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.