Thursday, January 19, 2012

Off to California

Off to California
Mom and friend, 1956

Mulling over my next trip to California, I realized something surprising. Though our Dairy State roots stretch back for generations, my family has been sending shoots into the Golden State for nearly as long.

My grandpa's older brother, Pete, was the first to heed the Western call. He and his wife headed to Crescent City in the 1940's, and lived the rest of their lives there near the redwoods.

Uncle Pete on the right
Uncle Pete on the right. One of my grandma's sisters with the baseball bat.

Most of my dad's siblings would grow up and leave for California as well, at least for a time. My uncle Chuck moved to San Francisco. My aunt Kathy joined him for awhile, and my cousin Michelle was born there. My aunt Judy and her husband lived in Poway for decades. My cousin John is a firefighter in San Diego. My cousin Tracy and her family live there, too. When the Air Force returned my uncle John and his wife to the U.S. from Iceland, California was the first place they were stationed.

Judy and baby Tracy
Aunt Judy and baby Tracy at home

Grandpa and Grandma, California
Grandpa and Grandma visiting San Francisco (I think?)

Toward the end of her high school career, my mom's best friend Karen moved to Canoga Park. For the next six years, until she got married, Mom spent six or seven weeks each summer visiting Karen. They went to the beach, Catalina Island, Tijuana, Disneyland, and saw shows at Whisky a Go Go. Mom spend more time in the Los Angeles of the 1960's than I've spent in any one place away from home. When I watch "Mad Men" episodes set in California, I can't help imagining Mom and her friends passing through the scenes.

Mom and Pooh

Top: Mom and Pooh, Disneyland. Bottom: Don Draper in California (photo from AMC)

When my dad joined the Marine Corps in 1960, he trained at Twenty-Nine Palms. He brought the family back in 1984, during our California vacation. Any real memories I had have long since been supplanted by a few minutes of "movie camera" footage Dad captured from our rental car: Marines marching in the distance, quietly (or so it is on the tape) chanting in their familiar cadence.

Dad, loafers
Dad, Marine Corps era

That 1984 trip was my first vacation outside Wisconsin. Dad attended a business conference in San Francisco - I recall silent film of Alcatraz from the same home movie reel - and the rest of us flew out to join him. First we stayed with Karen, who was married to an actor and living in Agoura Hills. They had a stable on their land, and their daughter - a year older than I - had an honest-to-god pony. On a swing set near the edge of the hilltop property, I felt as if I were flying out over the valley below with each upswing.

We proceeded to a hotel in Costa Mesa whose most salient feature to a four-year-old was the huge pool. Then we visited my aunt and uncle and cousins in Poway. They also had a pool, kidney-shaped, in which my sisters gave me "swimming lessons." In other words, they removed my water wings and repeatedly staged the pool equivalent of Charlie Brown and Lucy with the football.

Niki and the pool, 1984
One of my sisters, 15, by the pool. No idea how they convinced her to pose for this.

My aunt and uncle also had lemon trees, which, to a small child from Wisconsin, seemed like something that should not exist in real life. We went to the ocean, to Disneyland, to Universal Studios, to Knott's Berry Farm. Those were fun, but the kidney-shaped pool and the pampering from my supercool, sunshine-blonde, 14-year-old cousin were the best. I wanted to stay.

C3PO's footprints
Me, standing in C3PO's footprints

I was not allowed to stay. But I have returned to California more times than I can count. Visiting family has turned into visiting friends, and even a few business trips of my own. I have favorite haunts in Los Angeles these days. More than any other state outside Wisconsin, California pops up in my family's history ... and in our current lives. No wonder I find myself drawn back again and again.

Oakville skyline
Across from Oakville Grocery, 2005

Friday, January 13, 2012

2011 in review: Live Music

And now, the last recap for 2011.

Total shows (counting each day of multi-day events): 46
Up six from last year's total of 40.

Performers seen for the first time (headlining, in this particular incarnation): 5
(Gillian Welch, The Baseball Project, The Levon Helm Band, Mavis Staples, Feist)

Performers seen for the first time (support or other variety setting): 29
(including Mountain Man, Teddy Thompson, Justin Townes Earle, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Smith Westerns, Arctic Monkeys, Syl Johnson and the Sweet Divines, Paul Simon, The Walkmen, and Nick Lowe)

Seen most often: Wilco, Liam Finn, Nick Lowe, Bon Iver

Fond concert memories of 2011, in no particular order:
  • The opening notes of Bon Iver's first concert since 2009, at the Riverside
  • The Decemberists playing "Grace Cathedral Hill" in Milwaukee, perhaps because I asked
  • Chatting with and getting a hug from Mavis Staples after her Green Bay show
  • The Old 97's April Fool's Day fakeout ending, which led to playing "Timebomb" twice in the same show
  • The National leading an audience singalong to "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks," with no amplification
  • The Baseball Project playing in the stands at the Mallards Duck Pond and eating cheese curds
  • Jeff Tweedy covering three Black Eyed Peas songs at the @mayoremanuel book release party
  • U2 playing a glorious version of "One Tree Hill" for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Greg Carroll's passing
  • Neil Finn joining Wilco for a cover of Split Enz's "I Got You" on the heels of Wilco's own "I Got You" at Solid Sound

Let's go, 2012.

Your music makes us happy

Thursday, January 5, 2012

2011 in review: Books

For the sixth year, here's a list of books I read between last January and December. A bit of number crunching to follow:

1. The Forest People - Colin M. Turnbull
2. Zombie Spaceship Wasteland - Patton Oswalt
3. U2 At the End of the World - Bill Flanagan
4. Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade - Diana Gabaldon
5. Juliet - Anne Fortier
6. Lord John and the Hand of Devils - Diana Gabaldon
7. A Natural History of the Senses - Diane Ackerman
8. Skippy Dies - Paul Murray
9. Sh*t My Dad Says - Justin Halpern
10. Fall For Anything - Courtney Summers
11. The Help - Kathryn Stockett
12. Room - Emma Donoghue
13. Animals and Objects In and Out of Water - Jay Ryan
14. The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love - Kristin Kimball
15. Chocolate & Vicodin - Jennette Fulda
16. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot
17. The Memory Palace - Mira Bartok
18. Started Early, Took My Dog - Kate Atkinson
19. Let it Be - Colin Meloy
20. Bossypants - Tina Fey
21. The Gunslinger - Stephen King
22. Freedom - Jonathan Franzen
23. The Drawing of the Three - Stephen King
24. The Waste Lands - Stephen King
25. Wizard and Glass - Stephen King
26. Wolves of the Calla - Stephen King
27. Song of Susannah - Stephen King
28. The Dark Tower - Stephen King
29. The Sexy Book of Sexy Sex - Kristen Schaal & Rich Blomquist
30. Veins - Drew
31. Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
32. A Game of Thrones - George R. R. Martin
33. The Wilder Life - Wendy McClure
34. A Clash of Kings - George R. R. Martin
35. A Storm of Swords - George R. R. Martin
36. A Feast for Crows - George R. R. Martin
37. The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
38. Sweet Valley Confidential - Francine Pascal
39. Catching Fire - Suzanne Collins
40. Swimming to Antarctica - Lynne Cox
41. Sisterhood Everlasting - Ann Brashares
42. Atonement - Ian McEwan
43. Mockingjay - Suzanne Collins
44. Incognito: the Secret Lives of the Brain - David Eagleman
45. The Tipping Point - Malcolm Gladwell
46. Duma Key - Stephen King
47. Into Thin Air - Jon Krakauer
48. Janes Jones: Worst. Vampire. Ever. - Caissie St. Onge
49. One Day - David Nicholls
50. The Deep End of the Ocean - Jacqueline Mitchard
51. No Time to Wave Goodbye - Jacqueline Mitchard
52. My Father’s Daughter - E.L. Konigsburg
53. The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World - E.L. Konigsburg
54. A Secret Gift - Ted Gup
55. The Unfinished Angel - Sharon Creech
56. The Castle Corona - Sharon Creech
57. Somewhere in Time - Richard Matheson
58. Return to the Hundred Acre Wood - David Benedictus
59. Wildwood - Colin Meloy
60. The Unwritten Vol. 1 - Mike Carey
61. The Unwritten Vol. 2 - Mike Carey
62. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian - Sherman Alexie
63. Five Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth - Matthew Inman
64. The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery
65. Dance with Dragons - George R.R. Martin
66. The Cat's Table - Michael Ondaatje
67. A Stolen Life - Jaycee Dugard
68. Ashes - Ilsa J. Bick
69. Secret Daughter - June Cross
70. 11/22/63 - Stephen King
71. The Unwritten: Dead Man's Knock - Mike Carey
72. Snow in Summer - Jane Yolen
73. Ella Enchanted - Gail Carson Levine
74. Boy's Life - Robert McCammon
75. The Apothecary - Maile Meloy
76. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson
77. The Girl Who Played With Fire - Stieg Larsson

78. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - Stieg Larsson
79. The Scottish Prisoner - Diana Gabaldon
80. The Disappointment Artist: Essays - Jonathan Lethem
81. The Family Fang - Kevin Wilson
82. Blue Nights - Joan Didion
83. Black Notice - Patricia Cornwell
84. The Last Precinct - Patricia Cornwell

Total books read: 84. Two more than I read in 2010.

Previously read: 15 (18%) About the same as last year's 17%.

Marketed for children/teens: 14 (17%) The same as last year's 17%.

Fiction: 60 (71%)
Nonfiction: 24 (29%)
Even more fiction-y than last year's 63% - 37%.

You should definitely read: Bossypants by Tina Fey and A Secret Gift by Ted Gup. Tina Fey is smart and awesome and hilarious and supercool and I want us to be best friends. Maybe you'd like to be Tina's best friend too. But until that happens, you can tide yourself over with her excellent memoir. "A mother's prayer for its child," among other things, is just about perfect. A Secret Gift (full title: A Secret Gift: How One Man's Kindness--and a Trove of Letters--Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression) was a book I picked up on a whim at my local library. Gup tells the story of the anonymous man who offered $10 to seventy-five Ohio families before Christmas in 1933, based on personal letters of application. The anonymous man was Ted Gup's grandfather, Sam Stone, as Ted discovered - along with all of the letters - in 2009. He tracked down living relatives of recipients to find out how the gift impacted their lives. Their stories are interwoven with the story of Sam Stone, and it becomes apparent that Sam's 1933 philanthropy was just one of his many secrets.

Don't bother reading: No Time to Wave Goodbye by Jacqueline Mitchard. I had previously read two of Mitchard's books, Cage of Stars and The Deep End of the Ocean, and enjoyed both. So when I found out that a sequel to The Deep End of the Ocean existed, I couldn't wait to read it. Well ... I should have waited. Maybe forever. I have no idea what happened between the writing of Ocean and the writing of Goodbye, but the difference between the two felt like the difference between the first books of the Baby-Sitters Club series, awesomely written by Ann M. Martin, and book #192, Claudia and the Haunted Ring Ding Wrapper (or whatever), written by some ghost writer who'd barely skimmed the previous books. In short: it is not good.

Monday, January 2, 2012

2011 in review: Travel

Hilton Hawaiian Village beach

Bon 2012! Here is the first of three retrospective posts about 2011.

States visited (not counting layovers): 10

Illinois, Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, New York, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Tennessee, Louisiana

New states: 1
Louisiana. Although I still want to visit New Orleans, a business trip finally allowed me to check Louisiana off my list. Maybe I didn't have a chance to sample beignets at Cafe du Monde, but I did spend lots of time with some awesome Shreveport natives, and learned all about law based on Napoleonic Code.

States left before I reach 50: 4

Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota. I'm down to one large four-state square. There's been talk of a trip to Montana with Heidi and Allison in 2013. But if I can carve out some time, it shouldn't be hard to hit all four of these at once (she said, inventing an airport in Belle Fourche, South Dakota).

Countries visited: 0
2011 was the first year in a long time during which I didn't travel abroad. There is another sabbatical on the horizon for 2012 or 2013, so I've had that thought to tide me over. Plus, there was Hawaii.

What's ahead for 2012? For one thing, my triumphant return to California! Maybe a sabbatical. Hopefully at least one new state.