Why do we take vacation photos?

July 19, 2014

For twenty years I was the family vacation photographer. I bought the cameras, I packed the cameras in my luggage, I was the one who thought to stop in the middle of a museum or a park and say, “Hold on a sec! Let me get a photo!”

Then my husband Sam got an iPhone. He realized how easy it was to snap a photo and upload it to Facebook.

So now we both take photos. We returned last week from a vacation in Central Europe during which we often ended up taking photos of the exact same things.

We’d be standing in Budapest looking across the Danube to the old castle on the Buda side of the river. Sam would take a picture of the castle with his iPhone. Two feet away, I’d take a picture of the castle with my point-and-shoot.

And the kicker is: There were already about two zillion photos of that same castle, taken from the same angle, on the web.

Sam's photo of the Danube and castle

Sam’s photo of the Danube and castle

My photo of the Danube and castle

My photo of the Danube and castle

So why do we take those photos? Why capture an image that has already been captured countless times, often with higher resolution or better quality?

The simple answer is that we want mementos of our trip. We want to remember where we’ve been. But that desire could be satisfied by just one person taking photos, or even by buying old-fashioned picture postcards.

Another answer is that we love our gadgets. We feel compelled to use them constantly. But that doesn’t fully nail it either.

There are also less charitable possibilities. We are sheep: We take photos on vacation because we believe we are supposed to take photos on vacation. Or we are status-grubbers: We photograph ourselves in front of the Eiffel Tower or the Roman Colosseum or the Budapest castle  to show our neighbors and our Facebook friends how worldly and fantastically happy we are.

Blech. That may be true for some people, but I think it is still more complicated.

For me at least, taking vacation photos is an attempt to engage with the things I’m seeing. As tourists visiting places briefly, we are typically spectators. We are outsiders watching a world that other people have shaped and are living in. But we want more than that.

So we engage with the places we’re visiting by eating the food, meeting the people, or… taking photos.

Sam's photo of men playing chess in the Szechenyi thermal baths in Budapest

Sam’s photo of men playing chess in the Szechenyi thermal baths in Budapest

IMG_0674

My photo of men playing chess in the Szechenyi thermal baths in Budapest

Sam's photo of a communist-era status in Memento Park in Budapest

Sam’s photo of a communist-era statuse in Memento Park in Budapest

My photo (well, taken by a passerby with my camera) of the Memento Park status

My photo (well, taken by a passerby with my camera) of the Memento Park statue

Choices: I can stand by  the Danube, look briefly at the castle, and then walk on to the next site specified in my guidebook. Or I can pull out my camera and engage. Frame the picture. How much river, how much sky? Focus on the dome or the facade? Which part seems most interesting? It’s bringing a little bit of artistic judgment and creativity to bear. It gives me a sense of ownership and personal connection to a place. That’s not the same level of engagement as getting to know local residents, but it’s something.

“Taking photos forces you to look at what you’re seeing,” someone told me the other night.

ON THE OTHER HAND…

Taking photos can also be a substitute for truly looking at what we’re seeing.

Scenic vista point! Get out the camera. Frame the shot. Move on. 

I fall victim to this, no question about it. I don’t try to commit a scene to memory because I assume it will be preserved by my camera. Instead of paying attention to the details of this interesting place – the color of light on the roofs, a boat’s wake on the river, the funny zigzag path taken by a small child running near the water — I think about framing the photo. Once I’ve pressed the shutter, I feel like I’m done.

Now let’s ramp up this scenario to the Nth degree – Auschwitz.

Our recent trip included a tour of the Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps, where over 1 million Jews were killed by the Nazis. I’ll write more about that in my next blog post. But what’s relevant here is that I took photos.

I took photos of the room filled with hair shorn from thousands of Jewish women en route to the gas chamber for use in German wigs. I took photos of the room filled with shoes from dead children. I took photos of the bombed ruins of the crematoria, of the gathering spot where people were unloaded from boxcars and directed to either barracks or gas chambers. Our guide described each section of the camp, and we looked, mostly silent, and took photos, and moved on.

In retrospect, I wish I had spent more time looking, thinking, and imagining. I would have liked to stay in the unloading spot for maybe an hour, to sit cross-legged on the summer grass and just think about what had happened there. Maybe try to sketch it or describe it in writing. But definitely do something slower and more mindful than pressing a shutter.

I find myself increasingly dissatisfied with photos as a way to engage with important places – places of particular historical meaning or natural beauty. I’m not a visual artist, but sketching or painting a scene seems to require so much more attention and involvement. Writing a description also forces you to engage more deeply and attentively.

I wonder what it would be like to take a sketch pad or pocket journal on our next trip instead of a camera. When we come to a point of particular interest, I could sit there for a half hour drawing or writing.

Of course that would slow things down – it’s harder to hit six different churches, museums and monuments in one afternoon if you keep stopping for long blocks of time!

But maybe it is useful to start thinking of “slow travel,” like we now think of “slow food.”

And tapping into ways of engagement that are deeper than snapping photos.

A shaggy owl story

May 16, 2014

Why do we (well, some of us) feel compelled to air our most embarrassing moments on the public square of the Internet?

It was dusk on a Friday evening, and my husband and I were winding our way down Panoramic Highway towards Stinson Beach. The western sky was still light, but the woods along the road were in shadow. Fidgeting in the passenger seat and trying not to feel carsick, I suddenly saw two faces flash past in a tree – round faces, big forward-facing eyes, one large dark face and one smaller light face.

If I were an eight-year-old boy in my Star Wars phase, I would have thought: Ewoks. 

But I’m a 50-something-year-old woman who works for Golden Gate Audubon, so I thought: Owls. 

Maybe it was because it was that owlish time of day. Or maybe I was subconsciously thinking of a great photo I’d seen that day by Glenn Nevill of the huge-eyed, white Peregrine Falcon chicks on the PG&E building.

“Stop! I saw something!” I shouted at to my husband. To his spousely credit, he actually stopped, without getting us killed, and did a u-turn onto an area of shoulder.

I dug my binoculars out of the overnight bag in the back seat and peered through the increasing darkness. There was a big mess of sticks in the crook of a tree, and sitting in it, a large bird. “I think it’s an owl.”

My husband took a turn with the binoculars. “Great Horned Owl. In profile. Great job spotting it! But that’s kind of a weird place for an owl, so low down and close to the road.”

We watched for a while. It wasn’t moving much. I couldn’t see the second face that had flashed past. But how amazing would it be to see a nestling? This called for a better look. We drove back up the hill, did another u-turn, and parked about 20 yards away from the tree, now with a direct frontal view of the nest.

Yes, there was that second small white shape. Fluffy, kind of gumdrop-shaped, no pointy ears. “A chick!” I exclaimed quietly.

We watched. Neither bird moved. I started to have a bad feeling about this.

A car passed us, travelling fast downhill past the nest. The birds didn’t move.

Two bicyclists struggled up the steep slope past the nest. The birds didn’t move.

“Okay, I’m going closer,” I said. I crawled out of the car, closing the door gently and taking just a few steps so I could get a better view without spooking the birds. It was getting seriously dark now.

And yes, that bad feeling I’d had was justified.

The two shapes in the tree were… stuffed toys. 

Aak!

I wondered if whoever had placed them there had also installed a hidden camera. Of all the drivers who passed by, how many others actually stopped their cars? Were there any other suckers who got out and stood there staring through binoculars?  I wondered if I’d end up in some viral video of “America’s Dumbest Birders.”

“Well,” my husband said generously as he revved up the car and I slouched as low into the passenger seat as a human body could slouch, “it was still good that you could notice something in the dark when we were driving past so fast.”

Thanks, Sam.

But really, why do we (well, some of us) post our most embarrassing moments on the web for all the world to see?

I don’t think it’s masochism. Picture a dog or cat, facing a clearly alpha animal. It doesn’t want a fight. It wants to be friends. It rolls over on its back, paws in the air, tender belly exposed.

Present your vulnerability and you won’t be attacked. Make fun of yourself and people will laugh with you, not at you.

On the other hand, maybe some of us just can’t resist telling a good story. Even when we are the punch line.

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?

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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…


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