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."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

My Little GPS

Okay, so I know I'm years behind the curve. Hell, I still have boxes and boxes of LP albums, drawers full of cassette tapes, and, no, I don't own an IPod. So, how cool am I that I just paid my $10 monthly fee to activate my Blackberry Storm VZ Navigator!

I haven't a clue how any of us navigated our way around unknown territory before the invention of the GPS. I know all about maps and AAA TripTiks, but the latter are only good when you know in advance exactly where you want to go. There is no room for serendipity; no, it's a matter of getting from a predetermined Point A to Point B. That may be fine when traveling from, say, the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley to the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco. But what if you need groceries for dinner and have no idea where the nearest supermarket is? What if the parking meters have eaten all your pocket change (a common event in the East Bay), and you're in desperate need of a bank where you can purchase rolls of quarters? The possibilities are endless but, without a GPS, you're plumb out of luck. Oh, you could roll down your window and ask a stranger or wait patiently by the side of the road until a friendly cab driver drives by. That's how it used to be done. But that was then, and this is now.

I'll be candid: I wasn't convinced some satellite circling a zillion miles out in space would give a rat's ass about little old me and my travels. So it was with a muttered "I hope this works" that I plugged in the address of my first destination, pressed Navigate, and waited for directions. Magically, Ms. Navigator (who today has been christened Ernestine and, yes, the "Laugh In" connection is intended) took it from there, telling me when to turn, when to go straight, how many miles before my destination. I had my own personal MapQuest. And when I made a wrong turn, she didn't scold me like some people I know but calmly said that she was recalculating directions. No need to panic; she had my back. Hell, she even let me know that there was traffic congestion up ahead and kindly offered to reroute me.

Ernestine's robot-like delivery can be a bit annoying, so I'll find out how to make her voice more soothing to match the confidence she gives me every time I turn on the car's ignition. "One ringy dingy, two ringy, dingys" and off I go!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Trips That Begin Badly Are Bound To End Well"

My cousin's dear mother always said that trips "that begin badly are bound to end well." I've taken those words to heart as I stare out the floor-to-ceiling window in our California retreat and watch Mother Nature wreak havoc on the California coast. It has been raining off and on for three days now and, if we are to believe the weather forecasters, we have another two days to go. All plans for long hikes have been delayed. Thoughts of sitting on the sunny deck overlooking the San Francisco Bay seem like a Midwestern gal's dream. A ferry trip from Oakland's Jack London Square to San Francisco have been held in abeyance. A field trip of sorts to look at homes for sale may have to wait until the start of the spring market.

But all is not lost. I've finished one book and have begun another. In between the rain - and it does stop for hours at a time, usually in early afternoon - we've scoured the stores up and down College Avenue and the more chic establishments on Berkeley's 4th Street. We've taken advantage of our free guest status and worked out at the Oakland YMCA two times now. I even took a yoga class there yesterday before jumping on an elliptical machine for 20 minutes in my attempt to do something aerobically every day. We've eaten at some good restaurants and visited the Berkeley Museum of Art. And we have frequented the local Whole Foods, Safeway, and specialty food stores and delis that flourish here.

We watch the clouds, fog, and rain roll in and out as if they are in a huge hurry, late for something terribly important. Mother Nature is on display with her palette of colors, moods, and designs. Who needs museums or art galleries? The houses on the surrounding hills disappear and then magically reappear. One minute the Golden Gate Bridge is there; the next, it has been erased as quickly as memories of childbirth. I came here for warmth and sun but am beginning to appreciate the underside of this El Nino that is bringing much-needed rain to these parts. The rain and the snow in the upper altitudes that will eventually melt will help replenish the drought-stricken land and the all-too-shallow reservoirs. I don't know if this marks the end of California's three-year drought - probably not - but it will make a significant dent.

I'm aware of the stunning defeat of the Democratic candidate for Senate in the liberal state of Massachusetts. But I've chosen to implement a news blackout for now. I'm unwilling to let politics rob me of what I know will be a trip that ends well.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


A 64 year-old woman can't stop moving; otherwise, the consequences are dire. This was only too obvious yesterday when my husband and I took our first hike in Berkeley's Tilden Park. Now I knew I was out of shape. For a variety of reasons too typical to mention, I'd stopped any semblance of regular exercise for almost a year. Sure, I went to yoga two times a week, but yoga ain't aerobic no matter how many head stands one does. (And, no, I don't do headstands.) My feeble attempts at getting back to dance class petered out when I got sick in the fall. By the time I was feeling better, my excuse was that I'd have plenty of time to pick up the ball once I got to California. (The same excuse, by the way, that I used when I didn't lose the extra 6 or 7 pounds I'd gained after my parents died and I went back to work full time. As soon as you get to California, you'll be able to control your own kitchen and won't be tempted by the constant flow of office goodies and restaurant lunches. Easier said than done.)

Well, the buck stops here. Having to stop several times during yesterday's hike was pathetic. (And who in the hell designed the hike so that the return would be all uphill?) Standing outside of myself, looking at me slumping with hands on hips, practically hyperventilating, made me feel like one of the contestants on "The Biggest Loser." I pictured all those overweight men and women huffing and puffing, sweating gallons, moaning and groaning. Stuck in my mind's eye was the image of one of last season's contestants collapsed on the beach after a mile walk and then being carted off in a medical helicopter.
"I have to stop," I yelled to my husband who was ahead of me, practically out of view.
"Keep walking," he said with not a bit of empathy. I hated him. Couldn't he see that I was struggling?
"I'm really out of shape," I managed to spit out.
"Do you want me to wait for you?" he said.
"Yes," I said, feeling like a scared, little girl.
I fought the overriding urge to collapse on the grass. Instead, I focused on my breath, doing my best to inhale slowly, then exhale to the same count. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale.
Frustrated but not down for the count, I started walking uphill once again.
"You were a bit harsh," I said to my husband. "I told you I was really out of shape."
"I'm going to be your coach . . . just like on the 'Biggest Loser.'"
Some switch. For years Alan had begged me to stretch him, to show him how to do various exercises. And now he was going to be my coach? No thanks.
"You know you watch that show just to make yourself feel better," he said.
I wanted to kill him. "I watch that show on occasion because I'm amazed at what they can accomplish."
"It's the worst kind of reality show," he said. "Looking at terribly obese people in their bicycle shorts and halter tops. Disgusting."
I was too tired to argue. I needed to finish the hike and sit down. But I wouldn't let this one slide.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

California, Here We Come

Hard to believe that after months of scouring the Internet for the perfect vacation pad, days spent dreaming up all the things we can do, hours engaged in training our two Maine Coon cats to go into their new cat carriers (Not an easy task!), we are less than a day away from blowing the winter tundra and flying off to California. Am I a tad stressed? You bet I am! Try figuring out what to pack for two months. After all, I'm a gal who likes to look good and, while I'm taking plenty of funky Berkeley attire, I do want to dress for the ballet or a dinner at Chez Panisse.

And what's a trip without hormones, a netty pot, gobs of stuff for my hair, and vitamins up the wazoo? Open one of my suitcases and you'll find a virtual drug store . . . oh, and enough shoes to fill a shelf in any self-respecting shoe store. I know, the less the better. And as my husband keeps reminding me, we do have a washer and dryer at our behest. But never mind! Whether it's hiking in the Redwoods, touring the wine country, visiting the museums of San Francisco, or hanging out on our deck toward sunset, I'm going to look and feel G-O-O-D.

Traveling with two cats for the first time could go off without a hitch or could be as grueling as traveling with two two-year-olds who hate flying, get nasty earaches, and cry their lungs out for hours on end. I'm most concerned about Zuni, our almost 7-year-old. He's a talker - not the standard meow but more like "Hello." Hello, hello, hello, hello . . . over and over again until the closed door is opened, the petting meets his fancy, or the morning treats have been doled out. So, we're keeping our fingers crossed that the "absolutely safe" tranquilizers will knock both him and Augie out and that the movement of the airplane will lull them into an even deeper sleep.

We'll be "storing" the cats under the seats in front of us. Southwest Airlines' rules are matter of fact: Cats must stay put during the entire trip. Their bodies must be entirely closed. No heads or tails sticking out at any time during the flight. If they get sick, there will be no medical assistance. If they need, oxygen, tough. And for this, we get to pay $75 per cat each way.

Minor roadblocks aside, I'm chomping at the bit to take this adventure. California, here we come!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

"Only The Good Die Young"

Doug always said he was going to die young. I used to snicker and tell him he was crazy. But he knew something that I did not: Doug, my first true love, passed away from complications of a massive stroke in his mid-50s. Fred, a post-college friend who was divored and living alone, died after suffering a heart attack. A co-worker found him several days later. Dear, sweet Sue lived a bit longer; she succumbed to pancreatic cancer not long after her 68th birthday. The suicide of my brother at age 30 remains the most painful loss of all.

I'm beginning to think Billy Joel was on to something when he penned the lyrics to "Only The Good Die Young." I can rattle off a list of not-so-good folks - yes, Dick Cheney, I'm thinking of you! - who despite all kinds of health issues carry on with a vengeance like that damn Energizer bunny. Cheney has had, count them, 4 heart attacks, coronary bypass surgery, coronary angioplasty, a defibrillator, and more, yet the sucker spits his poisonous venom daily.

And, you, Mr. Lieberman, who as an "independent" openly campaigned for John McCain, flip flopped on health care like a dizzy salmon caught in an illegal fisherman's net ("Let's Make A Deal," anyone?), and is now tromping around the globe with McCain, pontificating about the urgency of our military to up the ante in multiple world hot spots . . . you are another one whose life I would trade in a New York minute.

I'm trying my best to understand this apparent karmic conundrum: The good die young, and the bad guys (and gals) keep on keeping on. Am I to cling to the belief that we all go around more than once and that these sickos will get their just reward? If not in this lifetime then in the next or the next? And will I be anywhere in the vicinity to witness the prosecution? Or is that asking too much and tagging me as vengeful and unforgiving.

Perhaps I should have stayed on at Loyola Press and worked on the revision of the series Finding God.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Dawn of a New Decade

Where did the last 10 years go? A matter of blinks ago, we were facing a new millennium with trepidation, afraid that everything electronic would go batty on us. Remember? If I recall correctly, all the hand wringing was for naught; we all managed to fire up our computers and cell phones and continue along our merry way. We carried on without a hitch until 9/11 when our collective optimism was shot to hell; we haven't been the same since (except, perhaps, on January 20, 2009, when President Barack Obama was sworn in as President of the United States.)

What now? A foiled attempt to blow up an airplane about to land in Detroit. Finger pointing to put the blame somewhere with a faulty mindset that we can stop every single terrorist plot. A health care bill that faces tough days ahead as senators and representatives haggle to settle their differences. A limping economy that, while showing some signs of life, has not yet raised the hopes of the millions who are out of work. Climate change that threatens our very existence. Blah, blah, blah . . . .

I, for one, so wanted to start the new year off on the right foot; instead, I've got this queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach that we haven't yet reached bottom. And now, just moments after the euphoria of last year's election, we have to be bombarded by talk of the resurgence of the Republican party. Gee, I was just beginning to breathe a sigh of relief after 8 years of that monster George Bush. Can't a girl get a break?

My answer: Run away and hide. Yep, I'm taking a news break, suspending my avid focus on what's going on in the world. And I'm running from what is already a harsh winter by jaunting off to California. Call me a coward, a wimp, a fair-weather friend. "Sticks and stones can hurt my bones, my names can never hurt me." I'm looking out for numero uno . . . and my cats. (My husband is on his own. He brings his own set of issues to the table that only he can tackle.)

Before I have to think about income taxes and what I'm going to do professionally and the 2010 mid-term elections, I'm going to have myself a damn good time. I'm going to walk and hike, commune with Mother Nature, take yoga and dance classes, wander through mueums and art galleries, spend time with old friends, partake of anything interesting the University of California Berkeley has to offer, be wowed by glorious sunsets, roam the ocean beaches, taste the wines of Napa and Sonoma, revisit the enzyme bath in northern California, and do anything else I can to relax, stoke my spirit, rejuvenate my body, and forget about the big mess called planet Earth.