Bozos on this bus

Bozos on this bus

My first job out of college was as a production assistant at Harper & Row Publishers in San Francisco. My boss, Laura, was a petite Italian spark plug from New York. She was widely respected but not as widely liked. I, on the other hand, thought the world of her.

One spring day I sat at my desk outside her office and began to sneeze. I have serious hay fever – not like the many people who claim to suffer from “allergies” because they occasionally have the sniffles. My fits could go on for an eternity. I once counted 53 sneezes in a row.

“Bless you!” she yelled unseen from her office.

I sneezed for the second time.

“Bless you!” she shouted again, this time with perhaps just the tiniest note of impatience.

“Laura, I have to warn you, this is a fruitless exercise because I could go on for a while,” I said in between paroxysms.

“Well, THEN SHUT UP!” she hollered.

I cracked up so hard, I think I stopped sneezing.

I’m going to generalize here, but I love New Yorkers. I think most of them are hilarious.

Some people would have taken offense at my boss’ sense of humor. In fact, one of her colleagues came over to me that day and apologized for her. (This same curmudgeon had also once terrified me by warning me that all of life’s joy gets sucked out of you once you turn 30. I was 23 at the time.) She, among others, thought that Laura was abrasive and demanding.

I didn’t feel that way at all. Laura, to me, was not only riotously funny but also a terrific mentor. I’ll never forget her and her affirmative influence on my life.

(By the way, I just learned that she is extremely active in retirement and has donated more than 600 hours of her time to local nonprofits, including the Boys & Girls Club of the Peninsula. God bless her.)


For the most part, I’ve learned to love and accept individuals’ idiosyncrasies, especially if their hearts are in the right place. Quirky? So endearing. Imperfect? Only human. Blunt and fussy like Laura? A dash of flavor.

Unfortunately, many disagree with me. The default position now seems to be instant contempt for others. People pick out the tiniest flaws in each other that they can run with.

Disdain makes people feel smug and – for some reason – fills them with endorphins, so it’s become a drug, like heroin.

It’s in our very culture now. We’re hungry for a quarrel.


Not all that long ago, human beings had no time to concern themselves with the perceived shortcomings of their neighbors. People had to work hard all day just to stay alive, for cryin’ out loud, and they needed each other.

But today most of those challenges have disappeared. Loafers now have plenty of time to sit on their couches slaying imaginary dragons, as if life were one giant video game. They’ve been desensitized by the interpersonal distance baked into (the ironically-named) “social” media. Then, as their worldview contracts, so does their ability to understand and embrace the whole of humanity.

These people are unfulfilled and insecure and yet sneeringly convinced of their own superiority. Somehow they’ve managed to conclude that they’re perfect – in the face, by the way, of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.


“Decency,” I remember someone saying on The Crown, “is an easy quality to mock.”

Couch critics often pick on those most threatening to them – ironically, those most likely to truly do some good. Rather than get up off their butts and do something, they berate decent and courageous people who are at least trying. They look for ways to rain on others’ parades. It helps justify their own inertia.

As Teddy Roosevelt famously said in 1910, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles … The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”

This tendency, I believe, has also extended to reviewers of the arts. A couple of years ago, Bill Maher remarked that movie critics these days often fault a film not for its artistry, but simply for not being the movie they would have made. Or because the film doesn’t reflect their biases. Not only is that careless and ignoble reasoning but it makes the reviewers feel self-righteous, when the fact of the matter is that they never could have produced a work of similar quality or import themselves.

Isn’t that the whole problem – that so many people have a need to feel self-righteous?

We’re devolving.


But Monday Morning Rail is going slightly off the rail and heading into a rant.

So let’s instead consider the antidote to all the hypercritical piety going around.

Let’s come back, for a moment, to our everyday interpersonal relationships, and think about the people we hold close.

In the natural world, the instinctive “desire” of an atom is to chemically bond with another atom to form a compound. Because atoms have an incomplete outer shell, they are often unstable by themselves. So they go looking for stability.

Sodium and chloride, for example, combine naturally to form salt, which is a most wonderful thing. In our bodies, salt transmits nerve signals, helps muscles function, carries nutrients, and balances our fluids and blood pressure. Of course, it also makes food taste really good.

I think that, as human beings, we have the same chemical need for stability. In fact, we’re almost involuntarily responsive to certain people.

We’re not all attracted to the same people, thank goodness. That’s what makes the world go ’round.

In my own life, I know that I wobble constantly towards others, trying to find that balance and steadiness.

I look for the heart beating underneath people’s appearance or their behavior. I don’t draw quick conclusions.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I’m a sweet Pollyanna who loves everyone. First of all, I certainly make judgments about what I consider to be bad behavior. I have my moral absolutes. I will jettison you in an instant if you lie, are rude to a service provider, think that cheating on your taxes is a bragging right, mistreat an animal, or disrespect the elderly. (“Respect,” Dr. Ruth Westheimer once said, “is nondebatable.”)

Sometimes, too, I strongly dislike people whom everybody else seems to moon over. In fact, I find some of my friends’ friends intolerable. But of course that doesn’t mean they’re objectively intolerable. In fact, it’s possible they’re just too much like me. The two of us may be magnetic poles who push back against each other in what science labels “repulsion.”

I also have aversions to certain celebrities for no rational reason. Elizabeth Moss, for example – a terrific actress and seemingly terrific person – absolutely freaks me out. It’s hard for me to watch her onscreen, and I have no idea why. (I have a similar and even stronger distaste for Fred Armisen. Coincidentally, the two of them were once married!)

Generally, though, give me an eccentricity or a quirk, and you’re eligible for my utmost affection. I don’t care that you count your steps, that the volume on the TV has to be set to an even number, that you crack your toes, that you collect banana stickers, or that you laugh inappropriately in elevators.

I admire you for the atoms at your core.


I’m not sure I’d want to be friends with me. I am sure that my inflexibility, neuroticism, moodiness, and tendency to ascribe too much import to the smallest of perceived slights can be turnoffs.

Yet my loved ones persist. And I with them. I so easily and clearly see the good in them, their creativity, the challenges they’ve gracefully conquered, their perspectives on life, their humor that keeps me uplifted when I’m feeling . . . well, stubborn, neurotic, and moody.

(By the way, I think all my friends and family members are good-looking. It’s the subjectivity in me, I guess.)


It’s best that we huddle up with people who listen to us, who’ll pick up the phone if we call, who are happy when we’re happy and sad when we’re sad and aren’t jealous when we succeed. People who won’t disparage us behind our backs. People who will lovingly tell us the truth. People we can trust.

I once read a Chronicle column written by a transplanted New Yorker who found himself brooding and depressed here on the West Coast. His new California pals were concerned, trying to analyze his feelings, suggesting he see a therapist. They drove him bonkers. Finally he called an old New York friend in the middle of the night. She answered.

“I’m depressed,” he told her.

“So what else is new?” she said.

He instantly felt better.

Those are the kinds of friends we want.

Back in the 1980s I once got down to a very skinny 113 pounds when I was despondent over a breakup and had stopped eating. My friend Ellen came to the rescue. “You look like hell,” she said. “Eat a sandwich.”

So I did.


I’m aware that this blog has been a bit haphazard, but that’s because sometimes I don’t quite know how to avoid all of the forces trying to drain the joy out of our lives through endless criticism and condescension. My personal salve is that for the most part I choose to ignore the fangs and claws of society at large and concentrate on the people I love.

I have no room in my life for the perpetually sanctimonious. We shouldn’t see each other as either angels or demons.

No one is perfect or even close to it. We all have our own vagaries, character flaws, and irritating habits.

But we also have traits that are fetching. We can only hope to stumble upon people in our lives who find our flaws acceptable and our quirks delightful. We need to surround ourselves with those who tolerate our imperfections while we in turn tolerate theirs. Who will get in the arena for us. Who’ll help provide us with stability, steadiness, and balance. Who’ll tell us to shut up and eat a sandwich.

We travel through life facing enough headwinds already. We need company.

Human beings may be limited and defective, but we’re in this together.

We’re all bozos on this bus.

Note: “Bozos on this bus” is taken from the Firesign Theater’s 1971 album I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus.


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.

November 3, 1974 [age 18]:

“I had a day off, for once, and just had to get out. I ended up going to a $1 matinee called Slither that was suspenseful and really good. Then I wandered around downtown in book and record stores but ended up with nothing. I considered old Byrds stuff and This Side of Paradise and Tropic of Capricorn, but my money seems to like my purse better than it likes the open air. Tonight [my brother] Marc and I went out to eat at Roma Pizza, where even though I’ve been sick with the flu for a week I ate a huge meatball sub sandwich and half an extra-large pizza.”

November 4, 1974 [age 18]:

“Whew, I paid off my car loan today! And now that sweet little gray Toyota is mine, all mine! Oh, I’m elated! Now I feel somehow as if there is nothing to stop me, no one who can tell me what to do, ’cause I have a little car with decals and an FM converter and seat belts with shoulder straps!”

November 6, 1974 [age 18]:

“With great anticipation I accompanied Robin and Guy and Glen to the City to see a George Harrison concert at the Cow Palace tonight. But it was a disappointment. I’d spent SO MUCH money: $7.50 on the ticket, $3 on Kentucky Fried Chicken, and $2 on booze. At least the security people, who looked like they were searching everyone, wouldn’t search the girls, so the man just said “Move on, ladies,” and I did so, greatly relieved I got through with a canned daquiri in each coat pocket. But George Harrison was only fair and Ravi Shankar was TOTALLY BORING playing his tinkling sitar music. Billy Preston, though, who opened and played a grand total of three songs, far outdid the others. He was FANTASTIC! Glen and Guy offered me their dope and I refused. I was terribly tempted – 99% of the people there were smoking. I think the only thing that prevented me from smoking was embarrassment – I knew I’d cough and make a big scene and waste good grass.”

November 19, 1974 [age 19]:

“I’m 19. O, the nebulous age, when we all fade into oblivion. I stayed up until midnight because I was loath to see 18 depart.”

November 23, 1974 [age 19]:

“I lost my innocence today. I just wanted to get the whole thing over with, wanted to do it once for the sake of experience and the knowledge that I’d gotten away with something, then not worry about it again until I had to. So I called Robin and told her I’d bring over some records and an electric typewriter and help her with her paper. I must’ve looked like I was going away to camp when I loaded my car up; I was carrying about seven records and my journal and a few other manuscripts for Robin to read and a typewriter and a stack of paper – after I arrived I put on America [the first album by the group America, including the song “A Horse With No Name”] and set up the typewriter to write to Jeanne while Robin finished her paper, and then I looked up from my position on the floor and said, ‘Well, are we going to smoke [a joint] or not?’ I was really nervous at first; on my first hit, all the smoke poured out of my mouth immediately, it burned me so. But then I learned to hold it in my lungs, and we smoked it down to the end. Robin got stoned but nothing really happened to me. I felt a mite looser and time was distorted (one side of the record seemed to go on for hours) and I couldn’t type worth beans, but I didn’t consciously feel high. I’m not sure how I feel about it now. My conscious self doesn’t feel guilty about it; the whole event seems like a dream, and it’s hard for me to grasp the reality that I did it. I still can’t see the wrongness of it, and I want to do it again, with Jeanne, in Mexico.”

December 1, 1974 [age 19]:

“I had about 7 glasses of wine last night, but spaced them apart well so that I was never drunk. Bruce had a huge party at his house; I went just to “drop in” for an hour or so and ended up staying till 3:00 in the morning. I played doubles pingpong with Ted for a while, then went back inside to sit in a corner and watch the pool players. I got terribly depressed – though I told myself to mingle with the strangers, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Then Ted sat down beside me in the corner and brought me a Coke, and we had the longest nicest talk we’ve ever had. We talked about traveling around the country this summer (although I don’t know how Mom and Dad would take to that idea). Enchanted, I got up at his bidding to play pool, and there I remained for the rest of the night. I was lousy but we had a good time. [My brother] Marc went home at 2:00 but Ted and I teamed up against a few stragglers. When I got home, Dad was standing in the hall and he unleashed a brief but raging torrent of words at me. Then this morning he came in and apologized to me – for the first time in 19 years! Oh, and I also remembered something embarrassing about last night. I’d been playing pingpong for ages, leaping around and all, with somebody handsome named Tony as my partner, when I found to my disgust and embarrassment that my zipper had been completely open the whole time!”

December 8, 1974 [age 19]:

“I want to briefly describe last night’s dinner, which proves that I do not have a future as a cook. [My brother] Marc and I are home alone; we’d decided to have chili dogs and burritos for dinner. Two mistakes: First, I was using a small pot in which to cook the hot dogs, so I couldn’t use a strainer to steam the buns. Against Marc’s better judgment I put the buns in the oven with the burritos, and when we took them out they were brown and dry and so brittle that Marc SNAPPED them in half. Then, I had left the hot dogs boiling so long that when I lifted off the cover I couldn’t even recognize them anymore, they had grown so big and fat and were split open and just rolling around the pot like malformed whales.”

December 10, 1974 [age 19]:

“Such terrible news, my dear sweet Larry [a pharmacist where I worked at Rexall] is leaving to get his doctorate in pharmacology. I really adore him. People I love are forever being lost to me. Come January he takes off, which makes me sad because he was such a great guy to work for, so nice and intelligent and we always spent every minute kidding around, insulting each other. One time he said I should become a dictator.”

[My 2023 hindsight comment: Hmmm, I’m not sure he was “kidding.” 😆 ]

December 11, 1974 [age 19]:

“We were doing this science experiment in class today [at James Lick High School, where I worked as a teacher’s aide], using a big tall metal ball on a stand which generates static electricity, and Mr. Nash wanted a volunteer with long hair to allow his machine to make their hair stand on end. Well, no one volunteered, so I was chosen, and he must’ve had the machine too powerful, because as I leaned my head near there was this loud “CRACK!” and a huge spark and I got a big shock on my forehead, screamed “OUCH!” in pain and the entire class went into hysterics.”

December 12, 1974 [age 19]:

“In my third period class [at James Lick High School, where I worked as a teacher’s aide] I have made great friends with the teacher, Kathy Giammona, and we sit around and philosophize and speak profundities.”

December 25, 1974 [age 19]:

“Today was a lovely peaceful quiet Christmas day with visits to our old Italian relatives and then a turkey dinner at home. Yesterday was more emotional. I went to Confession and with all the courage I could muster I confessed my experience with dope. In my head I vowed to stop sinning, but then today I’m thinking that I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep that promise.”

Finally a writer!

Finally a writer!

This will be the shortest blog I’ve ever written, but I’m writing it because I am doing handsprings right now – or I would be if I didn’t have a phobia about being upside-down.

You see, a few short minutes ago I was speaking to the editor-in-chief of The San Franciscan, an independent magazine that features excellent writing (including poetry and fiction) and photography.

Everybody who’s anybody in San Francisco subscribes. (Well, I just made that up, but I know it to be at least partially true.)

Last February, the magazine put out a call for submissions. Although I felt that it would be my absolute dream to write for this publication, I did nothing. But my friend Julie R. in Maryland, who also subscribes, e-mailed me this short note:

“I’m sure you [saw this call for submissions], but I just wanted to give it a little boost. You would fit right in this terrific magazine, and you have so much to say about San Francisco.

Don’t say no! At least consider it.”

(That’s the essence of a great friend: someone who can support you while preemptively calling you out on your nonsense.)

After I stopped laughing about “Don’t say no!” I officially wrote to the magazine staff and pointed them to my blog. Not because I had any hopes whatsoever, but just to appease Julie. That’s it.

Months came and went. I assumed there was no interest and it all receded from my memory. Except for my constant simmering feeling that I’d let Julie down.

But then came the out-of-the-blue e-mail from The San Franciscan about a week ago, leading to today’s phone call. It turns out that the magazine wants to publish, in an edited form, my blog post about Margaret Valentine LeLong, who bicycled from Chicago to San Francisco in 1897 (see

It will likely appear in the Winter issue (January), but there’s always a chance it could get pushed off to the Spring.

I just wanted to thank you, dear readers, for sticking with this blog. An acquaintance once complained that my posts are “too long and full of too many facts.” Ha ha. I know that’s true. But some of you continue to read it anyway.

Honestly, a few days before the magazine contacted me, I was contemplating stopping the blog.

But now I’m over the moon.

Blogging is, in my view, a hobby.  Getting published in The San Franciscan, though, means I can finally say I’m a writer.

And I’m reminded of something the acclaimed author Anne Lamott once said:

“Today’s writing advice: Remember, it will not go smoothly, or possibly not even well. Butt in chair: just do it, one disappointing paragraph at a time. Victory!”


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.

August 3, 1974 [age 18]:

“The family is gone and I had just settled down for an evening of listening to records when Ted and Joe arrived, prepared to see a movie. We procrastinated so much that we decided to go into the City instead, then threw out that idea and ended up driving blindly along Highway 17 hoping to run into the Nimitz drive-ins, which we did, and saw ‘The Skin Game’ and ‘Uptown Saturday Night’ till 2:30. Then Ted and I dropped Joe off and went out for breakfast – omelets and hotcakes – and had a nice talk about ruts and freedom. It is now 4:30 in the morning, and I just walked in the house, which if the parents knew would, I am sure, cause them to lapse into terrible fits.”

August 8, 1974 [age 18]:

“[My aunt and uncle] Jackie and Fred are downstairs with Mom listening to news reports on Nixon’s resignation speech. Dad is driving wildly out to the San Jose Municipal Golf Course after [my brother] Marc, at whom he is totally furious for going golf-ball-hunting out at 11:30 at night. In fact, he just arrived home without my poor brother, prepared, I am sure, to kill him. [My sister] Janine and [my 4-year-old cousin] Lisa are in bed next to me, chattering about all kinds of things. And I am listening to Dylan on my new earphones, agonizing over life.”

August 20, 1974 [age 18]:

“I’ve pretty much decided to take a year off school and apply for a real job for next year. Dad suggested that I apply to the ESUHSD [Eastside Union High School District, where he was a principal] as a teacher’s aide, which would be six hours a day and $500 a month, and I could keep my job at Rexall. So I went down to the district office yesterday to apply. I was scared sitting alone at a big desk with an electric typewriter and a timer for my typing test. My fingers were trembling uncontrollably and I was expected to type 40-45 words a minute but I managed only 20 words a minute with myriad mistakes. It was so embarrassing! I called later and they said I got a 92% on the written part but that I should come in again today to try to do better with my typing. This time I skidded through with 37 wpm and 3 mistakes. So I had an interview with Mr. Peters [at James Lick High School], who said he WILL hire me if I commit myself for the full school year. I have a week to think about it. Meanwhile I also applied to B. Dalton’s [a bookstore chain] this morning. Working in a bookstore would of course be my dream job – unless I were Bobby Dylan’s personal chauffeur.”

August 17, 1974 [age 18]:

“Last night after work I hit the record stores with Marc and Joe to take advantage of sales (I bought ‘Tea for the Tillerman’ and ‘Blonde on Blonde’ and “Nashville Skyline’ and the Byrds), then we played poker at Morris’ house and had pizza at Lord Byron’s. I was off by myself at the pizza place trying desperately to beat the driving machine and finally succeeded after feeding it four quarters. Then today I went to San Francisco with Carolyn. We parked the car at USF and took a bus down to see ‘Godspell,’ then to dinner at Slater Hawkins, then back to see another play, ‘Grease,’ – a Broadway play. I really loved both plays AND my sirloin tips dinner and with student rush tickets plus the Diner’s Card I managed to do the whole town on $10! But God! How I love the City! If only I could live there! It was cool and windy and clear and oh that sweet breathtaking moment when we came out of the play: sharp night, lights in a million brilliant colors, crowds of people, and the beautiful San Francisco skyline.”

August 31, 1974 [age 18]:

“Well, gang, I have done it. I called Mr. Peters and informed him that I will be taking a year off from college and will accept the [high school] teacher’s aide job for the next year. I should be grossing $450 a month, with $50 going to Mom and Dad for room and board, and some towards my car until I pay it off. But oh, I want to be a writer. If I could do it, if I had an ounce of talent, I would write an immense Wolfean epic incorporating the whole of America’s life and substance into it. I also have a deep sense of nostalgia and a dark awareness of the bitter brevity of life.”

September 1, 1974 [age 18]:

“I lost an important store key at work [Rexall Drugs] today and emerged frustrated with a sore back. [My friend] Morris and I went out to get corn dogs on 1st Street and eat sundaes at Farrell’s. He has a profound belief in me as a writer. Then until midnight I talked with [my friends] Ted and Frank, who is newly returned from Canada. For an hour and a half straight I stared transfixed at Frank’s long blond hair and his beard and his deep kind eyes of some Christ-like god.”

September 2, 1974 [age 18]:

“[Our neighbors] The Schweglers had a dinner for [our neighbors] the Dunns and all I know of today is that I gorged myself on food and drink like some obscenely fat Roman emperor.”

September 3, 1974 [age 18]:

“A surprise today regarding the teacher aide job I thought I was getting. Apparently Mr. Peters [the principal] has been getting some static from a higher-up named Mr. Salazar, whose daughter also applied for the job. Mr. Salazar says that I wouldn’t be able to relate to Black and Chicano kids. It kind of hurts my feelings and makes me mad at the same time because I am just going to be helping the students with their reading and math and I think they will like me. The verdict will be reached sometime this week so I just need to wait and see what happens. The suspense is terrifying. With uncontrollable longing I watched the boys depart for college this morning, and with aching regret I listened to them chatter excitedly about green sheets and Togo’s sandwiches. If I indeed do get the opportunity to be a teacher’s aide, then my burning desire to be of some value will be satisfied. But if not, the days will be dry and tasteless, and I will be a lonesome dropout.”

September 4, 1974 [age 18]:

“No word about my job yet. Today I dragged Mom and [my sister] Janine up to the City on a ridiculous strange chase to gather material for my writing project that I have tentatively entitled ‘San Francisco and Onward,’ a project which may well fizzle out before it gets off the ground. Needless to say, I gathered no material. Instead, there were lots of maps and parking lots. All we did were 1) buy cold cuts, 2) go to City Lights bookstore, and 3) eat lunch at a Chinese restaurant that was so expensive that all we could afford was a huge pile of fried wontons. I ate a MOUNTAIN of them and got really embarrassed because the waiters were pointing and laughing.”

The joy of discovery

The joy of discovery

Every so often I descend into a blackout period.

And no, I’m not talking about drinking excessively, although I’m not one to rule that out.

I’m talking about my personal rule when it comes to new experiences. For example, let’s say I’m going to see a concert. And let’s randomly say it’s Springsteen. If I wanted to, I could go online and pull up the setlists from every show on the current tour. I could find out about all the surprises so far, all the old chestnuts he’s been grabbing from his back pocket. And if I were to dig a bit further, I could read about the killer solos, Bruce’s hilarious stories, and what bandana colors Little Steven wore.

But I don’t want to know these things in advance, because then there is no element of surprise, and thus less of a chance for joy.

So I declare an “information blackout.” I do no research, and I allow no one to tell me about anything remotely related to the experience.

That’s because I want that mind-blowing, sudden rush of adrenaline made possible only by the unexpected.


I fully acknowledge the benefits the Internet has brought. Health and medical information at our fingertips, for example. I can now dash online and find out what fatal illness I’ve contracted when the tiniest inkling of a symptom shows up. And I can find a support group.

Nevertheless, I think the ability to know everything has robbed us of the joy of discovery. Of surprise. Of astonishment.

In 1980 I set off with a girlfriend in a ’67 VW bus that she had converted to an RV. (Well, an RV with zero amenities.) Neither of us had driven to other states before, and our goal was to cover the entire country by car, mostly by camping out. We had neither cell phones nor navigation systems. All we had were paper maps. We had no idea what we would find, and little idea what the rest of the country even looked like. Every day was a discovery. We befriended strangers, tried new foods, stumbled onto beautiful parks, heard new accents, completely immersed ourselves in different ways of living, and followed uncharted roads – all with no planning.

Is that possible today? It is, in theory, but no one would do it. Instead we sit for hours at our phones or computers, planning out each move, checking Yelp or TripAdvisor to ensure that our experiences will be “five-star.”

Of course, the problem with uber-planned experiences is that they don’t bring joy. Either they’re a disappointment or they merely live up to our expectations. Very little exceeds our expectations.


In the old days, discovering music and artists was possible in one of two ways. Typically, we would hear new stuff on the radio (limited to a handful of Top 40 AM stations and, later, a few savvy DJs on FM stations). It was out of our control, of course; we were at the mercy of what the DJs played and, if we had a favorite song, we had to be lucky enough to be tuned into the right station at the right time to hear it. I remember loving “The Sound of Silence” and feeling ecstatic when I happened to catch it on the radio. Those first few notes and – whoosh – a shot of adrenaline.

Christmas 1971

Or, if we hankered for something new, we could buy a record and take our chances. Because I had limited funds in those days, I shopped mainly at used record stores. My favorite record haunt in San Jose would slap a colored sticker on each record to denote the condition of the album. I would gently remove the LP from the sleeve, hold it up to the light, squint, and look carefully for scratches or pits. Most of the time my method worked. I’d bring the record home, set the needle down into the grooves, and listen to a dozen new songs with tremendous anticipation. Usually at least one would bring me great joy, but if I was lucky, it would be an entire album.


Getting tickets to a concert used to be a feat of endurance, patience, and ingenuity. Pre-Internet, there were essentially two choices: you could use your phone to repeatedly dial TicketMaster (or BASS or whoever your local ticket broker was) and hope that you’d be lucky enough to get through. It worked a couple of times for me but ultimately it became nearly impossible.

The other option was the most reliable: you’d line up. Hours in advance. Perhaps a day in advance. I’d join a line of die-hards in the frigid San Francisco dawn and hope that the tickets wouldn’t run out before I made it to the counter. It was a crapshoot. My legs would ache. My closest nail-biter was the time I waited in line at the Record Factory for Springsteen tickets in September 1980. In those days, BASS (Bay Area Seating Service) sold concert tickets in person at record stores. Three of us got in line in the morning, behind only about 20 people, but the machines were so slow that my two companions left me sometime during the day and I was still there at 5:15 p.m. Beyond my aching legs, the greater problem was that the BASS computers in those days shut down at 5:25 p.m. on the dot. Everyone knew that tickets were running out any minute, and the line could be cut off right in our faces. The people behind me were really vocal and getting obnoxious, trying to physically insinuate themselves ahead of me. But I was not about to let that happen and held my ground with some well-placed elbows. And as karma would have it, I was the very last person to get tickets. Behind the stage. At 5:23.

(I don’t exaggerate. It’s in my diary.)

I was ecstatic. Getting tickets was a crapshoot, and I’d won.

“This is bullshit!” one of the scorned women behind me screamed. “We should have gotten those tickets! We’re FROM NEW JERSEY!”

I kind of got her point.

My actual stub


That old process may have been brutal, but it separated the true fans from the rest of the plebes. Now a guy with a keyboard or a screen can casually sit at home eating a hoagie while buying tickets for a show he may or may not decide to attend. After all, he can always scalp them. And it’s just easier to sit on the couch. After all, the show will stream online somewhere, right?


People don’t call each other on the phone much nowadays, and when they do, they often text each other first and make a “date” for the call. There is just zero spontaneity anymore. Imagine growing up the way I did, when the phone rang and we had no idea who was on the other end of the line. Yes, it could be a huge disappointment to lift up that receiver, but much of the time it was a lovely surprise.

My grandmother’s phone (on my desk)

In the late seventies, long before there were personal cell phones, I was visiting my grandparents in southern California and absolutely obsessing about a girl I’d just met in San Francisco. Someone who would turn out to be my first love, although I didn’t know that at the time. I was dying to talk to her, but of course I couldn’t place a call from my grandparents’ phone, which was on a desk in their kitchen. So, with a pocketful of as many quarters as I could scrounge, I peeled off in my ’71 Corolla with an excuse I can’t remember. It was winter, and the rain was pounding. I drove around the dark wet L.A. streets until I found a phone booth, pulled over, and ran through the rain giddily to the booth. I had no idea whether she would be home, but my heart was screaming with hope. I was cold and soaked and that only made it sweeter. And decidedly more romantic.



Thrill. Avalanche of adrenaline.

Public phone booth on San Vicente Boulevard in Los Angeles, California


Before all of us had Internet access, places like restaurants got their reputations primarily through word of mouth. There were exquisite little neighborhood spots that were known mainly to people in the ’hood because people all over the country weren’t Googling “artisanal tapas places” and taking over local joints to the detriment of the actual locals.

The same was true with attractions like national parks. You couldn’t make reservations in advance (there was no such thing) and had to make the effort to travel to different places and scope them out on your own. Effort and risk. Maybe a particular trail was a bust, or just maybe it led to the most gorgeous, solitary view you’d ever seen in your life.

But times have changed. A woman named Andrea Howe tweeted recently: “At Disneyland with the family and probably 50% of toddlers are strapped in their strollers on iPads or phones. At Disneyland. We are so screwed.”


Arden Wood Christian Science Community

I walk my dog Buster every day and pass scores of other dog walkers in the neighborhood. To my dismay, I’ve noted that about 90 percent of the people are staring down at their phones. Nevermind that they’re completely ignoring their pets, who could be meandering through foxtails, stepping in gopher holes, or ingesting something unimaginable. These people are also missing out on the world around them. On one of my walks a few years ago I found myself peering through an iron gate and exclaiming to Buster (yes, I do that!) about the beautiful gardens that lay behind the gate. It looked like Eden in there. Just then, one of the residents came up behind me and trustingly let us in. On the grounds was a Christian Science retirement home, and I ended up befriending the resident, Joanne, with whom I had lunch on more than one occasion. (By the way, those Christian Scientists go all out in their retirement facilities and their meals are incredible!) She was a sculptor from New York, full of gritty metropolitan stories, and I’ll never forget that serendipitous moment we met.

On another dog-walk last year, I met a man who’d written a book about Abraham Lincoln. We had a long chat and he insisted that I wait while he zipped inside to retrieve a copy before sending me off with it! Julie couldn’t understand how I walked out the door with a dog and came back hefting a book about Lincoln.

When I’m not meeting local characters, I’m happy to check out old houses, say good morning to my neighbors, smell the food and coffee up on West Portal, and take in the ocean view.

Cell phone not required.


The Chronicle recently ran a story about how Major League Baseball was taking a look at “augmented reality.” Fans at the ballpark could hold their phones in front of their faces – while the game was going on! – and their screens would overlay the action with stats and diagrams showing trajectories, launch angles, velocities, fielders’ ability to cover ground in a certain amount of time, and other bits of information completely unnecessary to the appreciation of baseball. The league execs didn’t think that youngsters could appreciate the beautiful and delicate balance of the game without augmentation.

I hope it’s a long time before this abomination comes to fruition. Never mind that micro stats don’t enhance real fans’ appreciation of baseball one iota. More importantly, what about the senses? The crack of the bat, the umpire’s call, the smell of a hotdog, the first refreshing sip of a cold beer?

And how about the swift thrill of a great diving catch?


Again, I admit that knowledge at our fingertips can be helpful. For example, not long ago I drank a huge slug of Gatorade before I realized that a big slimy blob of something had slid down my throat. I was pretty sure it was mold, because the opened bottle had been on the counter for weeks. In a panic I rushed to the Internet, which reassured me that stomach acid would take care of it. Since I have enough stomach acid to dissolve heavy metals, I figured it would be okay.

That was a relief. Now, what would have happened in 1974? Well, perhaps the end result would have been the same. I would have panicked, Mom would have told me I’d be fine, and I would have just gone about my business, because there was no Internet to potentially convince me I was doomed!


I don’t think this is too far off topic, but I’ve read lately that young people aren’t having much sex anymore. And that was the case before the pandemic kept them physically apart. It’s just more engaging to be connected to their screens. Less effort. Less risk.

(I don’t understand it. Honestly, I always say that at the end of my life my one regret will be that I didn’t have more sex!)

Today’s kids also, apparently, care less about driving than my generation did. When I was young, we couldn’t wait to drive. It was all about freedom, yes. But it was also about the full engagement of the senses. The radio blaring, the windows down, the wheel in our hands, the smell of grass in the summertime.

And we never knew what was around the next bend.


Sitting on our butts in front of a screen doesn’t yield joy at all. The brain gets wrapped up in repetition and reward, and that fulfills us in some way.

Pulling ourselves away from our screens takes effort, doesn’t it? And it allows for chance, which means there is risk involved.

Risk and effort, I think, build character. Do we always need to get exactly what we want? And do we always need to know exactly what is coming our way?

Sometimes we actually have to work for the unexpected.

Because if we’re constantly connected, and constantly in front of a screen, then that, my friends, marks the end of happenstance.


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.

May 28, 1974 [age 18]:

“Today was rather a day of torture, for I believe I studied more than I have ever done in my life. We are having a final midterm in Drama tomorrow (I am a borderline B-/C+), and I have to read over seven plays, five essays, and my notes. The task was almost impossible. I studied from the moment I got home from school till the moment I went to work, than at work from 7:00 to 9:00, then for an hour on the phone with a friend, then until 11:30, when I plunged into sleep, and then I dragged myself out of bed at 5:00 this morning and studied until I had to get ready at 7:00. It was absolute murder. I kept getting all of Chekhov’s characters in the 3 plays we read all mixed up – all those Russian names, and everyone seems to be alike, representing work or degeneration or age or a love of the past or whatever. So then this morning what does he give us but a final unlike anything he had described, with no terms and no quotations but only a few relatively easy essays! I almost flipped! But I would rather have studied in vain than to have studied insufficiently. Then I whizzed over to my Speech class, looked at my current grade, decided I was too strongly an “A” to take the last quiz, and drove home happy.”

May 30, 1974 [age 18]:

“The times are strange. I’m in some sort of limbo now, intense schoolwork behind but fragments of studying still necessary now and then for my remaining finals. And when I am free of all this, what then? What will summer hold for me but more working at Rexall? Ha! We look for dreams, we in our eager youth. We await our long, romantic summers and the lovers who will come to us one day and carry off our hearts. We look for trains and blurring landscapes and new faces. And yet – I have so much to learn, so much naivete to conquer, so much more SAN JOSE to cope with.”

June 7, 1974 [age 18]:

“Carolyn called tonight, saying that she and her sister were going out to a movie, and would [my sister] Janine and I like to go? I drove – we had decided on ‘The Sting’ – and the movie was good but certainly didn’t deserve Best Picture. (I still vote for ‘American Graffiti.’) The funny thing is that while we were driving to the theater, Carolyn was showing me a ‘shortcut’ and only when I was about to turn onto an on-ramp did I realize that I was going onto the terribly crowded [Highway] 17, so I screamed ‘No! I can’t merge!’ and I stopped the car right on the on-ramp and got out and made Carolyn run into the driver’s seat so she could take over and do the merge.”

June 16, 1974 [age 18]:

“I managed to get enough courage today to ask the boss for a raise. After a long runaround he gave in and raised me 10 cents, so I am now making a mighty $2.00 per hour!”
Two days later:
“I had told Mr. Jordahl [my boss] some time ago that I’d love to fly ’cross-country this summer but my finances were holding me back. So today he turns to me and says, ‘Well, I figured out on my pocket calculator that if I give you $2.10 an hour this summer, that’ll be 92 extra dollars to fly back East with.’ So I stared, openmouthed, thanked him more than once, and came out with a 20-cent raise in two days!”

June 25, 1974 [age 18]: [Ed.’s note: And to think my career goal was to become a detective]

“I don’t know why I don’t notice things sometimes. There was a strange incident tonight as I sat at my desk. I noticed a most peculiar and obnoxious smell. But, true to form, I remained innocently oblivious, until Mom came in because she could smell the powerful odor. It turned out that something had gone wrong with my desk lamp, and two inches away from my face it had become so immensely hot inside that the base of the lamp had melted, sinking in on top, and burning my desk underneath. The whole family cannot believe how I could NOT have noticed it, TWO INCHES AWAY, and now I am paying for the consequences with a headache and nausea from the plastic fumes.”

June 27, 1974 [age 18]:

“I’ve realized that the terrible idea which has succeeded in filling me with so much anguish is the expectation of spending almost my life savings on a plane ticket in August. So, now I’ve decided to forget the possibility of such a trip, at least for the present (perhaps a golden opportunity will show up). So today I instead bought a most wonderful bodyshirt, completely to my expectations, white, long-sleeved, soft, with strawberries, and hopefully, as soon as I can find a pair, I’m going to get some long white pants and wear my new clean whiteness to see Cat Stevens.”

July 4, 1974 [age 18]:

“I made a hasty, wild decision to drive up to San Francisco alone today to ‘write.’ For the most part, I had a grand time, enraptured by the city I love so well for its magic. I should hopefully be able to express these feelings soon in my journal. The facts are these: Most of the day was spent ‘in search of’ something, because I don’t know my way around San Francisco yet, and I have a TRAGIC sense of direction. After finding a bathroom, I settled down to eat four pieces of Fish ’n’ Chips (I had wandered around the wharf for a long while, gazing at the fish and smelling their delicious, salty smells, but alas – they were too expensive) and read the newspaper to find out about any exciting events. I read that the composer of ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ would be performing in the Cannery, so I struck out for there because I HAD to see him. Afterwards I wandered some more, played pinball machines, went to Ghirardelli Square, and saw a cinematic show called ‘The San Francisco Experience,’ which didn’t inspire me at all except for the idea that the city was ‘indifferent to fate.’ I then decided to eat in Chinatown, but, after a nightmare of driving, unable to park, I left in frustration. Finally, I settled down for a few minutes in the park where Jeanne and Carl and I had sat years before, wrote a bit, and gazed out to sea.”

July 6, 1974 [age 18]:

“Whew, this weekend has been rather crazy. I went to the library this morning, the big one, in search of information about San Francisco for my notebook, then to the Pruneyard to see ‘Our Time,’ a depressing story about a girl who gets pregnant and then dies. Then home to eat fish ‘n’ chips, and to Church. Though I settled down for what I thought would be a quiet evening, Ted and Joe and Bruce appeared, and soon, after a futile search for a movie to see, we somehow decided to go to Santa Cruz. So at 9:00 at night we drove over the hill to the Boardwalk in our shirtsleeves. We spent all of our coins in the Arcade and I loved it. There was a warm breeze and I had a great talk with Ted and I felt like the whole beautiful world was mine. Unfortunately we had to be home by midnight for Bruce Otherwise, I would have liked to have done innumerable crazy things.”

July 11, 1974 [age 18]:

“I finished another piece of writing for my journal tonight (or this morning, rather) which put me into a happy state and kept me there for the rest of the day. A writer’s work is every bit as hard as Thomas Wolfe portrayed it to be. You sweat blood.”

July 27, 1974 [age 18]:

“I was [a bridesmaid] in Colleen’s wedding today. I had three thoughts before I went: I was 1) curious about how to wear a long dress, 2) dreading the dancing, and 3) totally eager to eat at the reception. But when the moment came I shook like a leaf, and heard later that my nervousness was quite apparent all during my walk down the aisle. Tom Gallo, practically an Adonis among men, in my opinion, was my escort.”

July 31, 1974 [age 18]:

“The law enforcement classes which I so desperately need are closed, and it will do me no good to maintain a partial schedule, since I will still be forced to go to school an extra semester. Therefore I have decided not to go to school next semester (or most likely for a year) but seek alternatives. I need to leave myself some time to catch up to the world, else I will be graduating at 20 without ever having lived at all. My dream is to go up to San Francisco, the place so dear to my heart, to live for a while. Mom was dubious about it, repeating that I was “making a mistake,” but Dad even offered suggestions on where I could work in San Jose. I would like to work for the phone company and be one of those collectors who drive around and get coins out of phone booths.”

In search of purpose

In search of purpose

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?”

October 26, 1973 [age 17]:

“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.”

November 25, 1973 [age 18]:

“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.”

February 11, 1974 [age 18]:

“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.”

March 1, 1974 [age 18]:

“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!”

March 15, 1974 [age 18]:

“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.”

Paula’s pandemic pointers

Paula’s pandemic pointers

I may have committed a felony last week. I’m not really sure. But it involved throwing a bag of bagels from a 10th-story balcony.

This coronavirus can really mess with one’s routine.

I don’t know whether the act of throwing something down to the street from 10 stories up is illegal. When I first looked it up, I found the term defenestration, which I always thought meant the act of shaving one’s legs. Anyway, although defenestration does mean throwing something or someone out of a window, it apparently connotes an impulse both deliberate and forceful, especially when it comes to tossing one’s enemies out onto the street to kill them.

My online reading of the California Penal Code proved inconclusive. I mean, I came away pretty sure that if the bagels were thrown deliberately to hurt someone, it would be considered an assault. (Especially if the bagels were stale.) However, if there was no malicious intent . . . well, that wasn’t directly addressed.

Finally, I cryptically texted a police officer friend and asked whether, hypothetically, it would be illegal to toss a bag of bagels off of a 10th-floor balcony towards a person waiting to catch them. “Of course not!!” was the response. “Unless it hits them on the head and kills them. Then you might be looking at a murder charge!”


I was supposed to be on my biennial train trip to the East Coast right now. Boo hoo. Instead, I’m cooped up just like the rest of you, but I’m one of the luckier ones because I have no aging parents to worry about, no children to homeschool, and no paychecks to forego. My heart goes out to everyone suffering from the disease or its economic effects, and my deepest respect goes out to everyone on the front lines keeping my vulnerable arse safer – delivery people, grocery clerks, mail carriers, and especially health care workers.

So I’ve decided to do what little good I can and help you all through the pandemic by recommending the top 10 products (and activities) I’ve discovered while sheltering in place.

You’re welcome.


Recommendation #10: Do something so silly it makes you giggle.

Regarding the above-mentioned felony: My friend Char Sachson recently mentioned that she was baking homemade bagels and that we should let her know if we wanted any. After that conversation, the only thing on my mind, 24 hours a day, was the possibility of nabbing some of those bagels.

The only slight glitch was that she lives in a high-rise condo building, and for various health and logistical reasons it was best that we not do a personal handoff. So she suggested the “bagel drop.” This would involve her sending the bagels plummeting to earth from her 10th-floor balcony.

IMG_0827 with red circle
View from street up to Char’s balcony. Char is circled in red.

Char said that she would make us three kinds of bagels, put each type in its own paper bag, then put all three paper bags into a bigger paper bag. Julie and I would drive down to her neighborhood near the Civic Center, park on Franklin Street, and get into position under her balcony for the drop. On the way there, Julie and I were on the phone with Char, plotting the details of the caper and laughing harder than we had since this whole pandemic started. I mentioned that we had recently gotten some cream cheese delivered so it would be a perfect time to acquire the bagels. That’s when Julie commented that she liked jalapeños on hers, and Char was aghast. “Only a shiksa would put peppers on a bagel,” she scoffed.

That made us laugh even harder.

Sure enough, there were a couple of parking spaces right near Char’s balcony. We’d decided that Julie would attempt to make The Catch. We were both wearing masks, but she was also wearing her baseball glove. My job was to take photos and hope that the “sports mode” on my camera, which shoots multiple frames per second, would capture the exact moment of the catch.

IMG_5479-1 with red circle and arrow
Char took this photo. Julie, awaiting the drop, is circled in red (with red arrow pointing to her).

We positioned ourselves and gave the sign that we were ready. Char let ’er rip. The bagels fell to earth much faster and harder than we had anticipated. Julie said she hadn’t accounted for wind and trajectory. The bag smacked off Julie’s glove, caromed off her forearm, and then hit the pavement with an explosive boom that echoed far down the city streets.

I had my camera trained on the right spot but never even saw the bagels come down. I just heard the boom. As bad luck would have it, the camera’s shutter captured only the moment before and the moment after impact. Dang!

Julie was okay, although her arm was a bit sore. All three interior bagel bags ripped open on impact, but the outer bag survived and kept the bagels from rolling into Franklin Street. And the bagels were, thankfully, intact.


Julie preparing to catch bagels
Julie milliseconds before impact.

My friend Julie Riffle, after I’d recounted the story to her, said that we should have calculated the force of impact beforehand. Well, I never took physics, so that had not occurred to me. She actually spent some time after the incident to perform a number of calculations (with the disclaimer that she hopes no physicists are reading this blog because these are very rough estimates) and concluded that “the force at impact is dependent on the surface it impacts. If the surface is soft and gives, the impact is less, or if the object itself gives, the impact will be less. This makes it very hard to calculate since the bagels first glanced off of Julie’s glove and arm, which would have lessened the impact. And then there’s the effect of the bagels (and/or bag) being displaced upon impact with Julie and ultimately the sidewalk. So, I started with the default for d (distance traveled after impact), 0.1 m representing the movement of Julie’s arm after impact. This gave the result in Newtons which equals 609.18 lbs of force at impact. But if the bagels had missed Julie and hit the sidewalk, the distance traveled after impact would have been only the displacement of the bag and/or bagels, since the sidewalk would have presumably not been displaced. This would result in greater impact.”

Does anyone understand that?

By the way, she also commented that Char should have made a tiny parachute for the bagels. Maybe next time.

Char’s delightful and delicious bagels


Recommendation #9: Toss the Caravella.

Limoncello has been all the rage in the States for some time now. It was first offered to my parents and me back in 1998 on our trip to Italy. We were sitting outside our small hotel on the outskirts of Rome. Our young waiter poured it for us and told us that it “helps with digestion.” He also told us, excitedly, that he was soon going to California with his girlfriend and was especially looking forward to seeing “Joe’s Meat.” We were puzzled. It came to me, though, after a few seconds. “Ah,” I said, “Yosemite!”


I was quite pleased with myself for figuring this out before my parents did.

Anyway, as you all surely know, limoncello is a lemon liqueur. People over here often say “lemonchello” but it’s actually pronounced “LEEmonchello.”

We’ve been buying the Caravella brand, which is the only kind carried by Safeway, our local supermarket. But a couple of weeks ago we picked up an order of wine (I just can’t get enough of it these days) at our neighborhood wine store (curbside), and we noticed on the store’s website that they carried only one kind of limoncello and it was not Caravella. It was Il Convento. I don’t like change, so I was skeptical, but I finally agreed to give it a try.

It was glorious. Birds started singing when I brought the tiny glass of liqueur to my lips. It was not thickly sweet like the Caravella. The consistency was lighter. The color was a yellow pastel. It tasted more like lemons, and like Italy. It was springtime in a bottle.

Il Convento. Get some.


Recommendation #8: Poo-Pourri. Go with it.


I don’t think I need to dwell too long on this product, in case you’re reading this blog post over breakfast. Suffice it to say that about a year ago, some friends suggested that Poo-Pourri is an essential suitcase item for travelers sharing hotel rooms. You spritz it into the toilet before you go, and it covers up any odors. I had my doubts but added “Buy Poo-Pourri” to my Microsoft Outlook calendar, a year into the future. Well, the year came ’round, the “reminder” popped up, and I decided to give the product a try. Danged if it doesn’t work like a charm. And it doesn’t work by just covering the odor with a strong, cloying smell, which is what I feared. It just makes the odor disappear altogether. A miracle! I don’t understand it. Anyway, many lovely scents are available, but I would recommend buying the sample pack and figuring out which one you like. The vanilla mint is, in my view, especially nice.


Recommendation #7: Crisp some prosciutto in the microwave.

It’s quite possible that the mere suggestion of microwaving prosciutto could be considered a crime of heresy in Italy and could net you some jail time. I know my nonna would thrash around in her grave if she were to catch wind of this nonsense. I’ve been eating this thin-sliced Italian ham delicacy my entire life and never heard of microwaving it until this pandemic. But Julie discovered it online and then used it to slightly modify a recipe she found for Prosciutto Pasta with Peas and Parmesan Cheese. - prosciutto-pasta-peas-parmesan-cheese
Prosciutto Pasta with Peas and Parmesan Cheese

Let me just say that the result entered the realm of the god-like. The microwaved prosciutto is crispy, and a bit like bacon, but much more delicate and, in my opinion, much more concentrated and flavorful.

I interviewed Julie so that I could properly replicate her technique:
Microwave-crisped prosciutto

“Line a microwaveable plate with two layers of paper towels,” she says. “Lay 2-3 slices of prosciutto on the plate, then cover with another single layer of paper towels. Microwave for one minute. If it doesn’t look too fried, do another 30 seconds and continue microwaving for 30-second intervals until it is crisped. Remove plate from microwave and use a paper towel to wipe off any grease sitting on the prosciutto. Let it cool for a bit. Once it’s cool enough to touch, crumble each slice into small pieces. Then sprinkle it over the pasta.”

Give it a shot!


Recommendation #6: Embrace your hair.

Julie says my hair looks like the Wizard of Oz. Our niece Tara merely says it looks “voluminous.”


Recommendation #5: Try Mark Bittman’s no-knead bread recipe.

The aforementioned Char Sachson – who apparently has become a baker extraordinaire – suggested that we try making our own bread. I used to bake sourdough bread but it was a pain in the arse and never really worked for me. Julie groaned at the thought of kneading bread. But the recipe Char recommended requires no kneading! In fact, it is called “No Knead Bread,” and although it takes 15-21 hours to make, the dough is “largely unattended” and probably requires only 30 minutes or so of effort on your part.  Each loaf is a perfect loaf, every time.

Bread 2
Julie made this wonderfulness!


Recommendation #4: Have a delightful time exercisingfinally.

Many of you know that I hate exercise and that occasionally I work out for only 30 seconds at a time and consider that a coup. We recently bought a stationary bike and I glumly figured I would never warm to it – until I discovered BitGym.

BitGym is an app. I don’t normally like apps of any kind. But this one is a marvel.

Everyone around me is sick to death of hearing me waxing poetic about BitGym, but in a nutshell it makes you feel like you are riding your bike through the California redwoods or on the streets of Paris or along the Atlantic shore. And you need no special hardware or connections whatsoever! More than 170 high-resolution video rides are available (they add more every month), and these are real trips that volunteers? employees? drones? have filmed, complete with location sound so that you can hear the leaves rustling, birds singing, hikers clomping, waterfalls roaring. By tracking your eye movements the app knows that you are exercising, so as soon as you start pedaling the landscape starts flowing. I hooked my phone up to our TV so that the gorgeous scenery is up on a huge screen and I actually do believe that I am biking through Nova Scotia. When the company says its rides are “immersive,” they are not kidding. In fact – and I am not making this up – on more than one occasion I have felt like I was too close to a cliff and about to tumble off the side of a mountain, so I’ve actually yelled, “Be careful!” to myself!

I love this thing.

The free version, which I used for a while, limits the user to 10 minutes per “tour,” and the choices are fewer. The pro version costs me $8 a month, but I think it now may be up to $10 or so. EXCEPT that the company is making it completely free through May 31 because so many of us are quarantined!!! Isn’t that lovely??


Let me tell you, I can get on that bike and pedal for way more than 30 seconds – maybe up to 45 minutes or so – and feel like it’s nothing.

And you don’t have to worry about flat tires, traffic, or bad weather! The weather in our downstairs room is always a perfect 55 degrees.

By the way, you don’t necessarily need a bike. You can use it with other aerobic machines like treadmills or ellipticals or rowers.

So if you want to make your workouts more pleasant, please give this app a shot and then thank me profusely later.

[Note: Unfortunately, my back pain is not allowing me to ride our stationary bike anymore – for now, at least. But if it ever gets better, you’ll find me in our downstairs room, merrily riding through a jungle in Costa Rica.]


Recommendation #3: Get some Bob’s Red Mill cookie mix.

Wouldn’t it be great to bake the perfect chocolate chip cookie from – gasp! – a mix?

Well, it’s not only possible but a certainty.

And you’d be supporting Bob’s Red Mill.

Bob Moore, the founder of this wondrous company, is 91 years old. He got into the milling biz quite late in life, which is a minor story unto itself. He was living in southern California, working at gas stations and tire stores, when he strolled into a library and randomly pulled John Goffe’s Mill off the shelves. The book is about a man with zero experience who bought an old grain mill.

Well, that sounds fun, doesn’t it? At least, it did to Bob.

Long story short, Bob and his wife Charlee bought an abandoned mill in 1978. Its headquarters are now in Milwaukie, Oregon, and you’ve probably seen Bob’s natural, organic stone-ground flours and steel-cut oats on your grocery shelves.

Charlee – the love of Bob’s life –passed away in 2018, and Bob’s Red Mill is estimated to be worth around $100 million. But he refuses to sell. Instead, he’s transferred ownership of his company to his 500+ employees, with their shares dependent upon how long they’ve worked there. The man is a gem.

Bob's Red Mill Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Cookie Mix

The company makes over 400 products. But the best might be the Chocolate Chip Cookie Mix. The mix is gluten-free, which might be an added bonus for some of you. The website says that it is “a taste of childhood,” which is absolutely true. It’s easy to prepare (you add eggs, water, and butter) and the website notes that you can use their “Egg Replacer,” which we did because we had no real ones. Even though I normally eschew substitutions, we heartily recommend the Egg Replacer!

Finally, the site says that the cookie mix is “crafted to achieve crispy edges and a soft inside.” Also absolutely true!

And that’s why it’s the perfect chocolate chip cookie: just the right amount of chocolate and the right amount of sweetness, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.

Unfortunately, these days the mix goes in and out of stock on the Bob’s Red Mill site seemingly every few minutes ( It’s also sometimes available on other sites online. A package costs $6.49.

Grab some when you can – quick.


Recommendation #2: Buy this shirt.

I’m sure I’ve driven my health care family and friends nuts because I thank them for their public service every single time I talk to them. I mean, at least two have been working directly with COVID-19 patients! So I bought this Life Is Good t-shirt, and I wear it regularly, in their honor. It costs $28.




By the way, the company donates 10 percent of its net profits to The Life Is Good Kids Foundation, which “focuses on improving the capacity of childcare professionals to build healing, life-changing relationships with the most vulnerable kids in their care. Today there are over 10,000 Life Is Good Playmakers who have helped over 1 million kids heal from the trauma of poverty, violence and illness.”

Thank you to Alicia Darnell, Lynne Eckerson, Jane Malone, Julie Riffle, and all the healthcare workers out there.

As for the rest of you, you can shell out 28 bucks for this adorable and meaningful t-shirt, can’t you?


And my #1 recommendation: Dole out compliments for others’ endeavors.

I’ve been trying to play the piano lately. I took a year of lessons when I was 7 years old and I still have the old piano my parents bought me, as well as my old music books. I am terrible, of course, and I’m not being falsely modest in any way. I can read most of the notes in the treble clef (right hand) and a few in the bass clef (left hand), and that’s it. The only songs I attempt to play are patriotic tunes and antiquated folk ballads. My technique involves sporadic plunking at a dirgelike tempo while I hit at least 30 percent bad notes. (Much like a 7-year-old beginner.) My showpiece tune is a sluggish version of “My Old Kentucky Home,” which I’ve played on the order of 3,000 times.


I try to play only on weekdays, and only when our doors and windows are shut so there is no chance of anyone hearing me. However, the other day my sweet young (yes, to me 30-ish is young) next-door neighbor texted me the following:

“I heard you on the piano on Wednesday last week. It was beautiful! I could have listened to you play all day! It reminds me of my sister back home [in Ireland].”

This one simple gesture has brought tears to my eyes nearly every day since. I think about the kind young soul – who, because of the pandemic, is being deprived of night life and many of the other joys of youth – taking the time to text a senior citizen and turn my halting, hesitant, discordant plunking into something beautiful. Thank you, Lauren Mason.

How about complimenting someone today?

the end


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.

9/17/72 [age 16]:

“I really haven’t been thinking at all about school [college]. I suppose the thought of it is so horrible that I purposely try to put it out of my mind. But now it’s almost here, and I guess I will just . . . well, go, tomorrow. Oh, me, oh, my. CLUTZ – that’s what I am. The question is – is college for klutzes?”

9/18/72 [age 16]:

“Well, I can now say that I’ve made it through one day [of college]. Buying books was a hassle – I’ve bought 5 out of the 7 books I need for 2 classes, and it’s already cost $26. Book-buying is a hassle. My rides are still hassles; in fact, I don’t know how I’m getting to school Wednesday. Tomorrow I drive Robin and Mary and I don’t know where to park, since apparently both parking lots are too small to accommodate the stupid Travelall. I’m confused and oh-so-tired, but – I don’t know – the excitement, the people, the learning prospects – something is making me happy.”

If you’ll be my bodyguard

If you’ll be my bodyguard

I was dreading the Outside Lands music festival this year. And no, not because we can hear the booming bass notes three miles away at my house, where I was almost blown out of my rattan patio chair by the sound check.

No, I was dreading it because, for the first time, I actually had tickets.


Every year, my friend Laurie and her daughter Hayley stay in our downstairs guest room while they attend Outside Lands. I use the term “guest room” loosely, and those of you who live in San Francisco’s Sunset District know exactly what I mean. In this western part of the city, the (usually two-bedroom) Marina-style homes are built above garages that run the length of the house, and many of the garages have been partially converted into spare rooms. Most of the time, these rooms are not built to code and are unpleasantly dark and dank, with low ceilings marred by the occasional stray water leak. Ours, however, was an original room built with our 1936 house, so although it’s still as chilly as a wine cellar, it was built to code, with a regular ceiling and sans water leaks as far as we know. But it has its quirks. In the old days it served as a “rumpus room,” so instead of a closet there is a wet bar area with a flip-up wooden “bar counter” and vintage sink. And around the corner there is a separate toilet room, smaller than a phone booth, with just, well, a toilet. The walls are concrete, so we’ve painted them wild colors just to avoid the potential bunker-like ambiance.

Laurie and Hayley
Laurie and Hayley

Laurie and Hayley started their charming mother-daughter Outside Lands tradition when Hayley was graduating from high school. I fondly call these two “The Churchmice,” because when they stay downstairs we hardly know they’re here, as they spend all three days at the festival and refuse to so much as drink an ounce of our water lest they inconvenience us. Occasionally one of them pops upstairs to take a shower, but otherwise they come and go with the utmost of stealth.


Outside Lands is a three-day music, arts, and food festival held in Golden Gate Park. It never rains in San Francisco in August, so – unlike the great 1969 sludge-fest at Woodstock – the weather is not a potential problem. Most of the time it’s foggy, but sometimes the sun makes a quick and casual appearance, like a reluctant party guest. Security is tight. The whole thing is organized down to the most minute of details. Five beautiful stages are set up so that the sound from one never bleeds into the other. It’s eco-friendly. More than 80 local restaurants and food trucks offer everything from bacon flights to pork belly burgers to acai bowls to liquid creme brûlées to apple and wildflower honey melts (I have no idea what those are). This year marked the introduction of Grass Lands, which featured cannabis products for sale and inhalation/consumption. The Wine Lands area allows ticketholders to try wines from 125 different wineries; Beer Lands offers a similarly varied selection of craft brews. Attendees can listen to rock, pop, Americana, country, hip hop, comedy, lectures, and just about anything else that entertains. It’s always peaceful, despite the huge crowds of up to 90,000 a day.

I’d optimistically bought my Outside Lands tickets, back in May, because I was interested in the Lumineers (fairly contemporary), the Counting Crows (middle-aged dinosaurs), and Paul Simon (at 77, definitely an old dinosaur). But considering my unrelenting back problems, I now knew I couldn’t spend full days at the festival, and there are no in-and-out privileges. Seating is on the lawn (unless you’re rich enough to spend $1,600 for a la-di-da VIP ticket). So even if I were to attend only the three shows, I had no idea how I was going to sit on the cold hard ground, out in the fog, being jostled and trampled upon by harmless, happy, but potentially inebriated young festivalgoers.

LL Bean seat cushion
L.L. Bean seat cushion

Nevertheless, I prepared myself. I bought a small, light, clear plastic backpack, to adhere to the new bag policy imposed for security reasons. Heeding the advice of my friend Julie R., I also purchased an extremely lightweight L.L.Bean self-inflating seat cushion that came in its own tiny sack. Other than a bottle of water and a good fleece jacket, not much else was needed.


As luck would have it, the Counting Crows and the Lumineers were both scheduled for Friday night, on the same stage back to back (albeit with an hour’s break in between). Paul Simon, the closer, was slated for Sunday night.

Laurie and Hayley arrived mid-day on Friday, as they usually do, and we offered them a ride to the festival. When we dropped them off, Laurie apparently sprang quickly into action.

“Ok. So here’s the story,” she texted me a few minutes later. I’m not sure we were even home yet. “There are [ADA] wristbands that you can get issued. Still can’t figure out how to get that. But I went to the guy who is staffing the Twin Peaks stage and his name is Lee. He said that I just need to go right up to him and tell him my name and bring you and you can stay in the ADA section as long as you want. He’s worked that spot for 7 years. He remembers faces.”

She also, of course, sent a photo of the ADA section.

ADA section
ADA viewing section

Now, ADA stands for the Americans with Disabilities Act, which regulates public accommodations for people with disabilities. The very idea that I could be in an “ADA section” startled me.

“But I can’t be in there,” I thought. “Not me. I don’t have a disability.”

After all, up until last October I was a fine physical specimen. Okay, I wasn’t a stud like my friends who run marathons, climb Mt. Everest, and hike Machu Picchu, but I was working out on the elliptical for half an hour every day and had even started walking to the beautiful Moraga steps – a 3-mile trip, plus 163 steps – to help strengthen my brittle bones. Yes, maybe now I have a painful and unbalanced sacroiliac that my doctor says looks like I had been through some sort of “trauma.” And yes, maybe now I can’t walk 50 steps without my back seizing up. But ADA accommodations are for old people and people in wheelchairs. Definitely not for me. Oh, no. I am far too young and strapping for that.

2015_01-01_Moraga stairs_Paula
With Buster at the Moraga steps


The Counting Crows were scheduled to play at about 7:00 on Friday night, and Julie drove me to the Outside Lands gate at the appointed time. Laurie, bless her heart, had told me that she’d meet me inside and escort me to the stage area. I don’t know whether it was because it was the opening night and the workers were all fresh as daisies, or whether it was because they were surprised to see an old lady all by herself, but every gate attendant looked at me with a huge smile and told me to have an absolutely wonderful time at Outside Lands. This was starting out well!

By this time, Laurie had already calculated that there were 3,200 steps from the gate to the Twin Peaks stage. She was ON it!

But she was also worried, I think, about how I’d make it that far over what I now call “rough terrain.”

“Can I ask you something?” she said. Whoa, I thought, she is immediately getting into a heavy discussion with me about something. Politics? Religion? Our personal lives?

“Of course,” I answered, expectantly.

“Is there a way we could get a ride on this if we get an ADA wristband?” Oops, she wasn’t talking to me at all. She had spotted some kind of transport vehicle and was finagling a seat for me with the driver.

“Sure,” the driver said, “I’m going up to the Twin Peaks stage anyway.”

I started to protest. “Oh, but I don’t have a wristband yet, and I don’t want you to have to wait for me.”

“Don’t worry, you can just get one near the stage. Hop in.”

Well, I didn’t exactly hop, but we did climb in, and the driver took off like a bat out of hell, flying over these big plastic humps that were set up every few feet, so hard that I flew up out of my seat each time we hit one, despite my desperate attempts at bracing myself. I was saved the 3,200 steps, but my sacroiliac got a most unwelcome jarring.

At the end of that wild ride we were let off right at the ADA viewing section and, as promised, Lee let us in immediately, no questions asked. (Wristbands were not provided anywhere, so that mystery continued.) The ADA platform was large, totally flat, and surrounded by a barrier, with perfect sightlines. A couple of helpers immediately put out folding chairs for us with (hooray!) backrests. All I needed was my handy inflatable seat cushion. And here’s the best part: a row of bathrooms was set up right there! So, unlike all the poor schlubs who had to trek from their crowded lawn areas when they had to pee, we had immediate access to restrooms! I could get used to this!

I looked around me. There were a few people in wheelchairs or with walkers or canes. But there were also folks like me, with no visible infirmity. Most of us were older, but there were pregnant women as well, along with a smattering of young people. My resistance and guilt began to ebb very quickly.

I puzzled over why the ADA area was so sparsely populated. Then I realized that most young people wouldn’t be caught dead in it. In fact, 11 months ago I wouldn’t have been caught dead in it!


Adam Duritz_Huffington Post_
Adam Duritz and his hair

This post isn’t about the music, but let me just say that I enjoyed both bands. I did think that Adam Duritz, the front man for the Counting Crows, took a few too many liberties with his own songs, not to mention that it took me a while to get over my shock at seeing Duritz and his hair looking like a middle-aged car mechanic wearing an oversized Siberian hat. But the Lumineers’ energetic performances of their pure and rustic folk tunes were sublime. Meanwhile, the mostly-young(ish) crowd was amicable and happy.  Some of the attendees were a little loose in the gait, probably because they’d been drinking for the last 8 hours, but I saw no fights, nor did anyone appear to get sick. The only common faux pas seemed to be severely underdressed folks, partly because out-of-towners, in particular, don’t realize that a 75-degree day will quickly drop into a 50-degree sunset. I wore a shirt, fleece, and my heavy jacket.


Inexplicably, no ADA cart was available at the end of the Lumineers show, so I had to walk the 3,200 steps back to the exit, a portion of which was uphill on uneven “rough terrain,” which was a bit taxing. Parts of my sacroiliac that had been fine now started to join in the complaint chorus.

When I got home that night, I recounted to Julie all the things that Laurie had managed for me. “Well, she’s a mom,” Julie said. “Moms know how to take care of business.”

She was right. My mother, my sister, and all the other moms I’ve known – they’re resourceful and they get things done. They don’t fool around.


What is it that keeps me from being able to accept assistance gracefully? Part of it is pride. Even when I was most unlucky and impoverished in my younger years, it never occurred to me to ever file for unemployment or seek financial aid, although I certainly would have qualified. And now – a blue disabled placard? No. ADA support? Never.

But part of it is also denial. We get older incrementally; it doesn’t happen overnight. So it’s easy to cling to notions of what we used to be, even though the realities of time quite clearly refute those notions, if only we would take a hard look. It seems like just yesterday that I was floating gracefully above a defender’s outstretched hands, catching a spiral in the endzone as the first female wide receiver in NFL history. Oh, wait – that was just my fantasy for the first 40 years of my life.

Sigh. Every day I seem to drink the same pride-and-denial cocktail, with a liberal dash of stubbornness.


On Sunday night, Paul Simon closed out the festival on the main Lands End stage. It was located on the Polo Field, right at the entrance gate, so (thankfully) there were no 3,200 steps to walk. Laurie met me at the gate again, and this time I felt no shame sauntering into the ADA area. I was one of “them,” and I accepted it.

It was a clear night. Purple, blue, orange, yellow, and magenta lights flooded the trees. Paul Simon’s earnest, breezy voice lent a mellow tone to the closing hours of the festival.

Towards the end of the two-hour set he brought local boy Bob Weir up on stage with him. Weir, a former member of the Grateful Dead, played guitar and sang gamely along, although it was clear he wasn’t entirely prepared. The crowd sang, too. The song was “The Boxer,” one of my favorites.

Paul Simon c SF Chronicle
Paul Simon

I thought of the last time I saw Paul Simon, in May of 1973 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. After the show my friend Jeanne and I hung out at the stage door, hoping to spot Paul as he walked out. We were the only fans out there. That could never happen today, with increased security and every experience so “shared” that nothing is spontaneous and no scheme is ever kept under wraps. But it worked. When he came out, he walked right by me, inches away. By the way, his head came up to my shoulders – that’s how short the man is.

That night, Paul had added a new, beautiful verse to the end of “The Boxer”:

Now the years are rolling by me
The are rocking easily
I am older than I once was
And younger than I’ll be
But that’s not unusual
No, it isn’t strange
After changes upon changes
We are more or less the same
After changes we are
More or less the same

He’s sung that verse only a handful of times since that tour, and he didn’t do it at Outside Lands, but I’ve never forgotten it. My mind wandered and I thought about how I am most definitely older than I once was.


Decline is a funny thing. It sneaks up on you, and if you’re like me, when you ultimately realize it’s happening, you flail and rail against it. You do not go gently into your waning years.

But I’ve learned a great lesson. From now on, I will accept my limitations and work with them. And I will also accept that, by God, I’ve earned the right to allow others to help me when I deserve it. Besides, apparently age and physical impairments can get you into places. (Sometimes they can even get you a seat on the bus!)

I am also now extremely appreciative of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and of institutions like Outside Lands that provide boundless assistance to people with every kind of challenge.

Thank you, Laurie, for the many efforts you made on my behalf. And here’s a special shout-out to all the parents among us, of all ages, who just never stop takin’ care of business.

2019_08-11_Outside Lands_Laurie Baker, Paula


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.

2/13/72 [age 16]:

“It’s a good thing Mom is a good finder, because I’m a good loser. Last year I had an attack because I lost my retainer downstairs and simply COULD NOT find it. Mom, knowing me, went down and looked in all the ridiculous places and found it sitting in the candy jar.”

4/7/72 [age 16]:

[NOTE: good grief, another list of things I loved!]

“It’s funny, but our capacity to love is not like a bucket or a bathtub, that eventually runs out and gets empty. It just keeps on coming. You can love so many people and so many things at once it gets confusing.

Water chestnuts

Scented candles

The orchard

Intelligent conversations

Bread [the band]

Gary Puckett

The absence of braces

Jeanne’s Australian tennis hat



Trying to think up another ingenius [sic] way to get out of class. (It’s getting difficult)

Hot chocolate

Cracker Jacks prizes

Being able to breathe correctly once in a while when hay fever chooses to leave me alone

Knowing that I won’t have to go through getting my tonsils out again

School (the people)


Occasional chances to drive

Clint Eastwood

“The Fool on the Hill”

Spencer Tracy


The beach, the beach, the beach . . . such a mystery

Baskin’s & Robbin’s


Looking at the stars (really)

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner

Johnny Rivers


Knowing something worthwhile

“MacMillan and Wife”

The day when I’ll get down to 120 [pounds]



Going to movies with someone other than my family, but I never have the opportunity to

“And it did, and it does, and you’re cute!”

Mr. Bernert

“Hey, Jude”

Sincere little boys

Babies (like the Dossa twins)

Anything cooked in egg and flour

Being young and immortal

Getting a ride home

Knowing that if I run away, someone will take me in

The word “yes” (I rarely hear it)

Everything chocolate

My cousins Carla and Lisa


Father Hayes

Hot days


Riding 9 million miles an hour [on a bike] down Suncrest

Movie cameras

Knowing that I’m not the way I am because “everybody else is” (heh, heh, that’s for sure!)

That guy at Clear Lake who was always saying, “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard”

Fisherman’s Wharf

Mine and Jeanne’s dangling conversations


My holey tennis shoes

When I was feeling way down and Denise asked me to go with them to Stanford to get out of my rut – that was nice. (Guess what, I didn’t get to go!)

“Satisfaction” – Stones’ stuff

Ice cream

“Leaves of Grass”

Sunflower seeds





Cool ’n Creamy

Matt Monroe


Drummers and more drummers

Chewing on thermoses

And of course RICHARD HARRIS!

4/9/72 [age 16]:

“I don’t why, but I suddenly got the urge to read Walt Whitman’s [book of poetry] ‘Leaves of Grass’ in its entirety.  What a project!”

4/17/72 [age 16]:

“I was sitting in Civic class [on] Friday reading the poems [in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass] when Mr. Bernert, who is without a doubt the most brilliant man I know, asked me what book I was reading and if it had been cleared with the social studies department, kiddingly. I showed it to him and he asked, “Why are you reading it?” and I said, “To be educated,” and he replied, “Better not, you’ll be all alone in the world.” That was serious. True, too. I love the way he combines humor with sincerity. Then he started talking to me about the [school] paper, and how he bet I got in trouble over [my editorial] on finals. I said yes, I did sure enough, and he laughed and said I was a “fuzzy-thinking, left-winged Communist extremist.” That cracked me up. He smiled that darling smile of his and I thought, with all the laughter and good nature he can be so wonderfully understanding. And then all of a sudden I just felt this warm love for him swell up, and I left feeling contented. Such great people you have made, God, thank you, and now I know just what you meant, Walt.”

4/18/72 [age 16]:

“In Physiology class today, [my lab partner] Robin and I moved to the table where Joe Turner and Dave Hale were. Joe suggested that we mix partners so the guys could do the dissecting, and I agreed with that, for sure! Now Robin is a little mad because she thinks that with guys as partners we aren’t going to learn anything!

100 days of hard road

100 days of hard road

Warning: This blog is not written in my usual cheerful tone. It’s bleak. It’s about physical and emotional pain. If you’re in the midst of a hard time yourself, please don’t subject yourself to it. It’s guaranteed to bring you right down.


For the last three months, my everyday world has been colored by a feverish red wash of hot, searing pain – nerve pain that has brought me literally to my knees.

It started on October 26, 2018 – the day the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Boston Red Sox played in a grueling World Series game that went 18 innings and lasted 7 hours and 20 minutes. I watched every minute of the game from our hotel room in Maui, propped up in bed. Those 7+ hours were my absolute undoing, and they would begin my nightmare.

We’d gone to Maui – a place we normally think of as Paradise – to celebrate Julie’s retirement. But now we wish we’d never made that trip. Paradise turned into hell.


I doubt that anyone I know would dispute that throughout my life I’ve suffered from a plethora of embarrassing medical conditions. If this were going to be a funny blog, I would probably list some of them, although perhaps it wouldn’t be prudent and ladylike to do so.

But I’ve decided to open up about my current situation, precisely because it’s not something people ever talk about.

What I suffer from is called pudendal neuralgia, and if you know what “pudendal” means I really don’t have to explain it further. It’s an indescribably severe and terrifying nerve pain – a relentless, crackling burn. And it’s in your pelvic area. Your personal, sensitive “zone.”

The condition is made all the more horrifying by the fact that people who live with it, like me, are too mortified to tell others what the heck is going on. So it’s as lonely as it is devastating.

If you have pudendal neuralgia, people around you see no injury. No cast, no sling, no bandage. Everything looks normal. But you feel like a match is being held to your tissues. And there is no making it go away. You cannot rest. You cannot salve the pain. You want to plunge yourself into ice. Your body crackles; your brain sizzles.

Pudendal neuralgia can afflict both men and women, so it’s not a “lady thing” by any means. Men often get it from riding bicycles for too long a period of time. Typically it happens when the nerve – which runs through your lower back – gets somehow damaged.

The condition is baffling, and there is no guarantee that it will lessen or go away. I constantly ask myself, “Will I have this the rest of my life?”


My nerve was damaged 8 years ago, and I live with a very low level of pain every day that I can easily manage. But I’ve had a couple of flareups in the last few years, and while the first one lasted only a couple of weeks, this one has gone on for many months. Foolishly I caused the flareups by lying in bed too long reading or, in the case of last October, watching television – a position that puts too much pressure on my lower back and, as a result, on my surrounding nerves. Since then, I’ve been walking endless excruciating miles of bad road.

[Those damned Dodgers! As if I needed another reason to hate them!]

As I’ve dealt with this latest bout, I’ve discovered that the only position remotely comfortable for me is standing. Imagine not being able to sit down. Julie, always so resourceful, set up a standing desk for me so that I could work at my computer, and she’s bought special cushioned mats for me to stand on. She also found me a “kneeling chair” to help take the pressure off my feet. So I spend my days upright at my desk, reading in the kneeling chair, and walking in loops around the house just to get some exercise. I had been given a Fitbit for my birthday and one day it started buzzing at me, “fireworks” lighting up its screen. I had walked 10,000 steps in my own home, trying to walk the pain away.

The nerve pain gradually gets worse as the day goes by, so there is no way I can see anyone or do anything in the afternoons or evenings. No movies, no plays, no shows, no dinners out, no nothing.

Unfortunately, standing all day has taken its own toll. My knees have started to seize up. My feet are raw. And my back pain has spread. Everything aches, so it’s hard to sleep in a comfortable position. And now, because of nerve “cross-talk,” the bottoms of my feet prickle and burn. My teeth and fists are often clenched from pain. I am simply exhausted.

More than once I’ve gotten down on my knees to pray.

“How am I supposed to live like this?” I asked Julie once.

My friend Char wondered the same thing. “How do you keep your sanity?” she wanted to know.


It can be nearly impossible to tell concerned friends and neighbors about my condition. I mean, when my neighbor asks me how I’m doing, I can’t really answer, “Well, Roger, right now my crotch is on fire.”

Some folks believe I should “reach out” to others more when I’m in distress. But that is not my nature. I don’t like bothering people. As my friend Julie R. says, “The drowning person doesn’t reach out! The folks onshore do!” I really love that metaphor, although I’m still trying to figure out whether it completely makes sense.

When close friends and family do check in with me, though, I don’t hide my situation, and I’ve been fortunate that many of them have tried to help with visits, rides, suggestions, information sharing, and – I know it’s practically an anachronism – phone calls. Oh, and a trip to a dispensary.

My friend Ganja (ok, yes, that’s not her real name!), despite my reluctance, dragged me to met me at a dispensary south of Market Street in San Francisco. I smoked dope (as we use to call it) a few times in my youth, but it was much weaker then. Once I got into my thirties I stopped wanting to ingest any drugs whatsoever, including prescription medication if I could help it.

So last month I entered the new world of state-legal cannabis grudgingly. But Ganja showed me the ropes and the products. A most supercool young bro helped us out and I came home with some CBD (the nonhallucinogenic compound derived from the cannabis plant). I’ve used it a few times, and I can’t really tell whether it helps with the nerve pain, but there appear to be no side effects, so I’ll continue to try it when needed.

My pusher Ganja, though, thinks that we can be stoner buddies, so she’s been nudging me into trying TCH (the psychoactive component that can get you high). One night we shared some tasty THC-infused granola, waited the requisite hour before the effects would kick in, and then proceeded to not get stoned. We couldn’t figure it out. But I’m not ruling out another shot at getting carmelyzed in the future.


I once asked my mother what it was like to give birth. She was 22 years old when she had me, and it was no walk in the park. In those days, of course, there were no Lamaze classes. During labor women typically were given some form of anesthetic, but when I decided to enter this world, there was a snafu at the hospital and the machine wasn’t available. My father, meanwhile, was at home with a ruptured disc. So Mom went through her long, painful labor with no preparation, no anesthesia, and no husband nearby.

Anyway, when I asked her about the pain, she said, in her typical dauntless way, “Well, it hurts, but it’s not like someone sawing your leg off or anything.”

This harrowing scenario of someone sawing my leg off has always been my benchmark for “Level 10” pain. But most of us won’t ever experience being wounded on a Civil War battlefield, so these days when we’re asked to assign a number to our pain, we’re told that a Level 10 is “the worst pain you’ve ever experienced.”

Neuralgia is definitely, for me, a Level 10.

Lest anyone think that I am exaggerating, I have a high pain tolerance. In December 2015 I missed a step in our house and thought I had sprained an ankle. We took off a couple of days later on our 2,300-mile road trip to Kentucky, and I walked around on my tomato-red, swollen foot like it was nothing. By the time we got to Louisville, however, it started to seem like the pain was maybe a liiiitle too much for a sprain. An urgent care visit and a few X-rays later, it turned out that I had a torn ligament and had broken my foot in two places, including the heel.

A few years earlier I had a kidney stone. When the doctor said I needed to have surgery because the stone was too big, I tried to talk him out of it. I thought I should just go home from the hospital and deal with the pain like any other tough soldier. He thought that was absurd and admitted me for surgery, against my protestations.

But I would rather have 10 kidney stones than this condition.


This year, Julie, Buster, and I postponed our Thanksgiving road trip to Kentucky in hopes that I’d be better by Christmastime, but we had to cancel that trip as well. I just couldn’t sit in a car comfortably for 5 days, let alone deal with all the nerve pain. It was devastating, but I encouraged Julie to fly back herself. Why should she stay home and be as miserable as I was?

It was a lonely holiday for me, to say the least. I missed Julie and the rest of my Louisville family dearly. But on Christmas Day I got a call from my friend Mary, whom I’d first met in 6th grade and who, coincidentally, lives in Kentucky now. She called to wish me a Merry Christmas and we had a wonderful chat. She also recounted a story that has given me hope ever since. She said that a few years ago she had bone spurs along with pain and spasms in her neck, and to top that off, every time she looked up towards the sky she got dizzy. She was told by a specialist that she would need surgery, and it would involve . . . well, there’s no sense in reciting the gruesome details, other than to say that while she’d be on the operating table her head would not be attached to her neck in any usual way. And her personal physician told her that she would be in a wheelchair the rest of her life!

When she heard all of these prognoses, Mary said, “That scared me so much that I actually recovered!!”

She’s had no neck problems since then.

This story has made me laugh many times. But it also gives me hope. Mary says that the power of prayer helped her, too. I keep trying that. Maybe fear and prayer are the answer.


It’s amazing how long it takes to wend one’s way through the health care system these days. Three months have passed since I hurt myself. But there are weeks of waiting between each appointment. So far I’ve seen my primary care doctor and two spine specialists. The first specialist, a well-respected neurosurgeon, was so cavalier about seeing me that he asked me twice why I thought he could help me. I was coming to him because my doctor had referred me, that’s why! But I didn’t say that. I just stammered. He blew me off and sent me on my way with nothing.

I then went to see my primary care guy again to ask for a second referral. Now I am under the care of another renowned surgeon (he worked on Joe Montana’s back!), who thankfully took me more seriously and ordered X-rays and MRIs. I’ll get my latest results from him in February. Keep in mind that I started seeing him in December. It’s an eternity just waiting for appointments anywhere.

Meanwhile, there are the frustrating days on end that I have spent on the phone, dealing with my primary care office’s wrong referral codes, incorrectly written prescriptions, and office staff who never answer the telephone.


I recently read an article in which six doctors and pain researchers were asked what they considered the worst pain to be. They all said it was nerve pain and/or pain that you feel you cannot control, or that will never end. Chronic pain makes you feel unsafe, one of them said. “Acute pain is unpleasant (even extremely so),” said another, “but chronic pain is about suffering.”

I realize that there are people out there who are far worse off than I am. There are people battling cancer, for crying out loud. I remember that when my mother was at her absolute wit’s end caring for my demented father, or when she herself was battling cancer, she would always say the same thing: “There are people worse off than I am, so I shouldn’t complain.”

But I would always answer, “Mom, that makes no sense. If the only people who are eligible to complain are the people who have it worse than anyone else, then the only person allowed to complain is the ONE person who is the most worse off in the entire world! And he is probably the one getting his leg sawn off!”


My physical therapy friends have been terrific listeners. One of them, Jill, even FaceTimed me last week so she could use a spine model as a visual aid while she explained what she thinks is going on with me. And I believe she’s right. I have a tailbone that is angled differently from most people’s. (I think I broke it twice, although I never went to see a doctor.) She thinks my lying on it puts pressure on the middle of my tailbone, which stretches the ligaments, causes inflammation, and presses on the nerve. I know she’s right, dammit! Someone just needs to LISTEN to me!

This is a complex condition that won’t be magically solved by any one approach. I do think it’s possible that, if the MRI results are unhelpful, my best hope may now in fact be physical therapy. It took me 6 weeks to get PT appointments but they are coming up this week. One is for my back and the other is for pelvic pain. Amazingly, there are actually specialized clinics now that deal only with pelvic pain and offer hope. The forms for the clinic, though, terrified me; I had to sign one indicating that the treatment might cause me “physical and emotional distress.” A friend of mine told me that she had once been prescribed pelvic PT and never went, out of embarrassment.

I, too, am scared. But I’m hoping that good therapists will be able to help figure this all out. I just need the pain to stop, please, stop.


So how are things these days? Well, I’m taking Gabapentin – an anti-seizure medication that’s been shown to work with nerve pain. (Opioids don’t work on nerve pain, and they make me violently ill anyway.) And I’m worn out from standing all day.

Every once in a while I have a good day. That’s an improvement, and maybe my nerves are settling down just a little. My mood has brightened a bit. Occasionally I find myself able to laugh.

But most days I feel like I’m walking barefoot across an endless expanse of blistering desert, broiling on the inside, facing a searing sun.


So what’s my point? Why did I write this difficult personal post, against my nature?

Well, partly it’s to explain my absence. I’ve been a hermit since last October. And when I have seen people, I’ve been withdrawn, cranky, ready to jump out of my skin.

But the larger reason is this:

There are many private sufferers out there, like me. Maybe you know someone in a similar situation. Or maybe some of you are struggling with issues you don’t want to talk about. If so, I hope you know that you are not alone.

The one modern cliché I’ve fully embraced is that the person standing next to you might be hiding pain and troubles. We should all go through life remembering this.


I have a generally healthy psyche, a glass-half-full outlook on life. I don’t think that’s changed. But it has certainly taken a long hiatus.

My poor Julie, who has suffered along with me, says, “As soon as you are better, we’re going to take on the world in a different way.”

My friend Kati, who just weathered a tough year, has a beautiful outlook on things. As 2019 arrived she said, “Instead of ‘Happy New Year’ I’d like to say Peace through your days, see God in the worst of it, and when you are desperate, despondent, grieving, or struggling may you find one shred of life to hang on to until you can once again feel its worth.”

I am hanging on. And when I get better and can feel life’s worth, I swear to take on the world in a different way.


the end



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.

1/6/72 [age 16]:

“You know, I brought a pair of black shoes to school yesterday (no, Tuesday) for Mary Pasek to wear to the PAL meeting. She couldn’t come and I LOST the $20 shoes of Mom’s. She was upset. I found them yesterday in my locker. And last night I lost my Physiology oral report and had to do it today. I found it in my locker but I didn’t have much time to practice. I LOSE EVERYTHING! 💧- teardrop”

1/1/72 [age 16]:

“This year is going to be a biggie. I tied my radio to my new bike today and took off. Miles and miles. I went south to Crown Super and north a little past Piedmont Hills. I rode around a lot in between. When I reluctantly crawled exhausted back in the door, Mom said from now on I have to tell her beforehand exactly where I’m going. But I can’t do that; no, I have to be FREE!”

12/1/71 [age 16]:

“I think there are two desires I have at this stage of life: friendship and music. I do not like to be in a crowd. But I do like companionship – say, one friend who can really understand me. That would be very difficult. Also, I love my records, and I simply could not exist without my radio. Am I 33, reading this now? Do I still listen to rock?”

11/29/71 [age 16]:

“Once I dreamed I made love to Daniel Boone. (He looked like Fess Parker.) That was the start of my physical desires. Strange, but up until then I really had no knowledge of bedroom procedure.”

11/5/71 [age 15]:

“I’ve sort of been down lately. I guess I’ve been thinking too much – arguing things out with myself, trying to figure people out. I’ve been drifting over towards the liberal faction because my so-called “conservative” friends have gone bananas.”

9/26/71 [age 15]:

“I read Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther, about his 17-year-old son who died of a brain tumor. One day John Jr. wrote in his diary some words which I feel describe me, coincidentally, perfectly: ‘About 1/2 time my conscious mind is either asleep or wandering off in space. . . . I am greatly over-introvert – caused by over-consciousness of what others think of me.’ If there is a more accurate description of myself in the world, let it be found.”

9/21/71 [age 15]:

“PANTS! Mom said today I could wear pants once every 2 weeks to school. I guess she was in a good mood or something and I have been especially good lately. But what great maneuvering power you have, Paula!”

9/11/71 [age 15]:

“It wasn’t a great vacation [in Clear Lake]. Mom is trying to quit smoking and she was a bear. Worse, I think. She won’t eat, won’t talk, won’t anything. And to top it off, the fishing was lousy. Dad has promised Mom this trip to Clear Lake, 2 dinners, a shotgun, a new rod and reel, and a stereo if she quits. I sure wish she would, but I don’t think she’ll make it. I was so nervous that I ate three Nutty Buddies.”

9/4/71 [age 15] [Ed.’s note: my brother and I, who are medical miracles because we always develop identical maladies simultaneously, had both gotten plantar warts on the bottoms of our feet]:

“Last night Marc’s wart fell off and I was replenished with hope and got this brilliant idea to lift up the edges [of my wart] and put Wart Remover right on the quick. I ran around the room screaming for 15 minutes. Ever had acid eat away at you?”

8/4/71 [age 15]: [My parents had gone to Tahoe for the weekend and left us with our Italian aunt and uncle in San Leandro]

“Mom and Dad went to Tahoe and dropped us off at Zio and Zia’s house. Meals are TERRIFIC! And we got to watch COLOR TV!”

7/14/71 [age 15]:

“We went to the doctor today. I’m 5’6-1/4” and weigh 126. According to his chart I’m 13 pounds underweight. But FORGET THAT! I’ll stay where I am.”

 7/11/71 [age 15]:

“I went to the dentist with [my brother] Marc and [my sister] Jan and Mom today. We were there from 12:45 until 3:45. I was the only one with no cavities. Jan had one and Marc had two. Ha ha for Marc.”

7/4/71 [age 15]:

“This week was fun. The police never bothered us, even though firecrackers were part of our basic everyday diet.”

6/29/71 [age 15] [Part One of Two]:

“O H, W O W! The thrill of my entire life has happened. Last night Carolyn Edmonds asked me to come over along with about 4 other girls because Mary Blasi is here. She had been 2 years in Hawaii and had come to visit. I was glad it was all girls – I don’t dance. [But then] Kevin Daly came over. Uh, oh. It seemed Carolyn had asked some guys from our class that afternoon. [Ed.’s note: all the invitees were fellow graduates of St. Victor’s Elementary School.] Soon Pat Pisturino, Jose Salcido, Mike Necas, and Art Pasquinelli were there. Uh, oh. I just sat on the couch and sweated, hoping they wouldn’t dance. Then all of a sudden P A T  S E A R S came in. I almost died. His hair was pretty long, and I like him. He was like the old Pat, but his voice was a little deeper. Then came the inevitable – dancing. Fast. It was horrible. Mary and Jean Greiner and I sat on the couch nervously eating pretzels. I think we ate about a million – it was a huge salad bowl and we reduced it to crumbs.”

6/29/71 [age 15]: [Part Two. I asked my young self for permission to reprint this.]

“Then ‘Hey, Jude’ came on, and they dance slow to it. But I haven’t ever done that either. Pat came over, took both my hands, pulled me up and said ‘Come on, don’t say you don’t know how.’ I said, ‘Teach me, Pat.’ And he did. Kids today, I noticed, just put their arms around each other and sway. He said (I’ve got to capture the conversation) ‘It’s easy.’ Me: ‘Not when you’re as uncoordinated as I am.’ Pat: ‘But you’re not. You’ve got to have some grace to be in athletics.’ Me: ‘Yeah, but I am a complete idiot at home.’ Pat: ‘We’re all a little clumsy. I am. All the Sears are.’ Then he told me about something he had just done, but I wasn’t listening. I was trying to keep off his feet. The music was almost over. It seemed like people were watching me. But I felt so good. I had never been so absolutely close to a guy before. I loved his back and the feel of his hands on mine. Don’t make the song be over, God. It’s a long song, believe me, but it went so fast. I was the biggest clutz in the world. At least everyone else was dancing, so they wouldn’t notice. He was so nice. As soon as the music stopped, Mom came. Aarggh. I’m always the first to leave. I wanted to stay. I begged her to stay. But no.”

[Ed.’s note: I was working in the stacks at the SFSU library seven years later when I was suddenly overwhelmed with rushing memories of Pat. I had to sit down. That night my mother called to give me the news. Patrick Conley Sears had died on September 1, 1978, in a plane crash near Anchorage, Alaska. “I loved him,” my diary entry says. He was 24 years old.]



Spirits in the night

Spirits in the night

Every few months, San Franciscans seem to pounce upon some new kind of culinary fad that much of the rest of the world has known about for years. In this city, though, we like to market the “new” food or drink to an upscale crowd and imply that it is appreciated only by the discriminating connoisseur.

For awhile we had a polenta craze. Polenta is basically cornmeal that, over the last few centuries, has been eaten as a staple by poor and working-class Italians because it was cheap and filling. We ate it all the time as kids, boiled one day and fried as leftovers the next. However, restaurants over here can throw some truffles on it to fancy it up and then charge an arm and a leg for a dollop of the stuff because it’s “artisanal.” Right now it seems that cauliflower and pork bellies also are beginning to dominate the more lavish menus.

Along these dubious lines, a couple of weeks ago the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article highlighting the recent popularity of bitter liqueurs called amari. (Amaro, the singular, means “bitter” in Italian.) The article said that 70 percent of the amari in the United States are consumed in San Francisco. Entire bars are now devoted to amari, some of them even offering “amaro flights.”

The cool, glamorous amaro liqueur that everyone in the “bitters cult” orders is called Fernet. I tried it a few years ago, and I would say that you, too, will love it if you enjoy the memorable taste of chewed-up aspirin.

Needless to say, I hate Fernet. And for the most part I have not been able to figure out what all the fuss is about. I have had no amore for amaro.

However, not long ago Julie and I were dining at Poesia (pronounced “Poh-eh-ZEE-ah,” Italian for “poetry”), our favorite Italian restaurant in San Francisco. Mistrustful of most recommendations, a number of years ago I had asked an off-the-boat Italian teacher from Bergamo to tell me which SF Italian restaurant she found to be the most delicious and authentic. She suggested Poesia and I’ve found her advice to be right-on. It’s not in North Beach – the ever-changing once-Italian neighborhood – but it sits on 18th Street, in an old Victorian home in the Castro. Classic black-and-white Italian movies are projected silently on one of the walls. The food is consistently delicious, and the owner and some of the servers are bona fide Italians.

liqueur-pack-caffo-vecchio-amaro-del-capo-70cl-with-2-glassesAnyway, the cocktail menu that day included a drink called Vecchio Amaro del Capo, which means Old Amaro from Capo, a town in the Italian region of Calabria. I had never heard of it, but the ever-adventurous Julie ordered it as her dessert.

We each had a sip, and our lives changed instantly.


Vecchio Amaro del Capo is an aromatic, amber-hued mix of 29 herbs, spices, fruits, and flowers in a secret blend that tastes like orange, cinnamon, cloves, caramel, ginger, sarsaparilla, and a hint of licorice. It is both bitter and sweet. It is spicy, piquant, peppery, and complex. It smells like cedar. It jazzes up your taste buds. Essentially, it’s Christmas in a Glass.

At 70 proof, the drink is strong, so like all luxurious beverages, it’s best sipped in small amounts. Because it carries a moderate measure of bitterness, the people of Calabria (according to the waitress) like to cut its potency with a few squeezes of fresh orange and serve it on the rocks with a slice of orange dropped in for a celebratory garnish. That’s how it came to our table that fateful night. But it can also be savored straight. The important thing is that it must be poured frosty cold, right out of the freezer.

Take time with it. Cherish it.

A few years ago, I was talking to a cherubic nursing home resident who told me that he envisioned heaven as being a place where he would float in the air above a beautiful meadow, holding a cocktail in each hand. I smiled at that image. My cocktail of choice would be Vecchio Amaro del Capo.


I believe in heaven. My Catholic school stint undoubtedly cemented that belief, but my convictions had settled firmly into place in my heart years before I first set foot at St. Victor’s Elementary.

1962_05_First Communion_Paula 4

It wasn’t until my parents passed away that I earnestly petitioned for some kind of confirmation of the afterlife. My father went first, in 2009. He had suffered with Alzheimer’s disease for about 15 years – an eternity. Mom cared for him at home for 14 of those years, as he slowly lost his mind. For a good while he knew it, too; I remember clearly the time he asked me, pleadingly, “Will I ever get better?” I lied to him, as you have to do with Alzheimer’s patients. “Oh, you’ll definitely get better soon, Dad,” I reassured him. Then I ran into another room and bawled. In his last year, when he moved into the anger stage, he had to be placed in a dementia facility. Neutered by anti-psychotic drugs, he lived there until his organs shut down many months later. He didn’t know me at the end, and Mom didn’t think he knew her, either, but I swear that the last thing he did before he died was stare piercingly at her face, as if he wanted to silently declare to her his love and recognition.

I drove Mom back to her house in the hours after Dad died, and when we got there we agreed that we needed to have a glass of wine. I took a bottle of sauvignon blanc out of the refrigerator and set it on the kitchen counter. Then I went out in the garage and, out loud, asked Dad if there were any possibility that he could show me a sign that he was finally free and happy. (With the firm caveat that the sign NOT be scary!) Hand to God, just as I came inside and walked back into the kitchen, the cork loudly popped off the bottle – all by itself.


Two years ago my mother died. It was very different. She and I e-mailed each other nearly every day, although we’d skip a day every once in a while when she had a doctor’s appointment or when she was otherwise occupied at the local casino. She had completely beaten bladder cancer a couple of years earlier, so there were no immediate health issues to alarm me. It didn’t concern me, then, when a day or two went by and she didn’t return my e-mail or answer my phone call. But on the morning of the third day an unexpected chill went through me, and I called her friend and neighbor Linda, who said that Mom hadn’t shown up for a planned outing with her that morning. Certain of the outcome, I asked Linda to go check on Mom, whom she found lifeless on the dining room floor. Mom had smoked heavily since the age of 19, and although we don’t know for sure, we believe that she died suddenly of either a heart attack or a stroke. It was how she would have wanted to go, and she had prepared all of us in every way possible, both logistically and emotionally. She had let all of her wishes be known and had purchased a plot next to my father. And she had shown me great faith and strength by example. I will always be grateful for the life I had with her and the tools she left me with.

A few days later, a slightly freakish natural event occurred outside my bedroom window. A huge bird – I have no idea what it could have been – whizzed so low and loudly past the window that I was dumbstruck. It was like a shooting star in bird form. Even though nothing like that had ever happened before (or since), I didn’t ascribe any special meaning to it. But that afternoon my sister called from Washington and mentioned that a huge bird had whizzed low and loudly past her window, startling her. I asked her when that had happened, and it turned out that both birds had hurtled past our windows at the same time.


Still not completely convinced that there was anything more to that potential coincidence, I decided to ask Mom to show me a “sign” as I had asked Dad to do so. I was about to start ironing at the time (yes, I still iron!), and I turned on the television as I always do. And there was Fred Astaire dancing with Ginger Rogers. No particular significance there, I thought. But then he started singing to her: “Heaven, I’m in heaven . . . .”


Now, I’m no fool. All of these events easily could be explained by science or sheer coincidence or the mathematics of odds or my wishful thinking. The bottle of white wine had a plastic cork that probably – because of expansion, contraction, condensation, or some other physical principle I don’t understand – was destined to loosen itself from that bottle anyway. The astoundingly dramatic low-flying birds were happenstance. Fred Astaire crooning those “Cheek to Cheek” lyrics about heaven? Sheer coincidence.

And I also know that many of us need to believe in the afterlife because the idea of it comforts us and allows us to make some sense out of mortality. The notion of our nonexistence is just too difficult to bear.

But it’s the timing of the cork, the birds, and the song that has stayed with me.

When I asked Dad for a sign, he did the very thing that Gerald Bocciardi, if alive, would have done. It was clever. It was passionately Italian. It was brilliantly symbolic. I believe he was saying to me, “I am finally free. Don’t grieve for me, my daughter. Raise a toast to my liberation!”

Mom loved Dad, fiercely, until the day she died. He was her absolute one and only. I believe that, during the last couple of years of her life, she secretly hoped to be with him sooner rather than later. Perhaps she sent the two birds as symbols that their love had once again taken wing.

As for the Fred Astaire moment, well, the lyrics are obvious. Mom was telling me to stop my doubting.


I have friends and family members with all manner of religious affiliations, or lack thereof. I carry absolutely no judgment of other religions, or of atheism or agnosticism. I consider spirituality to be a private matter. (Until, that is, I decide to discuss mine in a public blog, for reasons I frankly can’t explain.)

More importantly, though, I strongly maintain that our values and beliefs, whether religious or secular, have to be accompanied by humility.

On the one hand, I don’t want to be bludgeoned by fanatics of any stripe. Do not wield your religion as a cudgel. Your God might not resemble my God; your scriptural interpretations might not resemble mine; your imagined heaven might not resemble my own. Please don’t tell me that you know what does or doesn’t happen after our time on earth because you don’t know. No one does. It is arrogant of you to fancy yourself to be in possession of the secrets to the universe.

On the other hand, please don’t dismiss me as ignorant, or as a naïve, polyannish idiot, because I subscribe to Christianity. I’m strongly disappointed by the arrogance of judgmental nonbelievers who seem to feel that science disproves the existence of God and have no problem telling me so. In my view, science and religion can easily co-exist because science is about knowledge based on proof while religion is about faith in something that by its nature cannot be proved. Faith requires humility because it involves a belief in something that we, as coarse and limited human beings, cannot even begin to imagine.

I’ve had people explain to me that it is the amount of cruelty and suffering in the world that prevents them from embracing the idea of a loving God. But for me, it is the very unfairness and inequity governing our lives that supports my belief in something beyond our mortal coil. In my mind there has to be the prospect of an ultimately level playing field and universal happiness for everyone. Otherwise, our disparate life experiences would be so unfair as to be beyond all reason and purpose. Why should I have been as privileged as I have been?

And by the way, science actually bolsters my belief in God. As my family members can groaningly attest, I have been yapping for decades about how my college Entomology class not only was absolutely scintillating but also provided me with proof about a much higher power. I won’t go into details about the physiology of every kind of bug, but there are up to 30 million species of insects in the world. Not individual insects, but species! And each type of insect has complex and flawless physiological, nutritional, and reproductive patterns and systems that would blow you away. Did all those millions of species just spontaneously emerge from the primordial muck, or did they all, as I believe, evolve in a beautiful piece of divinely guided choreography?


Whatever your own beliefs may be, I am thinking about you, my friends and family, this holiday season. I am inhaling deeply the frosty air, the mulled spices, the food, the drink, the music, the love and friendship. I am reflecting on the choreography of our lives, and I am grateful for our differences.

You know, Dad loved to dance, but Mom was shy and would typically demur. I choose to believe that somewhere they are dancing together now, gliding effortlessly along a meadow – each holding a golden goblet of Vecchio Amaro del Capo.

It is, after all, Paradise in a Glass.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone.

Shutterstock Xmas Photo 1


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 1971 and 1987.


“Today we went up to Mrs. Moore’s and Miss Azama’s cabin in the Sierras. They have a lot of records, including one by the Four Tops which has ‘Reach Out – I’ll Be There’ on it, a fantastic song which I almost never hear. Mom said maybe I could take it home and record it. [They also have] a color T.V. and a stereo set with radio, record player, and 8-track tape player. Also it has headphones. Wow, what class!”


“Mrs. Dossa [our neighbor] asked Jan [my sister] and me to go to S.F. with her and her sister. What a day! I got up at 7:00 so I could go to San Francisco at 9:00. The bath alone took an hour. It was tiring. I don’t have the money to shop around, and I don’t really like it. We went to Union Street. Big deal! She made us pay for our own lunch and made her sister pay, too. Jan and I had a sandwich and a Coke, $1.67 and .50 apiece respectively. I would much rather have gone to the Wharf. There they have shops, plus you can take a Bay Cruise, walk along the dock and smell crab and stuff and eat Fish ‘n’ Chips.”

(Ed.’s note: this was a full 18 years before I first picked up a drumstick)

“Sue Lajon came by at about 2:00 today to talk. It’s good to talk to her because she laughs at just about anything. Rudy has arranged for Bruce Tambling to give me free drum lessons. I think it might be neat to have the beat.”


“Today (Sunday) the rest of the family went fishing. Until 1:00 I watched T.V., took Baron [our dog] out, read, and listened to the radio. Before the Gallos came I had an entire package of graham crackers, root beer, and two buttered corn tortillas. They picked me up and took me to a little carnival they had and I ate an entire package of licorice, a hot dog, and a Coke. We stopped back at Gallos for a few minutes, and I called Mrs. Rosales [our neighbor] to ask her to PLEASE lock our downstairs door and close the garage because they’d kill me if they came home to find I’d forgotten. Then we went back to the carnival and we played basketball with these guys. Then I ate an ice cream bar and a mess of sunflower seeds. At 7:00 the Gallos took me home, and on the way we stopped at MacDonald’s and I had a Big Mac, Root Beer, and some candy. Nourishing, huh? Oh, by the way, I won a goldfish.”


“I used to like to believe that the first time somebody asked me to go steady would be very romantic, and I would be very shy. But it wasn’t like that. Rudy asked me tonight while we were playing ‘capture the flag’ in the orchard. I guess it didn’t really count.”

Paula’s poetry pastiche

Paula’s poetry pastiche

It came to mind recently that although I’ve filled many drawers and shelves with diaries, journals, notes, correspondence, and more than a few published articles, I never seemed to be very prolific as a poet. In fact, after much searching for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been able to unearth only the following six works, all written in my childhood. And now I know why no one encouraged me to pursue the poetic arts any further.


This first gem is actually one of three songs I wrote as a youngster, all of which have specific melodies. Because I’m unable to reproduce the tunes here, I thought I’d figure out their closest approximation. After all, they must have sounded like some nursery rhyme or popular children’s song at the time, correct? But I gave up after spending a couple of hours online, listening to at least 50 classic children’s songs. None sounded familiar.

Believe it or not, I then tried singing the songs (sans lyrics) into the Shazam app, hoping that somehow the melodies would be recognizable. Uh, no.

Finally I did what I often do in these situations – I called my sister Janine. But she could not pinpoint my musical influences, either. These must have been original melodies I came up with!  I was obviously a genius!

1957_xx_Paula 042
As you can see, if you look closely at the newsprint, I was reading Shakespeare at an early age.

As for this first song and its lyrics, neither Janine nor I could imagine how I came up with the idea of three men in a bottle. Our best guess is that I was influenced by the literature I was reading at the time:  “Run-a-Dub Dub, Three Men in a Tub.” Which makes a lot more sense than three men squeezing into a bottle – full of whisky, no less. My father used to drink whisky “highballs,” a classic cocktail, so maybe that’s what was on my mind.

Anyway, here’s the song, any mistakes included.



[a nursery rhyme with a lilting melody]

Three men went out in a bottle to sea
And it was full of the drink wiskey,
But when they got there they all drowned
I think the bottle has not been found
So please, unless you’re less than 1 pound
Don’t try to sail, unless what you’re in is round.

The Three Men


I tried songwriting again the following year, and I’ve wrestled with whether I should publish it, because it deals with my brother Marc accidentally walking in on my sister when she was taking a shower. It seems a little odd that I would write about this incident, but I did.


[belt this one out with gusto]

Janine took a shower this morning.
She got water all over the floor,
She got soap all over the soapdish,
And she forgot to close the door!

Marc walked into the shower
And he saw her standing there.
He looked at her in amazement
’Cause he’d never seen her bare!


My final tune is a bit of a cross between a folk song and a wartime march.

We had just moved into our new house in East San Jose, and at the end of our street stood an orchard followed by rolling hills. I couldn’t stop wondering what lay beyond those hills (answer: more hills). This became an obsession, so I composed a song about it.

My sister nailed my style and influences when she reminded me that when I wrote the song I was squarely in the middle of my “New Christy Minstrels period.” I was quite enamored with large groups of folk singers.

And I will add that my appending the “boys” to the end of each line is reminiscent of those World War I and II songs about soldiers leaving for, or coming back from, battle.

Obviously I liked mixing my styles, so I will call this song a “pastiche.”


[sing this song in a rousing manner]

What’s on the other side of the hill, boys?
What’s on the other side of the hill?
What’s on the other side of the hill, boys?
What’s on the other side of the hill?

Do you know?
We will go,
And we’ll see,
You and me.
Yes, we will
Climb that hill
And we’ll look dowwwwwwn.

Will it be a town, will it be the sea, will it be the woods, what will it be, what will it be?

What’s on the other side of the hill, boys?
What’s on the other side of the hill?
What’s on the other side of the hill, boys?
What’s on the other side of the hill?

1969_04-06_Paula, Mom, Janine 1(b)
What IS on the other side of that hill in the background?


Although I was done writing songs, I did continue to churn out a few poems. This one was a Catholic school assignment. I was already in the seventh grade, so the real travesty was that I still had to go to bed at 9:00!!

UNTITLED (age 11)

Over and over my dad has said,
“Paula, it is time for bed!”
How I dread the hour of nine
When I begin to beg and whine,

“But Dad, please, just a little more?”
And that’s when he gets really sore.
So I, not making one more peep,
Go up to bed, and fall asleep.


I wrote this poem on the eve of my starting “Driver’s Training,” which in those days was a short high school course that involved hands-on experience behind the wheel. My course was taught by football coach Ron “No Neck” Locicero. He took us up in the East San Jose foothills and was actually very kind, even though he was forced to use his extra set of brakes liberally when I was behind the wheel.

The poem was published in the January 14, 1972, edition of our high school newspaper The Legend. Of course, it wasn’t difficult to get my own works into print, since I was the editor of said paper.


O Horror of Horrors! I grieve in sorrow;
I wish I never could see tomorrow,
For when 3:30 comes I start Driver’s Training.
What if it’s windy? What if it’s raining?
What if I make a jillion mistakes
And he always has to slam on the brakes?
Everyone knows I’m the world’s biggest clutz –
The whole Driver’s Training Department is nuts!
They decided to risk it and hand me the wheel.
It seems they don’t value their automobile.
What if I step on the pedal too hard
And we end up in somebody else’s backyard?
I’m so absent-minded I just may forget
That I’m driving a car, and I’ll daydream, I bet!
I’m no big speed demon, the world will soon see.
Ten miles an hour is the limit for me.
Oh, no, I don’t panic, just go in a coma.
They may have to revive me with some strong aroma.
I don’t want to look like a stupid old fool
Nor be laughing-stock every day I’m at school.
They said, “Don’t be scared, Paula, you’ll do all right.”
But I have to drive at 5:30 at night!
The world will be dark. Is it like being blind?
What if I hit some poor guy from behind?
“It’s only 9 days – they go pretty fast.”
Oh sure, but I do hope my teacher can last.
My friends have no mercy. This whole bit they’ve seen.
Don’t they know what it’s like to be only sixteen?
“What about college? You won’t want to hike!”
You’re right, but I’d rather stick with my bike.
I guess I’ll live through it. I just hope I don’t kill
Some innocent soul. I keep thinking I will.
Yikes! Here comes the teacher! My heart beats no more.
Oh, what did I ever get into this for?
There’s just one thing to do. I look at the sky
And plead with Him, “God, oh, I’m too young to die!”


I didn’t even remember the following poem until my sister – who actually recalled most of the first stanza! – pointed out that she had once tried to set it to music. An accomplished banjo and guitar player by the time she was 12, she apparently wrote a melody for this poem “using a lot of minor chords.” Unfortunately she doesn’t remember the tune, but she claims that it was truly terrible, which I strongly doubt.

As for my influences at the time, I would have to say that they were a mixture of William Shakespeare, John Dunne, and whoever wrote “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”

UNTITLED (age 17)

This cool, tranquil, weightless night
A star begins to die
In quiet, pulsing, choking gasps.
And I must say goodbye.

In young, confused and awkward grief
I watch the lonely light
The sky gives up its ghost; the star
Plunges out of sight.

If time would just dissolve this knot
I’ve never overcome –
But I, in muted silence, stand
Embarrassed, frightened, dumb.

O God! If man is so supreme
Then why am I so weak
That those whom I adore the most
Have yet to hear me speak?

I cannot catch my tortured breath
Or cool my heated head;
I cannot purge my heavy heart
Of all I’ve left unsaid.

I love you, friend, though through it all
I gave you not a sign.
If all you saw were pleading eyes
’Twas not your fault, but mine.

Could this be any more overwrought??  Then again, I guess that’s what being 17 is all about, isn’t it? ℘

1964_11-19_Paula, Janine(b)
The two collaborators. My little sister Janine played a mean guitar!


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 1971 and 1987.


“Monday night I had my first driving lesson [with my parents]. I don’t want to make a complete fool of myself, with my uncoordination and absentmindedness and stuff. I get so nervous. So we took the truck. I was scared to death. I jerked on the brakes a little. It’s hard to know how far down to push them or the accelerator. And sometimes I forgot to change the gear shift. I think I got up to about 9 M.P.H. but was scared. I thought about 4 M.P.H. was a safe speed.”


Finally, as a reminder, our band, “Hotter Than Helga,” will be playing in Fairfax at 19 Broadway on Thursday night, September 14. (I play drums.) If you like alt/country/rock/Americana music, come out and have a listen!!

Helga_Sept14_web (002)

Read more. Think deeply. Act universally.

Read more. Think deeply. Act universally.

When I was about to graduate from high school, my friend Jeanne bestowed on me – in most dramatic fashion – a book called Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It was a very popular little book about evolving until you become your perfect self. Its teachings about freedom of thought and expression reflected the times and appealed most especially to young people for whom life was about to become an adventure. I was 16 years old. And I decided, after reading it, that I was so completely evolved that I was destined to die before my 18th birthday.

My younger sister, only 11 years old but clever as a whip, declared that when I turned 18 she would throw me a “Guess What, You’re Still Alive!” party.

Jonathan Livingston SeagullI look back on that time with amusement. I was only a child – and a particularly immature and naïve one at that – and I knew nothing about what it meant to become a fully formed person. I had no conception of the tangled choices we all must make as we wend our way through a complex world.

The humbling coup de grâce to my adolescent ego would come the following year. Jonathan Livingston Seagull had aroused in me a full-bodied curiosity about knowledge and human existence, and I ended up taking an introductory philosophy class in my first year of college. I ate it up. The works of Plato, Descartes, Hume, and Kant were like manna to my hungry young intellect. And when I aced the class, I figured that I was the consummate intellectual. I truly thought I was all that and a bag of chips.

So I decided, the next semester, to bolster my scholarly résumé by taking an upper- division philosophy class. This is where the humiliation comes in. The course was called Epistemology – the nature of knowledge. I strutted into that classroom with absolutely no idea of the brilliance of the typical philosophy student’s mind. I looked around at my classmates and was a bit taken aback, first of all, by how old they looked. I had only just turned 17 years old at this point, and the guys sported beards and an aura of great wisdom. The professor spoke for an hour that first day and handed out lists of potential topics for the five oral reports we were expected to deliver that semester. I did not understand one word the professor said. I did not understand anything my classmates said. I did not understand the titles of the textbooks. I did not understand the syllabus. I did not even understand what any of the topics meant. As the class came to an end, the students eagerly raced up to the professor’s desk to sign up for their preferred oral report themes. I got through the line, looked sheepishly at the professor, and dropped the class like a hot potato.

And that, my friends, was the last time I thought I was all that and a bag of chips.


In the decades since, I’ve held onto my (admittedly very simplistic 17-year-old’s) view of the teachings of Immanuel Kant, an 18th-century German philosopher. Among other things, Kant believed that our behavioral decisions should be based on this categorical moral imperative: act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law. In other words, ask yourself, “What if everybody did that?” Then act – or refrain from acting – accordingly, even if it is contrary to your inclinations. If it would be wrong for everyone to commit that act, or if the results would be unsatisfactory, the act has no moral worth.

At least, that’s what I think he meant. (Where are you when I need you, Walter Lammi?)

I recall the anecdote I related a few blog posts ago, in which my mother had to point out to me the immorality of my ripping off the phone company for long-distance calls I made from a phone booth, even though I thought my measly $3 transgression wouldn’t make a dent in AT&T’s profits. After all, I wasn’t a big corporation stealing millions from the phone company. What I didn’t consider then was, “What if everybody did that?” And Kant likely would have added that if an action committed by one entity is wrong, the identical action committed by another entity is wrong as well.



Let’s say that you’re strolling through Golden Gate Park holding a banana peel. You’re unable to find a trash can, so you decide to just toss the peel into the shrubs. After all, you rationalize, it’s a big park, and one little banana peel isn’t going to make much of a difference among the flowers. And perhaps it isn’t. But what if everybody did that? What if the park were to suddenly become overrun with everyone’s discarded garbage? What gives you the right to think that you – and you alone – can simply be the exception to the rule to fit your selfish needs?

I have another example, and it involves my single biggest pet peeve. I simply don’t understand why people walk two or three abreast on the sidewalk and refuse to fall behind each other in line when someone is walking towards them. For some reason, they believe that they are under no obligation to make room on the sidewalk for anyone else. This means that people walking towards them must step into the street or walk into a tree because there is nowhere else to go. What kind of mentality is this? And how do they know that the people walking toward them don’t have the same selfish notion?

I was shopping at Stonestown once and this happened to me, except that we were all pedestrians inside one of those sidewalk construction areas that involve a temporary wooden walkway with plywood sides from which you cannot escape. Three teenage girls were coming towards me, and I could imagine the whole scene unfolding before the collision even occurred. There was room for only one person going in each direction, but these girls with attitudes were not about to walk single file. They were so clueless that they did not remotely anticipate the possible consequences of their behavior. I, however, saw the whole thing coming and braced myself. Sure enough, one of the girls plowed into me head-on. The impact was pretty formidable. “Ow!” she yelped. “You b—h!”

Where in the wide world of sports had she expected me to go? Was I supposed to rappel up the plywood?

More importantly, what if everyone did that? We’d all be crashing into each other willy-nilly!


On a more serious note, I suppose what I’m lamenting these days is what I believe to be our culture of insolence. A lack of respect for both established and unwritten laws and conventions, coupled with people’s self-besotted embrace of their own wonderfulness, has made for a culture in which the population feels entitled to self-serving behavior at any expense.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can think more broadly.

If you stand in the grocery express line with 63 items, just because you think the world will not come to an end if you do so, think about the fact that if everybody did that, the notion of an express line would become worthless.

If your goal is to avoid paying any taxes whatsoever, think about what would happen in this country if everyone did that, and ask yourself why you’re entitled to good roads and clean water and are not obligated to pay for them while you expect everyone else to do so.

If you think that you should be able to break the law and text while you’re driving, you’d better hope that the person who needs to reflexively get out of your way is not texting, too.

If the airline has a rule about bringing a double-wide stroller onto a narrow plane, and you decide that you should be entitled to break that rule just because it would inconvenience you, imagine every paying passenger toting an enormous object onto a plane. Think of the chaos that would ensue. Not to mention how difficult it would be to get to the restroom.


A few years ago, my manager Tony told me the most hilarious story about his wife Kay’s Not-So-Excellent Adventure trying to make a trip to see him. I probably have many of the details wrong, except for the very-real punch line. Tony was working in San Francisco and his wife Kay was still living temporarily somewhere else. Perhaps it was Arcata. Kay would take a small, local airline down to see Tony on the weekend. She left one morning in her van to get to the tiny airport on time. Rushing along, she came to a stop sign on a remote country road in the wee small hours of the morning and, thinking no one on earth was anywhere around, zipped through the stop sign. Immediately, out of nowhere, a police officer appeared and stopped her to issue a ticket. This, of course, was an unforeseen delay. After she got on the road again, she was stricken with a flat tire. Along came another officer, or maybe it was the same one, who offered to help her. Unfortunately, the officer was a slow talker and a lollygagger, and although he fixed the tire, all the while she stood there thinking that she could have fixed it herself in much less time. Then the details get a bit blurry. They involved her finally getting to the airport and checking in, but then going to Costco to get a new tire. I believe she may have missed her original flight and had a couple of hours to kill before the next one. At Costco, I remember only that there was some sort of problem with the credit card, and that some nuns were involved, and that she made it back to the airport for her flight with only minutes to spare. However, as she approached the gate – the very same one where she’d checked in a couple of hours earlier – she noticed that the employees were all huddled around crying. Then she saw the sign on the counter: “ALL FLIGHTS CANCELLED. THIS AIRLINE HAS GONE OUT OF BUSINESS.”

[Let me take a moment to control my guffawing.]

Aside from my recollection of this story as one of the funniest tales I’ve ever heard, I frankly often wonder whether I would have put on the brakes at that first stop sign. Maybe I would have gone blithely on through, just as Kay (one of the sweetest people ever) did and just as most people would do. Then again, my friends remind me that I am the most law-abiding person on the planet. Okay, perhaps I would have rolled through the stop sign. A “California stop.” After all, if everybody felt that they had the right to choose whether or not it was necessary to stop at a traffic signal, there would be anarchy. Even before dawn in the middle of nowhere.


We live in a world in which very few think deeply. And I don’t mean deeply like the geniuses in the Epistemology class. I mean that we make snap judgments. We see a 30-second video and instantly ascribe guilt and malevolence to a situation we know nothing about. We consider a public policy issue for 30 seconds and decide that it was proposed for nefarious purposes. We see a histrionic headline on a sketchy website and share it as if it were gospel. We believe other people to be morally bankrupt just because they don’t agree with us. And we don’t contemplate the universal implications of our behavior because at times we are simply too selfish to do that.

I fear that we’ve become immature, sophomoric versions of our best selves. But we’re adults. We’re not 16-year-olds reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull, listening to Tom Rush, and writing bad poetry in our bedrooms late at night.

We’re not all that and a bag of chips. We haven’t achieved perfection and we’re not always right.

But most of us, while fraught with imperfections, are hungering for the same things out of life. If only we could consider the background, the facts, and the nuances before making judgments. If only we could break through our own self-involvement and consider the bigger picture.

Read more. Think deeply. Act universally.

A sloth’s guide to exercise

A sloth’s guide to exercise

When I was talking to my good friend Julie R. last week, she told me with great disappointment that she had a terrible cold and had to scale her cardio exercise session “down” to 30 minutes. Then she and I immediately laughed, because we both know that getting up to 30 minutes of cardio is my never-ending goal.

I am cursed blessed with a group of friends – none of them spring chickens, mind you – who all seem to be paragons of physical fitness. The aforementioned Julie R. runs marathons. Jill and Barb climbed Mt. Everest and, when that got a bit tedious, trekked around Machu Picchu. Michele works out with kettlebells (or, as I like to call them, “rotator cuff rippers”). Ron hikes the Pacific Crest Trail. Annabelle is a national champion in velodrome cycling. M.L. does triathlons.

It probably goes without saying that none of those things is in my repertoire.

For the most part, I hate exercising, unless it involves playing competitive sports. I used to be a decent athlete, but nowadays my sports endeavors typically end in a torn muscle, a broken bone, or some combination of the two. So I have settled on exercising as an individual, because of course it’s good for your heart and helps keep your bones from disintegrating and blah-dee-dee blah blah blah.

I have a feeling that some of my readers (outside of my close circle of superjock friends) might feel the way I do, so I would like to offer my surefire method of starting an exercise program and sticking with it. My method involves just three components:

  1. Exercising for only 30 seconds;
  2. Getting into a furious lather over newstalk; and
  3. Hoping that Max Weinberg gets food poisoning.

Follow the “30 Seconds” program

The most critical element of the Bocciardi exercise program is exercising for only 30 seconds. Now, I know you’re all assuming that I’m just trying to be funny, but my closest friends and family members can verify that what I am about to say is 100 percent true.

It seems that every year or two something happens that completely derails my exercise program. I shatter a bone, rip a ligament, get sick, experience some kind of life interruption, or just plain get lazy. And as many of you know, it is really, really hard to start up exercising once you have stopped. It is painful. The lungs burn, the legs ache, the heart labors, and it’s simply a boatload of misery. So I have found that the only thing that makes me start up again is knowing that I have to do it for only 30 seconds.

My cardio machine of choice is the elliptical, and what I do is exercise for 30 seconds on my first day back, 60 seconds the next time, and so on. Of course, increasing by only 30 seconds per outing means that it takes 60 outings to work my way up to my 30-minute max, but that’s fine with me. (And if I get on the elliptical three days a week, that means it will take five months to reach my half-hour max – about enough time for me to tear another ligament and have to start all over again.)

Knowing that I have to suffer for only 30 seconds that first day is a sublime motivator. And I really get into it. I pull on my sweats, grab some Gatorade, and even make sure I wear my sports bra.


Get infuriated over newstalk

My ideal sports regimen involves using the elliptical on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, I work out for 20–30 minutes on our hybrid weight machine in our downstairs “guest room.”

I discovered many years ago that listening to newstalk radio in the car always makes me furious, which can really make a lengthy trip zip by in seemingly no time at all. If a 22-year-old know-it-all starts ranting about how future Hall of Fame coach Bruce Bochy doesn’t know what he’s doing and should have replaced a pitcher, the time you spend sitting in rush-hour traffic will pass swiftly as your disgust rises. Or if one of those “survivalists” calls in from his bunker to offer his completely uninformed opinion about the Constitution, your three-hour trip will evaporate while you seethe.

So, while I spend time downstairs on the weight machine, injuring myself in small increments (until one day: SPROIIIIIIING!), I watch cable news on television. I can simultaneously do a shoulder press and shriek at the TV, “Why on earth do you still have a job, Wolf??! Is no one else sick to death of your breathless pettifogging?”

Not only does that pass the time, but my blood boils, my heart pumps like a locomotive, and my theory is that it enables me to lift more weight!


Imagine Max Weinberg with salmonella

While I’m on the elliptical in the garage, though, I don’t watch television. What I do is put one of my so-last-millennium CDs into my so-last-millennium living room CD player and listen via wireless headphones.

(Of course, as you might imagine, when I’m exercising for only 30 seconds, I don’t get to hear very much of a song.)

Dealing with the pain and misery of cardio exercise, however, requires that I do something more than just listen to music. So I fantasize.

Fess Parker

When I was a little girl, my favorite fantasy was that I was a wide receiver for the Green Bay Packers. As I got a little older, I had a dream (now legendary among my circle of friends) about Fess Parker and me that involved no clothing whatsoever except for coonskin caps. It was rather wonderful, but I digress.

For the last two years I’ve slowly been going through my entire Springsteen CD collection, which includes studio recordings, EPs, and a raft of bootlegs. My objective is to catalog all of them in a detailed database and to rate each studio and live performance according to the Bocciardi ratings system. This means hundreds of hours listening to Bruce while I work out on the elliptical.

What I do for the entire 30 minutes – or seconds, as the case may be – is fantasize that I am playing drums in the E Street Band behind Bruce at a live concert. In my scenario, I’ve been conscripted to play, on the spur of the moment, because regular drummer Max Weinberg is suddenly stricken and unable to take the stage.

Rock fans, this is where we absolutely must discuss the fact that this did happen to the world’s luckiest teenager. And it occurred right here in Daly City.

On November 20, 1973, the Who – one of the greatest bands of all time – were (or is it “was”?) in the middle of a show at the Cow Palace when drummer Keith Moon passed out cold, allegedly from a combination of tranquilizers and brandy. After being revived offstage with a shower and a cortisone injection, he came back out and continued drumming, seemingly back to normal. But during the very next song he passed out again, and this time he meant it.

Miraculously, some of this was filmed and has been posted on YouTube. You can see Keith slumped over at about 8:22, right after “Magic Bus” ends.

Guitarist Pete Townshend then looked up into the crowd and asked whether there were any good drummers who could come down and help them out. Holy nirvana! This doesn’t even happen in the movies!

Nineteen-year-old Thomas Scot Halpin, a fan who’d arrived 13 hours early with a friend to see the legendary band, was standing on the floor off to the side of the stage. When Townshend made his plea, the friend dragged Scot over to a security guard and insisted that he knew all the material and would be the perfect person for the job. Concert promoter Bill Graham came over to check out what he thought was a security issue, but he ended up recruiting Scot for the job. So Halpin found himself onstage, where someone gave him a shot of brandy to calm his nerves and he proceeded to spend the next few minutes of his life living out a dream that afterwards he could barely remember because of the adrenaline and the unreality of it all.

The band did three more songs, two of which were classic blues numbers. The third song was a Who tune called “Naked Eye” that had been played live but had not been released on a studio album, so I don’t know whether Halpin had even heard it before.

Although he had not touched a drumstick in a year, and Townshend sometimes had to help him through the tempo changes, I think the teenage drummer did a great job:

At the end, Halpin takes a bow with the band and looks like the happiest man alive.

It gives me chills to watch it.


My fantasy, as I mentioned, is similar. But there is no way Max Weinberg would ever be under the influence at a concert (or probably anywhere). For a long time my scenario involved his having a heart attack, but after many months it occurred to me that if Max had a coronary before a show, Springsteen would not blithely carry on with the concert as if nothing had happened! So I decided that he needed to suddenly get a raging case of food poisoning. Nothing too serious, of course, but enough to keep him indisposed for a few hours. Meanwhile, I would be dragged up on stage to finish the show.

My appearance would be, of course, triumphant.

And that’s how you can get through your new exercise plan for 2017.

You’re welcome.


Panic at the pump

Panic at the pump


I’m afraid of salad bars and gas stations.

There. I’ve said it.

A couple of weeks ago, I read a “Dear Abby” column that consisted of three letters entirely about people’s fears and neuroses. One letter, in particular, broke my heart. It came from a poor soul in Montana who described being terrified of driving on interstates and said that the phobia was preventing him or her from going places and doing things. The person believed that no one else in the world had such a fear.

But I can relate. When I first learned to drive, I was afraid of merging. Once I made it onto a freeway I was fine, but the act of merging was nearly incapacitating for me. Shortly after I got my license in San Jose, I was driving with my friend Carolyn to the movies in my 1971 Toyota Corolla. Our younger sisters were in the back seat. As my sister Janine reminds me, we were on the freeway on-ramp when I freaked out and stopped cold, on the ramp, screaming that I was too terrified to merge. Carolyn had to leap out, race around, jump into the driver’s seat, and get us to the theater. There must have been some very patient drivers behind us.

I’ve conquered that fear, thankfully, but it has been replaced by a raft of others.

The common denominator of my phobias seems to be a general terror of being tasked with figuring out how to do something new. What are the rules? Will my impracticality prevent me from following the simplest of directions? Will my fear of embarrassing myself paralyze me?

About 20 years ago, there was a salad bar on 2nd Street south of Market, near my workplace. This was long before the techie migration to the City – long before the emergence of artisanal brewpubs featuring hand-massaged beef and French fries made with specialized potatoes grown only in the Kennebec region of Maine. No, the whole restaurant was just a salad bar, full of fresh and delicious items that ranged from healthy vegetables to caloric pasta salads. As much as I loved that place, though (primarily for the enormous fried-in-butter croutons), I was filled with dread every time I ventured inside. There were so many ways to mess up. In the first place, I was never sure about the etiquette. I zoomed around the salad counter at a pretty quick clip, but there were many customers who lingered over every item. They would debate for what seemed an eternity about what kind of sprout to get. And I never knew whether it was ethical to jump ahead of them and head for the pasta, so I suffered in silence. Then there were other issues. For example, the price of the food was based on the weight of the salad (which meant that my salads were always very, very expensive). But it also appeared that customers were entitled to free bread. How many slices were we allowed to take? More importantly, were we supposed to put the bread on top of the salad, which would greatly increase the weight? Or could the bread be carried separately? Similarly, were the little Saltine cracker packages free, or did we have to disclose them? And what about the soup? How did people carry that back to the office? (I ended up never getting soup; it was way too stressful to think about it.)

You get the picture.

I don’t know whether there are salad bars like that around anymore, so I no longer have to worry myself to death over that particular scenario. But one fear that will affect me until I no longer drive a car is my abject terror of gas stations.

I believe the underlying principle is the same: I’m worried that I won’t be able to figure out the “procedures.”  Nowadays it seems that there is often an enormous set of complex instructions greeting you at the pump. Does the station take cash, regular credit cards, oil company credit cards, or some combination thereof? Do I have to wander inside and pay first, or can I pay right at the pump?  If I have to go inside, how do I tell them which car belongs to me? Do I leave my card with them and then have to retrieve it later? And how does the pump itself work? Are there handles I have to position a certain way before the gas comes out? Do I have to hold the nozzle the whole time, or is there a little lever I can flip so the gas flows on its own? Do I have to wait for the pump to tell me to “remove credit card quickly,” and if so, do I really need to yank it out violently, or can I just remove it at whatever pace I prefer? And God forbid I need to put air in the tires. Do I have to relentlessly stuff quarters into the air machine while trying to inflate four tires? Or is the use of the air free for customers, in which case do I go inside and tell them that I just paid for a tank of gas? If so, how will they know I’m not lying? (And by the way, do other people find it really hard to stretch that air hose all the way around the car to the tires on the opposite side? I feel like I have to muster up herculean strength to do that, and then I’m always afraid the hose will snap out my hands, whip across the car, break all the windows, and tear up the paint. Plus the whole process takes forever, because I always seem to let out more air than I put in.)

My solution to this problem, my friends, is that for decades I have gone to one gas station, and one only. In the entire world. It is the Chevron station at the corner of 19th Avenue and Ortega Street in San Francisco. I have been a customer of this one and only gas station for 25 years. And I know all the procedures.

One might wonder how I have managed to get gas at only this station for most of my life; I mean, I’ve traveled by car through all 50 states except Alaska and Florida. Well, when we need fuel and we’re in another city or state, Julie gets the gas. It’s that simple. Our road trip to Kentucky? Yep, she fills up every time. Inclement weather? Julie has to be the one to brave the elements. There’s no sense in risking my having a nervous breakdown over a tank of gas.

Then one day it happened. Julie and I were driving by the 19th/Ortega station when, as she describes it, I actually gasped, screamed “No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!” and threw myself against the passenger window, my face and hands plastered against the glass, my mouth open in shock and horror. I had just seen some barricades and a sign that the station was closed for renovation. I never could have imagined such a thing. Poor Julie had to put all the gas in our car for the two years it took for my beloved Chevron station to open back up again.

I don’t know why it freaks me out so much to deal with the unknown, or with change of any sort. We learned recently, for instance, that Julie has to go on a business trip to Denver the day I arrive home from my train trip next month (if this *&^%$# chronic vertigo even allows me to go). So she can’t pick me up when I arrive in Emeryville as we had planned. When I heard that truly devastating news, I panicked and could hardly sleep that night. I mean, I can change my ticket so that an Amtrak bus brings me from Emeryville into San Francisco. “But then what?” I cried plaintively. “How will I get home? I can’t get on a Muni bus with multiple suitcases at rush hour! I’ll be all alone on the Embarcadero and have to sleep on the streets!” Julie very calmly asked whether I had perhaps heard of something called a taxi. Oh.

I’m so grateful that Julie understands my phobias and does not laugh (outwardly) at them or force me to confront my phobias if they are only negligibly inconvenient for her. She knows that I have powered through my fear of flying many times over the years because we were visiting her family. But the gas station aversion doesn’t really bother her. Thank goodness I’m not dating anymore: “Hi. Before we go out, let me show you a list of all my neuroses. I’ve typed them out on this 10-foot scroll. Plus I have toe fungus.”

I wish I could tell the poor sweet Montana interstate-phobic person that he or she is most definitely not alone. I believe that all of us have fears of some kind (except maybe Sully Sullenberger). There are the standard phobias, and then there are other terrors that we’ve developed over the years for one reason or another. And we can’t necessarily get over them very easily. As my sister says, “There’s no applying logic to an illogical fear.”

Isolated fears also don’t mean that we are weak. We can be brave in many respects and anxious in others. I had a friend ask me why I wasn’t afraid of traveling alone across the country. That has never occurred to me. Some people fear surgery or anesthesia, but I’ve never been a bit nervous about going under the knife. If you want to operate on me, have at it! But don’t ask me to summon a taxi.

I just read a funny little book by Nora Ephron called I Feel Bad About My Neck. She says, “When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you; but when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh. So you become the hero rather than the victim of the joke.” It’s always a good practice, I believe, to own our fears, our mistakes, and our shortcomings. Talk about them.

You are not alone, my friends. I promise you.



Well, I can’t restrain myself any longer. So far, I’ve avoided using Monday Morning Rail to rail against anything at all. But the escalating misuse of one particular word in the English language has gotten me so worked up, so incensed, so indignant that there is no containing my rage. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, and I am FURIOUS.

So what’s the offending word?


I normally don’t notice, or care about, people’s word usage. That’s the honest truth. Sometimes my friends tell me that they hesitate to write to me for fear that I might secretly cast judgment on their grammar or spelling. In reality, though, I hardly ever notice such things. You can “ain’t” me to death and I won’t even wince. And you’ve all seen my typos; my writing is riddled with them. The older I get, it seems, the less likely it is that an error will jump off the page at me. So don’t worry – I’m really not conscious of anyone’s mistakes.

(On the other hand, I do admit that I once told my father that I found myself wildly attracted to anyone who used good grammar or an uncommon word. He said that he completely understood.)

The reason that the misuse of “humbled” drives me so utterly bananas is that it really is emblematic of the societal trend that is most disturbing to me: people’s compulsive need to trumpet their own wonderfulness to the masses.


Okay, let’s start first with the general meaning of humility. The 10-pound Webster’s Dictionary sitting on my desk says that humility is “the quality of being without pride; voluntary self-abasement.” That seems a bit overboard to me, so I prefer the Oxford definition, which is that humility is “a modest view of one’s own importance.” Many religions of the world – Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and others – go a bit farther. They teach that humility is a virtue, and that to attain it requires a recognition that one’s individual place in the world is subordinate to a higher power and is no different from, and no loftier than, anyone else’s.

I believe that true humility is a goal we should all pursue. Now, I’m not talking about abdicating all sense of pride or worth in ourselves, because that’s just counterproductive. (In fact, I know from experience that my own personal insecurities can even be annoying to others. After our last rehearsal, my bandmate Dina said to me, “If you would just get over all of your ‘isms’ and phobias, you could actually be a good drummer!” I’m still laughing about that one.) Anyway, what I’m talking about is realizing that we are all much too besotted with our own perceived greatness when in fact, as the Firesign Theatre so deftly put it, we are all just bozos on this bus.

All right, that’s out of the way. So, now, what does “humbled” mean? In its most extreme definition, it could mean being debased or demeaned. I prefer to define it as the state that occurs when people are made to feel less significant or important than they thought they were.

For example, let’s say a braggart boasted that he was the best in the world at something, and then he entered a competition and came in last. He would be humbled.

Here’s a gentler version of that – a true story that happened to my brother and me. When we were teenagers, my father wanted to teach us what real work was like – you know, the kind of work his own father had done in the poultry business when he settled in San Leandro in the early part of the last century. So Dad arranged for Marc and me to work one weekend for a kindly, elderly family friend named Joe Gallo who had a small ranch in San Jose. Our job was to cut apricots and lay them on pallets to dry. That’s all we had to do. We were put to work under an outdoor canopy with a gaggle of older women, and we looked around at them and thought that we were “all that and a bag of chips.” We would leave these ladies in the dust, we assumed, with our apricot-cutting talents because they were so ancient and tended to yak amongst themselves the entire time. Two days later, our hands were crisscrossed with knife slices. We were hot and we were sore. Our technique – which essentially was “keep sawing keep sawing keep sawing keep sawing, ok, one apricot done” did not compare to the ladies’ technique, which essentially was “slice, done! slice, done! slice, done!” They cut roughly 20 pallets to every one that we did. On Sunday afternoon, we went up to Mr. Gallo to collect our pay, which was based on the number of ’cots we had cut. With great solemnity, he presented us with our checks: $3.75 apiece, for two days’ exhausting labor. That, my friends, was humbling.

So what is going on with the sudden, pervasive misuse of “humbled”? Well, one of the corruptions of the word involves its substitution for the words “honored” or “grateful.” If someone were to ask me, for instance, to host an awards ceremony for local heroes, I would say that I would be honored to do so. This would mean, “I am thrilled to be asked and I am full of respect for what I am being requested to do.” And I would be grateful to have been the chosen speaker.

Or if I were to win the Pulitzer Prize (which is a reasonable bet), I would say that I was honored to be among the many talented writers who have received that award and grateful to have been chosen.

However, when the great baseball slugger Jim Thome was awarded a plaque on the Philadelphia Phillies Wall of Fame last month, he said he was “humbled.” No, he wasn’t. He undoubtedly deserved a place on the wall; after all, he hit 89 home runs in his first two years with the club. So he may have been honored to be there among the other Phillies greats, but the accomplishment certainly did not humble him. This word-substitution problem seems to be really prominent among athletes who may have simply won a game or title of some sort (“I’m so humbled to have thrown the game-winning pass in this [meaningless] regular-season game!”).

But I have left the most egregious offense for last. What I really cannot abide are people who are simply out for self-aggrandizement and have begun to use “humbled” to somehow indicate that they’re heroic for touting themselves!! For example, they tweet something or post something self-serving on Facebook, then tack “humbled!” onto the end to make themselves sound virtuous!


“One of my clients just told me he thinks I’m terrific. Humbled!”

Of course, it’s very convenient to claim that you are humbled when what you really want to do is announce to the entire world that you’ve just been given some sort of trivial accolade – either by someone else or by your own puffed-up self!

Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!



I think I will jump on the bandwagon, and I encourage my readers to comment with their own “humbled!” statements.

Here are mine:

My Uncle Dave, who was a professional baker, said my molasses cookies were “quite tasty.” Humbled!

The hairdresser just told me I have a thick head of hair. Humbled!

I finally figured out what a Dutch oven is. Humbled!

Not to boast, but my boobs haven’t started to sag yet. Humbled!

The train has left the station

The train has left the station

Over the last couple of years, dozens (and by “dozens,” I mean a handful) of family members and friends have been suggesting that I write a blog. The thing is, I’m very old-school; I honestly don’t understand our hyper-self-besotted culture in general, so blogging has always been a big mystery to me. As I’ve said many times, I don’t know why anyone would want to read my musings. And I don’t say this because I’m fishing for compliments and praying that someone responds with, “Oh, but Paula, you’re practically the Ernest Hemingway of West Portal.” Let’s face it: No one wants to read about my life.

“I woke up. I organized things. I exercised for 12 minutes. I walked the dog. I organized some more things. I ate clam dip and watched the Giants. I put toe fungus medicine on my foot. I went to bed.” Snooze-o-rama!

Last fall, though, my sister-in-law Janet told me she had a friend who wanted me to write her obituary. Don’t worry; the friend, thankfully, is not dying. But she apparently let it be known that if I am alive when she does shuffle off this mortal coil, I am to be commissioned to memorialize her. It must have had something to do with the way I write about people, and their lives, with fondness.

In any case, Janet – who herself has a blog ( –  immediately began a crusade to get me to create my own.

So, because I’m über-organized, I made myself an Outlook reminder:

“Start a blog.”

And I’ve been snoozing it every week. (Some of my Outlook reminders I have snoozed for more than a decade. I’m not kidding.)

Now that I’ve decided to do away with that annoying reminder, though, I haven’t figured out what on earth will be the focus of this blog.

One of my passions is being on the road; I’ve been across the country by car multiple times and have been to every state except Alaska and Florida. (My longest road trip was my first. We spent three months in a VW bus traveling and camping through the south, up the East Coast, into Maine, and back through the north. I was a film bug then [before everyone became a cinematographer] and I edited dozens of rolls of trip footage into a 2-hour Super 8 film with location sound and a full music soundtrack. That thing is a classic.)

And lately I’ve become enamored with riding the rails. I’ve taken the train to Washington state, to Chicago, and to Harper’s Ferry, and this year I’ll be making a roundtrip rail journey to and from the east coast, which adds up to about 8 days on the train. I’ve learned a lot about myself and my own biases from the people I’ve met on these trains. Perhaps those stories will make their way into a post at some point.

Finally, I like to spin yarns. When I write about myself, it’s usually about all of the foolish, idiotic, impractical, and embarrassing things I’ve done. There must be hundreds of such incidents.

But it gives me greater satisfaction to write about the lives of others. I truly believe that most people are good and that we all have interesting stories to tell. I also think that all of us have done quietly heroic things in our lives, and that the meaning of our time spent on earth is just that: to discover, and put into commission, the silent heroes in ourselves.

I named my blog “Monday Morning Rail” after a lyric in one of the greatest songs ever written: “City of New Orleans,” penned by Steve Goodman and recorded by Arlo Guthrie in 1972. I don’t want to brag, but I thought the blog name was ridiculously clever, since it references 1) trains and 2) the act of forcefully bloviating about one’s opinions. Truth be told, though, I doubt that I’ll do much, if any, railing. I’m tired of snarkiness and criticism. I just want to celebrate, with love and gentle humor, how great life can be.

And for those of you who browbeat me into writing this danged thing, you &^%&*$ well better subscribe to it!


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