LA break

I kind of fell in love with LA this time around. p1190011

Zachary and I returned on Wednesday from a few days there.  The trip was his idea, inspired by (1) the massive art event known as Pacific Standard Time, and (2) $40 one-way fares between Portland and Santa Ana.

We spent the first night at the at UC Irvine in the late 60s, when people like Chris Burden were doing insane, amazing stuff. We also spent time with our friend Magda and had dinner one evening with one of Z’s old friends from his LA years: a woman he hadn’t seen for twenty-five years. Her husband and I were vastly entertained and slightly aghast at their reminiscences about those addled times.

I’ve been in LA before, but this time I really loved it. The weather was perfect: mild temps, blue skies, and one rainstorm that didn’t interfere with our activities but scrubbed the air until it sparkled. Another benefit was that Z, who lived there for seven years and knows his way around, did most of the driving. All in all, I wouldn’t want to live there, as they say, but it’s a great place to visit. We’ll go back when we can catch another bargain fare.

To the land of ice and snow

Turned in long-overdue ms. of bio of Stephen King not 90 minutes ago. Last 8 days = major write-athon with far too little sleep. Now unable to think or write in complete sentences. Hope I managed it in the ms.

Packing now, and watering yard, and writing note for cat-care person, etc. We leave for Iceland tomorrow at 11 a.m. Last I heard, temps in Portland are supposed to hit triple digits for at least the first 3 days of next week, and generally very high otherwise. Forecast for Reykjavik for same time period: 61 and showers. Yay!

Pix and details on the other side. May all here have an excellent week.

A really great five minutes

The last couple of days have been pretty damn crazy. I’ve been spending what some people (er, my publisher?) might consider way too much time following the Iranian situation online and, when possible, checking in with my two Persian friends here who are plugged into info from friends and family. Enough has been said about it all elsewhere, but just–damn. Gives me chills. I hope for the best for the greens.

On a more self-centered front, I had a really great five minutes just now. I finally finished a (way overdue, as usual) manuscript on Forensic Anthropology, a topic with which I am utterly in love, maggots and all. It was fun to write and much, much more fun to email to my editor. Just as I was tidying up my desk, removing the stacks of forensics research and preparing to gird my loins for the next project, Zach came strolling in to give me the news from his office (on the other side of the wall from mine).

We had learned that next month Icelandair is launching a nonstop from Seattle to Reykjavik, and we had talked about going to Iceland for a week to take advantage of it. Zach’s big news was that he had just come from the Icelandair site, where he had scored tix for us for July 25-August 1. He has also promised to arrange the rental car. What a guy! I am indeed the luckiest of women.

So within five minutes I had turned in a piece of work that I’ve been working long days to finish, then found out that I’m going to Iceland in little more than a month. At least now I have good motivation to get some work done before then.

Whee!

Back

I haven’t posted much for a while. The past 8 or 9 months have been a busy and distracted time. And very melancholy toward the end. I spent a lot of that period in Florida, or flying to or from Florida. But I won’t be going there again. My mother’s treatment last summer put her into remission from small-cell lung cancer, but the treatment itself left her profoundly debilitated. Then the cancer–it’s a very aggressive form of lung cancer–returned. She declined quickly and died on January 26.

Last Sunday night Zachary and I arrived home after a 10-day drive from her home in Punta Gorda, Florida–a house that, amazingly, I was able to sell. I managed to get all of her multitudinous possessions dispersed and then turned the place over to its new owners.

Z and I drove home in my mother’s car, with some mementos that I had not wanted to ship. We took a southern route, following I-10 from northern Florida all the way to southern California, for two reasons: to avoid possible bad weather in the Plains and Rockies, and to see some things along that route that I wanted to see, such as Carlsbad Caverns and my old friends Mark and Peter in Tucson.

Carlsbad was wonderful. We spent about 8 hours doing the full self-guided tour (and, for Z, taking many pix). We much regretted that our schedule did not permit us to stay over a weekend, when we could’ve participated in the guided off-trail crawls/squirms/rappels that you can do with advance reservations. We would love to go back for that one day. The public part of the cave accounts for just a small fraction of what has been mapped; when you go off-trail you get to see a bit more. As for the big public cave itself, and the long descent  to it on foot, I will just say that if I were to have a child (the odds, I need hardly say, are vanishingly small) I would name that child Carlsbad in honor of a spectacular and thrilling place. Yes, it’s a developed attraction and not a natural cave, but the NPS has done a pretty tasteful job with the lighting and signage, clearly trying to preserve as much as possible of the raw cave experience. In fact, it was pretty dark overall. And it was very uncrowded, to boot. The only other disappointment was that the famous bats are not in residence at this time of year. I would have liked to see that evening bat flight.

In southern Cal we spent an afternoon/evening and the following morning at Joshua Tree, another place Z had visited in the long-ago but I had never seen. It was grand, too–the meeting zone of two different kinds of desert, with weird and wonderful cactus-scapes in the southern zone and equally delightful vistas of the eponymous trees (a large species of yucca) in the northern. From a high viewpoint I got a hazy peek at the Salton Sea, the San Andreas Fault, and Mexico. From Joshua Tree we headed north on 395 along the Eastern Sierra, around Lake Tahoe, through the mountains to visit Z’s stepmom and stepsis in Chico for a night, and finally eight hours of rainy driving to home. Total mileage: 4,049.

We took a new Garmin GPS with us, not for route-finding but for info on hotels, places to eat, etc. along the way. The 6 million data points it contains include motel locations and phone numbers, so we could call ahead for room rates and availability as we got close to stopping for the night. The GPS also guided us to some way-off-the-beaten-track places to eat. Thanks to the good folk at Garmin we had fried catfish po’ boys in Pascagoula and barbecued pork sandwiches at a drive-up shack in the Texas hill country.

Our reunion with Xerxes when we rushed into the house was touching. There was frisking, purring, rolling on the floor, even some drooling. Xerxes seemed pleased, too.

Zach had to be back at work on Monday, which I devoted to opening mail and doing laundry. Now things seem back to (somewhat) normal, and I am tackling my (revised) deadline schedule. On said schedule for what remains of this year are: 5 books in the Forensics series for middle-school-age readers (these are short and fun, and I’ve already written 4 of them, so no series-learning curve); a book on Land Management for an environmental issues series for middle school and high school (don’t yet know anything about this series, so may need to do some homework); and critical bios of Stephen King and Philip Pullman for a series on contemporary authors, targeting high-school-age readers. Yum on those last two.

Here’s hoping for a settled and productive (and dare I hope even a creative?) rest of 2009.

5 days, 4 nights, 7 museums, and 2 operas

From which you will gather that my visit to Berlin last week did not include a lot of idle time. And yet my friend Fred and I did find time to take rides on commuter trains to Spandau and a couple of other outlying neighborhoods so that we could stroll around. We also did a fair amount of walking in the part of town where we stayed (Charlottenburg) and the areas around Potsdammerplatz and Alexanderplatz.

This was my first visit to Berlin, which is an exciting and user-friendly place. Great trains and trams and subways, good signage, and tons of things happening in music, theater, and art. There’s a lively street and cafe scene, but it was not at its peak during our January-February visit. It’s also a very youthful city. The eastern part of Berlin remains, for now, one of the few places in urban western Europe with a lot of relatively cheap housing. Creative types from many nations are coming there to live, or at least to spend a year or two, giving the city an appealing air of raffish chic.

We saw Die Zauberflote Friday night at the Staatsoper, with one of the great orchestras in Europe. The whimsical production design was based on German Romantic Orientalism; it suited the music, all of which was very well if not spectacularly sung. On Saturday we dug ourselves into seats at the Deutsch Oper for the Siege of Nurnberg Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, five and a half hours of glorious Wagner. Walther’s voice broke up a bit toward the end, but I didn’t care; for me that opera is all about Hans Sachs, and that singer did a superb job. Eva was fine, too, as were all of the minor characters. The production was simple and handsome and, for some reason, set in the late 19th century. That seemed odd to me at first, but I came to think that it worked; it gently highlighted the  basically absurd faux-medieval pretensions of the meistersinger tradition. After all, the opera is, in its high-minded way, a comedy.

Highlights of the trip were the Pergamon Museum (massive architectural antiquities from the Near East) and the Museum of Natural History. The latter combines delightful old-fashioned features, such as big dioramas and tall old polished wooden display cases (you can imagine Alexander von Humboldt bending over them), with a wonderfully up-to-date overview of evolutionary biology. It also has a huge and dazzling mineral collection. I fell in love with neptunite. The most thrilling thing at this museum, though, is seeing the world’s finest archaeopteryx fossil. It’s housed in a special little darkened alcove, almost a chapel, with special lighting and climate control and bulletproof glass, because you are looking at the real fossil, not a mold, and I felt a frisson of awe as I gazed at its marvelous toothed beak and its claws and the delicate impressions of its feathers. Take that, you no-transitional-fossils idiots!

I ate a grilled pig’s knuckle, something I would not have expected to do. But it was at dinner in the cellar of Berthold Brecht’s old house, and the waiter said that it was Frau Brecht’s very own recipe . . . it was delicious.

Not being much of a photographer, I took only a few pix. Here are some of them.

Fred walks in the distance along the Wall–one of the few sections of it still standing. There was a little museum and a viewing tower near this segment.

The Ishtar Gate at the Pergamon Museum.

This old church was bombed in WWII; it has been preserved as a memorial (the locals call it the Rotten Tooth). Next to it stands its modern replacement, much less severe on the inside than it looks from outside; the walls are hundreds of tiny panes of beautiful colored glass.

The old town of Copenik is noteworthy because it wasn’t bombed (and you can see that we had glorious weather for part of our visit). The schloss in Copenik now houses a museum of decorative arts, full of things like the kaisers’ dinner services. There are also two magnificent 16th-century rooms entirely paneled–floors, ceilings, and walls–with inlaid wood. Marquetry of the highest order, and you almost swoon from the delicious smells of the old wood.

Things that will have to wait for my next visit: the Egyptian collection on Museum Island, the sculpture museum, renting a kayak to paddle around the city’s many canals and rivers, and an excursion to the Spreewald. (A line from a brochure I picked up: “What was life really like in East Germany? Was it all Spreewald gherkins, nudism, and concrete-slab buildings?” Jeeze, I hope not.)