Saturday, August 2, 2014

There Was this River; There Was this Beer

"But in the morning, a golden band of light moves down the cliffs towards the river, and in the afternoon that same band moves back up until it is only a sliver at the top, and then it is gone. Side canyons lead to trickling waterfalls with maidenhair fern and columbine. Raging summer thunderstorms create red-brown waterfalls that plummet from the rim to the river, turning it brick-red in an instant. The stars at night sparkle shamelessly. The rapids are first fearsome and then exhilarating."—Christa Sadler, There's this River

Yes, that's exactly how it was.

There's this River is a book of stories by Grand Canyon boatmen—the men and women who work as guides on whitewater rafting trips down the Colorado River. The stories are by turns exciting, funny, and breathtaking—and some of them are no doubt true. Loretta and I bought the book sixteen years ago, at the end of our own journey down the Colorado River. We bought the book, then promptly forgot about it—until last weekend, when we dug it out and began reading it for the first time. Yesterday, as I read a story about a guide's hilarious encounter with a bighorn sheep, I could hear the voice of Jesse, our swamper (assistant guide), as he read us that same story on a calm stretch between rapids.

The memories came flooding back. Jesse, our guides Brian and Kim, our fellow passengers: the two New York firemen who measured each rapid by the amount of water they collected in the drinking cups attached to their life jackets ("Half a cup, Bob!"); the two French Canadian women with whom we had an interesting conversation about French Canadian music and who, after the trip, sent us a CD; and Doris, the plucky seventy-three-year-old who quickly became the boat's unofficial mascot ("Doris! Doris! Doris!").

There were four of us traveling together: my sister Susan, brother-in-law Kevin, Loretta, and me. Here's a picture of our boat hitting our first rapid:

Left to right: Loretta, me, Kevin, Susan, and other wet people

By the way, if you ever take a whitewater rafting trip on the Colorado River, here's a tip: do not wear jeans. Our jeans got soaked at the first rapid, and they never dried out. We spent the rest of the trip in our bathing suits. Here's another tip:

Take plenty of beer.

We never experienced any of the calamities experienced by the boatmen in There's this River—no flipped boats, broken bones, near-drownings, or attacks by bighorn sheep. The closest we came to disaster was when we ran out of beer.

We were warned. At the general store in Lee's Ferry, before we boarded the vans that would take us and our gear to the river, our guides told us that this was our last chance to buy beer. And, they warned us, if we were going to buy beer, we should buy plenty—more than we thought we would need.

They should have told us to buy a lot more than we thought we would need. Maybe twice the amount.

The four of us drink beer, but only good beer. The only good beer at the general store was Heineken, and we bought nearly all they had (which was not a problem, as almost everyone else was buying Bud Lite). We were confident that it would be enough for our five-day trip on the river.

We were almost right.

At the load-in, everyone's beer was put into a big nylon net bag which trailed behind the boat. The icy water of the Colorado River kept the cans chilled to optimal drinking temperature for the entire trip—or would have, if the beer had lasted the entire trip.

A couple of days into our journey, it became apparent that our Heineken was disappearing faster than it should have been. The net bag was intact; the missing cans could not have been lost in the rapids. There was only one possible explanation. Someone was boosting our beer. (Who? I have my suspicions, but the suspect shall remain nameless, primarily because I can't remember his name.)

Kevin and I enjoy some of the rapidly disappearing Heineken

By our last night on the river, everyone's beer had run out, along with every drop of any other alcohol that might have been on the boat. How did we know? Because one passenger (who shall remain nameless, primarily because I can't remember his name) went to everyone in camp, on his knees, begging for a drink. The poor guy was miserable. If any of us had had any alcohol left at that point, I'm sure we would have given it to him.

Between the heart-breaking sobs of the man who shall remain nameless and the brilliant full moon that flooded the canyon, I doubt anyone got any sleep that night. Fortunately, it was our last night on the river. The following day we were taken out of the canyon by helicopter, back to civilization.

And, mercifully, beer.

Room Service, with Beer

(If you'd like to see more pictures from our Grand Canyon adventure, here's a link to an album on Flickr.)

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Father's Day 2010

I don’t remember how we celebrated Father’s Day when my father was young. (Of course, you never think of your father as young. But when I look at pictures from those days, I can’t believe how young he was.) I don’t remember what gifts my brother, my sister, and I gave him. Probably ties, picked out and wrapped by our mother. In those "Mad Men" days, a tie was pretty much the standard gift for a father, whether it was Father’s Day, Christmas, or his birthday.

I do remember the last Father’s Day I spent with my father.

It was four years ago. Both of my parents were having serious health issues. My father was experiencing chronic hematuria (blood in the urine)—a symptom of the bladder cancer that within two years would kill him, although we did not know it at the time. My mother was in a nursing home, recovering from yet another bout with pneumonia—the disease that would eventually cause her death. On top of all that, my aunt in Indiana was about to undergo surgery for an abdominal aneurysm. As they say, it never rains but it pours.

On impulse, Loretta and I decided to take the summer off and drive across country with the cats, stopping first in Indiana to stay with my aunt until after her surgery, then in Virginia to spend several weeks with my parents and take the initial steps to get them into some kind of assisted living. Finally, we would stop in Buffalo to spend July 4th weekend with Loretta’s family before heading back to California. It was an incredible, bittersweet journey, and someday I may tell you all about it. For now, I am only going to tell you about Father’s Day, which was one of the sweet parts.

As they got older, my parents' world got smaller. They rarely left the house, and when they did, it was usually for a visit to the doctor's office, the hospital, or the nursing home. But occasionally, when Mom and Dad were well enough, my sister Susan and brother-in-law Kevin took them for a weekend getaway to their cabin in the mountains bordering Shenandoah National Park.

My parents lived for those trips to the cabin.

When it was built, Kevin made sure they would be comfortable there. They had their own room with a beautiful vista of the woods and a clearing Kevin created where deer came to graze at dawn and dusk. The bathroom was handicap accessible, and Kevin even installed a chair lift so my mother could get up the steps to the front porch.

That Father's Day weekend was a pretty good one for Dad, so we took him to the cabin.

As always, we enjoyed the beautiful scenery, the wildlife, and the tranquility of the Shenandoah Valley. We watched old episodes of Dad’s favorite television program, Perry Mason. There were delicious meals prepared by our hosts, and a Father’s Day cake that came with a plastic "Sheriff Dad" badge, which my father proudly wore. He loved his gift: a Kindle electronic reader (his days of wearing a tie were over). The only thing that would have made the weekend better is if my mother could have been there, too. Fortunately, she was released from the nursing home in time for us all to make one last trip to the cabin before Loretta and I packed up the cats and headed to Buffalo.

When I think of my parents, I don’t like to think of them in the assisted living facility where they ended up, or even in the house they lived in for so many years before that. I prefer to think of them at Susan and Kevin’s cabin, where they spent some of the happiest hours of their later years.

And when I think of Father's Day, I like to think of the last one I spent with "Sheriff Dad."

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Cowboys and Indians

"The Zane family was a remarkable one in early days, and most of its members are historical characters." (Zane Grey, Betty Zane)

I never used to have much interest in the Western genre. However, since moving to California I have developed a taste for the novels of Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour and the movies of John Ford. I recently started re-reading Betty Zane, by Zane Grey. It isn't really a Western. There are no cowboys in it, although there are Indians. It's a historical novel set near the end of the American Revolution, in a frontier settlement on the Ohio River. Which I suppose makes it sort of a Western, as that was about as far west as you could get in those days—unless you were an Indian.

I have Betty Zane, along with many other books by Zane Grey, on my Kindle. Years ago, when I read it the first time, I did not have a Kindle. Nobody did. My father loaned me a worn, dog-eared paperback copy. He told me it was about some of our ancestors. He also told me it was out of print, and he wanted it back.

Dad's hobby was genealogy. Few things gave him as much pleasure as identifying a new branch on the family tree. In the beginning, he had to do his research by traveling to libraries in Indiana and neighboring states. As a child, I accompanied him on an overnight expedition to a library in eastern Ohio. I'm sure he was hoping that I would develop an interest in his hobby, and at first I found it exciting to be included on his quest. However, I soon became bored, and left him alone in the genealogy department to seek out the section of the library where the Hardy Boys could be found.

With the advent of the Internet, Dad suddenly had access to vast amounts of genealogical data, without leaving home. He quickly filled in more and more branches of both the Logue and Shorter—my mother's family—trees. (My mother was not amused when Dad discovered that the two of them were distant cousins.)

As I recall, it was shortly after Loretta and I moved to California that Dad discovered our family's connection to Zane Grey. We shared a common ancestor, described by Grey as "a Dane of aristocratic lineage, who was exiled from his country and came to America with William Penn. He was prominent for several years in the new settlement founded by Penn." However, "Being a proud and arrogant man, he soon became obnoxious to his Quaker brethren."

That obnoxious Quaker was one William Zane. His offspring included Betty (the heroine of Grey's novel), Ebenezer (Grey's ancestor), and Isaac (our ancestor).

When they were young, all of the Zane boys were kidnapped by Indians. Three of them, including Grey's ancestor Ebenezer, were ransomed. One was killed by his captors when he attempted to escape. The youngest, our ancestor Isaac, remained in captivity, held by bonds "stronger than those of interest or revenge such as had caused the captivity of his brothers. He was loved by an Indian princess, the daughter of Tarhe, the chief of the puissant Huron race." In the book Betty Zane—and in real life—Isaac Zane married that Indian princess, whose name was Myeerah.

Isaac and Myeerah were my father's great-great-great-great grandparents (give or take a "great").

My father was understandably excited to discover that we were distant cousins of Zane Grey, who practically invented the Cowboy (with a capital 'C') of American literature. He was even more excited that we were directly descended from a "chief of the puissant Huron race." When he told me the news in a telephone call, he announced that he was going to write to the current chief of the Wyandots and request membership for himself and my sister. He asked if I would be interested in joining as well.

"Are there any benefits?" I asked. "For instance, can I open a casino?"

I turned down my father's offer. He and my sister were dark enough to credibly claim a smidgen of Native American blood, whereas I inherited my mother's fair, northern European complexion.

I would have been laughed right out of the tribe.

(Many of Zane Grey's novels, including Betty Zane, are in the public domain and available as free downloads from Project Gutenberg.)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Where I Need to Be

Douglas Adams would have been sixty-two years old today, if he were still alive. Unfortunately, he died thirteen years ago, at the all-too-young age of forty-nine. (I judge anything younger than my current age as "all too young" and, to paraphrase Tom Lehrer, when Douglas Adams was my age he'd been dead for ten years.)

Adams was not a prolific writer, but what few works he left us were chock-full of some of the most brilliant, witty turns of phrase since Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. For instance, there's this gem from The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul:

"I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be."

It's a quotation that particularly resonates with me, for I have never been any good at making plans. I have always believed that, in the words of Robert Burns:
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
Which I took to be Scottish for "No matter what you do, you'll probably just end up getting eaten by a cat or caught in a mousetrap, so why bother?"

By my senior year in high school, I still had not figured out what I was going to do with my life. (I had barely figured out what I was doing in high school.) When forced to choose a career, I decided on the medical profession because I enjoyed biology class and I figured saving lives was a good thing to do. When forced to choose a college, I told the guidance counselor I would prefer a small southern school—small because my high school was enormous and I hated it, southern because my father's office would soon be relocating from Chicago, Illinois, to Parkersburg, West Virginia.

The guidance counselor came up with three small southern schools known for their pre-med programs. After looking at pictures of the three campuses, I chose Wake Forest University, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, because I thought it had the most appealing architecture.

Wake Forest University

I have always been partial to Georgian architecture.

I soon discovered that I could barely manage the biology courses required for a
pre-med degree, and I was completely hopeless at chemistry. I decided to leave Wake Forest and try to figure out something I could do with my life that did not involve atoms and valences.

Although I had not been at Wake Forest long, I had been there long enough to make a life-long friend. In H. David Hawthorne, I found a kindred spirit who shared my appreciation for theatre (with an 're'), British humour (with a 'u'), classical music, and beer (not necessarily in that order). Our friendship lasted from our freshman year at Wake Forest until Dave passed away eight years ago, at the all-too-young age of fifty.

About thirty years ago, Dave and his then-fiancee Claudia threw a party so that all of their friends could meet. At that party, I had the good fortune to be partnered with Claudia's pretty friend Loretta Wong in a game of Trivial Pursuit. Within a year, we were partnered again on the dance floor at Dave and Claudia's wedding. Within two more years, we were partnered for life.

I may not have gone where I intended to go in my life (or even known where that was), but, thanks to a random chain of events which began with a slight preference for Georgian architecture, I ended up exactly where I needed to be.

Which is wherever Loretta is.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

No Sweat

Thomas Alva Edison famously stated that "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." (Which leads me to wonder if he invented antiperspirant, because he certainly must have needed it.)

It seems to me that the exact opposite of this formula applies to writing. (Which leads me to wonder if writers are the exact opposite of geniuses.)

Writing is nearly 100% inspiration. Without it you have nothing, and no amount of sweat is going to help. (In fact, if writing makes you sweat, you are doing it wrong. Either that, or you have a medical condition and should probably see a doctor.)

I had several ideas for today's post, none of which I found particularly inspiring. Here are a few of the best ones:
  • How depressed would Dracula be if he saw a box of Count Chocula? Or, worse yet, the Twilight movies?
  • What's the deal with memes? I don't see anything remotely funny about most of them. (Except for Lolcats. I love Lolcats.)
  • Whatever happened to Charlie the Tuna? Did Starkist finally can him?

See what I mean?

Maybe I just need to take a break from this blog—at least until I think of something inspiring to write about. That may be a week from now—or it may be a month or even a year. Until then—

Don't panic.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

We All Live in a Yellow Mondegreen

I was nine years old when the Beatles made their historic appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show fifty years ago, and I missed it. I was watching part two of The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh on Disney's Wonderful World of Color (in black and white, as we did not have a color TV). At the time, I was more interested in Disney than rock and roll, but my tastes changed. I soon became a Beatles fan, as did everyone in my family, with the possible exception of my father. (I can't say that Dad, who preferred classical music, ever loved the Beatles, although he eventually grew to appreciate them.)

We had the first Capitol album (Meet the Beatles!) and we played it over and over again until we wore it out. I was envious of my friend Steve, who had all of the Capitol albums. My friends and I used to go to Steve's house, put the whole stack on his parents' state-of-the-art hi-fi, and jump around the living room, singing along with John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Singing along with the Beatles could be a challenge. It was sometimes difficult to understand what those four young Liverpudlians were singing, especially when they were trying to sound like Chuck Berry or Little Richard.

Speaking of Little Richard, his song Long Tall Sally, covered on the second Capitol album (imaginatively titled The Beatles' Second Album) was one of the songs that puzzled me most. What was it that Long Tall Sally had that Uncle John needed? Pretty good guitars? Pretty picture cards? Listening to the original Little Richard recording years later wasn't much help (although I did learn that surprisingly, in addition to being long and tall, Sally was also bald). But now, thanks to Google and the Internet, I can instantly look up the lyrics and discover that the mysterious line that troubled me all those years ago was—
Well Long Tall Sally's built pretty sweet
She got everything that Uncle John need
When I was a kid, there was no Google or Internet. You couldn't look up lyrics. You just sang out and hoped that you would not embarrass yourself. In the song, It Won't Be Long, I always sang—
Every day we'll be happy I know
Now I know that you won't beat me no more
—and no one corrected me. (The actual line, of course, is, "Now I know that you won't leave me no more.")

Misheard lyrics are known as "mondegreens"—a word coined by someone who misheard the lyric "laid him on the green" as "Lady Mondegreen." I learned about mondegreens about the same time I learned that the actual lyrics to She Loves You are—
You know it's up to you
I think it's only fair
Pride can hurt you too
Apologize to her
I always thought it was "The rightful thing to do / Apologize to her." It didn't seem right (or "rightful"), but it sort of made sense, and again, no one corrected me. Then, a few years ago, I heard Loretta singing the correct lyrics: "Pride can hurt you too." Boy, did I feel like a fool.

Loretta is pretty good at understanding hard-to-understand lyrics, but she doesn't always get it right, either. I always thought the lyrics to I Want to Hold Your Hand were—
And when I touch you I feel happy inside.
It's such a feeling that my love
I can't hide, I can't hide, I can't hide.
This time, it turns out I was right. Loretta thought that last line was "I get hives, I get hives, I get hives."

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Let the Games Begin

The Winter Olympics have started. Or should that be "has started?" Is "Olympics" singular or plural? You'd think, as an English major, I would know that.

I do know that I won't be watching.

I'd like to say it's in protest of Russia's anti-gay policies or generally bad record on human rights issues. I'd like to say that, but the fact is, I'm just not interested. Watching winter sports makes me cold. I moved to Southern California to get away from that sort of thing.

However, I did watch the beginning of last night's endless opening ceremony. Here are a few random thoughts:

Poor Bob Costas! What happened to his eye? I guess he didn't get the memo about the bad water.

Welcome to Sochi. Please don't drink—or touch—the water.

The alphabet thing is nice. Do you suppose Putin realizes that Tchaikovsky was gay? And which Chekov are they talking about—the playwright or the guy on Star Trek?

At what point in the ceremony will Putin take his shirt off?

Didn't I see this in a Cirque du Soleil show? The flying islands are a nice effect. Are those real animals on top? I hope not, because if that horse or cow wanders too close to the edge, things could get ugly.

Cirque du Sochi

Why can't they just fly that little girl over to the Olympic rings to fix that thing? She's already up there, and at this point, she's not doing much.

Hey, kid—fix that thing!

Where can I get one of those light-up parkas? On second thought, something like that would be much too warm for Southern Califonia. How about a light-up hoodie?

Not only is Putin not shirtless, he's wearing a heavy winter coat—indoors. What a wuss.

Come on, Vladimir—take it off!

I began to doze off during the Parade of Nations, so I missed the rest. Did he ever take his shirt off?

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Don't Laugh

For years we have been told (principally by Reader's Digest) that "laughter is the best medicine." However, I recently read about a scientific study in the British Medical Journal which suggests that this may not be true. I tried to read the study, but it was a bit too sciency for me. I suspect that it may in fact be an elaborate joke, but it's difficult to tell. I have the utmost respect for scientists, but they really shouldn't attempt humor. Have you ever heard a science joke? It's usually some variation on the old "walks into a bar" joke, featuring an element, a particle (Higgs boson is popular just now), or Schrödinger's cat. Even if you are able to comprehend it, it is almost never worth the effort, as it is hardly ever funny.

A Typical Science Joke (See what I mean?)

As I was saying, I couldn't quite get through the study itself, but the article I read about the study included the following quote:
[L]aughter is no joke—dangers include syncope, cardiac and oesophageal rupture, and protrusion of abdominal hernias (from side splitting laughter or laughing fit to burst), asthma attacks, interlobular emphysema, cataplexy, headaches, jaw dislocation, and stress incontinence (from laughing like a drain). Infectious laughter can disseminate real infection, which is potentially preventable by laughing up your sleeve. As a side effect of our search for side effects, we also list pathological causes of laughter, among them epilepsy (gelastic seizures), cerebral tumours, Angelman’s syndrome, strokes, multiple sclerosis, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or motor neuron disease.
I must confess that I have no idea what some of the above words mean, and I didn't bother to look them up. One of the words I did understand, however, was "syncope." It means "temporary loss of consciousness caused by a fall in blood pressure."

I know all about laughter and syncope.

Several years ago we were having dinner with Loretta's brother Rob and our niece Jenny in a very nice restaurant in Paris. (Actually we were at Epcot, but I have been to Paris, and frankly Epcot is just as nice—in many ways nicer.) Jenny is a scientist, and she is an exception to the rule about scientists' sense of humor. She doesn't tell jokes about Higgs boson or Schrödinger's cat. In fact, she often complains that other scientists don't understand her humor, which should give you an idea of how genuinely funny she is. She can always make me laugh—often at the most inappropriate times, such as when I am at a very nice restaurant in Paris (or Epcot) drinking a glass of fine French wine.

I don't remember what Jenny said on this particular occasion, but trust me, it was funny. I began to laugh. Then I began to cough. Fine French wine came out of my nose.

Everything went black.

When I came to, I was being pulled, prodded, and shaken by Loretta one one side and Rob on the other. Convinced that I was choking to death, the two of them were attempting to pull me out of my chair and administer the "hug of life." I was bruised and sore. I was disoriented. There was wine on the front of my shirt. Worst of all, everyone in the restaurant was looking at me.

"Someday," I thought, "this will probably be funny."

I was right, of course. It's funny now. But please don't laugh.

I wouldn't want you to hurt yourself.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Sick in Discworld

Today's post is brought to you by NyQuil®, which is why it's late and probably less than coherent.

Is there anything worse than being sick on the weekend? Being sick during the week, now that's another story. When you're having a particularly hectic work week, it's kind of nice to take a day off to just kick back and be sick. Of course, I'm not talking about "running to the bathroom every five minutes" sick. I'm talking about "common cold or flu" sick, where your worst symptoms are a headache and a head full of snot.

That's why yesterday I decided to stay home in my recliner with my fleece blanket, a couple of boxes of Kleenex, a cup of peppermint tea, and a cat in my lap. I napped, watched a couple of DVDs, and did some reading. I love reading a good book when I'm sick—unless my nose is dripping on the book, which with a Kindle is not even a problem, because the snot wipes right off.

When I was a kid, there were no DVDs or videotapes, and—difficult as this is to imagine—daytime TV was even worse than it is today. When I was sick, my mother would go to the library and bring me a stack of books. My favorites were the stories of Ray Bradbury and the collections of scary stories for kids edited by Alfred Hitchcock. One of my favorites from one of those collections (I wish I could remember which collection or the name of the story or its author) was about a feverish child who overhears his parents gossiping about the people in town and somehow transforms their figures of speech ("her tongue wags at both ends," "he has eyes in the back of his head," etc.) into reality. The whole town goes crazy for a day then, when the child's fever breaks, everything changes back to normal. You can imagine the effect of reading such a story when I, myself, had a fever. I became convinced that I, too, might have the power to transform reality.

Speaking of transforming reality...

The book I have been currently reading is Men at Arms, by Terry Pratchett. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Pratchett, he is a brilliant, prolific writer of humorous fantasy. Terry Pratchett doesn't need to worry about transforming reality. He has created his own reality: a place called Discworld. Discworld is a world that is round and flat (hence the name "Discworld") and is carried through space on the backs of four enormous elephants, which, in turn, stand on the back of an enormous turtle. As you might surmise about such a place, anything can happen there.

Over a decade before J.K. Rowling gave us Hogwarts, Terry Pratchett introduced us to Unseen University, Discworld's school for wizards (and, eventually, witches). However, unlike the wizards of Rowling's world, Discworld's wizards are hilariously inept, and their magic nearly always has disastrous results. There is an entire series of Discworld novels devoted to them—as well as a series about Discworld's less inept witches, a series of mysteries involving the City Watch (the police of Ankh-Morpork, capital city of Discworld), and a series of award-winning young adult novels about a young witch named Tiffany Aching.

My favorite Discworld character is Death, who has his own series of novels and also appears as a minor character in nearly every other Discworld book. He is, in his own words (which are always expressed without quotes and in caps), AN ANTHROPOMORPHIC PERSONIFICATION. Stereotypically, he is a skeleton who wears a black robe and carries a scythe. Unstereotypically, he rides a horse named "Binky," is fond of cats, and has an adopted family. (Downton Abbey fans may be interested to know that, several years before playing Lady Mary Crawley, actress Michelle Dockery played Death's granddaughter Susan in a superb TV adaptation of Hogfather, the fourth Discworld novel about Death.)

Death also has a sense of humor. In the following scene from Men at Arms, he has come to collect the soul of a dwarf named Bjorn:
'I believe in reincarnation,' he said.
'I tried to live a good life. Does that help?'

All told, there are forty Discworld novels, of which I have only read seven.

It's a good thing I'm sick. I have a lot of reading to do.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Ghosts I've Never Met

I'm not sure when I first became interested in the spirit world. I know I was very young. I had not yet learned to read when my grandparents began collecting the Golden Book Encyclopedia for me, one volume at a time, from the local supermarket. When they presented me with Volume 7 (Ghosts to Houseplants), I immediately asked my grandfather to read me the article on ghosts. I was fascinated by the accompanying illustration of Marley's ghost, from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

Marley's Ghost (original illustration by John Leech)

Although the Golden Book Encyclopedia and my grandfather both assured me that there were no such things as ghosts, I preferred to believe otherwise.

I was obsessed with the Haunted Mansion decades before I finally got the opportunity to ride in a Doom Buggy. My favorite children's record was Disney's Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House. It featured realistic sound effects accompanying such lighthearted "let's pretend" scenarios as "The Unsafe Bridge," "Chinese Water Torture," and "The Very Long Fuse." My favorite, of course, was "The Haunted House," which began:
You are a bold and courageous person, afraid of nothing. High on a hilltop near your home, there stands a dilapidated old mansion. Some say the place is haunted, but you don't believe in such myths. One night, a light appears in the topmost window in a tower of the old house. You decide to investigate, and you never return...

I was a bold and courageous person, and I longed to prove it by meeting a ghost face-to-face.

I must have been eleven or twelve when I discovered the books of professional ghost hunter, Hans Holzer. (My favorite story, chronicled in Ghosts I've Met, concerned decapitated railroad conductor Joe Baldwin, who is said to wander along the railroad tracks in Maco, North Carolina, searching for his head.) I wanted to be a professional ghost hunter too, but I had no idea how to go about it. Somehow, I doubted one would show up for Career Day at my school.

I may never have realized my dream of becoming a professional ghost hunter, but in 2004 I did meet one. I met Richard Senate when some friends and I were asked to perform a murder mystery at Ventura's reputedly extremely haunted Olivas Adobe. Richard conducts ghost tours in Ventura and has written numerous books about the ghosts hereabouts. I asked him if he had ever seen any ghosts at the Adobe. He told me he had witnessed several manifestations of the infamous "lady in black."

I spent many fall evenings rehearsing and performing at Olivas Adobe over the course of the next two years, and during that time I never once saw anything ghostly. Neither did I see any manifestations on three separate visits (one at night, two during the day) to San Diego's famous Whaley House, said to be one of the most haunted houses in America. And, as I previously chronicled in this blog, my overnight stay at a reputedly haunted bed and breakfast in Lake Arrowhead also proved to be disappointing.

I have become increasingly skeptical in my old age.

However, I have not given up hope. One of these days, I plan to visit Ireland. I hear there are plenty of ghosts there.

Until then, there's always the Haunted Mansion.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The King of the Cats

Yesterday morning, shortly after Loretta left for work, I was startled by a surprisingly loud "MROW-YOW!" from Dickens, who had leaped onto the window sill of the dining room window and was clearly agitated by something outside. I am not ordinarily startled by the sounds our cats make (and they make all sorts of sounds), but Dickens is usually fairly quiet, even when agitated. And it didn't help matters that I happened to be reading a horror story in which a cat is agitated by what turns out to be a horde of rats in the walls.

It was still dark, so I turned on the outside light. I was relieved to see not a horde of rats, but the orange cat we have come to call Julius sitting beneath the dining room window.

I wrote about Julius and his sibling, Greyjoy, last year. Greyjoy no longer comes around, and we fear the worst. Outdoor cats do not survive long in Southern California, where it is not unusual to see coyotes, mountain lions, and even the occasional bear. (Once we even had a Bengal tiger prowling near our neighborhood, but that's another story.) Julius, however, is still around, and spends much of his time in our back yard. He used to keep a safe distance from the house, but lately he has been coming right up on the patio to visit with our cats through the window. I imagine that he is telling Dickens and Zorra, who are strictly indoor cats, what is going on in the outside world.

Which reminds me of a story I came across many years ago.

"The King of the Cats" is an old English folk tale. Like all folk tales, there are many versions. Probably the best known is the one recorded by Joseph Jacobs in his 1894 collection, More English Fairy Tales (in the public domain and available as a free download from Project Gutenberg):

The King o' the Cats

One winter's evening the sexton's wife was sitting by the fireside with her big black cat, Old Tom, on the other side, both half asleep and waiting for the master to come home. They waited and they waited, but still he didn't come, till at last he came rushing in, calling out, "Who's Tommy Tildrum?" in such a wild way that both his wife and his cat stared at him to know what was the matter.

"Why, what's the matter?" said his wife, "and why do you want to know who Tommy Tildrum is?"

"Oh, I've had such an adventure. I was digging away at old Mr. Fordyce's grave when I suppose I must have dropped asleep, and only woke up by hearing a cat's Miaou."

"Miaou!" said Old Tom in answer.

"Yes, just like that! So I looked over the edge of the grave, and what do you think I saw?"

"Now, how can I tell?" said the sexton's wife.

"Why, nine black cats all like our friend Tom here, all with a white spot on their chestesses. And what do you think they were carrying? Why, a small coffin covered with a black velvet pall, and on the pall was a small coronet all of gold, and at every third step they took they cried all together, Miaou—"

"Miaou!" said Old Tom again.

"Yes, just like that!" said the Sexton; "and as they came nearer and nearer to me I could see them more distinctly, because their eyes shone out with a sort of green light. Well, they all came towards me, eight of them carrying the coffin, and the biggest cat of all walking in front for all the world like—but look at our Tom, how he's looking at me. You'd think he knew all I was saying."

"Go on, go on," said his wife; "never mind Old Tom."

"Well, as I was a-saying, they came towards me slowly and solemnly, and at every third step crying all together, Miaou!—"

"Miaou!" said Old Tom again.

"Yes, just like that, till they came and stood right opposite Mr. Fordyce's grave, where I was, when they all stood still and looked straight at me. I did feel queer, that I did! But look at Old Tom; he's looking at me just like they did."

"Go on, go on," said his wife; "never mind Old Tom."

"Where was I? Oh, they all stood still looking at me, when the one that wasn't carrying the coffin came forward and, staring straight at me, said to me—yes, I tell 'ee, said to me, with a squeaky voice, 'Tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Toldrum's dead,' and that's why I asked you if you knew who Tom Tildrum was, for how can I tell Tom Tildrum Tim Toldrum's dead if I don't know who Tom Tildrum is?"

"Look at Old Tom, look at Old Tom!" screamed his wife.

And well he might look, for Tom was swelling and Tom was staring, and at last Tom shrieked out, "What—old Tim dead! Then I'm the King o' the Cats!" and rushed up the chimney and was never more seen.

Illustration by John D. Batten

Saturday, January 4, 2014

O Tannenbaum

Dickens and I got up extra early this morning to sit in the dark and admire the Christmas tree. Today is the day we take it down. I hate to see it go, but it's time. It's as dry and prickly as a desert cactus.

It seems like we just put it up. The holidays went by much too quickly, and we never really had a chance to enjoy it. Dickens did, though. Every year he spends hours lying on his back, looking up at the tree. I remember doing that as a child—lying on my back under the tree, breathing in the piney fragrance (at least until my parents got an artificial tree), gazing up at the lights and my distorted reflection in an ornament.

I wish I could do that now, but there just doesn't seem to be time. Also, it's difficult to get down on the floor these days (and even harder to get back up).

Our tree is more than a symbol of the holidays; it's a journal of the years Loretta and I have been together. The oldest ornaments—some of them antiques which had been in the family for decades when we got them—were a gift from my Aunt Vonna and Aunt Sheila. They brought them to our wedding twenty-five years ago, carefully packed in an old hat box from Wolf & Dessauer's department store.

The first decorations we purchased as a couple were a set of rose-colored glass ornaments (still complete, in spite of being frequently mistaken for cat toys) and an elegant Victorian lady who has not aged a day since she topped our first Christmas tree twenty-five years ago.

There are pictures of cats past and present, and souvenirs of the many trips we have taken together: a cloisonné cat from China, a cable car from San Francisco, a tyrannosaurus skeleton from the Field Museum in Chicago. There are gifts from friends and family, including commemorative ornaments from Mount Vernon and Hearst Castle from my parents, and one from my aunts commemorating the Santa display that lit up the side of the Wolf & Dessauer building when I was a child.

Every year these ornaments bring back joyful memories as we unpack them and hang them on the tree. Now, all too soon, it's time to pack them up again.

But we look forward to the coming year, and to making new memories to hang on next year's tree.