Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Post-Holiday Thotz

Technically, we've still got New Year's Eve to get through - with a full moon, no less! - but the blur of the season has mostly passed.

I arrived home last night after a wonderful visit with the Mississippi family and today, I feel a bit wrangled. That 'where-am-I-supposed-to-live?' feeling is extra intense. Saying goodbye to people you love makes you wonder why you live so far away.

I love this photo of my 6-year-old nephew, Robbie, waiting for the adults to clean up the dinner dishes so that the unwrapping can being. I so remember this feeling of impatience. I remember looking at the adults who were casually chatting and thinking to myself, "What are they DOING??? Do they even know what day it is? What we could be doing right now? How can they just TALK?!?" I imagine Robbie had the same confusion.

This year, I had a the terrific joy of gifting my father with a book about his life. (Thanks, Blurb!) I'd planned to do it last year but my scanner died on me and my ancient Mac wasn't up to the task. After a full equipment upgrade, the project continued and I spent the last three months scanning and designing the book entitled, "A Bob's Life: The Life and Times of Robert Edward Clisby, Jr."

He was stunned and amazed. He just kept looking it over and saying, "Heather Ann! I can't believe you did this! You could not have given me a better gift."He really loved the book and it was so satisfying for me.

Friends and family who came over were also taken with it, especially the men. Watching their faces, they intensely scrutinized every page with serious concentration. Maybe there's something in there about a man's legacy that touched them deeply. Their faces all said the same thing: "I want one for my life." So, get crackin' people!

Here is my lovely sister-in-law, Mary Ann. She is always teaching me about what it means to be a Southern Woman. Rule #1 - You must have several jars of bacon grease on hand for cooking. Here she is demonstrating her collection of THREE jars in the fridge. She's an amazing cook and now I know the secret ...

Dadgum. I miss them all so much today.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Cross-Post: Visiting Santa's Reindeer Fleet

(This is a cross-post from BlogHer. I seem to be brimming with holiday joy this year and I've decided not to fight it.)

In trying to wrap my head around Santa's looming global task, my mind wandered to his flying fleet. Just who were these magical creatures of the season? In an effort to learn about the elegant reindeer, I soon found myself (along with two pals) at the Laughing Valley Ranch in Idaho Springs, Colorado, face-to-antlers with Mrs. Claus (Carol Lee) and a real live reindeer herd.

Lo and behold, I had no idea that the 85-acre ranch is also a training ground for Santa's elite fleet. (That's right, THE Santa - not the guys at the mall.) Since these animals only live 15-20 years, new recruits are always being sought for the most coveted job in reindeer-dom.

The name 'reindeer' is actually the Northern European term for 'caribou', in the same way that that 'burro' is the Spanish word for 'donkey.' (Reindeer are commonly known as domesticated caribou.) There are at least seven sub-species of caribou but Santa favors the Pearyi Caribou, as they are smallest, just three or four feet at the shoulders. Of course, these reindeer are native to the North Pole.

Turns out, only 1 in 3,000 Pearyi reindeer have what it takes to be part of Santa's fleet. Each animal must be in peak physical condition to perform the herculean task of bringing Christmas joy to the world's children. Once trained, these unique animals will have to fly 75 million miles over a 48-hour period (December 24-25) at 650 miles per second. (Many times the speed of sound but not quite the speed of light, meaning they arrive long before Santa's "Ho, ho, ho!"'s do.)

Santa's fleet is usually made up of steers (castrated males) or cows (females) but never bulls (intact males.) This is because they are usually too grumpy and weak from the autumn rut - the stressful mating season. During the rut, bulls will go without eating for up to 45 days and often lose their antlers just before Christmas. (Antlers are necessary for flight, providing stabilization much like the wings and tail of an airplane.) The final reason: Bulls don't live as long, just seven to 10 years.

Carol (born on Christmas Day) was kind enough to give us a tour of the ranch, while her husband, Bill (Father Christmas, Chief Wrangler and the storyteller known as 'Red Tail the Mountain Man') was out with two reindeer at some scheduled holiday appearance. Bill started with two reindeer about 25 years ago and the herd has grown. When I'd asked Bill on the phone how many reindeer he had, he responded firmly, "Nine, of course!"

I discovered that to own and exhibit reindeer in the United States, you have to be licensed, as they are considered 'exotic animals.' This license is dispensed by the Department of Agriculture, out of its APHIS department - which handles the exhibition of exotic animals. It also helps to belong to the Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association (ROBA) which offers the tagline: "Reindeer .... Not just for Santa anymore!"

Like their cousins, moose and elk, reindeer lose their antlers each winter, and grow them suckers right back in the new year. Carol says they grow up to one to two inches a day. A giant brush from a street cleaning truck stands end up on their pen - ideal for scraping their annual velvet off their antlers. "You can almost see them growing," said Carol. "You touch them and can feel them pulsating."

Originally, reindeer were found in Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Russia, Mongolia, and northern China. In North America, they were spotted in Canada, Alaska, and from Washington to Maine. In the 19th century, reindeer were still wild in southern Idaho. Although still wild in the Arctic and Subarctic, reindeer can be found on various ranches throughout the Northern U.S. (There are three in Colorado alone.)

Seeing the reindeer in person is like seeing anything iconic image in real life, not unlike the first time I laid eyes on the Sydney Opera House. Yup. There they were - big antlers, funky beards, barrel bellies and those very, very odd split hooves. They are wide 'dew claws' that act like snowshoes or fins in the water. (Turns out, reindeer are not just skilled in the air, but in the water as well.) Moving around, they 'click, click, click' with their hooves and antlers. And while they all have individual personalities, both Carol and Bill agree: "They're like Siamese cats with antlers." Kind of skittish, weird and yes, cute.

Being outside in chilly weather is key to the animal. "If you bring them indoors, they start to pant and get very uncomfortable," said Carol. In addition to special nasal passages that help heat the cold air before it enters their lungs, the reindeer coat has two layers of fur - a dense woolly undercoat and longer-haired overcoat consisting of hollow, air-filled hairs. In short, the perfect winter animal.

I should mention that Laughing Valley Ranch has more than just reindeer roaming around. We met eight Scottish Highlanders (hippie cows), 15 goats, nine Shetland sheep, two 'generic' sheep (Murphy & Chuck), bunch o'chickens (they sell eggs), dogs (three inside, three outside and 20 foster pups, including three wolf-hybrids), 12 llamas (including Fozzie, who loves to kiss the girls), 30 donkeys, mules, horses and one alpaca named PacMan. Everybody gets fed twice a day except the cows and the reindeer. Why? Because both animals have four stomachs.

My favorite? It has to be Heather, the pygmy goat with the broken leg in a cast. She lives in the gated playground in the front yard and is snugly by nature. She is one of Carol's 'bottle babies', animals that have had to be brought in to the house to be bottle fed. Carol is clearly the mother of all these creatures and it is she who names all the animals.

Although I shouldn't forget Primrose, the world's first donkey to be fitted with a prosthetic. (She's a big star on PBS.) "She's a real sweetheart," said Carol.

Throughout the year, the Lees provide animals for petting zoos (two of each animals) but for six weeks out of the year, Operation Reindeer goes into high gear. That's when the couple's five horse trailers get put into action as they deliver animals for nativity scenes, children's zoos and any Santa-scene where reindeer are required. "From the day after Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, we are in demand," said Carol. It's quite a task to even imagine and each reindeer needs their own 'elf' to keep all the pointy madness under control.

People like Carol and Bill put in a lot of hours to help keep the Christmas magic alive. It makes me feel grateful for the whole shebang, which is the whole point of the season, right? My take-away from my visit to Laughing Valley Ranch is this: Make your best effort - no matter your spiritual beliefs or non-beliefs - to keep your eyes on the skies late tomorrow evening. You might just see some funny-looking hooves float above head...


(More photos from the day's visit here.)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Maximum Joy

It's been quite a week of nonstop birthday and holiday revelry - my cup runneth over. These lights on the state courthouse resemble the inside of my brain lately; in a word, LIT.

Energy-wise, I hit a wall more than once but dug deep and kept going. In an effort to allay the fatigue and accompanying headache, I took what I thought were three Ibuprofen. I realized the next day they were actually three Tylenol PM's, which would explain why I'd passed out like a rag doll in broad daylight.

And this time of year, it doesn't let up. If I wasn't celebrating my birthday (thanks, everyone!), I was helping my pal, Reid, celebrate his. I think the Friday bash at his place was unquestionably the Party of the Year - tons of people, food, booze and live music. (His son, Jay, plays bass in a kick-ass group called Green Mountain and they are very tight, very loud - the best combination.)

Somewhere in there, my childhood pal, Kristen, flew in for a visit. Thankfully, she is super easygoing and was happy to tag along wherever I went. After four whirlwind days of parties, holiday jaunts, concerts, animal visits, shopping, spiritual journeys and family reunions, I put her on a train bound for Chicago today - our 38-year friendship deepened and our bodies, exhausted.

Here's Kristen, getting llama kisses from a flirty beast named Fozzie. (I dragged Kristen and Reid along to a reindeer ranch for a Blogher assignment. Will cross-post here later but here are some photos now.)

And so, the madness continues. In approximately 11 hours from now, I will set off on my own journey to New Orleans. My dad will pick me up at Louis Armstrong Airport and we'll visit our favorite place for whiskey drinks and sweet potato fries. We'll catch up and delight in seeing each other's face and eventually, we'll drive to Ocean Springs, Mississippi. There, we'll celebrate Christmas as we always do - with lots of laughter and love, on the bayou.

Happy Holidays everyone!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Over Thanksgiving, we visited the family's legendary mountain retreat, Chez Clisby, in Green Valley Lake, California. Some friends came along with their 18-month old beer-retriever and a snowy good time was had by all.

One of the weekend-after-Thanksgiving traditions at little Green Valley Lake is the Holiday potluck held at the club house down by the lake. On Saturday evening, everyone brings a dish to share, Santa visits and the flip is switched on the main tree lights ... Ta-da! There's also caroling, hot chocolate and a silent auction of local goods.

This year, too much dawdling and last-minute cocktail-making made us tardy and we missed Santa's appearance. We were worried about my nephew's disappointment but he took it in stride: "That's okay. I'll see him in Mississippi. He comes there too."

Robbie is at that age where his parents are fiercely protective over his Santa beliefs. I certainly support this effort - it certainly helps keep Christmas that much more magical for the whole family. After all, we all former Santa believers and once that spell is broken, you never get it back.

But later that next day, we all witnessed a scene that quite possibly brought us all back to that lovely, suspended stage of belief.

We were all walking back from Inspiration Point when out of the woods, came an elderly fellow with a long, white beard and a black dog. Mary Ann yelled and pointed, "Robbie, it's SANTA!" Robbie turned and stared at the man and the rest of us just crossed our fingers that the fellow would play along.

He did. And then some.

Mary Ann explained to the man that they had missed him the night before a the town gathering. After some initially risky statements about some Santa gigs he'd had at South Coast Plaza, Mary Ann got him back on track just in time:

"Well, hello Robbie! And what would you like for Christmas this year?"

My nephew's face was completely awestruck. He got out of his wagon, approached the gentleman and stuck out his hand in greeting. What a little man! After a bit of conversation, he said to the man, "Santa, I didn't know you had a dog! I have a black dog too. His name is Joe and ..."

"My dog's name is Rudolph. He turns into a reindeer when I need him to," said Santa.

"REALLY?!?" said Robbie. This would give him a whole new appreciation for Rudolph.

After some picture taking and whatnot, Santa bid us goodbye and wished us all a Merry Christmas and reminding Robbie to leave out milk, cookies and "a carrot for Rudolph." Robbie was completely starstruck, watching him walk away. The old man ambled down the road a ways then let out a booming ... "HO HO HO!'

It was then that the rest of us got chills, like the Christmas Spirit just whooshed right through us. Corny? TOTALLY.

After that, we told Robbie about eight million times how lucky he was to meet Santa on his 'day off' in his 'regular clothes' and 'with no other kids around.' He just kept smiling.

Later that night, as he was falling asleep by the fire, we were talking about the exciting episode again. "You know, at first I didn't really believe that it was really Santa," he said.

"Oh yeah?," I responded. "What convinced you?"

"He knew my name," he said.

The old fellow had picked up on Mary Ann's cue without skipping a beat ...right? Hmmm, when I really think about it, I'm pretty sure Santa knew Robbie's name all along.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Yuletide Feline

So, there I was, helping my friend, Reid, trim his Christmas tree when I lifted a branch and found two bright eyes. His kitty, Beaudreux (he let me name him), thought we'd brought home the tree just for him.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ignite Boulder 7 Tonight!

If you had five minutes on stage what would you say?

Let's say you only got 20 slides - that rotated automatically after 15 seconds - to make your point, what would you show? Around the world, geeks have been putting together Ignite events to make their points.

Ignite was started in Seattle in 2006 by Brady Forrest and Bre Pettis. Since then, hundreds of talks have been given across the world but none better than in Boulder, Colorado.

At Ignite Boulder 6 in September, I was fortunate enough to present ("Screw Logic: An Unbelievable Look At Bizarre Beliefs") and I've only just now found the video from my talk. I didn't do too bad although you can see that the advancing slides got ahead of me, a typical problem. I had a ton of fun putting it together and the heckling crowd made me giggle.

I look forward to tonight and all the brainy geekdom. There are still tickets left so come by if you can - you won't regret it.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Passport - Found!

Sure, we all lose things as we trample through life. I go through phases, for sure. Just recently, I lost a beloved hat, a favorite scarf and a few other things within the space of a few days. God, I was pissed.

Eventually, I'll forget. (Although there are a few pieces of jewelry that are gone that I will never get over. To this day, I believe they were stolen from my hotel room. BITTER.)

This is what happened with my original passport circa 1990. I'd gotten it to explore Europe with the Dowdy Brothers. I'd hurriedly obtain a photo and it ended up being the best photo ever taken in my entire life. (I was not as lucky with the current passport photo in which I resemble a greasy, bespectacled church lady.)

For a traveler, the first passport is magical. Literally, it is your ticket around the globe. I used this original passport to explore at least 20 countries. Such experiences opened my eyes, stretched my perspective and enriched my brain. All this due to a small blue booklet.

Sometime after my trip-'round-the-world in 1996, I lost the passport. Desperate, I looked everywhere but it had disappeared. All those wonderful, exotic stamps from faraway lands - gone! I was so bereft over losing it that it took me years to cancel it and apply for a new one; I kept holding out hope that it would resurface.

Over Thanksgiving this year, I was going through some drawers in my mother's house - upstairs in the game room, next to the ping-pong table/pool table. I pulled out a bunch of essays from college ("The Deteriorating Image of Marriage"), my graduation certificate from junior high and ... the long lost passport.

JOY! There was the photo of a young blonde Heather, wide-eyed and ready for adventure. There was the initial stamp from an immigration officer at London's Heathrow on June 6, 1990 - the first of many.

Flipping through, I recalled how many of the visa stamps were required before leaving the U.S. It was frightening to drop my passport in the mailbox, addressed to various embassies in DC, hoping ...PRAYING, that it would find its way back to me. I had to do that at least four times (Zambia, Australia, Zaire, Tanzania) and each instance was a nail-biter.

Best stamp of all: A muddy footprint on the final page, the remnant of a harrowing episode that involved a bus, a beach, two nuns, a guy from New Jersey, polizia, mass confusion and me spending several hours in an Italian jail - a story for another time.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Back to Work

After sipping on a lovely cocktail of post-layoff emotions (one part relief, one part joy, one part panic - stirred, served tall) for six months, I've finally landed a legit gig. Yay!

From now through February, I'll be working on an event for the Colorado Office of Film, Television and Media. I'll be working with some cool peeps and, even better, gathering up tech and entertainment brainiacs for a panel, a party and an exclusive screening.

I'm so jazzed to have a project to sink my teeth into and flex those manifesting muscles once again. I hope I don't scare everyone off with my over-enthusiasm and 3:00 a.m. emails.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Another Argument For Having Kids

Beer delivery.

I shot this at our cabin last weekend. Emerson is just 18 months old and very determined to please her daddy, Matt May.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

My Bro, The Survivor

Back home in Colorado after a week of food and hijinks with the tribe in California. We all took gravyloads of photos but here is one of my faves.

My brother, Rob, making yet another turkey sandwich wearing a souvenir t-shirt from a devastating natural disaster. I found this incredibly American in spirit. After all, nothing is so bad, so terrible that we can't make a t-shirt out of it.