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 the 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.