And now I spend my days in search of a woman we called purpose
And if I ever pass back through her town I’ll stay
Lately I’ve been in a writing funk. In 2021 I penned only three blogs: a story about a woman who bicycled from Chicago to San Francisco in 1897; a retread of a previous Fourth of July poem; and a lightweight tale about my phobia of vendors’ booths.
For someone calling herself a blogger, that’s just pitiful.
So what the heck is going on? Has COVID isolation simply made me sick to death of myself? Have I run out of ideas? Am I an empty, inert husk with absolutely nothing to say?
That’s what I was glumly thinking while I drove myself to CookieFest 2021 in Sacramento last month.
Every December I get together with half a dozen women who worked for the same San Francisco firm – The Shorenstein Company – in the late 1980s and have been reuniting annually for 32 years to exchange homemade cookies and hometown stories. Walter Shorenstein was a wealthy investor and real estate magnate who at one time owned or managed 25 percent of the commercial office space in San Francisco. The CookieFest ladies were all young then, but in those days you could be an artist or a poor student or an office clerk and survive easily and happily in a pluralist town that also sported an awfully big share of multimillionaire civic giants like Walter. I never worked for the man and in fact would not know him if I bumped into him on the street (which would be a major shock; he’s been dead for 11 years). But for whatever reason, I was invited into the CookieFest fold about 25 years ago and honestly can’t remember why. Maybe it’s just a “San Francisco oldtimer” thing.
Or perhaps it’s my world-famous molasses cookies.
Anyway, this year I was feeling a bit empty and pointless until one of the ladies mentioned my teenage diary entries that I post weekly on Facebook and attach to the ends of my blog entries. I had been considering stopping the diary posts, frankly, but the women were chortling and reading the posts aloud and going on about how my time-capsule diaries bring them a burst of delight every Thursday.
I had no idea. To me the posts are naïve and silly but to others they’re refreshingly honest and funny. They apparently splash rainbow paint on people’s gray COVID mornings.
Here’s the thing: Sometimes we don’t even know when we’ve given someone a gift.
One of the CookieFest women has told me, more than a few times, that she is still looking for her purpose. I could probably rattle off a dozen ways in which I know her kindness has helped me and others, which would be purpose enough, but I don’t know whether it would make a difference to her. So many of us feel lacking if we haven’t found a grand raison d’être or racked up accomplishments that have reverberated around the world.
A few days after I retired I decided to fulfill my lifelong adult goal of sitting in a coffee shop and reading, without a schedule and with nowhere to be. I walked up to my neighborhood Peet’s Coffee lugging an 800-page(!) book called Chief. It’s the autobiography of former California Chief Justice Ronald M. George, for whom I (indirectly) worked. One of the appendices is a list of the Chief’s judicial offices, memberships, awards, lectures, publications, and noteworthy cases. The list goes on for an eternity – pages and pages. It suddenly occurred to me that I was coasting into old age with absolutely nothing to show for it. It made me wonder: what achievements could even possibly be inscribed on my gravestone? “She, uh, was a bureaucrat. Nothing of note.”
But perhaps, for most of us who aren’t Chief Justice George, our purpose has been fulfilled incrementally, all along the way, by the good we do that we don’t even know about.
Perhaps our value in life is not at all based upon scale. It’s based upon character and decency, surely, but also upon the ways in which our words and actions – slight as they might seem – improve the lives of others.
We may not sport a grand résumé, but the effects of our benevolent gestures can ripple exponentially. And silently.
Sometimes I think about all the people who’ve lifted and sustained me in the smallest of ways through their words. People who talked me off a ledge, advised me against doing something dumb, helped me through heartbreak, boosted my confidence, nudged me in a direction that almost imperceptibly changed my orbit for the better. I can still remember every word they said to me – in some cases decades ago, in other cases just yesterday. Yet they have no idea.
Someone I’d just met gave me a book that got me through a devastating time. Someone suggested I apply for a job I felt was over my head. Someone gifted me with drum lessons despite my self-conscious resistance. Someone offered my band its first real gig when my mates and I had no idea what we were doing. Someone I didn’t know lent me money to buy a Springsteen ticket and ended up being my first love. Someone unknowingly called me at just the right moment, on just the right day, when I was about to mentally fly apart. A stranger with absolutely no ulterior motive told me I had nice eyes. A couple of people strongly suggested I start a blog. A friend once told me I was an idiot and was right.
Not long ago I was walking the neighborhood when I needed to cross the street to avoid some asphalt work. The morning fog had been heavy, and one of the workers told me that the road was really slippery and that he would help me across. For a millisecond I imagined myself defiantly pushing back against his conception of me as a little old lady needing help across a street. But I relented and took his arm, ultimately relieved that I had acquiesced. I mean, the street was indeed really slippery. And after all, who is to say that without his assistance I wouldn’t have taken a nosedive, ended up in the hospital, developed sepsis, and died?
A few years ago we had dinner with some neighbors at an Italian restaurant in North Beach. Soon after we sat down I realized, much to my horror, that I’d left my purse in the car. (What else is new?) Immediately our neighbor stood up to go retrieve my purse from the parking garage. He was willing to miss out on 20 minutes of Manhattans and merriment just to protect me from having to navigate the dark garage alone. (And I do mean “navigate,” because everyone knows I wouldn’t have been able to find the car.) Why should he go and not me? Well, he’s a tall ex-D.A. and not, I suppose, as easy a prey. And what if he hadn’t offered? Who is to say that I wouldn’t have ended up in the morgue?
I joke (sort of), but we really don’t know, do we, how many times we’ve been led away from a bad turn by a seemingly innocuous act of grace?
I can think of only one instance when people’s good intentions had an adverse effect on me. It was when they inadvertently convinced me that my plane was going down.
I’m just one of many folks who suffer from fear of flying (aerophobia). Nothing awful has happened to me in the air, but someone once told me that a disabled plane takes a full two minutes to plummet out of the sky, and although I have no idea whether it’s true, I can’t get that terror out of my head. Anyhoo, a few years ago we were preparing to visit Julie’s family in Kentucky, and the night before the flight, an unusually large number of people called me – some of whom otherwise never spoke to me on the phone. And for whatever reason, many of these people ended up saying “I love you” to me. Now, I am a sentimental person, but typically I don’t run around saying “I love you” willy-nilly to others. I mean, it’s really kind of rare. Yet on this night, I heard it over and over again. It made no sense. Something was terribly wrong. I became unswervingly convinced that the plane was going to go down and this would be my very last night on earth.
All those nice people were unknowingly contributing to my horror and dread!
It took all of Julie’s powers of persuasion to drag me to the airport the next day. I think I may have had to take an Ativan. (Or, as one friend calls it, “Vitamin A.”)
Last week, Stephen Colbert mentioned that when he was at his dying mother’s bedside, his sister started to sing the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have To Do Is Dream.” When Stephen joined in on harmony, his mother asked if she was already in heaven, hearing her two children sing to her so beautifully. Colbert was interviewing Elvis Costello as he told the story, and he thanked Costello for having browbeaten him into learning the harmony part to that song many years ago. Elvis’ encouragement had, many years afterward, assisted in the heavenly passing of Colbert’s mother. Costello had had no idea.
In the Fall of 1962, the San Francisco Giants were playing the New York Yankees in the World Series. My third-grade teacher, Mrs. LaCosse, bless her heart, brought a large floor-standing radio to school and tuned in. (Yes, kids, the World Series was sometimes played during the day in those bygone years.) I was 6 years old but already a major fan by then, so I was ecstatic. The Series went to Game 7, and the Yanks were winning 1-0 in the bottom of the 9th with two outs. The Giants, though, had a couple of baserunners, so what happened next was likely going to decide the game. The great Willie McCovey came up to bat and absolutely scorched a line drive towards Yankee second baseman Bobby Richardson. It looked like a sure Giants victory. But the ball sank from topspin, and Richardson made the catch. Except for those few feet, the Giants would have taken the World Series, and I would not have had to wait more than half a lifetime for the SF Giants’ first World Series title.
I think Charlie Brown said it best:
These kinds of scenes happen in sports untold times a year. We fans live for them – for the adrenaline, the elevation of hope, the miracle. But in sports we get to immediately see the results of the slightest happenstance. In life, we don’t, do we? We might be able to later identify the moments that have altered the course of our own lives. But most of the time we have no idea when we’ve changed someone else’s.
Now that old age has snuck up on me, and I still grapple with my own purpose, I can only hope I’ve made a difference once or twice myself along the way.
For the rest of you, I can tell you this: most of you have made a valuable impact on my life with a single word or gesture. A word or gesture that you yourselves would rate a 1 on a numerical scale, but I would rate a 10. That’s how much the simplest of our interactions have meant.
You, my friends, have nudged me gently, silently, often unknowingly, onto new trajectories, and you’ve made a cosmic difference.
I’m going to try to shed my writer’s block in 2022. I need to stop sitting around and hamstringing myself with melancholy. Whatever my purpose is, it can be achieved only by living.
I need to stop burning daylight.
[Opening quote from The Avett Brothers, “The Once and Future Carpenter,” The Carpenter, 2012.]
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
October 6, 1973 [age 17]: [another oh-so-dramatic entry]
“Falling in love is all I think about. Day in, day out, minute after minute, the relentless, incessant torture. The heartbeat at the sight of a passing stranger. The lonely Friday nights. The overheard conversations. The lonely theaters. The people gone away and never forgotten. The longing. The ebb and flow of unfulfilled desires. The over-emphasized friendships. When, O when, will this awesome solitude cease and time not be so lonely?”
“I won another radio contest! It’s called the KYA “Give-a-Shirt” contest, in which at a given signals everyone calls in, and they take a certain caller, and that person goes on the radio to be told what he or she has won. It’s always a shirt PLUS some great prize, nearly always $50 or $100 or a motorcycle. On impulse I called in and was the seventh caller from San Jose, so was really, really excited, knowing I’d get the money, at least, or if I was really lucky, a motorcycle, which would be my dream come true. So I waited breathlessly, could barely talk, and on the radio he said, ‘KYA gives a shirt – and then some – to Paula Bocciardi of San Jose. Know what else you got, Paula?’ ‘I have no idea.’ . . . tension . . . ‘A Proctor-Silex BLENDER!’ My heart just fell to my knees. Why on earth would anyone want a blender???”
November 12, 1973 [age 17]:
“I’m pretty sure I’m getting a surprise party because [my friend] Jeanne and [my sister Janine] have been whispering a lot. But I’m enormously worried, because what if there is dancing? I don’t know how I can prevent it, though. I overheard a parental conversation at noon today which led me to believe that the party is going to be at 6:00 on Sunday, when I get home from work. That means I’ll be in a dress – yick! Isn’t this terrible? I am really and truly ashamed of myself for not appreciating everyone’s efforts. But I tacked up a list on Mom’s bulletin board so she’ll be able to tell all the guests what gifts I want.”
November 15, 1973 [age 17]:
“Jeanne was in town today and I suggested that we go to Uncle John’s Pancake House because I know of an All-the-Pancakes-You-Can-Eat special for 79 cents. We didn’t realize how far it was until we began walking. It was MILES – 15 long blocks! O, so far! We took the bus part of the way back because I could barely walk after eating 16 huge pancakes.”
November 17, 1973 [age 17]:
“Ack – I know my [18th birthday] surprise party is going to be tomorrow! Problems: 1) feigning surprise, 2) my response to the gifts – I’m always bursting with gratitude inside but have trouble with physical manifestation, and 3) dancing? But then, I don’t know what boys could possibly be there because I don’t really know any!”
November 19, 1973 [age 18]:
“Today was my 18th birthday. Two things of note happened: 1) I went in to donate blood. I’ve always wanted to, but I also wanted to get my free Herfy’s hamburger (given to the first 500 donors). Besides, it made me feel good and useful (and a bit heroic). But after they put the needle in, seven minutes went by and my blood wasn’t coming out fast enough. So two nurses twisted, turned, and shoved the needle around until they gave up and said it wasn’t worth my time. Always a failure! At least I got the hamburger, though. 2) On the way home I went straight to our firehouse to register to vote. I had totally forgotten that I’d have to choose a political party, and when he asked me my intended affiliation, I hurriedly blurted out ‘Republican’ but now I’m not too sure.”
“All I did today was play poker over at Ted’s house. Most of my money was thrown away on a game called Black Mariah, which is full of excitement and suspense but is a game that only the foolish play because it requires so much money. I lost over $1!”
November 30, 1973 [age 18]:
“I don’t think I’ve described my classes yet. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings at 7:30 I am bored to death by my Criminal Law teacher and his long gray hair because 1) his voice is garbled; it burbles as tough there is some thick liquid in his throat, and he pauses continuously between phrases, and 2) he looks at the clock unconsciously every 5 to 10 seconds. I write the lyrics to Bob Dylan and Paul Simon songs in my notebooks to pass the time. My only other class MWF is at 8:30, entitled ‘Critical Writing: Poetry.’ The teacher is brilliant, and she is not boring, but she is old – probably close to 50 – and saggy and wears gray clothing, heavy shoes, and low-hanging necklaces. Her hair sets like a lid upon her head. She talks with perfect diction, which annoys me because she contorts her mouth into awful grimaces and laboriously spews forth each word. And she is also extremely arrogant. I love poetry, though, and listen intently to the discussions, although I never contribute. My first class on T and Th mornings is Psychology with 500 other kids in one of my favorite buildings, Morris Dailey. Professor Rutherford looks rather like a young Mr. Healy [my high school senior English teacher], but he possesses far superior steadfastness and virility. He is a very intelligent man and so interesting that even his 75-minute classes do not drag for me (which is quite a feat, since I normally lose interest after half an hour). I also have Shakespeare. The teacher questions us orally all the time, which I hate because I usually never read the play until the last minute (like during my break before class); in fact, many is the time I’ve cut class so as not to be embarrassed. My other class on Tuesdays and Thursday is Environmental Studies. Two professors teach: Dr. Harvey, whom I enjoy very much, and Ms. Pitts (I call her Miss Nancy), who speaks at kindergarten level and makes terribly feeble attempts at humor. A real drip!”
December 22, 1973 [age 18]:
“Well, we are up at Grammy’s house now [near L.A.], and I am infused with my typical Christmas elation. I slept about 90% of the day, and then I had three glasses of champagne for dinner. I was in the living room, alone, in the dark, listening to Johnny Rivers through the headphones, when Grampy came in and asked why I was listening to headphones when everyone could hear the stereo loud and clear out in the kitchen. Oops! I guess I hadn’t realized that the main speakers were still on. It was so nice, though; I was half-asleep and the music was like a dream in my head. It now seems, for me, that there is no other way to listen to music than while you’re full of booze.”
December 25, 1973 [age 18]:
“I’ve been wondering what in the world I was getting from Mom and Dad for Christmas, and I was really hoping that I might even be so fortunate as to get a car. I guess I was disappointed, then, that there was no nice new shiny blue sportscar awaiting me, with tiny seats and an AM/FM radio. I had my hopes up that now I could move to the dorms because I’d have a means of transportation. But I’d been sort of warned because [my sister] Janine had told me that my gift was worth about $25, and for that price I’d have been getting an AWFULLY cheap automobile. Anyway, I DID get two nice gifts. One was the Beatles 4-record set that I wanted, and the other was a really nice book on American Literature with photos and all. So please ignore my greed or whatever this appears to be; I really got a lot of joy out of buying presents for others and I am not one big lump of selfishness.”
December 31, 1973 [age 18]: [Ed.’s note: Oh my God with the drama again!]
“I suppose that I shall try to put this year into perspective. I still believe in Jonathon [Livingston Seagull] with all my heart, but the ideas in the book – levels of consciousness, the soul, transcending, freedom of thought – those ideas seem so naïve and phony to me now. They’re not – ah, they’re as beautiful as I ever thought they were – but they’re idealistic and my idealism, though it has far from disappeared, has waned considerably. My desire for a ‘love’ this year has failed to manifest. With the terrible NEED I have for human affection, I often wonder how I survive without the romantic relationship I crave. I’m like a thirsty man in the desert. At least one occurrence was of major import this year, though: I got a job. It is quite a nice job [drugstore clerk], and the sense of communion between the employees helps. I love the customers as well, much as I gripe about them. I can surmise that being employed has made me grow up quite a bit. Certainly it has given me a great deal of experience (not to mention money). But anyway, here I am – lost, a little lonely, a baby. If 1974 is better than ’73 I shall be content, because this year has brought me little more than myriad repetitive days with a few personal losses thrown in. My soul is raging endlessly; I am so restless, so full of a terrible ache for a grand adventure, so haunted by unfulfilled dreams of a better life. I have so much to be thankful for: a good family, excellent health, fair intelligence, a decent moral sense, a clear conscious. So why this ravening hunger for something more? The world turns while my confused young spirit goes unnoticed.”
“O, oh, I cannot even DESCRIBE how terrific Bobby Dylan’s concert was tonight. He sang something like 19 songs, most of them with The Band. Even The Band’s solos were nice. We were so close to Bobby Dylan that we could see him sweat. They were $7.50 seats, behind and to the side of him. At first, I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed – Dylan was singing too fast, and he ended every line on a high note, and ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe,’ one of my favorites, didn’t sound at all the same. But everyone was so together: kids wearing jeans and smoking dope and knowing that Dylan was ‘the greatest’! Jeanne and I drank beer. Oh, TONS of beer – tons and tons. First we had large beers and then we ordered a bucket of beer! So when the end came rolling around we were quite buzzed – and then he sang “Like a Rolling Stone’ and all the kids spilled out into the aisles. We gave him such an ovation that he did three finales. I came home ecstatic and flying on a cloud – he had been TEN Paul Simons!”
February 21, 1974 [age 18]:
“For a long time now I have been trying to determine how my own egotism differs from others’, for I could sense my egotism and yet also sense that I could not be classified with the arrogant people. A couple of days ago I came very near to the answer. I love to have my journals read, to be thought of as kind and humanitarian, and to be loved. But I don’t BELIEVE that I am a writer, or that I’m selfless, or that I am capable of being loved. My inferiority complex, then, dictates that ‘You’re in actuality a nothing, but you WANT people to think you’re great, and you let them think so, however much in ignorance they may be.’ ”
February 25, 1974 [age 18]:
“Oh, I am so exceedingly depressed. My drama professor read my thesis paragraph out loud in class today as a perfect example of a TERRIBLE introductory paragraph and what not to write. Man. I wish I had a car.”
“I feel like I live in a dream because I live entirely in my mind, dreaming away in books, writing, or music. Thus my lack of practical knowledge, my inability to cook, sew, shop, or find my way around. [Ed.’s note: nothing much has changed.] And the more serious matter of personal relationships, not knowing how to project myself to other people. So, to cure the problem, I’m going to force myself into the swinging life.”
February 27, 1974 [age 18]:
“As Jean Chiaramonte and I were walking sleepily back to her car after school this afternoon (we’re in somewhat of a car pool), she and I were stopped by a man with a tape recorder. It turned out that he was from radio KXRX and was the ‘Man on the Street’ who roams around asking people various questions. Well, we were both excited – I mean, ME, singled out? I had half-assumed that all such programs were contrived. Anyway, I was at a total loss for intelligent thoughts – he asked if I thought we should limit the price increase in milk and I said no, that with inflation we’ve got to expect everything to go up, or some such bull. And he also asked if (relating this to Patricia Hearst) I felt that kidnappers should be sentenced to death if they did not kill their hostages and I said no, their sentences should be stiffened but the death penalty was too severe. It was really a common, NOTHING answer – I think I was a little shook up from the unexpectedness of the situation and the microphone in my face – so I didn’t expect to be on the radio at 5:30. I wasn’t. Ah, but I was [on] this morning at 6:40 A.M. when I’m sure all of San Jose heard me. It was the stupid milk question. Oh, well, so much for fame and glory.”
March 3, 1974 [age 18]:
“I hopped over to Santa Cruz today. Jeanne [a friend at UCSC] and I went back to our favorite private beach again, and built a fire and cooked hamburgers in little tin pie plates with barbecue sauce and cheese and ate them on English muffins. Then we walked back along a railroad track and ate again in an old hotel in our jeans with a bunch of elegantly-dressed people, none of whom were under 60. We had a talk in which she persuaded me to buy a car rather than move into the dorms. Finally, we saw ‘Cinderella Liberty’ and ‘Play It Again, Sam,’ realizing too late that we would see the last movie end right after the last bus came by the theater, so we ended up taking a TAXI home. A taxi! The first time I’d ever ridden in a taxi! It was a wonderful night!”
March 6, 1974 [age 18]:
“I’ve been doing a great deal of want-ad searching for cars. It has been awfully discouraging – I must expect to pay $2,000 minimum, and I have only $1,100 in the bank. I don’t want a box – I’d love a sleek, cool model – but Toyotas and Datsuns appear to be the cheapest and most economical in terms of gas. So tonight we went out car-hunting. I looked at a Datsun, 1972, 17,000 miles, $2,100, and when I drove it, it got up to only 20 to 25 mph FLOORED. I dropped the idea, understandably.”
March 7, 1974 [age 18]:
“O my God I have bought myself a car! I haven’t paid anything on it yet, of course, but have made arrangements to secure the loan and then transfer the pink slip tomorrow. It’s unbelievable – what a big decision I have made! And I’ve also decreased my chances of moving out to almost nothing. Oh, well, tomorrow I shall have my Toyota Corolla with its black racing stripes and its FM converter (which is the best part) and its 24 miles to the gallon and its automatic transmission. Ah, I have so many plans for it – Santa Cruz (possibly) next weekend, San Francisco, Monterey, tobogganing, even L.A. Jeanne will be shocked when she sees it. I have already bought CSUSJ decals for it. Tomorrow I shall drive away from the DMV in it and just cruise around town until it gets dark, maybe visiting a few friends to show off. O, I am so PROUD!”
March 10, 1974 [age 18]:
“It is almost pitiful to know that I had two papers and two plays to do this weekend and I did absolutely NOTHING. All morning I cleaned [my new] car out and washed it, all afternoon we went shopping for auto supplies, and all night we worked outside fixing up the car again. It looks great now – we put in a mirror and floor mats and a trash basket, filled the glove compartment, installed the FM converter (actually Bruce Schwegler did that), etc. But I still haven’t gotten any schoolwork done. Oh, but I love this car. Having something of my own, to love and cherish, till death do us . . . O, sweet car – sweet silver striped little Paula Bocciardi Toyota Corolla auto!”
“All that sticks in my mind about today is the ‘dinner’ which I attempted to make. Alone, using the notebook which I have been slowly putting together, I managed to totally destroy an entire meal. First, the fish – the sole turned to absolute mush, so I gave it to the dog, and the crappies turned as hard as a brick. The [frozen] beans and spaetzle were fair but I heated them too long, so there were little brown pieces intermixed with the rest. About 1/3 of the eggplant was edible, but the rest were not only half-burned, but soft in the middle and raw on the outside. The biscuits [my brother] Marc described as being made out of cement. The salad and chocolate chip cookies, at least, were delicious – but that’s because [my friend] Jeanne made both of them. It was my first full attempt at a dinner, and perhaps it will be my last for a long while.”
March 17, 1974 [age 18]:
“I was worried terribly about the gas situation. I wanted to be able to fill up completely on Saturday so that I would be sure to have enough for the remainder of the weekend. [Our local gas station owner] claimed that he would run dry by then, but it turned out that the gas line was surprisingly short. So I drove to Santa Cruz to see Jeanne. We went on the roller coaster down at the Boardwalk and were terrified out of our wits, to say the least. Then drove slowly to Aptos along the coast, very beautiful, and ate a most excellent meal there at Manuel’s after having sat out on Sea Cliff Beach reading old Archie and Romance comic books. Then over to the Aptos Twin Theaters and were an hour early so we spent the wait talking to each other in the visor mirror of my car about all the weird things we do. We saw ‘Serpico’ – a great movie! Then we walked out of the theater after 10 awful minutes of ‘Catch 22’. Finally we spent a little while reading each other’s journals, and I can say that her poetry is far superior to mine. What a glorious day.”