Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Alien Landscapes, Part 1

Mosi-o-Tunya (the Smoke that Thunders), also known as Victoria Falls

In 1986, I went to Zimbabwe on an Earthwatch Expedition.  About a year after I came back, I tried to write a fictionalized version of my trip for a short story contest, but gave up about halfway through. I tried to revise what I had written for a blog post, but that would have required writing it from scratch, so I decided to post the part of the story I had written as two blogposts, and then finish with an account of the rest.

Alien Landscapes

My story begins in the middle, as so many of my stories do, with a dream. I dream that aliens are planning to take over the earth. I am the only one who knows this, and have been knowing it (as we say in these parts) for some time, although I do not know how I know. One night, as I stand on the front lawn with my young son, I see an explosion on the surface of the moon. “It is them," I think. “It has begun." (In the world I will wake up to, it is February, 1986, with the Challenger explosion only a few weeks behind us.) I don’t tell anyone of the impending invasion. Who would believe me?

Even before the alien ships arrive, odd things begin happening on the earth, things I know are part of a campaign to weaken and disorient us. There is the night, for instance, that I listen to my radio and hear a bulletin announcing that bears have escaped from the zoo thirty miles away. Seconds later, they are on my front lawn. My son and I lock ourselves in and call the police. “The aliens did this,” I think, and am frightened.

When the aliens arrive, they look like humans and act like slightly demented social workers. They have come with the idea of being helpful, actually, but it is their own idea of helpfulness, which involves protecting Earthlings from any form of vice, emotion, fun or power. Cars are soon forbidden, as they cause accidents, clog up the atmosphere, and take people to places where trouble can be found, indeed, sought after. Alcohol, of course, is outlawed, as is chewing gum since it gets thrown away and sticks to people’s shoes. In short, they are tyrants, but tyrants of a cheery, smiley sort. We Earthlings plot revolt.

One day (in this dream) I arrive home and find a smiling blonde alien removing my stereo to the attic. “It makes noise. You don’t like noise,” she says as she steals my property. I realize suddenly that it is she, the alien, who does not like noise, is in fact terrified of it. I have the weapon I have been seeking. We Earthlings will use noise to defeat the aliens.

And that is where I woke up. I cannot tell you, although I wish I knew, whether we retook Earth, and it doesn’t matter to the rest of my story.

What intrigues me about the dream is its plot - I remember few of my dreams and those I remember are formless, filled with the abrupt changes of place and character we call “dreamlike”. I analyze and reanalyze the dream, fitting first one, then another of the significant and insignificant people in my life into the role of aliens, finally coming to the unsurprising conclusion that the alien is myself.

And who am I, myself? I am a woman, middle-aged but with a young son, in comfortable but not affluent circumstances, educated, a professional. I think of myself as a poet or an artist even though I haven’t written poetry in years and the greeting cards I draw I never send. My physical appearance doesn’t matter to this story and eludes me anyway: the woman I see in my mirror is not the woman I see in my mind. I avoid mirrors with the determination of a vampire. No doubt it is in revolt against my overwhelming ordinariness that I want to see myself as an alien.

In the waking world I am planning a trip to Africa. I have been daydreaming of this trip for two years, although I cannot afford to go, and my friends smirk knowingly whenever I mention it, as parents do when their children say, “When I grow up, I’m going to be an astronaut,” or movie star or president, though some of them will grow up to be those things. I feel like a child in a world of adults these days, powerless and discounted but precocious.  It is no wonder my dreams have taken a strange form.

At this point my ex-husband announces that he is about to remarry and wants to discuss buying out my share of our still jointly owned home. “Good, “ I say. “Now I can go to Africa.” This is not the response he is expecting. I no longer know what he expects; he is another alien in my life, almost another species. My memories of our marriage seem less real than my dreams of marauders from another planet.

As it turns out, his plans to buy my house fall through. “I guess,” he says in tones that are either warm and sympathetic or outrageously smug, depending on which one of us you are, “this means you can’t go to Africa.”

A week later I call the travel agent and send off my deposit.

This trip is not a tour or even a safari. I am going as a volunteer worker in a project that will study the lives of tribeswomen in a newly emerging democracy, specifically their health status during their pregnancies. In fact, I am paying my way there and a hefty sum besides so that I can spend two weeks working, but I actually prefer the idea of having a focus to my trip to aimless touring, and the tasks sound enjoyable or at least not onerous.

In the meantime, I have six months to get my passport, save up my money, and babble to complete strangers in grocery stores about where I will be going and what I will be doing there. My friends keep asking me when I will be leaving and soon assume I must have gone and come back; my actual departure becomes something of an anticlimax for them. Time passes, as it always does, and I am on a plane bound for London, thence to Harare, my dream all but forgotten, my son stashed safely with his grandparents, my luggage crammed with items half of which prove to be unnecessary, and my mind prepared to be impressed.

Monday, April 18, 2011


One of my holdovers from my childhood is getting a new Easter outfit. Being one of five children meant not having a lot of money for clothing. Often I got hand-me-downs from a cousin who lived in a more urban area and wore clothes that did not fit my personality or the styles at my school. Easter, however, always meant new clothes, not just a new dress or suit, but hat, shoes, and purse as well. Even now that I can buy clothes whenever I want, it's a custom I like to keep. More often than not, I find myself the only person in church over the age of three wearing a hat, but so what. I like hats.

So Saturday I went shopping for a dress. Hubby wanted to go to Penney's for some new jeans, and had a fifteen percent off everything coupon he had earned by taking a customer survey, so I started there.

Penney's had hundreds of dresses in misses sizes, but in the last three years or so, my weight has crept up into women's sizes, and four steady months of exercise have not caused much of a change. The selections in women's sizes were not nearly as extensive, and the dresses I did like were not available in my size. After fifteen minutes of searching the racks and another fifteen minutes of waiting on line for the dressing room, I found one that did fit. It had a print of enormous yellow flowers over a black background and a fabric mix that included spandex, which did not have the slenderizing effect the designer intended, but it fit.  I found hubby and showed it to him. He took one look at my face and knew I was not crazy about the dress. "Why are you going to buy it if you don't like it?" Good question. I put it back on the rack.

"Do you want to go somewhere else?" hubby asked. I decided on Lane Bryant, in a strip shopping center across from the mall. They had a comfy chair for hubby to sit. They also had a line for the dressing rooms. I tried on three dresses and two of them fit. The third one was the one I liked best, but it was snug around the midriff. As I stood on a long line to decide whether to buy one or both of the first two, hubby's question came back to me. I left the dresses in the store.

My very patient husband took me to one more place, where I found the dress I had been looking for. It was pretty! I liked it. I wanted to buy it. And it was designed by a genius. Princess lines skim over my problem midriff, and the pattern is a black and white print except right around the hemline, where a row of 5 inch red flowers blooms. Four months of exercise have left my legs looking great, even if they haven't budged my tummy. The flowers are in the perfect spot to highlight my legs.

Besides I have two hats, one red, one black, to choose from to wear with it, and a black and white patent purse. I even have a pair of strappy black sandals that will do.

The problem is, what I really want is a pair of red espadrilles. Try finding a pair of orthopedic espadrilles sometime. Something like these would look perfect, but to wear them I would have to sell my soul to Satan for a new pair of feet. Come to think of it, not only a new set of feet, but new knees and hips as well, and if I'm going to bargain my soul away for that, I might just as well ask for the body I had at 25. 

Then I could buy any dress I want.

The dress, with potential accessories. The cat is not a potential accessory, he just refused to move.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Shortly after Christmas, the television that we had in the living room died. It was not obvious at first that the problem was the television, since we also have a cable box to get high definition channels, but after a trip from the cable guy, we had the trouble narrowed down to the TV. We took it to a local repair shop and mirable dictu, they said they could fix it for a reasonable price. They just needed to order a part.

Several weeks later, not having heard from the repair shop, we called. The part, they assured us, was on backorder. When my husband inquired as to what "backorder" meant, he was informed that the company took orders for the part, and when they had enough orders, they would make the parts.

February moved into March. An earthquake struck Japan, where the factory is. "You know," my husband said, "I don't think they are going to be in any hurry to manufacture us a part."

March became April and we finally decided to buy a new television. The morning of the day that we planned to go shopping, my husband had a thought. "Before we get the new TV, I should paint this room."

Now there is no question the living room needed repainting. The last time it had been painted was 18 years ago. I had long since been longing for a different color, but the living room is something like 25' by 18', with a cathedral ceiling that is 11' tall in the middle of the longest wall. Not only that, it has the enormous armoire in it.  Every time I discussed painting the room with my husband, he said it would be impossible to move the armoire. When I mentioned that there are these people called painters who do these things for a living, he said, "Do you know how much that would cost?" My husband does not like paying people to do what he can do himself, even when he isn't actually doing it himself.

So I was happy to drag myself to Lowe's, along with a 3 by 5 foot carpet remnant that we use as a doormat, and a sofa cushion, to look for paint. After all, I had had about 10 years to think about what color I wanted, a gold that would pick up the background color in the sofa. I was not about to let hubby have second thoughts about painting the room.

I found a color that looked perfect on its little chip, we bought two gallons, and headed home to clear the armoire and bookshelves and move furniture. Shortly after lunch, hubby was painting.

The color, which had looked a muted gold on the paint chip, looked a harsh lemon yellow on the wall. What was even more confusing was that when I held the color chip up to the paint, it matched exactly. If I looked down one wall to the perpendicular wall, the color looked like the color I wanted in one spot and not in another.

I know from experience that my husband was not going to stop painting and start over with another color. He had done that once while painting his sister's house and swore never again. I bear a big grudge against his sister for that. I decided not to panic, and to see how the color looked once it dried. I remember that the tan color on the outside of our house looked yellow when we first put it on, too.

My patience paid off. By the next day, when hubby finished painting the last wall, the color looked the way it was supposed to. In a few more days, when we were able to hang the paintings and move the furniture back against the walls, so all 600 or so square feet of color weren't shining down on us, I was convinced I had not made a huge mistake after all.

In the meantime,while prepping the room,  we were able to vacuum behind the furniture, wash down the dusty bookcase and wainscoting, and get rid of a lot of old books and trinkets that we were moving back and forth. It hasn't been this clean in years, probably 18 of them.

Oh, yeah, and we got a new TV, too. A flat screen, which is all they make these days. One so light that I can tuck it under one arm and carry it around, so we didn't actually need to paint the room before buying the TV, but I decided not to point that out to hubby.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Speaking in Tongues

My grandparents, all 6 of them, came to this country from Italy shortly after the turn of the last century. While my maternal grandmother and my paternal grandfather learned English well enough to make themselves understood, my paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather hardly spoke English at all. My father spoke Italian at home growing up and only started speaking English when he went to school. He spoke Italian to his parents all their lives.

My stepmother also grew up speaking Italian to her parents. You would think with all the Italian speakers in my family, we grandchildren would have learned to speak it, too, but none of us did. I know a few words, but not enough to communicate with my grandparents. Bilingualism was suspect back in the day. My parents wanted their children to be Americans first and foremost. We had American names, not exotic Italian ones like "Savario" and "Francisco" (my Uncle Sam and my Dad). When Uncle Sam's daughter wanted to give her son "Savario" for a middle name, he talked her out of it.  My grandfather called my Dad "Franci" (pronounced like "Frangi"), but everyone else called him Frank.

Naturally it has been the big regret of my life that I wasn't named "Francesca". An even bigger regret is that I never learned Italian. My parents spoke it often enough with each other and their parents that a more enterprising child should have been able to learn something, at least enough to communicate with her grandparents. As it was, they remained puzzling strangers to me. As my grandfather grew older, he forgot a lot of his English, which made it even harder to talk to him. We spent the last year of his life playing the card games he taught me. Although he was a demanding man who, as my sister put it, had a lot of religion but no spirituality, my memories of playing cards with him are precious to me.

So when I became a speech pathologist and worked with children whose grandparents spoke another language, I did what  was contrary to my early training, and encouraged parents to teach their children both that language and English. It was sometimes a hard call. One of my little clients was a stutterer who stuttered more when his grandparents came to visit and the family switched to Spanish for a few weeks. But the other option, him not having a real relationship with his grandparents, seemed a whole lot worse.

Of course, educational opinions change, and now bilingualism is encouraged rather than frowned on. I think the best solution was hit on by friends of ours. They spoke only Chinese with their children until the children reached three or so. As J told me of her younger daughter, "I know she is going to learn English." And of course she will. She lives in an English speaking country. Her friends speak English. The television programs she watches are in English. The neighbors speak English. But her grandmother, who cares for her every day, speaks only Chinese, and they will always be able to speak together.

My Dad actually forgot his Italian as he got older. Once his parents were dead and we kids were out of the house, so that he and Mom did not need a secret code to use to say, "Where did you hide the Christmas presents?" he stopped speaking it altogether. When my son took a few semesters of Italian in college, he wasn't able to practice with Grandpa. Go figure.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Tree Sculptures in Galveston

In memory of Galveston's lost oaks

When people around these parts decide to hit the beach, they usually go east to Alabama or Florida. Hubby and I are more inclined to head west to Galveston. We used to go to Biloxi, but as more and more casinos took over the beaches Biloxi lost its appeal for us. Galveston has a combination of beaches and a historic downtown area with a lot of indoor attractions in the way of historic homes and museums to keep you busy on cold, rainy days.

Last week was the first time we had been to Galveston since Hurricane Ike hit the island in September of 2008. We found there is a new attraction in town: tree sculptures made from historic old oaks, killed by the salt water that flooded the island in the hurricane. A brochure available at our hotel listed the addresses of the sculptures, with pictures and a brief description of each, so we set out to take pictures.

The brochure said that we might find new sculptures not listed therein, and we did - the guitar shown above.

One of the yards had a sign that explained how the sculptures came about:

It revealed some exceptionally poignant information. The woman who initiated the idea of the tree sculptures had a geisha in her yard. The geisha, shown below, holds a sign that asks viewers to say a prayer or have a moment of silence for extended family and friends affected by the earthquake in Japan:

It's enough to break your heart. A woman responds to tragedy with a grace and hope, inspiring her neighbors to make something beautiful out of the ruins of their beloved old oaks. Then tragedy hits again, and again she responds with grace and hope. That's an example to follow.