Thursday, September 16, 2010

Getting Out of Myself

The perfect antidote to writing a memoir with so much focus on oneself is to spend some time, however limited, with others who appreciate your undivided attention.

In that spirit, I started volunteering at Misericordia, a home for people with mild to severe developmental disabilities, many with physical challenges as well. "My" class has turned me inside out. They are SO challenged but, in most cases, SO loving and open and, yes, SO happy.

Confidentiality prevents me from using any personal photos and real names. So I will use first-name aliases and give you a quick overview.

* Stan - Stan has Down Syndrome. From Day 1, he wanted to sit next to me because he figured out quickly that I could help him with his journal writing, a task he finds extremely difficult, not because he doesn't have ideas but because his spelling is at a first or second grade level. Like most people with Down Syndrome, his tongue is too big for his mouth. He constantly sticks out his tongue, as if gasping for breath, and the subsequent dribbling is inevitable. It took a few weeks for me to get beyond the dribbles and the chapped lips to appreciate Stan for his sense of humor and his kindness. It is now an unwritten rule that he sit next to me come "hell or high water."

* David - David talks a mile a minute, stuttering, mispronouncing words. But if you listen carefully, amid the gush of sounds are observations, facts, and feelings. David loves sports and knows his stuff. He gets very excited when talking about the TV channel on which a particular sporting event will be aired. David likes mystery. He can't wait to find out who the new "American Idol" judges will be or who will win a football game or the World Series. I'm a sports junkie, too. So, David and I have become fast buddies.

* Suzy - Suzy is one of the highest functioning young women in the group. She flies back and forth between Chicago and her hometown, sings in one of Misericordia's performance groups, and remembers things that many of the others forget. Suzy adores a particular Elvis impersonator; whenever she has the chance, she sits at the computer, headphones on, and watches the same You Tube videos over and over again. For the past two weeks, Suzy has told me that she loves me.

I look forward to my few hours at Misericordia. It some ways, it's like meditation. I get beyond the chatter of my own mind. I am focused on others who, for a short time every week, take me out of myself.

I recommend it to everyone!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Trying My Hand at Writing A Memoir

My Memoir Writing class started three weeks ago, and I've been writing my heart out ever since. Some of what I've written is quite good; other sections have already been tossed. Par for the course but, still, this has been no easy task.

In many ways, I feel like I've been on a psychiatrist's couch without much food or sleep. What was I REALLY thinking when I was three and my baby brother was born? What did it REALLY feel like to be dethroned, never to be the center of anyone's universe again? Why did I REALLY use my dad's razor when I was eleven and shave my legs? When my brother took his life, why didn't I turn to my family for support and comfort?

The questions are endless; the digging is deep.

I'm used to telling other people's stories. Sure, I may include my tale in a preface or a prologue. Or maybe even in a magazine article. But to consider making myself the main character of a memoir, someone who is compelling, interesting, and, oh, yes, wise . . . well, that's a tall order. Quite candidly, I'm not sure I'm ready.

The most successful memoirs don't just string together a series of events that may, in and of themselves, be quite enticing. No, a memoir has an arc just as a novel or a play. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. And a memoir has major themes, hopefully universal, that demonstrate how the character (me) has evolved and, through her experiences, gained some insights that other people may find handy.

I wasn't a drug addict or a prostitute or a Rhodes Scholar. I didn't cover the war in Iraq or perform in a circus or strip joint. God hasn't talked to me - at least, not directly - and I can't read other peoples' minds. My parents had their dysfunction, but I wasn't abused.

Sure, I've known my share of failure, disappointment, and tragedy. But nothing necessarily to write a memoir about.

Unless . . . unless my writing is so sharp, my feelings so honest, my "voice" so unique that an editor is willing to take a chance that more than 500 people will be interested.

In truth, I'm not focused on publication. Been there, done that. I'm more interested in the process of writing, in the challenge of digging deep and finding the exact words that, when I've finally arranged them just so, make me go "Wow! That's damn good."

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Happy Birthday, Daddy-O

If he'd lived, my dad would be celebrating his 93rd birthday today. Oh, I'm sure he'd be complaining about his golf game. And it's quite possible that we would have taken his driver's license away by now. His sense of distance had been failing, and he tended to swing wide, just missing hitting the curb or sometimes other cars. And, oh, how he'd be missing my mother who died a matter of weeks before he did!

That wasn't the way it was supposed to be. My dad had for years expressed the wish to die first; he couldn't imagine facing life without her. They barbed at one another constantly (My mother said to me at one point, "I wish your father would take a permanent golf vacation"), and the distance between them appeared to grow once my mother became seriously ill. I recognize now that my dad was petrified that my mother wouldn't make it and, instead of supporting and caring for her, he did everything he could to push her to her limits.

For all his years, my dad was in incredibly good shape. Hell, it took him 8 days to die with no food or water. He couldn't do math in his head anymore, and multi-tasking was often beyond him. But he was still very present, never forgot a face, and could argue politics and other social issues with the best of them. He loved the fact that I was politically involved and was intrigued by how the computer had revolutionized social/political networking. My dad was a proud member of He was hip and progressive to the end.

Sitting by his bed side, waiting for him to die after a subdural hematoma left him paralyzed on the left side, unable to speak, and unable to swallow, I was convinced that, despite his protestations to the contrary before he was struck down, he really didn't want to die. We all say things we don't mean, and I believe that if he could have had a second chance at life, he would have grabbed it. His beloved youngest daughter lived nearby. Her friends had become his. He'd taken to small town living in Yellow Springs, Ohio, like a duck to water and probably could have run for mayor or water commissioner. He was that personable. My dad could strike a conversation with anyone and often did.

I'd love to be able to talk to him now. So much has happened since July 26, 2008. Obama is President of the United States. He would be damn happy about that. The country is more polarized than it's been in decades. He would have been dismayed but with a sense of history that nine plus decades brings. And all the personal events, dreams and disappointments. My dad was a good sounding board and always one of my best supporters.

So, daddy-o, I wish you happy trails wherever you may be. Know that your memory is fresh, your lessons well taught, and your love always a port in the storm.

Happy Birthday!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

A Unique Life: Maybe

I've decided that as I approach my 65th birthday I should take a stab at writing a memoir. Hey, my life is as unique as anyone's. Well, maybe . . . I didn't suffer abject poverty, rape, or addiction. And my travels didn't take me to Bali for love or to India to pray.

But the circumstances surrounding my birth toward the end of World War II make for quite a dramatic story. (Once a Drama Queen, always a Drama Queen.) And dealing with anti-Semitism for the first time in the girls' bathroom at my new junior high school threw me for a loop. My brother's downward spiral and eventual suicide at age 30 changed my life and the dynamics in my family forever.

And then there was my marriage to the wrong man (I knew I was making a mistake but forged ahead), the birth of my son, several affairs, a divorce, life as a single mother, remarriage . . . Throw in my son's automobile accident that nearly paralyzed him for life, the effect that accident had on my second marriage (it almost ended it!), a seizure that led me to meditation, my burgeoning career as a writer . . . Now, we're getting somewhere.

And if you've been reading my blog, my dear reader, you know that I lost both my parents within 3 weeks of one another and the heartache and challenges their deaths created. In July of this year, we will mark the 2-year anniversary of their deaths. I still miss them terribly.

Anyway, I've signed up for an online memoir writing class led by a seasoned writing professor who has published her own memoir. Am I ready to open my life to strangers? Why not? My friends and family are too through with my stories by now. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


I hadn't intended to sell my mother's jewelry. I'd wear what I could and keep the rest in a safety deposit box for . . . A daughter-in-law? A granddaughter?

My mom's taste is jewelry was, for the most part, big. She liked 14 karat gold with bold stones that begged attention. Her favorite set was a gold necklace with an amethyst the size of Rhode Island, a matching pinkie ring with a second amethyst, and, yes, a pair of earrings with an amethyst dangling from each. The whole shebang cost a mint; the replacement value was even higher.

Alas, I'm just not a gold, big stone kind of gal. I go for silver, subtle, unique.
Even so, as I planned what I hoped would be the last estate sale (I'd already used Internet ads, auctions, consignment shops) to finally sell the remainder of my parents' stuff, I didn't consider selling the jewelry. Maybe it was the sense that my mother wouldn't approve. Or that I was a ruthless daughter interested in money. Whatever the reasons, I didn't list jewelry in the estate sale ads.

People kept calling and asking if I had any jewelry to sell. Initially, I said "No." Then I went through my own collection, picked out what I no longer wore, and threw that into the mix. I sold a few items. Then I tossed in costume jewelry from the 50s and 60s. The response was lukewarm. And there wasn't much interest either in the items I really wanted to sell - the rugs, the set of four Henredon chairs, the custom media center with antique Japanese screen doors, the oak square table for four. If I didn't unload these things, I would have to give them away. The monthly storage fee was bleeding me dry.

Finally, I called one of the dealers who was looking for "better" jewelry. I knew he'd never pay close to what the jewelry was worth. But I'd taken it around to estate jewelers months before, only to be told that it wasn't their style. Or that they'd melt the pieces down for the gold. Now, that I'd never do.

"How much do you want for these?" he said, having put together a pile of my mother's finest jewels, including the amethyst set.

I had no idea. "Let me look at the insurance estimates," I said.

"I'm not interested in those. They're always much too high, and I'm not going to pay close to those amounts."

This guy was a pro. I picked up the red folder with the insurance estimates and started reading aloud the descriptions and estimated values.

"What do you want?" he said again.

I started adding numbers in my head. "How about $1000?"

"$800," he countered.

I hate bargaining. "$900, and that's my final price."

He reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet, and began handing me $100 bills. I thought of calling off the deal. My mother's going to kill me, I mumbled under my breath. "Sell these to women who will wear them proudly," I said loud enough so he could hear.

"What about these?" a second prospective buyer asked. She'd collected an array of less expensive pieces. Hardened by the first round of bargaining, I quoted her prices I was sure she wouldn't pay. I was surprised. She backed off of just one piece, an ornate silver necklace that looked Turkish or Indian. I vowed to wear the necklace sometime soon.

I cried myself to sleep that night. I missed my mom, wished I could call her and just shoot the breeze. Maybe she would have been practical about the jewelry thing and agreed that keeping it in a safety deposit box for years made no sense. Whatever her reaction, it would have been so good to hear her voice.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I had the best of intentions. I'd counted my points, danced, walked, even took a yoga class. But at the end of a week, the numbers of my scale hadn't budged. And I wasn't about to stand on that four-pound-over Weight Watcher scale and have some smug woman who'd lost 500 pounds in three months record my failure and ask what I might do to jump start my diet. I'd jump started it, all right, with the physical scars to show for it: a perpetually sore lower back, aching muscles, and a growling stomach that talks to me all day long.

So, I played hooky. And instead of devouring a sweet, gooey pastry or a stack of pancakes smothered in butter and syrup, I read a book. An entire book. A 300-page book. (Okay, the print is rather large.) I plopped my sorry body down on the back deck, tilted my baseball cap to shield my eyes from the bright sun, and read Brooke Newman's Jenniemae & James: A Memoir in Black & White.

Yes, I'm a reader. But I can't remember the last time I read a book in one sitting or, for that matter, had sex multiple times in one day. It's been a while. But this book about a brilliant mathematician and his friendship with an uneducated, illiterate African American maid held me in its clutches for 4 hours with one potty break, a quick stroll around the garden, and one annoying phone call.

As pedestrian as it may sound, finishing that book gave the day meaning and me a sense of accomplishment. Phasing into retirement, it's easy to fret away the time, convinced that you should be doing something significant - whatever that means. Make money. Publish an article. Make a stranger happy.

Today I made myself happy. I think I'll read my way through the week, substituting the prose of good writers for any temporary satisfaction I might get from eating one too many Weight Watchers' peanut butter bars.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Gathering

In order to save money and make more room on my crowded bookshelves, I've weaned myself off of buying new books and, instead, begun to scan the shelves at my local library. This requires a good deal of patience, for libraries are behind the curve when it comes to current bestsellers. And when they do get these coveted books, there's usually a waiting list. Sure, some of the newbies make it to the "Grab it fast and read it quickly" section where I often find readers body-blocking entire rows of books so they can get first dibs. I find myself grabbing at titles I've never heard of just in case I might be interested. Usually, I'm not.

Last week I got a brilliant idea: I'd focus on past Booker Prize winners, books that have received Britain's counterpart to the Pulitzer. Penelope Lively won the Booker for Moon Tiger, one of my favorite all-time love stories and examples of one of those wondrous books in which events unfurl as the narrator recalls them, not in chronological order. So, why not get on the bandwagon and check out other British authors whose work has been singled out as the best?

That led me to Anne Enright's The Gathering, winner of the Booker in 2007. The back cover blurb tells of "a moving, evocative portrait of a large Irish family haunted by the past." Well, I'm not Irish, but this is a Booker-prize winner after all. The blurb continues, "The nine surviving children of the Hegarty clan are gathering in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother, Liam, drowned at sea." I know about such gatherings only too well. We three surviving Mersky children gathered for the funeral of my brother, Robin, some thirty years ago.

I didn't read the remainder of the jacket blurb. I was sold.

And I wasn't disappointed. Enright's writing is poetic, her observations keen, and the parallels between her relationship with her brother and my relationship with mine are uncanny. Readers discover soon enough that Liam's drowning was intentional. He stuffed his pockets with stones and walked into the sea. My brother chose a different escape route: He stuck a hunting rifle in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

I finished The Gathering two nights ago. I reached to turn off the reading lamp next to my bed and shivered, fearful that I might have bad dreams about my brother, gone now for thirty years.

Instead I thought about my mother. She was the one who found my brother, his bedroom walls splattered with blood and brain matter. By the time my father arrived home, the cleanup crew had left. While the smell of death was everywhere, there were no visual reminders.

My mother was left raw. I can only imagine the nightmares she suffered for years. Only after she died did a home nurse tell me that my mom talked often about "seeing" my brother again. Perhaps it was her anticipation of such a gathering that buoyed her spirit through the last difficult months of her life and underscored that, when all is said and done, it is, as she told me, love that makes it all worthwhile.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Yikes! Retirement!

For us Baby Boomers, retirement can last 30 or more years - one-third of our lives. Now, there's an exciting (uh, scary) thought.

As someone in the midst of reinventing herself - or, at least, trying to figure out what's next - I must admit that it ain't easy. I realize some Baby Boomers can't wait to break the chains of an unsatisfying full-time job that has stymied their happiness and self-worth for decades. Just the thought of doing "nothing" - well, maybe playing some golf or tennis or hanging out at the local coffee shop - keeps them slogging toward the "finish line." On the other hand, others like myself have managed to craft a career that has offered a lot of freedom and independence (but rarely a regular paycheck).

Ah, but hold your horses. The Recession from which we are slowly recovering and the go-get-em' spirit of Boomers have prompted a majority (8 in 10 according to an AARP analysis) to plan to work at least part-time or start their own business instead of settling for a lawn chair in Florida. A staggering half of households headed by 50-to-59-year-olds have $10,000 or less in their 401(k) accounts, making holding down some kind of job more attractive than scrimping and saving. The National Council on the Aging estimates that by 2015 20% of the work force will be over 55.

Remember staring at the old guy or gal bagging groceries at your local supermarket and feeling blessed that you'd never have to do that! Hmmmm . . . . To avoid such a fate, millions of us are scrambling, trying to figure out how we're going to maintain something of the lifestyle to which we've become accustomed. And just when no one is hiring younger folks, let alone old farts.

Career coaches and therapists are quick to underscore the possibilities of following our bliss. Perhaps for the first time since we were young kids, we won't have to listen to what parents, peers, or society in general expect of us. We have a blank slate in front of us and can go to town joyously filling it in with piano or painting lessons, worldwide travel, volunteering for all those causes to which we've been donating all these years. Holy Cow! The possibilities are endless.

Or are they? What if no longer having a title (say an engineer or teacher or CEO of a corporation) makes you feel as if you're one big nothing? What if you don't have enough money to take off for Timbuktu? What if you're tired after some 40 plus years of working and you just don't have the energy to start from scratch? What if your mind goes numb with all the possibilities and renders you paralyzed?

I suppose we could all sign up for counseling. Or read a bunch of self-help books. Or we can plod our way through this delicate life marker event, making our share of boo boos along the way. In the meantime, I'll share whatever I figure out as I go along.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Comin' Home

We couldn't have asked for a better day to leave California. It was pouring. Fog shrouded San Francisco, rendering the city invisible from our perch across the bay. The weight of our overstuffed suitcases seemed even heavier as we lugged them up the flight of slippery, rain-soaked stairs. The cats who were unquestionably depressed didn't even bother to protest as we put them in their carriers on the back seat of our rented Kia wagon.

"It's better this way," my husband said as we drove down the steep, winding driveway for the last time.

I'd been thinking the same thing.

Fast forward to a few minutes after arriving home. "I like our house," he said enthusiastically.

I knew it. He wouldn't waste any time finding all kinds of reasons to stay put. The streets are flat; it's better for jogging. The birds are chirping. There is something green trying to grow in our yard. The weather isn't so bad. There were no home invasions while we were gone. There is plenty of salt left to use on the sidewalks next winter. Ugh!

I wanted to scream something about him having no balls but somehow managed to keep quiet. I knew that we'd never be able to pull up stakes and move across the country. I'm destined to live and die in the Midwest.

Stay cool. Be patient. He usually comes around; it just takes time. Or maybe he and I will have rooms of our own during the winter months. He can stay in his beloved home and frolic in the Winter Wonderland. I'll bask in warmer climes, surrounded by Mother Nature in all her glory.

Okay, so our house is lovely. I'll give him that. And there's something about the symmetry of houses placed in a neat row, the same distance from one another. True, the streets are wider and not jammed with cars parked haphazardly as they were in the Berkeley Hills. It's all very neat and orderly here.

But there are no leaves on the trees and no spring flowers blooming. Lake Michigan is cute and all that, but it ain't the Pacific Ocean. You've got to walk twice as far to equal the calories spent on walking up and down hills. And the headaches. The damn headaches. They're back with a vengeance. And now I have to think about the future and what I'm going to do with my life. It was such a pleasure putting everything on hold.

A dear friend in California encouraged me to be patient and to "process." But patience has never been my middle name, and this waiting for the right decision will be the death of me. For now I'll drag both feet and put them down in the here and now. At least I'll try.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Traveler in a Strange Land

Every time we passed the Berkeley Bowl, one or the other of us said, "Maybe we should go bowling." A perfect activity on one of the many rainy days we've grappled with during our stay in Berkeley. And each time, one of us commented, "I haven't been bowling in years!"

The parking lot at the Berkeley Bowl was always jammed. Drivers waited in their cars until a space opened up or drove around the block and then back again. Even on warm, sunny days, both week and weekend, the place was packed. Bowling and Berkeley made strange bed partners, at least in my mind. But, hey, residents of this progressive town have always been ahead of the curve. Apparently, bowling had regained its popularity like so many other recycled pastime activities.

A few days ago, we mentioned to a local that we were thinking of bowling a few games at the Berkeley Bowl. She started to giggle. Okay, the image of two seniors donning bowling shoes, balancing heavy bowling balls, and mightily throwing the balls in hopes of knocking down a few pins was, well, funny. I guess.

She continued to laugh. "What's so funny?" I said, a bit miffed.

The longtime Berkeley resident tried to stifle her laughter by putting a hand over her mouth. The giggles slid out sideways.

I didn't get the joke and found myself getting angry. "Okay, fill us in," I said, unable to hide my growing frustration.

My husband joined in. "Is bowling uncool or something?"

Unable to stop giggling, the loca l- now our nemesis - tried to answer his question. Her answer was unintelligible.

I'd had enough. It's one thing to guffaw at somebody else's expense but quite another to keep up the game.

Now aware of our growing angst, the dear local took her hand away from her mouth and managed to spit out in bits and spurts, "The . . . Berkeley Bowl is . . . a . . ." Here she started to laugh hysterically. "It's a grocery store."

The next day, I checked the place out. Sure enough, our bowling alley was a 40,000-square-foot warehouse-like building with rows and rows of everything that is grown on this green Earth. The speciality here is produce, and the BB boasts the largest selection in northern California. Want green almonds? They're here. Need California red velvet apricots? They've got em'. In fact, the market's Web site boasts that that this is the place for just about any hard-to-find produce item. Bins and bins of nuts, mushrooms, squash, potatoes - the list is endless.

Come to think of it, one of those big purple heads of cabbage would make a great bowling ball.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Our "Amazing Race" Gone Awry

I've always wondered how my husband and I would fare on a race around the world. On the one hand, our wit, travel experience, athleticism, and social skills would put us in good stead. We know how to drive on the wrong side of the road and, between the two of us, can bumble our way through both French and Spanish-speaking countries. Alan's accent for foreign languages is superb; he can pretend to spout Italian or Russian or Chinese without knowing more than a few words and sound as if he's fluent. Well, at least for a few sentences.

On the other hand, it's clear that contestants on the real "Amazing Race" are under tremendous stress. They get lost, lose sleep, sometimes take much too much time to complete a required task. These contestants - young and old, straight and gay, married or dating - all explode at one time or another. Dating couples have decided there is no future for them beyond the show; relatives have expressed extreme frustration, even hatred, that surely dampens their relationships once the race is over.

Well, any questions I had about how well we'd do in such a race were answered yesterday. We'd kill one another. We were on our way to the Marin Headlands just across the Golden Gate Bridge. I'd programmed Ernestine, our dear GPS, but Alan was set on his own route. To confuse things even more, big road sides pointed to yet a third way to the bridge. As navigator I first insisted that we trust Ernestine. But after seeing the signs, I abandoned her and instructed my dear driver to follow the signs. . . smack dab into a traffic jam that showed no signs of letting up any time this year.

The tension began to build. "I knew I should have taken the Embarcadero," Alan said.

"But the signs," I murmured.

The car inched forward.

"We've already wasted a lot of time," he said. "We should just turn around and go home."

I sat quietly, hoping beyond hope that the traffic would break up. It did not.

And then there's a sign instructing all en route to the Golden Gate Bridge to stay in the middle lanes. But with a chance to veer right and make up some lost time, Alan spun out of a middle lane and raced a full block before the light turned red.

"You were supposed to stay in the middle lane," I offered meekly.

"Who says?"

"That sign we just passed."

Alan began a rhythmic pounding on the driver side window as we headed in the wrong direction.
Visions of a glorious hike fizzled like a malfuncitoning firecracker on the Fourth of July.
And then the insults about how I'd intentionally sabataged the afternoon because I "really didn't want to go in the first place" and how I've never been able to own up to my mistakes like the other members of my family and . . .

"I don't like you," I blurted. "You are really mean." God, I had stooped down to the level of a third grader.

"I don't like you, either." (Nah, nah . . . So there!) "And that sure doesn't bode well for us moving across the country."

"You're right," I said, rolling around in the verbal mud.

Where had I gone wrong? I just wanted the best route to the Golden Gate Bridge.

The rhythmic pounding on the window got louder and more forceful. Alan looked like a mad man about ready to do something he'd later come to regret.

Try another tact. I brought up Alan's mia culpa earlier that morning about an episode with a friend and how, instead of judging him, I had listened.

"That's a lie!" he said. "And what does that have to do with this?"

"Because when you admitted having made a mistake, I was able to take a deep breath and not continue to make you feel even worse."

"That's a bunch of crap."

I closed my eyes and silently started to repeat the mantra I'd been given years ago in a transcendental meditation class. Where was the Maharishi when I needed him?

The weather had cleared. It was a perfect afternoon for a hike. And here we were sitting in a rented Ford Focus lost in the middle of San Francisco. Our hike was on the rocks and so, it seemed, was our marriage.

Miraculously, out of the haze and confusion appeared a new sign pointing the way to US 101 North and the Golden Gate Bridge. Cautiously, calmly I suggested that we turn left. Alan followed my directive without saying a word. We drove another five minutes and there, in front of us is all its stunning glory, was the bridge spanning the the city by the bay and Marin County.
The sun danced off the water, sailboats took what wind there was, and hundreds of people strolled or ran the length of the bridge.

I rolled down my window and sucked in the clean California air, hoping that somehow the angst of the past hour would be forgotten in favor of new beginnings. With any fantasies of competing on "The Amazing Race" forever squelched, I now merely hoped that Alan and I could negotiate the ups and downs of our much more banal journey.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Dear, Sweet Betty Lou

She'll celebrate her 89th birthday in May. While her physical body has let her down - she spends most of her time in bed - her mental acuity matches the sharpest of minds of those many years her junior. Dear, sweet Betty Lou. She's had more than her share of tragedy yet remains ever upbeat and positive (except when it comes to politics and Republicans).

I interviewed Betty Lou when researching my book about love and sex in World War II. Among all the stories I collected, hers was the most heartbreaking. Her fighter pilot husband was shot down days before he was to finish his tour of duty. Betty Lou was left a widow with an infant son. Even though she remarried twice (her second husband was also killed in an airplane accident), not a day goes by that Betty Lou doesn't think of her sweet Rarey, her first love.

Years ago - maybe six or seven - my husband and I attended a memorial in Sonoma, California, not far from Betty Lou's home. One afternoon, I drove to Novato to meet Betty Lou in person. After all, she'd been one of my biggest allies, having supported and cajoled me through all the ups and downs of first finding a new literary agent and then securing a publisher. Her encouragement propped me up many times when I was ready to give up the ghost.

After lunch, we sat in Betty Lou's living room and paged through her cherished World War II photo albums. The young woman with her long, curly hair and bangs rolled back in a 1940s hairdo could have stepped off the pages of Look or Life. Rarey was cute as a button and, after reading parts of his letters and seeing his drawings, it was easy to see why Betty Lou had fallen so hard. (Laughter and Tears, a book edited by Rarey's son, is a must read. If you aren't overcome by joy and sorrow, I'll reimburse you the price of the book.)

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of spending time with Betty Lou once again. I'd expected to be led into her bedroom but was pleasantly surprised to find her sitting in a living room chair all gussied up in a dress with a necklace to boot. She'd fought off the unexplained dizziness and accompanying nausea that plagues her whenever she tries to stand. I was moved. We spent the next two hours covering the water front from Betty Lou's current arrangements (her daughter from a second marriage has come to live and take care of her) to my California journey. Never did Betty Lou complain about her physical maladies; as always, she was upbeat, funny, and smart.

Toward the end of the visit, I could see that she was pooped. I'd overstayed my welcome. I got up, walked to where she was sitting, bent over, and whispered, "I love you." My dear, sweet Betty Lou. May I learn to let tragedy slide off my back as you have done. May I keep a positive attitude even in the face of adversity. May I laugh off the insults of Father Time and learn to live happily no matter the bumps in the road.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"If You Don't Like The Weather, Just Wait Ten Minutes"

Chicagoans are fond of observing that if you don't like the weather, just wait ten minutes. A cool, rainy day in May could easily give way to a glorious sky with temps in the 70s. At least, that's the way it used to be before global warming. Now, there are weather patterns that stick around for days, if not weeks. Arctic blasts in the winter or unseasonably cool and rainy days in the spring that last year held summer hostage for longer than anyone could remember.

Well, Chicago's fickle weather doesn't hold a candle to winter weather in northern California. Two days ago, I basked in sunshine with not a cloud in the sky and the temperature hovering around 70 degrees. We took the ferry from San Francisco to Alcatraz where the island personnel reminded us that normally the weather out there was foggy, chilly, and often punctuated by rain. The island's infamous prisoners - among them Al Capone and Floyd Hamilton, the driver for Bonnie and Clyde - coveted the southern-facing cells hoping to warm up just a little whenever the sun did shine.

This is me sitting on the cement steps in Alcatraz's outside yard, listening to an audio recreation of one of the many failed escape attempts. You'll note that I've taken off my jacket and would have removed my sweater save for the fact that I wasn't wearing a t-shirt underneath.

But, wait . . . The next morning, we awoke to the thickest fog of the trip, a fog that isolated us from the rest of the world save part of the roof on the house below. Within a matter of hours, the skylit sky with its sliver of a new moon had been consumed by a vapor so dense that even the deck railing a few feet beyond our front windows had disappeared. In its own right, the fog was as magical as the glorious sun the day before. For the first time, I was hesitant to drive down the hill and into Berkeley, nervous that I'd miss one of the hair-pin turns or crash into the back of another car.

The fog didn't lift. The sun made several feeble efforts to break through the barrier but never succeeded. If this fog had landed at the beginning of our trip, we would have been truly bummed. "Where's the sun?" "It's too chilly." "I can't see where I'm going." But now more acclimated to Mother Nature and all her moods, we walked in the fog, took photos of what we could barely see, reveled in the changed environs, and barely missed the twinkling evening lights from down below.

This was truly the forest primeval with who knew what lurking around every corner, behind every tree and bush. The orange glow of the few lamplights that dotted the neighborhood seemed terribly out of place as if they'd been installed by some alien force. Walking up and down the hills in almost absolute silence was meditative, special. You were all alone in the universe, just you, the sound of your breathing, the pounding of your heart.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

"A Room of One's Own"

When I debated leaving the first full-time job I'd had in 28 years and returning to life as a freelance writer, I acknowledged but casually dismissed the fact that, for only the second time in my three decades of marriage, my husband and I would both be at home. The first time around, I bristled at Alan's invasion of my space. I wanted a "room of my own." And that meant I wanted the whole house to myself. The arrangement almost ended our marriage; Alan went back to work full-time.

Now, here we go again. Only this time, Alan is 65 and retired. He may wish from time to time that he had a "real" job, but that ain't going to happen. Not in this economy, not at his age. So once we return to Evanston after our two-month journey in California, he will retire to his third-floor office, and I will retire to my office on the second floor.

The possibility of being under the same roof 24/7, 7 days a week is not one I relish. Don't get me wrong: I love my husband. But I still believe in Virginia Wolf's premise that a woman needs money and a room of one's own to write. Or, as far as I'm concerned, to breathe, to grow, to literally survive.

If the past month is any indication, I'm up against it. Granted, we're on vacation in a strange place with only one car. (The car thing is a biggie: Either we travel together, leave one of us alone up in the hills, or somehow figure out a drop off/pick up plan akin to driving a kid to school and making sure to be back on the dot to pick him up.) Once we're back on terra firma with two cars in the garage, we should be too through with the Bobbsey twin charade.

Establishing boundaries, our unique rules of the road, may be tough. I'll don my Zen robes and give active listening my best shot. I'll use clear "I" statements that bypass blame or judgment. I'll mirror, or restate, what my beloved says without adding my opinion. (Oh, that's a killer!) I'll keep my tone friendly, even welcoming, even when I want to slap him upside the head. And with any luck, he'll understand that I don't want to "do lunch" most days, that when I do "do lunch" with others it's nothing personal, and that a closed door means "Stay the heck out of my space." Okay, okay . . . a closed door means "Please do not enter."

Wish me luck, dear readers, because I'm going to need it!

Friday, February 12, 2010

All You Foodies Out There

Let's get something straight: When it comes to food, I'm no country bumpkin. I've dined at three-star Michelin restaurants in France, supped at some of Chicago's finest eating establishments, enjoyed many of New York's upscale eateries, and, might I add, frequented some of the country's most reviewed vegetarian diners.

Still, I couldn't wait to have dinner at Berkeley's famed Chez Panisse. Alice Waters, chef, author, and the proprietor of Chez Panisse, is, as her Web site states, "an American pioneer of a culinary philosophy that maintains that cooking should be based on the finest and freshest seasonal ingredients that are produced sustainably and locally. She is a passionate advocate for a food economy that is 'good, clean, and fair.'"

Right on! A restaurateur after my own stomach.

Alan and I dressed for the occasion - sport jacket for him and velveteen jacket for me. (Only later did we realize that jeans take you anywhere in Berkeley.)

We chose to dine in the upstairs cafe that, unlike the downstairs restaurant with its fixed menu, offers appetizer, entree, and dessert choices at a sum total lower bill. The genial staff greeted us as if we were long, lost friends and seated us in a corner booth with a view of several other tables and the open preparation area in which salads are made, bread cut, and selected foods cooked in an open wood oven.

At first blush, we were disappointed. Pizza with tomato sauce, baccala mantecato and egg for $18.50? Grilled Monterey Bay sardines with artichokes, roasted potatoes, and salsa verde for $19? Sorry all you connoisseurs of Italian delicacies. You couldn't pay me to order sardines! (Later, our waitress told us that the Italian dishes had been included on the evening's menu in honor of an Italian chef and wine expert who were dining at Chez Panisse.) The only fish entreé was fried in beer batter and accompanied by celery root salad and tartar sauce. What's up with that, Ms. Waters? Fancy, smancy fish and chips.

And on it went . . . orange zest and ale, pork cooked with red chile, butternut squash baked in the wood oven with tomato and mozzarella. We thought of making up some boldface lie ("My wife's water just broke.") and bolting. But somehow that felt like dissing a member of the family, so we settled in.

I ordered the avocado and grapefruit salad with citrus vinaigrette ($10) and was not disappointed. Maybe this would be a marker culinary event after all. Alan had the Soul Food Farm chicken liver crostini with Florentine fennel salad ($10) that, to my palette, tasted as good as any French paté. Onward and upward. Or so I hoped.

I studied the entreé choices like a woman deciding whether to accept a marriage proposal from a longtime beau. Nothing piqued my fancy. I ultimately settled on a half order of tagliatelle verde with ragu bianco ($11), a fancy description of spinach pasta with small pieces of white chicken and pork. I was not impressed; in fact, I was downright crestfallen. Heck, Alan makes better pasta at home. I slogged through but was not a happy camper. My dear husband, on the other hand, ordered the beer batter-fried sole ($25) and loved it. The fried batter was light and airy enough not to interfere with the delicate sole perfectly prepared. No need for the tartar sauce, Ms. Alice.

Not stuffing myself meant I had plenty of room for dessert. In fact, I insisted on ordering two desserts to make up for my unremarkable pasta. Bittersweet chocolate truffle tartlet with caramel-brown ale cream ($9.25) and a Pink Lady apple and huckleberry tart with vanilla ice cream ($9.75). The latter, while tasty, only teased us with a few huckleberries scattered on top. And how can you go wrong with anything made from dark chocolate?

Chez Panisse is consistently ranked one of the top restaurants in the U.S. and often one of the top eateries in the world. Not according to this albeit untrained food critic. Next week, we're eating at Camino, an Oakland restaurant whose chef worked at Chez Panisse for years. Let's see what he has up his apron.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

By Popular Demand

A cry for more of Alan's photos. So, here you are! Northern California in all its winter glory.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Finding "My" Spot

Like millions of others, I read Carolos Castaneda's The Teachings of Don Juan. More than the vivid descriptions of the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, I was taken by Carlos's assigned task of finding his sitio – a spot on the porch of Don Juan’s house where Carlos feels “naturally happy and strong,” the one place on the floor that is unique, where Carlos can be at his very best.

It seems that, like Carlos, I have been looking for my sitio ever since. For decades, I thought that spot was in northern California. Sure, I've traveled to cities and towns both near and far and, for a short time, felt that I could live there and be my best. But issues of language, customs, friends, and family – sometimes the cost of living – always took hold and pushed me back to where I started.

Will this time be different? Friends who have known me forever just laugh when I tell them I'm moving to California. I've been threatening such a move since 1970 when my first husband finished law school in Detroit. I had hoped to join throngs of friends and acquaintances who were going to the land of sunshine, acid rock, and "Hippie Hill." It was not to be: My husband and I got as far west as Chicago.

After our divorce, I was tethered to Chicago because of our son. No way was I going to be able to take him across the country with visitation rights for my ex during holidays and summer vacation. I weathered the ensuing winters as best I could with frequent visits to northern California. Each time, I vowed that I'd return for good. Each time, there were compelling reasons why I could not leave. (Think second marriage and my new husband's full-time employment for starters. Even when my son was long out of the house and on his own, California jobs in the arts were like warm, sunny days in a Chicago winter.) I was stuck.

Now after 40 years, there are no jobs holding us back. We are "free to move about the country."

I duped myself into believing that our current 8-week sojourn in the Berkeley Hills was not about a permanent move. I promised that finding my sitio was a distant second behind spending time in more temperate climes. But I hooked us up with a realtor the second week we were here, and she has been trying her best to sell us a home ever since. For better or for worse, there is a dearth of For Sale signs in these parts. Anyone who hasn't had to move has sat tight, waiting for the recession to end and for real estate prices to rebound.

And in the years since I've first come to northern California, my tastes have changed. Many neighborhoods that appealed to me in my 20s and 30s now seem gee jawed, uneasy. If there was a historical board or city planning commission in these parts, the members must have been high because there is no rhyme or reasons to many of the residential sections. Contemporary homes abut weathered Craftsmans. Cars clutter the winding roads because owners are too lazy to drive up the steep driveways. It feels tight, messy, too tight and messy for me.

Only down the hills in the older sections is there a sense of design and calm. Some of the streets are blocked to through traffic, turning the areas into walking spaces immune to the sounds and smells of automobiles. Alas, most homes in these sections no longer enjoy a "view." They face multiple directions instead of due west onto San Francisco Bay. Damn. There are always compromises to be made.

Like Carlos, I am spinning, twisting, and turning.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

"America's Most Wanted"

The little girl and I strolled hand in hand toward the water. Without warning, violent waves crashed just in front of us, around us, threatening to sweep us into the vortex never to return. I picked up the girl and ran for our lives, luckily outrunning the raging waters.

Then they were coming. The bad guys, the ones who thought nothing of slitting your throat in one masterful stroke. Where to hide? Frantic, I opened and closed doors. None of them had locks. Even if they did, the bad guys would smash the locks or break down the doors. Then I saw it, a small, green refrigerator, the kind you might have in a basement for all the meat and chicken and soft drinks that wouldn't fit in the kitchen frig. Without a moment to lose, I pulled out shelves and bins, unplugged the wall socket, and somehow managed like a the girl in a Houdini magic act to step in and curl up just enough to close the door.

I could hear the bad guys rumbling into the building, climbing the stairs, and piling into the room with the green refrigerator. Then I listened in horror as one after another unsuspecting dancer met her fate. The bad guys showed no mercy, ignored all pleas. "Where are the keys?" they screamed. None of them knew about the keys. I had the keys stuffed in my jeans' pocket.

My only hope was to wait until the bad guys moved into the next room to slit the throats of more innocent dancers. I held my breath and listened until I could hear a pin drop. Without hesitation, I pushed opened the refrigerator door, put my feet on the floor, and ran as I'd run earlier in the day away from the waves. Only this time, I ran down stairs, in and out of empty rooms, through industrial spaces with acres of what looked like furnaces and large metal coils, and finally to an open window on the ground level. I could hear the bad guys not far behind me. With no time to lose, I pushed the window open as far as it would go, squeezed through the opening, and jumped, landing on a soft patch of dirt. I picked myself up and ran like the wind.

"There she is!," one of the bad guys yelled, one of his legs already out the open window.

I'd had enough. Only 50 feet or so separated me from the knife-wielding bad guys. Either this dream ended like a Hollywood movie with a large police van turning up just in the nick of time to roadblock the bad guys from me or I met my fate like all the others. I wasn't ready to die. Not like this. So, I forced my eyes open, measured my breathing, and stumbled into the bathroom.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

"Good Day, Sunshine"

Photos by Alan Leder

Ah, what a bit of sunshine does to adorn Mother Nature in all her glory and to lift the human
spirit! The flower on the left is from a flowering tree. (I'm waiting for my landscape designer friend to identify it. It may be nicknamed the "Money Tree.") We happened upon the tree in full bloom during a walk around Lake Merritt, a lovely lake on the east side of Oakland. Alan was bad and, while no one was looking, he plucked a cluster of flowers to take home and admire. The sun was shining, the path around the lake was flat, and, once again, I imagined living here all year round. (I think it's currently 12 degrees in Chicago with another threat of snow.)

Last week, we drove from Berkeley to Muir Woods National Monument in Marin County, not far north of San Francisco. Here stand groves of Redwood trees, proud and untouched for an average 5o0 to 800 years. It cranks your neck to stand at the base of one of these magnificent trees and scan all the way skyward. As might be imagined, the trees create their own climate; the forest is generally damp, if not rainy, and several degrees cooler than just beyond the giant Redwoods. We donned our Lands End jackets with rain coats on top and made our way into the sacred realm of the forest.

Because of all the rain, ferns were sprouting from branches where they normally don't grow, and green, fuzzy moss covered lower branches and twigs. It was a scene out of "Harry Potter" or "Alice in Wonderland" --- special, peaceful, overwhelming. To imagine 2 million acres of old growth Redwoods forests before loggers came to California and cut most of the trees down makes the acres that remain even more precious. Thankfully, the area has been federally-owned and protected since 1908, so nothing other than an act of Nature can tamper with it.

We ate a late lunch at the organic, local-farm-run cafeteria and then wound our way down the valley toward the San Rafael Bridge, in my mind the most exquisite of three East Bay bridges. As if on cue, the sun burst from behind the remaining clouds, a half rainbow arched above us, and we were screaming with delight. The San Francisco Bay to our right, the red Golden Gate Bridge in the distance - - we had died and gone to heaven.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Visit with an Old Friend

She stood just inside the doorway, her right hand suspended in mid-air, her fingers crooked, frozen in space. Her hair was cropped short with tufts of gray at the temples. Her blue eyes looked at me and through me. "She can't see good," her caretaker said. Probably just as well. She couldn't see the distress I was trying so hard to hide.

Joan was diagnosed with Alzheimer's four years ago at age 59. The ravages of the disease forced her to give up her therapy practice. Her partner of many years couldn't accept the diagnosis and its responsibilities and eventually left. She hasn't called or visited since. Thankfully, Joan doesn't remember what must have been a crushing loss. "She's smart," Joan said, talking about her former partner. "She works with people when they're dying. I . . . I can't remember what that's called."

"Hospice," I said.

Joan smiled. "That's right. What did you call it?"


I showed Joan a photo of the two of us taken in 1973. She sat behind me with her arms wrapped around my shoulders. The two of us with our long straight hair parted down the middle and flowers sticking out to one side looked like an ad for the "Summer of Love" in San Francisco. Those were good times.

I'm no stranger to the heartbreak of Alzheimer's. My husband's aunt was diagnosed in her early 70s. My mother showed signs in her late 80s. But this is the first time that someone close in age has been felled by this insidious disease. To see a vibrant, smart, dear woman now tethered to a caretaker for her every need devastated me. Maybe if I'd witnessed the progression of Joan's downfall, the impact would not have been so heartbreaking. But I came in during the final act.

I think Joan was happy that I came to visit. She didn't remember me when I arrived, and I'm not sure she understood our connection when I left. Our ties go way back: Her mother had been my Sunday school Hebrew teacher when I was in elementary school. Mrs. Gilbert was the only reason I was willing to schlep off to school on a Sunday.

"She was . . . a won-der-ful woman," Joan said with a stutter. Apparently, Joan's loss of memory erased all the negative feelings she once held toward her mother. For that, I was grateful.

Without warning, Joan put her hand on her stomach, crunched her face in apparent pain, and began talking very quickly. "I can't . . . I can't. Too much information. This is too hard." I reached for her hand, stroked it gently, and encouraged her to breathe. That seemed to do the trick. Within a matter of 30 seconds or so, the panic abated. Relieved but feeling guilty for possibly setting off her confusion, I decided it was time to leave. I promised that I'd visit again.

As I was putting my coat on, Joan said to her caretaker, "She knew my mother. I like that."