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I hate thinking

July 23, 2015

There! Doesn’t that headline sound like the beginning of a condescending rant about Republicans?

(Republican friends: Please don’t take offense. Just substitute the word “Democrats” and keep reading.)

But I’m not talking about politics. I’m talking about the writing process.

I love days when I can sit down and write. I sit at my computer, I start writing, hours pass, and I have a bunch of new pages. Then I feel like I’ve accomplished something. i can blow the factory whistle, stop work, head home (even if “home” just means leaving my study for the living room), and do something completely unrelated with a light heart.

Happy-Writer

But then there are days — weeks — where instead I have to think.

Maybe I’ve written a character into a corner and have no idea how to get her out. Maybe I have to re-conceptualize an entire character. Research the religion or medical condition or historical background of a character. Figure out a new sub-plot. Figure out the entire main plot!

This is different from what people talk about as “writer’s block.”  When I think of writer’s block, I picture sitting down and having no ideas, nothing to say. Or paralyzing oneself with fear. It’s a mind-numbing fog.

What I’m talking about is not a fog. It’s having some very specific problems with a manuscript that need to be thought through or, occasionally, researched. But the thinking does not happen in a controlled, manageable, linear fashion. I wish it were like writing a news story or a fundraising letter, where I could say, “Okay, I’m going to sit down at 2 p.m. and have this done by 5 p.m.” But it’s not.

Instead, my mind wanders. I play Facebook Scrabble. I move the laundry. I write out page after page of notes and outlines that look organized but basically just re-state the problem. Even if I focus on trying to find the answer, it doesn’t come.

And I want to write! I don’t want to sit around thinking. I want motion, action, progress. I want to look at my computer and see “1,269 words” at the bottom of that Microsoft Word window. I feel like someone in the driver’s seat, bags are packed and loaded in the trunk, key in the ignition, the open road stretching ahead, and the damn car isn’t moving.

car

I want to have everything figured out so I can blast forward putting it on paper.  After all, this process is all about the writing, right? We call ourselves “writers.” We go to “writers’ retreats” and “writers” conferences.” We buy books on writing and join writing groups.

Nobody says “I’m joining a thinking group.”

But maybe we should.

My rational self — the self that is not tearing its hair out and wanting to blast forward — knows that thinking is an essential part of this process. That’s especially true at the stage I’m at with this current novel — first draft just finished, ready to start revising and improving.

I need to think about what works and what doesn’t work, what I want to add, and where I want to take this manuscript. That’s just as important as getting all those pages of the first draft down on paper. And it doesn’t happen on command or on schedule. Maybe for some people it does, but not me.

I need to calm down and give it time.

That’s my rational self talking. But what I really want is: motion, action, progress.

Pages.

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In praise of fava beans

July 12, 2015

When I was growing up in the 1960s, I could have counted all the vegetables I knew on two hands. Carrots, peas, broccoli, string beans, celery, lettuce…. My mom was probably on the adventurous side because she made fresh artichokes for us even though we lived 3,000 miles from any artichoke fields.

Now of course the American palate has expanded. Kale is so trendy that it is just about passé! Safeway sells baby arugula. People have learned to roast brussel sprouts in olive oil rather than boiling them to odoriferous pulp.

Still, we all get stuck in food ruts, cooking the same familiar things over and over. I was bumped out of my rut last year when we joined a CSA food box program. That stands for Community Supported Agriculture, where people support nearby organic farmers by ordering a box of produce each week, a kind of vegetable version of the Book-of-the-Month Club.

You don’t get to choose what comes in your box. You get whatever is seasonal. So in the past few months, I’ve learned to cook and like watermelon radishes and kohlrabi. Now I even buy watermelon radishes at the store!  (Note: They are large beet-sized radishes with very pretty circles of pink, white, and light green. I dice them and roast them with beets, cauliflower, and butternut squash.)

I got another bump this week when our neighbors went on vacation and ordered us to eat whatever was ripe in their garden. This gave a whole new meaning to the phrase farm-to-table, since their garden is about six feet from my kitchen table.

Among other things, they were growing fava beans. Now, fava beans were something I’ve never had interest in buying or growing. I’d eaten them in paella, where they were big and brown and tasteless and mushy. You get three or four beans to a pod, and not too many pods on a plant, and they seemed like a whole lot of work for… just beans.

IMG_2575

Fava bean plant — look for the protruding bean pods / Photo by Ilana DeBare

But God forbid anything should go to waste. So I picked a bunch of our neighbor’s beans and perused various web sites to figure out what to do with them. I decided to blanche them and serve them with olive oil and salt, like tapas.

They were awesome!

Preparing them was half the fun. It takes more time than throwing a head of broccoli in a pot, but it’s much more interesting and sensual.

First you shell the beans. I was amazed to open up a fava pod and find the beans cocooned in a kind of fleece lining, a soft, wispy white fuzz covering the inside of the pod. It was like a sleeping bag for beans. This is a plant that knows how to take care of its babies! (Hint: score the seam of the pod with a knife to shell them more easily.)

A fava bean pod / Photo by Ilana DeBare

A fava bean pod / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The white fleece inside of the pod, with beans removed / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The white fleece inside of the pod, with beans removed / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The beans themselves were smooth and flawless. I thought of bars of new soap. I thought of round stones that had been smoothed by a million years of running water. Apple could have stolen the clean lines and minimalist chic of its iPhone from a fava bean.

Next comes the hull protecting each bean. Some people peel the hulls and then eat the beans raw; others pop them into their mouth and eat them with the hull. I tried both ways and they were both good — would be a great TV snack. But for tapas, I wanted a large quantity of peeled beans.

Fava beans, shelled but not yet peeled / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Fava beans, shelled but not yet peeled / Photo by Ilana DeBare

I brought a pot of water to a boil, blanched the beans for three minutes, then spooned them into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Boiling loosened their hulls and it was easy to slide the skin off. There’s something sensual about the frictionless ease with which the beans slide out of their cases in your fingers.

Removing the bean from its hull / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Removing the bean from its hull / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Voila! Fava beans, ready for olive oil and salt. The taste is starchy but also sweet, with a hint of nut or chestnut. Simple yet fresh.

I would feel bad about eating all of our neighbors’ fava beans, but they’re in Italy.

I suspect they are eating even better over there.

Fava beans with olive oil and salt / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Fava beans with olive oil and salt / Photo by Ilana DeBare

A century since the last Passenger Pigeon

August 27, 2014

Note: I wrote this post for the Golden Gate Audubon blog.

This Monday September 1st will mark the 100th anniversary of the death in captivity of the last Passenger Pigeon.

PassPigeon1

Taxidermied Passenger Pigeon in the Royal Ontario Museum

Several months ago, I read Richard Rhodes’ fascinating biography of John James Audubon and was struck by Audubon’s description of the arrival and slaughter of a massive Passenger Pigeon flock in the midwest around 1816:

“The noise which they made, though yet distant, reminded me of a hard gale at sea…. As the birds arrived and passed over me, I felt a current of air that surprised me. Thousands were soon knocked down by the pole-men. The birds continued to pour in…. The Pigeons, arriving by thousands, alighted everywhere, one above another, until solid masses as large as hogsheads were formed on the branches all around. Here and there the perches gave way under the weight with a crash, and, falling to the ground, destroyed hundreds of the birds beneath, forcing down the dense groups with which every stick was loaded. It was a scene of uproar and confusion. I found it quite useless to speak, or even to shout to those persons who were nearest to me. Even the reports of the guns were seldom heard, and I was made aware of the firing only by seeing the shooters reloading….

The Pigeons were constantly coming, and it was past midnight before I perceived a decrease in there number of those that arrived. The uproar continued the whole night…. Towards the approach of the day, the noise in some measure [having] subsided, long before objects were distinguishable, the Pigeons began to move off… and at sunrise all that were able to fly had disappeared. The howlings of the wolves now reached our ears, ands the foxes, lynxes, cougars, bears…

It was then that the authors of all this devastation began their entry amongst the dead, the dying and the mangled. The pigeons were picked up and piled in heaps, until each had as many as he could possibly dispose of, when the hogs were let loose to feed on the remainder….”

 

Such massive flocks were not unusual: The largest known nesting site was documented in 1871 in Wisconsin with 136 million birds covering 850 square miles.

Their large flocks and communal behavior made the pigeons easy prey for hunters. Faced with massive commercial hunting and loss of habitat, their numbers dwindled. Then, a century ago, they were gone.

Juvenile Passenger Pigeon (left), male (center), female (right), by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

Juvenile Passenger Pigeon (left), male (center), female (right), by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

A 19th century Passenger Pigeon shoot

A 19th century Passenger Pigeon shoot

The Passenger Pigeon’s story is particularly cautionary for us these days because, with climate change, we may be on the verge of witnessing a tidal wave of similar extinctions.

In September — by coincidence about a week after the sad anniversary of the Passenger Pigeon’s loss — National Audubon will release a very comprehensive scientific report on North American birds and climate change that has been years in preparation.

Which species will face significant habitat loss? Which ones are likely to adapt and survive? Which are at risk of extinction?

We’ll share the news here with you as soon as we get it, along with steps we can take to protect the Northern California species most at risk due to climate change.

Meanwhile, please consider doing one small thing on Monday to mark the death of Martha, that last lone pigeon in the Cincinnati Zoo.

Talk to one non-birder friend about why you care about preserving species…

Write a letter to one elected official in Washington…

Take a young person out to a park and help them spot an egret in the marsh…

Post a Passenger Pigeon image on your Facebook page, and ask your friends to share it…  

Replace the energy-hogging incandescent bulbs in your house with LEDs or compact fluorescents, and think of Martha while you do it….

In 2114, will our grandchildren or great-grandchildren be writing blog posts commemorating the anniversary of the death of the last Tricolored Blackbird? Ashy Storm-Petrel? Yellow-billed Cuckoo? Burrowing Owl? Snowy Plover?

Or might there be so many losses that they won’t even know where to start?

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

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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.

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.

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?

Sea glass and Rosh Hashanah

September 10, 2012

I spent the weekend at our Stinson Beach house with Leslie Laurien, one of our co-owners, creating mosaics on two bare concrete steps. Leslie has been going to Stinson for more than a decade, collecting sea glass the entire time, and so had amassed a fabulous collection of smooth, rounded pieces in a variety of colors. There were various shades of clear glass, from milky white to slightly blue and even violet. There were beer-bottle-brown pieces, and green, a few tiny cobalt blue ones. In addition, Leslie had gathered broken tea cups, tiles, marbles and shards of mirrors. Before going any further, I need to say that she is an incredible artist (some of whose work you can view here) and I was more the — shall we say — sorcerer’s apprentice. :-)

Here is a picture of the project underway, and one of what we ended up with. It still needs to be grouted.

Photo by Ilana DeBare

Photo by Ilana DeBare

Even sitting in piles on the stoop, the sea glass pieces were beautiful. Washed and rubbed and ground by the waves for decades until smooth enough for a child to hold, they start out as trash but look like exotic gems by the time you find them on the beach. Some of my favorites are the ones that are barely larger than dots — tiny green or blue or cloudy pearls.

Then last night, I woke up in the dark thinking of those pearly glass dots in tandem with some comments that our rabbi has been posting on Facebook. It wasn’t any conscious connection; those two things just slid together in my sleepy mind.

As part of Elul, the month leading up to the high holy days, Rabbi Andrew Straus has been posting a short question or story each day, designed to spark reflection.

Just little questions, in the oh-so-flippant and distracting world of Facebook. I guess they are like bits of precious glass found on a beach. So I thought I’d reprint a few:

If I could live this past year over again: what would I do the same? What would I do differently?
For the things you would do the same – what lesson can you learn?
For the things you would do differently – is there a pattern? What can you learn from that?
What can you do at this point to change the things that you want to change?

Another:

The story is told of Jacob and Eliezer who were on a difficult journey together. They helped each other out of many tough situations. One day as they crossed a raging river Jacob nearly drowned. Eliezer saved his friend’s life. Once they were safely on the other side Jacob chiseled into a nearby rock, “In this place Eliezer risked his life to save the life of his friend  Jacob.”

Several days later Jacob and Eliezer got into a terrible fight regarding who would carry the food. Jacob took a stick and wrote in the dirt: “In this place Eliezer broke the heart of his friend Jacob during a trivial argument.” Eliezer watched and asked; “Why did my heroism get carved into stone, but the fact that I broke your heart only get scratched into the dirt?”

Jacob smiled and responded; “I will forever cherish how you saved my life, risking your own to do so, but as for the insults and hurtful words, these I hope will fade as quickly as the words I have scratched in the dirt.” With that, Jacob rose and wiped the inscription away with his foot.

How many of us are carrying minor hurts with us that can be wiped away? How many of us are holding on to words said in anger and forgetting the words said in love? How many of us are remembering the hurt and forgetting the mitzvot the good deeds done for us? What would it take to wipe the words away?

And another:

“It is a cornerstone for Judaism …, that however great a person’s transgressions may be, they fail to penetrate to the innermost core of one’s soul. Always and under all circumstances, there remains something pure, precious and sacred in a person’s soul.” (Rabbi Soloveitchik)

Who are you at your core? What is precious and sacred in your soul? What makes you, you?
How do you get in touch with your innermost core? What can you do to let your core shine brighter?

Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown this coming Sunday. Shanah tovah! 

May your coming year be as sweet as apples and honey, and as shiny as sea glass pieces, smoothed and polished into gems from our unwanted, discarded trash.

Photo by Ilana DeBare