Ever since we got home (is it really nearly three months ago already?), I have been disgraced by the state of the front yard. Never really an attractive space to begin with, a year of neglect and our neighbor’s efforts to clear the dirt out from under our shared fence rendered it hideous. Every time someone comes over, even a complete stranger, I feel it necessary to apologize for the state of the garden and explain that we’ve been gone for a year. But that excuse only lasts so long.

I promised myself that after our conference in October was over, the front yard would be the first thing to go. I came up with a relatively simple plan, one that I didn’t think would require much of Gabe’s time and effort right away, since he’s so busy teaching this quarter. I thought, OK I can do this on my own, he doesn’t even need to be involved.

Oh but I forgot: I am married to an engineer. And the reason we don’t do more on our house (or that we pay other people to do it, as we did before moving home), is because he’s incapable of doing things half way. I do love him for it, but it means that things inevitably take longer and get far more involved than the original plan requires. They always turn out great, yes, and probably will outlast us all, but it can make life rather complicated. Not least of all for him.

This time was no exception. My simple berm and raised bed combination in the front has now turned into a far more elaborate project, one involving foot after foot of pressure-treated lumber, either attached directly to the fence or held up with rebar. Before we can do any of that, however, we have to dig out and raise up the existing sprinkler system so that it will reach above the new level of the soil.

We were reassured that the system, though old will still work fine — once we fix the main faucet, which was so rusted and rotten that it popped off as soon as Gabe touched it yesterday, sending gallons and gallons of water gushing down our driveway and into the yard for about half an hour before the city guy arrived to turn it off and cap the pipe. Oh well, at least the ground is nice and soft now!

This minor setback pushed our progress back quite dramatically yesterday, and Gabe ended up with only two boards notched and in the ground before sundown. These projects always take a while to get off the ground, as you have to remember which tools are where, how things work (which line means level again?), and the right order to do things in.

But our experience with redoing the side yard two years ago showed us that while slow, these projects are indeed possible, given enough time and patience. And sweat. And dirt. You can turn a pile of mud (or a concrete pit filled with disgusting brackish water) into a lovely patio and garden bed. Who knows, you might even have fun in the process.

Setbacks aside, I think both of us are excited to be starting a new project again. We went to the Home Despot on Friday to pick up supplies (lots of them!), and I found myself looking forward to the work that lies ahead of us. Of course that was before the pipe broke and our already ugly front yard turned into a huge mud puddle, but hey, it just gives us all the more to look forward to. Right? Right.

Here’s some pictures of our progress so far (such as it is):

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A couple of weeks ago, I received a new ATM card in the mail. Normally that is not an earthshaking event, but this new card served to remind me that three years have passed since I received the old one. And, since this was the ATM card for the joint account we started just after getting married, it came as a very physical reminder that our third anniversary is coming up this week.

Many people at last week’s conference asked me how married life is going, since the last time most of them saw me was just after we’d gotten engaged. I said, “Well it’s working out so far, but since it’s only been three years, perhaps I’ll wait until at least five or ten to give my final verdict.” They were without exception shocked to hear that so much time had passed since our happy day, and somewhat abashed, as if they were supposed to keep track of such things for someone they barely know.

I have to admit, I myself am somewhat shocked when thinking of it. So much has happened in that short time, it’s almost hard to believe it hasn’t been far longer. In fact, since our third year began with Gabe’s kidney stone and continued shortly thereafter with a fantastic trip to Venice, let’s just say I very much hope that the fourth one will start out a little more quietly.

Over the weekend, I finished reading Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, which last I checked was on the bestseller list for most of a year. I enjoyed it a great deal, dispelling many of my preconceptions about bestsellers.

I mentioned this to a girlfriend of mine on Friday afternoon, as I know she is not only literarily inclined but also hails from the South, as her charming touch of an accent can attest. As I suspected, she had not only read it but led a book group in discussing it, and had plenty of things to say on the subject.

Her main response seemed not to be to the book, but rather to other peoples’ reactions to it. Specifically, Californians’ reactions. She said she had had to defend her home territory vehemently, as everyone’s immediate response was, “Wow, the South was so racist!” And what, we’ve never had racism here in California?

As Californians, or rather as denizens of the Bay Area, I think we tend to have a slightly holier than thou attitude to the rest of the country. No matter where you live, it’s easy to judge the South for their racist attitudes, especially when fictionalized. But that lets the rest of us get off the hook a little too easily. Just because we didn’t grow up with Jim Crow laws and separate bathrooms does not mean we’re somehow immune to racism.

I for one grew up in a largely Hispanic area, and had bilingual Spanish/English schooling until fifth grade. After that, I went to schools progressively further north of where I started, ending up at my university up at the very top of the county. There I had a total of one black friend, who liked to joke that he and the dark, dark African guy at our college were their token effort at “diversity.” Now, even though I live not thirty miles from where I grew up answering to the name “Soe” because I knew so many Spanish speakers, I am shocked to see such a large Hispanic population when I go back to that same town.

Yeah, real progressive.

Even so, I never realized how racist I am until we moved to Portugal. There, the population is overwhelmingly African or Brazilian, with people of all colors on every city block and square. It took me a while to identify why I got nervous when walking by myself in certain areas. At first I assumed it to be a part of my general discomfort with living in another country, but after some time, I realized that it was because I’m just not used to being around people with dark skin.

Until Lisbon, I had never lived anywhere other than white or Hispanic areas. I had never confronted the fact that the difference in skin colors made me uncomfortable, simply because it was just that: different. Given that I went to two of the more progressive, even radical universities in the world, I was ashamed to find this latent racism lurking in my liberally-educated Californian heart.

So you see, it’s all too easy to cast the first stone, especially in hindsight. It’s too easy to condemn the South for their racist ways, for their inhumanity, their degradation and ignorance. But who among us has not been racist at some point or another? It’s a fundamental human impulse to be uncomfortable with that which is Other, different, not like us. True, some of us can recognize and resist this impulse, while others throughout history have institutionalized it in order to oppress other human beings who are, in reality, just like us.

But to my mind, ignoring that response, damning it in others while pretending it’s not there in ourselves, is very much not a part of the solution. By elevating ourselves above those who we perceive as racist, we are perpetuating the very same problem.

From my reading, that was one of the points Stockett was trying to get across in her book. She is not trying to show us how terrible these people are, but rather the opposite. As despicable as some of the characters may seem, they are all just people, living in a society that prescribes them certain roles to fill, as women, as whites, as servants, as husbands, as children.

When it comes down to it, aren’t we all?

Today I returned to my hairdresser here, which was largely unremarkable except in that it was so unremarkable. All I did was get in my car, drive for 15 minutes, sit in the chair for a couple hours, chat with the hairdresser, read some trashy magazines, then drive to the grocery store and go home for lunch.

Really? No linguistic hazards, no trying to guess how to say what I want done and ending up with a buzz cut? No 45 minute bus rides, or tube rides plus 20 minute walks over railroad bridges and through winding side streets? No buzzing the doorbell of a tiny apartment and being surrounded by batty old Portuguese women who coo at me while I smile and nod through their ministrations? How very boring.

More than anything, my return to a normal American hairdressing experience sums up the differences between living here and living in Lisbon. There, even the most mundane of tasks was an adventure requiring the utmost mental and physical agility. Here, all it takes is a short drive, and I get a relaxing morning spent in the chair.

What difference does a hairdo make? Turns out, a lot.

Um, wow. It’s October. I am not exactly sure where this year has gone. Oh that’s right, it went all over Portugal, Morocco, Israel, Sweden, and England. Not to mention home. As you’ve seen, it’s been a busy one, and I for one am glad that we’re heading into fall. I love these crisp, cold days (or will once this past week’s heat wave has gone, which it seems to have done today), and I especially love the holidays. More than anything, I love being home with our families for the holidays. As much fun as we had last fall, exploring Lisbon and Venice, it just wasn’t the same.

And of course we can’t forget the newest addition to our lives this fall, Bola the wonder cat. This week he has gone from sweet cuddly kitten who has been deprived of human contact all his life, to testy adolescent cat intent on pushing all the boundaries we set for him. Oh, I can’t play with the marbles on that fancy chinese checkers set that was a wedding present from a dear friend? That’s what you think! After not using the squirt bottle on him for the first ten days he was with us, we’ve now squirted him at least 4 or 5 times in the past two days (and every single time was for playing with those dang marbles.)

We also have some moments that make it all worth it, such as last night, when he was leaping two feet in the air after a new toy we bought him last weekend. Such are the joys of kittenhood.

On a wholly different note: back in the spring, I submitted one of my many many Morocco photos to an online photo contest. Voting for the People’s Choice Award opens today, so please, gentle readers (all ten of you!) head on over and cast your vote (here’s how.) My photo is on list #2, photo 16.  Many thanks!

And now, to start October.

Over the past year or so, I’ve gone through the five stages of grief for the part of me that was once a runner. After a bad injury in the end of 2008, I was already running a lot less by the time we left for Portugal, but once we were there, the hills and the lack of non-asphalt running venues more or less did me in. I’ve struggled to come to terms with this reality, which has run the gamut (pun intended) from grief to anger to denial. At last, I think I am entering acceptance. Kind of.

Yesterday, a girlfriend and I attempted to go for a quick run in my favorite local state park up the coast. There is a short, flat coastal loop that makes for about a  half-hour run, which is about where both of us are in our running careers at the moment.

However, we soon realized that it was not to be, as it turned out there was a triathlon taking up most of the roads between my house and the park. After crossing the bike course once, we then encountered it again on the highway heading north along the coast, which was where we were intending to go. “Right,” I said, “how about a walk by the ocean instead?”

Just after our turning point, we saw the first triathlete, who was nearing his own turning point. If he hadn’t been wearing a number, I wouldn’t have believed he was in the race, as he was all alone, ahead of the rest of the pack by a good ten or fifteen minutes. That meant he was phenomenally good at all three tri events. Yes, we hate him.

Pretty soon the rest of the elite competitors started to appear, including one poor guy who was running so fast that he got knocked over by someone who couldn’t get out of his way quickly enough. When he got up and kept running, swearing under his breath as he brushed himself off, I got the distinct feeling that it wasn’t the fall he cared about, it was the effect on his time. This impression was confirmed when a while later we saw a guy running with a massive hole torn in the seat of his shorts, revealing an equally massive raspberry on his cheek. Ouch. That must have hurt.

Not so long ago, witnessing this display of physical prowess would have made me jealous, guilty about letting my own training slide, and motivated to get back into it with renewed vigor. This time though, I discovered I was perfectly content to sit back and watch the other people do all the work. My friend agreed, and we judged that in general, it is far more fun to watch (and judge!) a triathlon than compete in one. I know what you’re thinking — well, duh! — but hey, I’m a slow learner sometimes.

Turned out we were just as good at what we were doing, as one of the runners coming up behind us said, “Nice work, ladies,” as he passed us by. Gotta admire someone who can still have a sense of humor in the final leg of a grueling, hot race.

As I thought about it throughout the day that followed, I realized: I was doing nice work. I was taking care of myself without demolishing my body or devoting my entire waking life to training. In other words, I was being healthy, without being obsessive. It’s taken me a long time to get to that point, and I’m still struggling with it, always feeling like I could/should be doing more than I am. But I think I’m nearing the acceptance stage, and I for one could not be more glad. In fact, I think I can hear my knees cheering now.

It’s an indicator of just how busy I’ve been that I haven’t even commented on the fact that this week was the one-year anniversary of our arrival in Lisbon. I’ve had other things on my mind, I guess.

Looking back at my entries from that week, I can see that a year ago today we explored what was to become our neighborhood. We introduced ourselves to the restoration guy across the street from our flat, whose red-spattered smock turned out to be covered with paint, not blood, as I’d originally thought. We also discovered our mirador that day, and ate lunch at a carpaccio place that took an hour to produce one salad. Needless to say, we never went back there.

Although my initial impressions of our adopted city were not the most favorable (“I wanna go hoooooome!”), I remember that as the day my opinion started to change (click on the photo to enlarge):

Now that I’m safely ensconced and embroiled back in my life here, that world seems even more foreign than it did at the time. Already, I am grateful to have kept such a detailed account of the year, with so many pictures. Eventually, I might even print a few and hang them on the walls — see again that post-project time frame, which I am anticipating with great relish.

In the much more mundane but no less exciting here and now, I’ve discovered that Bola’s favorite toy is a pair of my plush furry duck slippers. He has eyed them with trepidation every time I’ve worn them, as if he were deciding whether to attack them or run away from them.

Last night the former impulse won out, and he spent a good fifteen minutes disemboweling first one, then the other, with enormous gusto. My slippers have now been thoroughly killed, although now I can effectively never wear them again, as Bola will always think they’re to play with. Oh well, it’s worth the sacrifice to see him that happy. Hard to believe he’s already been here a week…!

I’m coming down to the nitty gritty end of a six-month-long project right now, and my entire life has been more or less thrown over. Freelancing is a lot like being in college, with long stretches of time during which I more or less do what I want (aka the last year), followed by intense weeks or months of total concentration and flat-out effort, when everything else falls by the wayside.

When most people think of freelancing, they dream of the flexible schedule and home office, and don’t realize that it takes a hell of a lot of motivation and discipline to actually make it work. Even I forget how much work it is during the down times.

Right now, I’m remembering. Full force.

Being a professor, Gabe works in a similar way. Most of the time, he’s flexible and can work from anywhere. Sometimes, it’s all out, nose to the grindstone, no messing around. And sometimes, as with the past month, it happens to both of us at the same time. While I’ve been finishing this project, he’s been preparing for classes, which start today. When this happens, and thankfully it’s rare, we become a single-minded household. We still spend time with each other and our families, of course, but housework? Forget about it. Social life? Not so much. Sleeping? Well, that’s hit or miss.

This time, the evidence of our concentration is made painfully obvious by a cursory glance at our house. As soon as we had the office set up last month, we both abandoned the moving process and started working. There are still pictures propped against the walls, waiting to be hung up. Our ketuba sits in the office, still wrapped in its protective layers of paper and cardboard. And the garden… oh, the garden. I have to close my eyes and run to my car every time I go out, so as to avoid looking at the bleak destruction that was once a front lawn.

Three more weeks, and I can expand my focus again. And yes, that does include writing some more. And maybe even cleaning the house.

Three days later, and it’s as though Bola has been here forever. We’re settling into a comfortable pattern with each other, which seems to involve a lot of sleeping and scampering about on his part, and a lot of moderating the destruction left in his wake on ours. Luckily, we’ve discovered that playing with him before we go to bed means that he will actually let us sleep for most of the night, which is a happy change from our last cat, who enjoyed waking me up by purring in my face every night at 2, 4, and 6 AM.

In fact, all around this is a nice change from our last cat. Bola is far braver and smarter than that cat ever was, and will actually listen when you tell him that the coffee pot or shower do not present a mortal danger to him. He was harder to convince when my brother came over, as he made all kinds of loud noises and left his friend’s dog outside to whine. Bola dashed under our bed and remained there, purring to let me know he still loved me, but I’m staying right here thanks.

In short order, Bola has pretty much taken over our lives, which we have happily relinquished to his small furry dictatorship. On Saturday, I spent a good 15 minutes on the phone with a girlfriend talking about our cats. Ten years ago, we talked about boys. Now, we talk about our cats.

Ah yes, the thirties are definitely our most glamourous decade yet.

During this whole adoption process (though I’m still not sure whether we adopted Bola or he adopted us), I’ve been thinking a lot about our attitude towards pets in general. Our country has a mania about its furry companions, and spends some ridiculous amount of money on them every year. We treat them like children, sometimes better, and so far Gabe and I are no exception.

We got Bola from a sweet lady who goes to shelters and rescues cats and kittens scheduled to be put down, then either fosters them herself or places them with other people until they get adopted. There is a whole slew of programs like this in the Bay Area, many of which are run by people who take their pets far too seriously. Every time we wanted to even meet a cat from one of these organizations, we had to fill out a lengthy application, starting with “Why do you want to adopt a cat?” Um, what am I supposed to say to that? Because they’re cute?

One lady wouldn’t even let us see a kitten because I mentioned we were planning on having kids, and she thought he needed a more “mellow” home environment. I get that they want them to go to a good home, but really. It’s a cat. Not a child from a Third World country.

Speaking of other countries, it almost makes me laugh to compare these good people’s attitudes towards pets to what we have experienced elsewhere in the world this year. In Portugal, skanky alley cats reigned supreme, my favorite being the black cat that lived on our street, which had its ears completely chewed off and a grizzled, hundred-mile stare.

The same conditions applied pretty much everywhere else we went, including Morocco and Israel. It was somewhat of a novelty to come back to the States and be able to pet a cat that you see on the street instead of giving its scabrous flea-bitten hide a very wide berth indeed. I tried telling this to some of the ladies we met through this adoption process, and they were horrified at the stories I told. I stopped mentioning it after a while, but could not imagine such a service functioning in Portugal. They would certainly have their hands full.

I found an article that goes into all of this in far more depth on Salon the other day. Us Americans and our pets. What’s the deal, anyway?

Perhaps I will be able to answer that as soon as I’m not so busy answering to the beck and call of my kitten.

We have a busy day of ball throwing and cat dancing ahead, but I thought I’d share some pictures of Bola’s first day with us. As you can see, he is a real help in the office:

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“Treat history as a springboard, not as an anchor.”

- General John G. Medaris

When I Wrote It

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