Monument Valley: Heaven and Earth

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John Ford’s Point, Monument Valley. The famous director would spend hours in his director’s chair here, developing scenes to shoot later.

I’m not sure why I waited so long to visit Monument Valley. I’ve long been familiar with it, because it serves as the jaw-dropping backdrop for some of director John Ford’s most iconic westerns – Stagecoach, The Searchers, My Darling Clementine, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande etc. And it’s a photographer’s dream, especially if you don’t mind early mornings, chilly sunsets and gusty winds blowing fine orange grit into your eyes and mouth. (What’s so bad about that?)

When I decided to go to Arizona for Spring Training in February, I thought I should finally check it out.

The six-hour drive from Scottsdale is straight but hilly, and traffic in the off-season is light. Sparse, in fact. I used cruise control on the highways – a delightful thing for someone from the San Francisco Bay Area, where traffic is always stop-and-start.

Before my trip, I hadn’t realized that Monument Valley Tribal Park is the property of the Navajo Nation. I was shocked to see tribe members’ homes sprinkled at the base of the massive rock formations. I can’t imagine having such stunning views from my kitchen window.

The Valley is a quiet place, with few restaurants, no bars and only a handful of hotels. I stayed at Goulding’s Lodge on the Arizona/Utah border, just a five-minute drive from the Park. It’s surrounded by big rocks that take your breath away, but otherwise looks like a standard motel. It’s clean, and has laundry, a pool, one restaurant (no booze) and even a tiny gym.

thumb_IMG_6017_1024Goulding’s also offers guided tours led by Navajo tribe members. I chose the half-day tour that takes in sections of the Park visitors can’t access on their own. I returned the next day to revisit my favorite, publicly-accessible areas, at my own leisurely pace.

There are two things that really set Goulding’s apart. First is the history of the place, reflected in its Trading Post Museum. It is chock full of Hollywood memorabilia, including hotel registers signed by Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Ward Bond and others. It also celebrates the lives of its founders, Harry and Leone “Mike” Goulding. In the 1930’s they pitched Monument Valley to John Ford as the perfect western movie location… and the rest is Hollywood history.

Even better, Goulding’s shows John Wayne movies shot in Monument Valley every night of the week! Stop by the screening room at 8 p.m., and you’ll be treated to Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or The Searchers. It’s the perfect place to geek out among like-minded travelers bitten by the Monument Valley bug, who whisper the names of rock formations whenever they make an appearance.

“West Mitten!”

“Elephant Butte!”

“Three Sisters!”

It’s hard to choose favorite photos from my two amazing days in Monument Valley – especially day two, when the light and clouds changed minute to minute.

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I’m also surprisingly fond of these two. They aren’t pretty but they remind me that I nearly didn’t get any photos at all! I somehow, unknowingly shattered my UV filter the night I arrived. The next morning, my first photo was wonky – like the filter was smudged. I pulled out my lens cloth, looked down and…

It took me a few light-headed, heart-pounding minutes to realize my Canon lens – which I pamper like a newborn – was unharmed. Apropos of my environment, I was reminded of old westerns, when a Bible a cowboy is carrying in his pocket stops a bullet from a bad guy’s gun.

Call it frontier luck. Yee-haw.

The next day, on the way to the Grand Canyon, I drove 150 miles out of my way to the only camera store around (in Sedona) to pick up a new filter.

I will NEVER be without a UV filter going forward. EVER. That one saved beloved “Big Barbara” (my lens) — as well as the best photography vacation I’ve ever taken.

Spring Training in Progress

Image of hands holding out baseballs for Cleveland Indians players to sign, before a spring training game in 2017Opening day for Major League Baseball is just a few weeks away, and I’m already off my game. I returned from spring training more than one week ago, and am only now blogging about it.

Scottsdale in late February is even more relaxing and clement than when I normally visit in March. The midday temperature hovered at around 65 degrees. I didn’t wear my ball cap or get sunburned once.

I skipped the Cactus League last spring – investing in an apartment redo instead – and was startled by a few changes this year. For starters, Goodyear Ballpark (home of the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds) has introduced security screening.

In the past, senior citizen volunteers checked tickets without a scanner – they actually read the tickets. There were no wands up and down your inseam, metal detecting machines or bag searches.

Goodyear is an older stadium, and going to a game felt like stepping back in time. Now lines to enter are long, and screening is contracted to millennials wearing uniforms.

I understand the need for tighter security but … Boo, progress.

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The League has also introduced camera lens size limits – a pretty big deal for me. It means 2017 was likely my last for taking photos with my beloved 28-300 lens, affectionately named Big Barbara.

Barbara is now contraband, and was nearly confiscated. I had to sneak her in, dodging security and the dreaded big camera sweep. It was stressful.

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On the upside, I finally got a chance to enjoy (not really) a Cincinnati classic: a Skyline Chili Dog. I wanted to like it. I really did. Every spring training, fans at Goodyear rave about these dogs.

My colleague Erika, who hails from the Queen City, blames the shredded orange substance sprinkled on top. The concession stand called it “cheese” — and it looked legit to me — but Erika cried “imposter”.

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The Great 2017 Skyline Dog Experiment was a #fail, even if I did eat the whole dog.

Since I’m not cut out for a life of crime and deception, my spring training photos going forward (assuming I don’t boycott in protest) will be taken with a lens that is six inches or shorter. Manage your expectations accordingly. Until then, behold my swan song!

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Coming Up Short

This has been a difficult year — an annus horribilis for many, to paraphrase Her Majesty the Queen.

Image result for queen elizabeth canadaI have been thinking about Queen Elizabeth a lot lately. She’s the one I’m told I must swear an oath to, if I flee Donald Trump and seek asylum in Canada. (I’ve already chosen a title for my memoir… “Mounties: my path to citizenship!”)

I celebrated a milestone birthday recently. The big 5-0. Up until now, I have taken birthdays in stride. Forty was no biggie for me, because I didn’t feel or look much different from when I was 30 or 35. Fifty is different.

My hair is graying all over my head – not just in a few places. My hairdresser has gone from delicately applying highlights with a little brush, to slapping color all over my head with a spatula.

My knees are shot, the cartilage long gone. And in the past few years, forgetting to put reading glasses in my purse when I go out has become more than just an inconvenience. It renders me helpless.

While I realize getting older is far better than the alternative, turning 50 within a few weeks of Donald Trump winning the presidential election was like a one-two punch to the gut. I was kind of a wreck.

But on November 9, as journalists began speculating about President-Elect Trump’s first 100 days in office, I had an epiphany. I needed my own 100 day plan. My mood wasn’t going to de-funk itself.

It kicked off December 1, and will finish on February 28. Perfectly timed and tidy!

I’m keeping some aspects of my plan to myself because THE INTERNET IS FOREVER. But it’s a combination of healthier living (teetotaling, more walking), professional soul-searching and more giving. I haven’t chosen a volunteer activity yet, but still have 93 days to figure it out.

Another goal is to be braver, so last weekend I asked my hairdresser to chop off my hair. It was something I’d wanted to do for a long time, but I hadn’t thought I had the chin or cheekbones to carry if off. Also, men supposedly prefer longer hair. You’ll recall that Faith Hill fans FREAKED OUT when she went pixie a year or so ago.

And remember Felicity, and the “haircut incident”? A shorter ‘do may have cost the Felicity the love of Ben, and Keri Russell her very first TV series. With the risk of such backlash, I’m surprised any woman ever goes shorter than a “lob”.

 

Younger women worry so much about whether the rest of the world likes their hair and clothes and bodies. It’s exhausting to watch. Now that I’m 50, I don’t care as much. (Luckily, I don’t have a network TV show to possibly lose.)

Long hair is lovely, and if you have it and like it…more power to you, sister! If you need me I’ll be over here, rubbing the stubble on the back of my well-coiffed head, and channeling the great Amy Poehler:

“Good for her! Not for me.”

Stay tuned. You’ll be hearing that expression a lot more from me in the next half century.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to learn French by watching videos of Justin Trudeau.

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Psych! Not me. But this is the photo that started it all.

Prepare For Takeoff

The Blue Angels of the United States Navy fly over San Francisco, CA as part of 2016's Fleet Week. (October 2016)

Goose: “No. No, Mav, this is not a good idea.”

Maverick: “Sorry, Goose, but it’s time to buzz the tower.”

(“Top Gun”)

I am a bit remiss in posting these photos from San Francisco’s Fleet Week in October. (Veterans Day guilt finally kicked me into gear.)

Taken over four glorious days, all three air shows (plus one practice) went off without a single fog-out. (We cut things pretty close with Sunday’s final performance, though.)

While the Blue Angels could never be described as “boring”, the crowd on our rooftop was happy to see some new choreography this year.

Several maneuvers induced unfortunate 9/11 flashbacks for some — the United Airlines jet flying low over the Bay was terrifying — but on the upside, panic is a great way to boost your cardio without even moving your feet!  Just look up, and enjoy the fun.

With the Blue Angels, you are in excellent hands…

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Stuck in an Elevator: a saga in verse

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I set off on my work commute
Along my normal daily route
My nextdoor neighbor followed suit
Into our elevator.

That was when disaster struck
The worst of days! Of all the luck!
In between floors, the thing got stuck
A go-nowhere DUMBwaiter.

Time passed, the damned thing didn’t shift
And no one came to our assist
In this death trap of a lift
I prepared to meet my maker.

We punched the buttons for each floor
Jumped up and down, yanked on the door
My neighbor starting calling for
Someone to come and help her.

Her pleas attracted some attention
Repairmen ended our suspension
And we commenced with our descension
We took the stairs – they’re safer.

LeBron James: He Likes Us! He Really Likes Us!

I considered writing a new poem about the NBA finals, but I’m still kind of partial to this one from 2014. My first ever re-blog. #Believeland

In Write Field

LeBron James Nike "We Are All Witnesses" billboard hanging from a building in Cleveland, Ohio

Four years ago
We were sucker punched, so
You can understand why I’ve been skeptical.
My hometown was spurned
Our allegiances turned
And our hero was yanked from his pedestal.

His burning ambition
Lay behind “The Decision”
To join forces with Bosh, and with Wade.
Fans shouted obscenities
And burned him in effigy
Any time the Cavs and Heat played.

But feelings evolved
And Cleveland resolved
To lure King James back in free agency.
They flattered, they fawned
They slept on his lawn
Would he come home, or turn us down gracefully?

Never say never
Knock me down with a feather
The optimists were not mistaken.
Chock full of forgiveness
And ready to WITNESS
This time fans have not been forsaken.

A conclusion forgone:
We’ll win with LeBron
And great things are going to happen!
The Q will sell out
And there’s really no doubt
That the Cavs will be NBA…

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“Weiner”: What’s in a name?

 

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Anthony Weiner: the name that launched 10,000 puns.

If you’re like me, you haven’t heard or thought much about the disgraced former congressman recently. He sort of disappeared from political conversation after his shellacking in New York City’s 2013 democratic mayoral primary.

But fear not, rubberneckers! Anthony Weiner — aka Carlos Danger – is making a return, of sorts, in a documentary directed and produced by Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman.

Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedine, People Magazine, 2012Weiner was originally intended to record the potential comeback of a one-time political pariah, and late-night punchline. Filming began in spring 2013, when Weiner announced his candidacy for mayor — and one year after a lengthy People magazine interview, in which he and wife Huma Abedin shared how their marriage had withstood his 2011 sexting scandal, and subsequent resignation from Congress.

The documentary crew had unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to the candidate, his staff and his family. Remarkably, this continued even after a new batch of more explicit Weiner “selfies” — taken around the time of the People interview – came to light.

Weiner is riveting, like a crime scene or train wreck, if you don’t focus on the human toll. It follows a delusional career politician who revises history and weaves elaborate lies about the present, unwilling to acknowledge that violating public trust is a legitimate campaign issue. I felt a strong urge to shower by the end of it.

Two scenes in particular sent chills down my spine:

  • First, Weiner is riding with his campaign communications director. She’s reading questions from the media aloud, diplomatically asking her boss to be sure he’s comfortable with his answers, so that she isn’t forced to revise or contradict herself later. (She doesn’t specifically ask for candor, but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. It’s probably pretty hard to come right out, and ask your boss not to lie.)

There’s a saying about lying – that the hardest part is keeping all the lies straight, and not tripping up. Anthony Weiner does not have that problem. It’s like he has a Rolodex in his head, containing every detail he’s provided to the media on the subject of his inappropriate behavior. (A Rolodex is a non-digital piece of office equipment, millennial readers. Stick with me.)

Weiner formulates his answers by whizzing through this mental Rolodex, deciding how many women he’s sexted based on what he’s previously told the New York Times vs. the New York Post vs. TV interviewers — but doesn’t search his memory for what ACTUALLY happened. He never once references the need (or intention) to be truthful. It’s disturbing.

  • Next, near the end of the film, Abedin declines to accompany Weiner to the polls on primary day. So, he weaves an implausible, easily disproved yarn about his polling place losing his name, thus creating a delay and forcing Huma to vote on her own later. Weiner races down the street, dictating the story rapid-fire to his staff, like someone in the throes of a manic episode – oblivious to the fact that his stream-of-consciousness lying is being observed and recorded. He later (sheepishly) tells the story to reporters, who seem unconvinced

I thought I’d have more sympathy for Abedin. By all accounts, she prefers to exercise her considerable power behind the scenes, while her husband stands out in front seeking public adulation. As the documentary progresses, she’s the voice of reason while he goes off the rails. Eventually she physically and emotionally distances herself from him, rolling her eyes or glaring but rarely speaking.

Even so, her mask occasionally slips. In one scene, Weiner meets with his dejected campaign team in his home, to help soothe their sense of betrayal. Several staffers point out that the communications director is being followed and harassed by the media everywhere she goes. Abedin shows little concern, and reminds the woman that the cameras will still be outside when she leaves.

Abedin asks, “You’ll look happy, right?” Then, realizing how unfeeling that sounded she adds, “I mean, I’m asking for YOU because I’m worried about YOU.” Sure you are.

Weiner’s most regrettable impact is 15 more minutes of fame for the candidate’s 23-year-old sexting partner Sydney Leathers (campaign codename: Pineapple). She’s a guest on Howard Stern. She makes a sex tape. She stalks Weiner around New York, tabloid photographers in tow. Watching her chase him through a Manhattan McDonalds, on his way to his concession speech, is a definite low point.

In the final weeks of his campaign, Weiner makes an appearance on MSNBC where he is smug, combative and high strung. Lawrence O’Donnell mocks his decision-making by asking, “What’s WRONG with you?”

It is a cheap gotcha question, meant to entertain the lowest common denominator. Yet once the film credits started rolling, I had the same question. What is wrong with Anthony Weiner?

I’m still not sure, but it’s something.

 

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Life Behind Bars

Woman eating aloneIf you follow this blog you know I like to travel, and I often do it solo. It’s part conscious choice: I’m an introvert who tends to avoid trips involving days at the beach (there’s not enough sunscreen on earth to protect my pastiness), or hitting nightclubs and casinos. Give me a self-guided walking tour, a few historic sites and a spot of shopping in a mild climate – I’ll be a happy tourist.

Traveling on my own is also sometimes a necessity: I’m single with a lot of coupled-up friends. If I scheduled my trips around their availability, I’d wind up spending an awful lot of vacation time on my sofa.

And of course there’s also solo work travel. I’m not required to do a ton of it, and the trips are usually short so I enjoy them. There’s something about staying in a hotel room that someone tidies for you each day, and eating meals (on the company’s dime) that you neither prepared nor cleaned up after, that feels like an adventure – and not at all lonely.

Given how often I travel alone, and how comfortable I am with it, I often surprise myself when I arrive at a restaurant solo and tell the host/hostess, “Just one for dinner.” Or, “It’s just me.” I can’t explain why I feel the need to include the word just, as if I’m apologizing. Maybe it’s because restaurants so often leave me feeling contrite for taking up a whole table, “just” for myself.

I was recently in Palm Springs for a music festival that my company sponsors. On my first night, I headed downtown for VillageFest, a low-key Thursday night street fair. I arrived early, and found a restaurant that looked promising. I was told I’d have to eat at the bar.

Let me be clear: one of the advantages of traveling alone is I can often eat at great restaurants without a reservation, because I’m usually willing to sit at the bar. But this large bistro in Palm Springs was – I kid you not – about two-thirds empty at this time. There were unoccupied tables for two everywhere, so being booked solid was definitely not the issue.

I forced a smile, said “thanks anyway”, and kept walking, eventually finding a more crowded restaurant where I was nevertheless seated at a real table, like a valued customer. I had two cocktails, an appetizer and main course salad, and dessert. I suppose I felt like making a point.

When I walked past the snooty bistro about 90 minutes later, it was bustling but STILL had empty tables for two. So, what was gained by snubbing me?

Fast forward to this afternoon. I was not traveling, I just had errands to run at San Jose’s Santana Row. Despite its vast array of shops, with even more in a sprawling indoor mall across the street, I’m not a fan of the place. Teslas are on display in the center of the complex, surrounded by beautiful people lingering – being seen by other beautiful people — in large open-air restaurants with white tablecloths and a complete set of wine glasses at each place. In other words, forget every Midwest mall you’ve ever shopped in.

I made the mistake of approaching a French-American themed café by myself, seeing quite a few empty tables, and asking to be seated at one of them. The unsmiling hostess replied that single parties must sit at the bar. Not that there might be a wait, unless I was willing to sit at the bar. I was alone, so the bar was my only option.

I later joked that the swells at Santana Row seemed terrified that I might infect them with my unglamorous single-ness. There were tables to spare, so I can only conclude that the optics of a person dining alone was considered potentially depressing to other diners – an unwelcome appetite suppressant.

Because every ludicrous situation I encounter brings to mind a Seinfeld episode, I laughed thinking of season 9, and germaphobe coworker Peggy who was frantic that proximity to Elaine would contaminate her. Too bad today’s restaurant hostess didn’t leave a keyboard within arm’s reach.

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In 2015, Deloitte University Press released a study focused on a steady rise in single-person households in the United States between 1960 and 2014 that is expected to continue for at least 15 years. While this trend will influence the way communities and housing are designed and built, I hope it will also force establishments like Zin American Bistro and The Left Bank to value the growing number of us who are as likely to travel, shop, dine and reside solo, as in a group.

Show us to a table, if that’s what we ask for, because there’s no more space at the bar.

 

My Gold Country Road Trip: Hitting the Mother Lode

A few weeks ago, this western film and television fan made a pilgrimage of sorts to Ponderosa country. I didn’t cross paths with any Cartwrights, although I did encounter a perfect Hoss hat in a shop in Virginia City.

According to Baron Hats – the company that designed and manufactured all the hats worn on the TV show — the Hoss model was an original, just like the character for which it was created.

“With a gun and rope and hat full of hope!…”– from the lyrics to ‘Bonanza’

I spent 4 nights in rainy Incline Village next to Lake Tahoe, launching several day trips from there: Carson City, Reno and Virginia City. But the best excursion – the one I really planned my trip around – was to Bodie State Historic Park, home to a ghost town. (#Boo.)

W.S. Bodey of Poughkeepsie, NY discovered gold on the site in 1859. (He died several months later in a blizzard, which probably explains why the name of his namesake town wound up misspelled.)

At its peak, Bodie had about 7,000 residents. Only about 5% of the structures from that period survive, but that’s enough to provide a fascinating, throwback experience. When California State Parks purchased the land in 1962, it chose not to restore or renovate any of the buildings. It merely maintains them as they were discovered.

The town’s population dwindled after Bodie’s heyday of 1877-1881, although mining continued until 1942. What’s left standing has a bit of a Pompeii feel to it, as if everyone bolted one day with only what they could carry in their pickup trucks. Everything else – clothes, toys, furniture, mattresses, baby carriages – was left behind.

The Bodie cemetery is filled with the graves of residents that didn’t make it out – many of them gunmen killed in shoot outs. The visitor’s guide provides some back stories:

  • Alexander Nixon, a native of Tyrone, Ireland, died in 1878 at age 38. He lost a gunfight with a friend. They were arguing over who was the better man. Not sure there was a definitive outcome to the debate, but the friend was the better shot.
  • Chatto Encinos was killed by Sam Chung in 1880, for raiding Chung’s vegetable garden.
  • John Goff was shot in a claim jumping dispute in 1879.
  • Darwin award winner A.C. Robertson died in 1880 while trying to thaw out frozen gun powder in his oven. Seriously? Who DOES that?

Small flags are scattered amidst the cemetery’s desert brush. They pinpoint possible unmarked graves recently identified by human remains detection dogs. See what I mean? Spooky!

The visit was worth the 2.5 hour drive in each direction. As road trips go, I’d say I hit the mother lode.

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The Queen’s English

Queen Anne the Politics of PassionI am an avid reader, and feel driven to finish just about any book I start. I will slog my way through a tome, because I.Am.Not.A.Quitter. I will grant myself permission to give up on a book I’m not enjoying… but rarely take myself up on the offer. It’s a sickness, really.

Case in point: I recently completed Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion, by Anne Somerset — a heroic feat that took approximately three months. While I appreciate a thorough biography of an important British monarch as much the next history major, at 640 pages this one sometimes felt like breaking rocks in the midday sun.

Queen Anne only lived to age 49, and was in ill health for most of her adult life. Truth be told, given the length of the book and the level of detail provided in it, I sometimes hoped that if her gout didn’t hurry up and kill her, a Jacobite would slip something into her food to move things along.

Kensington Palace is one of my favorite tourist stops in London. It has some great exhibitions about former residents Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. There’s also an enormous portrait of Queen Anne (who died at the Palace in 1714) on the ground floor that has always intrigued me. A plaque near the painting states that Anne gave birth to 17 (!) children – and survived none of them.
Sarah Duchess of Marlborough

An even more compelling aspect of Anne’s life was her relationship with Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. I must admit it was a big reason I bought the brick. Er, I mean the book. All I knew going in was that the two women enjoyed a passionate friendship that bordered on scandalous, followed by a falling out of legendary proportions.

Eighteenth century gossip can be juicy, but this tale of friendship gone south wasn’t illicit, at least according to Somerset. The Queen and Duchess wrote each other extravagant “love” letters (complete with pet names) that were the style of the day for BFFs, but over time Sarah’s access to Anne and the massive wealth it brought her and her husband, turned her into an evil monster. With a barbed tongue like hers, she’s lucky she didn’t wind up in the Tower.

How about a little gratitude with that attitude, Duchess?

A less gossipy topic in Queen Anne is the extension of the two-party system during her reign. This is where things got painful. Whigs and Tories were constantly tussling. It is exhausting to read about — not to mention boring, like a scoreless baseball game in the 12th inning. Everyone is tired, and has work tomorrow. Can’t one side drive in a run, already?

There was plenty of partisan intransigence accompanied by backroom deal making for personal gain, and a blatant disregard for public wellbeing or sentiment… unless an election was on the horizon. It’s a relief that politics doesn’t work like THAT anymore, am I right?

I struggled to keep score, Tories vs. Whigs, and rolled my eyes because history really DOES repeat itself. I wonder if, in 300 years, historians will write about bare knuckle brawling between Republicans and Democrats bringing the U.S. government to a near standstill. If our political partisanship feels petty and tedious in 2016, is there any hope it won’t put future generations into a coma? Will they struggle to understand sequestrations, or decide it’s not worth the bother? Will they confuse Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the way I did Godolphin and Harley?

Edward VII in 1868I respect Queen Anne as a scholarly work and a useful tool to historians studying 18th century Britain. But if you are looking for a biography of a British Monarch that is lighter lifting, check out Jane Ridley’s The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince. It’s got it all — family drama (including mommy issues), gluttony and lust. Despite its whopping 768 pages, I finished it in just a few weeks.

I’m taking a break from biographies for a while, and have started reading My Year of Yes, by Shonda Rhimes.

Will I finish it?

All signs point to… YES.