Saturday, December 31, 2005

Lights Around Town

About a week prior to Christmas, we visited -finally- for the first time, Albuquerque's River of Lights, an annual extravaganza put on at the BioPark. Years past we either put off visiting until it was too late, or opted out of visiting due to finger-numbing cold (like last year). At long last we made the drive down Rio Grande Boulevard to the Botanical Garden, which sits on the banks of the Rio Grande (the river, not the street). There all the trellises and buildings were festooned with incandescent luminosity. Decorative sunflowers, bumble-bees, humingbirds, a jumping cat and so much more - all created and ablaze, illuminating the dark, dry night. It was an amazingly beautiful display of electrical ingenuity.

We spent our last Christmas in New Mexico as we have so many others before during our nineteen years here- dinner in Old Town and then strolling around to see the glowy luminarias. Reflecting on the humble decorations, I think I love them because they're not showy or flashy but are, rather, simple and charming and give off a soft, comforting glow.

Cara missed out due to a nasty flu-bug, for which she was at home drinking hot toddies in a desperate quest to rid herself of the chest-tightening congestion and cough. The hot toddies were my mother's orders for a quick recovery; she is a firm believer in their medicinal properties. Cold and flu? Hot toddy will fix you right up. Got a headache? Hot toddy! Arm has been severed? Hot toddy! Cara became a statistic in the national headlines, "Flu Epidemic in the Southwest," which was really her loss because not only was the meal delicious, the luminaria stroll was the warmest we can ever recall. Unseasonably warm temperatures allowed us to meander much further than we have in recent years, all through the Country Club neighborhood as well as Old Town. (Last year we made cursory run through two streets of Old Town before we all agreed to head home, so frigid was the temperature.)

As we wandered we saw a bright glow from the general direction of Old Town. As we approached it turned into a blaze - and then we happened upon this example of Christmas lights gone mad. It looked like the Abominable Snowman ate Christmas and then vomited it up on this house. "You can go look inside!" a girl beckoned. "It's all decorated inside, too." We were too afraid of what Las Vegas-style yuletide abominations we might find so we fled, heading quickly back to the soft, simple glow of the luminarias.

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Mr. Jingaling

Because of the Christmas season, I've been receiving many hits on my blog from search engine quests for information on Mr. Jingaling. If you've hit my site looking this Cleveland icon, scroll down to the entry A Christmas Classic, where I pay homage to him and my memories of Christmases past. I hope you enjoy the stroll down memory lane. And if you have your own reminiscences of Mr. Jingaling (the Keeper of the Keys), of Higbee's, or other downtown Christmas traditions, feel free to share them in the comments section on that post.

Thanks for visiting 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. I wish you a very happy New Year!

2005 Valerie Schneider

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Going Postal

I've made several trips to the post office recently, mostly because the majority of our family lives elsewhere, forcing us to mail our goodwill and thoughtful gift packages far and wide. Five or six separate packages (I am losing count) are flinging their way to doorsteps across the midwest (and two to Italy).

Fortunately for me, the counter staff at the local post office is a friendly lot. Most of them have worked there since I moved to Corrales and know me by face if not by name. They chitchat about the weather, movies, or the busyness of the postal business this time of year. Chuck cracks silly jokes and makes me laugh. I don't mind the trip to the post, but I'm spoiled because in little Corrales there are rarely more than three people in line at a time.

Whether the packages fare so well is another matter. Last year it was truly with great faith that I used the postal system. After one package went astray never to be heard from again, I took my boxes to my accomodating sister who shipped them all DHL from her office. Alas, she no longer works there and is of no use to me this year. Last Christmas season, the postal system had glitches that resulted in packages being left in storage containers somewhere, and many of them not arriving to their destinations in a timely manner (a month to get across the country? Pony Express was faster!). This year, they recommended sending everything Priority Mail "just to be sure". Yeah, just to be sure they skinned me for a lot of money!

Friendly people aside, I've had issues with the US postal service. For one, we had an incident where our mail was stolen. For three days. During the time my passport was being renewed and expected any day. I frantically called the State Department to determine if my pasport had been sent out. Fortunately they had not yet gotten around to my renewal. It arrived two weeks later by regular post without any kind of tracking or signature required. For a passport! It turns out the contract employee they'd just hired had been stealing all the mail from three or four subdivisions for her husband to rifle through and steal identities. Brilliant thieves that they were, much of the mail (or at least the remains of it) was found in their home.

Further back in time, a few years after we moved to New Mexico, my grandmother wrote me a letter that was delivered more than a month after she sent it. It arrived battered and well-traveled in a plastic "we're sorry it's been ripped apart" envelope bearing markings from Mexico. Somehow it was routed to Old Mexico before arriving in Albuquerque, New Mexico. My mom was indignant and complained about the "incompetent poops who don't know geography from..." well, you know.

So, a few years after that when she was sending a Christmas box of goodies that hadn't arrived after a few weeks, she was livid and stormed down to her post office in a rage, with a map in hand, telling them just how maladroit they were and then proceeded to give them a geography lesson on the difference between "NEW Mexico...which IS a state in the Union" and regular Mexico, "which is a country". They assured her they would do all they could to find the package. Days passed without any word on the whereabouts of the absent parcel. Not long after, my stepfather arrived home and asked my mom, "Uh, hon, what's that box in the trunk of the car? It's been there for weeks!" Yep, that's right. The box was never even mailed. I asked if she'd gone to the post office and apologized. "Are you kidding?" she replied. "I drove to Sandusky and mailed it from there!"

This year, without the DHL connection, I prayed fervantly that my packages would arrive safely and then deposited them into the hands of the Postal Service. They may just arrive at their destinations on time. If not, at least I had a congenial time at the post office mailing them off.

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

Friday, December 09, 2005

A Christmas Classic

It's that time of year again. The feeling of Christmas is in the's the time of year when I want the comforting smell of pine wafting through the house; cookies baking in the oven; Christmas music - traditional and not-so-traditional as only my family can initiate into annual custom (what, every family doesn't play Wooly Bully as part of their yuletide chorus?); and, of course, A Christmas Story on TV.

Yes, that's right, that cult classic of a Christmas movie is my favorite. For those who may live in caves or who for some reason haven't yet seen this film, it's an off-beat tale of a midwestern family in the '40s told through the eyes of nine-year-old Ralphie, whose only wish is to receive a Red Ryder BB gun, and who is repeatedly told that with such a gift "you'll shoot your eye out". Witty and endearing, it portrays many aspects of childhood in the midwest that we, too, experienced.

On a more personal level, though, it shows some of my own childhood Christmas events, as the film, while purportedly taking place in Hammond, IN, was filmed in Cleveland. I grew up just an hour from there and no Christmas was complete without a trip downtown to see the glorious displays in the gigantic windows of Higbee's, Halle's and May Company. We bundled up, walked around and gazed upon the splendor of a bedecked city center as only children can- with stars filling our eyes as we took in the lights, the larger-than-life themed showiness on display, and then topped it off with a visit to Mr. Jingaling. Mr. Jingaling was, to me, better than Santa himself. He had gigantic keys which - you guessed it - jingled, he smiled, he was sweet and enthusiastic and knew how to connect with kids and make them feel at ease. He was like a favorite uncle you saw once a year, who couldn't wait to give you a hug, and loved to see your little, front-teeth-vacant smile. He was wonderful. And he was a Cleveland icon. (Appropriately, when he died a couple years ago, it was the day after Christmas.)

After, we indulged in a treat. Walking around the corner from Higbee's the heavenly aroma filled the air, wafting on a breeze across the street and beckoning our nostrils to follow it obediently, which we always did. Freshly roasted nuts...salty and warm and oh-so-delicious. I sometimes dream of that smell and mourn that I've not encountered it anywhere in the past 25 years.

If we were really lucky -or my mom had extra cash (a true Christmas miracle if ever I saw one!) we were treated to the ultimate indulgence - lunch at the Silver Grille at the top of Higbee's. This usually occurred if my grandma joined us and was paying for lunch; it was her favorite indulgence as well. This was a special place. It felt sophisticated, grown-up, but friendly and welcoming. You reached the restaurant by way of an elevator with a real, live operator inside who called out, "Tenth Floor, Silver Grille". It was an art deco room with glittery silver and cool greens and a square fountain in the center. Their treat to children: our meals were served on little plates tucked away inside metal stoves. It made dining out something fun and special. It was here that I first tasted such culinary delights as beef stroganoff and chicken a la king.

I don't remember actually doing any shopping on these excursions. It was all about the atmosphere, the twinkling lights, the parade, the tremendous tree in the lobby of the Terminal Tower. It was about community and interaction and tradition. How I miss those days. A chill in the air only contributed the sense of "something special", the spirit of the holidays. Is it any wonder I so dislike the modern shopping "experience" with it's sterile, climate-controlled, dull- flourescent, generic, homogenized, bland malls. It's no experience at all.

At least I can relive these memories annually through Ralphie's eyes and look at the scenes and think, "No, it wasn't a dream or a fairyland, it was real. It was just like that, and I was there." It was a wonderful time to be a kid, I think.

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

About Mr. Jingaling

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Roba da matti!

A few weeks back I learned a useful phrase in Italian class. Roba da matti, which translates as "crazy stuff", or "what nonsense" was introduced into my vocabulary. It's one of those sayings that can be used in varied situations: in a coffee bar when the patrons are gesticulating and discussing politics trying to draw me into the conversation, I can throw up my hands and say, "roba da matti!". The weather, misbehaving unseasonally, can be described as "roba da matti". Prices in the stores, injustices, and more. I've tucked it away for use when we arrive in Italy.

So yesterday, when I turned on the morning news and saw the coverage of the insanity that is the day after Thanksgiving sales with the accompanying hoardes of fools plowing over one another in their quest for cheap goods, my initial utterance was, "What a bunch of losers," but then I recalled my lessons, threw up my hands and exclaimed, "roba da matti!"

This is one of those phenomena that I will never grasp. What is this all about? Why, why, why, I ask myself every year. There is something seriously demented about these people who will rise at 4:00 a.m. to beat down the doors of a retail store, trample their fellow citizens, punch and claw their way to an item for their children and call it a bargain. Excuse me, but no matter how low the price, the cost is too high. This is teaching kids proper behavior? How to share? How to brook disappointment? Not on your life. And why, I always wonder, must the media cover this with such obvious glee, giving glory to these wack-jobs?

More disturbing, this is done to "celebrate" Christmas. Is such mayhem really a good way to commemorate the birth of the Prince of Peace?

Don't get me wrong. We celebrate Christmas and we give gifts as signs of affection and goodwill. But instead of scratching and biting my way into a store, I make purchases throughout the summer and fall when I see an item a loved one would like, or we make hand-crafted gifts, giving a more personal touch. We're certainly not going to clobber other shoppers in pursuit of an inanimate object and call it a "merry Christmas". And, as Christians, we remember that it is a holiday and try to keep the reason for the day in perspective. (Another issue is that Christmas is now too-often thought of as the most significant Christian holiday, but that would, in reality, be Easter.)

Giving gifts goes back to the magi presenting their gifts to Jesus, but how it's evolved into a full-fledged orgy of gluttony is beyond my comprehension. The overly-commercial emphasis and the greed that drives it must surely have Jesus shaking his head, throwing up his hands and saying, "roba da matti!"

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Of Trash and Treasures

It's becoming obvious that we have lived in one place for quite some time. As we begin to take an objective look at our household possessions we realize that we have, set before us, the daunting task of packing for our upcoming move. More daunting, though, is the prospect of how to go about said packing. We must first prioritize what possessions will be kept, and are, hence, worthy of paying storage fees to keep; what we will pack to take with us to Italy; and what we need to unload. At this point the ballast seems heavy. We need to clear out some things.

I've never really considered myself a "consumer"; I am not one of those women who have a deep and abiding love for the action of shopping. Rather, I find it rather tedious, mostly because when I'm looking for a specific item I can't ever find it. And if I went just to browse I'd find all kinds of tempting things that I really didn't need and would later regret purchasing. So I gave up shopping as a leisure pursuit and confined myself to going to the mall only when absolutely necessary (and because I dislike the lighting, fake atmosphere, and redundancy of malls, it really must be absolutely necessary). I also try to buy whatever I need locally, supporting my neighbors when possible. Wal-Mart is never a stop on my list, I utterly refuse to give them one thin dime. But that's an entire blog topic in and of itself.

Because of this shopping reticence, it was surprising to realize just how much "stuff" we'd accumulated in our home. And it's not a cluttered house by any means. I don't have knick-knacks or objects d'arte on display (do I look like I can afford that?). No, we're rather minimalist in comparison to most people we know. And yet we've got all this stuff to go through.

Some of it came from my grandparents' house when they moved to assisted living. While I've never put out the silver-topped condiment bottles of etched glass, it was Grandma's and someday I'd like to have it replated. (I hope I will.) The antique furniture pieces are a given...they'll be stored. But what of the leather sofas? Is it better to sell them and then buy something else when we get back? Or pay to store them rather than buy new later? A conundrum. My kitchen items are staying. I'll never find another Oster Kitchen Center, that most useful of products which Oster no longer manufactures, for reasons beyond my comprehension. I use this treasure daily. It slices! It grates! It blenders! It mixes!

How I got some truly hideous sweaters that have been shoved to the back of an armoire, I don't remember. Those need to be given away. But will anyone want them? This is the other dilemma. I know the saying is that "one man's trash is another man's treasure" but I feel bad about pawning off my trash on someone else. But on the other hand, it seems wasteful to just throw it away. I must admit, though, that the ugliness of some of these things makes me think they should be burned rather than inflicted on a fellow human being.

My stuffed animal collection, hoarded and treasured from childhood is difficult to part with emotionally, despite the fact that they have languished in a box in the garage for several years, like some unanimated zoo waiting to be loosed again. Some are well-loved (ie, worn) and will be of no value to anyone but me. But are they valuable in a crate? And what of Bryan's camping gear, unused for several years now that his camping buddies have all moved away.

While four months seems like plenty of time, it's deceiving as we've procastinated far too long already and really must begin the unloading process. I think the first step will be in determining what we absolutely don't need. And then what we definitely will take (this is will be easier, as it will be mostly clothes and books). It's the in-between we're having problems with. Meanwhile, we console ourselves by not buying anything new that won't be given as gifts. Or maybe we can just make our trash someone else's treasure for Christmas. Anyone up for an ugly sweater?

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

Monday, November 14, 2005


For the past few months I have again been enrolled in the advanced Italian conversation class which previously so intimidated me. While I'm not necessarily improving at a rapid pace, I find myself understanding more of the conversations, participating a tad more, and enjoying the interaction. In short, I look forward to Wednesday mornings.

There are five of us students with the teacher and this term we are meeting at her home. This has been much more conducive than a sterile classroom to the free exchange of ideas, opinions, and thoughts. I have gotten to know much more about my fellow Italian-speakers and I'm awed by them. We have an amazing circle of women (and one man) who have led fascinating lives, overcome incredible hardships, loved deeply, given much, and who laugh often. They are, I think, steel magnolias - beautiful and delicate yet strong, with resolve, talented and complex, who continue to bloom.

Spending time with these ladies is pleasurable. Their stories touch me, inspire me. Each is unique with an interesting history, yet we've melded together over our common desire to learn Italian. Is it speaking in a foreign language that allows people to open up a bit more about themselves? Or just the feeling of safety we have as we are cocooned away in the living room sipping coffee for two hours as one topic flows into the next.

I often feel rather mute, not so much because of my still-lacking Italian skills, but because I don't have much to offer to their years of experience and intrigue. Any one of their lives could easily be made into a compelling, beautiful film. My own,often dull 39 years would make a short, not-so-interesting comedy in comparison. And that's okay. I am just thrilled to be part of this group, to hear their stories, to learn from them and laugh with them, and hope that I will be as graceful and giving and full of life as my years pass. Oh yes, and as fluent in Italian. I have much to learn.

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Dreams and Reality

The sign went up by the driveway on a cool Wednesday evening two weeks ago. By that Saturday, the paperwork had been signed and our house was under contract to be sold. We find ourselves suddenly, effectively homeless since we'd not anticipated such a quick sale. Two days? Not in our wildest dreams! We need to scramble to find an interim home for the next few months.

But the sale of the home isn't the real news. The real news is the reason behind the sale. We are, after a couple years of dreaming and plotting; years of reading every book about Italy that came down the pike; years of looking at photos and webcams and sighing...we are now seriously making plans for a move to Italy. We are planning to stay for at least a year. Hopefully longer.

We made this decision official by telling our parents and family members, as well as close friends. Most said, "hooray for you, be happy". Others questioned "why?", to which I promptly replied, "why not?". I realize it's a bit of a simplistic answer, but really...why not? Life is short! We want to live it and enjoy it while we're, (Makes sense, right?)

This answer doesn't seem to satisfy everyone, though. They want a more complex explanation. Some seem to think we just woke up one morning and said, "gee, let's move to Italy". It wasn't that spontaneous or easy. We have spent several years dreaming of this, and at first it was just that - a lovely dream. After a couple more trips of immersing ourselves into small Italian towns, we came home a bit restless, and noticed a growing dissatisfaction with the "rat race," consumeristic mentality of our culture, the lack of focus on what is important in life that seems to surround us. We started to long for the piazzas where people gathered; evening strolls where the entire town turns out to flood the streets in a nightly parade of interaction; leisurely meals prepared with fresh, seasonal ingredients. A sense of community. The beautiful rhythms of life being carried on from time immemorial, still a part of daily Italian culture. So many aspects of our own culture began to seem so gaudy, new, shallow, homogenized...fake.

Our vision may be a bit romanticized, and all of Italy is not like this, of course. Cities and industry are very present, and times are changing there, too. But we'd like to experience this historical and beautiful land while it still retains these cultural elements we so admire.

We love the stone houses. Buildings that are hundreds of years old being lived in and oozing charm. Heavy wooden shutters on the windows. Kitchens with fireplaces for roasting meats. Weekly markets that roll into town with fresh produce and other goods. People who know how to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Amazing art and architecture at nearly every turn. An emphasis on beauty- natural and artistic. Millenia of history to explore and study. A musical-sounding language to learn. Real cappuccino, not the overly-milky, $3.50 a cup insipid, burned-tasting stuff passed off as "cappuccino" here. These are among the reasons we want to move.

Besides all this, no man knows the number of his days. Why is the propensity to put off the "living" part of "making a living" until it's too late and we're too old to enjoy it? "Life energy [the hours of precious life available to us] is all we have. It is precious because it is limited and irretrievable and because our choices about how we use it express the meaning and purpose of our time here on earth," writes Joe Dominguez in Your Money or Your Life. "These hours are all you've got. There is nothing in your life that is more valuable than your time, the moments you have left. You cannot put too much awareness and intention into the way you invest those moments"

So we've decided to take some these precious moments of our lives and invest them in this dream. There have been many occurrences, conversations, readings, and emotions that have served to confirm, strengthen and clarify this dream and the actions we'll need to take to make it come true. The sale of the house was a big step (and a big confirmation since it sold so effortlessly and for asking price.) Now the hurdles begin: dealing with the Italian consulate to obtain a visa along with all the accompanying documents we'll need before we can apply; locating housing and enrolling in language school for the first few months; determining where we'd like to settle for the longer-term. These are more sketchy and scary aspects of this process and we realize that it will be frustrating and challenging. "The way of the Dreamer is difficult-but anything less is hardly living at all!," says Bruce Wilkinson in The Dream Giver.

A recurring question, showing an area of concern for some who may not be entirely comfortable with our move, is "But what will you do there? If you can't work, what will you do with your time?" First, I'd like to say that I don't think a person's work is entirely determined by what he or she does to make money. Unpaid activity is often seen as worthless, "worth less than paid activity". Why is that? What we do to earn money isn't the sum of our identities or abilities. Our work will include learning a foreign language, not a casual endeavor, to be sure. We'll study the art and architecture and history. Make friends and renew old friendships. Observe cultural differences and place ourselves into the local rhythm of life. Shop in the local produce and fish markets. Write. Eat. Study. Stroll. Learn. Love. Live.

That is the sum of our dream. We now walk down the road to making it a reality. We are pursuing it now because we don't want to look back with regret, to wonder "what if" or "if only..." No, that's not for us.

Is it all going to be beautiful and fulfilling? I honestly don't know. But I can't wait to find out.

"Well one thing I've noticed wherever I wander
Everyone's got a dream he can follow or squander
You can do what you will with the days you are given
I'm trying to spend mine on the business of living

Seize the day - seize whatever you can
'Cause life slips away just like hourglass sand
Seize the day - pray for grace from God's hand
Then nothing will stand in your way
Seize the day"
-Carolyn Arends

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Brief Beauty

Autumn is my favorite time of year. The cooler, yet still-warm days, the crisp marks the change of seasons as well as relief from a long, hot summer, and promises relief from sagebrush allergies. It also happens to be the most beautiful time of year here.

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta has been underway all week, bring untold hundreds of thousands of visitors to town, along with the colorful panorama of floating splendor. Every morning we hear the distinctive whoosh of the propane burners overhead, marking fall as surely as the cooler air in which they float. To us it is a typical, yet unusual and somehow comforting sound. It's one of those "only in New Mexico" things, that makes us reflect, now this is something you don't see and hear everywhere. Each morning we have looked out the window or stepped onto the back patio to watch the gentle giants as they march up the Rio Grande Valley, a colorful awakening. Today is the last day of Fiesta and rare rainful has snatched away their last mass ascension. Local balloonists will continue to fly over the next month or so, but the brief week of splashy hues completely filling the skies is now over.

But nature's autumnal array is just as showy. Driving into Santa Fe, yellow radiates out of the valleys and bowls in the upper reaches of the mountains as the blazing gold aspen shine forth their annual emblazonment. We drove into the mountains to see the dazzling display.

We walked along a trail surrounded by trees - pines and aspens - the mountain air cooler at the higher elevation. The leaves are intensely yellow this year, the entire mountainside brilliant golden, punctuated by small patches of red, all radiant against the huge, bright blue sky. The wind blew occasionally, sending the leaves into their classic quaking and fluttering. The resulting sound was one similar to gently flowing water. Beautiful.

The trail was glittery with flecks of mica, making it appear that the path had been strewn with gold dust glinting in the brilliant sunshine. We walked hand in hand, breathing in the pleasant, brisk dryness, greeting others we encountered and petting their dogs. Santa Fe is a dog town, and we were the only locals without one in tow. We could, thus, easily tell the out-of-towners.

The trees at the higher elevations are already beginning to shed their leaves. In another week, the beautiful display will be nearly complete, the straight stands of aspens will reach heavenward without their ornamentation.

The beauty of autumn is brief. But it is a stupendous beauty while it lasts.

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Vendemmia, New Mexico Style

It has long been our desire to participate in a grape harvest in Italy. I'm not really sure why, but we have had romantic visions of a vendemmia...out in the beautiful countryside, enjoying the sunshine and camaraderie, cheerfully chatting while harvesting the bounty and seeing the grapes getting crushed, destined to become wine. And, of course, the feast that always follows such activities spread out on long tables under large trees in the sun-dappled garden.

It was with these visions dancing in my head that I immediately volunteered our labor when a friend from Italian class mentioned they would be harvesting their grapes right here in Corrales. Bryan was, thankfully, thrilled to have the experience, too. I say thankfully because I'd committed his time and energy without asking him first. I knew I'd need him to pick up any slack when I started to lag and to carry my full buckets of heavy grapes for me. We reciprocate in this manner...I envisioning the dreams or projects, he carrying out the brunt of the work on them.

We arrived promptly at 9:00 a.m. to find a small vineyard with about 14 rows of grapes. Ah, this will be done in no time, I thought to myself. We wore the recommended "migrant worker attire", Bryan looking quite dashingly local in his straw gardening hat, which I call his "Corrales hat" because the farmers hereabouts wear them in their fields; me in long sleeves and old pants; my old shoes which quickly became mud-caked. The recent rains were not so great for the grapes, we were told. At least the ground wasn't spongy or slippery with mud, just soft. There were about six others assembled receiving lessons on how to use the grape-picker-thingy. In my innocence I thought we'd use clippers, but were handed orange-handled blades which resembled mini-scimitars with serrated edges inside. I quickly realized these were more productive than clippers ever could be. More people wandered in and out, some helping in the house, some picking awhile and then needing to depart. One wiley couple showed up only for the last few, easier rows of grapes and we envied them greatly. They had obviously done this before.
(Gail peeking through vines; Bryan in his Corrales hat)

We began to slice at the Riesling grapes first. I can assure you that, after spending two hours harvesting these very juicy grapes, should I ever plant a vineyard I will not, ever, plant Riesling. They are the wicked, ill-behaved stepchildren. They gnarl up and grow almost upwards, turning back onto themselves, vining and winding around almost for dear life, making the harvest very difficult. It was with true relief when we were able to dump the last of the Riesling grapes into the truck for transport to the winery, and move on to the rows of Vidal. These were well-mannered grapes, growing like they should in heavy clumps hanging obligingly downward just waiting to be easily sliced from the vine. Joyfully we made quick work of the four rows of Vidal and begged our hosts to plant more of these gracious grapes in the future. The entire harvest was carried out, as I had imagined, with camaraderie, commiserating over the difficulties and travails of the stubborn Riesling clumps, chit-chatting across and through the vines as we worked. The day was sunny and warm, not a cloud in the bright almost-turquoise sky. Hats bobbed up and down among the rows as we talked and sliced at the grapes.

When the final grapes were loaded for the last, short trip down the road to the winery, we grateful laborers lined up for the enchiladas, burritos, posole, guacamole and sangria that had been laid out, and we quickly laid waste to the beautiful buffet. Greedily we consumed the spread as if we hadn't had food in days. It was harder work than I'd imagined, and I was famished. We ate out under trees, but the New Mexico sun being as strong as it is, the sky being completely cloudless, we found ourselves quickly baking in the heat and inching our chairs backwards trying to retain shade as the sun moved. The hostess, not content to merely lay out enough delicious food to feed an army, had brought in a live musician to serenade us with guitar music while we munched and unwound. Now this girl knows how to reward her workers and throw a nice party.

It was, all in all, what my vision of a vendemmia should be, just without the medieval villages dotting the surrounding hillsides. In Corrales there are no hillsides. And enchiladas instead of pasta. This is, after all, the land of chile and posole. Muy bien!

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

On Writing

I've lately been basking in the glow of numerous complimentary comments regarding my writing abilities. I admit it is gratifying. Mostly because I really do love to write, and I'm grateful that people not only read what I pen, but sometimes take the time to comment on it, too.

Recently someone asked me "what was the first thing you ever wrote?" No doubt it was my name on a wall, probably upon freshly hung wallpaper. After that, my early memory fails me. I remember sitting and writing things, as other kids preferred to draw. My entire family loved to read, and I would try to concoct my own stories sometimes. My sister and I took our love for reading to strange level when we used to play library. We pasted pockets in the back of all our books, with a cardboard check-out card we'd "stamp", to check out the books. We each wanted to be a libararian until we found out you needed a master's degree in library science (what science?). I settled for working in the high school library, instead. And you can't say we weren't inventive, though slightly strange, children.

I do know that in grade school I wrote a little story, the words and even the title of which I forget, but the gist of the plot centered on the observations of a mouse aboard Columbus's ship coming to the New World. This much I know because my grandmother referred to it numerous times in years afterward, telling me how clever it was and that I should be a writer.

After that, in middle school, I wrote a short story for a school contest. Again, the title is lost to me, but it was selected as a runner-up in the contest and I, along with a couple other schoolmates, was taken to a conference at the University of Toledo, with nun in tow, to compete at the state level. I remember having to read a portion of my story aloud, and I became so nervous that I stammered and shook and thought I was going to throw up. I didn't, thankfully; nor did I win the contest. But these are evidences of an early gifting, so I like to think.

For reasons beyond my comprehension, my dear mother did not save these early literary efforts. Gold spray-painted, glued-together pieces of macaroni on construction paper she kept for years, though. Sighhhhhh. What could she have been thinking?

Maybe because of these losses, I saved nearly every essay and term paper I wrote in college. I wanted evidence of my abilities and hard work, each clever turn of a word. They piled up and after graduation, Bryan insisted that I should weed them out and throw them away. This from a third-generation pack rat! I balked. But I went through them, squirreling away the ones I was most proud of and discarding the rest. To be honest, I am sure I would never have referred to them again. But still.

Writing has always been an activity I've enjoyed and was thrilled to employ it during jobs. When I was asked to write a newsletter for the travel agency I worked at, I leaped at it (and for joy) and cranked it out in just under three hours. My boss was duly impressed. Then he proceeded to make changes. I was aghast. How dare he? My brilliant work! In the end, of course, we compromised and the newsletter had the small town, home-spun voice he was always trying to portray (despite his being a former corporate mogul from the New York area). But it was good for business and it was good for the newsletter to carry that through as part of the overall marketing plan. And it was good for me, to get used to working with editors and critics. Well, I may never get entirely used to it, but it prepared me for the inevitability of it, nonetheless.

Beginning the blog was a challenge. I was used to having to write on specific subjects. In college: Describe the political forces at work in the Cold War, using as many primary sources as possible. Write a well-researched thesis on a little-known battle taking place on American soil (I chose the Battle of Lake Erie, which was a naval battle but qualified nonetheless). At the agency, I wrote on specific travel destinations we were highlighting, or doled out packing tips. I had assignments, and I took to the task easily.

But more creative writing - personal essays especially - seemed intimidating. It has been a good exercise for me. I've had to not only open up more about myself, something I am usually hesitant to do (what if people think I'm, like, weird or something?), but I've had to search for topics without having them assigned to me. And I do confess that I sometimes feel competely uninspired. The past two weeks have been rather dry. I've considered and discarded a dozen potential topics. One seemed promising, but I couldn't really give it enough "meat" to be a satisifying length. But that, too, has helped me hone my skills and look more closely at things around me as future fodder.

When I lag in topics, I write other things. During this recent dry time, I've focused my energy on writing an article I promised for a travel website. Topic: New Mexico's Native Places. An assignment so to speak, though the initial idea was mine. But I had committed myself to write it. And I know the material. Very little research is involved and I can continue to write. I have jotted down several ideas to pitch to magazines and wrote a couple queries. That is, while I actually had writer's block, in practice I was still writing and that made me feel productive.

So I am a writer. It's my passion, even when I'm not garnering compliments, and even when I don't feel very passionate about a topic or when I lag in ideas. A few months ago one friend began reading the blog and emailed, "This is really good. You could be a writer." I wrote back, "I am a writer. I write, therefore I am."

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

Monday, September 12, 2005

Football Freaks

Autumn is upon us and so is football season, as I have daily proof. I am surrounded by football fanatics.

It started last week when Bryan pointed out to me that the UNM Lobos were playing a rare daytime game on Labor Day, and, he added, we should go. Most of our games are played in the evening, the reason for which I am unsure. While it is true that it can still be hot this time of year, when October games are played in the chilly dark night air, I’m not too inclined to want to shiver my way through a game. Besides, it feels too much like a high school game when it is played at night. Bryan got the tickets and we went to see the ESPN-televised game against UNLV. I was impressed by the display of team spirit. Despite the searing heat 33,000 fans dressed in silver and cherry were there rooting loudly and doing the “Lobo howl”. Gone are the days when we attended games with a few hundred other fans, obtaining free admission to the stadium with a canned food donation, which happened frequently when I began my studies at UNM in 1988.

The Lobos won by 2 points, but the game served as a reminder that my sister is not just a football fan, she is a rabid fan. Her screams and living room-pacing are legendary. At one point in the game she screamed so long and so hard trying to distract UNLV’s offense that I fear the poor old couple in front of us suffered permanent hearing loss. The scream started low then gained in magnitude and pitch until it reached a level that only dogs could hear.

Football is the one sport I don’t mind watching. Basketball…forget it, too much like watching tennis. Baseball…too long and drawn out, I get bored by the bottom of the fourth and wish I’d just stayed home. But for some reason, football can hold my interest, so long as it’s a team I like, otherwise why bother.

I was groomed to be a football fan early on, though. Growing up in northern Ohio, we were good little Browns and Buckeyes fans from an early age. My wayward brother somehow became a Notre Dame fan; we’re not sure how that happened. We learned all the words to the “other”, obscenity-laced Michigan fight song at age 8 or 9. (Yes, that version! Cara would have learned it at around age 5!). I knew all the NFL team names and my father would entertain his beer-hall buddies by having me recite them with promptings. Him: Detroit. Me: Lions. It’s always a nice thing to drag your daughters along to the bar to delight your cronies, a childhood memory that now makes me think I should have sought therapy.

I had a set of pom-poms and cheered for the Buckeyes. I could sing the Ohio State Fight Song (the real version). I learned about fumbles and penalties. But I didn’t have the same passion that my sister acquired. And she took her obsession to deeper levels. She recently admitted that she had a wild crush on Brian Sipe, then stated matter-of-factly, “but then every little girl who loved football was in love with Brian Sipe.” Uh, yeah, and just how many of you little football-lovin’ girls were there?! Her Ken doll was “Brian”. In football season if we were out playing with the neighbor kids, she would dart home before the opening kick. She quickly acquired rivalry hatreds, and we could scarcely mention Cincinnati or Pittsburgh without a diatribe about the shortcomings of those cities’ teams. Her dog is named Bernie. (As in Kosar.) When the Browns were unceremoniously snatched from Cleveland, she wore black to work in mourning. When Cleveland acquired a new team she beamed, “Light has come! Football has returned to Cleveland!” She really ought to get a job with a team and get paid for her fanaticism.

Bryan is no less enthusiastic, just quieter. He will ditch whatever plans or commitments he may have made if the Browns or the Buckeyes are on TV. He will, on occasion, try to help the team out by diving off the sofa to grab for a fumble or try to catch a pass, but he’s usually more sedate, offering frequent “go, go, gos” or moans of disdain. He spends hours of his time online reading about football or in front of the TV watching football. It scarcely matters what team is playing. His home office is a shrine to Ohio State, with posters, photos, a piece of the stadium, and a votive candle in front of a statuette of Woody Hayes. When games are not going so well, he brings the statuette into the living room and places it in front of the TV, hoping to turn the tide.

Football freaks, they are. For the next few months I will be remembering the words to the Buckeye Battle Cry, making snacks, and watching games. In my house one has little choice; one must give in and join ranks. And get a pair of earplugs - my sister’s screams are deafening. As some poor old couple in Albuquerque can testify.

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

Tuesday, September 06, 2005


We've been shedding quite a few tears this week. Our beloved 16 year old tabby cat, Winston, went missing last Tuesday. We've been unable to locate him despite a frantic search.

I let him out in the front, gated courtyard like always. It has a wall and he loved sitting out there gazing out the gate into the sagebrush, watching the rabbits hop about, or just lounging and enjoying the outdoors scents. He'd stick his nose up in the air and sniff as he bobbed his head slightly. Often, I'd take my coffee out and sit, too, enjoying the morning air and quiet.

Tuesday morning I let him out there and left the front door open, but came back inside to make a phone call. While I was on hold (trying to find out why the new computer I ordered was delayed), I heard a shuffling around in the landscaping rocks, so, phone to my ear and still in my jammies, I poked my head out the door to see what he was doing that was creating a raucous. I just heard the shuffling and then saw fur going over the wall. My view was limited as I was gazing through a pinon tree outside the door; I just saw something jumping over the wall.

Now, Winston has never tried to jump the wall before. Admittedly, the back courtyard has a higher wall than the front, but he's been out front frequently and never once attempted to scale the thing. And, his normal routine - if he did go after something, like a lizard- would be to give a brave attempt to catch it, then give up quickly and go back to lying down and sniffing the air. So it was a shock that he'd wrestle with something and follow it over the wall.

I screamed for Bryan, threw down the phone and ran to get some shoes and clothes on. I wish now I'd just run out there barefoot, but if you've ever stepped on tumbleweed prickers you'll understand my hesitation. Besides, I figured he was just sitting out there. It took only about 20 seconds for Bryan to get his shoes on and go outside, but there was no sight of him. I joined the search and turned frantic quickly when we didn't see him among the brush. I called my sister to come help. The three of us methodically tromped all over the sage in and around our lot for two hours, but he seemed to have simply vanished. We couldn't find or hear him anywhere. We couldn't figure out what happened or where he could have gone. I couldn't be sure if Winston went after something, or something was after him. We'll probably never know. The only thing I learned during the search stomping all over the sagebrush was that I am, indisputably, allergic to sagebrush. Nice. I'm surrounded by the stuff.

Cara made up fliers for us to post around the neighborhood. We left the gates and doors open all day, hoping he'd return. I would go out and listen, figuring if he got himself lost he'd start crying or meowing. He was certainly vocal enough at home. Nothing. We started to fear, and in the morning when he'd not returned I started the crying that would come every day after that whenever I thought of the poor old guy "out there somewhere".

We'd had a call from one lady on the next street over and a little ways west of us, saying she had seen a cat on her wall that may have been Winston. We ran over and started a sneezy search of the sagebrush in that sector of the neighborhood. Her neighbor across the street was out, so I went to ask if she'd seen a cat. "Just my own," she told me. So I told her about Winston and she said, "well, that describes my cat". So, after seeing there was a resemblance, though Winston has more white, we think the caller may have seen her neighbor's cat instead of ours. We were crestfallen.

The hardest part has been the reaction of friends and neighbors. Why must every person I talk to point out that "there are coyotes out there". Yeah, we know. Hello, we've lived here 18 years. We know that; thanks for your comforting words. One lady said, "oh well, just get another cat," as if this one had no meaning or emotional attachment for us after 16 years of companionship. Not helpful. He's been our baby, a part of our family; he's not 'just a cat' or easily replaced. Why is concern over or even mourning for a pet considered unseemly or overly emotional? I've been missing my faithful feline friend and crying for him, and I don't think that's a bad thing. One neighbor said they had lost three cats. Like it was no big deal! I can't understand the detachment and apparent lack of caring.

Bryan rode his bike every morning all over the area looking for him, and saw two coyotes in the vicinity. We know that he's old, he's declawed, and he's hard of hearing...not good odds. But still, every day I open the door frequently, still wanting to see him turn up and meow at me, vocalizing his desire for his canned food. It's been a week now. I don't have much hope. But I do wish he'd turn up. He was a good kitty and a purrful, faithful friend. I miss him.

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

In a Whirlwind

We just spent a week in Ohio in such a flurry of activity that we felt like we'd been put into the midst of a whirlwind. So much for "vacation time" amounting to a vacation! We did have an enjoyable, if exhausting, time, though.

The reason for the visit was my grandmother's 95th birthday. Thrilled to no end that her four kids and most of her grandkids were in town, she basked in the glow of the limelight and, while she cringed every time someone mentioned the word "ninety-five", she clearly had a great time. She had recently attended a school reunion where she was the oldest graduate and received much fussing-over, and which garnered her a mention in the local newspaper.

On the other side of the family, my cousins, who I've not seen in years, happened to be in town at the same time, and this thrilled my soon-to-be 93-year old grandpa to no end. All six of his grandkids in town at the same time. We were able to reconnect and meet spouses and kids and catch up a bit. Grandpa sat beaming, taking it all in and just enjoying our presence.

It was gratifying to us that our mere presence could bring such joy to two people who are so important in our lives.

But the whirlwind didn't end there. We drove to Cleveland to spend a day with Bryan's brother and his family, a great time that started with lunch, and went on through dinner. (It's always "all about the food"!). Met up with my dearest high school friend. Took Grandpa to lunch. Visited Grams a couple more times. Made a quick run to Kelley's Island, placed in Lake Erie, which Bryan had never visited despite growing up in northern Ohio. Ate fresh lake perch. Got my Cameo pizza fix. Ate fresh Ohio sweet corn (rapturous!). And took my parents to a special restaurant in Cleveland's Little Italy section to tell them of our plans for an impending move to Italy.

My suitcase is more like a grocery bag these days. (Did I mention that it's "all about the food"?) I brought home bags of pasta, 2 pounds of cheeses, a bottle of Vin Santo, and Italian espresso, not to mention a dozen ears of sweet corn, all tucked not-so-neatly into my luggage. I was, thus, not surprised when I discovered a TSA inspection slip in my suitcase. Luckily, none of my goodies had been obsconded.

We returned home Friday night, and I had a Monday deadline on an article. Talk about a frantic weekend!

And we returned home tired. And a few pounds heavier.

In Cleveland's Murray Hill (Little Italy) with sister-in-law Brenda and niece, Leann.

Bryan's brother Wayne is visible in shadow taking the photo!

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Computer Shopping

For those of you following the trials and trevails of my recent computer intoxication, you should know that this past week my poor, drunken machine went berserk on me and then went kaput. I'm sure there are technological terms for its demise, but I don't speak the lingo, as I've been well-reminded during my recent computer shopping forays.

Armed with ads and my geek-girl sister in tow, I trekked around town in search of an adequate new PC that wouldn't break the bank. It was bad enough that I had driven my perfectly good, functioning machine to an alcoholic demise; I didn't want to spend a fortune replacing the thing.

We were approached by slouchy salesman who appeared to be about twelve years old, all mumbling in low tones and speaking a lanugage I could not understand (even if I could hear the words above the mumbling, which I couldn't). Geek sister understood perfectly and nodded, replied in like terms, and then would look at me for confirmation or response. I stared, confusion evident on my face, and muttered that "I, uh, just need a functioning, basic computer". They exchanged mirthful eye glances at my obvious stupidity, but plodded onward in their recommendations and tech-speak about which machine would be great. They all looked pretty much the same to me, so how was I supposed to choose? I did see a nice little lightweight laptop number I immediately took a shine to, but when I saw the $2000 sticker, I reeled backward and felt a bit light-headed.

My dear husband and I discussed our needs and wants, and quickly came to the conclusion that we just needed a basic computer. I use it for writing and email and internet, mostly. Luddites we may be, but I do need a PC to keep me productive, one with typical functionality. I communicated this to the salesman who gave me a blank stare. He blinked. "Uhhh, yeah. So, like, you don't want the MotherHonker deluxe screen, which is, y'know, good for gaming?" No. "Righty. But you'll need to upgrade to SuperPro version 87, which is the better operating system." If it's better, why doesn't the computer manufacturer preload it on the stupid thing to begin with? Blank stare. "Well, this one has 859,535 gazillion megabytes." Huh? An obvious language barrier, which made me wish I was back in my advanced Italian class where I could comprehend more than this.

Many of these new computers come with high definition gigundo-sized screens, apparently for video game players. Yeah, I need me one of those. I haven't played video games since the Atari days, and felt like it was a waste of precious time even then. It's nice to know that so many of our citizens have nothing more productive to do with their time than spend hours in mind-numbing play. Have they heard of books?

I may be a techno-idiot but being made to feel like an idiot by a twelve year old who looks upon me as a decrepid, even somewhat senile, old woman at the ripe age of 38, well, that's just humiliating. I think I'm going to have to turn to online shopping to avoid this unpleasant experience, but that is, of course, more difficult when my computer is kaput. I have geek sister researching systems for me. Wish me luck. I need to find something before it becomes completely obsolete. Or I do.

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

Saturday, August 06, 2005

You saw it here first!

I appreciate that so many people have found my blog and return regularly to read it. And since you're here and (hopefully) enjoy reading my musings and writings, then you may be interested in reading a few other articles penned by yours truly.

Firstly, be sure to rush out soon to obtain your copy of the September issue of Budget Travel magazine which contains my article Confessions of a Travel Agent (page 50). I received an advance copy from my editor (how cool does that sound?), so it should be on newstands soon.

Secondly, I recently, finally, finished writing a trip report about our visit to the two hilltowns in remote Italy where my great-grandparents were from. You can read all about it at the Slow Travel website.

Enjoy! And thanks for stopping by.

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Computer Intoxication

I've been incommunicado for the past several days and it is unsettling. I dislike being without email and my glimpses at the Sorrento Webcam. What am I to do with myself when I can't type out my next great article idea, or, heaven forbid, not read my favorite message board?

The current state of computer inaccessibility is due to the fact that my laptop was drinking and driving. While enroute to a friend's house for a blogette pow-wow, laptop on the seat next to me, I was also transporting for said friend a bottle of Limoncello. The bottle somehow became uncorked and the computer imbibed deeply of the bottle's contents. Unaccustomed to such boozy benders, it became greatly and quickly intoxicated and, like a common drunk, staggered and sputtered and then crashed to the depths of inebriation.

I began to feel something close to panic because my usual (free) source of tech support, my sister, is, quite inconveniently, on vacation in Montreal. We quickly sought computer advice from my friend's accommodating, if extremely weary, son in Australia. He cursed to the effect that this was a bad thing (probably also cursing because of the time difference and she likely woke him out of a deep sleep), told us to let the computer dry out and remove the battery. Oh, and don't try to start it while it's still wet. Oops, already did that.

At home, the bibber was opened up and allowed to sleep off the soaking. But, alas, the sticky nature of Limoncello ensured a good sugary coating and the computer still has lasting effects from its tipple.

Clearly, it was time for intervention. We consulted several professionals, none of whom wanted to take on the detox procedure because the computer is a Dell. We've called Dell, but they are unsure of what to do and told us to take the little lush to "any local repair shop". A catch-22. Obviously, it needs to be admitted to rehab. We continue the process of trying to find a willing and suitable inpatient treatment facility.

We don't know if there will be long-term consequences. The brain damage may be too extensive. Clearly, it doesn't compute to drink and c-drive.

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

Postscript: The kindly guys at Adobe Computer Repair took on the detox project and got the baby cleaned up. They said there was some damage to the components, but it was working for the moment. At least it buys me some time to copy out my files and shop for a new computer.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Striped Mesas and Turquoise Skies

We were recently lamenting the fact that we don't have any vacation plans this year, but Bryan has vacation time to use up. This is mostly due to the fact that our vacation fund is sorely lacking in, well...funds. Big wishes and little bank accounts do not reconcile very well. We decided that we should "play tourist" in our own backyard and see some of the attractions we've not visited or places we've not seen in many years. Bryan took last week off and we in turn took off for points out yonder each day.

It has been many years since we've ventured further west than Acoma, so we packed a picnic and embarked on the drive to Zuni Pueblo. From Acoma onward the vistas stretch out into infinite skies. Passing El Malpais is always interesting, the miles of rough, black lava rock a forbidding and yet beautiful landscape. The conquistadores traversed this vast stretch of dangerous territory in search of the Cibola, the fabled seven cities of gold. It is jagged and sharp, with lava tubes, caves, and sink holes, making it very treacherous terrain. To the north Mount Taylor looms large over the landscape. Mount Taylor's 11,300 foot peak is considered sacred by the Navajo who call it Turquoise Mountain.

Turning south put us into mesa country, with the rock formations rising up along the horizon. The road unrolled itself through the mesas as we approach El Morro National Monument. The sky was completely turquoise and punctuated with bright white, puffy clouds. There is an almost-spiritual feeling in the landscape here. Ancient. Creation. Beautiful.

El Morro National Monument is identifiable from the distance, a huge sandstone rock juts up above the desert floor, beckoning. It beckoned travelers of old with its refreshing natural pool in the shadow of the bluff, and they left their marks on the sandstone, carving their names into the rock. Most begin "Paso por aqui..." I passed this way. Some are elaborate with swirling script. They are a chronicle of the various groups who entered the New Mexico territory...the conquistador and colonizer Don Juan de Onate with the oldest inscription from 1605, Army regiments, passing settlers, they all incised their names on the walls, alongside timeless Anasazi petroglyphs.

Further along the road the striped mesas appear, the striations in the rock colorful against the deep turquoise sky. Graceful rock spires, separate from the larger formations, jut heavenward almost like church steeples and, with the stripes in the rocks reminiscent of several Italian cathedrals we have seen, the impression of a spiritual quality of this landscape deepened. All was silence until a passing truck rumbled by.

The visitors centers for both El Morro and El Malpais were very uncrowded. It is off the beaten path and yet there are miles of trails, a section of the famed Continental Divide Trail passing by here. But it was very hot, in the mid 90s and with nearly full sun exposure, it is still a forbidding landscape, which makes it an unspoiled landscape as well. No developments, no roadside kitsch, nothing to mar the expansive vistas.

We motored into Zuni Pueblo, one of the oldest, the largest, and most traditional of New Mexico's nineteen pueblos, yet unlike many of their tribal neighbors, they are an open pueblo and allow visitors to wander freely. After stopping at the tribal offices to purchase a photo permit, we explored Halona Idiwan'a, the Middle Village, one of the historic residential communities where the Old Zuni Mission and the ceremonial plaza are located. The traditions passed down from time immemorial are still carried on in Zuni. We walked the dusty paths that wind among the stone dwellings; we passed rows of hornos where the oven bread is baked. The Old Mission Church is in serious need of repair, the money the State has allocated will not cover the necessary renovations, we were told.

As we strolled the village, windows would be thrown open with people beckoning, asking if we wanted to buy a kachina or a painting. Zuni is still very much a community of artisans with cottage industry making up the bulk of the residents' livelihoods. The Zuni visitor's guide states that 80% of the pueblo population is involved in artistic endeavors, and they are reknowned for their intricate jewelry designs and their hand-carved fetishes.

We visited a pueblo-owned cooperative which sells jewelry-making supplies to the artists as well as consigns finished products for purchase by visitors. During our stop we witnessed the exchange of several artists with the manager, asking for their wares to be consigned. Some met with success, others received a firm but kindly, "Ummm, I'm going to pass on that one today." The old ways still prevail. I purchased a gorgeous and unusual pair of earrings, as did my sister, hers displaying the famous Zuni inlay of stones. Both items were accompanied by cards of authenticity and the name of the artist. They are, rightfully, very proud of their high quality craftsmanship.

We retraced our route homeward, thoughts lost in the starkness of the picturesque landscape here. These striped mesas and turquoise skies are magnificent, timeless, inspiring. No wonder the Zuni are famed for their works of art; they have daily inspiration.

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

Monday, July 11, 2005

The Chill of Summer

An inventiory of my closet recently reminded me of several summery dresses and skirts I possess but haven't worn in quite some time. I couldn't remember why they were languishing in my closet, and the temperatures being in the high 90s, I decided now was the time to extract them and put them to good use. I started with a little sleeveless denim, above-the-knee number. Cute, I thought. Why haven't I gotten this out sooner? Summer's been in season a while now. This is perfect.

Out I went into the arid fiery day. I met my sister for lunch, looking summery and cool. The sun beat down but I felt well-dressed for it. Entering the restaurant I was suddenly reminded of the reason the airy little dresses were hidden away. Like an arctic blast, the air conditioning pounded down on me, rendering me with goosebumps. It was 97 degrees outside, yet I stiffened and chilled like celery in ice water. Oh yes. The ol' freeze-ya-to-death-in-the-middle-of-summer routine we are forced to face every year.

Now, don't get me wrong...I'm grateful for air conditioning. I don't know that I could live in this high desert environment without it. Our swamp cooler is running constantly throughout the day during this season while we await the cooling monsoons. As I mentioned in a previous post, I am much more well-tolerant of heat than cold, and I'm usually good to about 93 degrees, then the heat overtakes me and I start to feel wilty and cranky. Air conditioning helps that condition. I just prefer logic be utilized and the air be conditioned, not iced.

A swamp cooler is a pretty basic contraption, actually. Water is pumped onto birch pads and a fan blows over it, forcing the cool air through the vents into the home. Almost ingenious, really, and normally pretty effective for a desert locale such as this. Swamp coolers, though, were a new mystery to us when we first moved to New Mexico. Coming from the humid, muggy midwest we couldn't fathom that moisture would be put into the air to cool a home. In our first, teensy efficiency apartment there was a switch to turn on the air and a thermostat, so ignorant little Ohioans that we were, we turned on the air to cool the stuffy flat and went to bed. Some time in the middle of the night we were shocked awake by the blaring, incessant and hellacious beeping of the smoke alarm. It turned out that swamp coolers don't turn off when the air reaches the desired temperature, they're a manual device. The air had gotten too cool, the thermostat registered and turned on the little wall-mounted heater, which in turn started to smolder an afghan which was thrown over the back of a chair next to said heater. We jumped up and threw the poor afghan -which was painstakingly handmade for me by an elderly aunt- into the shower to extinguish the smoke, pulled the batteries out of the smoke alarm and peeked outside to see if our poor, elderly neighbors were needing emergency attention due to the heart-stopping noise our alarm elicited. Our landlord came and gave us a crash-course in swamp cooler function the next day.

More educated now, we utilize our swamp cooler efficiently and regularly. So the fact of air conditioning is not an issue for me. It is the fact that too many business establishments set the air at glacial chill that bothers me. Why, when it is 97 degrees, must I tote around a sweater? Wear long pants? Forego the adorable little sleevless tops I possess, which are perfect for hot weather, I may add. Why? Why the extremes of temperature? It's a mystery. I may never figure it out. It seems not only illogical but ineffecient energy usage, too. I know I'm not the only one. I've seen other women yanking on jackets or sweaters to fend off the interior shivers. Then, when we depart, we are hit with the reverse blast-the sizzling outdoor air-and with one accord we quickly peel off the coverings, the hot air actually welcome relief.

It's silly. I call for common sense! I ask for a logical temperature to be utilized! I want to wear my sundresses and my sleeveless tops! I'll get the chance soon, when winter arrives and the same establishments have the heat cranked up.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Independence Day, Village Style

July 4th in's a hot experience. Temps always hit the mid-90s and people must scramble for shade as they line the main road waiting for the parade to start. We have watched the parade mushroom from an animals-and-kids-on-bike affair to a full-fledged parade. Animals do still play an important role, though.

Corrales was founded in 1706 and retains an air of its agricultural heritage, despite the burgeoning housing imposing itself onto the previously farmed fields. The village is trying hard to retain its rural roots and maintain small-scale farming. We have apple orchards and chile fields along the main road, and a few vineyards in the village, too. So it's no surprise that the main event of the July 4th parade is the tractor section. Lots and lots of tractors.

Horses are ever-popular, too. Because most residents have an acre or more of land, horses and other barnyard animals are ubiquitous. In our own neighborhood there are horses, llamas, and chickens, all of which were represented in our hour-long parade.

Painted Pony
Originally uploaded by via Margutta.

Decked-out Llamas
Originally uploaded by via Margutta.

Kids scrambled in the street to pick up the handfuls of candy being dispensed more freely than water, though water was dispensed by some floats and entrants through super-soaker squirt guns. The Boy Scouts, ever entrepreneurial, walked the street with rolling coolers of bottled water that they sold for $1.

There was the local VFW group, who received applause and standing ovations along the entire parade route. There was a float by a nearby tattoo parlor displaying their various forms of human artistry; an original "chair brigade", a group of women marching with folding lawn chairs performing synchronated moves and marches (yeah, you had to see it); a kazoo band; and lots of Harley riders. Not many politicians this year; I guess they don't turn out when it's not an election year.

And of course what would a parade be without the pooper scoopers?

The streets were packed with smiling faces and happy kids. It's a little slice of life, village style...the simple pleasures of Independence Day.

Too hot to cook, we joined with millions of other fellow Americans in lighting up the grill. Potato salad, grilled chicken, baked beans (in the Crock-pot, did I mention it was really hot?) and white sangria...a much more "all-American" meal than I normally prepare. If only I hadn't forgotten the watermelon.

Fireworks exploded the sky to the south of us with spectacular color. The view from our courtyard afforded us a full show. Independence Day, village style.

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

Thursday, June 23, 2005

A Daily Life

I've been feeling a little melancholy this week. I've been thinking a lot about my grandpa and feeling his absence. I wish I could call and say hello...hear him say that he's "fit as a fiddle". I am wishing I could have seen him one last time. Maybe this melancholy is because of Father's Day, when I would have called him, when I pause to be thankful for the men who provided stability and assurance in my life. Maybe it's just the permanence of his absence settling on me that is making me feel a little misty. Or maybe it's my choice of reading material.

After my grandpa died, we moved Grams into a smaller apartment. When we were cleaning the old apartment my mom came across a stack of books, piled in a closet. "OH MY!," she exclaimed. "Mom's journals!" The pile of books with Year Book proclaimed in gold lettering on each dated mostly from the late 60s and 70s. This was a revelation to me; I had not known that for most of her adult life my grandma kept these diaries. All those years, seeing them so frequently, spending countless nights at their house...yet I had never seen these numerous leather-bound books before.

It has been interesting reading.

She wrote very dispassionately. These diaries are not a compilation of her thoughts, dreams or heart-aches. She wrote, instead, of her day. Every day. For years. The activities of the family members; what chores or activities she performed each day; where she walked; who she wrote letters to or received letters from; who visited. The picture that emerged of my grandma's life is drawn in bold lines, a black and white sketch, the color and depth of emotions are not brushed into the portrait.

She did write of her worries -occasionally- usually involving one of her children. Dean seems to be working too hard, making himself sick; Roger is having problems at school; Judy is having tremendous headaches. These statements seemed to be written out of helplessness to do much, and my grandma didn't like being helpless.

Her own activities were recorded. She baked bread three times a week for 50 years. Never learning to drive, she walked everywhere she needed to go - and often bummed rides home. "Walked to the library, got a ride home from Flossie." Everything she needed was in reach. She could walk uptown and have breakfast, buy a shirt, shop for a washing machine, stop at the grocery store on the way home. The small town had all she needed. Her journals portray a way of life that -in just a few short decades - has largely slipped away. Now we drive everywhere, Main Street no longer has a department store or appliance store and precious few places for dining and gathering, either. It seems that life was spent, rather than consumed. And she seemed content.

My grandpa worked two jobs with an occasional third job, too. He worked hard. But so did my grandma. She scrubbed, cooked, ironed piles of clothes - her own family's and others'- and washed using her old wringer washing machine, then hung the clothes outside to dry. She took us grandkids to give my mom a break. She baked cookies or pies or cakes, every day. She mended clothes. She played with us grandkids. She allowed herself an indulgence - after lunch she sat down and watched her "program". Every day. For years.

Her greatest joys were found in the simplest pleasures - a picnic, a phone call or card received in the mail, a card game with friends, a visit to family members on a farm, a snowball fight. She loved a country drive and a stop for ice cream on the way home.

The most striking thing that emerged as I read several years' worth of her daily activities was the fact that she did something for someone else every single day of her life. Baking bread, making meals, cleaning a house, writing letters. Cleaning the church linen, visiting invalid nuns, helping at the nursing home. Every day. For years. She took meals to one family daily for more than six months. She looked in on another elderly lady and visited with her, cleaned her house, weeded her flower beds.
She cared for an elderly and senile aunt who became nasty and spiteful toward my grandma, yet Grams continued and wrote that "Aunt Elsie didn't know what she was doing." Grams recognized the needs of the person behind the facade. It upset her, yet she gave her all. She was involved in her community and in her church. She cared for the people around her. It was a part of her day. Every day. For years.

Her fulfillment came from helping others and caring for her family. Every day. She spent her energies, she invested herself. She cared.
She had a servant's heart. She did all these things despite regular pain and fatigue. She often wrote that her "hip hurt something awful", yet she cooked and delivered meals. She frequently said she was "so tired", yet she scrubbed the floors and organzined meetings for the Altar Society.

These are the things my grandma recorded - daily life, as it was. I'm glad she did. I see her now, at nearly 95 being cared for, her investments yielding a return. Yet I wonder if she looks around and wishes she were helping rather than being helped. It was, after all, her way of life. Every day. For years.

copyright 205 Valerie Schneider

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Critter Update

Because several people have inquired after the wildlife, I want to reassure you that - to our surprise - they have continued to visit. The baby quail are growing very quickly and seem unimpressed and nonplussed by the racket and earth-shaking going on next door. Yesterday morning they came despite the huge front-end loader. The mama seemed a bit nervous and kept a vigilant eye, but the chicks hopped happily about eating ants. We were able to witness their flight lessons. Mama flew up onto the wooden frame surrounding the compost and bid her birdies to follow. She half-flew/half-jumped and the chicks followed, some more reluctantly than others.

Quail chicks in the garden. Yes, I know they're hard to see with the gray stone.

The bunnies, too, are still habitually hopping by to see us (or rather, for us to see them). We actually seem to have more bunnies than before and we think that their habitat was destroyed when the sage was torn out next door. Suddenly instead of just three, we've been seeing five, and there seems to be a bit of a territorial issue going on. One will be at the water dish or munching carrot trimmings when another will hop down the path. The first one jumps, slicks back his ears, and chases the intruder off. Then another one comes and scares of the first bunny. We have been amused and entertained by them.

So yes, the critters continue to be as amusing as ever. And the construction next door continues to be as loud and obnoxious as ever. But that's another story.

Rabbit reposing on the pathway, with another bunny in the background.

Chicks and mama quail, with a bunny at the water dish (darn that gray stone!)

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Backyard Wildlife

A scene has been playing out daily this past week as I awake and go into the kitchen for my morning coffee. I peek out the window and see a bevy of infant quail in my garden, their mama hovering over them. The little aviary fluff-balls squeak and hop around merrily, digging their little beaks into the sand to find their buggy breakfast. There are thirteen of them. The sole adult female stands guard on the gate, then hops down into the garden for a bite or two herself. When the babies have satisfied their hunger, they scurry out the rabbit fence into the sagebrush. The mama bird, however, is quick to forget that she has wings and, in a panic, runs along the fence, pecking at the grating, throwing herself against it, trying to exit in the manner her little flock did. Eventually she remembers her flight capabilities and makes a hop over the barrier to her waiting chicks.

In addition to the adorable avians, we have a few cute cottontail rabbits who routinely visit, looking for scraps from the garden and to drink from the water dish we've put out to attract such creatures. One of these, also, is a baby bunny and hops around in circles between the water dish and the carrot scraps, as if undecided which he wants first. Once the carrots win over, he nibbles nimbly away at the stalk and orange flesh, lifting his head to look around from time to time, skiddish to any sound that will cause him to high-tail it into the brush.

We also have a fair share of roadrunners -our state bird- coming to torment Winston, the birds seemingly knowing that he is too old and unable to jump very high to pursue them, they perch on the courtyard wall and cause him to emit his "kitty chatter" and slump down in a pounce position, which never changes into an actual pounce. The roadrunner are as large as him, in any case, and he probably wouldn't have pounced even in his younger days.

These backyard wildlife viewings have suddenly, we fear, been eliminated due to a new, more beastly invasion: construction on the lot next door. We've known that a house would be built there, and we've been fortunate that in our nine years of residence in Corrales we've not had this ordeal sooner. It began with a large well-drilling truck churning up a racket on Tuesday. Wednesday brought a huge front-end loader which was noisily used to begin digging a gigantic hole, the purpose of which we can't imagine. Basements are practically non-existant in New Mexico, as are crawl spaces. No other builders in our area (that we've seen, and lots of homes have gone up since we've moved here) dig out large expanses such as this. Last night the noise blessedly stopped at about 5:20 p.m. so we started dinner and set the table outside. The moment - honestly, the very instant- I brought out the food, a worker returned to the big water truck, started up the rumbling diesel engine and proceeded to wet down the big pile of dirt. This morning, instead of the usual chirps and calls of the birds to awaken us, the whining drone of the front-end loader began at 6:40 a.m. Thank you so much.

This wouldn't be so bad (though I do dislike mechanical wake-up calls before 7:30 a.m.) were it not for the manner in which it all started. The builder staked out the lot about two weeks ago, and we winced. The stakes, indicating the position of the gigantic home to be built, also indicated that our view would be decimated. We were, naturally, disheartened and displeased. Knowing that the subdivision has covenants in place and that plans have to be submitted to an architectural committee for review, though, we waited, hoping. One of the three committee members came out to the lot with the plans and surveyed. He walked all over, from stake to stake, while consulting the builder's plans. He recommended moving the structure 20 feet south, which he said would not impact their views at all because of window orientation, but would help our views quite a bit. The builder informed him that the buyers refused. They wanted the view they wanted, and that was it. They hadn't even considered that a home was already in place behind them. Or they just didn't care. Back and forth we went with the poor committee member - a neighbor - in the middle. It looked as if the only way to preserve any semblance of a view would be to obtain an injunction and then sue. Not something we wanted to do for many reasons, including cost. Eventually the builder convinced the buyer to move the structure 10 feet south. Oh, thank you generous buyers, I say tongue-firmly-in-cheek. We're not unrealistic, we knew our view wouldn't be what it has been for nine years and that it would be partially obstructed. But the audacity to plop their monstrosity directly in front of every single one of our windows irked me tremendously. We are so looking forward to living next to these affable, neighborly people.

Our friends and family have been offering helpful advice:
"Get yourself a nice, noisy rooster."
"Put in a pig pen right on the lot line and upwind. I think Bryan would make a good pig farmer!"
"Ask the neighbors on the other side of them to erect a very high fence."
"Invite your electric guitar-playing brother for a loud visit."

All tempting suggestions.

We are anticipating five to six months of construction noise. In the meantime, we wonder what will become of our fluff-ball quail babies and bunny visitors. We rather enjoyed our backyard wildlife. I hope they're smart enough to scurry around to the front yard, where there are no gaping holes or noisy mechanical things devouring their habitat. If not, it may be rather lonely out here on the mesa. They sure have been better, friendlier neighbors than the ones moving in.

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Drinking The Rio

Embarking on a Sunday’s adventure rafting on the Rio Grande gave us more thrills and chills than we anticipated. We underestimated the forthcoming rapids based on previous trips down the river. The Rio Grande is running at speeds and depths unheard of in many years. The end of our long drought cycle has resulted in record snow-melt, feeding the Rio with staggering amounts of water. The river banks are higher, areas that formally were beaches are under water, and the rapidity of the flow is amazing. On the drive through the Taos Gorge we saw many cars parked along the highway, the spectators standing on the cliff watching rafters below, a day’s entertainment for the local folks.

The trip began with paddling lessons, cinching us tightly into life vests, cautions from our two guides about how we would approach upcoming series of rapids, and assurances of an exciting trip. We had, they warned, a one-in-three chance of flipping or falling out on the final rapid, but they would instruct us further before we approached that one. We hit the first series of rapids whooping and hollering; we were fired up. We anticipated the next series of whitewater gleefully. The six of us were in sync, paddling efficiently, working as a team. The guides complimented us. We beamed and laughed and made merry.

Halfway through our trip we came upon a wooden bridge suspended over the river. Normally the clearance below the bridge is roomy enough to sail under; today because the water levels were so lofty, to pass under we had to paddle to the far left, a guide outside the raft pulling us through, as we leaned down and ducked below. With that obstacle past and our confidence bolstered in our teamwork, we proceeded down the river toward the last two sets of rapids, enjoying the vistas, the bright blue sky, and the sweet aroma of the Russian Olive trees.

We coursed through the rough so-called Sleeping Beauty rapids wet but elated. Our guide gave us more last-minute instructions on the upcoming and major final rapid, Souse Hole. A hole it was…a hell hole. As we approached around a bend our guide told us to cast our eyes forward and watch the raft ahead of us as it disappeared down what we river amateurs oh-so-mistakenly thought was a waterfall leading into a long set of rapids. We followed the instructions as they were screamed out to us: “Right back paddle, forward paddle, paddle, paddle, paddle!” We dropped into the mother of all rapids, into a gaping hole in the river. We were swallowed by the Rio Grande. And we all swallowed a lot of the Rio in turn.

In a moment scenes unfolded: the left side of the raft lifted off the surface. Diane tipped backwards off the raft. Cara flew across the raft head-first into the surging swells. Brian, Diane’s husband, plopped out. Water was overhead and crashing down upon us. My thoughts scattered and awareness of events unfolding registered all at once, like rapid-fire photographs in succession: oh my God, we’re going to flip over; crap, Diane fell out; holy cow, Cara sailed past me; an awareness of fear; water is pounding over top of me; who else is missing; I am the only one left on my side of the raft so I need to paddle for all I’m worth; the guide is climbing over me; I am hearing screaming; where is Diane…she’s over there and there is terror on her face; thank God, Bryan is still next to me. All these thoughts occurred in an instant. The raft was still rocking, surging, flowing quickly. There was, it seemed in that instant, carnage all around me, and the water kept swelling.

The final awareness settled on me and calmed me: we were all safe. Diane was pulled into another raft, the woman guide soothing her and yanking her up by her life vest, telling her that she was okay. Cara and Brian were on the rocks, gulping and gasping for air after the exertion and the huge quantities of water they had swallowed. Bryan, Eric and I, along with the second guide paddled and heaved up along the rocky shoreline to reach them. The first guide had jumped over me, jumped to the rocks and pulled us along. It was at once harrowing and exhilarating, frightening and thrilling.

It all unfolded in a matter of seconds, and then minutes. We were alright; we were all back on the raft. Diane was shaking and crying and hugging her husband and son. Cara was still sputtering mouthfuls of the Rio Grande. The guides encouraged and comforted us and then, when we were ready for it, laughed about the adventure. We hadn’t flipped over and that was an accomplishment.

We all swallowed more of the river than we desired. Diane, the moment she re-entered our raft said, “I need a drink!” Indeed! Margaritas would be sought out once we were dry. But first we drove to the overlook where we’d seen the spectators. Now that we knew what they were gawking at, we wanted to see the wrecking scene, to view from above what exactly we had gone through. The gaping hole and the force of the rapids astounded us. We watched rafts come through, the first overturned head to tail, all the occupants spilled and scattered in the water. We gasped, and then we were thankful that we had not flipped over completely.

Raft flipping
Originally uploaded by via Margutta.

Today we are sore, our varying degrees of battle wounds. We are recounting the details, over and over, comparing our mental notes and impressions, looking at the photos, reliving the scenes, continuously amazed by our experience, glad we had such a thrilling ride, glad we were okay. We drank from the Rio Grande and it tasted bitter-sweet. But it was intoxicating.

View Photos of the trip.

Article about Souse Hole

Definition/Description of a river souse hole

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider