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.