Up, Up and Away

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To tell the truth, I was somewhat nervous. Okay, fine, I was terrified. I was about to go 600 meters  up in the sky in a wicker basket held up by a giant balloon that was in dangerous proximity to a shooting tower of flame. What could possibly be scary about that?

As I paced among a crowd of total strangers, trying to drink piping hot instant coffee, my hands trembled. It was dark, not yet 5 AM. We wore our group numbers around our necks like cattle at an auction. Hissing sounds echoed as dozens of balloons were slowly inflated with bursts from the propane flame burners. The globes were enormous, sleeping dinosaurs slowly coming to life as they lolled on the ground, stretching and filling, then miraculously righting themselves and rising up.

I was not cold, but I found myself shivering. I’m a little afraid of heights. I cannot stand on a balcony more than two stories up without butterflies in my stomach. I think the feeling is called vertigo; am I scared to fall, or is it that I am possessed with an overwhelming desire to see what would happen if I jumped?

Should I chicken out? It’s not too late…

Suddenly through the darkness a ghostly shape drifts toward me. A dog – big, white and furry, comes directly to me and thrusts his giant head into my hand. I relax a little. I scratch him behind his ears and run my hands through his warm fur. Is he hungry? I walk the few steps back to the coffee cart to get him a bread roll, and when I turn back, he is gone. I ask someone, “Did you see where the dog went?” As quickly as he had come he disappeared.

Maybe he wasn’t a dog after all, but an angel sent to reassure me.

Our group number was called and suddenly I was being led to a grey and red balloon, and I climbed into the basket along with nineteen others. Our balloon driver gave us instructions; most importantly he showed us the landing position, crouched down holding straps inside the basket.

And slowly, gradually, the balloon lifted us into the sky. I felt the basket leave solid ground. All around us, other balloons were also slowly lifting off. (I calculated later that there were at least 50 balloons in the sky. It was otherworldly.)

From the sky we could see the pointed rock formations that make up the fairy land of Cappadocia. We floated through the air over Red Valley. The volcanic rock formations rose up like pink fingers stretching toward us. The sun rose through a navy sky, a glowing pink neon orb. Its fiery glow was punctuated with the burst of flame that our captain sent periodically into the belly of the balloon. I rested against the interior wall of the basket, which is portioned into four pockets with the captain and his fiery mechanism in the middle; it is like a big cutlery holder for a picnic.

And what a picnic! I feasted my eyes on the vista that stretched out beneath us: hills and valleys of pink and tan, dark green trees and bushes, and a slowly lightening sky peppered with colorful dots of balloons. Bit by bit I grew brave enough to peer over the edge of the basket, gripping the support pole with both hands. The view took my breath away.

When we landed about forty-five minutes later, the balloon began a slow descent. A large brown jackrabbit scampered out of our way. We drifted just inches away from spiky bushes and our captain yelled “Landing position, please!” We all crouched down and the basket touched the earth with a jolt.

I climbed out with shaky legs and soon received my sparkling cider and my certificate. I made it!

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AN IMPROMPTU TRIP TO BELGRADE

I am often perceived by others as being braver than I really am. Yes, people know that I travel and explore new places. What they don’t know is that I am always afraid I’ve left something out, something behind, something undone, unconfirmed, un-arranged. And often I have. It’s often easily sorted out, or sorted with some difficulty, but it gets fixed in the end. Sometimes a better alternative comes forth that would not have emerged if things were perfectly arranged.

So, I look good on paper, even when my nerves are shot and I am quietly having a panic attack.

Such was the case when I landed in Belgrade with a 7-hour layover before the flight to Zagreb, Croatia. I wouldn’t call it panic, really, but the prospect of a little jaunt into town to explore made me nervous. In past years I would have stuck stalwartly to the airport, finding lunch, a magazine, perhaps even an internet connection to wile the time away. But in pursuit of an additional stamp in my passport and a tiny taste of a city I would not otherwise have experienced, I stepped tentatively out of my comfort zone.

I was told by a gate agent that I could take Bus 72 into City Center. I cashed 20 euro into dinar and set off.  At the taxi stand, a well-meaning and fare-hungry man tried to talk me into taking a cab, but I was not in a hurry; rather, I was trying to kill some time, so I declined. A Danish woman stopped to chat; she was going into city center as well, so we found the bus together and along the ride I made a new friend (with an offer to stay with her if I come to Copenhagen.)

Belgrade is the capital city of Serbia and has seen some rough times in the past, involved in wars and whatnot (so I don’t know much about history, sue me!) But today it seems peaceful. And very hot!

I walked along in the baking heat of midday, clutching my map and a pen to write little breadcrumbs of clues to lead me back to the bus stop. I made my way through a fruit and vegetable market, buying a large cup of raspberries for 100 dinar, less than a dollar. “Fruit Market” I wrote in the margin of the map. Consulting the map for a direction of intent, I decided I might be able to find the city’s ancient fortress walls and make it back in time to take the bus back.  I turned down a street where people had various wares – clothing, household items, a few stray machine parts – spread on blankets. It reminded me of the East Village of New York in the 80’s when I lived there. I wrote “Garage Sale Street” on the map. I passed a bakery adjacent to a large park (writing “Bakery”) which I walked through. I noticed that many young men were out, lounging in the dried-up grass under meager shade trees, buying ice cream at the ubiquitous blue carts. There was an absence of females, but still I felt safe.

I popped into a large hotel and the receptionist gave me another map and showed me the way to the fortress.

“I’m afraid I’ll get lost, is it far?” I explained that I needed to find my bus in a few hours.

“You won’t get lost” she assured me, marking the street. “But it will take maybe half an hour to get there and then you must walk back, so hurry.”

I walked along the road that flanked the river, (two rivers meet in Belgrade and form a delta – the Danube and the Sava.)I was sweating under my backpack. The temperature was in the high nineties. I noticed graffiti on many buildings. I passed several small hostels, some cafes and wine bars that were either dark or closed up. Perhaps they would wake up in the evening, but all was quiet in the heat of the afternoon. Along the way, I took photos, more breadcrumbs for my memory.

I climbed the winding stone steps that led up to the fortress (which I read was originally built in the 3rd century BC and the original city was within its walls.)  I was treated to a gorgeous view of the river, with boats  and dockside restaurants. I huffed and puffed, hiking up the steps with my heavy backpack in the midday sun, and took refuge when a wall curved to allow some shade for me to pause in for a few minutes. The fortress walls stretched out in many directions, and I examined the signboard that exclaimed “You are here”. Instead of exploring the fortress any more, I opted to walk back toward the town area, where I could slowly get back to my bus stop. In the park beyond the fortress, vendors sold dolls, magnets, and pepper mills.  Further on I found a lady selling wooden pipes and soap.  I bought one of each (soap for my mother and the pipe for my favorite writer friend.) The next street was a pedestrian mall lined with coffee bars.  I checked the time and decided I had time to indulge in an iced coffee.

As I sipped my coffee, I reflected on my small time in Belgrade.  What I had seen was wonderful, and it seemed that this would be an inexpensive city to spend some time in (the wooden pipe had been less than a dollar, and this coffee, sweet and rich, would have been easily three times the cost in any Starbucks.) As I paid, I remarked that the coffee had tasted of ice cream, and my smiling waiter confirmed that they indeed put in three scoops – two at the bottom and one on top.  This was a normal iced coffee!  Wow!

I stopped at a tiny storefront and picked out two pastry rolls with cheese, spinach, and mushroom, and these were less than a dollar for both.  I could like it here, I thought as I licked the crumbs from my fingers.

I wandered back toward what I thought was the right part of town.  I stumbled on a bridal couple being photographed walking out of a narrow cobblestone street.  I took the stairs down toward the river and remembered an artistic graffiti wall I had passed on the way to the fortress.  Then I wove my way back – hotel, park, bakery, garage sales, and fruit market, to find Bus 72 waiting. I ran and hopped on.

I made it back to the airport with time and dinar to spare! Maybe someday I’ll return to see more. Thanks, Belgrade!

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ODE TO THE MORTGAGE PROCESS (with apologies to Dr. Suess)

(author’s note:  this poem was originally written when I bought a house in 2010 as a response to the loan approval process.  I am finding that the sentiment still holds true today, as I go through this arduous process yet again………..)

Hi, I want to buy a house

Can I buy without a spouse?

I have money, here it is!

All this wonderful money, gee Whiz!

“I’m not sure that money’s yours?

Did you earn it doing chores?

If you did, we need to see

Taxes starting 2003….

You have money?  That is good!

But make sure it’s understood.

We need to know exactly where

It is from, and do not dare

To cross the i’s or dot the t’s

We will know, and we won’t be pleased!”

My money comes from near and far,

Receipts and statements? Here they are!

I found ten dollars on the ground….

“Money isn’t simply found!

We need at least 3 witnesses…

To prove the money can stay as is!

Please be exact, down to the penny

Wiggle room?  There ISN’t any!”

I have counted every cent,

I can’t even pay my rent!

Or buy groceries, or go to a movie

I am feeling less than groovy

“Oh, my gosh, please quit your bitchen,

Go line up at the soup kitchen

It will be over soon, come what may,

You’ll eat again after closing day”

You mean then, it just won’t matter

That I served up my finances on a platter?

“Just learn how to play the game,

Your life will go back to being the same,

The nice change that will cause you to forgive,

Is that you’ll have a new place to live!”

Oh, yes, I almost forgot the lure,

The reason for all the financial tor-ture!

It WILL be worth it in the end,

And maybe we can part as friends…

And if you come to my house-warming soiree

Talking money will NOT be okay!

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THE MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF AUNT FLO

WARNING: Squeamish men, don’t read. It’s mostly metaphor, but still… only read if you are interested in what women go through.

Aunt Flo has changed her ways. She has been visiting me very regularly since I was fourteen. She didn’t come by when I was pregnant; she must be averse to pregnancies. But other than those two times, nine months each, she has been very consistent.

You know how when company comes, you get energetic and want to clean house and make a good impression? Well, this is the exact opposite. I grow slovenly a few days before each visit, barely able to drag my ass out of bed. Weepy and hungry, I pray for her arrival, because, even though she is a veritable bitch, I somehow get some relief. Once she gets in and unpacks her bags to stay about five days, I know it will all be okay. Before her visit, though, life is dismal.

The last few years, though, Aunt Flo has been unpredictable. Never one to worry where I am at the time of her visit, she regularly visits every twenty-eight days, no matter whether I welcome her or not! But she showed up while I was traveling in South America, twice each month. I don’t know why! Did she not trust me? Did she want to make me feel uncomfortable when I was already out of sorts and sort of lost?

Sometimes she is mean. The opposite of a caring sweet aunt, she kicks me in the stomach –slightly lower, actually—and doesn’t apologize. She causes discomfort and inconvenience; she drags me down emotionally and makes me feel fat and unattractive. I can’t wait for her to leave!

But even so, her gradual disappearance has been disconcerting. She threatens to show up for weeks before she finally comes, and then she barely unpacks and she leaves quickly. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I miss her, but I feel so used to our routine, tortuous as it was, and I don’t know what to do anymore.

“Are you coming back?” I ask desperately as she makes her way out (where does she go? The airport? The bus station?) She looks over her shoulder with a wicked grin and shrugs. Who knows?

Truthfully, I will be glad when she’s gone for good. But her gradual fading, like an on-again, off-again relationship, is annoying as hell…………….

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The Writing Life

I haven’t felt this way in so long.  I’m trembling. I’m dizzy. I’m ignoring my friends, not walking my pleading dog. My stomach is in knots .I forgot to eat all day. The hours have passed and I have not moved from one spot.

What could this be? Am I sick with the flu? Strung out on drugs? Maybe, you might venture to guess, I’ve fallen in love?

Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

I’m writing!

It’s been too long, my patient manuscript. I’m truly sorry for the neglect. Now, armed with pages from an insightful editor (not cheap, but insightful nonetheless) I am back at it with a new sense of determination.

My head is spinning and my fingers are numb.  I surfaced briefly to take a blog break. Now I dive back in….

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SULLEN IN SEATTLE

I’m In Seattle for a weekend with my kids.  Well, not kids, exactly.  My daughters are young adults, 22 and 23 years old.  Tonight, my older daughter Emily heard from an old friend she knows from theater who invited us to meet him at the bar where he works, in the Capitol district.  I was game.

The two of us went to meet him, and we had to stand in line while they checked IDs.  As we waited, a guy passed from the other direction and said, “Come on girl, you too old to be getting in this club.”  I may or may not have turned around and hollered “Fuck you, asshole!”

I was doing nothing out of the ordinary.  I was standing politely in line, not demanding attention, not soliciting dick-headed comments from the penis gallery.   I was offended.  What the hell business of his was it where I was or why?  And why did I feel like somehow I needed to justify myself?

I know my age.  Fifty-two bright and beautiful years have passed by my eyes.  The eyes that donned reading glasses to write this piece.  I have earned and processed each one of those years.  I have come through hard times to stand before you as a stronger woman, ready to face what life has to bring.  I have learned enough not to judge others most of the time, and when I do, I just leave it to the little bitchy voice in my head.  And that is where it stays, a snap internal reaction – in my HEAD – where no harm is done.

I don’t say shit out loud to people!

As my daughter and I sat at the table, I was still fuming.  I know I should let it go.  The guy was kinda geeky.  Maybe he’d had bad luck that night.  How could he know I was a babe in my day?  But my day was, admittedly, the 80’s.  I’m 52 now.  Should I hide myself away in mortal shame?

No, you know what?  No.  I have as much right, hell, even MORE right than you, geeky un-laid jerk, to be anywhere I want to be.  Those girls in their twenties, gorgeous, inept, drunk, whatever they are – I have been there and surpassed it.  This bar was nothing special.  I didn’t have to do anything to deserve to be there.  In fact, we waited about ten minutes for Emily’s friend to get off work and we went to a bar closer to our hotel and more intimate.   We left the bar crowded full of youngsters,  of young women displaying their bodies and young men eyeing them.  We stayed a while and talked and had intelligent, grownup conversations about travel and culture.

After that, I took my leave.  We old gals need our beauty sleep, and I’m not so senile that I don’t know when to gracefully bow out and let the kids have their fun.

PS  Thanks for this blog title go out to my younger daughter, Veronica, who blissfully slept through the whole encounter back at the hotel!

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If These Walls Could Talk

I just signed the paperwork to sell my first house.  I’ve bought a house or two (ok, fine, only two) but this is the first one I have sold.

I bought this house in 1995, which means I owned it for close to twenty years.  My eventual-ex-husband and I moved in right after our baby turned two.  Our first party was our first-born daughter’s 4th birthday party.  She’ll be 24 this summer.  How time did fly!

The house has been through a few exterior paint jobs and myriad color changes of the inside walls.  It went from 3 to 4 bedrooms.  It housed my daycare business, where I had the honor of helping to raise other people’s children while still raising my own.  Oh, we had some fun there.  Birthday parties with ponies, art extravaganzas, and Pokemon marathons!

Over the years, the house heard the pitter-patter of countless little feet.  It heard a few dishes smashed, some by accident, and as my husband and I began to fight in earnest, a few on purpose.  I studied at the kitchen table through three college degrees, and that table saw my kids from kindergarten to high school. The house guarded my daughters’ secrets and shored me up for single parenting. It holds the memory of my marriage, my divorce, and a few subsequent lovers. After my divorce it watched me fall in love anew, stricken like a teenager myself, and held me in its wooden arms as I cried for the loss of that love five years later.

It noted my dalliance with the way too young, way too sexy, and certifiably bonkers handyman who did some (ahem) work for me. The breakfast bar often functioned as a wine bar for me and girlfriends, lamenting the course of life’s roads, or excited about new roads on the horizon. Friends helped me paint, fix, and patch, as I readied it for sale, then rent, then sale again.  After the last tenants, I spent my entire one-week “vacation” fixing, cleaning, and improving the things they had neglected.  I live several states from the house; it’s impossible to keep a good eye on a rental property so far away.  After the summer, I knew I should let it go before I got renters from Hell, before the house fell into disrepair in my absence.  As I walked through, it felt clean and open, ready for its own new start.  So I put it on the market and waited a bit.

Finally, I don’t regret my decision, but I didn’t expect the sadness that came with signing it away.  I know I don’t want to live there again.  The last few times I’ve visited, the memories were faint, faded like old photographs to a warm sepia tone. But now they are housed only in my head and in a few pictures.  I won’t stand on the deck and look at the lake again.  I won’t feel the solace of an old friend that has literally housed me and my kids for decades.

But in selling my old friend, I will benefit from the financial security we have built up together.   I can wish the best for the new family that seeks shelter in my old house’s steady arms.  I know I can treasure those memories I earned there and I will seek to make new memories now.

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