Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Holiday Limbo

My husband is what's known as a lapsed Catholic. He's been lapsed since age 18, when he graduated from Father Serra High School and his parents could no longer make him go to church on Sunday. Despite years of religious education, the dear man seems to have amnesia about the entire experience, so much so that he can't answer the simplest questions about the liturgy, the lives of the saints or church hierarchy. If you were to ask him to name the current pope, he'd probably draw a blank. This is the sum total of what he remembers from catechism:

"If a little bird flew low around the planet, tracing a circle in the ground with the tip of his wing, the time it would take him to slice the earth in half is but a second on the face of eternity. And eternity, of course, IS HOW LONG YOU WILL SPEND IN HELL IF YOU DON'T BEHAVE!"

I guess that would make an impression. Especially on the bird.

As for me, I'm not a lapsed anything. My father is a non-practicing Jew and my mother was raised culturally Catholic by parents who each had a Catholic mother and an Armenian Orthodox father. My father was barmitzva'd because that was the thing to do, and my mother had a first communion because she wanted to be like her girlfriends.

Over the years, people have occasionally asked me "Do you celebrate Christmas?" Sometimes, it's just conversation. Sometimes it's code for "Are you Jewish?". I grew up celebrating Christmas, sort of. There was a tree which my mother liked to put up alone, on Christmas Eve, after the children were in bed. The next day, there were gifts from Santa - not anything excessive, mind you, just the right amount. Once or twice my mother made my father drive us around the neighborhood to see Christmas lights. It was a bit of an anthropological experience - Oh these people do this and we don't and isn't it pretty. Despite having a Jewish family, I attended exactly one seder, at my father's uncle Jack's. I think I was about 15.

I am a secular person by nature and education. I have just enough of a sense of awe at nature's more inexplicable wonders that I can call myself an agnostic. My Armenian ancestors fled to France to escape the genocide. Some kept moving, and I have found distant cousins in Britain, France, Texas and Australia. The Jewish side of my family was not so lucky. Every single one of my Grandmother's old country relatives was murdered in the Warsaw Ghetto. I am leery of people who thinks their God is better than someone else's.

My children are inherently skeptical as well. When my daughter was four, she determined quite logically that Santa Claus did not exist. She explained to me that reindeer couldn't fly - they don't have wings. And it was logistically impossible for Santa to hit that many homes in one night. She was so reasonable in her thinking, I didn't have the heart to lie to her. I swore her to secrecy and told her the truth. But every time we would pass a department store Santa, she would look at the kids waiting in line, shake her head and say "Look at that fake guy. If they only knew."

So what does Christmas mean to a secular family like us? A time to count your blessings and enjoy your quirky, entertaining loved ones? A reminder to give more to people and organizations who need it? An opportunity to cook an elaborate family dinner and enjoy it together? An excuse to buy stuff? And how does Jesus' birthday fit into all this?

For years, people have advertised their tolerance by reminding each other that "Jesus was Jewish." And you could technically call him the first Christian. But I would also say that Jesus was a humanist. Not a secular one perhaps, but a humanist just the same. A man who taught such humanist values as love, non-violence, forgiveness, tolerance, self-sacrifice and respect for human dignity. Whether you believe Jesus was a visionary and extraordinarily gifted spiritual leader or the actual son of God, celebrating his birthday is a chance to reflect upon and honor our shared humanity. That is what is known as "the spirit of Christmas" and you don't have to be Mike Huckabee to get it. So while you probably won't run into me in church tomorrow, I will be celebrating Christmas, in my own secular, Jewish, French and Armenian way. And I wish you and yours a happy holiday and a healthy and prosperous new year.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

My Son and Hair

My children don't look a thing like me. They have some of my quirks, mannerisms, abilities and, ah... disabilities, but if you look at them, you might think they were adopted. The only exception is the hair: my daughter's is much lighter but she has the curl. My son's hair is less curly, but his hair is the same color mine used to be. A rich dark brown with natural red highlights and a perfectly lovely color if I do say so myself.

My son says different. For the past five years, he has been threatening to dye his hair blue. At first, we ignored this and simply changed the subject, but the topic kept coming up, and diversionary tactics became increasingly ineffective. In the past year, our hair discussions have gotten increasingly serious and prolonged. I have tried the following arguments:

• It's bad for your hair
• It will prejudice people against you
• It doesn't work with any human skin tone
• It won't match your clothes
• It could hasten the activation of the family baldness gene
• Your father will divorce me if I let you do this

None of these arguments have had the slightest impact.

When baby boy was born, he had a pointy tuft of hair sticking straight up from the middle of his head. To my doting eyes, his head looked like a little chocolate kiss. As the hair grew in, it became apparent that he had dueling hair whorls, causing a giant, persistent cowlick. (When we visited the ruins of Tulum in the Yucatan, we were informed that double hair whorls were a sign that a child had been marked for sacrifice by the gods, an option I am not ready to rule out.) The boy's hair is thick, unruly and hard to cut. He doesn't like to wash it very often and when he does, he tends to forget the shampoo. He has never, to my knowledge, used a comb, although his father occasionally manages to tackle him and run a brush across his head a couple of times, which usually makes his hair look even messier. So when the kid came home from boarding school this Thanksgiving, Dad made it clear it was haircut time again, thereby triggering the usual round of protests.

I made an appointment at a funky salon in downtown Berkeley, specifically requesting a young, punky stylist that my son would be able to relate to. All my husband had to do was show up with the boy. Unfortunately, I decided to store the date and time of the appointment in some remote cranny of my addled brain where the Tuesday appointment somehow morphed into Wednesday. I did get the time right, but you don't get points for punctuality when you're exactly 24 hours late. What you get is turned away. Now, I was in the doghouse, our son was shaggy as ever and my husband officially turned over the haircut negotiations to me. Sensing my vulnerability, my son started talking up a blue streak - or five.

I decided to work my maternal magic and soften the boy up, so I took him for a sunset walk with the dog. We teased, poked, berated, imitated, harassed, annoyed and amused each other. Winston seriously grossed us out by eating a piece of horse pucky. I tripped on a rock and fell on my face. In short, my son and I bonded and talked about everything from bobbleheads to skateboarding before the subject finally got back to hair. And tactfully, yet tactically, I presented my case, a shamelessly guilt-based diatribe about dear old Dad. After all he's done for you...you know how important grooming is to him ... he's a sixties guy who doesn't believe in artifice... he doesn't even like me dying my gray... etc. etc. Almost miraculously, I got the kid to concede. He would get the hair cut, and he'd wait 'til he turned 16 to dye it blue.

Unfortunately, I made a fatal mistake. I neglected to tell my better half that the boy and I had reached this agreement, giving my son the opportunity to work on his father when I was out of earshot. Worn down by years of arguing, Dad caved and agreed to the blue streaks, as long as the haircut was part of the deal.

I had nowhere to go: It was either go along or be the bad guy. I've been the bad guy a lot, and it never seems to work for me. So I took my son and daughter to the hair salon - haircuts for both, highlights for the girl and blue streaks for the boy. This is where we got lucky: the salon was too mainstream to have blue hair dye, but they did have a flashy burgundy, a shade artificial enough to please junior yet dark enough to not totally embarrass his parents as long as he stayed in the shade. The haircut turned out well, a little spiky all over, which camouflaged the cowlick and gave the streaks a certain punkish charm. Better yet, the hairdresser assured me the color was semi permanent and would soon wash out.

The kid went back to school, raring to show his friends his new look. We rationalized that we were cool and progressive parents, and this was not the kind of issue worth dying on one's sword over. We'd save the big guns for more permanent disfigurations like tattoos, piercings or, God forbid, ear-gaging. Of course, we secretly hoped the burgundy streaks would fade by Christmas.

A week later, while I was away on business, my son called his father to inform him that the dye had indeed washed out, leaving lighter streaks where the hairdresser had bleached it so the color would take. Not to worry, though, he had replaced the burgundy with purple and green. In the background, Mike could hear kids snickering. Whether they were laughing with our son, or at him, he couldn't tell.

I was furious. I had spent a bundle on a professional color job in a relatively subtle shade only to have my son remake himself into a troll doll. I fired off a seriously evil text message and Andrew called me as soon as he got it. As he saw it, the color had faded, so he HAD to do something. "Don't worry mom, it looks really cool, and purple and green are the school colors."

Yesterday, our son phoned with an update. The green side of his head was staying green, but the purple side had devolved to "a poopy pinkish brown." Apparently, this qualified as an emergency situation, leaving the boy no choice but to bleach the formerly purple side of his head blonde. As the green continues to wash out, his bisected head will eventually have a blonde side and a brown side. As long as it's the brown side of his head that does the homework, I guess I can deal.

As for my husband, he's found his own way to live with our son's hair: when he drives down to pick the hellion up for Christmas next week, he's bringing a stocking cap.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Blog block?

I've been enjoying this writing exercise immensely and have no plans to stop. However, life must take precedent over blogging right now. My son is home from boarding school, my daughter is coming in from college and it seems I have an obligation to cook a twenty pound turkey for four people. That's five pounds of meat per face fed, but the males in the family insist that anything smaller is downright scrawny. Besides, everyone looks forward to turkey soup the next day. (First, I must dig up a pan big enough to house a turkey carcass that proves, once and for all, that birds really do descend from dinosaurs). Besides the Turkosaurus, I will also be making cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, stuffing and lots of other edible accoutrements, all from scratch. There's no such thing as pot luck when you move to a new place and your closest friend is the smiley Mexican lady at the dry cleaner's.

In addition to all this family fun, I have been busy freelancing for my former employer and am looking forward to a two week stint on site in Washington DC. So it's not that I'm out of ideas as much as simply out of time. Anyway, check in around the second week of December and I should be back in full form, pithy as ever. In the meantime, enjoy your Thanksgiving.
Lotsalove to all, Yours Truly.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Berkeley Bumper Stickers*

Impeach Bush • There is nothing healthy about being well adjusted to a sick society • Native Americans. Fighting terrorists since 1492 • Kucinich 08 • Impeach Bush • It will be a great day when the schools get all the money they need and the airforce has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber • Visualize impeachment • When Jesus said love your enemies, I think he meant don't kill them • Impeach Bush • Get your energy from the sun • Send our kids to college, not Iraq • Freedom depends on free thinkers • Impeach Bush • I love dogs and art and I vote • PBS mind in a Fox News World • Why be normal? • Impeach Bush • Drop college tuition, not bombs • Bush and Cheney: Impeach and Imprison • Somebody explain to me why we have to kill people to teach them that it's wrong to kill people • Impeach Bush • Get corporations off welfare • I'd rather be smashing imperialism • Who would Jesus bomb? • Impeach Bush • Bush's third term: prison • The Bush Administration: Cronyism, Corruption and Coverups • Imagine true democracy • Impeach Bush • There is no flag big enough to cover the deaths of innocent people • If you want peace, work for justice • Dissent is patriotic • Impeach Bush • Put Bush in his place: The Hague • Love your mother • George Bush: Ignorant, a liar or just incompetent? • Impeach Bush

* The above bumper stickers do not necessarily reflect the views of the management. We think attempting to singlehandedly smash imperialism is a tad over-ambitious. We understand that not all mothers are loveable. And we believe the entertainment value of a good old fashioned tar-and-feathering far surpasses that of impeachement.

Friday, November 2, 2007


A friend of mine recently ended an email with "say hi to your view for me." Now, I am not so deranged as to stand on my terrace and send a shout out to the Golden Gate, but here is the update on the view, and the house.

Lately, the view has been foggy, which I guess should come as no surprise. After all, fog is a San Francisco cliche, like leaving your heart behind, which I guess could happen if it was foggy enough and you got distracted. What I wasn't prepared for is the fog's many manifestations. Most often, a giant cloud hides the city from view and then gradually dissipates over the bay, so that we look out over a horizonless body of water that fades into white. Meanwhile, here in Berkeley, the sky remains a brilliant blue with not a cloud in sight. If you don't like the weather you're looking at, all you have to do is spin around and face the other direction.

Then you wake up one morning and you're in it. You can barely see your neighbor's house. The cloud is so thick, it feels like some of it is floating around your kitchen. Later, you look out the window and the fog has contracted into a dense white mass, drowning the bay and the coastal areas. Here and there, bridge tips and building tops poke out, like shipwrecks about to go under.

The other day, I was walking the dog when I saw what appeared to be smoke rising from my neighbor's deck. I didn't smell anything burning, so I walked up my neighbor's garage driveway to get a higher vantage point. It wasn't smoke: It was fog, rising up in little patches all around me, under the clear blue sky. Here, the fog can generate itself whenever it wants to, straight out of the ground.

So, yeah. The fog, and the view continue to put on a show, and so far, it hasn't been too cold to sit on the balcony and watch.

As for the house, I'll just quote one of my favorite Richard Thompson songs: "This old house is falling down around our ears."

Right before we moved in, our landlord remodeled what must have been one seriously decrepit and dysfunctional kitchen. He skimped on the contractor and cut as many corners as he could. A couple of weeks ago, the pipe to the kitchen faucet broke loose and water came pouring through the cabinet underneath the sink. Fortunately, we were there when it happened. Upon inspection, the pipe appeared to have been connected to the faucet with foil. When the contractor came over to do repairs, he explained that he had been instructed to reinstall the fifty year old kitchen faucet above the new kitchen sink. Naturally, the landlord ended up having to shell out for a new faucet anyway. As my mother would say, "Le bon marche est toujours cher." Translation: cheap always ends up costing you.

A week after the flood, my husband Mike woke up at 5am. Something, somewhere in the house was making a watery sound like a toilet stuck on flush. No such luck: It was the kitchen sink, again. The pipe leading to the water purifyer had burst while we slept. The new hardwood floor was marinating in an inch of water, and the kitchen was completely steamed up. (The moisture ruined my mouse, but my computer lived.) Mike rushed to open the cabinet doors under the sink and got hit with a high-pressure burst of warm water. Thankfully, the flooding had gone unchecked for so long, the hot water was running out, or he could have been horribly burned. Mike felt around frantically for a shut-off valve and finally found it. Then, he woke me and we made a panicked dash to the basement storage room where all our art and books are stored. We were steeled for the worst, but fortunately all the water had flowed into the wine cellar and the dirt crawl space behind the store room.

Of course, we called the landlord immediately (I think it was about 5:30 am). The contractor came back out a few hours later and installed huge, noisy fans to dry up all the moisture. ( You know you've been screwed when the contractor proactively says "This is our fault. We won't charge you for the repair.") This time, the kitchen floor was soaked through and hopelessly buckled.

Once the landlord and his wife had picked out some new tile, we were instructed to move our stuff out of the kitchen so the contractor could install floor #2. As I knelt under my desk to pick up some papers, I noticed daylight shining through beneath the baseboards. About a quarter inch of daylight. Enough to let in lots of rain (floor #3 here we come), entire colonies of ants and some nasty brown spiders. The house is apparently coming off its foundation. Whether out of arachniphobia or sadism, I instantly notified the poor landlord, who must be starting to feel like Job. Especially since he's got the same bozos remodeling his house in Sonoma. Anyway, we have a new floor now, and the gap between the house and its foundation has been sealed, probably with scotch tape.

In case you're wondering, we are over our fantasy of buying this house and fixing it up - at least until the next really good sunset.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Yoga Shock

Now that I've moved California, I'm doing a lot more yoga. The boho life of a freelancer makes it easier to find the time. Besides, Berkeley has a dozen or more yoga studios but no actual gyms. There's a grungy Y that's way too child-friendly and an alpinists' club with some weight machines across from the climbing wall. (If you haven't done a free-hand vertical crawl up the face of El Capitan, you're going to feel out of place.) So my best bet for combating middle-aged spread is to move my asana in yoga class.

It 's no suprise that Berkeley offers good classes at affordable rates. After all, California is the epicenter of American yoga culture. There are, however, some things about the yoga scene out here that a bitchy urban East Coast type like yours truly is going to find, well, annoying. That is, of course, judgemental of me, and yogis are not supposed to be judgemental, ever. But I can't help it - it's genetic. Anyway, in an attempt to be a better yogi, I am going to purge myself of these evil, earth-bound thoughts by putting them on my blog. Then, I will go do twenty chatarangas as penance. And now, with great guilt and shame, I give you...


Back East, I would hear about Christians who were uncomfortable with the "religious" aspect of yoga and I'd think, give me a break. It's exercise and meditation with a smattering of Sanskrit. Well, out here, they have a point. While I have yet to see an Indian person teach or take a class, there's a strong Hindu influence to the yoga scene. My main studio just has a discrete little altar with a small, tasteful goddess, a candle and a flower or two, but my back-up studio has a shrine covering an entire wall. Arranged atop a pedestal the size of my dining room table are Ganesha the elephant God, a fierce, multi-armed Shiva, a black, watermelon-sized marble egg with some kind of crown on it and a picture of an earnest looking white-robed caucasian dude with a red shmear on his forhead. Offerings of flowers and candles are laid out in front this guy's photo as though he were princess Di, or dead, or both.

At my back-up studio, the teacher starts class by bowing before the altar and then leading a call-and-response chant in honor of the god-of-the-day. This is precisely what makes this place my backup studio: participating, even perfunctorily, in polytheism really creeps me out. I am a proud secular humanist. I go to church for one of three reasons: weddings, funerals or art history. My concept of a higher power is as abstract as Einstein's theory, and if there is some kind of life force up there, I don't have the hubris to believe it listens to my petty concerns. So when the yoga teacher asks us to dedicate our practice to Lord Ganesh, I have a problem. If I don't pray to a bearded man in the sky, I sure as shit am not praying to an elephant. Which brings me to...

Mahatma, the Sunday afternoon instructor at my back-up studio, is spending his whole life preparing for death. As are we all, I suppose, both literally and existentially. But Mahatma, whose mother probably calls him Doug, is one morbid yogi-downer. His favorite pose is shivasana - corpse pose. Mahatma doesn't just end class with Shivasana, which is pretty standard. He starts class with corpse pose and has us play dead repeatedly throughout the practice. Why? Because, as Doug-Mahatma lugubriously explains, it's important to "Prepare for your own death." Per Mahatma, the relaxation component of yoga is a rehearsal for the ultimate letting go – otherwise known as kicking the bucket. As for the exercise aspect, it's really about building up strength so as to "have enough energy to experience your own death". Oh, goody.

Western meat-head that I am, I always thought of death as the ultimate LOSS of energy, but what do I know? Mahatma is an enlightened being and I am not. Of course, dedicating your life to the pursuit of enlightenment is a great excuse for underachieving in everything else, like having a career, an advanced degree, a mortgage or a savings account. It's all about shunning the trappings of success and staying humble. So answer me this, Mahatma. If you're so darn humble, WHY DID YOU GO AND NAME YOURSELF AFTER GHANDI?!?

Hey, guys, wear a shirt. Doing yoga next to some sweaty, bare-chested guy in a bathing suit really interferes with my mellow. If I want to look at a middle-aged guy in briefs, I'll ask my husband to disrobe.

My studio believes the handstand is a "basic" pose. Now, I have been doing yoga for 4 years, and I have never even attempted a handstand. I can barely do a headstand against the wall. As a kid, I couldn't even muster a decent cartwheel. Now, I am expected to master a bleeping handstand, just like the unnaturally limber septuagenarian in the front or the seriously overweight lady in the back, both of whom can balance on two hands until the teacher cries uncle-asana.

Every other class, one of the teachers will suggest that we help our "friends" get into a pose. This means laying your hands on the waist, rump or grody feet of the complete stranger next to you, and then letting them return the favor. Since I rarely have time for a pedicure before yoga class, I am rather self-conscious about anyone grabbing my cracked heels. Besides, outside of my immediate family, I am not a touchy feely person. You can imagine how I feel about "stabilizing the hips" of someone I don't know from Adam. Flesh-eating bacteria, anyone?

Meet Morticia (not her real name). Morticia is an example of a certain type of youthful Anglo-Hindu, or Dharma punk. A white chick in her mid twenties, Morticia has snake-like blue-black dreads that fall past her bottom. Her nose is triple-pierced: a stud in each nostril and a ring in the middle. Both her ears are studded along their entire circumference. Huge plugs have distended her earlobes nearly down to her chin. The buddha-lobes sway when she moves. Morticia's brows are pierced, completely shaved and painstakingly redrawn. Her right arm is tatooed from wrist to shoulder with technicolor Hindu gods. Her more sparsely decorated left arm has elbow-to-wrist spike-tipped black stripes. Morticia wears flowy black yoga pants and a sports bra. The skin of her belly is adorned from the braline to somewhere just above the groin with two huge, identical peacocks. Both birds bend have their long necks bent low so they can peck at the twin studs adorning Morticia's navel.

Now, I know yoga is all about focusing on yourself but that's challenging when you have ADD and you're exercising next to the illustrated woman. No matter how hard I try, there's one question I can't get out of my mind. If you are so into artifice that you're willing to pierce and tatoo your entire body, WHY THE HELL CAN'T YOU SHAVE YOUR ARMPITS?

I am not talking about the traditional OHHHHHHHHMMMM. Ohming with your eyes closed in communion with a room full of yogis is actually kind of cool. All the voices blend together in one deep, primordial vibration, the Eastern equivalent of a Gregorian chant. But the classes I've been taking actually require you to memorize and sing Hindu invocations. If I don't sing, I'm a Western philistine party pooper. If I sing, I'm going against my beliefs and, for all I know, swearing lifelong allegiance to Hanuram the Monkey God.

What is a "kidney loop"? How do I "inner spiral" my thighs? Why do I need to "soften my eyes" before I can strengthen my legs? When am I twisting deeply enough to "massage my liver"? It's enough that I've learned the Sanskrit names of the most common poses. English shouldn't require translating.

VANITY FAIR recently did a photo essay on the most influential yogis in the United States. These folks have put their own spin on the traditional poses. For some, it's all about alignment, and you have to hold the pose a very long time as you make minute adjustments to get it right. For others, it's about getting a good workout by flowing energetically from one pose to the next, sacrificing a certain exactitude in the process. Different schools of thought advocate doing yoga in an overheated room, adhering to an exact order of poses or adding strengthening moves that have their origins in pilates.

I'm not dissing these gurus for trademarking their methods, putting out books and CDs or franchising studios. All the more power to them: that's how capitalism works. What I find a little freaky is the frenzy that occurred at my main studio when John Friend, the illustrious founder of the Anusara method, came for a visit. He gave a lecture on "Tantra in the 21st Century" in San Francisco and it was the talk of the studio for weeks. Classes were cancelled all weekend so the instructors could study with Mr. Friend and the students could go hear him speak. Instructors rhapsodized about how "transformed" they were after his presentation, and how difficult it was to come off of such an ecstatic experience and have to go home and do your laundry. Every student I know went to the presentation - which involved driving into the city on a Friday night - and they were all moved, changed, inspired, blown away. Folks, Mr. Friend may be a brilliant marketer, a dazzling speaker, a human pretzel and even a heckuva nice guy, but Martin Luther King he ain't.

The week after the great man came to town, one of the instructors was still carrying on about the visit when a lady in the class admitted not knowing who John Friend was. The teacher explained that Mr. Friend was the founder of the Anusara school of yoga. "John Friend, huh?" the student mused."I bet that's not his real name."

I hope I see that lady again. I think we could be friends.

Yoga is not a competitive sport. It's all about finding your edge and your center and modifying the poses to fit your level of competence. Unless you are a self-righteous, obsessive and probably vegan type A yogi. Last week, I got to class early and set up my mat next to a skinny, grey-haired fellow in his early sixties. While the rest of us did a few langorous stretches waiting for the instructor to show, this guy basically rolled through the entire class in ten minutes. He performed a dozen high speed vinyasas. He did multiple handstands. He twisted into exotic arm balances that would land him a slot at Cirque du Soleil. He seemed oblivious to the rest of us but I wasn't fooled. The guy was showing off - nearly as big a yogic faux pas as being judgemental.

Halfway through class, the teacher made the dreaded announcement: partner yoga time. I was assigned to the Yogi Extraordinaire. And then he did something unprecedented. He refused to partner. The instructor's jaw dropped. I tried to smooth things over. "That's OK, I'm too inhibited to do this as well." Mr. Type A gave me a withering look. "Oh, I'm not inhibited." He replied. " I just don't want to be handled by someone who doesn't know what they're doing." I could have told him to get over himself, but I don't think he ever will.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Onward and Uphill

We don't know a soul in the Bay Area, but we do have some deer friends. That's "deer" as in Bambi, not dearly beloved. Since moving to the Berkeley Hills, we've been visited by a four point buck, a doe and a truly impressive six pointer that would send my brother-in-law running for his rifle. These creatures are larger than the East Coast deer I used to see around Rock Creek Park back in DC, and they're grey rather than tan. I affectionately refer to them as Bucky, Mrs. Bucky and Big Poppa.

Deer encounters drive Winston, my neurotic Yorkie, nuts. His brain oscillates frantically between fight and flight. " Grrrrr! Kill! Kill! I must attack. No, wait a minute. This thing's way bigger than a squirrel. I think I'll hide behind my mommy. No, doggonit! I'm gonna kill that thing. Wait, hold on. There's a tree on its head. I might get skewered! Save me, master, save me!" Still, judging by the assortment of droppings I pick up in the yard, Winston and our deer friends manage to coexist when we're not around.

Most of my walks with Winston are short and devoid of deer sightings. The truth is, taking a stroll in this vertical environment leads to knee pain, oxygen-deprivation and very unladylike ring-around-the-arm-pit. And since the streets are laid out like the tunnels of an anthill, you also have to have faith in your sense of direction, or be a Catholic and pray to the patron Saint of the lost. (This is confusing - I looked it up. Saint Anthony covers lost property and Saint Jude covers lost causes, but it didn't say who to turn to for just plain lost). Still, I can get motivated to take a hike. A few afternoons ago, I caught a glimpse of my butt in the mirror and, fueled by self-loathing, headed for the hills, dog in tow.

The first law of hill hiking is to save downhill for the home stretch. I started walking up. Within a quarter of a mile, Winston had filled two poop bags and was panting like Marion Jones on steroids. Rivulets of sweat ran down my forhead and into my eyes and my legs were starting to burn. I kept a steady pace, past eclectic hillside homes, each wildly different from the next, the antithesis of "little boxes on the hillside". I could catch snippets of people's lives. A hippy couple barbecuing ears of corn. Two men in their middle years discussing George Bush's shortcomings over cigars. An old lady trimming a rosebush. A black lab watching me from a window while a fat gold Budha watched him.

The street was winding more now, and there were no sidewalks. Deciding which side to walk on required constant calculation in the event a car should come around a blind turn. By this time, I was in the zone. I was walking up as long as there was an up. I reached a fork in the road and randomly chose to turn right. The street dipped down a little and then climbed back up before deadending onto a steep patch of grassy mountainside, overlooking the Berkeley campus, the town, and San Francisco Bay.

We were well into the late afternoon golden hour, when everything starts to look like a Maxfield Parish Painting, minus the nymphs and faeries. A trail began where the street stopped, curving steeply down about 200 feet. Momentum pushed me downward, with Winston dragging behind. The path petered out over a steep drop overlooking a couple of administrative buildings that probably belonged to Berkeley University. I took stock of my position, looking up from where I'd come. Next to the trailhead was a long fence that ran the width of the clearing. Where the fence ended, I could see a street. It might be fun to go up there and explore a different way back.

I scrambled up the hillside. This time, the dog took the lead. Four legs beat the heck out of two on an eighty degree incline. As the slope got steeper, I made like Winston and got down on all fours, grabbing large handfuls of grass to steady myself. By the time we reached the top, the sky was pink, and sunset not far off. I found myself at the opposite end of the fence that bordered the clearing. Someone had a very private property with a big chunk of land and a panoramic view. There was a little gate in the fence, with a mailbox next to it. Fifty yards away was the street I had seen from below. On closer look, it had a fair amount of traffic, and again, no sidewalks - probably not ideal terrain for walking after dark with a small dog. I realized I had no idea where I was, or how to get home from up here. The trailhead was visible at the other end of the fence, but the terrain was too steep to cut across. The only logical move was to go back the way I had come.

As I turned to retrace my footsteps, the little gate swung open. A tall, trim, craggily good looking fellow emerged with a big golden retriever. He nodded. I nodded. The dogs nodded. And then I noticed the state park sign next to the fence. It read: Warning: You Are Entering a Mountain Lion Habitat.

"Excuse me!" I called after Mr. Handsome. "Are there really mountain lions up here?" He shot me a look of disbelief and kept walking, his answer trailing behind him. "Where there are deer, there are mountain lions." Subtext: "...you idiot."

Of course. How could I be so ecologically naive? Our deer friends had predators big enough to eat me, and if not me, certainly an oversized, overweight Yorkshire terrier. I looked down at Winston. In the deepening twilight, he was starting to resemble a bratwurst with hair. I wished my brother-in-law were here. With his rifle.

As I started down the hillside, it came back to me: the second law of hill walking. Never go up unless you're sure you can get down, especially if you don't like walking sideways in near-darkness, doing your damnedest to avoid a 200-foot tumble. They say animals can smell fear, or perhaps it was a whiff of mountain lion pheromones, but Winston started to panic. All that dog knew was that he wanted to go home. Now. And the best way to let me know was to yank on his leash until he pulled me off the mountain.

The second time I lost my footing, I decided my feet were not to be trusted. I was going down this hill on my butt, the same butt that had gotten me into this mess. By now, my heart was pounding so loudly, I'd never hear the mountain lion's warning growl. Probably just as well. The end would be quick, and I'd never know what bit me.

Finally, my feet touched on a flat area. I had reached the trail! I jumped up, dusted myself off, pulled a few burrs off the seat of my pants and hoofed it back up the path, Winston scampering cheerfully by my side. I kept him on a short leash: You never know when you might have to placate a hungry mountain lion.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Chinese Eggplant and Armenian Cucumbers

In the interest of partial disclosure, I'll reveal that I am half French. Perhaps my earliest memory is of accompanying my grandfather to the outdoor market near my grandparents' Paris apartment. Kindly merchants would cut me a sliver of cheese or hand me a plum while "Papapa" examined the day's offerings. He was brutal. The swiss he bought last week tasted soapy, the grapes were overpriced, the peaches were hard as cannon balls. You call that a peach? The merchants nodded stoically. Ultimately, we had to bring home whatever "Mamie", my grandmother, had put on the grocery list - or else!

Naturally, Berkeley's outdoor farmer's markets hold an irresistible attraction for me. There are three, each with its own location and day of the week. On Thursday, the vendors set up shop on the grounds of the local high school. Tuesday and Saturday, farmers hawk their wares on cordonned-off side streets. So far, I've checked out Tuesday and Thursday. Tuesday is small but 5 minutes from home. Thursday is big enough that three old Black guitarists and one white chick with an accordeon can simultaneously play for their suppers without creating a cacaphony. As for Saturday, I'm pacing myself. I have a feeling it's the mother of all farmer's markets.

Just the smell of fresh-picked organic produce makes me feel virtuous. After all, I'm buying organic, supporting local agriculture, and stocking up on enough fiber to keep my entire neighborhood regular. Fact is, shopping here better make me morally superior, because it sure isn't making me richer. You'd think, since these folks eliminate the middle man by shlepping and selling their stuff themselves, it would result in savings for the consumer, right? Wrong. I could get myself a dozen long stemmed roses for the price of a single bunch of arugula. That's a lot of green for not a lot of greens.

The fruits and vegetables may be pricey, but the experience is priceless, even if nobody takes American Express. First, you do a once-over, to find the best of the best. I can almost hear Papapa's running commentary. The pears were picked to soon, but the baby lettuces are beautiful. We're not buying that meat - it's wrapped in cyro-vac! (At the insistence of the California Board of Health). I imagine my grandfather's indignation in front of the soy cheese booth. "Qu'est-ce que c'est que cette cochonnerie?" Loosely translated: What kind of pig slop is this?

Once you've cased the joint, you double back and start shopping. Can you say cornucopia? Can I spell it? One couple sells nothing but tomatoes. Tiny pear-shaped, bite-sized tomatoes. Gigantic misshapen heirloom tomatoes in wierd colors like bright orange or lime with vivid green stripes. Deceptively average-looking red tomatoes that teleport you to Tuscany in one bite. One stand over, a large Asian family keeps their pretty daughters busy putting out slivers of plums for tasting. Shoppers cluster around the sample bowls like bees. Each bowl is labeled: There's Flavor Queen, Flavor King, September Flavor, and my favorite, Flavor Grenade. They're all delicious, and by the time you've tasted them all, you've forgotten which is which and you have to start over. Then, you feel so guilty for gorgeing yourself, you buy enough plums for an army, which just might explain "Flavor Grenade."

I pass up the bakestand where bearded young men in wool caps sell brown bread lacking in sugar, salt and basically, taste. Nearby, frighteningly articulate small children with uncombed hair and mismatched clothes beg their mommies for something from the taco stand - a great place to stop for some saturated fats if you're starting to feel too healthy. Across from the moveable taqeria, an old Chinese gentleman is selling vegetables that look like something from a Star Trek movie. Those long, mint green wart-covered things? Armenian cucumbers. I play it safe and pick up some Chinese eggplant and four miniature bok choy. I'm also part Armenian, but it's a very small part.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Love Fest 2007

My husband grew up in the Bay Area, but that was decades ago, and until this move, I'd only been to San Francisco as a tourist. What that means is that the only people we know here are our landlord and his wife. This is not a huge problem for my introverted better half, who is happy to wait for me to meet people and occasionally bring them home for dinner. For me, it's a different story. I crave conversation. I'll bond with the drycleaner, the pharmacist, the nice old lady walking her cockapoo. I'm forever chatting up strangers and embarassing my kids. So when I heard two friends and former coworkers were coming to town on business, I immediately made plans to have them for dinner at the crazy Japanese house. Wine, artisanal cheeses, sunset on the bay - we had the makings of a lovely evening.

Since my friends were without wheels, my husband and I offered to pick them up. We decided to drive into town early, and take a long walk before meeting the ladies at their hotel. As soon as we hit the Bay Bridge, we knew something was amiss. It was 12:30 on a Saturday afternoon, and we were stuck in 5:30 rush hour traffic. The bridge finally spilled us out onto the hopelessly gridlocked streets of San Francisco. The only logical move was to find a place to park and start our walk early. Granted, the Tenderloin isn't the best place for a stroll, but we gamely parked the car, tightened our shoe laces and and got going. Meanwhile, my 14 year old son called, and I began chatting distractedly on my cell phone as I walked.

It seemed all manner of colorful people were headed in the same direction, and the sidewalk kept getting more and more crowded. We all converged upon a barricaded street lined with portapotties. A friendly police officer was letting people in past the barrier, in groups of twos and threes. He waved us through and we found ourselves in a vast public square choked with people. We had stumbled onto Love Fest '07, San Francisco's annual outdoor rave - definitely a new experience for a nice, straight, middle-aged couple with two kids and a yorkie.

As Electronica thumped, thousands of Love Fest Revelers danced, tranced and groped themselves or each other. Breasts bounced. Earplug-distended lobes swayed. Cellulite dimpled cheerfully. Judging by the frenzy surrounding us, the street vendors were selling more than just beer and souvlaki. There were blue mohawks, purple wigs, leather chaps, clowns in white face and women in tutus that barely grazed their panties. Fishnet, preferably hot pink and torn, was the uniform du jour for both sexes. Women tended to wear it on their legs, but the guys prefered fishet tanks, with so their nipple piercings could poke through. I held the cell phone up in the air so my son could hear the music - attending a rave could only be good for my street cred. We kept walking, looking for a way out. My husband complained of feeling overdressed - the chinos and flannel shirt did seem a tad formal.

He wasn't the only one without a costume. As we reached the center of the square, we came upon a butt naked reveler. Surely, I thought, he's wearing some kind of g-string, cod piece, figleaf - perhaps a giant bean pod from New Guinea, to conceal his manhood? Nope. Mr. Johnson was definitely on display, relaxed, meticulously shaved, and working on his tan.

"Hold on a second!" I shouted into the phone. "I have to compose myself. There's a guy here who's totally naked." My son, who thinks everyone over forty is senile, made the natural assumption that I was hallucinating. "Mom, they have laws against public nudity."

Not in San Francisco, they don't. At least not at Love Fest. I looked around and realized Mr. Burma Shave had a bevvy of friends dressed just like him, all middle-aged and none even remotely resembling Michaelangelo's David.

50 yards from another police check point, we picked up the pace. And then, dazed and relieved, we were out of there. Perhaps we should have made plans with my friends for Sunday instead. Or perhaps not. Turns out Sunday was the 24th annual Folsom Street Fair, described in the San Francisco Chronicle as "A celebration of leather culture and sexual fetishism." I guess I'll just have to wait until next year to have myself publicly flogged.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The View

Every morning, I drag myself reluctantly out of bed to walk the dog. My hair looks like a brillo pad. My eyeballs don't quite connect with their sockets. My legs are way stiff from going to the gym, or not going to the gym. Coffee sounds good but it's almost too much of an effort. And then, I look up and take in the view, and suddenly, I'm awake. It's the best damn view in Berkeley, if not the entire Bay Area. The view that beckoned, in fuzzy black and white, from a Craig's list printout I've had since before the move from D.C. Live and in person, in living color, it's a bigger buzz than a triple expresso.

The view is panoramic and unobstructed, elegantly framed on either side by massive cypress trees. The Golden Gate bridge is dead center. On a clear day, it gleams orange. To the right of the bridge are the mountains that overlook Sausalito and Mill Valley. The tallest one is Mount Tamalpais, which, according to the Native Americans, resembles a reclining woman. Immediately to the left of the Golden Gate Bridge is the San Francisco skyline with its signature monstrosity, the Transamerica building. Along the shoreline, you may see a massive cruiseship. Further left, beyond South Francisco, a steady stream of planes converges on the airport. Spot the Bay Bridge and follow it over to the port of Oakland, where giant cranes unload countless crates of cargo that Homeland Security can't be bothered to inspect. Glance back across the water, and suddenly there's fog spilling over the Golden Gate like steam on a witch's brew.

In just three short weeks, my husband and I have become completely addicted to the view. We check in on it regularly, like a baby. We watch it change day to day, like a child. We find its presence restorative and inspirational, like a wise old friend. And we scheme and fantasize about purchasing and renovating the rental house it belongs to. This is unfortunate because the house is a dump. It has termites, lousy insulation and a master bath that hasn't been updated since 1960. The cabinets smell of rotting wood and not a single window has a screen. The garage door fell off and got miraculously stuck just two inches above our car. The house needs rewiring, remodeling, and all new floors, windows and doors. When we moved in, the heat didn't work, so the landlord replaced the furnace with the cheapest, loudest model he could find. It roars us awake in the middle of the night, and the heat dissipates almost immediately.

Did I mention the cosmetic aspect? The house is Japanese. According to our landlord, the original owner had it copied from a house in Kyoto. Most of the living room floor is a giant built-in tatami mat which we have covered with a drop cloth so our yorkie won't destroy it. In keeping with Asian tradition, the living room features a floor-to-ceiling carved pole to provide an escape route for evil spirits. Half the rooms in the house are covered with hideous, yellowed wood panelling on which no art can be hung. Where there's no wood paneling, there's dingy, dirty grass cloth. Everything about the house screams money pit.

And then there's that million dollar view.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Stop and smell the Eucalyptus

Some of my friends suggested I start this blog to chronicle my move from Washington DC to the San Francisco Bay area.
So now I've gone and done it, in the most low-tech way possible, courtesy of Google. The hard part was naming the damn thing because all the good names are taken. I spun around geography (Going Coastal, Go West, Veer Left) communication, (Blather On, Free Associate) and even my semi-advanced age (Mid Stream). All taken. It reminded me of the time I was naive enough to think I could be curly@aol.com. AS IF! So fine, all you clever people out there, keep your creative names. I'm naming my blog Eucalyptus Way, after the tall, graceful aromatic tree that perfumes the air around our crazy Berkeley rental house, with a little help from the jasmine, lavender, lime blossoms and rosemary .