Losing a magical lagoon

February 11, 2014

Three years ago we joined my brother’s and sister’s families for a weeklong vacation in Puerto Rico. We rented a house near the beach together and did all the usual touristy stuff – a day in Old San Juan, a hike in the El Yunque rain forest, a boat trip to a snorkeling reef.

The outing I remember most vividly was a nighttime kayak trip into the bioluminescent Grand Lagoon in Fajardo, on the northest corner of the island.

Photos of Pure Adventure, Fajardo

The bioluminescent bay at sunset / Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor

Here’s what bioluminescence is, scientifically:

Millions of tiny, invisible single-celled organisms that light up as a self-defense mechanism when disturbed.

Here’s what it is, experientially:

Magic.

You paddle at dusk through a narrow, mangrove-lined channel into the open lagoon. Night falls. Sweeping your paddle through the black water, you create a Milky Way of light. The wake behind your paddle glows, it swirls as you swirl, then it dims as you move on.

You run your hand in the water and create more trails of light. A million little lights switching on, shining against the dark, at just a touch.  It’s like being God at the Creation. It’s like being Harry Potter – no, it’s better than Harry Potter, because you don’t even need a wand.

biobay

Bioluminescence as a foot touches the water in Fajardo

Waving hands through the water produces light -- b8t these photos don't do it justice / Photo by Thomas Wiewandt, wild horizons.com

Waving hands through the water produces light — b8t these photos don’t do it justice / Photo by Thomas Wiewandt, wild horizons.com

Then I learned last week on NPR’s Science Friday that the Fajardo lagoon had gone dark.

This happened back in November. Suddenly there was no more bioluminescence.

No one was able to identify the specific reason. It could have been any one of a number of things – toxic runoff from construction of a nearby wastewater treatment plant, removal of too many mangroves around the bay, changes in temperature or wave action or ????

This made me deeply sad. We are living at a time when large numbers of creatures are on the edge of extinction, due to loss of habitat and climate change. Many of these threatened creatures are bigger and better known than the invisible Fajardo micro-organisms – leopards, polar bears, Monarch butterflies, coral reefs. But these in the Fajardo lagoon were ones that I’d personally experienced.

It’s one thing to know that polar bears – which I’ve only ever seen behind the walls of zoos — may go extinct.

It’s another to lose something that I have seen in its wild home. That I have actually touched. And that is so stunningly magical.

What kind of legacy are we leaving for future generations? Is my generation going to be the dividing line – will history say that in our time, there were snow leopards and Monarch butterflies and bioluminescent bays, but forever after they were limited to  pictures in natural history books?

Will my daughter tell her children, “When I was ten, I snorkeled in a coral reef – back when there were coral reefs?”

I circled around and around in this depressing line of thinking all weekend. Then today I did a little Googling, and it turns out the story of the Fajardo bay may not be as dismal as I thought:  The biophosphorescent lights went dark just temporarily in November. They are apparently back now, at least somewhat.

So I breathed a sigh of relief.

But how relieved should I be?

Just this month, another bio-bay on the nearby island of Vieques went dark, according to Science Friday.

And we are only beginning to see the effects of climate change on our world…. the subtle changes in water temperature, rainfall, or length of a season that can mean the difference between survival and extinction for a species.

The Fajardo biobay is back for now. But for how long?

And what other magical parts of our natural world are we going to lose because our “leaders,” in thrall to the petrochemical industry, continue to quibble and deny?

WTS Birding Trip – Postponed

February 8, 2014

If you were planning to come on the Women of Temple Sinai beginning birdwatching outing on Sunday Feb. 8th, it has been cancelled since the latest forecast is for 100% chance of rain.

We are rescheduling for Sunday February 23 (two weeks from now), 9:30 to 11:30 am. Hope you can make it!

I’d say I’m sorry for the cancellation… but we need the rain so badly that it’s hard to be sorry! :-)

Meanwhile, if you’re one of my blog readers and have no idea what I’m talking about… this was a bird walk I was co-leading for our temple. I hope to have a “real” post for you soon!

Anna's Hummingbird / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Anna’s Hummingbird / Photo by Ilana DeBare

 

Ilana’s Little List of Superfluous Words

November 11, 2013

Hallelujah! I’m almost at the end of my latest round of novel revisions.

And once I’m done with the substantive revisions, I’m going to try something new — a Microsoft Word “search” for superfluous words.

Noodling  around in the manuscript, I’ve noticed that there are certain words that add little or no value. Sometimes they are “hedge” words that undercut what I’m saying. Other times they state the obvious. Or they are just a flabby cliche.

cliche-t

I don’t notice these words when I’m writing a first draft; they roll easily off my pen. They seem so natural that I don’t notice them on reading the completed manuscript, either. Thus the computer search.

Prime example: suddenly. 

I use a lot of suddenlys!  My characters look up suddenly. They put down their forks suddenly. They hurl chairs suddenly.

(Have you ever seen a chair hurled in a non-sudden manner? Now that would be an adverb worth using: “He hurled the chair gradually.”)

So I’m starting a list of superfluous words that should be weeded out. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  • suddenly
  • somewhat, some
  • sort of, kind of
  • little
  • simply
  • just

Here are a few examples from different sections of my manuscript:

“What does Marta have to do with this?” her mother asked with some bewilderment.

There were more stars in just one small corner of the sky than you could see over all of Manhattan.

I felt suddenly uneasy. 

I jerked my head around, suddenly paranoid, and shoved the boa back inside the bag.  (Well, maybe I should keep that one. I’ll think about it.)

Talking with my lawyer friend Beth yesterday, she described routinely excising certain words when editing her colleagues’ briefs. In her case, they are legal jargon like heretofore.

I suspect every genre of writing – every profession – needs its own unique blacklist of superfluous words. Every writer should probably have her or his personal list too: The flabby words that slip into my draft may be different from the ones that slip into yours.

How about you? Any words that routinely roll off your pen that should be rolled off to the landfill?

Underground France

September 29, 2013

We just returned from a two-week vacation in France where you could say the theme turned out to be “underground France.”

Not as in underground cinema, or underground resistance, or anything so metaphorical.

Literally underground.

We started in Paris where we took a self-guided tour of the city’s sewer system. You know how in Les Miserables, Jean Valjean carries wounded Marius through the sewers of Paris? That’s where we were. Below the sidewalks but above the Metro, walking through  some of the vaulted tunnels that stretch for 2,100 kilometers under the city. Yes, we watched the dark water coursing along a few feet below our walkway. Yes, it smelled like sewage.

Paris is the only city in the world that designed sewers large enough for people to walk through. The sewer network was a major 19th century technical feat, a reminder that the French have a history of superb engineering as well as superb wine, food and fashion.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Parisian elite took tours of the sewer system. You can still do that today at the Musee des Egouts de Paris.

An earlier era of sewer tourism

An earlier era of sewer tourism

Not content with sewers, we ventured deeper underground — 20 meters deep, about the height of a five-story building — to Paris’ catacombs.

These were originally 13th century quarries for limestone, the stone used in Notre Dame, the Louvre and countless other Paris buildings. In the late 1700s, as Paris’ population outpaced the ability of its cemeteries to hold the dead, the abandoned limestone tunnels were repurposed as a storehouse for skeletons — some 6 million of them. Blessed by priests and supervised by engineers, centuries worth of bodies were dug up and carted ceremoniously across town for storage in the catacombs.

A resourceful public works administrator in the early 1800s added snippets of morbid Romantic poetry about the transience of life. And yes, it became another tourist attraction — there was even one midnight concert held in the tunnels in the late 1800s. You can find out about touring the catacombs here.

Paris catacombs/ Photo by Ilana DeBare

Paris catacombs/ Photo by Ilana DeBare

Paris catacombs with sign, "Stop! Here is the empire of death." / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Paris catacombs with sign, “Stop! Here is the empire of death.” / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Paris catacombs / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Paris catacombs / Photo by Ilana DeBare

We weren’t doing all this underground touring on purpose. It just turned out that way. We did spend time in the fresh air, like strolling along the Promenade Plantee – an old railroad aqueduct turned into an elevated tree-lined walkway between Place de la Bastille and the Gare de Lyon, a Parisian precursor to New York’s High Line park.

But that night we somehow ended up underground again, at a jazz club located in a 12th century dungeon.

Listening to jazz in a dungeon / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Listening to jazz in an underground 12th century dungeon / Photo by Ilana DeBare

And when we left Paris for the second half of our trip — a bike tour through the Dordogne and Bordeaux countryside — one of the highlights was a visit to the prehistoric art within the Dordogne’s limestone caves. Back down into the dark and cold, but this time even further into the past — 15,000 years back.

We visited the Rouffignac cave, with over 250 engravings and drawings of  mammoths, bison, horses and other figures.

Entry to Rouffignac cave / Wikipedia

Entry to Rouffignac cave / Wikipedia

Rouffignac Cave

Rouffignac Cave

The French cave art was something I’d read about since I was a little girl. It was stunning and humbling to see it in person, one of my “bucket list” experiences. Archeologists don’t know what the drawings meant to the society that created them — were they part of a spiritual ritual? a social history? any theories are only speculative fiction — but there they were, just feet away from us, crisp and clear despite 15,000 years.

We biked from the cliffs of the Dordogne into the rolling vineyards around St. Emilion, and visited a winery where the bottles of wine are stored underground… in (you guessed it) limestone caves that were once quarries. In this particular winery, Chateau Beau-Sejour Becot, the caves also served as a hiding place for wealthy families during the French Revolution, who lived there for years and built a tiny chapel underground.

Entering the wine cave / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Entering the wine cave / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Wine in the cave / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Wine in the cave / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Chapel inside the wine cave / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Later we visited a quarry/cave inside the town of St. Emilion that has been made into an underground museum of pottery. They lent us shawls to wear during our visit since the temperature dropped some 20 degrees in the tunnels. And we visited St. Emilion’s famous Monolithic Church, a church painstakingly chipped and carved out of a single giant limestone cliff in the 12th century. This was not just a little chapel carved into the rock, but a serious, humongous cathedral-sized church.

Monolithic Church, carved into the rock / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Exterior of Monolithic Church, carved into the rock / Photo by Ilana DeBare

In nearly all of these sites — the 12th century church, the 15,000-year-old cave art galleries — we saw evidence of visitors there before us. There was graffiti carved or etched into the walls.

At first I was irritated: Why can’t these stupid teenagers limit their graffiti to subway cars and modern buildings?

And then I looked more closely at the graffiti. These were names and dates from the 1700s. 

Graffiti near entrance to St. Emilion's cave from 1767 / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Graffiti near entrance to St. Emilion’s cave from 1767 / Photo by Ilana DeBare

So what’s with all of this underground France? A couple of things, I guess. Many parts of France — in particular the areas around Paris and the Aquitaine, where we spent this vacation — are limestone plateaus that were formed eons ago when covered with shallow seas. Sea organisms died and decayed and were compressed into limestone. Limestone is a soft, porous rock, easily eroded into caves by water, easily carved into quarries by humans.

And then France — like the rest of Europe  – is an old civilization in comparison with the United States. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy traveling there — the ease of transporting yourself back into different eras.

People have been living continuously in France for tens of thousands of years. The 15,000-year-old cave drawings that we saw in Rouffignac are in fact among the most recent examples of neolithic art; others in the Dordogne region go back 30,000 years.

And in 30,000 years, there’s a lot that people can find to do with caves.

Seek shelter. Create art. Dig for building materials. Worship gods. Bury the dead. Hide from enemies. Store wine. Play jazz….

And tomorrow what?

If humans still exist 15,000 years from now, will our subways and sewers, our museums and music clubs, be as much of a mystery to them as the Rouffignac cave paintings are to us?

This is the "Mirror of Water" along the Bordeaux riverfront. Photo by Ilana DeBare

Now for some above-ground daylight! This is the “Mirror of Water” along the Bordeaux riverfront. Photo by Ilana DeBare

Biking the new Bay Bridge

September 9, 2013

It only took 24 years, but Caltrans finally completed and opened the new Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland to replace the one that partly collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

The new bridge includes a bike/pedestrian trail from Oakland to Treasure Island, a former military base that is about halfway to San Francisco. The trail doesn’t go all the way to Treasure Island yet — the old bridge is in the way — but by 2015 the connection to the island will be complete.

New bridge / Photo by Ilana DeBare

New bridge / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Me on the bridge / Photo by Sam Schuchat

Me on the bridge / Photo by Sam Schuchat

This weekend Sam and I rode our bikes down to the trail entrance in Emeryville and as far as you can bike on the bridge.

Us and about two zillion other people.

It was terrific!

We were among a cross-section of Bay Area humanity — middle-aged bike geeks on $5000 titanium frames and century-ride jerseys; little kids wobbling on their first two-wheeler; walkers, joggers and skaters; people of all ages, races and physical abilities. It was one of the warmest, sunniest days of the year and the views were beautiful.

The old bridge stood empty alongside the new one. It has been out of use for only about eleven days, but already it looks like a relic from another century —  some dark, rusting remnant from a time of railroad barons and steel factories. In comparison, the new bridge looks like a shiny white iPod.

Heading to the bridge,  I felt like a tourist in my own city in the best possible way —  on an adventure, knowing I would experience something new and intriguing.

Of course, the question now comes up more loudly than ever: How can Caltrans build only half a bike trail? Even in 2015 when the trail is complete, it will stop at Treasure Island — a nice place to picnic but not to do much else. Shouldn’t the trail go all the way into San Francisco?

There would be engineering challenges in adding a bike/walk path to the remaining span of the old bridge between Treasure Island and San Francisco. But surely there is a technical solution. I suspect that people will love this new partial trail enough that they’ll start pressuring Caltrans to build the other half.

It would be a wonderful day trip… a great way to commute… Caltrans, are you listening?

——————————–

Want to try the trail? You can find a map on the East Bay Bicycle Coalition web site. We entered the trail from Shellmound Street in Emeryville, across the street from Ikea. After biking as far on the bridge as we could go, we backtracked and exited the trail in the other direction, Maritime Street near the Port of Oakland. If you’d like to add to your excursion, it’s a quiet, flat ten-minute ride from the Maritime Street entrance to Middle Harbor Shoreline Park inside the Port of Oakland. (Take Maritime Street to 7th Street and turn right; follow signs for the park.) This is an undiscovered gem inside the industrial no-man’s-land of the port — green lawns, picnic tables, great views of SF, and often a lot of shorebirds. Take binoculars.

Change

August 12, 2013

We have Netflix and cable and pay-per-view and more remotes than I know what to do with, but for me, inside, there will always be three TV channels.

CBS, NBC and ABC. Since I grew up in New York City, that translates to channels 2, 4 and 7, which had all the good programs. Then there were 5 and 9, which showed black-and-white reruns, 11 which showed Yankee games, and 13, the educational station, which we never watched. (I was born just a couple of years too early for Sesame Street, and my parents were not Masterpiece Theatre types.)

No matter how many remotes we have, I will go to my grave feeling that “normal” is three TV stations. I suspect many other boomers feel the same way.

Which brings me to the topic of change.

We live at a time when change is, quite possibly, happening faster and more unrelentingly than ever before in human history. Big changes like industries evaporating and little changes like moving from the iPod 4 to the iPod 5.  I thought of this again yesterday when, reading the Sunday paper, I came across a photo of Marc Andreesen.

Andreesen was one of the inventors of Netscape. When I was covering tech in the 1990s, he was the just-minted wunderkind, the graduate student with a mess of floppy hair who represented everything new and cutting-edge.

And now he looks like this:

andreesen

Middle aged! (Like the rest of us.)

I have a hard time with change. I live near the geographic epicenter of technological change, and I try not to be a dinosaur, but I have a hard time with it. We are an innovative, tool-making, world-changing species but  there is also a big part of us that is designed not to expect change.

Think about how we learn to understand the world as babies – a stable, unchanging world. Would it be possible to learn about it any other way?

Parent: Ball. Say, ‘ball.’ Here. (Rolls ball to baby.) 

Baby: Baa. (Holds ball. Pushes ball back.) 

Parent: Yes, it’s a ball! Here’s the ball. (Rolls ball back to baby.)

What would happen if every time that ball came to baby, it had a different name? “No, not ball, gorphin! No, not gorphin, schminger!” What if every time baby pushed the ball, it did something else? First it rolled, but then it floated, and then it exploded? How would we learn to function in the world? How would our primitive ancestors have survived if everytime they plucked the same purple berry it was different – one time tasty, one time sour, one time poisonous?

Some of us – if we are lucky – have stable childhoods. That was my case. No divorces, war zones, plagues, bankruptcies, deaths. My family lived in the same apartment from the time I was two until I was grown; I went to just two schools; we celebrated holidays the same way each year. Even climbing the ladder of school, the continuities outweighed the changes – different teachers and subjects every September, but the same structure to the day, many of the same classmates, the same rules for what was prized or punished.

A lot of human history was pretty unchanging too. Millennia of nomadic societies. The middle ages. If you lived in medieval Europe, you probably spent your life entirely in one village. Your parents were shepherds, so you were a shepherd.  “Change” amounted to the rare arrival of a stranger in town; a new overlord demanding more tithes; a good harvest season or a bad harvest season.

In my life these days, the most unchanging thing may be my cat.  He changed a lot in the first six months of kittenhood, but now our life with him is completely unchanging. We feed and cuddle him; he finds funny places and positions to sleep; sometimes he brings us dead mice. That’s it. And that will be it, more or less, for the rest of his life. Technology is constantly changing, consumer products are changing, industries are dying and empires are dissolving, but the cat remains the same.

The requisite cat photo / By Ilana DeBare

The requisite cat photo / By Ilana DeBare

Parenthood is not like pet ownership.

Many of us go into parenthood thinking it will be stable. We think,  “Okay, my wild youth is over, now I’m settling down and having kids.” And sometimes — especially in those first few months with an infant, or during the 11th inning of a Little League game — it does seem as timeless and tedious as the Middle Ages.

But kids grow. As soon as you’ve reached equilibrium with one stage – “okay, I know how to handle a toddler” – they have moved on to an entirely different stage. You find yourself trying to take a ten-year-old to the zoo. Just six months ago they loved going to the zoo with you! And now they would rather be buried up to their necks in a hole with molasses and red army ants than look at elephants, or for that matter look at anything, with you.

This summer we’ve had Daughter home with us for three months after her freshman year of college. It’s been delightful. She is happy to be home, happy with her adult life, happy to be with us. She volunteered to cook dinner once a week. She even asks to play games with us in the evening!

And this won’t last. In two weeks, she goes back to school. We’ll have her home for winter break, but after that… summer study abroad. Internships and jobs in New York. It’s unclear when she will be at home for such an extended period again.

Those changes — kids growing up, adults growing old — aren’t unique to our era. But all the other modern changes added on top make things feel overwhelming sometimes.

How much of my desire for stability – my refusal, deep inside, to accept that there are more than three TV stations – is a quirk of my own upbringing? How much is hard-wired into us all as human beings?

And how much might be generational? Will generations like my daughter’s — raised with technology turning itself inside-out every year or two — have any less of a gut yearning for constancy?

Picture yourself on a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies –

Oops, not that kind of boat. Picture yourself on a boat, yes, but more like punting on the Cam, just floating lazily down a quiet summer river. You’ve got an old-fashioned Polaroid camera. You’re taking photos of the shoreline, trying to preserve the views you love the most.

But it takes time for you to click, and for the camera to whirr and process and slowly spit out an image.

By then you’re long past the scene in the photo.

It’s gone.

Throwing the book at Restoration Hardware

April 25, 2013

So we get a lot of junk mail. Fundraising letters, political letters, continuing solicitations to join the AARP beginning about five nanoseconds after I turned 50.

But this week we got junk mail to out-junk the worst of them — the Restoration Hardware catalogue.

“Catalogue” may not be exactly the best word for it. Doorstop? Deadweight? Anchor for a cruise ship?

IMG_1008

The thing sat on our front stoop like a granite paving stone — 710 pages in the main catalogue, plus three smaller RH catalogues caught in its gravity like moons of Jupiter.

It’s thicker than the Oakland city phone book, which is only 333 pages. It’s even thicker than the June issues of Bride magazine, which until now I had naively assumed was the largest periodical publication known to mankind.

I weighed it on our bathroom scale and it clocks in at 5.5 pounds. That’s almost as much as Daughter weighed when she was born.

Think about how much paper went into our one catalogue, and then multiply that by the number of copies they must mail out — hundreds of thousands of copies, maybe millions, each one wrapped in a plastic bag.

How many trees died for this?  How much of that plastic will end up in the ocean killing fish?

And this is the age of the Internet! When people shop online!

Somehow RH figures that dropping this waste bomb on my doorstep will motivate me to drop money on things like a”reproduction of a 100-year-old Hungarian sleigh, crafted of solid elm with a tea-stained burlap cushion.” Or a “linen-bordered 650-gram Turkish towel.” Or a “1920s Odeon glass fringe chandelier.”

It actually has the opposite effect.

I’m so appalled at the waste and excess that I am vowing never again to set foot in a Restoration Hardware store.

There’s a letter at the start of the catalogue from the chairman and “curator” of the company, who says they have revised their vision statement. Their vision now is “to create an endless reflection of hope, inspiration and love that will ignite the human spirit and change the world.”

Okay, he’s ignited my spirit, I’ll grant him that.

But change the world? Maybe he means through deforestation?

So matzah matter with you?

March 27, 2013

Passover eve – can’t wait for matzah

Passover Day 1 – love that matzah

Passover Day 2 – like that matzah

Passover Day 3 – I am becoming a matzah

Passover Day 4 – do all the carpets in my house have dandruff?

Passover Day 5 – discover one thing worse than matzah, which is whole wheat matzah

Passover Day 6 – writing indie movie called Triscuit Dreams

Passover Day 7 – revelation while in hallucinogenic, yeast-deprived state that Pharoah actually invented matzah as ultimate revenge on the Israelites

Passover Day 8 – I think Passover is over in Israel already, can I have a turkey sandwich now?

Day after Passover – throw out multiple unopened boxes of matzah bought in bulk to save money

Week after Passover – mmm, you know what would taste good right now…

The world as a dinner party

March 26, 2013

We don’t throw formal dinner parties. It’s both generational and demographic; my husband and I came of age in the era of Laurel’s Kitchen potluck dinners filled with dreadful lentil-nut loaves.

We’ve moved beyond lentil-nut loaves, but we still tend to entertain in a casual way. Good wine, but no crystal glasses. Delicious food, but stainless-steel flatware rather than the sterling silverware that my mother had.

There’s one occasion a year that’s different, our Seder. White tablecloths, flowers on the table, and the silver wine goblets and serving platters that I inherited from my mother’s family. I always scramble to polish them at the last minute, since they haven’t been used since the previous Seder and have accumulated tarnish.

Our seder table / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Our seder table / Photo by Ilana DeBare

We also make place cards for the guests. That was always Daughter’s job before she went to college, writing elaborate versions of their names with colored markers. My part of it was figuring out where to place the guests.

So Monday afternoon, I took a little break from the Passover cooking and table-setting to sit down with the list of 22 guests and figure out who was to sit where.

It’s a job that takes  consideration. You want to keep parents and children next to each other, but you also want the kids to be near another kid of their age. The strong singers shouldn’t be bunched up at one end of the table. The guests who don’t know anybody shouldn’t be stranded in Siberia at the far end of the room.

Mostly, I try to place people next to each other who will connect in some interesting way — the bass player and the soccer coach? the two Kaiser doctors? the 20-something surfer and the 50-something Qi Gong practitioner?

Getting ready for our Seder sometimes makes me feel like a Virginia Woolf character — Clarissa Dalloway or Mrs. Ramsay, preparing a social gathering with small deliberate steps that no one really notices, but that create order out of chaos.

Then yesterday I thought of myself as God.

Suppose the world is a large-scale version of a dinner party, and God makes the seating plan. God sits there with the guest list and table chart and thinks about whom we should meet on any given day.

Now, those of you who have read this blog for a while know that I don’t believe in God. Not a God who favors one sports team or army over another, or cures individuals of cancer, or decides who we will meet as we blunder along in the world.

So I’m talking hypothetically here.

But just imagine that some God has made a dinner-party-style seating chart for your life — has sat there, putting careful thought into why you should encounter certain people. The co-worker in the cubicle next to yours. The Starbucks barista who makes your morning coffee. The homeless guy who begs for money at the freeway off-ramp. 

Imagine that there is some reason you are meant to encounter these people — something you have in common, something you might enjoy together, or something you might learn from each other. There is a connection, a reason to get to know them, even if you don’t have a clue what it is.

And then relate to them like that.

Forget the God part. You can believe in God or not. The God bit is optional.

Just relate to them like that.

Searching for chametz

March 16, 2013

This is the time of the year, right before Passover, when observant Jews go through their kitchens and get rid of any foods with even a trace of chametz, or leavening.

We don’t do that. We keep kosher for Passover to the degree of not eating foods with leavening during the holiday, but we don’t go through the search-and-destroy mission. We just let those boxes of pasta and bags of flour rest quietly in the cupboard, backstage for a week.

This afternoon, though, I felt compelled to clean out our pantry.

It had reached the point of irritation: Whenever I looked for something, I had to pull four other boxes out of the way to see if it was even there. And I figured, now that we are empty nesters, there are probably a number of teenage foods that we really don’t need to stockpile any longer.

It was a little surprising.

I pulled everything out and found eleven — eleven! — cans of Trader Joe artichokes. Five cans of Amy’s Organic Lentil Soup that expired in 2011. Two jars of Ragu tomato sauce that expired in 2009. Four cans of “lite” and regular coconut milk  – although I have never in my life cooked anything with coconut milk. And so on.

IMG_0782

I think there are a few things going on here:

  • Groundhog Day in the Pantry. Your shelves are so crowded and jumbled that you don’t know what you have. So at the store, you see the cans of artichoke hearts and you think, “Hmm, I bet we need some artichoke hearts.” Then you add them to the jumble and don’t see them. So next week, you’re at the store and you see the cans of artichoke hearts and you think, “Hmmm, I bet we need some artichoke hearts….”
  • The Cupboard of Good Intentions. The person I aspire to be when I am in Trader Joe’s is different from the person I actually am. In Trader Joe’s, I imagine myself as someone who makes dinners with coconut milk. Or corn-and-pepper relish. Or Mojo Cilantro Sauce. Or bean threads and pad thai and star anise. While in reality, when it’s 6 pm and I’m tired and hungry and want to get dinner on the table, I just hurl vegetables into a wok and dump on some soy sauce.
  • Laziness.
  • Inertia.
  • Time. Or — like a Jackson Browne line that is in my head a lot — “be aware of the time going by, in the end it’s a wink of an eye.”

Here is the strangest thing I found in the cupboard:

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The expiration date was 2008…. but gosh, no one had been eating strained apricots in this house since maybe 1995.

I happily got rid of a bunch of packs of revolting teen-beloved ramen. I got rid of all the expired organic lentil soup. I kept one can of lite coconut milk since, well, you never know. Change happens.

It’s shameful to look at our trash can, now filled with cans of uneaten food. But the food banks don’t want expired items. And I’m leery of eating stuff that expired two years ago.

Now what’s left is the dreaded Water Bottle Shelf. If  you go to enough charity fundraisers or bike marathons, you tend to accumulate water bottles.

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But if wasted food is terrible, wasted plastic is probably just as bad. Maybe worse. Who knows, it may take even more natural resources to make a plastic water bottle than a can of organic lentils.

Perhaps the water bottles are my version of chametz — something that is not kosher, not in keeping with what God wants.

We shouldn’t just get rid of this batch of bottles; we should also stop accumulating more.


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