Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Overthinking Kirtan

For weeks, my yoga studio reminded us that Jai Uttal was coming to give a special performance just for us - $30 in advance, $40 the day of the show. I did not know who Jai was, but he is a big deal in the world of yoga. A practitioner of Bhakti yoga, Mr. Uttal is an internationally known devotional singer who puts ancient mantras to a blend of folk/rock/jazz and Indian music. He also occasionally writes a secular song with English lyrics. Most would consider his sound to be world music, but his  Grammy nomination was in the New Age category.

The reminders intensified as the concert approached. I love my studio and the teachers there, and I was getting concerned that the performance wasn't selling out. I made a perfunctory attempt to ask my husband if he'd go with me. I already knew that would be a no. If you were to make a Venn diagram of our musical tastes, it would look like this:

So I decided to go solo and bought myself a ticket.

The night of the concert, I put on my leggings and a mauve indian tunic covered in Sanskrit lettering. I have no idea what it says. When clothing includes Asian writing of any sort as a decorative element, I always suspect it actually says something like "Look at this Caucasian idiot." Still, that didn't stop me from buying the tunic because, well, it's pretty, and sometimes I am a Caucasian idiot.

It was stifling in the yoga studio. They normally do hot yoga and it had been a warm day. We all sat on folding chairs, or on bolsters up front. This was to be an evening of kirtan, the call and response singing of mantras. Uttal is a wonderful musician and composer. His voice was rich and soothing but slightly weary as he was under the weather that night. Uttal was accompanied by an exquisite female singer with a crystalline soprano, and an earthy yet dainty young dancer with short hair and eloquent hands. Both women were white but dressed in bright-hued saris. In addition to the Kirtan, Uttal sang some songs, in Sanskrit and in English, sneaking in a couple of secular numbers.

I was enjoying the sing along, looking around at all the mostly anglo folks swaying and chanting when I found myself wondering. Was this cultural appropriation? There is nothing Western about Hinduism with its multi-limbed deities, elephant god, and convoluted mythology. With a change of hair and clothing, the old hippy couples, comely young yoginis and ascetically thin yoga dudes dancing in the back of the room could have passed for Mormons. Was my inner East Coast cynic resurfacing? Was this a scene from a Woody Allen movie? Or was it just my restless monkey mind harshing my mellow?

I flashed back on four years ago, when I participated in a musical project called The Vak Choir of Ordinary Voices. It was the creation of yoga teacher, Ann Dyer, who had been a jazz singer in her earlier years. She had given up jazz singing and immersed herself in Indian spiritual music. A friend of hers at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center commissioned Ann to create a performance blending her two musical influences. The piece was based the creation story of Vak, the goddess of sound and speech. Just as our mythology starts out with God declaring let there be light, Indian mythology starts out with a goddess singing let there be sound.

I learned about the difference between the Western and Indian singing styles. In the West, singing is all about projecting, making yourself heard. In the Indian tradition, you focus on how the sound vibrates internally and how different vowel sounds are felt in different parts of the body.  It takes conscious breathing, concentration, and patient, internal listening. We worked on sliding notes and on singing quarter tones. You can hear them long before you can reproduce them accurately but eventually you get there.

The Vak choir practiced quite a bit in preparation for the show. Raising my voice in unison with others was almost transcendent, and I always felt refreshed and relaxed when I went home.

A month or so before the Vak performance, I attended a talk at Ann Dyer's studio. The speaker was an expert on Hildegarde Van Bingen, a 12th century German abbess, mystic, composer, and medieval renaissance woman, if there can be such a thing. (Hildegarde was also a writer of botanical and medicinal texts and is considered the founder of scientific natural history in Germany.)  The presentation focused on her work as a musician, and after the talk, we sang Hildegarde. From shanti shanti to sanctus sanctus. Different scales and melodies. Very different gods. Same exact emotion. And I realized, it's not the religion, it's raising your voice with other humans that makes the experience spiritual.

It doesn't matter if you were raised in another tradition. It's OK if you've lost your Faith, or even if, like me, you're constitutionally incapable of Belief. You follow the music, it fills you, you sing, you sway. That's the beauty of Kirtan. I shushed the monkey mind and got back to chanting.

Sunday, January 3, 2016


It's been three and a half years since we left the white bread enclave of Orinda California for the friendlier, funkier Oakland Hills. We landed in a two bedroom house with a panoramic view of San Francisco Bay. It's what the local parlance refers to as a two bridge view, with the Bay Bridge directly across us and the Golden Gate to the right. We are on a small ridge and you have to go down a flight of steps to reach the front door. When the landlord remodeled the place, he shored up the incline with a stone wall and built a rocky fish pond with a little waterfall. Two fish lived in the pond. One was orange and maybe 8 inches long, the other ghostly white and the size of a respectable trout. Little Red and Big Gil looked more like overgrown gold fish than fancy koi. The landlord instructed us not to feed them and indeed, they seemed to feed on nothing. I suspect they subsisted on pond scum.

That pond was trouble from the get go. The lining leaked and the rocky walls oozed water, leaving a perpetual puddle on the patio. We had to keep refilling the basin with the garden hose several times a week. Not environmentally responsible in the face of a water shortage, and a bit of a bump in the water bill, but the fish were happy.

If we're stuck with fish, I figured, lets add a dash of color to the murk and get a pond-full. So my husband bought me seven more fish for my birthday. Most were garden variety goldfish but a couple were especially fancy, white with bold orange markings and long delicate fins. Not long after we repopulated the pond, Maggie the mini schnauzer and I returned from her nightly walk and surprised a racoon gazing intently into the water, like Narcissus admiring his reflection.  He loped off as we started down the stairs, but the next day I noticed we were down a couple of fish.

One hot day, a month or so later, we were sitting on the sofa with the front and balcony doors open, trying to get a cross breeze. My husband, who was facing the yard, suddenly gestured for me to look outside. Perched on the edge of the pond was a brown hawk,  showing off his impressive wingspan. Not long after Mr. Hawk dropped by, I took inventory of the pond's inhabitants. Down two more.

Our most impressive and unexpected fish-napper was a great white heron.  Maggie and I came home from the store one afternoon to find him checking the pond for signs of life. She bolted down the stairs barking madly and the big bird flew up onto the roof where he remained for a good ten minutes before the dog's ferocious fussing finally drove him away. Post-heron, only two fish remained. It was survival of the fittest, the hardy, pond-smart, original two, Big Gil and Little Red. They hung in for several more months.

Then came the morning I ran into my neighbor taking out the trash. "I saw the craziest thing in your yard this morning," he announced. "Your motion detector light went on about 6 a.m. and when I looked out the window at your yard, there was a raccoon in the pond."  Yes, you read that right – the raccoon was literally swimming laps, back and forth, back and forth. I don't think he was trying to get his cardio on, because the red fish was gone. Only the great white guppy remained, the last of his kind.

When the next water bill came, we called the landlord. It's hard to justify wasting this much water for just one fish - not when desperate central valley farmers are draining California's aquifers  dry. The landlord gave us a choice: he could fix the pond or fill it with dirt and put some plants in. We chose option number two.

The landlord sent over his handyman, Francisco, to drain and fill the pond. "What do you want me to do with the fish?" Francisco asked. "I don't know, Francisco. You decide." I've gone fishing and I'm not that squeamish about it, although I like to eat my catch. Catch and release just seems sadistic to me. But scooping up the Old Man of the Pond with a net felt unsportsmanlike, and making him into dinner, downright unappetizing. Francisco is a country guy. I knew he'd figure something out – maybe bop Big Gil on the head and leave him out for one of the neighborhood cats. I left to buy some drought resistant succulents for our new bed.

When I came back, the pond was full of potting soil and Francisco was gone. Big Gil was still there. Francisco had placed him in solitary confinement in a white plastic bucket. Big Gil was my problem now. For two days, he refused to die. He wasn't going to sleep with the fishes, even if he was one. My cowardly response was to race past the bucket with my head turned away, pretending he wasn't there. And then suddenly, he wasn't. "What did you do with the fish?" I asked my husband.

He looked bemused. "What fish?"

He'll never tell.

Big Gil's tragic final days

The former fish pond

Friday, November 20, 2015

What if I asked you to look straight into the sun?  Maybe you would, for a second or two, until the brightness overwhelmed you and you just had to close your eyes. But what if I insisted that you keep looking straight into the sun, no blinking? Would you do it?  You would not. Because you have no desire to damage your vision, and you are not crazy, and if I asked you to do such a thing, I would be the crazy one.

Which brings me to the show I attended the other night at Oakland's historic Fox Theater, a striking art deco former movie theater- turned concert venue that dates back to 1928.  My husband and I had tickets to see Railroad Earth, a country-rock jam band. Being non-boogying boomers with bad knees, we had seats in the mezzanine. The theater customarily takes out the orchestra seats for any act whose music is vaguely danceable so people can smoke pot, crowd each other and jump up and down. Which is fine by me. To everything yada yada.

Anyway, the opening act was pretty loud, but when the main event came out on stage, the sound became unbearable. My husband was covering his ears. You could feel your chair vibrate. Also, your feet, your head and your thyroid. I thought I could recognize a song I knew but it was too loud to know for sure. My spouse, whose hearing is already damaged from attending too many concerts in his reckless hippy days, couldn't take it anymore and moved to the last row of the third tier balcony. I went downstairs to complain. Apparently I was not the first person to do so. The usher directed me to the first aid room where a volunteer was handing out ear plugs.  I grabbed a pair for me and a pair for my spouse.

It was a very long concert, a fact which at a decibel level safe for human existence, we would have appreciated. It's no secret that old rockers get tinnitus and hearing loss. When I've had seats in the orchestra, I have brought ear plugs to concerts - your ears don't ring the next day and you can actually understand the lyrics.  But when it's so loud, you need to protect your ears in the back of the mezzanine, I have to wonder who benefits. Not the band, who are all going to end up deaf as Keith Moon. Nor will they sell a lot of CDs after the show, because who can actually listen to any of the songs at a decibel level loud enough to deafen the nearest dolphin pod?  And not the poor kids in the orchestra, who will end up with hearing damage just like their boomer parents.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Elephant and the Cow

Auspicious Beginnings.  That was my theme to start the new year. I am not going to wring my hands and bore you with the gory details, but 2014 was a little rough. I needed to usher in 2015 on a positive note. So I signed up for a 2-hour New Year's Day yoga workshop at Mountain Yoga, a sweet, small studio in downtown Montclair. The theme was An Elephantine Celebration, dedicated to Lord Ganesh. With his toddler limbs, Bacchus belly and out-sized elephant head, Ganesh looks like an escapee from The Island of Doctor Moreau. Like all Indian gods and goddesses, Old Trunk-Face has a variety of names. “Destroyer of all Obstacles and Impediments.”  “Bestower of Success and Accomplishments.” “ Grantor of Wishes and Boons.”  But what makes him an especially appropriate New Year’s Day deity is his role as the "Lord of New Beginnings."

The workshop was led by studio owner Ann Dyer, an inspired teacher of yoga and sound sadhana. Ann was engaging and fun, as always. The pace was perfect. I got a gentle work out and a good stretch, and I probably untwisted an emotional kink or two. We learned a simple chant in praise of Ganesh. I can't say I felt any closer to the elephant god - I appreciate Eastern spirituality, but in a purely abstract way.  For me, all the gods and goddesses get in the way of the big ideas. But the class was inspiring and enlivening. I stepped out into the sunshine, humming the Ganesh chant and thinking this had to be an auspicious beginning and 2015 just might possibly not suck.

Like a kite skimming the ground on a breezy day, I was eager for uplift. I decided to take a solo meditative hike in Briones, one of our less-visited regional parks. My husband was in a football trance and would never miss me.  I put on leggings, socks and hiking boots, and several layers of sweaters to keep on or take off as needed. Maggie the schnauzer seemed game, so I put her leash on and packed enough water for both of us.

It was ideal Briones weather. The hills were green as Éire and the sky, a postcard-perfect blue. We passed through the cattle gate at the trail head. A pair of hikers walked ahead of us. Two men and a woman on horseback were coming our way,  accompanied by a pair of herding dogs, a half dozen cows and a couple of calves. The riders and bovines slowed down to a walk to let us pass. One of the hikers got a little too close to a calf and its mother came running.  She lost interest, mid-charge, when the hiker bolted. We left the cattle behind and were strolling along the edge of a tree-lined meadow when out of the forest strode a confident and well-fed coyote. He sat back on his haunches and looked us over. No doubt Maggie would make a fine supper.  Sweeping her up with one arm, I waved my walking stick with the other. "Go away!" I shouted. "Get out of here!" His Wiliness didn't oblige, but came no closer. We kept walking, warning several oncoming dog owners to put their best friends on leashes before rounding the bend.

After a while, we passed one of Briones' inky green vernal pools, temporary ponds that wax and wane with the seasons and rainfall levels. A Great Blue Heron had the whole pool to himself. I stopped to watch him. The landscape glowed in the late afternoon light. Sunshine. Fresh air. Meadows. Trees. Herons. Coyotes. Heck, throw in the cows. Beauty was all around me. Maybe Lord Ganesh was on to something. Maybe this day was an auspicious beginning for 2015. Perhaps that Heron was an omen. Or the coyote. Perhaps...

Shhllllippp....Thwack. That's the sound you make when you slip on a giant cow pie, lose your footing, and land in it arse-first. Did I mention I was wearing leggings? There was nothing to clean my haunches with and I was afraid to get my hands dirty because, well, there would be nothing to clean them with either. The only option was to find a dry patch of grass, roll around in it like a wet dog, and hope to God nobody strolled by. Which is what I did. Thankfully, I only passed three people on the remaining three and a half mile trek back to the car. I tried to look dignified as I walked by, smelling of meadow grass after it's been processed through four ruminant stomachs and a mile of bowels.  I was sure I was getting some kind of toxic rash. I wanted to get back to the car in the worst way. The poor dog could barely keep up.

Minor miracle, I had a towel in the car. It was intended to protect the seat from Maggie the Schnauzer's muddy paws. Sorry, Maggie, I need your towel – poop trumps mud every time.

I fell in a cow pie on New Year's Day. Please, Ganesh, don't tell me that was an omen.

Thursday, October 2, 2014


Apologies to Ella Fitzgerald fans, but this post is not about jazz singing. You could say it's about the usual crap I write about, but I'm not sure that's even definable. So lets just say it's about crap. Crap as in excrement. Dung. Poop. Caca. Feces. Scat. Damn, I feel like I'm four years old and I'm getting a strange urge to finger paint.

Why this sudden interest in waste, you say. Why waste this sudden interest, say I. I swear my recent  colonoscopy had nothing to do with it. (It's OK, I can say that. Katie Couric had one on TV). Re: the procedure, I will step on my soap box for a second and say that if you are hesitating to do this, don't. The worst part is drinking the foul liquid for the prep. The twilight sleep anesthesia is so effective that even though you are conscious in some altered way, you wake up remembering nothing. They should find a way to administer it to you for select portions of your life.

No, what inspired me was walking on a trail that looked like it had just been hit with a shit storm. Shiny little brown beads of goat poop. So not-gross that I had to think for a second about what they might be. I was reminded of a story my grandmother used to tell my sister and me.

When she was a child, "Mamy's"  family would spend the summer in the Vosges Mountains of Alsace. Her father was consumptive, and the mountain air was supposed to have a healing effect. (Alas, all it did was provide him with a scenic place to cough. He died of tuberculosis when my grandmother was eleven.) In order to focus on caring for her husband, my great grandmother hired a temporary nanny, a fresh young peasant girl dressed in traditional Alsatian garb, including headgear in the shape of a giant bow. Her suitor would often stop by with a pink paper cone from the local confectionary, filled to the brim with shiny little round chocolates. This inspired my grandmother to retrieve an empty candy cone from the trash, stuff it with goat turds, and hand it to the nanny with the explanation that her "amoureux" had stopped by with yet another love token. Although it was never confirmed, my sister and I liked to imagine that the poor Nanny was duped and accidentally ate one of our grandmother's "chocolates". Now, as I looked down at the goat droppings all around me, I couldn't help but notice how much they looked like milk duds.

Never mind what you eat, you are what you poop. I notice all kinds of droppings on my hikes. I step around horse pucky on the bridle trails and cow pies in the meadows. I can tell when the deer have been by. I often ask myself, when I pass a particularly large and well-formed turd, if it came from a dog, a coyote, or – jackpot – a mountain lion! I see owl pellets a-plenty, a form of reverse scat consisting of regurgitated fur, feathers and bones. (Apparently, you can get owl pellets by mail order for middle schoolers to dissect in science class and figure out who got eaten.)   But while I think nature is, forgive me, the shit, this is one case where my curiosity has its limits. I won't be developing my excrement expertise any further: There will be no dissecting doody at my house.

Shit show

It's a shitty job, but someone has to do it

Coyote ugly

Big cat scat


My mother is a bag lady.

No, not the street person kind. The kind that has never seen a bag – paper,  plastic, or cloth – that she can't find a use for. Last Winter, my father got hit by a taxi and broke his leg in two places. Mother and I braved a snow storm to go see him at the rehab facility twice a day. On the way out, she made sure I snagged a couple of the  handy dandy umbrella sacs management had thoughtfully provided by the front door. You just never know when you might need to bag an umbrella or three.

Mother's bags are sorted and organized into strategically placed collections. At the bottom of the basement stairs, in the storage closet, is a pile of neatly folded paper shopping bags, with handles. Just right for gifts or to hold a couple of books. At the top of those same stairs, a dozen large paper grocery bags poke out from a hanging metal holder.  A big plastic bag filled with small plastic bags hangs from a knob on the cabinet below the kitchen sink, and a passel of classic brown paper lunch bags are tucked away behind the spice cabinet. In the bedroom closets, all the linens are stored in transparent zippered plastic cases, their content itemized on handwritten labels that only my mother can read. (Despite this high level of organization, she still forgets what she put where). The fancy printed plastified Whole Paycheck bags hang on a door knob in the coat closet, waiting to be forgotten the next time she goes to the grocery store, which is at least once a day.

Packing for a trip takes my mother forever because everything in the suitcase must be slipped into individual plastic bags prevent wrinkles. (Warning: don't try this on your face). Shoes are stuffed with tissue paper and individually wrapped in produce bags from the Safeway. I remember when my American grandparents visited, an infrequent childhood event. My mother happened to walk by as Momma Paula was unpacking her unbagged shoes. I heard about this for weeks. Quelle horreure! Scruffy soles black with the detritus of city streets, face down on the underwear and nighties! In my mother's world view, it doesn't get more appalling than that. Needless to say, when I visit my parents, I make a beeline for my bedroom and unpack as fast as I can, lest my mother come upon the evidence of my nonchalant packing style.

After a month in the rehabilitation facility, it was time for my father to go see his orthopedist for a progress report. The home arranged for an ambulance. This being January, mother gathered up some warm clothes and a coat for him to wear. We were about to leave the house when she suddenly  bolted for the stairs. "Where are you going? " I shouted.  "We can't keep the ambulance waiting." "I forgot to get a bag for your father's coat!" she yelled. When I offered to get it for her, I was rebuffed: How could I possibly know what the right bag was, and where it might be? Up the stairs she scampered, on two fake hips and one artificial knee.

After much fumbling and swearing (in French), she finally found the cloth burberry bag she had been looking for, folded my father's coat with a dry cleaner's precision, and stuffed it into the chic plaid tote. We were on our way to see a depressed, just-retired 82 year old whose tibia and fibula were broken just below the knee.  Neither mother nor I had much control over the situation. But damn it, we had a coat bag.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Fly Zone

This summer, our just-married daughter took a temporary job in Oakland and moved in with my husband and me. While we were delighted to have her, it was not an ideal situation for a couple of newlyweds. Her sweetie was clerking for a judge in Los Angeles. They spent hours on the phone each night, and she flew down to LA every Friday for the weekend. During the week, I made nice dinners, played mom and pretended she still needed me. Which she kind of did, because summer is spider season in Northern California. Every night, I would be summoned by frantic screaming. "Mom! MOOOOOOM! There's a hamster-sized spider in the shower!" And down the stairs I'd run, the spider executioner, armed with a shoe and a roll of paper towels.

Meanwhile, spiders weren't the only plague of pests besieging us: the roof rats were back and  gorging on my tomatoes. Last summer, I tried every possible eco-friendly form of rodent repellent and learned that gentle, organic, do-it-yourself pest control only works for hippy earth mothers. This year, I went for the big guns: I bought poison traps, euphemistically called "rodent stations". These are black plastic boxes with little rat-sized tunnels in them. At the end of the tunnel is a sky-blue block of poison that looks like it's made of styrofoam. Why any creature would eat something so obviously inorganic is beyond me. Then again, rodents have their intellectual limitations, even if they can outsmart me. 

I waited to find fang marks in the fruit before placing my first trap. The very next day,  the tomatoes were intact and the entire block of bait had been devoured. Giddy with schadenfreude, I danced around the deck. Ding dong, the rat is dead, long live my veggies.

Little did I know I had disrupted the ecology of our habitat.

It took two days for the odor to manifest itself. The poisoned rat had crawled into the walls to die and the entire downstairs now smelled like the Grim Reaper's man cave. Judging by the area of maximum pungency, the rat was decaying behind a wall in my daughter's bedroom. Breaking down the wall was not an option, so we moved her upstairs to her dad's office. Then we set up the dehumidifier in the bedroom and ran it 24/7.

As the smell got steadily fainter over the next couple of weeks, we started to notice a large number of flies buzzing around the house. And not just ordinary flies: these were thick, hairy and really big. How big? So big, you'd think they were part of the NSA drone program.  So big, a taxidermist could stuff and mount them on a wall plaque. So big, they could date Jeff Goldblum. Big but not sluggish: They had the reflexes and speed to drive a human mad. I stalked them nightly with a yellow swatter and mostly missed. Eventually, I realized I was deadlier with a balled up wet paper towel. It was a grim, disgusting task. I could have used a little help. If only I hadn't done such a good job on the spiders.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


This is the year I simultaneously embraced frugality and middle-aged pastimes: I planted a vegetable garden. Also numerous pots of flowers, but 'tis the tale of the vegetable garden that I wish to tell.

Our rental house is on a bit of an incline and has a couple of terraces: one adjacent to the bedroom and one by the living room. I planted my tomatoes, peppers, lettuces, herbs and eggplant in pots on the bedroom balcony, a full story above the backyard where anything you put in gets instantly devoured  by deer.  With a second story deck-top garden  I could avoid both the deer issue and the slug situation.

I was a dedicated plant mother. Every day, I threaded the hose through the bathroom window across the bedroom to the balcony so I could water everybody. I praised my babies for their progress and fed them organic fertilizer once a month. First thing in the morning, before even visiting the bathroom,  I would jump out of bed and visit the vegetables to see how much they had grown overnight.

It was  fun while it lasted. I tossed lettuce from the garden with home-grown tarragon and chives, and dry-rubbed chickens with fresh-picked thyme and rosemary. My plants were exploding with teeny tomatoes, prickly purple eggplant blossoms, mini green peppers and wee jalapeños. I don't think we bought lettuce in three months. I felt like Mother Nature incarnate. Or maybe Martha Stewart. (Okay, not Martha. She has a clean house. And servants.)

Then I started noticing gashes in the ripening fruit. Squirrels? Birds? Raccoons? When I consulted my gardening friends on Facebook, the locals suggested roof rats, nasty little creatures that carry bubonic plague. Not to be confused with the VW beetle-sized Norwegian rats I used to encounter on the streets of DC, roof rats are a different species. (Like it matters. A rat is a rat is a god damned rat. Why else would the scientists have named the thing rattus rattus?)

Roof rats came to our shores as stowaways on tall ships and have been scampering around the California underbrush ever since. They may not be natives, but they've made themselves at home. The critters like to nest in high places. They gallop across roofs, break in to attics, and set up camp in trees. The English Ivy on the side of our house has leaves as big as saucers and climbs all the way to the roof. A veritable stairway to heaven for rattus rattus. (In its own way, English Ivy is a pest too - it  pulls the mortar out of bricks, destroys paint jobs, takes over gardens and creates a perfect breeding ground for rattus rattus. In Oregon, you can buy a joint at your local dispensary, but it is illegal to purchase or plant English Ivy, standard ground cover in the Oakland Hills).

I was still pondering the rat hypothesis the night I had my first sighting.  I turned on the outdoor light to inspect my plants and stepped out onto the balcony, startling the ugly beige rat noshing on my tomatoes. I screamed, leaped back inside, slammed the door shut, screamed some more and jumped up and down maybe six times. Standard female rat-spotting behavior.

The next day, I moved all the plants from the bedroom balcony to the one in the living room. I hoped this would be a safety zone as there were no trees or ivy to worry about. It was a haul. The tomato plants were busting through their 6 foot cages like B movie Giant Octopi. I trailed dirt across the house, earning myself a trip to the chiropractor in the process. But it was worth it. My plants recovered peacefully from their trauma, at least for a few days. Then I trotted out for morning inspection and discovered the Great Red Hope of the slow-growing beefsteaks, gnawed to a nub.

I asked around for advice. One friend said to sprinkle red pepper around the base of the plants. I did, and woke to 6 slashed, half eaten habanero peppers, their sticky little seeds strewn all over the deck. I was starting to feel like Bill Murray in Caddyshack.

I googled ways to protect the fruit. The one I went with involved cutting up four runny pairs of stockings  and making little wraps for the tomatoes.Trussed and dressed in see-through black, my poor tomatoes looked like the chorus line from Chicago. For a couple of days, the rats were put off, or confused, or maybe too busy filing their teeth in preparation for the final onslaught. Next thing I knew, they were baaaaaack and eating through the nylons.  So I hired someone to take down the ivy and cut away any branches close to the balcony, and that worked too, until the morning I found a fat red tomato on the deck, gored like a fallen matador.

The crisis escalated. We bought glue traps.  I felt guilty, thinking about those poor creatures trying to pull free. I made my husband swear he would deal with any rodents we caught. (Thank God for traditional sex roles. I once asked a lesbian friend how she and her partner negotiate rat-trapping, spider-squashing and the like. Her answer? "We fight.") Anyway, I arranged some apple chunks around the traps and went to bed. The next day, the bait was gone and the traps, unoccupied. Apparently, the fruit was only an appetizer because I discovered two eviscerated tomatoes in one of the pots. That night, it rained, and the traps got too wet to salvage. I put them in the garbage.

So I threw in the proverbial towel. (The word "proverbial" is a writer's cheap device to let you know I realize I'm using a cliche). Following the advice of my informal gardening advisory, I harvested anything bigger and less green than a pea. Then, I took down the plants. I stuck the tomatoes and peppers in a paper bag with a banana peel to hasten the ripening process. The cherry tomatoes, delicious when vine-ripened, turned out tasteless when bagged, but the other varieties are sweet with a concentrated tomato taste – probably perfect for making sauce.

The day after I bagged the harvest and tossed out my plants, I found this handout in my mailbox. A day late and a bushel of tomatoes short. Oh well. Next year, I'll try again. It's Fall anyway. Maybe I'll go buy a pumpkin... Do rats eat pumpkins?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

On Beauty and Ugliness

This was originally going to be a post about World's Ugliest Dog Contest at the Petaluma County Fair. It was a fun time. Just the right size fair on a perfect Spring day. Cerulean skies, funnel cake with strawberries, young parents pushing strollers and strapping wee ones in for the kiddy rides. Barns full of prize cows, horses, sheep, pigs, chickens and goats.  Of course the ugly dog contest was a hoot. There were some truly hideous canines, most of them hairless Chinese cresteds. These poor pups are bred to encourage the genetic defects that cause their strange appearance. (Why Gomez and Morticia Addams did not have one is beyond me).

The unfortunate critters  are hairless, brittle boned, weak toothed and subject to vision loss. Here's a foxy one. Kind of the My Little Pony of Chinese Cresteds.

And here is a sad, tragic, inbred Chinese crested. Now, that is one fearsome shade of ugly. Somewhere between Yoda and a shrunken head.

Indeed, the breed has a  history of winning the ugly dog contest, as you can see if you click on this link. Don't know whether the trophy is compensation enough for tooth loss, drooping tongue, osteoporosis, blindness, skin cancer and other fun side effects of being a Chinese Crested. Anyway, this year,  despite the many gnarly looking Cresteds in the competition, a mutt broke the ugly lock: This guy.

Walle, the Hunchback of Notre Dog. Yes, he's a healthy weight, but his bones look like they're too big for his skin, as though he were about to molt. Walle doesn't walk, he waddles on stunted legs and huge duck feet. He has a camel hump and a couple of bumps on his face. Still, it's a nice, noble, trusty canine face. When Walle, who has to sit on his butt to beg, looks up at you with those gentle eyes, you can't help but like him.

Three expert judges, including adult Timmy from Lassie, had 50% of the vote. The other 50% was up to the audience, and tallied based on the amount of clapping and cheering for each dog. I was yelling my head off for Walle, which offended my husband's sense of fair play. "Don't cheer for him, he's not ugly," he complained.

That's right, he's not. People just loved Walle because he is a dignified, handsome kind of homely. Truth is, they picked the least ugly dog.

Now I am going to be Debby Downer, and talk about this:

Ain't he purty. Don't he look like the boy next door. From the second photo (first one was from the profile and accented his large nose), people started speculating. Must have been his evil brother's fault. Poor boy, his father in another land, led astray by his religious fanatic, bitter older sibling. We really wanted that to be the scenario. Look at his tousled hair. Look at his girlish complexion. Just a touch of the exotic, not enough to register as a foreigner.  He's on the cover of Rolling Stone. If you didn't know better, he could be the next big thing, casually styled, innocent yet knowing. (Probably unwashed).  People wanted to come up with an excuse for him. Why? Because of his beauty. Rolling Stone demonstrated bad taste, sure, but we, and our zeit-geist snorting media, set ourselves up for this.

OK, Debbie Downer again. Are you bummed out yet? Yes, we're a long way from ugly dogs and it gets worse. Through social media, I recently became aware of the organization Stop Acid Attacks. Acid attacks are a life-destroying phenomenon in India. It can happen because a young woman turns down a marriage proposal, or a wife gets too darn uppity, or a daughter-in-law with an insufficient dowry doesn't excel at housework. In addition to running a shelter for the invariably female victims, Stop Acid Attacks is trying to raise awareness, and change India's laws to put this vicious crime in a special category, to be punished by life imprisonment. The women that have come together to form the organization look like this:

The men who burned them thought beauty was their only value. Yet not only are these women smiling through their scar tissue, they emanate genuine kindness and hope. In a profoundly human way, they are beautiful. 

Now, I'm not corny and I don't intend to speechify about inner beauty and gloss over horrible crimes.  I just think we need to be aware of the pull beauty has on us. It can prejudice us for or against people. It can ruin relationships. It can set an impossible standard. It can make us covetous and greedy. Or it can inspire. Uplift. Serve as a quiet reward for a stressful day. 

Looks can be deceiving if one wants to be deceived. As my dependably offensive late father-in-law used to say about female employees, "It's just as easy to hire a good looking one." How many men would hire the single babe over the single mom with three kids? How many women would make a point of NOT hiring the hottie, even if she's obviously qualified?  Why do we look at the doe eyed Boston Bomber boy and think "there must be an explanation" while dispensing no such empathy to the orange haired, bug-eyed Aurora movie theater shooter? Why do parents pay less attention to homely children? Why do good looking people earn more money?

Beauty is all around us. It is a comfort and a pleasure that enriches our days. But we should never let it stop us from seeing.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Proustian Plumber

The garbage disposal goes out at least once a month, filling the sink with vegetable fragments and microbial soup. Our rental has a decent view of the San Francisco bay, but the toilets are lousy, and the finicky disposal goes on strike when things like dimes and champagne wire get stuck in its gullet. Sometimes, my husband manages to fix it, but this time, we had to call the plumber.

He showed up at 9 a.m. as promised, Miguel, a short, trim El Salvadoran in his early thirties with a smile that challenged the morning fog. He got right down to work while I started a pot of coffee.  French Roast, fresh ground. A rich java aroma permeated the room.  I offered him a cup – black, three spoons of sugar. 
“The smell of this coffee," the plumber said, "it reminds me of my grandmother’s house, in El Salvador.”  I took a sip of my coffee and leaned back against the kitchen counter. I sensed a story coming on.

Miguel put down his wrench and picked up his cup. He looked just past me, and I could feel the landscape of his childhood materialize around us. The coffee plantation in El Salvador where he was born, he explained, is the most beautiful place on Earth. He should know, he grew up there. His parents used to work the fields for the plantation owner.  Some members of Miguel's extended family still tend those same fields. The rows of coffee plants stretch all the way to the foot of the mountain and when they flower, their small white blooms dust the tropical landscape like a miraculous snowfall. The earth is rich and the people are poor, but they live in the protective shadow of an extinct volcano and wake to bird song and balmy weather.

"My grandmother, she would make us coffee with sugar and ground corn. Thick, like oatmeal. You eat it with a spoon. The smell would wake us up in the morning. "

Despite his caffeinated diet, Miguel grew, and his father watched him closely. Several of the boy's friends drifted into gangs. MS13 is a strong draw for teenagers whose only prospects are field work.  Four childhood playmates hardened into criminals and met violent, early deaths. Miguel's father moved the family to El Norte, specifically, San Francisco. There, Miguel and his siblings managed to stay out of trouble. It's been twenty years since they last saw their grandmother.

Long grown, with two kids and a wife, Miguel is glad to be making a decent living and living an honest life. He loves Northern California and takes his children fishing in the San Francisco Bay. Still, the bracing smell of strong coffee caused an aftershock of longing. His memories flowed freely, like water down my newly unclogged drain.

"My kids, they are Americans. They work hard in school. I work hard for them. But some day, I am going to retire in El Salvador. I'll buy some land in the valley where I'm from. My kids can come visit."