Monday, December 19, 2011

Marching to the beat of the Falun Gong

I don't know if the Chinese really will take over the world. But one day last week, they took over my neighborhood.

I was on my way home from the grocery store, taking the hair pin turn onto my hillside street, only to find the access blocked by an old white station wagon. The driver was letting out an Asian man and woman in their twenties. As soon as their feet hit the ground, they raced to my car and knocked on the window, brandishing brochures for Shen Yun, an entertainment in the grand Chinese tradition. Music, dance, spectacle, culture, acrobats, something for the whole family. I rolled down my window. It was evident from our brief interaction that these folks spoke not a word of English beyond the two or three they'd learned by rote. "No, thank you" wasn't registering, so I smiled and took the pamphlet.

An hour later, I set out for my hill walk. Everywhere I went, I encountered Chinese people with minimal English skills, handing out the same four-color brochures. And they weren't all determined young adults in their twenties. I saw a couple of old ladies huffing and puffing up the high-grade hills, putting handouts in every mailbox. I walked fast but one intrepid woman caught up with me. Though I shook my head no, she kept trying to foist the handout on me, so I defaulted to international sign language. I pointed to my chest for I. Then, I did the walking sign with my fingers. Next, I did the thumb and index around the eyes binocular sign. I ended by pointing to the brochure. I. Go. See. Program. She nodded solemnly, once, and walked away. Thrilled by my own non-verbal communication skills, I did a preemptive strike, in international sign language, on the next two brochure distributors I ran into. Unfortunately, they looked at me as though I were insane. Eventually, I reached higher ground and stopped running into Shen Yun canvasers.

The first thing I did when I got home was get my google on. I thought Shen Yun might be a fun holiday night on the town for the nuclear fam. Since we're all rigorously unsentimental, secular contrarians, A Christmas Carol does not do it for us. (This year, we sprang for a night of satire with John Oliver and a bluesy new year's shindig with the Tedeschi Trucks band). Besides, I was curious. There was money and a sense of mission behind this Shen Yun advertising push and I wondered whether this was some kind of good will PR initiative on the part of the Chinese government. In the days that followed, I would see buses role by with Shen Yun bus sides, billboards along 101 and a plethora of newspaper ads. If it was a Chinese PR effort, they were spending beaucoup bucks.

My assumptions were proven to be horse pucky when I found this internet article from the Chicago Chinese Consulate. The article is enititled Shen Yun, a Political Tool of Falun Gong. According to the writer, a functionary at the Chicago Chinese consulate, the performance depicts the Chinese authorities as persecutors of Falun Gong practitioners. Which of course is the truth. The Chinese have arrested some 30,000 of their Falun Gong practicing compatriots.

Anyway, in uptight, indignant prose, the consulate spokesperson dissects every aspect of the performance and how it besmirches China's reputation. Here's an excerpt:
"In the name of promoting "traditional culture", Shen Yun Performing Arts presents these shows for more than merely cheating the audience into the theater. By publicizing the "persecution" on Falun Gong, it plans to make the show into an important platform for Falun Gong organization to publicize its cultic theories and to propagandize the heretical ideas of Li Hongzhi in the name of promoting "divine culture" so as to appeal to good-natured Chinese and foreign audiences not knowing the truth and to realize their evil purpose of exerting mind control over them."

Got that? It's quite a rant. You can't help but wonder whether the guy is a true believer or just angling to climb up the party hierarchy.

I am familiar with Falun Gongers - I grew up in DC and spent a long stretch of time there as an adult. There were always a handful of Falun Gong protesters on the small grass circle in the middle of the roundabout mid-Connecticut Avenue, in front of the Chinese embassy. I couldn't find a photo of those little gatherings online, but here is a protest at the Mall in DC.

China, like all totalitarian states, doesn't recognize the right to assembly unless it's a government-organized shindig. Churches, clubs, political groups, any entity in which a group of people might band together and exchange ideas, is suspect. Falun Gong is especially threatening because there has been a personality cult around its founder, Li Hongzhi. Li is thought to be living in New York city with his wife and daughter since 1998, but has disappeared from the public eye. Falun Gong, which combines elements of Buddhism, Taoism and Qigong breathing and meditation, is his creation. And there is no doubt that Li has some strange beliefs, and some reactionary ones.

• The goal of this take on Qi Gong, an ancient Chinese practice based on the idea of energy flowing through the body, is for the practitioner to gain enlightenment and immortality. And that would be physical immortality. Li maintains that if they just practice hard and long enough, old women will start menstruating again and old men will see their ear hair fall out. (OK, so I made up the part about the ear hair).

• True believers don't need science or medicine. Li can heal anyone who really has faith in Falun Gong – unless you have a terminal illness or are mentally ill, in which case, he won't attempt to cure you because you can't focus enough to practice.

• Cultivating Falon Gong means you get a Falun, a colorful wheel representing the universe, installed in your lower abdomen. (Sorry, I searched in vain for information on the actual installation process, or whether you can call SEARS to schedule it.) Although the wheel is represented as a colorful circle containing a backwards swaztika, it is not a physical object. (If it were real, some hipster would have had one implanted in his navel by now).The metaphysical wheel absorbs energy from the universe when it rotates clockwise. When it rotates counter clockwise, it releases waste material, which makes me wonder whether one poops more post falun-implantation.

• Aliens have infiltrated the human population and are responsible for most technological innovation. They control us and are developing cloning so they can eventually replace us.

• Affection, love and friendship are all "sentimentality". The Falun Gong practitioner must relinquish human affection in order to "practice cultivation".

• Homosexuality and interracial marriage are immoral and there are different heavens for people of different races, at least for those slackers who are unable to achieve immortality through their practice. Not sure where the biracial people end up.

• In order to cultivate his or her "supernormal energy", the practitioner must do the Five Exercises, a series of tai chi- like moves.

• This is the final period of the Last Havoc.
Okay, I'll give them that one.

Since 1989, the Chinese government has been persecuting Falun Gong practitioners through the use of propaganda, arrest, re-education, imprisonment and torture. It's hard to understand why. Certainly, Li's flock shares some loopy and reprehensible views regarding science, race and sexuality, but that fails to explain why the Chinese political establishment finds them so threatening. The Falun gang is non-materialistic, non-violent and apolitical. Rather than seek to change the reality of life under Communist rule, they live in their own alternate reality. The Falunites are not dangerous dissidents, oppressed creative geniuses or passionate revolutionaries. They are gentle, harmless goofballs with a right to their wacky beliefs and ritual workout sessions. All they claim to seek is "Truthfulness, forbearance and compassion." And of course, Enlightenment.

Here in the United States, we have formed a government based on a different type of Enlightenment, that of 18th century European humanists like the French Philosopher, Voltaire. A fellow whose most famous quote captures the essence of a free society. "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Kind of how I feel about Falun Gong.


Saved by a DVD

No, we're not political.

Oh yes, you are..

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Wild Turkey

I can only think of two reasons a person would decide not to live in the Oakland Hills. If you have children, the first is a biggie – the school system. Budgets have been eviscerated and teachers laid off, and there's no silver lining. The other reason is as sensible as it is theoretical. The peaceful, eminently walkable Oakland Hills, with their Eucalyptus Groves, backyard redwood trees, forest fauna and breathtaking views of San Francisco Bay, sit right atop the dreaded Hayward Fault. Personally, I realize parking my butt here is seismically unwise but I love it – the cool, moist air, the 6-point buck preening on the patio, the occasional, environmentally incorrect whiff of woodsmoke from a neighbor's fireplace, the dense fog giving way to sharp blue skies. Since we moved here from Orinda last Summer, I've been getting my exercise climbing the steep, meandering streets, staking out my new territory.

I was on one of these exploratory ventures, walking briskly, mindful of the waning day, when I came upon a flock of wild turkeys. It wasn't my first turkey encounter. A few weeks earlier, I had stopped to observe two adult birds and a couple of chicken-sized young'uns pecking around someone's front yard. When I pulled out my cell to photograph them, it spooked one of the youngsters. He darted under a car and immediately got stuck. For five long minutes, I could hear him flapping his wings and peeping hysterically. I was just looking around for a stick to try and nudge him to freedom when he managed to extricate himself from the undercarriage.

This time, there were at least a dozen birds milling about, mostly hens. (Immature male turkeys are known as jakes, and adult males are called toms or gobblers).They had taken over the backyard and carport of a small home along the road and were puttering around like they owned the place. Their muted black and brown plumage blended into the mulch and fallen leaves, but their fuschia faces screamed dinosaur. It's a family resemblance: turkeys descend from carnivorous dinosaurs called theropods. Over hundreds of thousands of years, theropods got smaller, developed feathers and evolved into the first birds.

So what are those strange growths on the turkeys' faces? Or rather, on the male turkey's faces. The female,or hen, has a more discrete, pointy profile and a bluish head. The long, flabby red thing that hangs from a Tom turkey's forehead is a snood. The fleshy crimson blob that covers his neck is a wattle, and the bumpy, wart-like growths that give the wattle its texture are caruncles. Snoods and wattles function a bit like mood rings. When the Tom is hot to trot, his facial nasty bits get engorged with blood and become bright red. But if he catches sight of a coyote, or maybe a rifle-toting human, his snood and wattle go blue with fear. And if the Tom isn't feeling well because, maybe, somebody told him his brother was on the menu for Thanksgiving, that jiggly face and neck fade to a pale pinky beige.

This is also a snood. They were big in the forties so they're way overdue for a comeback. This could be your chance to be a trend-setter.

This is also a wattle. On humans, it is not considered sexy.

This is not a waddle. I think it's a case of testicular migration.

Turkeys are sexually dimorphic, meaning the genders are two different sizes. The male can be formidable – larger and brighter in color than the female, and weighing as much as 38 pounds (The biggest wild turkey ever recorded). Turkey hens are daintier, maxing out at around 12 pounds. While turkeys all have 3-toed feet, the toms have an extra "toe", really more of a sharp spur behind each of their lower legs, which they use for fighting. Male turkeys also have a "beard", a tuft of hair-like feathers that grows from the center of their breast. 10-20% of females have a much smaller version of this same feature. Whether the bearded ladies are feistier, I do not know. Both hens and toms have the amazing ability to rotate their heads 360 degrees, like in The Exorcist, minus the projectile vomiting.

After my turkey encounter, I don't need to do research to tell you that they have a wide vocabulary. They cluck, yelp, coo, purr, cackle and tweet. The Toms can also make drumming and spitting sounds using organs in their chests called air sacs. (Air sacs supplement the lungs and all birds have them, because flight requires a high metabolic rate and extra oxygen). The one thing I didn't hear any of my neighborhood turkeys do was gobble. As it turns out, only the males gobble, and only when they are in the mood for love.

Male turkeys are polygamous and mate with as many females as they can. Don't tell the kiddies, but the classic turkey silhouette that's a mainstay of elementary school art projects is actually a turkey come-on. They fan out their tail feathers and puff out their chests to show off their beards and impress the hens. Toms are total bros and like to do their strutting in pairs, usually a dominant bird and a more passive one. The top tom gets the hot hen, and his sidekick gets her girlfriend with the beard. After mating, the females make nests in shallow holes in the ground, which they cover with vegetation. They lay one egg a day over the course of 10-14 days. Once the "poults" hatch, they leave the nest within 24 hours, never to return.

Like their number one predator, man, turkeys are omnivorous. They eat all kinds of plant parts, from tree bark to grasses, seeds, nuts and berries. They have a fondness for insects, and will occasionally consume amphibians and small reptiles. The wild turkey population of the United States is estimated at around 7 million, and as their natural territory shrinks, they are moving to the suburbs. A backyard bird feeder is like a candy store to a turkey, and once he starts pecking round your yard, he will quickly take over and invite all his friends. They'll poop where they please, snack on your flowers and vegetables, scratch up your car and patio furniture and maybe even go after your dog. If turkeys get over their fear of humans, they can get nasty and have been known to attack people – not unreasonable behavior considering our annual November ritual. But now that they're starting to organize, they just might put Thanksgiving out of business. I hear the National Wild Turkey Federation has thousands of members.

Pix from my turkey encounter

Side Dishes

Yes, they really do descend from dinosaurs

Take pride in your wattle

This claims to be the National Wild Turkey Federation, but the members are all human.

Reporter gets attacked by wild turkey

Monday, October 31, 2011

Shake, Rattle, Rock and Roll

Every region has its disasters. Tornadoes in the Midwest. Hurricanes in the South. Firestorms in the Southwest and the Republican congress in Washington DC. Since I live in the Bay Area, I'm supposed to be worried about earthquakes, which I confess, I am not. We are among the 90% of local idiots who are totally unprepared for The Big One. We don’t have an emergency water supply. Our stash of canned goods consists of smoked oysters, water chestnuts and anchovies. I’m sure there’s a flash light in the house somewhere, but I’m equally certain it’s out of batteries.

It’s easy to live in denial when you’re married to a native who thinks the best thing to do when a quake hits is jump into bed and get busy “so you can really feel the earth move.” In truth, we haven't had a single seismic event since we moved out to NorCal four years ago. When the Virginia quake hit last month, I was almost jealous. Gargoyles were tumbling off the National Cathedral while the ground here in the nation's earthquake capital remained calm as a meditating monk. You'd never know our place in the Oakland Hills was barely a mile from the Hayward fault.

With the Hayward to the west and the San Andreas Fault to the east, San Francisco Bay is the meat in a seismic sandwich. The San Andreas is a locked fault, which means the pressure between two opposed tectonic plates is equalized. If one of them suddenly gives, the consequences could be catastrophic. The Hayward fault, on the other hand, is a strike-slip fault, where two plates move past each other at a rate of a quarter of an inch a year, in a phenomenon known as fault creep. You can see evidence of this geological migration all over the East Bay.

Having lulled myself into a false state of seismic security, I was typing away in my home office. It was a glorious, sunny afternoon and I bitterly resented having to stay indoors and work. I was tweaking a hospital brochure when a sound like a distant door slamming jolted me out of my seat. Then, the shaking began. My heart upped its pumping. I felt a throbbing in my eardrums.Windows rattled. The dishes clattered in the cupboards. A decorative tin toppled off the end table.  The whole thing lasted about 20 seconds. If it's true that animals can predict earthquakes, then my dog is either an idiot or one cool customer. He was at my feet, gnawing on a rib bone when the quake hit. He never even looked up.

Within seconds, everyone was on Facebook. (OK, everybody over 40. Everybody else was on Twitter). "Did you feel it?" " We sure did." "That was a good one." "4.0, I looked it up."

No damages, no new cracks in the wall. Just Mother Nature reminding everyone one who's boss. But I had a decision to make because that night, we had tickets to see Paul Simon at UC Berkeley's Greek Theater. The campus literally straddles the fault line and there was a good chance we would be experiencing aftershocks, or worse, another quake.

Built in 1903 with a donation from William Randolph Hearst, the Greek Theater is an outdoor venue with 8,500 uncomfortable cement seats. If you're smart and thrifty, you sit on the steep hill facing the theater. Get there early and you have a decent view from the lawn seats closest to the stage. Plus, you can enjoy a picnic along with the concert. Do your best to ignore the fact that the Greek sits just east of the Hayward Fault and has an official seismic rating of "very poor". (One block over, the Cal Memorial Stadium, where the Golden Bears play football, is literally bisected by the fault, which runs goalpost to goalpost. I think their seismic rating is "abysmal." Or maybe "horrendous.")

In the end, we took our chances. My husband would never have let me chicken out anyway. Paul Simon had a solid opening act, a very young folk singing duo called the Secret Sisters. They were a little too hillbilly for my spouse, but I enjoyed them. We were finishing our steak and gorgonzola salads when the Sisters left the stage. We sprawled out on the grass and got comfortable as we waited for the main attraction.

At precisely 8:16 pm,right before Paul and his band came out, the ground beneath our bottoms heaved again. We felt like fleas being shaken off by a giant dog. The aftershock, as we later found out, was a 3.9 on the Richter scale. The crowd roared and applauded, and five minutes later, Paul Simon arrived on stage. With a little help from Mother Nature, he rocked the house.

Find Berkeley on the map and travel down the red fault line towards Oakland. The area with a little yellow circle is about where we are - we have a head-on view of the Bay Bridge. I have no idea why the map maker created that circle, and I'm not sure I want to know.

Examples of "fault creep"

Extra Credit Reading:

More about fault creep

Bay Area Quake 101 I learned from my hair dresser that the entire U C Berkeley Geology Department lives in a section of the Berkeley Hills near Indian Rock Park. That's where the bedrock is, which means when the big one hits, the ground will not liquefy under your home.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Work in Progress

Artwork by Junior

If my son's adolescence had a theme song, it would be this. I only speak, of course, from my perspective. From his vantage point, that theme song would probably be a track from a subgenre of one of the 100+ varieties of metal music.* Or a meandering modal jazz meditation by John Zorn. Or maybe one of the Tuvan throat singing ditties he so enjoys practicing at the dinner table no matter how many times we beg him to stop. But I digress.

Suffice to say that it's been quite a ride, but he seems to be getting it out of his system, whatever "it" may be. The kid is serious about music and art and has enrolled in community college. In addition to the evening classes scheduled for working people and night owls (guess which one he is?) the boy actually signed up for a 10 a.m. class. Better yet, he manages to get himself out of bed for it, although he's as irascible as a grizzly coming out of hibernation and has to brush his teeth in the car.

In the immortal words of Bob, "Baby steps, baby steps." Thus it was that my son and I recently spent an afternoon together without a single skirmish. Less a baby step than a huge leap forward, since this is something we have not managed, or even attempted to do, in at least six years.

Since the boy is studying cubism in art class, I suggested we go see the Picasso exhibit at the De Young in Golden Gate Park. To my surprise, he agreed. We had a nice lunch in the museum cafeteria and then hit the exhibit. The young Artiste's comments were insightful, visually sophisticated and funny. At one point, he stopped to point out the fact that one of the Picasso drawings looked a lot like George W. Bush. The woman behind us chortled – it was true.

We followed our foray into high culture with a pop culture festival in Little Japan. The event consisted of numerous tchotchke booths selling manga, assorted pokeman-like objects and wigs in purple, pink and teal. Chubby young women wandered around in stylized sailor suits and Little Bo Peep outfits. Their boyfriends were in costume too, but I'm too Japanese Pop Culture challenged to understand what they were wearing or why.

The kid and I concurred that we couldn't relate to people who dress like anime characters when it's neither Tokyo nor Halloween. Since he normally makes a point of arguing the opposite of everything I say, this was a definite breakthrough. We even agreed on a CD to listen to on the ride home, David Bowie's Hunky Dory, which he had bought me that week as a gift, just because.

Maybe none of this sounds at all remarkable to you. And maybe you haven't spent the past six years attempting to raise a "troubled teen." Maybe you've never sat around helplessly waiting for the other shoe to drop. Believe me, there's always another shoe. It's as though you'd given birth to a centipede.

My husband and I have been through enough drama for three separate movies on the Life Time Channel. Except actual life doesn't come with a remote control, and our trial-by-teen has left me looking a hell of a lot more shopworn than Debra Messing. My current appearance is more akin to Weeping Woman, Picasso's famous portrait of Dora Maar.

Like my son, I'm developing a newfound appreciation for cubism.

*A sampling of metal genres and sub-genres: Heavy/Traditional, Speed/Thrash, Death, Black, Orchestrated/Symphonic, Power, Doom, American Hardcore (for those Boogie Nights) , Progressive, Gothic, Electronic, Folk/Viking, Blackened Death Metal (not to be confused with blackened redfish), Symphonic Power Metal, Melodic Death Metal (Melodic? Really?), Technical Death Metal and Grindcore (please, no encore). All loud, ugly, testosterone-driven and beloved of adolescent boys and homicidal Scandinavians.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Holding my breath

Some things are inevitable. For example, when I ordered a dinner-sized Mediterranean salad with teeny tiny olives lurking under the lettuce, it was inevitable that I would crack a tooth. And when we lived under an enormous hundred-year oak that tilted protectively toward our house, it was inevitable that hurricane winds would blow it down on the roof. It was also inevitable that the insurance would find a way to screw us (actually two ways). Now that I live in the stunning, best-kept-secret Oakland Hills, it is inevitable that my dog will get royally skunked.

I first became aware of the danger while walking Winston before bed. It gets really dark up here - streetlights are about as rare as Republicans in Berkeley. If there's no moon out, you just stumble through the night until some motion detector flashes its disapproval at you. My dog and I were making our way toward a lamppost 100 yards away when a long black shadow undulated across the illuminated section of road. It moved with the fluidity of an animated ink blot being painted by some unseen hand. Too small to be a cat or a racoon, too big to be a possum, or a rat. Winston barked and lunged and pulled on his leash but I held on tight. The shadowy creature paused, stuck its tail up into the air like an exclamation point and trotted off. A skunk for sure.

Fair game as far as my yorkie is concerned. Rodents are his calling. His ancestors were bred to control the rat population in the Yorkshire coal mines. Small mammals to Yorkshire terriers are like catnip to cats. And Winston is no Paris Hilton purse pet. He's big boned and well fed and perfectly capable of taking on a skunk. Or so he thinks.

Until I moved to the Oakland Hills, I had only had one experience with skunk proliferation, on a hike in Point Reyes. It was a foggy, monochromatic day, but the skunks were in high spirits. Maybe it was mating season. They were leaping vertically out of the brush all around me, their little black and white coats a stark contrast to the drab, dry grasses. I was reminded of one of those kiddy arcade games, where you have to smack down a plastic critter before he retreats into the console and another one pops out. I don't know if the skunk-folk around here wish they were back in the wild, but they seem pretty well-adapted to me. I have yet to walk Winston without running into them. Darting out from under my car, conferring in pairs in the middle of the road, sashaying across the street like they own the neighborhood. Even when they're keeping a low profile, I get olfactory reminders of their presence, a whiff of angry skunk or a blast of dead skunk in the middle of the road.

Anyway, I want to be prepared, so I went down to the local pet supply and asked for emergency deskunking supplies. They were sold out – the entire shelf was empty. The girl at the register told me it's hard to keep up with the demand. At least three skunked dogs are brought in for a bath every week.

Like I said, it's inevitable – Winston is overdue.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

My Electronic Lover

Advertising, which, by the way, is my trade, first violated my privacy when I was in my early forties. I had a miscarriage and I took it really hard. Exactly a month before what would have been my due date, a FREE carton of Similac was delivered to my door. It was a mind fuck I did not need as I was just getting over the initial event when the mail man dropped off my FREE formula.

Target marketing, of course, is not exactly news. I remember when I first started out in advertising, back in the late 80s, I learned, to my horror, that I was a" Volvo-White-Wine-And-Brie." That was an early inkling that I wasn't nearly as special as I'd like to think.

Fast forward to the golden age of electronic marketing. Now, the targeting isn't just more precise, it's instantaneous. Recently, I googled a mental illness because I was worried about a loved one (who thankfully is fine). For the next month, every time I went online, I was greeted with ads for brain drugs to treat the condition.

I work at home and am on Facebook and Linked In quite a bit. Since I am naturally gregarious, I must take my mind out for the occasional walk. As a result, the entire web knows my business. Lets say I recommend a book on Linked In. The next time I go on Amazon, that book is in my face, along with others featuring similar subject matter, or by the same author. "Buy me, buy me!" they scream. But I am so creeped out, I'm not buying any of it. (And like most people waiting for the other economic Doc Martin to fall, I'm not buying much of anything).

Sometimes, the targeting doesn't work because it equates curiosity with sustained interest. Like when I went to Sarah Palin's Facebook page, out of sheer voyeurism. I got my comeuppance. For days, I was bombarded with mega churches and right wing political stuff. It was as though my computer were possessed by demons. Finally, I got smart and started clicking offensive.

Most of the time, the spiders do their job with graceful diligence. I sign every lefty-environmento-human-rights'ish petition that comes across my mailbox. And I admit, I have been lured into buying a concert ticket or two – my enthusiasm for music trumps the creep out factor. But damned if those bloody algorithms don't know me better than my husband does. The roots folk music, the spas I'll never frequent but like to read about. Never in a million years would the dear man send me a link to that dramatic Canadian Inn on a forlorn spit of rock overlooking the Pacific. You can almost hear the crash of the surf. " I am so there," I call out to my nameless, faceless electronic lover.

But whether it's through intrusive advertising, or whether we are willful participants in helping Pandora suss out our exact musical tastes, having one's mind mined on a regular basis, and being fed so many spot-on bits of bait, does bring up questions of identity. Certainly, it's disturbing to think that one's personal take on life could be reduced to an algorithm.Our tastes and opinions are why we dress and look the way we do, have the friends, romantic partners and careers we have. They are one of the filters through which we view the world.

My husband always says I'm so predictable. My electronic lover thinks so too.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Om Out of Range

Meet Baba Orum. Not his real name. In fact, I have no clue who this guy is, but I've taken enough yoga clases to tell you that he is floating on a lotus blossom. India's version of the waterlily, the lotus is a swamp flower and a symbol of purity and transcendence. Note that Baba is draped in orange, the color of enlightenment. Why Baba has racing stripes on his forehead, I do not know. What I do know is if I am to ever start meditating, it can't be under the tutelage of someone who would photoshop himself onto a flower, like a big old bearded bumble bee.

I need to start meditating. I have an unquiet mind, a truckload of guilt and an unlimited capacity for worrying. A person like me should meditate or she will drive herself and others insane. But I am a die-hard Western rationalist and I require the right class. I ruled out doing the David Lynch Transcendental thing because the franchise aspect creeps me out (as does David Lynch). I also decided against the "immersions" held at several of the yoga studios I frequent because they were too steeped in Hinduism and I am not about to start worshiping the elephant god. Finally, I lucked into the perfect teacher for me. One of my yoga instructors, a gentleman with a doctorate in psychology from an Ivy League School, who studied under Jonathan Kabat-Zinn. In addition to the impeccable credentials, he has a calm voice and a pleasant yogic demeanor. And while I'm not in the market and he's not on my team, he is easy on the eyes.

Class is every Wednesday evening. There are a dozen other students. Two are seekers, building on a yogic or Buddhist base. One woman is clinically depressed. Two more are stay-at-home moms for whom a candle-lit bubble bath is no longer sufficient sanctuary. Others are looking for a mind-over-matter approach to chronic physical pain, or simply a way to deal with life's constant barrage of tsuris*. We do an hour of meditation and or yoga and then we have a 15 minute break with thoughtfully provided snacks and water, followed by another hour of discussion.

Now here I will reveal how far I am from achieving enlightenment. Or even equanimity, which may be the same thing.

There is a lady in the class who consistently interferes with my mindfulness. She suffers from depression and likes to talk about it, in rushed, anxious sentences that trail off because she's already off on another tangent that will fizzle out the same way. She is also, poor thing, a relentless Debbie Downer. At break time, she found out another student was from New York and went straight to "Where were you on 911?" Turns out the other lady was a block away and had to run for her life, a story she may not have wanted to revisit in meditation class. But as 911 Lady gamely started telling her story, and we all respectfully turned to listen, Annoying Woman interrupted to tell us how SHE was on 45th street watching it on TV and everything felt so distant it was like it wasn't happening. (Apparently she's both depressed and a narcissist – if it's not happening to HER, it's just not happening). End of break, Thank God.

The second half of class, our teacher started to get all scientific and neurological. The subject was stress, and he was explaining how the stress hormone cortisol destroys the brain five ways. (As a boomer, I am finding it really hard not to make a Wonder Bread joke here.) I was silently calculating who, between me and my husband, has more stress-induced holes in their grey matter when Annoying Woman jumped in with both feet. She had a thought about the cerebral cortex she simply must share. Her own cerebral cortex took more twists and turns than a roller coaster as she shared for the duration of the class. The teacher demonstrated compassion and yogic tolerance and let her ramble while I tried really, really hard to get my loving kindness on.

I emailed our guru a few days later:

I am really enjoying your class, and am ambivalent about writing this email. However, I was frustrated by the way the lady with depression took over the second half of class last week. Stress is THE reason I am in your class, and I was enjoying your presentation - especially since I am one of those nerdy Western types you mentioned who appreciate scientific explanations. It felt like she hijacked the class, and frankly, I know she means well and is a vulnerable person, but half the time I have no idea what she is talking about, and I'm not sure she does either. Ironically, I was finding myself getting stressed out by the fact that she wouldn't stop talking, and I wanted to get back to what YOU had to say.

I realize some of this is me. I am a fast-talking, high strung, impatient, cut-to-the-chase East Coast person and I am working on that. And I know complaining about this lady is not a manifestation of tolerance and empathy. I also understand that some student participation is nurturing and productive in the context of your class. But I wonder if there is a way you might reign her in gently next time she goes off on one of her tangents.

Looking forward to your next class.

Here is his response:

Thank you for sharing your feedback. It can be stressful to feel things not going as we anticipate or desire them to go. (Duh). The main message of the class is to practice acceptance. This is just how things are going right now. Can I release my need for them to be other than they are. Can I detach my happiness wagon from them being somehow different, and be content and at peace with how they are. (OK, I get that. I'm working on it. I just have to FIND my happiness wagon first. I'm not sure where I parked it). Hearing people speak more than you'd prefer or on topics that seem out of context is a great opportunity for you to apply to the mindfulness tool of acceptance. (True, but I would rather hear the person I paid $450 to for meditation classes). I'm glad you are enjoying the class and finding benefit in the neuroscience studies described. (No, dude, because I didn't get to hear you describe them). Hope your home practice is going well. As a way of extending the topic of this email, notice this week other places where you are feeling stressed out by people talking out of turn or generally things not going as you expect or want. (Actually, I'd be more likely to notice if the stress suddenly stopped). Practice playing your acceptance card in those situations. (My new mantra: it is what it is). And notice if it helps alleviate the stress you are experiencing. It's a practice. Old habits die hard. Be patient, and just practice with it. It gets easier over time.

He is right, of course. My bitching goes against the purpose of the class, and my lack of tolerance is borderline intolerable. Ultimately, it worked out. There were three sessions left - Annoying Woman missed the next one and was uncharacteristically subdued during the final class. I was looking forward to the grand finale, a full-day silent retreat including meditation, yoga and a walk in the woods. Alas, it was not to be. I had a heinous cold and couldn't stop coughing. Down dog and shivasana are potentially plegm-producing activities that would have kept me hacking all day, which would have meant no silent retreat for anyone. So of course, I did not go. I get to make it up at the end of our teacher's next series.

In the meantime, I have been practicing mindfulness, the beginner's way, lying on my back and focusing on my body and breath. I think it must be helping because my husband now reminds me, on a daily basis, that it's time to go meditate.

I'm trying not to take it personally.

*Tsuris - yiddish for problems great and small.

Friday, June 10, 2011

In a flash

The first time I saw a streak of light in my peripheral vision, I thought it was the arc of a falling meteor. Before I could focus on it, the light was gone. And then it came again, and again, always on the far left side of my visual field. Over the next few days, I realized that I was experiencing some kind of occular phenomenon. The flashes were most visible in the dark and they increased in frequency and intensity and began to look more like lightning than shooting stars. Even during the day, I would occasionally blink and glimpse a burst of light and a negative image of a blood vessel under my eyelid. I also felt some irritation in the affected corner of my eye, as though something were stuck under the lid. Sometimes I would wake up in the morning with a bright red eyeball.

Naturally, I called my fabulous eye doctor. She didn't like the sound of what I was describing and told me to seet a retina specialist without delay. Being a reasonably smart cookie, I went to the Internet and looked up my symptoms. It could be retinal detachment, which is not a good thing. However, blindness usually occurs within 24 hours or so of the retina detaching, and I had been having symptoms for several weeks. More likely, my symptoms were due to posterior vitreous detachment. This happens with, ahem, age. The vitreous gel that fills up your eye ball starts to thicken or shrink, form little clumps, and pull away from the retina. While posterior vitreous detachment can lead to retinal detachment, it's usually just another annoying sign of physical deterioration they forgot to mention in the annual health issue of Parade magazine.

I have a PPO and pay through the proverbial nose for catastrophic coverage, with a $5,000 deductible. (Actually, since the passage of the healthcare bill, I have had four rate increases to my husband's five. The insurance industry is making up for having to cover people with preexisting conditions by gouging the self-insured). So I selected a group practice of retina specialists and was given an appointment with the aptly named Dr. Light.* (Dr. Light the retina expert. Almost as good as Dr. Bottoms the gyne, Dr. Head the Shrink, and of course, that renowned proctologist, Dr. Seymour Butz).

After his charming assistant dilated my pupil, Dr. Light breezed in and examined me. He was a young man of few words. Very few words. Look left, look right, look up, look down. He gave me an abbreviated explanation of the abbreviated explanation I just gave you: " You have posterior vitreous detachment. It puts you at risk for retinal detachment, so if your vision becomes blurred or you start to see a rain of floaters, come in immediately. I expect you may start seeing flashes in your other eye but you don't have to come in if that happens. Nice meeting you. Bye bye."

I asked about the redness and gritty sensation. It was nothing, he saw nothing, there was nothing to worry about. To mark a definitive end to our visit, he put out his hand and shook mine and then marched swiftly out the door before I could ask any more questions. After all, it was just a routine diagnosis. For him.

For me, it meant resigning myself to random flashes in my left eye, the visual equivalent of tinnitus. And now, I was being told that the lights would eventually spread to my right eye. Oh yeah, and if my vision ever suddenly goes south while I am climbing Mt. Everest, hiking the wilds of Patagonia, or driving the Paris-Dakar race, I won't be able to make it to the emergency room in time. Which means I'll have to learn to accessorize with eye patches. So thanks, doc, for your compassion and understanding.

Meanwhile, the gritty sensation of having something stuck in my eye didn't go away, and I kept waking up with that scarifying red eyeball. Since Dr. Light had nothing illuminating to say about this, I decided to see a different ophthalmologist - a generalist. Now, I could have, and probably should have gone to my fabulous eye doctor, but she is a fifty minute drive away, and I had a lot of work. Instead, I tried somebody new near home. In order to get back to my desk as quickly as possible, I made the first appointment of the day: 8:50.

The new eye guy's lobby was huge - never a good sign - and despite having the day's "first appointment" time, I waited a good half hour. Then, off to an examining room where I parked my butt for another 15 minutes before a technician came in to administer the requisite dilating drops and vision tests. After that, I got moved to a cramped little seating area outside the examination rooms where I waited for an additional hour. Two elderly French ladies were already sitting there, a mother and daughter. The mother looked to be well into her nineties. They told me they had been sitting here in the wait-some-more room for over thirty minutes, which probably amounted to a fiftieth of the older lady's remaining life span.

It was 11:00 before I finally got to see the doctor. (As far as I know, the two French ladies are still there. I hope someone is feeding them). Two hours and ten minutes had elapsed. Exactly the amount of time it would have taken to drive to my regular doc's, be seen immediately and drive home. I wanted to give Dr. Wait-In-My-Lobby-'Til -You-Grow-Cataracts** the benefit of the doubt. Surely something unusual had caused the delay - car crash, food poisoning, pink eye epidemic? "So," I said, "Guess you must be understaffed today?" Nope. Just another busy day at the office.

It turned out my irritated eye had nothing to do with the posterior vitreous detachment. Still, the famed retinologist Dr. Light had missed something rather basic. Although I had complained about the discomfort and redness in my left eye, he never bothered to look for the cause. A blocked pore at the base of one of my eyelashes had formed a little bump, like a grain of sand under my eyelid. Sounds simple, but eye doctors, like all other medical specialists, have now become so vertical in their expertise that a retina guy can't diagnose a clogged eyelash.

Dr. Overbook'em-And-Let'em-Rot*** prescribed a daily lash and lid scrub with Cetaphil, eyes shut tight, followed by five minutes of a hot towel on my face to loosen up the blocked eyelash root. He never apologized for the two hour wait, but he did try to talk me into coming back in three months for an eye exam.

I'm afraid he's going to have to wait.

*not his real name, but close.

** Also not his real name.

*** Should be his real name.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Parking While Black in Orinda, Part Deux

If you have not read Parking While Black in Orinda, please read that first so I don't have to recap the whole ugly story. Suffice to say that the African American cleaning people we hired were humiliated by the Orinda police, for no ostensible reason, right in front of our house and our neighbors. Now, we had been stewing over this for days and my husband decided to go to the police station and talk to them about it. At the very least, we hoped to find out which neighbor had called the police and why.

Calmly and politely, my husband recapped the entire story to the friendly station clerk. In the course of the conversation, he managed to learn that there was no record of a call or complaint pertaining to the cleaners (We had suspected an unfriendly, suspicious neighbor across the street). Of course, the only conclusion we could draw was that the police noticed two people driving while black, followed them to our house and harassed them, just because.

The police chief was unavailable to talk, but after about twelve minutes a sergeant came out. The kind of big mean SOB who thrives on having authority over people. My husband started to recount what had happened. Unfortunately, having just told the story to the clerk, he had gotten himself worked up all over again. He is sixty one, and had witnessed two people his age, plus or minus two years, falling apart in our kitchen. He still gets emotional every time he talks about it. So when asked to describe the officer who came to the door, he took an unnecessary tangent and replied "I see him all the time outside Starbucks, drinking lattes. He likes to ogle my daughter." That was all it took to set the Sergeant off. "I don't need you. " the officer bellowed. "Who needs you? Get the hell out of my station."

Shocked at the way he was being addressed, my husband sprang from his chair with such vigor that he knocked it over. "Pick it up! You pick that up." the policeman roared. "And get the hell out of here." But my husband had worked himself up and wouldn't back down. "You're just like them - You're all the same. I just want to know, do you have a policy of stopping people for parking while black, for driving while black?"

At that, the enraged cop ordered my husband to leave, escorted him out of the police station and followed him to the parking lot, badgering him the entire time. And then the guy did something truly astounding: he threatened us. "Don't bother calling us if anything happens. If you have a burglary or something. Because we're not coming out."

"Don't worry," my old man shot back. "Someone could be killing me, and I still wouldn't want you to come out."

Now that is what I call a positive police presence. You treat visitors like criminals and residents like crap. Did my husband lose his cool? A little. Who wouldn't? That was a disgusting thing to witness and it happened right in front of our house. Not only was it racial profiling, it was STOOPID racial profiling: they harassed two people in their sixties with buckets and mops and wouldn't drop it after we vouched for them. And now, to top it all off, Orinda's finest, who technically work for us and whose salaries we help pay, have abdicated their responsibility to protect us.

Saturday, May 21, 2011


If you like this blog, you might like my other blog too. If I haven't posted here in a while, chances are I've posted there instead.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Parking While Black in Orinda, California

You know the rant. I've written about our exile in the wonder-bread-white suburban enclave of Orinda before. We didn't want to move here. We hate the suburbs, we don't play golf, we're not the country club type and we just don't fit in. We moved here out of desperation to get our wayward son away from the disaster that is Berkeley High, a school that makes it absurdly simple for a troubled teen to add another helping of trouble to his plate. Orinda was easy - just over the hill, and with some of the state's highest-rated schools. Suffice to say that the school thing didn't work out. The young ball-and-chain lasted three days before ending up in an alternative school and we were stuck with a two-year lease on a too-big house in Stepford.

It's a quiet neighborhood. Sepulchrally quiet. There are elderly people across the street with caregivers who come and go. Our neighbors on one side are a wholesome looking young couple with two children. The kids are blonde and around 6 and 8 years old. As for the parents, they are so elusive that I wouldn't be able to identify them in a police lineup, not that that would ever happen. The house on the other side is a dump that's taken two years to sell. Lately I hear signs of life from behind the fence so I am guessing someone moved in while we were in Hawaii. Across the street one door down is a constipated bitch whose gated yard is always locked. When we first moved in, some neighbors left us a plate of cupcakes while we were out. I had no idea where to return the plate, so I put a little note in all the mailboxes closest to our house. The bee-yatch was no doubt peering out the window, and saw me violating her mail box. She stepped outside her front door (walking across the yard to introduce herself and acknowledge my humanity was out of the question) and asked what I was doing. I explained. Was she the nice neighbor who had left the cupcakes...? She gave me a curt no and went back inside without another word.

The fact is, Orinda is a great place to be a cop. As far as I can tell, all they do is sit outside the local Starbucks, chugging lattes and ogling high school girls. That and hide along Camino Pablo, where there's no traffic and the speed limit randomly goes from 45 to 35 to 30, so they can hand out speeding tickets (2) to nice middle aged ladies.

Anyway, our daughter was about to come out for the summer, having just finished her first year of law school and snagged an internship with the San Francisco ACLU, and the house needed a good cleaning. Usually, my husband does it. We're both self-employed, and that's our division of labor. I shop and cook, he cleans. Both my better half and I were raised by meticulous cleaning freaks. He learned from his mother, I rebelled against mine. So he's in charge of the vacuum and I handle food, and since he breaks out in hives if he has to spend more that five minutes at the Safeway, it works out for both of us. But this time, we needed a really deep end-of-Spring cleaning and we decided to splurge and get a cleaning crew.

The cleaning people, a sixtyish African American gentleman and his sister, showed up on the dot. The guy called to notify us that they were parked out front, and we let them in. They gave us a quick estimate and went back to their old van to get their supplies. The brother was a talkative fellow with a rich baritone voice that would have served him well in radio. The sister was a reserved, big-boned lady who looked like she might have acromegaly and was likely never diagnosed for lack of insurance. ( I know these things - my dad's an endocrinologist and my aunt actually developed the condition due to a pituitary tumor).They commenced cleaning and my husband went back to his office to work. I jumped in the shower to get ready for a business meeting.

Meanwhile, someone on the block noticed an old, beat-up car with two black people inside parked in front of our house and called the police. (In case you haven't picked up on my subtle hints above, my prime suspect is the bitch with the locked gate). Three squad cars pulled up in front of the house and parked so as to close off the street, just in case the cleaning crew decided to make a run for it. When the poor cleaner went back to his car, they moved in on him. Who are you, what are you doing here, can we see some ID. So the cleaner knocked at our door (again) and my husband came out. Of course, he told the police we had hired these folks to clean our house, but that was not enough. The officer slowly stared my husband up and down. Between the old black guy holding a mop, the old black lady with the bucket and the old, bald white guy in shorts and a Lands End T shirt, it was hard to determine who looked more suspicious. "Are you sure you live here?" the cop asked my husband. At least he didn't ask to see a copy of the lease.

Despite our assurances that we had hired the cleaning crew, Orinda's Finest proceeded to stage fifteen minutes of outdoor theater. This gave my husband an opportunity to finally see some of our neighbors, as three housewives came out of their homes to gawk. The cops ran checks on both the cleaners' IDs. Then, they found out the brother's registration had expired and threatened to impound his car. They kept the street blocked off the entire time. It was all a big show to demonstrate to the neighborhood that our police force is on the job. The fact that two nice innocent people were publicly humiliated in front of our home was besides the point. After all, none of this would have happened had they had the sense to bleach their faces and drive a beamer.

I came out of the bathroom, ready to leave and oblivious to what had just occurred. The cops were gone, but my husband filled me in. The cleaners were justifiably upset. The sister kept saying how embarrassed she was. I told her it was the neighbor who had called the police, and of course the cops themselves, who should be embarrassed, but I was embarrassed too. I apologized to her and her husband and left for my meeting. Two women were still out on the street, watching our house. They scowled as I drove past.

The brother got increasingly riled up after I left. "I beat Sugar Ray Leonard in an exhibition match before he went to the Olympics," he told my husband. "I'm sixty years old and I have to clean houses for a living. I don't deserve this." No argument here. None what-so-fucking-ever. The fellow did a slow burn over the next hour. Every time he took out some trash or went to his car for some supplies, he felt like he was being observed. He was sweating heavily and his movements became increasingly abrupt as he grew more distraught. The sister was visibly devastated. My husband could plainly see that both were experiencing profound emotional pain, and a powerful case of deja vu.

You don't get to be a sixty year old working class African American without having experienced racism. Repeatedly. And, black man in the White House notwithstanding, it was happening again. Finally, they got so mad, they just had to leave.
"I'm sorry, but we have to go. It's obvious we're not wanted here."
They hadn't quite finished cleaning, but my husband understood.
"Nice neighbors you have," the man added. "Bet you don't like them any more than we do."
"No," my husband replied, "We don't. We're moving back to Berkeley when our lease is up in July."
"If you need cleaning, we'll come work for you there," the cleaner promised, "But we're never coming back to Orinda."

Thursday, April 28, 2011



Sorry to resort to the default opener, but my husband and I just took a week's vacation at our president's birth place, and I don't mean Kenya. It was a syncopated vacation. We started with a couple of days in Oahu in order to see Pearl Harbor. Then, we moved on to the Big Island, to swim in the ocean and chase my lava dreams. We drove too much and chilled too little, but of course we're glad we went. I am too pressed for time to craft a chronological chronicle here, so I've thrown together an archipelago of impressions instead.

Thinking about making a trip to the Aloha state? Don't buy the Frommer guide. We usually like that series, but this time, the writer phoned it in. I suspect he sat on a beach chair on Waikiki beach with a lap top and cribbed from a pile of rival guides. Thanks to this book, we drove half way around Oahu to see some "spectacular" surfing beach that turned out to be border-line ugly, and frequented by tweekers and shiftless young men with really loud car radios. Frommer's surrogate also induced us to eat in a couple of lousy Waikiki restaurants and book rooms at a lodge with three weeks worth of dirt on the floor and a major mildew problem. Meanwhile, the guide doesn't even mention the dramatic rocky surfer beaches, with natural hot springs, that we discovered on the Eastern Puna region of the big Island.

If there's one thing I despise, it's a beach full of high rises. The degraded environment in Waikiki gives me the same sad feeling I get from watching neurotic, incarcerated animals at the zoo. My husband knows this and felt compelled to point out, before, during and after our Waikiki stay, that he had only brought me here so I could see Pearl Harbor. Waikiki was sunny but shabby. Like Miami Beach, it has definitely seen better days, but whereas Miami has a certain dangerous edge, all Waikiki can muster is a faint melancholia. We strolled down the artificial beach (that's right, all that velvety sand is imported), stopped for the requisite umbrella drink, and walked back. There were as many locals on the beach as there were tourists. Lots of big bellies, bad sunburns, blurry tattoos and bikinis on broads who had no business wearing them.

Waikiki is a party town, and a group of party animals were camped in the room directly above us. We waited until 2 am before finally calling security to shut them up. The following morning, when I went to shower, I noticed a faint cigarette smell. I wondered whether our upstairs neighbors had been smoking in the bathroom and briefly considered narking on them so we wouldn't be tagged as the couple who violated hotel policy. I should have tattled. When we returned that evening, we were greeted by a stern form letter informing us that "Evidence of Smoking" had been found in our room, and we would be subject to a $200 fine. My irritation index instantly went from zero to a hundred. Letter in hand, I marched downstairs to talk to the manager, who was too busy talking to the cops. There were six police cars parked out front, and they hadn't come to take us away for evidence of smoking. A psychotic street person had wandered into the hotel unnoticed, taken the elevator to the fourth floor and commandeered the tiny swimming pool. He was now standing in the water fully clothed, with a wet towel on his head, howling at the moon. I don't know how many men in blue it took to get the poor guy out of the water, but I'm pretty sure someone got wet.

Every American should make a pilgrimage to Pearl Harbor once in their lives, preferably after a brief review of the historical context. It helped that my husband had made me sit through Tora Tora Tora last year, although at the time my daughter and I were debating whether to rechristen it Bora Bora Bora or Snora Snora Snora. (What can I say, we don't like war movies). Still, it's impossible not to be moved by the Pearl Harbor exhibits, staffed with friendly vets from the Korean and Viet Nam wars. Seventy years after she was shot down with 1177 men on board, the submerged USS Arizona still weeps oil. You can tour the battleship USS Missouri and visit a Bowfin submarine, both marvels of old school mechanical engineering. One thing I learned from the various exhibits was that Dr. Seuss started out as a political cartoonist, and by today's standards, his drawings of the Japanese are about as racist as Nazi propaganda depictions of Jews. As for the Japanese, there were quite a few of them touring the site and I had to wonder what they were thinking. After all, they did pull off the biggest surprise attack in history.

With its ukeleles, mellow song stylings and gentle rhythms reminiscent of ocean breezes, Hawaiian music has its charms. But there is something terribly wrong about an island arrangement of John Denver's "Country Road". I think it's the part about the West Virginia Mountain Highways...

The Kohala coast is a lot less costly when you stay in Waimea: You can access the beach in twenty minutes, without shelling out for a luxury resort. Just beyond the outskirts of town is the main entrance to the 160 year old Parker Ranch, one of the nation's largest ranches. 35,000 head of cattle graze the vast Parker lands. The ranch's last individual owner, one Richard Smart, lived up to his surname by leaving his holdings, including an extensive art collection, in trust to support healthcare, education and charitable giving for the region. Cattle ranching is not the ranch's only source of income. Visitors can book a 3-hour horseback tour of the hilly lands at the base of Mauna Kea. Or they can go on a big game hunt. $3,500 buys you the Grand Slam, a two-day hunt for wild boar, "meat pig" (as opposed to the meatless kind?), feral goat and something called "wild cattle" - probably the same breed as that crazy laughing cow. Since we're more used to hunting for things like car keys, cell phones and reading glasses, we did not answer the call of the wild.

The cow town of Waimea has a unique charm, like the old TV series Northern Exposure only with better weather. Waimea appears to be home to an eccentric or three. The town tranny, a dead ringer for Renee Richards, likes to have coffee at the restaurant next to the lodge where we stayed. We noticed her two mornings in a row, lingering over the local paper as she twisted a synthetic auburn curl around her manicured index finger. In the evening, we ate at the Pakini Grill, which the sign outside described as the "Best Restaurant in the world, according to our mother." Mom, or maybe grandma, greeted us at the door. She was a tiny little white haired Island lady in a floor length brown print mumu and a ridiculous pair of glasses with a giant 2011 jutting from the top of the frames. When I asked about the eyewear, the old girl explained that she's trying to set a world record by wearing a different pair of outrageous specs each day. (Like most crazy things people do to get into the Guiness book, there is no previous record to break here). With tourists and regulars providing a steady supply of preposterous eyewear, Mom-or-Grammy is approaching 1000 uninterrupted days of new spectacles.

Mostly, we ate on the cheap, but we did manage to get in a couple of polar opposite fancy meals. The first dinner was at Merriman's in Waimea. The chef was a militant locavore, a concept I can embrace, and the menu detailed the source of all the ingredients. Unfortunately, green beans were not only local and in season, they were apparently the only available vegetable. We had an appetizer and a main dish each, and all four came with large quantities of barely cooked haricots verts. Beans with eel. Beans with scallops. Beans with lamb shank. Beans with Mahi Mahi. By the end of the meal, we had a bad case of bean there, ate that. We didn't order dessert - the words vanilla bean killed what was left of our appetites. The other fancy meal, we enjoyed on our last day, at the Kilauea Lodge in the town of Volcano. The lodge was founded by Albert Jeyte, the German former makeup artist from the 80s TV show, Magnum PI. Like many cast and crew members from that Hawaii-based series, Herr Jeyte couldn't bring himself to return to the mainland after the network pulled the plug on the program. So he married a local girl, bought an abandoned Y.M.C.A. summer camp and turned it into a delightful bed and breakfast. Mr. Jeyte then put himself through a Parisian cooking school and now serves up continental food with a Teutonic flair, and decidedly un-locavore ingredients. As in South African Lobster (who traveled 3 times as long as we did to reach Hawaii) and antelope schnitzel (I swear, I kid you not).

I am married to a gentleman of Irish descent with an aspirin-white complexion. He doesn't tan: he broils. That means we can only go to the beach for so long - maybe ten minutes – before seeking shade. So instead of plopping our butts on one patch of sand, we spent a day driving around Oahu, marveling at the variety of beaches. Lanikai and Kailua beaches on Oahu, where the Obamas vacation, had beautiful white sand and calm, swimmable waters. On the Big Island, we loved the beach near the Marriot on the Kohala coast, shaded by palm trees and featuring two ancient fish ponds where the native Hawaiian people practiced aquaculture centuries ago. But the best part about the Kohala beach was that it was sea turtle nesting season. The eggs were buried in the sand, and the parents were playing right off shore - no snorkeliing equipment necessary. I plan on blogging about these serene creatures in greater detail soon.

Remember Rush Limbaugh's hawaiian heart attack scare? He praised the excellent care he received, and was embarrassed to learn that the island system is somewhat, er, socialized! As far as the mind-body connection goes, I'd say many Hawaiians have a permanent case of the Aloha spirit. The locals call everybody "my dear," smile a lot and often sing to themselves. Other than the melanoma risk, all that sunshine seems to have a positive effect on people's health - unless they have fallen prey to the ongoing meth epidemic. Talk about trouble in paradise! We saw several large, frightening anti-meth posters outside of bars, restaurants and gas stations. We also noticed a good deal of public awareness communication about type 2 Diabetes, not surprising in light of the dangerous native diet. Shrimp trucks, barbecue wagons, shaved ice mobiles – there is fantastic street food everywhere, all of it heavy on the sugar, hot sauce and animal fat. We enjoyed sweet short ribs, plump shrimp sauteed in excessive amounts of garlic butter, creamy cold slaw drenched in mayonnaise, buckwheat macadamia pancakes with coconut's a wonder we didn't end up in the ER with Rush.

I wish I didn't have to diss a sensible, green technology, but the cistern system at the Kilauea Lodge had noise issues. It rains every day in the town of Volcano, so outfitting the inn with cisterns must have seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately, the metal pipes collecting rainwater on the roof of our room magnified the drip drip dripping of the rain – not all that soothing at 3 a.m. Being half way to Japan, we also couldn't help but worry about radioactive precipitation. Fortunately, our bathroom was equipped with a water cooler. Besides my politically incorrect quibbling about the water system, I loved the Kilauea Lodge - just ask for a room away from the cisterns.

Call me naive, but here's what Fromer, or his slacker ghostwriter, would have us believe: "Since Kilauea's ongoing eruption began in 1983, lava has been bubbling and oozing in a mild mannered way that lets you walk right up to the creeping flow for an up close encounter." Now, if you read this, wouldn't you think you were going to see some fireworks? I am a volcano freak, and witnessing volcanic activity, preferably including lava, is at the top of my bucket list. The first time we were on the Big Island, nearly 18 years ago, we couldn't do too much exploring. Our son was an infant and my husband was hobbled by a torn anterior cruciate ligament. This time, I was convinced we were going to see rivers of molten rock hitting the sea in a giant cloud of steam. We did not. Volcanoes National Park, with its coal black lava fields, steam vents, craters and lava tubes, is worth the trip regardless. We drove all the way to the bottom of the chain of craters road, which ends abruptly where it was cut off by the latest lava flow. Sunset was imminent, and we took a lonesome, mystical hike across the lava beds to a sacred site, marked by petroglyphs, where the ancient Hawaiians ritually buried the umbilical cords of their newborns. (This tradition, still practiced by a few indigenous folk, is intended to keep the baby from harm and promote longevity). Night had fallen by the time we got back to the park entrance, but I was not ready to leave. The manager at the Kilauea Lodge had told us that one could see Hale Mau Mau, the smaller crater within Kilauea's summit caldera, glow in the dark at night. My hungry husband was less than enthusiastic when I begged him to take me back to the park's Jagger museum, on the giant caldera's edge.
- There won't be any glow.
- Oh please, oh please. I just have to see.
- I'm telling you, there won't be any glow.
- Can't we just SEE? If there’s no glow, you can say I told you so.
- Alright, I'll take you, just so you can see that there isn't any glow.
He took me, bless his heart and there WAS a glow! The gas cloud that hovers over the crater reflects light from the lake of fire below, and after dark, you can see a pink cloud hovering over Hale Mau Mau. That little detour turned out to be a big sacrifice on my husband's part. In the tiny town of Volcano, restaurants stop serving when they feel like it. The door may say nine, but the chef says no. We ended up driving 30 miles round trip to find a McDonalds. But McFood poisoning was a fair trade off to see the evening glow over Hale Mau Mau. Just enough of a tease to make me want to come back the next time Kilauea acts up.

Friday, January 28, 2011

I am woman, hear me vent.

Yes, Vagina, that is you, in satin effigy. And that pillow is precisely the sort of new age wierdness I feared I would encounter when I ventured forth to participate in my very first women's circle. I had never heard of such gatherings until I got an email from the women's business network I belong to, notifying us of a new circle starting up in Oakland. When I contacted the circle lady and asked for details, she suggested I just show up and see for myself.

So what prompted me to attend a women's circle?

1.) I have a deficit of homegirls out here and thought perhaps I'd meet some nice ladies.

2.) I could use some therapy but it's not in the family budget.

3.) My husband and I have been catching up on three years of In Treatment and we just watched the last DVD.

4.) I figured even if I didn't experience sisterhood, catharsis, or enlightenment, I could at least get a blog post out of it.

I did not know what to expect. In an effort to meet people in my relatively new stomping grounds, I have joined maybe twenty meetup groups and attended all of 3 gatherings in nearly 3 years. The knitting group proved that I can't talk and count stitches at the same time. The Berkeley social club was fun but oriented towards younger, unmarried people. The culture group was peopled with dull, ossified fogies, the sort of folk who engage in cultural activities because they think it's good for them and non-commitally pronounce everything they see "interesting". The art, hiking and book clubs, I kept up with voyeuristically by reading their email updates. I tried to go on a group hike once, but it decided to rain. I never felt like reading any of the book club's books. After a year or so of inactivity, I got booted off their distribution lists.

As long as there have been females, there has been female bonding. Clusters of women sitting together, making meals, pots, lace, baskets, quilts and, of course, conversation. Still, I was a little apprehensive about this circle business.Would I be getting in touch with my prehistoric roots, when the mitochondrial mother sat around the fire with her homegirls, cooking and nursing babies while the men folk hunted mammoth? Was I setting myself up for some sort of new age freak show involving chanting, incense, crystals and yoni- inspired knick knacks like the vagina pillow? I hoped to Goddess I wouldn't have to hug any strangers. I wondered whether the circle would be more like group therapy, which could at least have some entertainment value. Perhaps it might even tide me over until Gabriel Byrne came back from hiatus. I decided to give this circle thing a shot.

It was an evening meeting in a small, run-down commercial building. Our group leader Calista (not her real name) had talked the owner into letting her use an empty office. The space was arranged like a makeshift living room - two mismatched, scratchy couches and a half dozen uncomfortable chairs. A plug-in tea kettle sat atop a thrift shop end table, along with an assortment of teas. On the floor in the middle of the room was a piece of colorful fabric on top of which Calista had arranged an array of objects. Candles, shells, a supermarket bouquet, a green ceramic heart. It was a sad assortment. It reminded me of Sarah in The Little Princess trying to make her garret look homey.

Calista is a charismatic middle aged woman with an intelligent face framed by a leonine, shoulder length mass of grey curls. She took stock of the attendees. There were six of us, ranging from 30 to 60, sipping tea as we waited for her to take the lead. Right away, Calista informed us that she was not a therapist. Heck, the woman isn't even a clinical social worker. She specializes in conflict resolution and non violent communication.(I'm not completely clear what that is but I'm pretty sure it doesn't involve calling your husband an idiot or wacking him upside the head with a blunt object.) Calista explained the rules, probably for my benefit as I was the only newbie:

1. We were here to "share our truth," and anything that gets shared must not leave the room. East Coast smart aleck that I am, I had to make a funny."It's like Vegas!" I cried. The ladies looked confused, as often happens out here when I crack a joke. I tried to explain." You know, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas...". Calista wisely pressed on.

2. Everyone gets the same amount of time to talk. Calista would be watching the clock. The green ceramic heart I had noticed on her makeshift altar would get passed around from one woman to the next. Whoever held it had the floor until she had said her piece, or her turn was up, whichever came first. We were not allowed to interrupt each other but as long as we were supportive and nurturing, we could comment on what other people had said once it was our turn to speak.

3. Any and all displays of emotion were welcome. Feel free to cry, swear, raise your voice.

4. We were each expected to leave a $10-$20 donation at the end of the session. Compared to therapy, that's a bargain.

(At this point, I'd like to reassure you that I will not, repeat, will not break rule number one. I won't divulge anything that might jeopardize anyone's privacy, even though, trust me, it would make this post waaaaaay more entertaining.)

Calista passed the ceramic heart to the woman on her left, and so the venting began. It was a mishmash of serious life issues and serious navel-gazing. Insensitive husbands. Fruitless job searches. Narcissistic mothers. Ungrateful spawn. Ageist interviewers. Troubled teens. Depressed mates. Demanding children. Abusive fathers. Career burn out. Money problems. Sexual confusion. Old wounds. New wounds. Excess scar tissue. Protocol seems to be to just let people weep without intervening, and there was a fair amount of crying. The hardest part was staying neutral. Some women, you wanted to hug. Others, shake. One was a circle junky - this was her third circle in two days. It didn't seem to be helping. Like Calista, I'm not a mental health professional, but I do know wackadoodle when I see it.

As it turns out, the circle process is not like therapy at all. When you talk to a shrink, it's a given that your perspective needs altering. That's why you're there. You speak your truth, but you and your therapist both know how relative that notion is. Growth comes from understanding that your experience is subjective, and not necessarily accurate. A woman's circle is quite the opposite. Nothing you say is parsed, analyzed, questioned or refuted. You unload your story like a fishmonger tossing a sixty pound salmon onto a pile of grey ice. And there it sits, all stinky, slippery and just a little fishy, waiting for someone to buy it.

In her excellent book, You just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, Georgetown University linguistics professor Deborah Tannen describes a woman who comes home from work and starts telling her husband what a horrendous day she had. The husband, in typical male fashion, immediately goes into Mr. Fix-It mode. She should have a come-to-Jesus with her assistant. Ask her boss for a raise. Do something about her workload. He thinks his wife is asking for suggestions and solutions, but she feels patronized. All she really wanted was a sympathetic ear. This female need to vent is the basis for Women's Circles. But a women's circle is no replacement for an actual girl's night out, and not just because there's no wine involved. Your real homegirls will listen to you and support you. But they'll also call you on your bullshit. A good friend will tell you if you're overreacting, or stuck in a destructive pattern, or being too hard on your spouse. Most importantly, your buddies will make you laugh, maybe even at yourself. Compared to an actual circle of friends, an ersatz women's circle is more like the Post Secret project, in which people unburden themselves by anonymously writing their secrets on a postcard.

When my turn came to hold the green ceramic heart, I didn't hold back. I bitched, I moaned, I spewed. It felt awkward: vaguely cathartic but also slightly disloyal. I didn't experience any epiphanies, although the entertainment value of listening to everyone else's problems beat the heck out of the Lifetime Chanel. Still, based on the immediate results of my circle experience, I don't think I'll be going back.

I went home and yelled at my husband.