny and see them in their finery.

On Saturday, Jay and Val took us to Virginia City, the old mining town and now tourist spot, a short 30-minute drive away through scenic hills and mountains. Our first stop in Virginia City was at the Fourth Ward School, a fine four-story school built in 1876. The school is now a museum that focuses on the history of Virginia City’s hayday and its mines, but it also includes a 45-desk school room preserved much as it was when it was used. Mom and I enjoyed seeing the old wooden desks with holes in the upper right corner of the desk tops for ink bottles and grooves along the top to hold pencils. A large pot-bellied stove sat in the middle of the room, likely a hell for the students sitting next to it during the winter.
After we left the school, we drove toward the center of town and parked near a beautiful, ornately decorated church, which we learned was the first Catholic church built in Nevada—although the word “first” on the sign in front of it has quotation marks around it, which I interpret to mean it’s a dubious claim. At any rate, we went inside St. Mary’s Church in the Mountains  and were amazed at its beautiful carved white-and-gilded altars, its ornately carved redwood pews, and its colorful stained glass windows. We could see the pipes of a large organ above in the choir loft. And I was interested to see a large statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe just to the left of the entrance to the nave.

After we left the church, we walked toward the main street.  We soon discovered a part of the main street had been cordoned off for the city’s “International Chili Cook-off.” Booths flanked both sides of the street for two or three blocks, and people milled around sampling the chili. We, however, were there simply to walk around a bit and view the scene and the architecture. We ended up in the Bucket of Blood Saloon, where we had a glass of beer or wine, each to his own poison, and surveyed the view of the town and its environs from the picture window next to our table. The saloon was packed with folks listening to the live band playing while others danced. Some people were costumed as bar-room floozies, gun slingers, tough hombres, cowboys, and lawmen, and it was fun to see them dance and act their roles.
After a little bit of shopping, we headed back for Carson City in time for Val to help Julianne fix her hair and help her get ready for the prom. John arrived exactly on time—5:00 o’clock—to pick up Julianne. As Jaime said, John looked dashing in his tux, and as you can see from this photo, Julianne looked utterly smashing in her prom dress. They made a handsome couple indeed. But don’t take my word for it. See for yourself.
And here's a picture of Mom and Julianne that I just love.
We ended the day’s activities by going to the Casino Fandango for a little gambling and dinner.  Between us, Mom and I spent $6.00 playing the slots.  Mom won; alas, not I.   We ate an Italian restaurant, TiAmo, in the casino and had a fine meal.

Monday, August 24, 2009

August 20-23: My trip to San Antonio, Texas

NOTE: Click on any picture to enlarge it.Under a statue of Toribio Losoya: Andrew, Michael, Caitlin, JD, Bryan, and Carrie
In front of the statue of
Toribio Losoya: Andrew, Michael, Caitlin, JD, Bryan, and Carrie.

Last Thursday, I flew to San Antonio to visit my ex-daughter-in-law Carrie and her family—husband Richard Rosales, and their five kids: Bryan and Caitlin (my son Sean’s son and daughter), Andrew (Richard’s son by a previous marriage), and JD and Michael, Carrie and Richard’s kids together. I’d planned to stay at a motel originally, but Carrie insisted I stay with them. How cool is that?!

Carrie and all five kids met me inside the airport. I had seen recent pictures of Bryan and Caitlin, so I knew they’d grown, and boy! had they. I was amazed at how tall they were. Bryan is taller than I am now, and Caitlin almost so. Andrew, too, was a lot taller than the last time I’d seen him. As for Carrie, she looked "incredibly thin and young" to be the mother of five (quoting here from a script she supplied me, but she needn't have bothered--I would have noticed that by myself).

JD and Mikey were hesitant to get too close to me even after they watched their mama hug me. I thought that would do the trick, but it would take longer to win them over, and JD never quite took to me like Mikey did.

I’d checked on San Antonio’s forecast before I left Albuquerque and learned that the high temperature for Thursday was supposed to be 103 degrees with a lot of humidity. So I was prepared for the heat. Then on the short trip from the airport to their house, Carrie told me the bad news: the air conditioning in the house wasn’t working. She had a call in to get it repaired but hadn’t actually talked to someone yet, so she wasn’t sure when it would be fixed. If need be, she said, we would go to a mall and hang out to get out of the heat.

Actually, I didn’t find it too hot, sitting on the couch with a fan going and drinking ice water. But Carrie was up and down, fetching and doing and picking up and checking the thermostat, which reached 90 degrees—the highest it could go—so she Andrew and Caitlinfelt the heat more than I did. At one point, she got someone on the phone—not the person she actually needed to speak to, though—and explained that the house was unbearably hot for her young children and an “elderly family member” who was visiting. I threatened to spank her at that point, but I was willing to bear the label if it meant getting the air conditioning fixed sooner.

In mid afternoon, Carrie took Bryan, Caitlin, Andrew, and me to a bowling alley, Caitlin and Bryanwhere the kids played a couple of games. I refrained, out of concern for their safety. My grown children remember the time I went bowling with them when they were young: During one of my turns, I launched the ball backwards instead of forward, nearly hitting them.

After bowling, we returned to the house, which was still hot. Happily, the little kids have a kiddy pool in the backyard, so we went outside and sat with our feet in Me, Caitlin, and JD in the hammockthe pool, which worked well to cool us off. I enjoyed watching the kids play and observing how well the older kids took care of and played with the little ones.
Carrie made chicken-salad sandwiches for supper—which didn’t require turning on any heat to prepare—and we ate them outside where it was slightly cooler. Here's a photo of Caitlin, JD, and me in the hammock.

Then, when Richard got home, he made a few phone calls and got quick action on getting the air conditioner fixed. Within an hour, a repairman arrived and fixed the problem. It would take several hours for the house to entirely cool down, so we went to bed while it was still plenty warm. But Carrie had put a big fan in Caitlin’s room, where I would sleep, and there’s also an overhead fan in the room, so after I took a cool shower, I pointed the big fan directly on me and fell asleep quickly. At about 4:00 in the morning, the cold air woke me up briefly. I pulled the covers over me and fell back to sleep.

Bryan and Andrew checking out JD's groceriesOn Friday, we—Carrie, the kids, and I—went downtown to visit the Children’s Museum , eat at the Buckhorn Café, walk along the River Walk, and visit the Alamo.

The Children’s Museum was fun for me as well as the kids. It’s not as big as Explora in Albuquerque, but it has some really neat stuff for kids to do. The biggest hit was the kids-sized grocery Caitlin checking out Mikey's groceriesstore, which had little shopping carts and shelves stocked with “food” items and the produce section full of plastic vegetables. Mikey and JD whisked around the aisles filling their carts—helped by the older kids—and then the older ones checked them out at the check-out counters complete with bar-code readers.
Shopping in the Kid's Grocery Store
The kids also got to “drive” a front-end loader and sit in the cockpit of a small replica of a passenger plane. Caitlin stopped to take a quick shower at an exhibit that teaches kids how to conserve water.Caitlin taking a shower while conserving water

After all that play, we were hungry, so we went across the street to the Buckhorn Saloon and Café, housed in the Texas Ranger Museum. The kids loved the stuffed animal displays, some of them fake, most of them real. While we ate—Carrie and the kids had fried catfish, and I had barbecued chicken—we listened to old-timey melodies playing on a cool player piano. One of the songs I recognized: “Waltz Around Texas (With You in My Arms).”
Eating at the Buckhorn Saloon
Oldtimer, JD, and Caitlin
JD and Caitlin next to a stuffed lion
Bryan with a fantastic deer with moose antlers in the background

After lunch, we took a stroll on the River Walk. It’s as pleasant as I had been led to expect: boats of tourists cruised up and down the canal, and restaurants and bars lined the walkways on both sides of the waterway. Refrigerated On the River Walkair wafting from these establishments—and “greeters” standing outside them—tried to lure us in for a meal or a margarita, but our bellies were full, so we walked on to take in the sights. When we reached the end of the walk, we turned back and then headed toward Caitlin on the River Walkthe Alamo.
Bryan and Carrie on the River Walk

I have been wanting to visit the Alamo ever since I lived in Xalapa, Veracruz, México, from August 2007 to August 2008 as a participant in the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program. While there, I twice visited the hacienda of General Santa Anna—the Mexican general whose army defeated the “Texians” at the famous battle of the Alamo—outside of Xalapa (spelled Jalapa by the Spanish). El Lencero is the name of his hacienda, which he bought in 1842. Santa Anna, who also served as Mexico’s president many times, was actually born in Xalapa.
Caitlin, JD, Andrew, Bryan pushing Mikey, and Carrie at the entrance to the Alamo
The sign outside the entrance to the Alamo asks men to remove their hats and everyone to talk quietly as they enter what is considered a shrine. The architecture of the building—the rounded ceilings, doorways, and windows and the limestone construction—brought back memories of the Spanish fort-turned-prison, San Juan de Ulua in the port of Veracruz, that had so impressed me when I toured it.

The AlamoWe made a quick tour of the Alamo’s main building, but we couldn’t stay long with little kids. Besides, taking photos wasn't permitted inside, so that cut down on our time there as well. I was content to see the Alamo, knowing I could find out more about it online later. Also, I know I can come back again and spend more time there. I’ve made a mental note to take a boat tour along the River Walk next time as well. I’m sure the kids would love it, too.

On the way home, JD and Mikey fell asleep in their car seats, so we nixed the plan to stop at an ice cream shop, but we did pick up ice cream sundaes to go. All in all, it was an enjoyable day.

On Saturday, I slept until 11:00 in the morning! Caitlin and I had stayed up late the night before, playing a game she likes to play—she was the doctor’s receptionist and I was the patient required to present all kinds of paperwork in order to make an appointment. Then we read our respective books: she, Inkheart, and I, a mindless detective novel about thefts in an art museum. I woke to the smell of bacon and coffee and found Carrie playing short-order cook for her brood and Richard, who has weekends off. I had what he had: a grilled ciabatta sandwich with egg, bacon, cheese, and Cholula hot sauce. Num!

That afternoon, the three oldest kids and I went to Six Flags—their choice—while Carrie, Richard, and the two littlest kids went back to the Children’s Museum and the Buckhorn Saloon and Café, which Carrie later reported was a LOT busier on Saturday than the previous day had been.

Do you see Bryan and Andrew on the Boomerang?It was hot at Six Flags as Caitlin and I—both chickens—waited half an hour or so for Bryan and Andrew to ride the Boomerang, described on the website this way: “At nearly 20 stories high, the Boomerang super-coaster sends riders through multiple loops and a corkscrew — and then does it all again, backwards.” Six Flags is great, but it clearly needs a lot more shade.

Next, all four of us rode the Log Roll (or whatever it’s called), which is like a small roller coaster only the cars look like hollowed-out logs that climb higher and higher heights and then zoom down and splash into the water below. That was my cup of tea—just enough excitement but not too much, and a cooling splash now and then.

The boys wanted to go on another scary ride, so Caitlin and I followed them as far as the merry-go-round, which we planned to ride. A few minutes later, the boys returned deflated; the ride they’d wanted to take was closed for the day. So Andrew prevailed on Bryan to ride the merry-go-round—O ignominy! How will they live it down now that I’ve made this fact public?

By this time, we were very hot—time to find our way to the Six Flags Water Park. Caitlin and I spent most of our time in the Wave Pool while the boys went on a couple of the wilder water rides. But before leaving, we all got into the Lazy River with inner tubes and went around several times. It was heaven: cool and relaxing even though it was pretty packed with people. Sorry, I failed to get any photo of the kids and me in our swimsuits... :-)

I thought I’d be exhausted when we left Six Flags, but I still had some energy left, so after supper, Bryan, Caitlin, Andrew, and I went to the movie, “District 9,” nothing I would have gone to see if it weren’t the kids’ choice, but I ended up enjoying it a lot. Talk about action flick! It was almost non-stop shooting, with lots of blood, guts, and gore, but it had humor, too, and insight into the nature and treatment of “the other” that redeemed it for me.

Photo taken just before I left San AntonioSunday morning: Carrie woke me at 9:00 so that I could get myself ready and packed to be at the airport at 11:00. Some coffee, some cereal, some last goodbyes, a last photo, and then Carrie drove me to the airport for the trip home.

I had a great time seeing a lot of places and doing a lot of fun things, but the best part was spending time with Bryan and Caitlin, Andrew, JD, Mikey, and Carrie and Richard.

And that's what I did on my summer vacation!