Saturday, December 25, 2010


Once upon a time, when we were resentfully living in Cleveland, my husband and I took a ten-year anniversary trip to Paris. As we strolled through the left bank, we fantasized about relocating to France, as my sister had recently done. I came up with the notion of opening an American style cookie store. Yes, I know, France Land of Pastry, but cookies, plain old easy to bake chocolate chip cookies, not to mention snickerdoodles, were unknown in the City of Lights. (This was years ago and I have no doubt that today you can find a cookie on every coin de rue).

By the time we got back to our hotel, we had already franchised our cookie business and were poised to expand into Italy. Would we ever have really done it? Probably not. My husband is hopeless at languages and I would have been condemned to life as an interpreter. But mental and, occasionally, actual relocation has been a leitmotif in our relationship since we first met. I had just moved to Los Angeles and he had been pondering spending a few years in Saudi Arabia, where there was an overabundance of overpaid contract work. Due to my lack of enthusiasm for gender apartheid, we didn't riff on that notion for very long.

There were other near-moves and actual relocations. We moved from LA to Cleveland for my husband's job and spent five years fantasizing about getting the bleep outa'there, which we finally did, settling on my home town of Washington DC so my parents could be near their grandchildren. We lived there for a good long while, but my husband hated the climate and pined for Los Angeles. As far as I was concerned, that was not an option. Too much asphalt, too much sprawl, too much time gone by. Still, the wanderlust never fully dissipated. We took a family trip to Costa Rica and marveled at the lush scenery, tropical climate and enticingly low cost of living, but couldn't quite see ourselves as gringo neocolonials. After an Alaska vacation, we seriously contemplated a move to Seattle. We pictured ourselves boating in Puget Sound and salmon fishing in the Inside Passage. We'd get a large freezer to store our catch after it was flash-frozen and shipped. I even looked into a Winter dogsledding trip in Denali, which my husband informed me I'd have to take, and pay for, by myself. The wilderness beckoned - the Olympic mountain range, the Cascade volcanos, the alpine lakes of British Columbia.

Three years ago we did move West, but adjusted our destination to the Bay Area. We thought it would be a better advertising market. The HR person in my old job told me I was so talented, I'd have no problem finding a job. (She lied). Our son was (is) having a difficult adolescence, and the therapist recommended boarding school and a change of scene. I was mad at my parents, who didn't believe in ADHD and blamed all of our son's issues on our lousy parenting.

The first year was a romantic empty nest experience. We lived an unfettered adult life, went out when we felt like it, read lots of books, took walks and worried slightly less about our kid, mostly because we hadn't yet realized that the the artsy Ojai school we had chosen for him was a holding pen for spoiled Hollywood brats. My old boss kept feeding me freelance work. Our daughter graduated from college, moved to San Francisco and quickly found a job. Everything was falling into place like level 2 tetris.

And then it all went to hell. The kid, the economy, our daughter's career and grad school plans and my poor husband's joints. The long nature walks I'd envisaged as our bonding activity became solo meditations on hubris and loss. Our son got into all kinds of trouble. Our daughter left her boyfriend and moved back East. The lucrative freelance dried up when my old boss got down-sized. And my guilt at having moved away from my parents came crashing down on me like a cartoon anvil.

I eventually found a part time job telecommuting, ironically, for a Seattle agency and I get regular assignments from freelance contacts in DC, Philadelphia and New York. I work at home, in my pajamas, with only the dog for company. After checking off every possible transgression on the teen age hellion to-do list, our son is slowly turning himself around. I miss my women friends terribly. My daughter is a first year law student on the other side of the continent. My husband and I have no social life: It's hard to meet people when you both work at home and no longer have young children.

Why am I telling you all this? Because Joni was right. You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. A home of your own, where you have a history. Parents who are predictably, charmingly annoying and turn out to be right about things like the dangers of uprooting yourself when you're not so young anymore. Comrades who know you and your life story, who get your jokes, who are actually willing to provide a sympathetic ear even if your story bums them out, because it's understood that sooner or later, you'll do the same for them.

You want someone to tell you to make your move and follow your dream? Go watch Oprah. Of course, if you have a job to move for, or you're young and unencumbered by family responsibilities, relocation can be an exciting possibility. But beware of wanderlust. It could be naive romanticism in disguise. An adult ADD impulse. A desperate need to believe that you're still young and daring. A subconscious desire to escape things that will hitch a ride on the moving van and resume tormenting you after you unpack. My advice to you is bloom where you're planted - as long as it's not Cleveland.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Old Times

It was lunchtime at Bellini's, a Harry's Bar wannabe in Cleveland, Ohio. I don't recall whether it was business or pleasure or who I was meeting, but I remember having to wait, always a good excuse for alcohol. I'm normally a sapphire-gin-and-tonic-two-limes person, but this time, I'd gone for the girly drink: one of Bellini's eponymous slushy peach cocktails. I glanced above the bar at the TV, on mute and tuned to an ancient rerun of Mayberry RFD. And then my head exploded.

No, it was not brain freeze from the frozen bellini. It was the stunning revelation that I looked older than Andy Griffith.

We all have our Andy Griffith moments, those holy-shit-am-I-really-that-old awareness flashes. Anything can trigger one, from catching an unexpected glimpse of your reflection to dealing with some horrendous, life altering problem and wondering how did I get here? (Cue Talking Heads). Any way, your age is your age. You can let it trip you out or you can shrug it off. Or, I suppose, you can lie.

I recently saw the profile of a childhood acquaintance on a social media site. She lists her age as ten years younger than my sister. Who, in turn, is four years younger than me. Which would make this lady (yes, math face, this was a test) fourteen years younger than yours truly. I'd be jealous but for the fact that, back when we were in school together, our age difference was only three months. I don't get this. Fourteen years is hard to pull off. People from your past know your real age. And personally, I would rather have people say I look "good for my age" than exclaim "Oh my God what happened to HER?"

Now, money is the great equalizer and Madonna has plenty of it. She is throwing massive amounts of cash at preserving her hotness. She has incredible hulk veins from excessive working out. Her forehead is smooth and shiny as Olympic ice. Bony spurs have sprouted beneath her eyes. I think they are supposed to be cheekbones. The poor thing has to work so hard to work it, you almost feel sorry for her. Madonna, here's a little creative direction for you. Take a step back and stop art directing yourself. Get back in touch with your original spontaneous, brash Italian self. Wear elegant cocktail dresses. Tone down the makeup. Eat some pasta and gain twenty pounds. Be real. Be entertaining. Have ideas and opinions or you will fast become an immaterial girl. As a performer, you are at an age where you either have substance or you start to come off like the drag version of your former self.

Yes, folks, we're all on the same subway – some of us got on early and some just two stops back. Fading isn't fun. No woman likes to look in the mirror and see her mother staring back. No man enjoys throwing his back out performing some heretofore routine task. And whatever your gender, having to wear reading glasses really sucks. So yeah, you can throw money at plastic surgeons and personal trainers and colorists and aestheticians and that may work for a while. Just try to maintain some perspective. Think about charitable things your money could do. Remember your bucket list. Wouldn't you rather cross off Tibet than have a tummy tuck? Take a long hard look at Joan Rivers and see if you don't get a little queasy. (Which isn't to say it doesn't suck to age out of, say, your staple clothing stores. I remember thinking The Limited and Express would get me through the rest of my natural life. Now, I don't even go in those stores: I rely on J. Jill and Chicos and hope to God I don't look like Michael Phelps' mother.)

Life, unless you're very lucky, gives you perspective on the vanity thing. A father with a troubled teen isn't too preoccupied with his own bald pate. A middle-aged mom doesn't tend to focused on the size of her butt when her own mother starts to show signs of Alzheimer's. Cliches like "Count your blessings" and "As long as you have your health" start to sound like the wisdom of the ages (or maybe the aged). The latest wrinkle on your face may be annoying, but rarely more so than the latest wrinkle in your life.

For the record, I meant THIS Andy Griffith...

Not THIS one. And no, I won't tell you my age, but I ain't lying about it either.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Talking Up Serpents

I was speed-walking distractedly down a ridgetop in Briones Park, pumping my arms and kicking up dirt. The light was long past golden, and I was determined to get back to my car before sundown, when the bobcats, coyotes and mountain lions come out. My mini-back pack was starting to dig into my shoulders, and as I stopped to adjust the straps, I noticed something long and white flapping in the brush. I crouched down to get a closer look. Draped over a shrub was a discarded snake skin, paper thin and rustling in the wind. It had obviously been shed by a rattler of impressive proportions. The head and tail end were missing, but the skin was still over a foot long and maybe one and half inches wide. I picked it up for a closer look. I could see the fishnet pattern of the snake's back scales, and the parallel ridges that had once girded its belly.

I tucked what appeared to be the least fragile end of my find into the back pocket of my daypack and resumed walking, the snakeskin flapping behind me like a banner. A couple of hikers were coming down the dip in the path ahead, towards me. Of course, I had to ask if they would like to see my snakeskin - an invitation that, were I a man, could have made me sound like what my daughter calls "a huge perv". But I am an eccentric middle aged lady, and if they thought I was insane, they did a good job of hiding it. They paused for a quick look - I think they were impressed.

I had seen rattlesnakes at Briones a couple of times before. Now, I watch my step. Especially since I broke my distance glasses about six months ago and have a tendency to confuse cow pies with coiled serpents. (One smells, the other hisses). But I made it safely back to my car. Despite its fragile appearance, the skin held up quite well and currently adorns my office bulletin board.

Once I had done a little research, I was less impressed with myself for finding that snakeskin. It seems rattlers molt three or four times a year, depending on how well-fed they are (strictly a function of the size of the rodent population). Out of 16 varieties of rattlesnake indigenous to the United States, a grand total of ten can be found in California. It is likely that my souvenir was shed by the redundantly named Crotalus oreganus oreganus, or Northern Pacific Rattlesnake. And now, a few fast facts about rattlesnakes:

They are easily identifiable. That signature tail is just one of the rattlesnake's distinguishing characteristics. Rattlers have thicker bodies than most snakes and triangular-shaped heads with a distinct “neck”. Their lidless eyes are hooded, with elliptical pupils. Don't get close enough look into them or you might discover that rattlesnakes strike at a speed faster than the human eye can process! While rattlers have much better night vision than we do, they are profoundly deaf. However, they are exquisitely sensitive to vibrations, such as those caused by your approaching footsteps.

They give birth to live young. Yes, I realize the photo is about as gross as the extra-terrestrial hatchery uncovered by Sigourney Weaver in Alien 2. No, I did not take this picture: I would have dropped my camera and run screaming from the room. Rattlers are ovoviparous, which means that their eggs hatch inside the mother's body and the young are born live. The 10-inch long snakelets are already venomous at birth, living proof that not all baby animals are cute. These babies won't get their first rattle until their first molt, roughly ten days after they are born. They compensate by being more aggressive than their elders. Fortunately for us hikers, many rattlesnake young are gobbled up by hawks, eagles, badgers, or coyotes.

They add on a rattle every time they shed. However, the rattles eventually break off, and it's rare to see more than ten of them on a single snake. The notion that you can tell a snake's age by the number of rattles on its tail is simply not true – rattlers can live for as long as thirty years, but you never see one with thirty rattles. The rattles consist of keratin "beads" of hardened skin around the snake's tail. When the serpent shakes its rear, the beads bump against each other and make that signature warning sound.

If you see this florid organ on a rattlesnake, it means he's glad to see you.

They have strange body parts. Rattlesnakes are pit vipers. This term refers to a pair of openings, called loreal pits, located on the sides of their heads. Loreal pits are an infrared sensing device, enabling the snake to sense the temperature difference between the cool night air and a nice, fat chipmunk. (Remember the alien's heat-seeking vision in Predator with Arnold Schwarzeneger? Same concept). Snakes, including rattlers, don't smell with their snouts. They flick their tongues in and out to sample odors in the atmosphere. Inside their mouths is the "Jabobsen's organ", which relays smell information from the tongue to the brain. The forked tongue is a directional aid that lets the snake know whether those tempting field mouse pheromones are wafting from the left or the right. The lucky male rattlesnake has two penises (or is that penii?), called hemipenes. (The bad news is he's hung like a sea anemone - see photo above). He only uses one hemipene at a time, and both remain inverted inside his body until it's time to get busy.

They have retractable teeth. If a rattler is busy sunning itself while digesting some hapless quail, its fangs lie flat inside its mouth. But when it gets ready to strike, they rotate downward 90 degrees, into stabbing position. Like little hypodermic needles, the snake's hollow fangs inject venom into its prey. Designed to fall out and grow back several times a year, the fangs break off easily, sometimes getting swallowed right along with dinner. The snake's hinged jaw can literally drop out of its socket, enabling it to swallow prey as large as a cottontail rabbit.

Slumber party!

They take the winter off. Rattlesnakes hibernate from November to April, usually in large groups. They like rocks or rodent burrows but have been known to camp out in the basements of buildings. In the summer, they spend their days chilling under rocks and shrubs. Hunting happens at night, with the help of those heat-seaking Jacobsen's organs.

Their bite rarely kills a healthy adult human. Rattlesnakes can actually regulate the amount of venom they release. They may bite "dry" in self-defense - why waste perfectly good venom on something that's too big to eat? If you do get a shot of venom, you could be in big trouble. The poison disrupts blood clotting and destroys tissue. Even with prompt treatment, scarring is inevitable. Read about 13 year old Justin's snake bite and look at the hideous photos of his surgery, if you dare. (I'm actually sorry I looked - the poor kid's arm looks like a detail from an anatomical drawing of a flayed man.)

Which brings us back to shedding. Rattlesnakes slip out of their outgrown epidermis as soon as they emerge from hibernation, and they shed two or three additional times each year. The snake rubs its nose against a rock or branch until it creates a big enough tear to start slipping out of his skin, which turns inside out in the process. It would be nice if people could do the same - simply shed our exterior when it starts to cramp our style. Wriggle out of our past. Grow a new skin. Of course, any human who can pull this off is probably already a snake.

More fun with Northern California fauna:

elephant seals
clown perverts

P.S. Happy Halloween!

Friday, August 6, 2010

No words.

I'm sorry, I can't talk now. It's August. I have been working like a dog for the past three months, including weekends. I have been writing non stop about things like hip replacements, multiple sclerosis and gynecological surgery. I'm about to devote my entire weekend to a website for a PR firm. Am I grateful for the income? Very. Am I having interesting, potentially blog-worthy experiences? Nope. That would require leaving the house.

Now, my daughter is here visiting for a month before she starts law school. Or doesn't start law school. She is getting cold feet because she's having such a great time as a freelance writer and would rather become a journalist. I alternate between the you-will-never-make-a-living-in-that-dying-industry speech and the follow-your-heart-and-do-what-you-love speech. Truth is, I know she will have regrets no matter what she chooses. She is a glass half-empty kind of gal. That is not my daughter in the photo, by the way. I was looking for gag visuals to illustrate the concept of "no words." I picked that girl because she wasn't trussed and leather clad. Don't do a visual google on "gag" or you just might.

Anyway, since I have had no life recently, I have nothing to say. I need a break, and I need to spend some time with my kids and my husband. So I am officially going on hiatus for the rest of the Summer. See ya' in September.

Saturday, July 31, 2010


It had to happen sooner or later. My inevitable yoga accident. Did I dislocate my shoulder in the three limbed backbend known as Wild Thing? Nope. Did I strain my neck looking around at my neighbors while in shoulder stand? Not this time. Did I hit my head against the wall, falling in an aborted handstand? No, at least, not recently.

Here's how it went down. I was in three-legged dog with my leg pointing toward Nirvana. Using way too much momentum, I swung my leg in to transition to a lunge, but my foot was angled wrong and I slammed my pinky toe on the hardwood floor. It hurt like a son-of-a-you-know-what. What's more, the instructor was focusing on me because I was new to his class. Gritting my teeth and planting my good foot solidly into the floor, I held my breath (huge yogic nono) while he adjusted me in Ardeshandrasana. Mercifully, I was on my good foot – my other leg was extended, foot flexed, broken piggy delicately throbbing.

I did not cry wee, wee, wee all the way home: I stuck out the class. I am macho that way. I was able to slip on my loose sandal and drive home but by bed time, my foot was swollen and mauve. The next morning, the little toe and its cleavage were the color of a grape popsicle.

I skipped the x-ray and doctor visit. I have it on very good authority that all they do is tape your toe and send you home. So I stayed home, and taped my toe. My spouse keeps shaking his head and giving me pitying looks. Years ago, I tripped over a vacuum cleaner cord and snapped my big toe in half. On the X-ray, the severed phalange floated above the rest of my toe like a little cloud of bone. But my husband doesn't remember the vacuum cleaner, or the cord. He says I just started doing some random spaz dance and fell over, which, given my modest degree of natural coordination, is entirely possible.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Goat World

I was walking down Berkeley's Wild Cat Canyon road, to my left the grassy hills of Tilden Park and to my right, a series of rustic modern homes perched on the sloping terrain. As I approached a blind curve, I heard a plaintive moan. It was a nasal, insistent, baritone in a pitch not uncommon for a male voice. The sound, however, was not human. And while there are several herds of cows in Tilden park, it wasn't bovine either. The mystery resolved itself when I rounded the bend: Before me was a vast, standing-room-only herd of goats, in the throes of a feeding frenzy. Never mind that the menu consisted of thorns, thistles and knee-high, dry, dead grass. It was an all you can eat buffet.

Fire season is serious business in California. One carelessly tossed cigarette and a brush-covered hillside can burst into flame like a fourth of July sparkler. A sizeable chunk of Oakland, Piedmont and Berkeley was virtually vaporized in the Oakland Fire Storm of 1991. 2,800 homes and all the surrounding old growth vegetation went up in smoke. The neighborhoods have been rebuilt, but they can also be re-burnt if the surrounding hills aren't groomed on a regular basis. Ergo, the goats.

As a fire hazard reduction system, the eco-friendly goat method has really caught on. The tactic is both green and efficient: Four hundred hungry goats can level an acre of vegetation in one day! The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission rents the four-footed mowers to help chew away potentially hazardous vegetation growing too close to their water pipelines. Google uses a herd to trim the open spaces around their headquarters. Even private citizens are going goat. A lady in my business women's networking group recently posted an inquiry for a herd to come chomp on the daunting thistle patches that were encroaching on her property from the hillside behind her house. (Goats don't really eat tin cans, but they are partial to weeds - a belly full of poison oak or poison ivy only leaves them itching for more). She got multiple responses, including a link to Goats R Us, a family business located right here in Orinda.

I don't know exactly where the Goats R Us folks have their farm, but I have seen their herd in action at Briones Regional Park. They employ a goatherd who stays on site, in a shabby old trailer. He works with a pair of energetic and ostensibly Spanish-speaking border collies. If the goats begin to stray, he grunts something en espanol, and the dogs spring into action. When the hillside has been thoroughly cut back, the goats are carted off to do their baaaaaaaad thing somewhere else.

Goats live about as long as dogs do, and when they get to be a decade or so old, they're not so keen on boarding a truck to go grazing. Goats R Us pampers their old nannies and billies, whom they affectionately refer to as retirees, and put them out to pasture close to home. This is kinder than what is happening in a lot of Bay area restaurants, where ( sorry, vegans) goat meat is all the rage. I had cabra stew once in Mexico and it was not an experience I am anxious to duplicate. Goat cheese is another story. As proud as I am of my French heritage, I have to admit that Californians make some damn fine goat cheese. Humboldt Fog by Cypress Grove Chevre, has plenty of character. Redwood Hill Farms makes a great French style "crottin" and their website is fun to visit, although the use of Vivaldi for their video tour is slightly, if appropriately, cheesy.

So next time you find yourself at a petting zoo, give that little goat an extra handful of pellets to say thank you. For its meat and milk. For mohair, alpaca and pashima. And for helping the State of California keep the annual fire season under control.

I once dated a guy who looked like this.

Say cheese.

Goats in the Smithsonian

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

My cup is half empty.

Dispatch from Planet Yoga. Today,I showed up for a crowded class taught by the Strawberry Man. As I lay my mat down in the front row, I noticed the receptionist, one of a half dozen boho babes who work at the studio in exchange for free yoga classes, setting up three people down from me. I turned my attention back to my own mat as the Strawberry Man began recounting the legend of Shiva and Shakti, which he saw as a parable of male/female relations. The Strawberry Man seems to think about the man/woman thing quite a lot.

But back to the receptionist. It's not that I was staring – like a good yogi, I do my best to turn inward and focus on my own practice. But as I contorted my spine to try to achieve a perfect revolved triangle, I caught sight of her doing the same. My soft yogic gaze suddenly sharpened and fixed itself on four giant ringworms on her back. Bright red, like Target logos. Except for the one on her neck which looked like an out of control hicky.

So much for turning inward. Ringworm is contagious. Highly contagious. Almost as contagious as Ebola, Pink Eye or the Macarena. I spent the whole rest of the class obsessing over whether the poor girl was using a communal mat. I always bring my own, but while I wasn't personally at risk, the thought of the entire kula breaking out in circular fungus blooms was just too nasty. Especially when, at the end of class, the receptionist rolled up her mat and slipped it back on the shelf for the next unsuspecting yogi.

What should I do, I wondered? Talk to her? How rude. She might get mad and she's bigger than me and why would I want to make the poor girl feel bad? She probably had no idea about the ringworm. How often does one look at one's back anyway? (The only time I ever check out mine is after a carbohydrate binge, when I feel compelled to do a butt-check, and I'm invariably sorry I looked.) And yet, I couldn't just stand idly by while Molly Ringworm infected the entire studio.

In the row behind me, I had noticed the Strawberry Man's sister, also attending class. She is a fantastic yoga teacher in her own right, and an empathetic person. Perhaps I could quietly alert her to Molly's fungus situation and the studio would stage a dermatological intervention. But by the time I thought of this, class was letting out and the Strawberry Man's entourage had dispersed. There was no one else at the studio whom I felt comfortable narcing to. So I took the coward's way out; I went back to my car and left a voicemail.

The next morning, I got a voicemail back. The receptionist was not contagious, she had been cupped. This is a form of alternative medicine in which heated glass cups are applied to places on the back that may or may not correspond to acupuncture points. As the cup cools and contracts, it forms a vacuum, sucking up the skin. The oldest mention of cupping is in a 1,550 year old Egyptian medical textbook called the Ebers Papyrus, but it seems some version of the practice exists in every culture, from China to Europe to the Middle East. My mother remembers cupping from her French girlhood, albeit none too fondly. The procedure may be tonic, or therapeutic, or simply have a placebo effect – I have no idea. But it does leave unsightly red burn marks that look a lot like ringworm.

Anyway, now I don't have to feel bad about embarrassing the receptionist at the yoga studio. It seems I've embarrassed myself instead.

Ringworm? Cupping? Tattoos by Target? You be the judge.

Zorba and Bouboulina share an intimate moment.


Gwyneth Paltrow loves cupping.

The cupping runneth over.

A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Meet my other blog.

Like Eucalyptus Way? Check out my other blog. Generally shorter, snottier and less sentimental.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Safe and Secure?

My eighty year old father-in-law is in no way chipper. He has limited mobility and uses a wheel chair. And yet, he feels compelled to prove his old-manhood and fly south to Florida every Winter so he can look out at a golf course he's too infirm to play on and maintain a pool in which he's never even dipped a toe. The yearly migration is all the more of an ordeal because someone on the No Fly List shares his common Irish name and surname. The poor guy has to have his wife wheel him up to whoever's in charge and proactively explain that he is not a member of the Irish Republican Army.

No doubt my father-in-law is the victim of overzealousness on the part of airport security. But my own recent experience exposed incompetence of a different sort. I was on my way to see my family on the East Coast. By the time I realized I had left my California driver's license in my back pack the last time I went hiking, my husband had dropped me off curbside and driven away. I called him in a panic, but there was no time for him to get the license and come back: I was going to miss my plane. Get on the BART and come home, my husband sighed. You'll never get through security.

Instead, I threw caution to the wind. I still had my old, expired DC license in my wallet. The California DMV had punched a hole where the expiration date used to be. Don't know why I kept it. Probably as a marker to evaluate how much I've aged in the past three years. (A lot). I put on my best poker face and handed my invalid, perforated license to the Baggage Checker. He stared intently at my photo. Then at me. Then at my photo.

The Baggage Checker gave me back my i.d., took my suitcase and waved me through.

On to security. I took off my shoes and my jacket, piled my stuff into a bin, sent it down the ramp and headed for the Security Chick's podium, briefly contemplating whether I should cover the hole in my i.d. with my thumb as I handed it to her. The Security Chick snatched my card and aimed her little flash light. She stared intently at my photo. Then at me. Then at my photo.

Did I mention that I was returning from a different city and therefore had a one-way ticket? Danger, Will Robinson! Homeland security red flag!

The Security Chick handed me back my bum license and waved me through.

Having pulled off my subterfuge,I felt strangely guilty. Guilty and nervous. So nervous that when I stopped at the ladies' room, I left my boarding pass on top of the toilet paper dispenser. Fortunately, the nice lady who went in right after me noticed and handed me the pass before shutting the stall door. I went to wash my hands and plopped my carry-on down on the ground. Next thing I knew, a young woman was standing right behind me. "Is this your bag?" she asked.

Irrational thoughts flooded my brain. Is she undercover FBI? Does she think I'm a terrorist? Is flying with an expired license a federal offense?Are they going to call the bomb squad and try to detonate my carry-on? No, no, I don't think so, and no. She was a just a young mother and her own mom was right behind her, brandishing a poopy toddler. My bag was blocking their access to the fold-out changing table.

The rest of my trip was uneventful. My husband Fed-Exed the valid license to my parents' home, just in case the DC airport security staff was more competent.

Somehow, I doubt it.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Remembering Mimi

It's been exactly a year since my maternal grandmother, Marguerite Mezbourian, died of congestive heart failure at the age of 99. Her nickname was Mimi, but my sister and I called her Mamy, the most common French version of Grandma. I flew to Paris for her funeral. I was worried that I wouldn't cry, and I didn't. What's more, my sister's kids took great pleasure in discussing my inadequate weeping on the way back from the funeral, with my poor mother in the car.

When my grandfather Robert Mezbourian passed away three years earlier, I was overwhelmed with grief. I took one look at him, lying in his coffin in the drab, depressing little room in the basement of the old age home, and I lost it. I cried for him, for all his dreams and disappointments, for the best parts of my childhood in which he played a leading role, for the loss of a tender-hearted, gruffly charming man who was truly our family patriarch. It was a profound, existential sorrow and there was no composing myself. I was standing behind my grandmother, who sat in a little chair by his side, her tears falling onto the white satin upholstery of his coffin. I could feel her frail body shaking as I held her shoulders. My heart was breaking, and not a day has gone by since that I have not thought of our dear "Papapa".

But back to my grandmother, for whom I monstrously could not cry. She had been a looker in her day. Mimi's mother was a lovely blue eyed blonde Alsatian, and her father, a sad-faced Armenian refugee with a huge walrus moustache. He died of tuberculosis when my grandmother and her older brother and sister were children. My grandfather Robert was also half Armenian - His father ran the family diamond business and employed a slew of cousins and nephews. Robert and Mimi shared a disdain for their immigrant roots and a taste for the Parisian life. They were both small, attractive, ambitious and afflicted with exotic surnames that flagged them as insufficiently French. They wed when they were 21 and had my mother six months later.

My grandparents' lifelong devotion to one another was admirable. Robert brought Mimi breakfast in bed every morning, until he finally grew too frail to carry the big silver tray of hot black coffee, butter and half a fresh baguette. Mimi adopted all of Robert's politics and opinions, read any book he recommended, nagged him about reducing his wine consumption, and never bought so much as a pair of socks without his approval. (Papapa just might have been the only man on the planet who actually enjoyed sitting outside the fitting room and watching his wife try on clothes). When my grandparents got into their eighties, Mimi started following Robert around with a bright red sweater to keep him from getting a chill. After rebuffing her with a dismissive "merde" or two, he would eventually surrender and don the cardigan.

Schooled in the feminine arts by nuns, Mimi was well-trained for the old time domestic life. My Alsatian great-grandmother Alice, a story-book wonderful old lady who just radiated love and kindness, once showed me my grandmother's grade school sampler. It was a masterpiece. Flawless stitching, darning, knitting, crochet. (The manual dexterity gene was sadly not passed on to me or my progeny). As a young woman, Mimi would attend the designer collections, analyze the patterns and go home and make her own knock offs, in the finest quality fabric she could find. All the drapes in my mother's home were made in Paris by my grandmother, expertly packed into large suitcases and brought in to the US as part of my grandparents' luggage. Time has begun to yellow the weighty pearl grey satin, but those curtains still hang perfectly.

When when my sister and I were maybe five and nine years old, Papapa and Mamy came to the States for Christmas. In Mamy's suitcase, impeccably wrapped in white tissue paper, were two hand-made pink and metallic silver rajah costumes in our exact sizes. Bouffant pantaloons with matching puffy-sleeved tops, and turbans adorned with rhinestones and bouquets of exotic of feathers. As a finishing touch, my grandmother had sewn sashes of three long strips of fuschia, emerald and purple muslim. The outfits were intended for playing dress up, but we could have worn them to a soiree at the Ottoman court.

My grandmother cooked classic French food impeccably, the downside of her culinary skills being that one was expected to discuss ad-nauseum the quality of the beef/fish/artichokes as one consumed them. (As a girl, I'd get irritated when my grandparents went on about two of their favorite topics, food and the weather. I have since realized that a fondness for these subjects is a universal characteristic of old people.) Anyway, now I have given Mimi her due as an exceptional and highly tasteful craftswoman so I can also tell you that in many ways, she was not a nice person.

Passive-aggressive digs were my grandmother's specialty. One time we were visiting in Paris and some friends of my parents' were in town. My grandparents invited them for lunch. The wife had on an old navy and white polka dot pajama-like pants suit with a huge discoloration on the top. Of course, my grandmother immediately began complimenting the lady on her "charming little outfit". (Subtext: "Hey females of the family! Can you believe this getup?").  Visiting a friend's country home, Mimi disingenuously remarked that the scene was so bucolic, all they needed was a cow in the front yard. To her grandchildren, my grandmother was never anything but generous and affectionate, but even I was not spared the occasional barb. When I was 15 and finally developing, she turned to me and said "Your breasts are huge. Are you on the pill?" I was years from losing my virginity and shocked that she would ask such a thing.

My grandparents socialized with other couples, usually business acquaintances of my grandfather's and their wives. If a marriage came apart, my grandparents would continue to see the man, and the woman would cease to exist - probably a common practice in those days, but one that Mimi never questioned. She had no close friends and dismissed women in general as "les bonnes femmes" a disparaging term that literally means "the good women" but implies gossipy and small-minded. She felt a rivalry with other females, especially those who were richer, smarter, more educated, or better looking. This perspective infected her relationship with her own daughter. When I was a girl, my mother would tell me horror stories - the hair brush beatings, the name calling, the standing on the low fourth floor balcony, threatening to jump – my grandmother was a drama queen, alright. On my mother's wedding day, Mimi had a hissy because she wasn't happy with her hair. She yanked the combs from my mother's hair, snarling "Ha! HER hair will look good,"

As my sister and I grew to be teenagers and then adults, my grandmother always asked us if we knew anybody "interesting" which to her meant rich and socially prominent. We didn't, much to her chagrin, and our crowd did not pass muster. I once invited two friends up to stay with us at my family's summer cottage. When my buddies were out of earshot, my grandmother referred to them by special nicknames she had coined: the girl, who was about a size 12, was dubbed "La Gravos" - the fat one. The guy fared worse: he was African American and gay and Mimi's special name for him was Bamboula, the French equivalent of Sambo. Somehow, it never occurred to my grandmother that this might not go over well with me.

My grandmother was both a hypochondriac and a food neurotic. She had almost died of typhoid fever when she was four, and was deemed "fragile" her whole life. She milked this alleged fragility for all it was worth. The world was supposed to stop turning when Mimi stopped eating. For days, she would do nothing but pick at her food, complaining of "fermentations", a ladylike euphemism for gas. My grandfather and mother would despair because there would be no peace until my grandmother's hunger strike had ended. As I got older, I'd occasionally suggest to my mother that perhaps they should just let the old girl stay on bread and water and not react, but everyone was too concerned about Her Frailness to call her bluff. "Eat a little fish," my mother would beg. "Try the soup - I made it just the way you like it." This dramedy would continue over the course of several days, with Mimi's daughter and husband in an increasing tizzy over her lack of appetite. I could never understand what they were so concerned about. And I've occasionally speculated that this was her way of keeping her weight down and entertaining herself at the same time. Sooner or later, when she got bored with torturing everyone, Mimi would start eating again.

In truth, until her heart started to go in her 10th decade, Mimi was remarkably healthy and fit. Well into her nineties, she puttered around her Paris neighborhood in her low-heeled Chanel pumps, running errands and window shopping. One time, three young yahoos mugged my grandmother and knocked her unconscious. She was back strolling the sidewalks in a matter of days. I can still see her at maybe 93, dropping down on all fours and crawling under the antique table in her vestibule to show me a hidden repair.

My mother, an only child, felt duty bound to personally care for her aging parents. She left my father to his own devices in the states and moved back in to the Paris apartment her parents had lived in since just before World War II. My grandfather suffered several mini strokes and became increasingly incontinent and incommunicative until my mother could no longer handle the physical demands of caring for him. Meanwhile, my grandmother's angina progressed. At one point, the two of them were in the hospital together. Eventually, my grandfather had to be moved to a home on the other end of Paris. He had stopped speaking and could no longer walk. Every afternoon, my mother and grandmother took a taxi to the rest home to spend time with him and feed him his dinner. I visited him on two occasions and he had no idea who I was, but he recognized his wife to the end. Sometimes, he'd grab her hands and kiss them.

The day after my grandfather's funeral, my mother was stunned to hear my grandmother ask when they were leaving for the old age home to visit him. Mimi's short term memory had been fuzzy for a while, and she refused to believe that her Robert had died. Every day, she would ask my mother when she should get ready to go visit him. My mother would show her the obituary in the Figaro newspaper and my grandmother would start crying as though hearing the news for the very first time. This tragic loop replayed itself daily until Mimi's heart finally gave out.

And so I found myself flying from San Francisco to Paris to attend Mimi's funeral. My conscience was not clear: I hadn't visited since my grandfather's death three years earlier. I had continued to call, but my grandmother grew so deaf she couldn't come to the phone. I got updates from my mother.

I could have written, I could have sent photos. I told myself I would but I didn't. I rationalized that Mimi would forget I had called five minutes after I hung up, which was true. Then again, with her lack of short term memory a single letter could have gone a long way, seeming like fresh news with every reading. But I was on the other side of the world, with problems of my own. The recession hit. I wasn't finding work, our son was in full blown troubled teen mode and our daughter declared she was an East Coast girl and prepared to move back. There was no good news to share, no photos to send, nothing cheerful to put in a chipper little note card. I assuaged my guilt by telling myself I'd take my son to Paris that summer to see Mimi, my sister and his cousins, despite the challenges of keeping the kid in line.

As it turned out, I made the Paris trip earlier than that, with my daughter, to attend my grandmother's funeral. Only a handful of people came, mostly to support my mother – Mimi's contemporaries were long gone. Three years earlier, my mother had asked me to say a few words at my grandfather's memorial, and I had spent hours writing a heartfelt reminiscence. This time, I was in the bad daughter dog house and my mother pointedly did not ask me to speak. I felt ambivalent about that; hurt that I wasn't asked, shamed – as my mother intended –, guilty about my emotional detachment, and relieved that I didn't have to scramble to write a eulogy. My sister said exactly what I would have said, briefly praising Mimi's dedication to Robert, her husband of 78 years. My mother offered up an end-of-an-era speech about Mimi being the last of her generation in our family. There were no sentimental stories, no amusing anecdotes, no fond memories. Mimi was laid to rest in a deep grave, right above "l'homme de sa vie", the love of her life, my grandfather.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Calla Lillies

After several days of non-stop rain, I knew a hike in one of the regional parks would be a mud-fest. Instead of coming home, showering and having a nice cup of tea, I'd have to take my boots and pants off in the garage, hose down the boots, stick the pants in washer and bathe the mud-encrusted dog. So much for the benefits of a walking meditation. So I decided to take the wimpy way out and walk Winston in the paved streets of the Berkeley hills. I did cut through a small park along the way where I came upon this impromptu flower arrangement tucked into a hole in a gnarly old tree. A romantic signal between two lovers, perhaps. Or a tribute to a departed friend. Or maybe just a random act of poetry to delight the passersby.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Metaphorically Speaking

Fifteen, I was. Maybe sixteen. My parents had decided we would get dinner at a pizza joint by Georgetown University, which is walking distance from my childhood home. They loved the Ivy League atmosphere and have always enjoyed people-watching. Of course, I thought basking in the campus vibe for entertainment purposes was dorky as hell. Like most teenagers, I was largely preoccupied with myself – I don't even remember whether my younger sister was with us – and the prospect of sitting at a table with my mother and father at a pizza and beer hole where the average customer was just a few years older than me was absolutely mortifying. So when my parents gave me a quarter for the jukebox, thereby enabling me to get physically away from them for five minutes and fantasize that we did not know each other, I took a long time making my selection. Finally, I punched in the number for I Am a Rock by Simon and Garfunkle. The lyrics symbolized my distance from those embarrassing primogenitors. I returned to our table, grimly chewing my pizza as I sang along in my head, "I am a rock, I am an island..."

As I get older, I find myself increasingly thinking in images. Perhaps it's the brain's way of compensating for the maddening verbal memory glitches we experience in middle age - those pesky attacks of what's it called and what's his name and what the hell's my phone number. I have long since outgrown that Simon and Garfunkle tune and I'd wager Paul Simon hasn't sung it in years. It was already a little adolescent for him when he first performed it. But that tired rock metaphor has a whole different meaning to me now. I no longer see being a rock as a desirable condition. Hard headed toughness doesn't protect you: it shuts you off, limits you, keeps you from growing. Life brings change, and you need the flexibility to adapt. Which is why it deeply pains me to conclude that my son is a rock.

My-son-the-rock is especially challenging for me as a parent, because I am a fountain. Of information. Criticism. Stories. Humor. Nagging. Commentary. Guilt. Affirmation. Advice. Sarcasm. Praise. Blame. Encouragement. I runneth continuously over. I see every experience as a treasure trove of teachable moments. This was the ideal parenting style for my daughter, because she is a sponge, ready to soak up everything you throw at her. Water me, pour it on, tell me something new. I've been describing and explaining the world to her since she first learned how to talk. Now that my daughter is a well-educated and inquisitive adult, I often learn from her. And getting information from a sponge is not hard: all it takes is a little squeeze.The rock, meanwhile, remains immobile, impassive, impervious to the water flowing over him. Who knows? Perhaps in a hundred thousand years, he'll display some hint of erosion.

The problem with trying to raise both of your kids exactly the same way is that they are not the same person. Worse, by the time you realize what worked so well with the first one is tanking with number two, you're dealing with a surly, unmotivated, oppositional and unhappy teenager. The rock called for a different parenting technique, if not different parents. Teaching him to respect authority, whether ours or his teachers', is next to impossible. Explaining the value of education and hard work to him is about as effective as talking to a slab of granite. Convincing him to open up is like squeezing blood from, well... a stone. "For a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries." And if anyone ever manages to get through to that boy, or he matures enough to understand what he's done to his life, I fear he just might shatter.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Let's talk dirty.

I missed the height of the hippy era - I was a kid – but I remember hearing older conservative types venting about "dirty hippies". I always assumed they were using "dirty" as an epithet rather than literally. I didn't see what having long hair and colorful clothes had to do with personal cleanliness. I thought the old folks were a bunch of bigots, which they probably were. But even bigots get to be right from time to time, and when it comes to hippy hygiene, it turns out they had a point.

Here in the Bay Area, there are still a lot of hippies, ages twenty to seventy-something, and they really do have an aversion to soap and water. In yoga class, I have been in down dog next to a couple of fellows who had probably been marinating in their own juices for a good 3 or 4 days. When class gets really crowded, I've hovered above the floor in chaturanga six inches from a pair of feet stinky enough to shame a limburger. One of the instructors appears to never wash her hair - either that or she's doing some kind of conditioning treatment that has to stay on for six months.

My son claims cutting down on the hair washing is a good thing – something about the natural oils. For a while, he had the same theory about brushing teeth, minus the natural oil part. He gets these ideas from some of his more malodorous friends. (There's one boy - Rocky - whose presence I can detect 30 minutes after his departure, due to the pungent cloud he leaves in his wake. Remember Pig Pen from Peanuts? That's Rocky, minus the big giant head). Fortunately, my own kid actually does maintain basic cleanliness and mostly talks like this to get my goat, although he is way behind on his laundry.

What I find most disconcerting is that this benign neglect of one's person appears to often be a conscious life choice rather than a gradual slacking off – not that there's any excuse for that either. A pilates teacher I know was complaining that her friend had ripened past the point of social acceptability since deciding to "go hippy". The woman cut drastically back on her ablutions, stopped shaving her underarms and edited deodorant out of her beauty regime because "it's just not natural". Well now, let's get real here, neither is a back full of tats. And what, exactly, is the philosophical point of forgoing personal cleanliness? If it's saving water you're concerned about, take a damn sponge bath.

So I'm riding on the BART and these two twenty year olds, a guy and a girl, get on with their bicycles. They settle in across from each other by the subway doors and start talking about a guy they know.

"Yeah," he says." You're right, Pete really smells."

"No." she replies, in a you-don't-get-it tone of voice, " I mean he REALLY smells."

"Oh, that whole crew, they all smell. They don't wash much."

"Yeah," she insists,"Well, Pete doesn't wash, ever."

That girl was kind of cute. And if she can help it, Pete will never get within ten feet of her. Oh well, maybe Pete and the Pilates teacher's friend will find each other. Probably by smell.

Monday, February 15, 2010

That Vision Thing

This post is a rerun from my other blog, Snideties. I am recycling it because I am swamped this month, which is a good thing since it translates to paying bills. Also, this post is a better fit for Eucalyptus Way. Hope you enjoy it.

As far as I'm concerned, the nature/nurture debate is over. All you have to do is reproduce and try your best to raise your kids. Just as you come to the realization that your children have inherited all your worst traits, you're hit with another epiphany: you're turning into your parents.

My father is quite nearsighted and has always worn glasses. Without them, he has that telltale soft, myopic gaze and is, if not helpless, definitely challenged. He is a physician and health-conscious, with just a touch of hypochondria, so he wears sunglasses – over his glasses. But because he fears that's still not protection enough against those pesky, cataract-inducing UV rays, he adds on little clip-on shades. Every day is a gray day in the land of Dr. Dad.

Then, there's my grandmother. As a girl, I found her spectacles truly annoying. No, not the frames themselves - the daily drama of finding the right specs when she needed them. She would start by asking my grandfather in their native French if he had seen her "glasses to see far" or her "glasses to see close" , depending on which pair had gone missing. Pretty soon, the entire family would be searching the house, the car, the beach or the restaurant for my grandmother's glasses, which somehow always turned out to be in the first place she'd looked, her purse. My mother does not yet need distance glasses (wish I'd gotten that gene). She only wears readers, but she makes up for it by losing them twice as often as her mother did.

Growing up, I found my father's redundant eye wear and my grandmother's daily vision quest incredibly embarrassing. Surely everyone was staring at my eccentric family, thinking "That poor girl. She's related to these people." Of course, I had 20/20 vision, and I wasn't about to hide my best feature behind a pair of shades. Five presidents and a digital revolution away from middle aged lucidity, I didn't know that with maturity comes a blissful lack of concern about looking goofy.

Fast-forward a few decades.

Don't know if it's from staring at a computer screen for a living, but my eyes went south surprisingly fast. Right around my fortieth birthday, the type on paperbacks began to blur. Menus in dimly lit restaurants became illegible unless I squinted like Renee Zellweger and dislocated my arm. I got a pair of cute little red 1.0 reading glasses which quickly became inadequate. Soon, I needed glasses to look at the thermostat, the dosage on the cold medicine, the needle I couldn't thread. Too vain to go full-grandma and get an eyeglass chain, I started wearing my readers like a utilitarian headband.

I had graduated to 2.0 lenses when I noticed an annoying development at the movies: The projectionists were all too lazy to properly focus the image. Tired of reading fuzzy credits, I'd duck out of the theater and bitch to the nearest theater employee. Eventually, I realized it wasn't the projectionist who had the focusing problem. I got my eyes tested and officially graduated to bifocals, which I have never gotten used to. When it came time to change the prescription, I had the optometrist give me regular distance lenses. Now, I switch back and forth, just like grandma did. Sometimes, I too can't find my glasses, which usually turn out to be on my head.

It's when I go on my nature walks that things get really complicated. I need reading glasses for the trail map, sunglasses to protect my peepers and distance glasses to make sure whatever is causing that rustling in the brush isn't a mountain lion. The distance glasses give my vision a tantalizing clarity. I can see every leaf dancing in the breeze. But the glare can be intense, so I've resorted to wearing sunglasses over my distance glasses.

Just like my Poppa does.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

East Bay Ethnography

The jungle shivers with sound as your canoe floats down the Amazon. Monkeys grunt and howl. Exotic birds whistle and squawk. Unseen creatures rustle in the ground cover. You glide around a bend in the river and come upon a cluster of indigenous people sitting by the shore. Adorned in feathers and flowers, the men and women sit together in a circle around a fire, smoking herbs from a long pipe, eating fruit, laughing and talking. They notice you sailing by on your canoe and run to the shore, waving excitedly, beckoning for you to join them.

Instead, you paddle on down the serpentine river, negotiating a couple more curves before you come upon a very different tribe. Covered in war paint and ready for battle, the men dance around a fire, screaming, waving spears and calling for enemy blood. Their women sit back and watch, clapping, ululating, urging the men into a ferocious frenzy. You duck just in time to miss the first spear whizzing by your head. You paddle faster, dodging a few more spears before your canoe slips behind another turn in the snaky river, out of sight and out of reach.

How, your inner ethnographer wonders, can two cultures but a few miles apart be so drastically different?

Anyone who's ever moved from Berkeley to Orinda would have to wonder the same thing. With just a couple of hills between them, the two communities are as culturally different from one another as our fictitious Amazon tribes. Berkeley is edgy, dark and offbeat. Its vast flats range from upscale boho to drab, cold and even dangerous as you near the Oakland border. Its lush hills look straight across the middle of San Francisco Bay. Folks lucky enough to have views can watch the sun go to bed behind the Golden Gate bridge every evening. When the sunset isn't on, they watch the fog roll in.

The class war is alive and well in Berkeley. UC Berkeley students look down on the towny skateboard kids that grew up in the flats and pepper every sentence with "hella", as in "I'm hella tired". People in the flats despise "the rich" that live in the hills. In truth, there are plenty of middle class people up there, such as my hair dresser who's lived in the hills for twenty years, with her four boys and fireman husband. There's money in the hills too, but it's considered bad form to flaunt it.

Downtown Berkeley is haunted by every manner of street person, some sad, some scary, some with skin conditions you didn't know existed. The city has a classic art deco library, a newly renovated art house multiplex, a nationally renowned repertory theater and the University's Zellerbach Hall, where you can see everyone from Hillary Hahn to Laurie Anderson. Berkeley is home to Michael Polan of The Omnivore's Dilemna and John Yoo of the Justice Department torture memos. The town has understated wealth and serious crime. A world-famous university and a nightmare of a high school. Chez Panisse and soup kitchens. Upscale boutiques and vintage clothing stores where your purchase comes with a free case of scabies.

A trip to either of the huge Berkeley Bowl grocery co-ops is like a game of humanity bingo. Here, a pair of professioral European intellectuals in moth-eaten sweaters. There, a price-conscious Chinese dad with his wife and kids. To your left, a dignified Indian grandmother in a purple and gold sari. To your right, a neo-primitive couple in their twenties, tatooed, gauged, pierced, dyed and about as far removed from their baby pictures as humanly possible. Right behind you, a pair of hippy grandparents, the tips of their long hair still sandy, the roots gone white. Bingo, middle eastern mother and daughter, inspecting the zucchini. Bingo, butch lesbian couple giving each other good-natured grief by the seafood counter. Bingo, two brown grandmas in their Sunday-go-to-church hats. Bingo, Bingo, Bingo. Snooty college prof! Smiley yoga teacher! Microscopic, much-mascara'd Japanese babe! Bingo! Glitter-bedecked madwoman! College kid on a beer run! Dread-locked, wire-rimmed, vegan Afro-nerd!

Four miles from Berkeley and just six subway stops from San Francisco, Orinda is more like a supply station for the tony suburbs surrounding it than an actual town. The merchants are clustered around two small shopping strips, Orinda and Orinda Village. There are a couple of gas stations, a handful of restaurants, two pharmacies and some sociologically telling businesses, like the riding store that caters to the horsey set, and the two overpriced resale boutiques (clothes and furniture) where the well-to-do can unload their gently-used possessions.

There's no class war in Orinda - other than a few small pockets of modest housing and apartments, everyone's upper-middle class. If you're going to play humanity bingo at the Orinda Safeway, you'll have to sift through subtle variations of white people. Little ladies with headbands. Old guys who don't need a pitchfork to look like American Gothic. Suburban moms smug in their conviction that they're living the perfect life. Drivers of BMW SUVs. Eaters of processed food. Wearers of perfectly matched golf and tennis clothes. Orinda is so white that when we see an African American person at the grocery store, my husband always says "There's the Orinda Black person! Let's go introduce ourselves." Even the store merchandise is different. The Berkeley Bowls overflow with a cornucopia of exotic greens, organic produce and unusual fruits that look like they could grow on James Cameron's Pandora. You can find Indian bread, grass fed beef, local sand dabs and all manner of exotic food supplements that don't do a damn thing for you. The Orinda Safeway is a throwback to the days of better living through chemistry, featuring oversized hormonal chickens, a variety of cheese logs and a dizzying array of processed foods.

Sometimes I wonder if all those people at the Orinda Safeway are plants. I have no clue where they are coming from, or where they go after they've paid for their groceries. I have never seen a human being on our circular street and it is entirely possible that the people next door aren't people at all. For all I know, they have grey skin and slits for ears and six long fingers with an extra knuckle. The other day, I was on the phone with my mother. She was telling me about my sister's mother-in-law, a dignified lady who is sinking into dementia. My mother thinks the poor woman's increasingly vegetative ennui is exacerbated by living on a street "where nobody ever walks." Oh, I thought to myself, like MY street.

Anyway, I have a couple of theories about the Orinda Stepford vibe. One is geography. The valley is relatively narrow. You are cradled by the horizon-less landscape. To me, that is claustrophobic, but it's quite possible that people who grew up in that environment are lulled by the hilly embrace and feel insecure without it: When we were looking for an Orinda rental, everyone we spoke to had lived here their entire life. My other theory revolves around the giant electrical towers that criss-cross the landscape. Humming, looming metal monsters. You see homes with manicured gardens and a massive tower or three in the back and you wonder what living next to all that electromagnetic radiation can do to you.

Years ago,some friends invited us to Thanksgiving dinner. The other guests were an Israeli couple, both physicians. Over dinner, the male doctor described the three other doctors in his practice: a Jew, a half-Jew and a non-Jew. He explained that he related the best to the Jew, second, to the half-Jew, and lastly, to the gentile. He said he couldn't help it – he felt most at home with his own tribe. As a half Jewish mutt, I had to speak up. I pointed out that my diverse group of friends looked beyond this tribe stuff at everyone's common humanity. The good doctor nodded. "And that," he replied, "is your tribe."

We are not born burb-dwellers: We moved to Orinda for the school system. Yet another desperate, ultimately unsuccessful attempt at a fresh start for our problem child. The weather's lovely and the home we are renting is a huge improvement on the crazy Japanese house we were living in in Berkeley. But as pleasant as Orinda may be, there's no one around from my tribe.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Amphibian Encounter

Mt. Diablo looms above the clouds.

Unusual "champignons".

You know you're getting a little new-agey when you accidentally step on a cow pie during your nature walk and feel a flash of pleasure at its squishiness. This happened to me today. It's Winter in Briones Regional Park, and that means it's been raining for days. The hills, which I had gotten to know in their yellow, dried-out summer incarnation, have turned emerald green. Erin go Briones – I wouldn't be surprised if a Leprechaun tapped me on the calf.

Finally, the forecast says we just might get through a day without downpour. My butt's getting numb from sitting at my computer and I'm determined to go hiking. I've stashed a waterproof poncho in my backpack just in case the rain returns. It's in the upper fifties and the mist is everywhere. I'm walking through it, breathing it, feeling its coolness on my face. The fog-filtered hills roll out in ever paler greens until you're not sure if you're looking at a distant crest or a fully saturated cloud. Quiet reigns. The only people out today are humidity freaks, and we are a rare breed. One passes by me on his way back to the staging area. "Perfect weather for a walk", he remarks. I nod and we look at each other like a couple of fetishists acknowledging our common perversion.

As the trail starts to climb, things get a little challenging because the land is unstable.The shifting Briones landscape is defined by mud flows, sink holes, vernal pools and large cracks in the ground. Although we are in earthquake territory, these fissures are not fault lines: they are places where the water-saturated earth is starting to slip down the hill. I trudge up trenches of slick mud, doing my best to avoid puddles and nascent streams. Had I worn my sneakers instead of hiking boots, I would have a hard time staying vertical. I have my eyes locked on the ground, trying not to slip, when I notice a slimy, merlot-colored amphibian - the unimaginatively named California newt, known to scientists as Taricha Torosa.

Shitty shot off yours truly's cell phone

Beauty shot off the web

Don't let the lizard body fool you. Newts are not reptiles, but amphibians, and members of the salamander family. This particular specimen was likely out looking for love: mating season runs from December to early May. Prior to the annual booty call, the newt is technically an "eft", living on land and hiding under logs or fallen trees. When the Winter rains begin, the eft becomes nostalgic for its watery origins and heads back to the pond of its birth to make new newts. This involves an aquatic mating dance which culminates in the male mounting the female and rubbing his chin on her nose. She releases a thick mass of seven to thirty eggs, all stuck together in a hard, toxic gel which attaches to some hard surface in the pond – roots, rocks, debris – whatever sticks.

Winston, my super-sized Yorkie, appeared completely disinterested in the newt, so I figured I could safely take a picture. I fully expected the creature to skitter away once I started hovering over it with my cell phone, but it kept crawling along at the same leisurely pace, as unconcerned with me as the dog was with it. Perhaps the sluggish newt was sick or injured? Later, I learned why Taricha Torosa was so laid back, and it had nothing to do with being from California.

Glands in the skin of this species secrete a toxin hundreds of times more deadly than cyanide: tetrodotoxin. This is the very same poison found in fugu, the puffer fish that, when improperly prepared, kills between seventy and a hundred thrill-seeking Japanese gourmands each year. Tetrodotoxin works by blocking the transmission of nerve signals from the brain to the muscles - including those signals from the autonomous nervous system that remind your heart and lungs to keep going. The California newt is so lethal that it has no natural predators, at least until someone introduces it to a sushi chef.

It's not a good idea to pick up Taricha Torosa. The creatures are fragile, and although the toxin has to be ingested to be lethal, you could be exposed through a cut in your skin. Still, you really have to go out of your way to experience death by poisonous newt. But it happens. One drunken young man in Coos Bay Oregon swallowed a California newt on a dare. Despite emergency hospitalization, he died the next day of heart failure. A victim of tetrodotoxin, alcohol and a form of stupidity unique to the male of the human species. (Yes, I know women who are stupid. I know women who are drunks. But I'd be hard-pressed to find a female who would swallow a live amphibian just to prove her moxie).

So there you have it, my latest Briones adventure. I did finally have to break out the rain poncho, about 20 minutes before making it back to my car. Poor Winston got completely drenched and left perfect muddy paw prints all over the front seat. Next time, I am going to veer off the trail a little and go check out some of those ponds up close. Maybe I'll even take a real camera and see if I can get pictures of some live newt dancing.

This diagram shows limb regeneration in a newt. Not only can these amphibians grow new limbs or a tail, they can also regenerate damaged parts of the heart or liver!


Do not disturb!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Female Trouble.

Men, what more can I do to dissuade you from reading further? What I am about to relate will make you squirm and alter your image of the eternal feminine. I bid you go watch football and we'll catch up later.

Ladies, now that we are alone, let me say that I have endured much biological unpleasantness of late. I had been having breakthrough bleeding since Christmas, for going on three weeks. This happened to me once before, a year ago. Back then, my doctor prescribed a progestin to right my waning cycle, and it jolted me back into another year of normal, relatively regular menstruation. This time around, my doctor was off when I called and I was rerouted to a nurse practitioner whose training apparently empowers her to prescribe medication. I know all about these nurse practitioner types from writing pharmaceutical advertising. Several of my clients won't let me use the word "doctor" in their marketing materials because so many people don't end up seeing one when they come in for a check up. Instead, they see a "healthcare practitioner." Could be a doctor, yes, but could also be a specialized nurse, or, who knows, a shaman. Thus the catch all phrase, "Just ask your healthcare practitioner if (INSERT DRUG NAME HERE) could be right for you."

As it turned out, this healthcare practitioner had no bloody clue - OK, poor choice of words - what was right for me. I described my situation over the phone and she agreed to phone in a prescription for a once-a-day progestin. "Wait a minute," I said. "The last time, the doctor (as in the person who actually went to medical school) put me on something that I had to titrate." "Oh no," the "healthcare practitioner" replied with chipper confidence. "I'm looking at your chart now. This is what we gave you last time."

Well, what do I know? I'm perimenopausal. My brain's getting fuzzy. Sometimes, I call my son by the dog's name. Sometimes, I tell the dog he can't have the car keys. Recently, I lost the car keys. Permanently. So I figured my recollection was faulty and started taking the medicine. Within a matter of hours, I began bleeding to a terrifying degree. After day two of hellacious blood loss, I called my doctor. She thought it was weird but suggested I give the progestin another day to work. I gave it three because I was too busy. I couldn't really leave the house, for fear I'd find myself too far from a bathroom, and I was working on three radio spots I had just written for– are you ready for this?– a gynecologic surgery group. So I holed up in my home office, bleeding and looking at estimates, bleeding and rewriting, bleeding and casting, bleeding and making music selects.

By the day of my recording session, my hands and feet were a little tingly and my energy level was way low. I took the BART to San Francisco, but rather than attempt to walk the ten blocks to the recording studio, I sprang for a cab. Once the session was underway, I managed to remain totally focused on producing the spots, coaching the voice talent on the proper way to say "laparoscopic hysterectomy", patching takes together and wringing my hands at the difficulty of finding the right music, all the while hemorrhaging non-stop.

I went to the bathroom and called the doctor's office, leaving a message that I was bleeding to death but please not to call back 'til after two so as not to interrupt my recording session. (The doctor later told me that when she got the message, she thought "This woman is crazy." But hey, we had a media buy and a budget and you gotta do what you gotta do.)

My i-phone, which has crap reception indoors, never rang, but I eventually noticed that my doctor had called back and left me a voicemail stating, essentially, "Get thee to a hospital."

I resolved to go to the emergency room as soon as I finished my spots. My session was going over - over an hour over. I had originally asked for five hours of studio time, but I had also pressed for a reasonable quote. The studio rep had probably cut the time back to four hours to get the quote down, assuring me that four hours would be plenty. Against my better judgement, I had agreed. Ultimately, the poor engineer had to finish the mix on his own time, after completing the session that followed mine. Two lessons to learn from this: 1. Don't let anyone else tell you you can do the job in less time than you are comfortable allocating. And, 2. Don't skimp on the charm. A few choice comments like "If there's one thing I've learned, it's trust the sound engineer" and you have bought yourself a reservoir of good will. But I digress.

At 3 pm, they kicked me out of the studio - the next client had arrived and they needed the room. I took another taxi, dragged my increasingly anemic carcass onto the subway and eventually made it home. My husband and I went immediately to the hospital, where I spent five hours getting examined, IV'd, catheterized and ultra-sounded. Eventually, the ER doc called my doc to confer, and they decided to try a different progestin rather than do a D&C. I took the first dose before I left the hospital, with instructions to see my doctor the next day. My husband and I stopped to pick up a takeout burger, medium-rare, e-coli be damned, to boost my dwindling iron levels. I got home in time to listen to my spots and email the sound engineer instructions for some last minute tweaks. (The guy, bless his heart, actually came in an hour early the next day and made adjustments on his own time without billing me).

By the time I got to my doctor's office at 4:50 the next day, my radio spots were safely trafficked in time for airing, and the bleeding had subsided to a trickle. As we formulated a plan, the doctor assured me that she had made a note not to put me on that other progestin ever again. Turns out synthetic hormones are like anti-depressants: How you respond depends on your body chemistry. "Strange," I said,"That drug worked so well the first time around". At which the doctor, who was adding my recent travails to my electronic health records during our conversation, suddenly exclaimed,"No wonder. Looks like the last time, I prescribed the same thing we put you on at the hospital."

Which brings me to that darn healthcare practitioner/nurse/witch doctor/slacker/cow. Obviously, she never looked at my chart. Worse, she lied to me over the phone when she claimed she was looking at it as we spoke. I realize there are corner cutters and competent folk in every field. I apologize in advance to all the healthcare practitioners out there who would have actually read the chart. But the moral of the story, ladies, is get your prescription from a doctor. Period, no pun intended.