Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Off to Virginia

I'm off to Virginia early (EARLY) tomorrow morning to visit my mom, my brother, and some wonderful friends. I'll return next week with some pictures of the Old Dominion and accounts of my adventures.

'til then!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

A 33rd Reunion?

A few days ago, while perusing my pal Lee's blog, I discovered that my high school class--the mighty Class of '73--was having a reunion. A 33rd reunion. Then, on Friday, the official invitation came. There was no doubt about it. Our class reunion was going to be a reality.

Now, most reunions happen on five or ten year milestones. But, hey... I'm cool with breaking the mold. I just wish the organizers would have given us more than just two months to prepare. Here I thought I had a couple more years in which to get in shape, finish my novel (poor abandoned waif that it currently is)... well, I guess those are the only two preparations I would want to make. Maybe a nip and a tuck here and there, but really--the majority of my life (if not my physique) is "reunion ready."

I'm just fine in the romance arena--Jeff and I just celebrated our 11th anniversary and we're going strong (see previous post for more details). In addition to being a great guy and big sweetheart, he presents very, very well. And he is not an unknown quantity to those who attend Class of '73 reunions, since he accompanied me to my 25th, which is the last official reunion my class held, to my knowledge. Whether he will attend this one is up in the air--it depends on the number of vacation days available--but I hope he will. So, romance: check.

It is with amazement that I say that I have an actual career--not one that blows people away like, say, if I had achieved the new-wave superstardom that for one o, so fleeting moment was just inches from my grasp, but one that sounds impressive to those uninitiated into the world of educational publishing. It would be nice to be able to tout that novel too, but I see that as icing on the cake. For the 38th or 43rd reunion, maybe. So, career: check.

While I don't have kids of my own to brag about, I have two stepkids, both of whom are reunion bragfest fodder. One recently graduated from university and is now in west Texas helping to get a new NPR station off the ground. The other is a college sophomore who makes great grades and manages an impressive social life as well. I would go into more detail, but I fear that my praise might mortify them. Heh, heh. At any rate, they know who they are, and they know how proud I am of them and how much I love them! So, (step) parental bragging rights: check.

In terms of self-assurance, well, I was a mess of a nerd who took on more than my share of bullying back in grade school, but by high school my nerdy pals and I had already learned a valuable lesson: be who you are, enjoy yourself, and let those who would judge you for that be damned. Once I gave up wishing I was *popular,* I was free to be myself. I found a bunch of like-minded friends and had a blast. When we get together--at reunions or whenever--we always have a great time. So, self-assurance: check.

In terms of success, I'm holding my own. Jeff and I are not wealthy, but we've managed to keep our heads above water as we slowly improve our ancient fixer-upper of a condo and help to put the kids through college. We recently took a look at our finances and realized that even with our mortgage and equity line, we are solvent. So, not rich, but solvent. And surrounded by books, music, films, lots of stringed instruments... life is good. I call that successful. So, success: check.

Which leaves us with appearance. Oy. Too fat. Embarrassingly so. Especially since I've been relatively svelte at all the other reunions I attended. I would LOVE to be able to waltz into this reunion wearing the teeny vintage sundress my 100-lb. self wore to the 10th reunion, or even the slightly larger clown costume (well, in retrospect--I mean, what was I thinking?) my slightly larger self wore to the 20th. Or the sheath (a bit larger still) that I wore to the 25th. All of them are still hanging in my closet. Not one of them fits me now. No way, no how. But maybe for the next reunion on. Right. So, physique: no check.

But hey--we are who we are, right? And one hopes that's an older, wiser, better version of who we were then, right? So, fat or not, I plan to be there. I plan to dance. I plan to drink (but maybe not to excess--maybe). I plan to have fun with old friends. Bring on the 33rd!

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Big City v. Small Town

Yesterday I took the day off from work as part of a "summer Fridays" scheme we have at the office. It's a nice perk. After running errands and making a research trip to the library, I headed to my old neighborhood of Edgewater to meet a friend and former colleague who had just moved back to Chicago. She and her husband had sold their house only a few months ago and moved to a small town in another midwestern state in search of a quieter, less hectic life. If the move taught them anything, it taught them that they are city people. The pulse of a city is irresistable for some of us, try as we might to deny it. She was very happy to be back in the fray.

I understand.

I grew up in a small town. Well, officially, it was (and is) a "city first-class," according to the laws of Virginia. When I was growing up there, the population was around 10,000. Now it's about 20,000. I have a great fondness for the place, and I would love to have a summer home or a vacation cottage there, were I well-heeled (which I am not). I'm too used to urban living to make a full time commitment to the place, though.

About 12 years ago I gave it a try. I spent the summer there, trying to put down roots again, find a job I could live with (and live on), get my head around small-town life again. But I failed miserably. I got a few nibbles with regard to writing jobs, but none of them paid a living wage. I thought maybe I could go back to teaching (well, "go back to" is not exactly right--while I spent four years in grad school and after teaching English 101-102, and while I student-taught seniors in high school and received teaching certification in the Commonwealth of Virginia, I never earned a cent teaching in a public school), but my resume and follow-up calls to the various school districts in the area yielded nothing. This was before everyone was wired, so there was no way I could retain my freelance clients on the west coast and live on the east coast, even with an email account. I realized that I was going to have to temp for a while or take an admin job, and, while I'd been doing temp work to supplement my freelance work in San Francisco, the thought of temping in Waynesboro, VA, left me cold. In fact, it gave me the shivers. No. Couldn't do it.

Then there were other things--smaller, but just as important. There was no place to get a latte in the entire town. Or in the next town over. I had to go to Charlottesville for a latte. Now, I could have bought an espresso machine with steamer and made my own, but part of the attraction of getting a latte is going to a coffeehouse to get one. For me, at least. Of course, within a matter of a couple of years, several coffeehouses sprang up in the area, so I can get a latte, chai, or what-have-you with no problem when I return periodically to visit my mom. There's even a drive-through Starbucks, so Frappacinos are available. But they weren't then. It was a bleak summer, latte-wise.

Then there was the problem of Thai food--the utter lack thereof. To be honest, I don't know if this has been remedied yet after all these years. I'm sure there's a Thai restaurant in Charlottesville now, but I don't know about then. At any rate, I need my regular Tom Kha Gai fix. End of story.

Then there was the time I went to the local Kroger to pick up some salsa and chips to bring over to a get-together at a friend's house. There was no fresh salsa to be had. When I asked a store employee, I was pointed toward the salsa in a jar and told that it was plenty fresh--just check the date. Oy.

And then there was the man who came up to me at a local play (my brother was the director of a youth production of some Rice-Webber extravaganza) who told me how the whole church had been praying for me and my fibroids!!! Oh, thanks Mom!! (I had been diagnosed with a tiny fibroid before I left SF to try my hand at small-town life--when I returned to the city by the Bay and had a follow-up, it was gone, so maybe there was something to that praying. Or not. But really. Thanks for sharing my uterine health with a bunch of elderly strangers, Mom.) There are few secrets in a small town, no matter how you try.

Cities have lots of latte purveyors. You're likely to find a Thai restaurant (or more) per block in some urban areas. And even Waynesboro has fresh salsa now, so that's not an urban thang (or a regional thang) any longer. And it's a trade-off between having everyone know your business and not knowing the first thing about the person who lives across the hall from you. There's a pulse and an energy that pervades urban life that is very possibly addictive (for me, at least). And yet, there is a price to be paid for city life--in terms of increased crime, decreased human contact even as there are way more humans to establish contact with, and expensive housing, no matter whether you rent or own.

For me, the city still rules. However, it would be nice to have it both ways--to have a place in the city and one in a beautiful place with fewer people and a more leisurely everyday pace (like at the foot of the Blue Ridge or in the North Woods of Wisconsin). A place to relax and a place to recharge. Now, wouldn't that be cool?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Your hair will be dark too one day.

In my previous entry, I mentioned Swannanoa and I noted that it was fodder for an entry all to itself. So here goes.

Back around 1912/1913, a railroad magnate from Richmond, VA built an Italianate villa atop Afton Mountain (near Waynesboro, VA) as a summer home for his wife. Apparently, she liked swans--hence the name. The place was a stunner in its day, and it is still stunning, as you can see from this set of pictures from a relatively recent visit (thank you google, and thanks to RigbyMel--if you see this, please let me know how you scored an invite to the old place).

Alas, the magnate and his wife didn't enjoy their palace for very long--she died and the place was abandoned for years. It held up pretty well, though, because in the late 1940s Walter and Lao Russell stumbled across it, took out a very lengthy lease on the property, and established their University of Science and Philosophy there. As Walter was an artist and sculptor as well as a self-taught architect, philosopher, physicist, lecturer, cosmographer, and musician (busy guy, huh?), the huge mansion and the terraced gardens were the perfect place to display his work. This work included a huge sculpture of Jesus, set in the garden, called "The Christ of the Blue Ridge." Rumor around my hometown had it that he sculpted his own face on the statue--however, during the tour of the mansion, one of the guide's set pieces was the tale of how Lao, "who had never sculpt before," fashioned the face herself as a divine presence guided her hands. I will say that the statue didn't look much like the pictures of Walter on display around the place, so my guess is that it was not a self-portrait.

I never set eyes on the place myself until I was 16 and my friends and I could drive. Not that I hadn't been intrigued just about my whole life. After all, there were angel-topped gates up there near the top of Afton, along with a Howard Johnson's, a couple of cabin-court motels, a gas station, and some gift shops. The gates were clearly entry gates and nearby stood a big billboard touting Swannanoa, but there was no road that led through them. That intrigued me. Also, if you looked at just the right angle, you could see the ornate water tower peeking through the trees at the ridgeline. That also intrigued me. But my dad, inveterate agnostic that he was, was not about to suffer through a tour of the "crazy place" just to satisfy the whims of a six-year-old. Same with all my friends' dads. But once any of us could borrow the family car, we made regular visits.

I don't mean we went there every week or anything--maybe a couple of times a year. Certainly, if we made a new friend who had never been there, we dragged them up there. I wonder if the guide ever realized we were repeaters. Since we were gigglers, too, I guess it's pretty likely. Although the place must have gotten its share of gigglers aside from us. It was just such an odd mixture of beautiful architecture and appointments, interesting artwork, wacky new-agey flim-flammery, and raw capitalism that it made your head spin. It was well worth the price of admission, which was not all that much as I recall.

Only the first floor of the mansion was open for tours; Lao--who was by now Walter's widow--lived upstairs. (Years later, just before the lease ran out and the *University* had to vacate, I took Jeff on the tour. As Lao had died several years before, the living area upstairs was part of the tour as well. It was surprisingly mundane, except for the ornate bed with its satin spread and bejeweled Infant of Prague in Lao's room and the unfinished painting of a nude bubble dancer in Walter's old studio....) Anyway--you had to ring the bell to be admitted into the mansion. The guide was always the same woman wearing the same drab dress and brown cardigan and old-lady oxfords. But she was not an old lady. She could have been in her 30s; she could have been in her 60s. It was impossible to tell. She led visitors on a reverential tour of the place, which was chock full of Walter's handiwork. Some of it--like his pencil drawings of "the most beautiful children" in the world? in New York? well, in somewhere--were lovely (scroll down a bit to find these in the link). Other examples--such as his oil or acrylic rainbow paintings illustrating his vision of the universe--were little more than nephew art. The worshipful spiel of the guide and the true beauty of the house made for a good half-hour's worth (or more) of eccentric entertainment for us.

By far, the highlight of each tour took place near the end, when, lo and behold, Lao would just *happen* to come down the stairs, heading off on some *errand* or another. She would stop on the stairs and graciously give us a talk about the wonders of the universe and how if we could see the crystalline strings that bind us all one to the other, we would know that everything we do affects the entire world. Etc. Then she would come down among us and talk to us. The very first time this happened, she exclaimed at the splendor of my friend Barb's beautiful dark hair. Then she turned to me and said "Don't worry. Your hair will be dark too, one day." Um. Lao? I'm a brassy hennaed redhead right now, but at 16 I was nothin' but a brunette. My hair was dark already... and not getting any darker. I always wondered at that statement. Did she really not see anything ELSE coming my way along those crystalline strings? Then she went back up the stairs, and we were shown to the room with all the books and pamphlets and such, including Lao's book Love, wherein she suggests that you do the dishes with love. Yeah.

Anyway, we thought it was really cool that Lao came down the stairs. Until the next time we visited, and, sure enough, as we reached the end of the tour the guide gasped in awe, "Ladies and gentlemen, you are in for a real treat! Lao Russell is COMING DOWN THE STAIRS!!" Well, it could happen twice, we thought. Until the third time. And the fourth (during which we heard Lao instruct the guide to "push the books").

On the fifth visit, we sussed out just how Lao was summoned. If you have perused the photos linked to above, you will have seen the *smoking room*--the one with the ornate brass and glass cabuchon chandelier and the Moorish fireplace. Well, either in this room or right outside it (I can't quite remember which) is an elevator. This was one of the last rooms on the tour, so when we entered it the guide would nonchalantly push the button on the elevator. If you listened closely, you could even hear it ring ever so mutedly upstairs in the living quarters. We watched this happen on each subsequent visit, and Lao never failed to show. The last time I saw her (in the early '80s when I was visiting family and decided to make the old trek to the place), a surprisingly well-preserved Lao came down trailing a Scottie dog on a leash. Some of her students had made her a present of this dog, whom she named "MacTavish."

A few years later, after Lao had *refolded,* I brough Jeff to take the tour. We saw the significantly older guide, still in a brown cardigan and orthopedic oxfords, walking an aging Scottie dog on the front lawn. I'll just bet it was MacTavish. It made me a little sad--that life goes on and those we love leave us, never to return.

Today, Swannanoa is closed to the public. The University of Science and Philosophy was sent packing nearly a decade ago, but it still exists (as you can tell by the link above). The guy who owns the property says he has plans to renovate the mansion and open it as a bed and breakfast, but he also owns property at the once-thriving tourist enclave atop Afton--property that he allowed to become so derelict that someone just up and set fire to it one night. So I don't have a lot of hope for the old place, although finding the recent pictures assuages my worries somewhat.

One thing you can be sure of--when and if they DO open the place as a B&B, I'm booking a room there. I hope there's one available in the water tower!

Friday, August 04, 2006

It was eleven years ago today...

That Jeff and I were married in the grand ballroom at Grand Caverns in Grottoes, Virginia. Why in a cave, you might ask? It's a fair question, given that only a couple of years before I had written an article about commercial caves in the Shenandoah Valley and, in a segment about which of those caves had hosted weddings (just about all of them), I asked "Who on Earth would get married in a cave?" Who indeed?

Some backstory: Jeff and I met in Virginia at our friend Beth's annual summer house party for her horror writer pals. I'm not a horror writer, but I'm a pal of Beth's, I was in the area visiting my parents, and I was also a writer, so she invited me despite my lack of horror credentials. Jeff was a horror writer, but he was also an animator with a fondness for the Fleischer Brothers and a sci-fi and monster movie fan from birth. He knew exactly what I was talking about when I said "Bimbo's Initiation" was my favorite cartoon of all time. I impressed him by singing a few bars of the theme song from Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster ("Save the Earth! Save the Earth!"). Clearly, it was meant to be.

A year later, we decided to tie the knot. And we couldn't think of a better weekend to do so than the weekend of Beth's annual party. My family was nearby, and many of our friends from around the country would be in town for the writers' shindig. However, where would we hold this extravaganza?

Neither one of us is religious, so the local churches were out.

Early August can be so hot and humid in Virginia, and sweltering days can produce rather daunting thunderstorms. A garden wedding was out.

Swannanoa, a mansion atop Afton Mountain with a double carrera marble staircase and a huge Tiffany stained-glass window no longer booked or hosted weddings. (Swannanoa is fodder for its own entry... what an, um, eccentric place.)

I called the Augusta County Chamber of Commerce for suggestions, and I was told by the helpful information person that if we didn't marry in a church, we weren't really married, so we should book the church of our choice. Hmmm. Back to square one.

That's when my friend Lee stepped in with a suggestion: Why don't you get married at Grand Caverns? It's cool in the cave, and it's underground--come blazing sun or pounding rain, you're covered. And it's pretty. Yeah, it's kind of kitsch. But when did that stop us from doing anything? And most of the guests are horror writers, who will appreciate the weird venue.

On a whim, I called Grand Caverns and found out that we could book the cave for $100. For an extra $50, we could have the reception in the little stone lodge on the property. What's not to like about that plan? The next thing you know, I was sending out invitations on old linen postcards of the Bridal Veil formation that I found still for sale in the cave gift shop.

So, we got married in a cave:

(I apologize for the poor quality of the picture, but at least you can see the pretty setting--kind of.)

And it wasn't kitsch at all. It was beautiful. The music resonated throughout the chamber, clear and crisp. The guests were cool and comfortable and shielded from the 95+ steaming degrees outside. It was fun and not at all stuffy. And when it was over, we all went back to Beth's, changed out of our wedding finery, and took the party to the local go-cart track. 'Cause, I mean, what's a cave wedding without the reception spiraling into a circus on wheels??

Eleven years have passed, and we're still going strong.

Here's to you, Jeff--my true countertop! I love you!!

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

It's too darned hot!

As you can see by Shelly the diva-cat's poignant pose, it's really hot here, folks! Yeah, I know. It's hot everywhere. But most people of my immediate acquaintance (including the folks who live above us and below us) have central air-conditioning. Not us! Nope... we've always counted on cross-breezes wafting in from the lake to cool us day and night. It's one of the perks of living by the lake: In the summer, it is cooler by the lake. In winter, it is warmer by the lake. But those meteorological cliches have been meaningless for the last few days.

(Note: if you're wondering what the tattered thingamajig next to Shelly is, it is the legendary hideous sock toy. It is so dear to her that she is rarely more than a few yards from it at any given time. She carries it around in her mouth and coos to it. She's had it since she was a kitten, lo, these dozen years ago. We want to take it away and replace it with a newer, cleaner model--and we periodically bring home similar items in hopes of tempting her away from this red and yellow horror--but she is nothing if not faithful to it. Alas!)

Back to the screed about degrees Fahrenheit.

It's not as if we are complete Luddites--we have a window unit. It's just that the only window it makes sense in is the bedroom window, and if it were there, it would blast right on us. That's not an option. And, although we had our kitchen electricity upgraded a couple of years ago when we redid the kitchen and back bathroom, the rest of our power is woefully antiquated. I'm not even sure we could plug the thing in without blowing a fuse. And we're too hot and too lazy, given those parameters, to bother to drag the thing out of the closet where it resides, set it up in said window, and test said hypothesis.

So we deserve all the sweaty, sleepless nights that come our way.

We know that. We accept that.

We just hope that the temperature moderates a bit by tomorrow, as "they" say it is going to.

And we're really, really glad that we aren't covered with thick, white, fluffy fur like SOME creatures we know.