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.

Hmmm.

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.

7/28/71:

“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!”

6/26/71:

“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.”

7/22/71:
(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.”

5/13/71:

“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.”

7/13/71:

“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.

 

THE THREE MEN (age 8)

[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.

 

JANINE TOOK A SHOWER THIS MORNING (age 9)

[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.”

 

WHAT’S ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE HILL, BOYS? (age 10)

[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.

 

FUTURE DRIVER’S LAMENT (age 16)

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.

7/18/71:

“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.

Immanuel_Kant_grave_-_panoramio_(1)

***

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_as_daniel_boone
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.

https://youtu.be/aIjH9OU2JKw

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:

https://youtu.be/X5ZGlVY5rg4

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

It gives me chills to watch it.

scot-halpin

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.

paula-exercising

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.

Humbled!

Humbled!

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?

“Humbled.”

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!

E.g.:

“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!

Sigh.

***

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!