Tuesday, December 15, 2009



Bah. Bah.



Bah. Bah.

Bah. Bah. Baaah.

Bah. Baaaaah.


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

My animal nature

When my son told me I didn't look like a cougar, I didn't know whether to be sad or relieved. I asked him to explain what a cougar was, because I don't like the way he spews pop culture like it's reality on earth. The kid informed me that a cougar was a predatory, highly sexed older woman who goes after younger men, including the underaged kind. Then, he gave me a physical and wardrobe description of the typical cougar that sounded like the stylist notes from Desperate Housewives. And I got to hear about his seventeen year old friend who got propositioned by a Cougar! That's right, they're real! They're out there! They're preying on our innocent boys! They even have their own convention which appears to be mating grounds for older women and younger men.

It seems middle aged women are in. (Perhaps someone should tell prospective employers.) The entertainment world is largely responsible. Aging babes like Demi Moore and Madonna (whose ropy limbs increasingly resemble beef jerky) are refusing to hang up their G-strings. Courtney Cox is starring in Cougar Town, which writer producer Bill Lawrence readily admits has a "zeitgeisty topic". They're making another Sex in The City movie. I confess I've never watched any of the Real Housewives series on Bravo, but the shows are multiplying like Tiger Woods' mistresses. How sad that this trend is hitting at the same time as high def television, which shows every wrinkle and dimple.

I suspect this cougar business is just another popular culture trope. Certainly, there's a demographic basis for it: The Xers are now in their forties, and the boomers have a distorted image of their own youthfulness. (This is something you learn in advertising - it's the reason we show forty year olds in campaigns targeting folks in their fifties.) These days, women with a certain degree of affluence take good care of themselves. Thanks to dermatologists, personal trainers, hair colorists and plastic surgeons, they have access to an arsenal of rejuvenation techniques. While there are legions of ladies who wish the old ball-and-chain would just flush the damn viagra and get back to snoring, there are, and always have been, women of a certain age with a strong sex drive. Does that make them a cultural phenomenon? Is the fact that a gal is well-kept and not dead from the waist down enough to classify her as a cougar? Or does she also have to lust after younger guys?

I don't do Botox, although I've often thought the resulting poker face would help me in business. I can't afford the requisite face lift, boob job or tummy tuck of the TV cougars, and I'd hate to to spend that much time on my hair and make up. I don't like animal prints or own a push up bra. I've never maxed out my credit card on impractical Italian shoes. And, putting aside the legalities of cradle robbing and the fact that I'm happily married, I really, really am not into teen age boys. They're zitty and dense. They reek of Axe. They don't wash their feet unless their mothers (who are probably not cougars) make them. I'd wager they don't know what they're doing in bed and if they do, they'll give you chlamydia. Come to think of it, judging by my daughter's dispatches from the twenty-something dating scene, I don't think I like young adult men too much either. Give me George Clooney. Pierce Brosnan. Sting. Gabriel Byrne. Bono. Viggo Mortensen. Sebastian Junger. Guys who look like they actually have hair on their chests. You can keep that anemic, fine-featured lad from Twilight.

My son's right. I'm no cougar: I've always been more of a bitch than a feline. But I bet I could teach an old dog a trick or two.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Death be not public.

A few months back, Katie Couric did a story on stalkers. The narrative quickly honed in on a particularly tragic incident. A young woman was being harassed, followed and spied upon for months by a man she barely knew. He ultimately tracked her to her apartment. The poor girl managed to get away and was running down the street, screaming into her cell phone for the 911 operator to send help, when the stalker chased her down and shot her dead.

A horrible incident, made all the more grizzly by CBS' decision to play the 911 tape. You could hear the panic in the poor girl's voice, and then a shriek, and the sound of gunfire. The senseless, violent death of a private citizen, forever frozen on tape and made public for our evening's entertainment. I felt my stomach contract against my spine. The tape was shocking and literally made me nauseous. It didn't take me long to conclude that the network's decision to air that 911 call was sickening as well.

Prominent in the news these days is the Toyota recall. The issue is a floor mat, prosaic but deadly. It can get wedged under the accelerator, which then jams in the floored position. The car hurtles ahead at high speed and the brake can't override it (an additional problem, this one apparently electronic - way to go, Toyota). Several people lost their lives in separate incidents, including an entire family. As their car hurtled down the highway, they too called 911. On the tape, you can hear the dad yell that he can't stop the car. His wife and child wail in terror as he shouts for them to pray – they're coming to an intersection. And then you hear the family cry out and moan as they crash, and presumably, die. I know this, of course, because CBS played it for us.

I'm all for freedom of the press. Sometimes, graphic evidence is necessary to get a story across. Sometimes, the evidence is the story, as in the cell phone-captured footage of the last moments of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young Iranian woman killed by government thugs in Tehran. The video exposes the criminal excesses of a regime interested primarily in perpetuating itself, at the expense of whomever. The Neda video is gut-wrenching, but it's news, as is the fact that Neda has become a symbol and martyr for the Iranian political opposition.

In the case of both the stalker victim and Toyota accelerator tragedy, the graphic audio is not essential to getting the story across. The stalker story is a feature, conceived, compiled and edited at the network's discretion. There was no competing news outlet waiting to scoop CBS and play that 911 call first. The network made a supremely tacky choice to treat the public to a little snuff audio. The Toyota recall is a major story that affects Toyota and Lexus owners all over the country (including yours truly - I am yanking that lethal floor mat out of my Prius, pronto). The fact that there were fatalities is relevant to the news story. The graphic final moments of the ill-fated family are not. What if you were a friend or relative of one of the victims? Would you want to hear your loved one's final moments on the national news?

People should be informed that their car could potentially kill them. Women need to learn how to protect themselves against stalkers. But I fail to see what the airing of these tragic 911 tapes contributes to the public's infamous "right to know". And I am sorry that the stalker victim, the desperate father and his family have had their right to privacy violated from beyond the grave.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Experienced Blues

In my nomadic advertising career, I've toiled in countless categories. I have sold airplane wheels and brakes to airlines, car insurance to the military, facial hair remover to African American men, pots, pans and vacuum cleaners to the lady of the house, paint to do-it-your-selfers, fruit-scented shower gels to women under 25, hospitals to women over 55, bipolar meds and antidepressants to legions of unhappy people of all ages and sexes...the list goes on and on. I've engaged in consumer, B to B and relationship marketing. I have changed markets and changed focus and changed clients and changed the way I think and write. I maintain this is all valuable and good. The truth is, people get stale working on the same account. Especially advertising people, who tend to be on the ADD side of the attention spectrum.

But since I've been back on the freelance beat, I have learned that what used to be called experience is now considered baggage. The market today praises verticality above all else. You must be a Yahoo maven, a supermarket specialist, an expert in make up and skin care products. Don't even bother calling unless you've spent at least five years toiling on packaging for canned fruit, preferably pineapple. OK, so you've worked on websites for a dozen different small businesses, but have you written one for an HR outsourcing service? I didn't think so. Next!

There are a lot of unemployed copywriters out there, and if advertisers wait long enough, they can get someone with exactly the experience they think they need. But guess what? That doesn't guarantee a thing. You want someone smart and strategic. Someone who will ask you about your target and your competition. Someone who can distill your information down to its essence and give it a little kick. Someone who is down to earth and makes your insane deadlines every time. Category experience is gravy. Yes, there are a few categories, such as tech and pharma, that take a while to absorb, but good writers get up to speed pretty fast, at least where writing for the consumer is concerned. (If you're writing to the trade in tech or pharma, then you DO need a special skill set. These gigs call for technical writers.)

I think we writers have fed into this mindset, because we try to market ourselves vertically. Maybe it gets you a gig or two, maybe it doesn't. Pretty soon, you are pigeonholed. Clients categorize you and so do agencies. If an agency gets a new piece of business and can't afford to hire, they'll reassign someone from another group and upload them on the category, no problem. But if they're hiring a new writer, candidates are required to have done plenty of time in that exact category. The question is, should that be enough to clinch the deal? And how many better candidates are left floating in cyberspace, their resumes filtered out of contention?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Social Media Me

Every morning they beg to be freed from their prison in my closet. Purses. Pumps. Presentation suits. My business clothes. Put us on, they whisper. You'll feel good. You'll look good. You'll sound good. Shave your legs. Spray on some French cologne. How about a little lipstick? You remember lipstick, don't you?

I read an article once about the huge market for American used clothing in Africa. It would take a village to wear my closet: I've been the same size for about fifteen years, which is how long I've had some of my clothes. Now that I work at home, I'm rarely out of my pajamas before noon. Let's face it: my well-appointed wardrobe is going to remain as closeted as Kevin Spacey. I'm north of forty, I moved to what just might be the most insular advertising market on the planet and the real unemployment rate, once you factor in the underemployed and the folks who've stopped looking, is around 18%.

These days, I work part-time and freelance, or rather, "consult", which is supposed to sound more glamorous. Once in a while, I land something conceptual and maybe even fun. Mostly, I write table tents, emails about prostate cancer and brochures on electro-convulsive therapy (Yes, McMurphy, that's the politically correct term for electroshock). I can't really mourn my salad days, because many of my friends' situations are way more dire. Besides, I'm the moron who walked away from a VP/ACD title when she was on track for a promotion to Creative Director. (If I had kept that job, I'd probably be unemployed by now, like many of my homies).

Bottom line, I have a business to build. I'm doing as much old school networking as I can but in these lean times, the classic "your friend so and so gave me your name" tactic is ineffective. People tell you to call back in two weeks when they're done with their focus groups, huge pitch, vacation, company retreat, hernia operation... you get the picture. You write yourself a note, wait the requisite two weeks, call and leave a message, and after unreturned phone call#3, scratch another name off your call list. Not that I blame these people. They're probably getting ten of these calls a day and they'd rather help a friend than a friend of a friend.

What do you do in an anti-social business climate? Make like everybody else and turn to social media. I started with the most logical choice for business purposes, linked in. It's turned out to be an invaluable forum. You pick up interesting information, communicate with people from all over the world, discover kindred spirits, read interesting links about trends in your industry. The etiquette is simple and the discussion groups are a great place to get feedback or advice from peers. I've even gotten work off of linked in, from people who read my profile or snarky wall posts.

Twitter, I have not had much use for. I'm sure I would, were I an oppressed Iranian, tweeting about the street protests and subsequent government crackdowns. But I'm just an underemployed yankee ad wench. I get annoyed looking at Twitter's too-cute retro design and ugly colors. I don't feel like checking in with the tweetosphere multiple times a day to see who's being pithy now. I am not going to follow the Mexi-Korean fusion food truck around town. I don't care when the krispy kreme donuts are coming out of the oven and I have no desire to cyber-stalk Ashton Kutcher. Once or twice a month, I get a notice that somebody I've never heard of is following me on Twitter. Good luck with that. Following me on Twitter is like chasing a parked car.

Facebook is the SM I resisted the longest. I just couldn't see how to walk that line between the personal and the professional. Even if stay resolutely away from topics like God and country, how is the fact that I like pilates and putrid French cheeses relevant to a potential client? But FB has become a terrific 5 minute diversion when I'm in the middle of some particularly dreary assignment. Not only can I stay in touch with old friends, I've gotten to know many of my acquaintances a lot better. The fun facts you pick up! Who knew that October 24th was Zambia's 45th birthday. Or that Thai people punctuate everything they say with "na". I just found out Richard Thompson's 1952 Vincent Black Lightening totally rocks, and that an African American congregation in Georgia is learning the meaning of namaste. I even got introduced to the axolotl, a Mexican salamander that looks like it crawled off one of my son's old pokey man cards.

So here I am, sitting in my home office. The business clothes remain incarcerated: It's 3:00 p.m. and I'm still in my pajamas, blogging and cranking out radio spots. I'm afraid I haven't provided much insight into social media, but if you want a free, detailed upload, take a peek at this art director's blog. He's a nice guy, and judging by his facebook page, he cooks a mean Irish breakfast.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Yesterday's happy ending

Full disclosure - I'm not a huge musical fan. I know many are timeless entertainments, with classic, catchy songs beloved around the world. Maybe I'm a narrative junky, but I always want more information on the characters than musicals tend to provide. All those singing interruptions too often take time away from character and plot development. Whenever the conversation starts to get interesting, someone breaks into song. But my husband wanted to go see the Broadway revival of South Pacific and so, we went. Which is as it should be since I've made him sit through Greg Brown (on a particularly folky night), Manhattan Transfer, and an excruciatingly minimalist modern dance in which the choreographer sat in a chair, facing away from the audience, and made agonizingly subtle motions with her back muscles.

It was my turn to do something outside of my aesthetic comfort zone.

On with the show. First, the classic songs. Bali Hai is an icon of musical kitsch - the melody itself remains resolutely so, no matter how you orchestrate it. There is Nothing Like a Dame? Silly, corny and sexist. Yes, there is nothing like a person of the female sex. Except, if you are generalizing to this absurd degree, all other persons of the female sex. And then there's Wash that Man Right Out of my Hair which is always fun, no matter who sings it, because the lyrics are so charming. As for Some Enchanted Evening, the song has a deep, romantic emotional truth - anyone who has ever loved remembers that first time your eyes met, that feeling that anything could happen.

Based on a compilation of several short stories from James Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning first book Tales of the South Pacific the musical is set on a Polynesian island during World War II. The American sailors stationed there are going stir-crazy, waiting for their orders. Our heroine is Nelly Forbush, a Navy Nurse who has fallen in love with a dashing French plantation owner named Emil Debeque. Widower Emil has two half-Polynesian, toffee-hued children whose existence he has not yet divulged to Nelly.

Being half French, I appreciated the Debeque character, an honorable, decent guy and not a racist (if you forgive the fact that indigenous servants are tending to his life of white privilege on their island). I kept waiting for Emil to put on a beret, surrender to his poodle and dissolve into a pool of cliche slime. Fortunately, for once, the French character didn't turn out to be a scumbag, drug dealer, sleaze ball, coward, womanizer or cheat. Thank you, James Michener. As for Nellie, she's a tirelessly spunky little Southern broad with attitude and a down-home naivete.

Anyway, Emile DeBeque throws a party for Nellie, at the end of which she meets his children. At first, thinking the kids belong to Emile's manservant, she drawls that they are the "Keee-you-test thahngs" she has ever seen. But when she learns that Emile is their father, Nellie recoils in shock. The realization that her paramour has brown children and has ostensibly had sex with a brown woman - horrors - more than once, is just too much. Nelly has a hissy fit and storms off, we later find out, to request a transfer.

Meanwhile, Joe Cable, a dashing young Princeton-educated Marine on a secret mission to turn the tide of the war in the Pacific, is having his own Island fantasy with a Tonkinese girl named Liat. The actress playing Liat in this production is maybe 5 feet tall and very young, and her Joe towers over her at about 6'4. Their seduction scene comes off as child molestation, or at least the exploitation of a barely adult woman. It makes you so uncomfortable, you have to wonder whether the casting was intentional. Especially as Joe is smarmily singing "younger than Spring time". Of course, later he mournfully admits he can't possibly bring some Gauguin babe home to Mother Dear and chalks it all up to his upbringing. Now if you can have that degree of insight, why not keep thinking? Why? Because Joseph must go home and take his rightful place in the Wasp ruling class. He abandons Liat, leaving her his grandfather's watch as a souvenir. Or payment for services received.

Joe Cable ultimately recruits Emile De Beque as his civilian partner on the Spy mission: to sneak onto an island occupied by the Japanese and observe their maneuvers, reporting back to the US military by radio. Debeque knows the island and has contacts there who can help. The mission is a success but poor Joe never makes it back to the states live out his life as a member of the Yankee elite. News of Joe's demise reaches base camp and Nurse Nelly fears Emile, too, has gone to meet his maker. She suddenly realizes WHAT'S IMPORTANT. And so the play ends with Nelly ensconced in Emile's plantation, where she has apparently decided to take over mothering his kids. When the Frenchman turns up alive and unannounced, he quietly observes the nurturing way Nelly feeds his children soup and is so touched by her maternal behavior that he takes up where they left off.

If you're living in the Obama era, (and an vituperatively vocal minority of Americans are not) it's hard to relate to the plot of South Pacific. You don't WANT elegant Emile to end up with small-minded Nellie. Yes, I know, some individuals genuinely and profoundly change. I also know lots of people revert to their bigoted upbringing as soon as they get mad at their spouse. How often does a stone racist like Nelly do a 180 and become an enlightened humanist? For God's sake, it's 1950. And the woman is from Little Rock Arkansas, not known for its Civil Rights street cred. Wouldn't it be a healthier reaction for Emile to not want Nelly near his children, whom she may deep down consider the products of miscegenation?

So that is the problem with South Pacific. When it came out in 1950, many needed to hear its message. Today, it's hard to feel warm and fuzzy about that nice Emil Debeque, with his romantic aura and Enchanted Evening baritone, walking off into the sunset with narrow minded little Nell Forbush. According to modern mores, her behavior should be a deal breaker. If she has something to be mad about, it's the fact that the guy let things get this far romantically before springing two kids on her. That's a contemporary and justifiable beef. But no, she's too busy tripping out over a dead brown woman to whom Emile was legally married. And while the death of any young man in combat is always tragic, when we learned of Joe's, I found myself thinking oh well, one less frat boy. Joe's dalliance with Liat was never intended to be more than an exotic interlude. He used her because he could, and he convinced himself he loved her just long enough to justify his own behavior.

You have to suspend your contemporary attitudes about race, and racists, to enjoy South Pacific for what it is, an entertaining artifact of the past. The set designer certainly understood that - you can't go understated on this one. It's gotta be realistic, it's gotta be technicolor and if you don't throw in the ocean and at least one palm tree, you're fired.

Friday, September 11, 2009


Now that we have moved from Berkeley to Orinda, I am taking my hill walks in the park instead of the street. Our new rental house is a short drive away from three Regional Preserves: Tilden, Redwood and Briones.

Our new address is on other side of Wild Cat Peak, the hill overlooking North Berkeley. At the top of that hill is Tilden Park, with its Eucalyptus and Pine groves, stables, a petting zoo, a little lake for swimming, steam trains, post-card views of the bay and Nimitz Way, a wide, relatively flat asphalt trail favored by bicyclists, old folks and dog owners.

Twenty minutes away from the Orinda house, Redwood Park lives up to its name, boasting several groves of the huge trees. Redwoods seem to always grow in groups, like conversational clusters at some somber, druidic gathering. Originally, the forest at Red Wood was tall, vast and dense. Back in the days of clipper ships, sailors entering San Francisco Bay avoided submerged rock by lining the tip of their vessel between Yerba Buena Island and two redwood trees 16 miles off, trees so outsized, they could be seen from the mouth of the bay. These historic giants would still be part of Redwood Park had the logging industry not destroyed the original forest in the mid 1800s.

Briones Park consists of a series of low hills with mammalian contours. Here and there, patches of scrubby woods shade the trails. There are mini canyons and shallow gorges and ridge trails with views of hills, hills and more green hills. Briones is pretty in a low-key way, but almost creepily generic. The landscape is uncannily quiet and feels like it's outside of place and time. You could be in Ireland or Tuscany, Russia or New Zealand. As the path ahead of you curves around the hillside, practically anything could be coming your way - a rusty depression-era jalopy, a knight on a muscular steed, a Gypsy peddler dragging his overloaded donkey, a happy-go-lucky group of hobbits. You will certainly see hawks swirling on the almost constant wind, and you may encounter a mother raccoon and her unruly pups. Unlike the Berkeley deer, calm and complacent as cows, the Briones deer are truly wild. They burst out of the woods, bound across the trail and disappear, unnerved by the presence of a human on their turf.

Walking through the understated Briones terrain has a meditative quality. Even with a dog in tow, it's easy to get lost in your thoughts when there's nothing but blue sky and bald hills to distract you. This is the state I was in on my most recent hike, worrying, reassessing, reevaluating, planning, pondering, flogging myself for past mistakes and personal inadequacies. In short, not paying any attention to the here and now. I was yanked back into the present by a sudden, assertive hiss directly on my right.

I spun around to face an angry rattlesnake, as startled by my presence as I was by his. The serpent's upper body rose straight up from a pile of concentric coils, his alien, triangular head pointing straight at me as he sounded his rattle. It was surprisingly loud, but then, he was only about four feet away. I can't have looked for more than a second, yet the picture is seared on my brain, like an image on a piece of film.

Forget fight, it was flight all the way. I tore down the trail, dragging my bewildered yorki behind me. When I stopped to look back, the snake was frozen in strike position, still facing the exact place where I had stood just moments earlier. Dangerous but dumb as the dirt beneath him, he didn't seem to realize I had moved on. I am hardly the fearless type, but it all happened so fast, I didn't even have time to get an adrenaline rush.

That night I told my husband about the rattlesnake encounter. As a result of a steady diet of cowboy shows as a child, he has the worst case of ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) I have ever seen. I learned this years ago, during Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of our very first movie dates. The man kept his eyes squeezed shut for the entire snake pit scene. I had been trying to talk him into joining me on my nature walks, but Briones is now out of the question. We've renamed it Rattlesnake Park.

Bay view from Tilden Park

A young grove at Redwood Regional Park.

Briones. Stole all of these off Flicker.

Say hello to my little friend.

Monday, August 31, 2009


Aztec Angel, by Jesse Reno

I spotted him as I was driving to the grocery store in the early afternoon. The boy was lying on the edge of the strip mall parking lot, barely out of the way of incoming cars, his body straddling the curb between the asphalt and a mangy patch of straw-colored lawn.

I pulled into the parking lot to investigate. The child I thought might need assistance was actually a slender schizophrenic woman in her early twenties. She was on her back, waving her delicate hands above her face and cooing at them like a baby. Her limbs and clothes were dirty, but her youth and relatively short hair indicated that she had not been on the street that long. She had an ethereally beautiful face, resembling a young Mia Farrow. I felt sick thinking how vulnerable she was, frail, lovely and mentally ill - a girl my daughter's age. How many times, I wondered, had she already been raped or sexually assaulted?

At the grocery store, I picked up a sandwich and a water for the schizophrenic girl. I returned to the parking lot with my offerings, which she accepted lucidly enough to thank me. I was about to get back into my car when a middle aged woman came up to me. "Did you just buy her food?" She asked. I nodded. The lady told me her office had been feeding the poor girl for over a week. They had called around to various shelters, but none had room. When they called the police, a sympathetic policeman suggested the lady call the late Governor Reagan."He's the one that closed the mental hospitals. Now there's no place for these people to go."

The day after the election, I went to an evening yoga class. Bush was on his way out, McCain wouldn't be succeeding him, and Sarah Palin would never get within a mile of the red telephone. Everyone was in celebration mode. Instead of having us end the class with "shivasana", or relaxation pose, the teacher cranked up some Aretha and the whole class did a happy dance. I am a bit of a spaz and while I've been known to boogy around the house, shaking my boo-tay in front of fifty yogis is another story. I wiggled around awkwardly, and headed out the door as soon as class was over, well ahead of anyone else.

At the bottom of the stairs to the studio parking lot, a scruffy, bearded and obviously deranged young man was ranting at the world. Nothing was going to change. We were all pawns. Victims of a vast conspiracy. Controlled through our cell phones. I switched into urban survival mode, pretending not to notice him. As I reached the bottom of the steps, I raised my hand to brush the hair from my eyes. Instantly, the guy was in my face. "What?" He snarled " You gonna hit me? You wanna fuck with me, bitch?" He took two steps forward and threw his arm up in the air. He was at least a foot taller than me. Out of my mouth came my best angry mom voice, "Chill out! I'm not even talking to you." I kept walking. Fast. I could hear more yoga people coming down the stairs. There had been plenty of men in the class. I hoped one of them would intervene if the mad man chased me down. My post-election yoga mellow had curdled like overcooked hollandaise.

The homeless people among us are no more homogenous than we who have roofs over our heads. Some are recently out of work, luck and rent money, perhaps living in their cars, like the old lady I saw parked around the corner from the Monterey Market in Berkeley. Others are self-destructive alcoholics chasing oblivion, or sociopathic young men dealing drugs and drifting. Professional beggars retiring to a cheap room every night to count their coins, withdrawn, worn-out women fading into doorways, lost children running as far away from their childhoods as they possibly can. And then there are the crazy people. Scribblers of word salads, prophets of the apocalypse, confidants of God. People who are mentally ill and vulnerable, or deranged, and possibly dangerous.

The homeless problem is not singular: it's plural. There are people who need rehab or medication, people who should be behind bars and people who just need a break. We don't have the will, or the wherewithal, to sort them all out. We are a nation that can't even agree on the moral imperative of caring for the physical health of our working people, let alone the mental health of our street folk.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Quoth the raven, "lookin' good!"

I have weird bird karma. I've discovered a drowned starling in a bucket in my yard, been pecked in the head by an angry magpie defending her nest, and had a kamikaze robin hit my kitchen window full blast. A few months ago, on a walk in the Berkeley Hills with my daughter, we were in the middle of our 59th conversation about whether she should dump her dullard boyfriend when we were interrupted by a loud tap-tap-tapping coming from a sixties-modern wood house just above us.

The house had a huge picture window of mirrored glass, to take advantage of the choice Bay view while protecting the owners' privacy. Perched on the ledge of that window was an enormous raven, locked in spellbound interaction with her reflection. She pecked repeatedly on the glass and then suddenly stopped – as did the bird in the mirror. When the raven abruptly cocked her head to the left, her reflection followed in perfect synchrony. Mesmerized, the raven kept coming up with more tricks as she watched her doppelganger imitate her every move. I claim no scientific expertise. I realize I am anthropomorphizing and an ornithologist might say I was full of malarkey. Yet it seemed, to my untrained and undisciplined eye, as though the raven understood that the big, black, shiny-feathered bird in the window was indeed herself.

I thought no more about this rather wonderful animal encounter until recently, when I came upon a crazed ... swallow, perhaps? (Sorry, I am not a birder, but I can learn). Caught in a dance of death with the side mirror of a car, he kept charging the glass and smashing his little beak against his reflection. Then he would swoop around and rest on top of the mirror for two seconds before attacking again, over and over, like some Avian Sisyphus. I waved my arms and made noise to try and distract him, but the poor bird was intent on destroying his nemesis in the mirror. I gave it up to nature - it would have taken a butterfly net to catch him and break the spell. But I had to conclude that the raven had it all over this little birdbrain (Yes, I'm going there, it's my damn blog).

I knew some birds were highly intelligent. A woman I used to work with had a pet conure. A rain forest native, he liked to shower with his mistress. Whenever she got in the way of his "rain", he signaled for her to move by gently pecking her foot. I read Alex and Me, Irene Pepperberg's book about her amazing experiments with Alex, the parrot genius. To briefly summarize his exploits, this brilliant bird could form 3-word, intentional sentences, such as "Alex want corn". He sorted blue and green blocks by shape and color. He could count up to seven, and unlike the circus horse who'll keep tapping his hoof 'til his trainer gives him the signal to stop, Alex understood the concept of counting.

I looked up ravens. Turns out, ravens, crows, jays, and magpies are all corvids and they are the brainiacs of the bird world, not including parrots who may be as or more intelligent depending on your school of thought. There are definitely some who think ravens have figured out that the bird in the mirror is them. This is very advanced animal thinking - even dogs don't understand this. Elephants do.

I was fortunate enough, on both of my walks, to stumble upon two live demonstrations of what animal behaviorists call the Mirror Test: Observing what a given species does when confronted with its reflection. Can a creature even "read" the image in the mirror or does it just see a play of light and shape? Does the animal think it is looking at a fellow member of its species, like that single-minded swallow so determined to destroy his rival in the car mirror? Is there evidence of a higher level of thinking, as with the raven, where the test subject realizes "that's me"? And is it really the pinnacle of awareness to peer into that mirror and think, "That's me, and these love handles have got to go"?







Films to rent

Winged Migration

The Parrots of Telegraph Hill

Books to Read

Mind of the Raven

Thursday, August 6, 2009


Ask people about Berkeley High and they all say the same thing: " It's either very good or very bad." Meaning, if your kid is motivated, there's sports, art, drama, music (with a renowned jazz ensemble), swim team (including a huge pool), international baccalaureate and AP classes up the wazoo. You've got all the resources you need to get junior into an Ivy or UC Berkeley. But if your kid is an underachiever whose only goal is to "do what I have to to make it through the system and accommodate my parents' values", you're in for it. Our son's first and last period teachers couldn't be bothered to take attendance, so those were the two periods he skipped most often. He also managed to come to class stoned more than once, but that, apparently, is why they call it Berkeley High. Don't even get me started on his friends. Suffice to say, they are not in the International Baccalaureate program.

So it was time, once again, for a school change. The short term goal was to get the little albatross in an environment where the teachers take attendance, parents get notified about drug or alcohol abuse and kids are suspended for bad behavior. If he makes new friends, so much the better. As for the long-term goal – well, we stopped having those a while back.

We ruled out private school because 1. He can't get in anywhere, 2. We can't shell out right now and 3. It won't make a damn bit of difference unless he makes up his mind to do the work. We toyed with moving back to the East Coast where we might have more of a support system, but there's no job for me to go back to. In fact, every single one of my friends at my former place of employment has been laid off.

You worry about your children until you die, but you only raise them for a brief period of time - especially when you have a kid who's intent, however misguidedly, on raising himself. In a couple of years, the boy will be attending community college, learning a trade, riding the rails or beginning his career as a night club bouncer. Eventually, we hope he realizes there's more to life than having a good time. Meanwhile, we have to think about where we would like to live once he is off doing his thing or figuring out what his thing might be.

Strolling through the Berkeley Hills on a glorious June day, I had an epiphany: I no longer want to move back East. We don't have the stomach for any more upheaval and none of the major decisions we've made have helped straighten out our son. Not the wilderness program, not the boarding school or the private school or the cross country move (which to be fair was partly motivated by my husband's chronic California dreaming). Besides, I love it here. I want to live where a beach, a mountain or a redwood grove are all less than an hour away. I want to watch the fog creep over the hill tops. I want to look out the window and see a teeny-tiny, lime green humming bird hovering by a tree full of teeny-tiny, lime green limes. Maybe this is an aesthete's version of hedonism and maybe it's more profound. Some people do church: I do nature.

We settled on moving to Orinda, a quiet suburban community just on the other side of the Berkeley Hills. The high school is small and secluded. It's a closed campus. They take attendance, and there's nowhere to go if you cut class. If the boy messes up, he'll get suspended or maybe expelled, which is as it should be.

Having decided to make a local move, we faced a complicated schedule: We needed to be out on the 21st but couldn't move in to our new rental place until the first. I had to work three days a week, for both weeks of the transition, and since I don't own a lap top, that meant shlepping my regular macintosh. We put the kid on a plane to Minneapolis to go see his friend from last year's boarding school, after which we hit the road for Yosemite and the Eastern Sierras.

After a too-brief mountain interlude, we had to head back so I could return to work. My husband, my mac and I spent our last three transitional days – thank you Mileage Plus – at Berkeley's fabulous old Claremont Hotel. Just 7 years shy of its 100th birthday (2016) the Claremont is elegant and honking-huge, with a classic, subdued decor and quiet, comfortable rooms. There's a very nice gym, tennis and pool club on the grounds. The landscaping features plenty of healthy, hearty, two-toned roses in romantic hues. The lobby, with its well polished dark wood counter and striking period chandeliers, evokes the ghosts of visitors past. And alas, the Claremont too looks like a ghost, as it has been painted, from foundation to roof, a hideous, unrelenting, blinding white.

At first, I accepted this strange uni-whiteness as an unfortunate fact of life. Perhaps painting it white was a green thing to do. But then, by the elevator I noticed a reproduction of an old, framed photo of the Claremont as it was meant to be. Not Casper-the-friendly-hotel, but a neo-Tudor castle.The building faces several directions at once yet somehow the whole thing works. Every outer wall is buttressed (or probably merely adorned) with precisely cut, meticulously installed beams. It's a prodigious amount of beautifully executed labor. I did a quick internet search but all I learned is that the paint job isn't new. By the mid-forties, the hotel already looked like a white, plastic toy building, abandoned at the base of the hillside by some giant, puckish toddler.

So now I am settled in Orinda, and I need to find my way out of this yarn, but I can't really tie the big white hotel back to anything. I could compare that paint job to the tough exterior my kid affects, but that would be pushing it. I could muse wistfully about a few days' limbo free from parental responsibilities towards someone who doesn't believe such a thing should exist. Nothing like hotel life for taking you out of your reality. But the true metaphor here is that I don't know the ending. For this post, and for that handsome, obstinate, rebellious boy, my son.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

On hiatus.

I have temporarily lost my mind due to a difficult move. We had to move out on the 21st but couldn't get into the new place before the first. I had to schlep my non-laptop computer around and set it up in hotels so I could work. Now, I am in a new place, surrounded by boxes. My husband is grouchy because his internet's not working. My kid is nasty because he didn't want to move and is choking on his own testosterone. My daughter is having her 25 year life crisis a couple of years early and has decamped for the East coast. My supply of St. John's Wort has run out. The only sane person around here right now is the dog. Consequently, please bear with me while I unpack, clean cabinets, write hospital brochures and howl at the moon.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Hope and Dread

When my friend Rob is faced with a difficult choice, or when life is simply being hormonal, he likes to slap himself, in an hommage to Faye Dunaway in Chinatown. "My sister. My daughter. My sister. My daughter," he cries. This is a pretty close approximation of how I feel after two years on the West Coast.

There is a corner in front of a Friends' Meeting House in North Berkeley, where vagrants, eccentrics and the occasional mangy professorial type congregate to smoke, argue and promote world peace. Last month as I walked by, I noticed a fellow with a single, remarkably wide grey dread sticking out of the back of his head.

East Coast me went crazy over the thing. It looked like a beaver tail. No, it didn't. It looked like tribble road kill. No, it didn't. It looked like a petrified hair ball retrieved from the gut of a fossilized saber-toothed tiger. Yes. It. Did.

I was musing over the eerie similarities between the dreadlock and a big wad of dryer lint when West Coast me commandeered my brain. Wait a minute. This guy is clean, harmless, being himself. He washes that dread. Perhaps he even irons it. How intolerant, how small, how judgmental of me to entertain myself by mocking the man's choice of hairstyle.

I am wracked by this kind of ambivalence. Just this week,waiting my turn at the CVS register, I froze in fascination at the sight of an elderly lady - a Goya hag with Lautrec coloring. Eighty if she was a day, with brutally ground-in rouge and long, thin cotton-candy hair dyed a faded peach color. She wore a short skirt and leggings and was entirely bedecked in rhinestone jewelry - necklaces, earrings, bracelets. She sashayed proudly past me with her old (and I do mean old) man at her side. East Coast me was appalled. I felt awful for her. I wondered how can one not see the mirror, lose perspective to that extent, be that delusional?

But West Coast me was amused. You had to give her credit for trying. The old girl had spunk. She was having a good time. Why be mortified for her when she would never in a million years feel that way?

My sister, my daughter, my sister, my daughter.

In these lean economic times, it's hard to find the right tone in which to talk, the right frame of mind from which to function. When all your friends are unemployed, you don't want to hear some bleeping Pollyanna's delusional thinking. You feel like you should look reality right in the eyeballs. And yet too much hand wringing isn't constructive either because we must all persevere. If you are fortunate enough to be making some money – even if it can't compare to your salad days – if you are paying your bills, then this is no time to feel sorry for yourself. Everyday, I see people suck in their guts, smile gamely and push on as best they can. So yeah, you can indulge in the gallows humor, in the right context, with the right folks. But you have to remain positive. No matter what coast you're on, it's the right thing to do.

Friday, June 26, 2009


My kid blew his Socratic English oral. He was downgraded for his style of discourse - oppositional and defiant – but not for his argument, that machines could never be truly human. This is a popular science fiction theme whose romantic expression is the story of the sensitive android with genuine emotions. A darker take on this concept has machines less concerned with experiencing love than running the show - in these stories, robots and computers take over human situations, or maybe even entire planets.

I'm a sucker for such yarns. I feel for the soulful replicant and fear the all-knowing power-mad machines. Still, it's hard not to take comfort in the fact that while my computer is no doubt smarter than me, I still have to call upon a human to save the day if my hard drive crashes.

It took true genius to puncture my smug human superiority. Itunes genius, the application that, based on a single song, puts together spot-on mixes from your music collection. Genius knows your every musical quirk. The bluegrass banjo riff that gives you St Vitus dance. The alt country lament you've harmonized with for so long, you forget your part isn't on the record. The obscure rock chick with the big, bad voice. The best folk singer no one's ever heard of. The sexy French electronica bon bon that always mellows you out. Your favorite U2 ballad, lesser-known Dylan song or Marvin Gaye makeout tune.

Genius has you down. It free-associates based on a modal harmony, a breathy singing style, a jazzy vibe. It can tell if your mood is randy, upbeat or introspective. Sometimes, it knows you better than your spouse. So while I appreciate the ability to make an instant playlist that perfectly matches my mental state, I'm still a little creeped out. My musical taste, which I thought was so eclectic, is apparently just another algorithm.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The strawberry's a raspberry

The yoga studio I attend follows the Anusara school. Classes are steeped in tantric philosophy, and the core concept is "opening to grace". We start class with a chant, but first, the teachers are expected to enlighten us with a story that sets the theme for the day. This might relate to the physical practice - such as maintaining the balance between muscular energy and flexibility, or the mental practice - say, letting go of poisonous thoughts.

As a skeptical, non-religious person, it took me a while to adjust to Anusara's emphasis on Hindu spirituality. I'm not much of a monotheist as it is, and adding on gods just multiplies my doubts. But it's a terrific workout, and I do believe yoga has emotional benefits as well. It has helped me face day-to-day challenges with greater equanimity, fixate less on my problems, control my anger and tolerate fools just a wee bit more gladly. I suspect my many hours in down dog have kept me from strangling my incredibly challenging 16 year old son. Plus, I can now do a handstand against the wall, which is quite an achievement for a woman in her middle years who couldn't even manage a cartwheel as a kid.

Recently, I showed up and the studio was packed. A popular teacher was in town, subbing for his sister. It turned out to be a great class: He really kicked our butts.

If only he hadn't treated us to the parable of the strawberry.

Way back in time, there was just the first man and the first woman - and the gods, for whom watching the first couple was like ancient reality tv. So one day, First Woman asks First Man "Am I the most beautiful woman in the world?" To which the dimwit answers "Well, honey, you're the ONLY woman in the world". First Woman marches off in a fit of pique, leaving First Man looking sheepish and wondering what he did wrong.

In an attempt to get First Woman to chill, the gods go on a charm initiative. Flowers bloom in time-lapse and exhale their perfumes as she walks by. Trees lob perfectly ripe apricots at her. Butterflies encircle her with flashes of nacreous color. But First Woman's got her sulk on and she's sticking to it. Just as she's worked herself into a full-blown hissy fit, she comes upon a patch of strawberries, plump and jamming sweet. Overcome by rage, First Woman starts stomping on the berries like a frustrated toddler, releasing a pink cloud of fruity fragrance. The scent proves irresistible and she suddenly finds herself scarfing down berries by the handful.

In the middle of this feeding frenzy comes First Man, contrite and ready to grovel. But First Woman smiles up at him with juice running down her face and croons, "Hi, honey!" She has forgotten all about their big conflict. As the yoga teacher explains, "She's been touched by grace."

Or maybe bulimia.

I guess if you have a non-problem like your husband not being willing to stroke your ego often enough, strawberries might do it. But if your kid is on drugs, or your spouse is leaving you for a same-sex partner, or the bank's about to foreclose on your house, even strawberry Haagen Dazs won't make it better. The parable of the strawberry is not enlightening – it's 1960s sitcom. The woman in the story is a narcissistic twit. Her behavior is a waste of time and energy and has diminishing returns, and this story revolves around outdated, sexist, stereotypes of the irrational woman fishing for compliments and the bone-headed guy wondering what do women want? But it's not the actual parable of the strawberry that disturbs me the most. It's the fact that the intelligent, educated, professional women around me were eating it up.

I am fine with the basic idea of feeling connected to nature and the life cycle. It resonates more with me than the notion of a big bearded man in the sky. But like many contemporary people, I don't need symbols and metaphors to illuminate abstract ideas. If my yoga teachers must wax philosophical, I prefer they dispense with the fables.

My friend and favorite yoga instructor is a naturalist with a masters in the study of jelly fish. She worked on the Monterey Aquarium at its inception. Her classes have themes based on nature and sometimes science. And she never tells stories about Kali, Lord Ganesh or the first man and woman. Tantric philosophy resonates with my friend's deep connection to nature, respect for the planet and general world view, but like any true scientist, she doesn't buy into mythologies.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

No, I don't need a hug.

A lady in my women's networking group recently forwarded a link about the Global Hug Tour. Here's the jist of it, lifted, not plagiarized, straight off the site:

"What we're doing
Inspire Me Today Founder Gail Lynne Goodwin and her husband Darryl will take off in a small prop plane from Colorado to circumnavigate the globe and literally hug the world. The tour will stop in 45 locations over a period of five months.
On a personal mission to make a difference, they will be:
Delivering an estimated $1,000,000 to important causes throughout the tour raised through grassroots contributions from people like you
Giving at least 2,000 hugs in each location to literally wrap the world in 100,000 hugs
Gathering great wisdom, inspiration and brilliance from leaders and luminaries in the far reaches of the globe to bring back and share on InspireMeToday.com"

If you want to take part in the hugathon, all you have to do is donate $10. Multiple charities are involved and Gail and Darryl will personally deliver your donation, to the city and cause of your choice, with a big squeeze for an individual recipient. You will become an official hug ambassador and find out exactly who got embraced in your name. If the recession has left you with any discretionary income and you feel inspired, here is the link.


Now that I've demonstrated that I am basically well-intended and have given you the opportunity to make a donation, I'd like to speak for hug-averse people everywhere.

Our culture has gone hug-wild. A recent New York Times article described the affectionate behavior of today's High School students. Every day, students are hugging each other hello. Repeatedly. We're excited - let's hug! We're bummed - let's hug! We're dissaffected, jaded and bored - let's hug! No wonder nobody gets to class on time. Meanwhile, in the adult world, more and more of my clients and colleagues feel compelled to greet me with a squeeze and sometimes even a kiss. The first time this happens, I inevitably stiffen. Occasionally, they notice and apologize, and then we're both embarrassed.

I'm all for warmth, affection and human contact but I happen to need a large amount of personal space. It's cultural and probably genetic - we're all like this, on both sides of the family. I am a demonstrative person and truly love my friends, but I save my hugs for my husband, children and dog. I'm not heartless: if a friend is in despair and I get that please hug me vibe, I understand, and I am happy to oblige. My best friend on the planet lives in the Midwest. We stay in constant touch, but I'm lucky if I see her every other year. When we see each other, we hug. Gingerly, like a couple of porcupines. She's not a hugger either, which is probably one of the reasons we get along so well.

Regardless of one's personal space issues, hugging has its draw backs. Some are olfactory: a whiff of mothballs, a hint of body odor, a sniff of stale smoke - triple yuck. Some are self-imposed: Is my breath OK? Did I forget the deodorant? Can she tell I'm uncomfortable? Some are contagious: lice, swine flu, antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis. And then there's the occasional pervy hug, usually inflicted on a woman by a man, ostensibly in the name of camaraderie but with the ulterior motive of full body contact.

Which brings me back to that affectionate couple, the Goodwins. Have they considered that other cultures may not be so huggable? Social mores are very different in Islamic Morocco than secular France. In Thailand, it's considered extremely rude to touch someone's head. The charitable aspect of the Global Hug Tour is admirable. The Goodwins are having themselves a damn fine adventure while living up to their positive surname. But let's not forget that it is possible to touch people without using your hands.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Garden Party

No doubt the hardest thing to be in Berkeley is a Republican, but I'd say lawn gnomes are a close second. How could a mass-produced, garden variety lawn gnome not feel upstaged by Buldan Seka's hand-crafted, exuberant, outsized ceramics? Ms. Seka, an artist-in-residence at the California College of Arts and Crafts, lives in a large, rose-colored home on Spruce Street. That's number 707, should you decide to walk by, which I highly recommend you do.

A perpetual party spills out of that big, pink house. Fantastical figurative sculptures gather around the ground floor, perch on the second story terrace, and gaze out at the vast bay view from a third floor balcony. Busty queens, muscular macho men, giant terra cotta lingams, toddler-friendly zoo animals and strange creatures from the artist's personal mythology all vie for the passerby's attention. They're fun, loud, wildly decorative, strangely alive and just a wee bit creepy. I suspect the only way they'd tolerate a lawn gnome is at the end of a leash.

To read about Ms. Seka, click here.


Or here.


Wanna see some more Berkeley garden ornaments?
Come take a walk with me.



Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Pencils and Tassels

Unless you're a workaholic, or battle chronic depression, you can probably think of an activity that pushes your reset button. Perhaps you play golf - or the violin. Or you put on the glitz and go ballroom dancing. You might be a daredevil with a skydiving habit. You surf, ride horses, practice yoga or bake a cake for every occasion. Maybe you just sit in your yard and see what the trees are up to.

Obviously, I like to write. But for me, one of the most centering, rewarding activities is life drawing. As corny as it sounds, I feel an existential, humanist bond with the people I sketch. If they are young and comely, I think of the promising life before them. If they are older, I try to read their laugh lines. The more you stare at your models, and this is true for both portraits and nudes, the more vulnerable they become, the more real, the more they matter. The act of drawing becomes an act of compassion. You may never learn the models' names, or anything about them, but somehow, they are no longer strangers to you.

Since I moved out to the Bay Area, I have been preoccupied with generating income, getting my teenage son straightened out and counseling my daughter about her future. I did attempt to locate a life drawing venue but found nothing convenient. Eventually, I joined The San Francisco Life Drawing Group on meetup.com and waited in vain for notice of a sketch-in. Six or eight months went by, and then today, an email:

"Come out on Tuesday, May 26th 2009 for the sexiest workshop in town! HAPPY HOUR drink specials! Why stop the Memorial Day fun on Monday? Come out on Tuesday to sketch the amazingly talented Burlesque superstar, Dottie Lux! The Burlesque Times just voted her The Best Burlesque Performer of the Month of May! This month we are inviting everyone who participates in the workshop to put their favorite drawings on display for the evening with the option to sell them if you want. We will be putting display walls up for everyone to see, so please invite your non-sketcher friends to come and check out the art and hang at the bar! As always our sponsor Baby Tattoo Books is providing beautifully printed books which we will give away as prizes for each month's drawing contest."

Apparently, this is a great opportunity to hang out with a bunch of people my daughter's age, drink mojitos and draw some heavily made-up chick in tassels, a G-string and a come-hither expression. San Francisco strikes again. I think I'm going to pass.

There's a place, and a market for erotica, and there always will be. It's just never interested me. Even Rodin's most erotic works are about more than sex. Love, youth, desire, fragility. Time stopping and time slipping away. Life emerging from paper and stone. The human condition, for God sakes. Nudity has a dignity and an eloquence that no tassel can touch.

I haven't drawn in nearly five years, but I remember all my favorite models. The lovely, flaming-haired dancer, nicknamed "the burning bush" by the younger art students. Her toes were gnarly and twisted from years of dancing en-pointe, and her coloring was made for chalk pastels. The handsome gay man with the chiseled German face and flawless male physique. The wiry Peruvian engineering student with the pre-columbian profile, whose dark skin I turned a vivid red when I sketched him in oil pastels on brown wrapping paper. The dreadlocked African American teacher who was a dead ringer for Forrest Whitaker, right down to the lazy eye. The earthy Russian girl with the face of a Slavic angel and the body of a paleolithic fertility goddess.

Only the dancer could have pulled off burlesque, but they were all beautiful to me.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Go Market Yourself!

I got a blog, you got a blog, all God's children got a blog. It's a must, along with your facebook page, your linked in page and of course, your twitter presence. The social media craze has taken hold and marketing and advertising people everywhere are inundating the internet with their personal marketing theories, insights, observations and platitudes. It's as though you were compelled to be a guru just because you're good at your job. Problem is, lots of jobs don't deserve gurufication. And lots of very competent people can't write. It is agony for them to bullshit endlessly about their jobs and philosophize about marketing. Yet in this hideous economy we keep getting told, by consultants galore, you must have a blog to be in play.

The proliferation of blogs is partly due to the the fact that a lot of us are un- or under- employed. Some people are trying to get noticed by HR people, head hunters and potential employers. Others have given up on finding a full time job and are trying to build a consulting business (from a marketing standpoint, this is the group for whom blogging about the work you do makes the most sense). But should business blogging really be for everyone?

There are two types of productive workers: The type that lives and breathes the job and becomes possessed 24/7 by its demands, and the type that works heroically, like a dog, let's say... a rescue dog. Pretty heroic. And then that person wants to go home, chill out, enjoy friends and family and compartmentalize their job away in some drawer somewhere deep in the back of their brain. This type needs to replenish or loses productivity. Compartmentalizers should enjoy their time off and not feel obligated to blog, or get ripped off by a ghost writer they have to supervise. You can be a fabulous asset to a company and not want to spend your downtime working on your personal branding.

And here's the big question I keep asking myself: If someone has no notoriety and we don't know them personally, why should we want to read their marketing verites?

OK, I know you're composing snappy retorts in your head. What exactly makes me so special? Am I some sort of Machiavellian elitist hypocrite trying to talk the competition out of blogging while I refine my online presence? Nope. I am a talkative person with few friends in a strange town. I am also a writer. This is an outlet for me. If I had to pontificate about copy writing and creative direction all the time, I would bore myself to death. I rant about whatever I please. I don't do daily updates, because life gets in the way, and sometimes I have nothing to say. And I don't try to con people on linked in into reading me by starting discussions with teaser links to my blog. Besides, for every person I might charm or amuse, there will probably be two that think I'm deeply wierd, snarky, or worst of all, dull.

Now, if you like to write and have something to say that you're passionate about, write on. About politics, cooking, travel, yoga, marketing - whatever floats your boat. But if blogging for you is like downing your morning serving of plain unsweetened oatmeal with skim milk because, gosh darn it, it's good for you, it's time you let yourself off the hook.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Stop and smell the cherry blossoms ?

Ok, I know cherry blossoms don't smell. Or if they do, you'd have to be a bee to notice. The reason they're on my mind is not because they're in bloom right now (which they are) but because of a Japanese saying I read about recently, to "watch the cherry blossoms".

In Japan, cherry blossoms – sakura - are celebrated around peak bloom time through a low-key social ritual known as hanami. You meet up with friends under the flowering trees and have a picnic and maybe a little sake with your sakura. The subtext of "watching the cherry blossoms" goes beyond admiring nature's beauty. As you take in the delicate display of blooms, you're honoring the transiency of life. Watch the blossoms now, while they're in bloom and you have eyes to see. Appreciate the evanescent even as it disappears.

I can't remember where or even in what context I picked up this random tidbit of information, but I recall that the writer commented on the lack of an equivalent expression in English. I was skeptical. I knew I'd think of something. I racked my brains for the anglo version of watching the cherry blossoms. "Seize the day", perhaps? Nope. Too industrious. Too aggressive. You don't seize the day to take advantage of the nice weather and go fishing. You grab the poor day by the throat at 5 a.m. so you can jog eight miles, remodel the basement and start that online business you've always dreamed about - all before noon.

How about "Stop and smell the roses"? Flower reference: check. Time-out aspect: check. Profound meditation on the poignancy of mortality? Not happening. The meaning of this phrase is strictly surface, like quickly sniffing a flower. It's basically a more colorful way of telling people to slow down and relax.

So now, I'm SOC (shit out of cliches) and it's a beautiful day. I think I'll take Winston out for a walk. Maybe I'll run into some cherry trees along the way and meditate on my own mortality. And maybe I won't.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Such is the life of a klutz.

Finally, I understand why I never loved Lucy.

Every family has its own drama, and its own cast of characters. Primadonna. Martyr. Instigator. Patriarch. Enabler. Control freak. Mediator. Victim. Headcase. Drama queen. Nurturer. Peace maker. Black sheep. Saint. These familial action figures don't come in a complete set, but every family has at least one. One individual you can always count on to behave a certain way, causing everyone else to react as they invariably do, thereby triggering the comfortable dysfunctional pattern that, for better or for worse, feels like family time.

In my family, I have always been the klutz. I suspect I had gross motor delays as a child. (In those days, these things weren't diagnosed or labeled). I remember cut and paste assignments in kindergarten and first grade as messy, humiliating torture. Your hands got sticky and gross and you could never cut along the lines and your work looked lousy and... and... how DID those other little girls cut and paste so neatly anyway? I'd try to wash all the paste off my hands and run home – once again, without my sweater. I have forgotten countless sweaters in my day - probably enough to fill your nearest Benetton.

As I grew, the flake-fest continued. There was the time I got cast as Max in Where the Wild Things Are by my modern dance teacher and forgot to show up at the church where we were supposed to perform. The Wild Things gyrated gamely without me, and the audience was told to pretend I was there.

One New Year's Eve, my parents had a party, and my mother asked me to pass around the caviar canapes. I managed to unload a few of them before I tripped and plopped the whole platter upside down on the floor. Eventually, "maman" declared me incompetent and would only ask my younger sister for help. The fact that this hurt my feelings never came up. I was relegated to tasks that couldn't possibly jeopardize the carpet. But I got back at the stupid carpet, the time I stepped in dog doo and tracked it all the way up the stairs.

My clumsiness became family folklore. Whenever we got together with my grandparents, someone would bring up one of my special moments. It was always good for a laugh. By then, I had learned that the best way to keep people from making fun of you is to beat them to it. So when the family would all get together at my parents' summer cottage, I'd trot out my greatest hits.

The Accidental Cleaning: I let the dishes pile up in the sink way too long. Out of dishwasher soap, I put laundry soap in the dishwasher. Five minutes later, the kitchen is knee-deep in bubbles, leaving me no choice but to clean the kitchen. Since it takes every towel in the linen closet to dry the linoleum, I decide to do the laundry. Thirsty from all the effort, I reach into the fridge for a pitcher of tomato juice and miss, spilling TJ everywhere. Which is how I finally get around to cleaning the refrigerator.

The Amateur Plumber: My husband and I are on the road and by the time we find a motel, it's very late. The toilet won't stop making noise, but we really aren't up to changing rooms. Drawing upon mechanical skills I never knew I had, I rip a plastic bag into strips, which I tie together to make a rope. I then loop my makeshift rope around the little metal arm inside the toilet tank and secure it to a towel rack, thereby generating the sweet sound of silence. When the toilet breaks a few minutes later, we still don't hear it: I'm too busy bragging about my newfound aptitude for engineering. We're just noticing the soggy carpet when the front desk calls: Is everything OK? Because it's raining in the room below us.

Baptism by Caffeine: I'm on the top deck of a ferry, drinking coffee with with my better half. The air is bracing, the coffee's warm, and I'm getting so animated, I start talking with my hands. Suddenly, there's an indignant mewling sound from the deck below. A young couple stands directly beneath us, a tiny baby wailing in the woman's arms. He's dripping wet from the coffee I just spilled on his sweet little head. A boatload of complete strangers stares up at me with concentrated loathing.

Bread Alert: Over a lovely, romantic dinner in a Maine country Inn, my husband asks me to pass the bread. Which I do, dipping the straw basket just a little too close to the lovely, romantic candle and setting the basket on fire. In the interest of public safety, I douse the flames with my water glass.

Somehow, I've made it to middle age. Along the way, I've had countless fender benders, pulled out of the grocery store parking lot with the grocery bags on top of the car, gotten appointments wrong by a week, a day, an hour or a street address, worn clothing inside-out, forgotten my purse at airport security and left a yellow diamond pendant as an unintended tip for an excellent massage. I've actually developed some coping mechanisms. I obsessively check my belongings when I travel. I have a sixth sense about when I'm going to be distracted behind the wheel, and make a point of concentrating on my driving. I'm partial to very large key chains jangling with keys I no longer use. This makes my keys cumbersome, noisy and harder to lose. I wish I could impart some of these tricks to my children, but they prefer to learn from experience.

I have a son who once took our yorkie for a walk, tied the little guy up outside so he and his friend could go to Starbucks and then walked home without the dog. Fortunately, the poor creature was still there when the boys went back for him. As for my daughter, lets just say she's a lot like me, minus the mechanical aptitude. I am deeply sorry that I have passed on my unfortunate je ne sais quoi to both of my kids. At least their mother doesn't think it's funny.

P.S. Last night, I prepared a recession dinner of noodles, salad and a big bowl of turkey chile for four, which I heated in the microwave. Halfway between the counter and the microwave, I dropped the bowl. You'd have to do a scientific experiment to determine which splatters farther - pyrex or turkey chile. Both were EVERYWHERE. I was reminded of a guy I once met whose job was analyzing the debris pattern from plane crashes to help determine what went wrong. Anyway, I dashed into town to get us some takeout, while my long-suffering husband cleaned up most of the mess without me. By the time it occurred to him that a photograph of the chili debacle would be the perfect companion to this blog entry, it was too late: the floor was spotless. You'll just have to make do with another shot of Lucille.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A pain in the neck

It was a Tuesday evening when our son began complaining that he felt achy and feverish. He was sniffling a little and picked at his dinner. Wednesday, he had a fever and a headache and we kept him home from school. Thursday, his head hurt so much, he couldn't sit upright. His temperature was 102.7. His face was visibly swollen. His neck hurt. It looked thicker than normal and was hard for him to move. When you're dealing with fever and a stiff neck, you don't mess around. I made a doctor's appointment for that very afternoon.

The pediatrician was not reassuring. She said the boy needed blood tests immediately and we didn't have the option to send them out to a lab and wait several days. We had to get to the hospital, pronto. My son begged: Can we wait 'til tomorrow? Not a good idea. The doctor didn't think it was meningitis because our son was lucid and not nauseous, but the fact that he couldn't touch his chin to his chest was worrisome. And there were other serious possibilities which she didn't go into. We went home and walked the dog, grabbed the kid's tooth brush and some reading material, and headed for Oakland Children's Hospital.

Children's is an urban hospital. The families are poor, their lives are hard and no doubt, getting harder. A lot of the kids are brought in with minor ailments because they don't have a pediatrician and rely on medicaid. We checked in at 7pm, but by the time we were ushered into a room it was almost midnight. The young doctor on call wanted to do multiple blood tests and a spinal tap, and went to his supervisor for permission. She nixed the spinal tap: Meningitis presents with nausea and vomiting, and those symptoms were absent. One less thing to worry about.

At 1 pm, they took our son upstairs for a catscan. Then, in the absence of available rooms, they dumped him back into the examining room, where he'd have to spend the night. Yet another doctor came in to convey the results of the catscan. According to the radiologist on call, the kid had something called a retropharyngeal abscess, a rogue sore throat that develops behind the pharynx (voice box). He would have to immediately cease all eating and drinking in case he needed surgery to drain the abcess. In the mean time, they started him on an IV antibiotic. Had I not been bone tired by the time we got home, I would have googled the boy's condition, thereby preempting the possibility of getting any sleep whatsoever. It seems this infection, due to its location, can wreck ungodly havoc. Blood clots in the jugular vein. Pneumonia. Respiratory blockage. Sepsis. In short, an early appointment with one's maker.

My husband and I slept for a few hours and were back at the hospital at 10:30, only to find the poor kid still curled up on a gurney in the same examining room. The good news was, they had just asked the A team to take a second look at the cat scan films, and whoever had been on the graveyard shift had misread them. The alleged retropharyngeal abscess was just a shadow on the film. Our son had good old-fashioned blood poisoning, probably from popping his zits with dirty fingernails. He still needed two days of intravenous antibiotics before they would discharge him. On the upside, I now had a plenty of ammunition to tell him to wash his hair and stop picking his pimples.

Like all hospital experiences, this one was unpleasant. The waiting room periodically got too crowded to seat everyone. The floors and bathrooms were filthy, and there were no foot pedals for the sink, so you got to re-contaminate your newly washed hands when you turned off the faucet. And of course, it's always tough to see so many sick little ones and worried parents. My husband kept complaining that we should have gone to a nice suburban hospital, but the pediatrician had warned that our son would likely be moved and end up at Children's anyway. Besides, Children's Hospital proved to be a consciousness raising experience about American society, as illustrated by the following examples:

• We were admitted right after an African American teen whose mom wheeled him in on a gurney. He had the vacant look and curled hands that come with years of living in a vegetative state. I don't know what he was brought in for, but his mother explained to the admissions clerk that he had been like this since getting shot at age two.

• My daughter and I rode the elevator with a burly white guy and his three year old son, whose nickname appeared to be "Stud". After the man got off, we wondered whether Stud had a little sister, and what her nickname might be. We hoped it wasn't Hot Lips.

• We shared the examining room with an Asian immigrant woman and her newborn, who couldn't stop spitting up. The baby had been sick for a week, so her mom fed her a crushed adult motrin mixed in with breast milk. The vomiting was the poor child's reaction to motrin poisoning. We listened in disbelief as the doctor explained that you don't give adult medicine to infants.

• When my son finally got a room, his roommate was a 4 year old Hispanic boy on a respirator. The child had apparently been in a car accident, and hadn't been wearing a car seat. His arm was in traction, he couldn't stop crying and he was completely alone for the entire day. The nurse explained that nobody in his family could get time off work to sit with him. His mother and brother finally arrived around 6 pm.

The presidential election stimulated a lot of talk about race in America, and that's a fine thing. But while few would argue that racism in America is over, it seems to me that the overarching problem here isn't race: it's class. It's lack of opportunity that forces people to live in neighborhoods where young men work out their differences with guns, and toddlers catch the stray bullets. It's lack of education that keeps people from understanding that it's not appropriate to sexualize one's children. It's lack of medical care that forces people to improvise and give babies adult medications because they don't have insurance or a regular pediatrician. It's lack of resources that causes people to skimp on essentials like car seats for infants. And it's lack of compassion that allows employers to tell parents they can't take the day off to sit with a traumatized, injured four year old who's all alone in the hospital.

Former Presidential candidate John Edwards turned out to be a world class creep. But when it comes to his campaign theme of "The Two Americas", the guy had a point.