Sunday, November 30, 2014

Mystifying Ruination

Why does a person deliberately allow a thing of beauty, created with masterful attention, to crumble to dust? I cannot comprehend.

Last spring a lovely family moved to our neighborhood. I often stop to speak to one or the other of them when out on my morning walk. Soon after they moved in, I noticed that they placed two exquisite, carved, dark wooden desks in front of their house along with several carved wooden chairs. One of the chairs has elaborate orange and rust-colored brocade upholstery set into the back and the seat. This furniture is placed under a spur of roof that shelters the “porch,” however the front of the porch area is open and completely exposed to the weather.

I was surprised to see this magnificent furniture left out in the sun during the summer, but I imagined that eventually the owners would take it inside. Not so. It remained outdoors on into what is now the rainy season. These beautiful pieces of antique furniture have been touched by the damp and this week they are slick with rain.

A few days ago, I saw the woman who bought the house and I asked her what was up with the antiques outdoors. She explained to me that she collects antique furniture and that her previous house was much larger than this one so she doesn’t have room for all the antiques inside this house. She and her husband enjoy sitting outdoors so they decided to enjoy their antique desks and chairs outdoors until the elements destroy them.

Wait, what?

I asked her why she doesn’t give them away or sell them. She said they are too valuable to just give them away (wait, what again?) and that selling them is too complicated. She explained to me that you don’t just sell antiques, that you have to hire an antique broker to value them and sell them for you. They don’t want to go through the hassle of selling them. She said they would rather enjoy them outdoors until the pieces are ruined. I didn’t ask her what they would do with them after that. Maybe take them to the dump, I guess.

I don’t get this.

Every day I walk past these extraordinary pieces of old, old furniture that a craftsman spent hours and hours building, that contain history, beauty, precision, care, and, let’s put it out there – love. I am mystified as to why someone would allow these beautiful pieces of functional art to die. In my world, the splendid things that people create are precious. Perhaps the owners of the doomed antiques would rather “use them up” themselves than allow someone else to have them and appreciate them. I am speculating. I cannot fathom the logic of this. 

I had to write about the doomed furniture because the situation disturbs me. I am tempted to steal the furniture. To rescue it. But that is unethical and against the law. There is some sort of lesson here. I am still working out what it is. I have started speaking to the furniture when I pass. Comforting it, as I would a dying friend. I see no reasonable resolution to this situation. It will end badly, I fear, for both me and the antiques.

None of these chairs pictured below is the brocade orange chair soaking up the rain today, but they remind me of it. The second chair is sort of the style and the wood is similar to the one dying. The print pattern on the first one reminds me of the pattern of the fabric, but it's not that color. It's more the color of the third chair. Just to give you a taste of it. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Transformation and the Ephemeral

Transformation does not exactly capture the concept I have in my mind. Maybe it’s reversal or shift. Maybe it’s simply change. But the other word that keeps coming into my mind is ephemeral, which the dictionary defines as transient. Fleeting. Gone in a flash. But I am thinking more about how things change in a flash. Could be gone. Could be different. Could be not what we had thought at all in the first place. Unexpected or unfair or miraculous. Our reality is how we perceive the world and it can change in an instant. Things that are not what they seemed have forever fascinated me.

Yesterday I ran out on what I thought would be a quick errand at the end of the day. Even though it was chilly, overcast, and threatening rain, I just slipped into my flip-flops. I had been working in the yard and was hot so my feet were warm. I would only be gone a few minutes. I did my errand, returned to my car, turned my key in the ignition and my engine did not start. I turned the key a second time while calculating in my head how long it would take AAA to come, or how long for me to find someone to come get me; and how quickly my feet would freeze in those flip-flops. I don’t think I sat in the car more than 60 seconds before there was a knock at my window. “Do you need a jump start?” a man asked. He and his two friends pulled their truck over. I had jumper cables. They started my car like superheroes, and I drove home. Don’t you love it when people are nice, are human, are considerate and thoughtful and helpful? What could have been a pain-in-the-ass situation (involving frozen feet), turned around that fast.

Another dead battery story. Once, about ten years ago, our family spent a lovely day in Mendocino by the ocean; and late in the afternoon, as it was getting dark, we prepared to drive back home. We were in the Odyssey van and the battery was dead. I called AAA and they gave me the number of the only shop in Mendocino that provided emergency road service for AAA. I called the shop and the mechanic who answered said he couldn’t help us out for another 45 minutes. But then I realized that we were actually parked right in front of his shop. I could see him in his office talking on the phone with me. I pointed this out to him and waved. He waved back, and repeated that he couldn’t help me for 45 minutes! But I have jumper cables, I said. Just come out for a few minutes with your truck and help us out. No, he wouldn’t do that. He said he’d come out in 45 minutes. What? So I left the hood of the van up and stood next to it with the jumper cables in my hand and waved at passing cars. Before long, a thoughtful person stopped and gave us a jump start. I was wearing a Raiders sweatshirt that day and the person who stopped said he couldn’t leave a fellow Raiders fan in distress. I wonder if my Raiders sweatshirt would prove as useful these days (although they did win their first game in over a year on Thursday – Go Raiders).

What is my point, huh? I’m pondering how ephemeral life is, and how changeable. I’m pondering the swiftness of transformation. I’m pondering how quickly a situation can change. I’m pondering circumstances. Permutations. Separate realities.

Moving on from car batteries to life and death…. Ron has a friend who was diagnosed with cancer eight years ago. At the time he smoked and was a negative-thinking person. He was resigned to dying of cancer and had no fight in him. But somewhere along the way he changed, and he also got lucky. His cancer went into remission. He quit smoking. He chose to have a positive attitude. He transformed. Nowadays he’s sort of a different person. Things went well for him. So then I think about my friend who died of cancer three weeks ago. Why didn’t things go well for him? He fought hard, was determined not to surrender to the disease, kept a positive attitude, and lost his life. I have friends who died of cancer and friends who recovered from cancer. How does it go one way for one person and the other way for another?

How often have I thought something was gone only to have it return? A lost ring, found miraculously in the most unlikely place. A Native friend who lost his seat on the Tribal Council in the recent election, but this week the tribal judge overturned the election because a candidate was cheating and the election will be held again and perhaps my friend will retain his seat after all. A person I thought I would never see again and then our paths cross. A loved one dying who survives. A plant that was declared extinct and then, a hundred years later, it is discovered growing on a remote hillside.

The permutations of direction that any given situation can take amaze me. Is this the famous Schrodinger’s cat? At any given point in time we do not know what is in the box so we must assume that everything is in the box until we open the box. Life is fleeting and full of surprises and it turns on a dime. All the more reason to take a moment to pause and give thanks for the good things and the people we love and the times we have cherished. I believe that Thanksgiving has evolved and that Thanksgiving is no longer about pilgrims and Indians and survival and genocide. It’s not even about turkey, corn, and pumpkins. It’s about giving thanks. So, dear reader, thanks for reading my weekly ponder once again. I am honored to touch your life with my words. 

Transformation happens. Carry on.

A joke I swiped from Facebook that is pertinent to today's blog:

Sunday, November 16, 2014


Some of you will remember a 1981 movie with Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn in which they spend two hours eating dinner and talking. It’s now a cult film for my generation. The stories, mostly those of Gregory, are so fascinating that the audience remains engaged even with no apparent action. It’s sort of a strange thing about that film – the viewer wants to enter the conversation. Yesterday I had brunch with a small group of friends whom I have not seen in quite some time and we had a dinner-with-Andre kind of conversation that sprawled beyond the meal table and tumbled into the garden as the afternoon unfolded.

Our eclectic group included myself and Ron, another couple in which the guy is Black and the gal is Jewish, a married lesbian couple, and a friend who is half Black and half Japanese and her partner who is Jewish. Before we ate, I took a moment to reflect on the fact that until recently (historically) all of us risked being killed for being in these relationships. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, all of us have children in multicultural relationships as well. Although we come from quite different backgrounds and cultures, we have many shared interests, one of which is gardening and food production and another of which is nutrition and health.

Around the table we went, sharing the latest events in our lives. One couple had recently traveled to Lithuania for the once-every-four-years Baltic Song Festival held by Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. This massive festival of local song and dance, emphasizing national culture and folk music, is a symbol of nationhood for these countries that have fought off Soviet domination. Our friends talked about the crisp delicious beers, the table fifty yards long featuring a variety of rye breads baked according to the customs in regions all over the Baltic, the singers and dancers who performed, singing the sunset in together with thousands and then singing the sunrise up hours later. One of the women who traveled is Lithuanian and she had never been to her land of origin. When they visited the town in which her grandfather grew up, she found a photograph of him hanging in the local museum!

Ron and one of the other men at the table have retired in the past year and some of the friends wanted to know what they do now. The other man who retired joked, “I go to the post office, buy a stamp.” I boasted that Ron has become a professional newspaper-reader. Retirement is a concept. Will I ever get there? One of the friends just landed a new job over the summer. He’s a computer tech. He told us that a person at the company interviewed him and then took him to a computer room and pointed to things and asked him to identify them; like a router and a server. Hilarious. I went on a riff about being asked to identify a chair, a lamp, a file cabinet. After our friend had correctly identified the router and the server, the guy turned to him and offered him the job on the spot. I guess they were in need of someone who could tell his ass from a hole in the ground. Wild.

When I shared a few aspects of my studies to earn my holistic nutrition certification, the whole crew was off and running talking about food, cooking, healthy eating, what makes us sick, and what makes us well. One of our friends had read an article about research that shows that people who live in a close-knit community live longer and stay healthier. I explained a few basic concepts about the detrimental impact of stress on health. It makes sense that people in community feel better because they have a fine resource to help them relieve stress. In fact, they probably have less stress to begin with because of the comfort of living in the embrace of a caring community. We discussed the ways in which we each relieve stress, which prompted our hostess to break out her dark chocolate (four varieties!), woo-hoo.

Our hostess has spent the last few years researching fish farms. She is an extraordinary gardener and she is now interested in developing a sustainable fish farm in her back yard, using the fishy-poo to fertilize her gardens. She has studied what fish eat and how to grow the kind of insects that the kind of fish she wants to farm will eat and how to use fishy-poo as plant food and how to pasteurize straw to grow mushrooms. In the middle of this discussion we adjourned to the yard to see the fish farm she was building back there and to admire her vegetable gardens. She converted a quarter of an acre of lawn into a mini-farm.

Out back, surrounded by brilliant purple and green chard and cabbage, lemon trees, and bright orange nasturtiums on the mini-farm, I fell into conversation with my Black-Japanese friend about what causes cancer and how tenuous our lives are; how important to enjoy and appreciate our friends since the future remains a mystery. We could have swapped stories of irony, stories of miracles, stories of tragedy, inspiration, and beauty for hours and hours. But the shadows of evening began to gather and all of us had our busy lives to return to.

One thing that strikes me about our afternoon is that we didn’t discuss politics much, except as related to the politics of food production. I have so many friends for whom politics are a primary topic of discussion. It was refreshing to go deeper to the things that will really change our lives and make a future, such as sustainable farming. I am convinced that the political world is not where real change will happen. It will happen in our back yards and over our fences and in the heart and the soul.

I’m rambling. Sorry for that. What am I trying to say here? Something about what it means to have plenty, what it means to protect our food supply. Something about friendship. Something about how mysterious and enormous and fascinating is the wide, wide world. Something about the magnificently inquisitive human mind. Something about passion, and learning from each other, and eating real food, and making real food, and sharing real food, and real conversation, and real life. Something about being grateful for bounty. Thanksgiving coming.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Failure to Launch

This week my husband and I made a hard decision. We decided to live in our house. For the past year we have been preparing to move. We did some repairs and deep cleaning and put our house on the market during the winter, and then we proceeded to clean this enormous house every fifteen minutes to show it to prospective buyers. What a royal pain in the pa-toot.

I hoped that a move would improve our financial situation. Let me break this down for you. When my oldest child went away to college in 2002 we owned our property at the Ranch free and clear and we had no debt. By the time our youngest graduated from a pricey private art college in 2013, we had taken out a first mortgage, then a home equity line of credit, then multiple Parent Plus loans, then we paid tuition on credit cards and borrowed through the wonderful Hebrew Free Loan Association. I think Ron and I were solely responsible for the rebound of the economy. Don’t send thank-you notes, send money.

Both of our sons received scholarships; however, based on our middle class income, the scholarships did not cover the full cost of tuition and, of course, no living expenses. There is a thing called the EFC:  Expected Family Contribution (cynical snort laugh). Don’t even get me started talking about the cost of a college education and how the college system leeches off the middle class. Everyone wants to talk about student loan debt; what about parent college-for-kids loan debt? After Sudi graduated, we refinanced our house to roll our loans into the mortgage at a lower percentage rate. None of our children have any student loan debt. We assumed all of it and I’m fine with that. I’m proud that I put three children through college and they came out debt-free. It is the singular greatest financial accomplishment of my life. The second-greatest is maintaining two cats who spend most of the day sleeping.

Now our house is mortgaged to the wing-nuts, Ron had to retire to deal with his health issues, and I chose to provide entertainment by running around like Chicken Little screaming omygod omygod omygod how do we pay our bills? The most sensible plan of action appeared to be to sell this big house and move to something smaller to reduce our mortgage. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But the market in our area is as dead as Dick Cheney’s brain. Our house has lost value. The few houses on the market in the price range that we could afford are either 1) smaller than my file cabinet, 2) in bad shape (is that duct tape holding the sink to the wall?), 3) in unsavory neighborhoods (flight path of the airlift helicopters coming and going to the hospital), 4) have salmon-colored shag carpet throughout that would cost so much to remove that it would defeat the purpose of downsizing, or 5) have a backyard consisting entirely of concrete and a birdbath (if I were a bird I would feel naked in that birdbath with no leaves to hide me). House-hunting is clearly a whole other blog topic.

After a therapeutic session with my loan agent at the bank, which resulted in the conclusion that my present mortgage package is so terrific that I would be better off shooting myself than moving right now; and after a deep conversation about the meaning of life with my theologian-realtor; and after a dark chocolate binge punctuated by a heart-to-heart conversation with my husband; we took the house off the market.

So we are moving back into our house. I am unpacking the boxes and boxes and boxes in the garage and putting things away in new places. We are repurposing our rooms and rearranging our furniture. I am enjoying all the fun and excitement of moving without the stress of moving. Unfortunately, I’m back to the stress of our precarious financial situation. But, you know what? I confess that part of my decision to stay in this house was connected to the tragic death of a friend of mine last week. As I witness the agony of his wife, my dear one, as she struggles to cope with this overwhelming loss, I find myself more able to put my precarious financial situation on a back burner. Other things in life are simply more important. I will count my blessings and rehang my pot rack.

My adorable albatross.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Perspective: Contemplation at the Day of the Dead

I have a 60-year-old friend who is dying. His wife, one of my dearest friends, is only a couple of years younger. It seems to me that she is painfully young to lose her husband. Although, I have other friends who lost their spouse when much younger than that. My childhood friend Glenn died at 39 and his wife was pregnant with their third child at the time. There are so many people for me to remember on the Day of the Dead.

Trying to do the math to calculate about my grandmothers, I figure that my maternal grandmother must have been about 60 when my grandfather died. He was around 63. I used to think Grandpa was old when he died, but from where I stand today, I think he died young. Perspective. My other grandfather died within a few weeks of my birth, when my father was only 25, and my grandmother was in her fifties. My daughter is 30 and not only is her father still alive, so is her grandfather (my dad), who is 85 and in excellent health for an old guy. How fortunate is that? How fortunate for me, at 60, to still have my father? This good fortune is not lost on me.

When I was a teenager, we lived across the street from a family with a son the same age as I and two daughters. The wife’s aging father (the grandpa) was in failing health and lived with them. One day an ambulance appeared at their house. I watched it pull into the driveway from our kitchen. I assumed that something had happened to the wife’s aging father. But no, that was not the case. The husband, who was in his forties, had died of a massive heart attack. Grandpa was still alive and the children had lost their dad. What a mixed-up and ironic tragedy. This woman was left widowed, with young children, and her dear old dad still living.

In the summer of 2015, it will be ten years since my mother passed. Talking with my father this week, he said the hardest times for him are joyous family events because he wishes Mom was there to celebrate with him. He would have liked to see her enjoy the event. All of us would have loved to have Mom at Akili’s wedding. Dad says he goes to these celebrations for both of them, taking Mom with him in his heart. I remember my grandmother once telling me that she considered herself my grandfather’s “ambassador on earth” after he was gone and that she was living for both of them. I take a little bit of Mom with me to these events as well. She was certainly with me in my heart at Akili’s wedding, along with a number of other people; a crowd of spirits milling about in my heart.

I have lived with a chronically ill husband for many years, knowing how diabetes progresses, fighting that progression every step of the way. Recently, in the context of a worship service at synagogue, the rabbi said, “If you have had to handle a life-and-death situation in the past year, stand up.” I stood. I never really think about it, but I have regularly saved my husband’s life when his blood sugar has dropped dangerously low; usually in the middle of the night, while everyone else is sleeping (except the lady who answers the phone at 911 who held my hand, metaphorically speaking, on one particularly bad night). Saving my husband’s life is routine. That sounds funny. It actually is funny, or would have to be, otherwise I would be addicted to Prozac.

Every day that I have my husband here with me is a gift and I cherish my time with Dad. I try not to squander these gifts. It should not take age and ill health, however, to keep us honest about feeling grateful for the presence of those we love. There are no guarantees. We could lose anyone anytime at any age. The only antidote we humans have to counter the unstoppable rush of death is the determination to live joyously and well in the present; to love, to dance, to laugh, to appreciate and enjoy one another, to savor the sweetness with delight. So that when death comes, it robs us only of the future and it cannot touch our precious past.

Mt Fuji at Sunrise by Hidenobu Suzuki.
I saved this gorgeous serene image a while back and had no occasion to share it, 
but it seems to fit with today's blog.