I don’t want a pickle

I don’t want a pickle

I’m not sure why I thought it was a good idea to borrow my brother’s truck and head down to Los Angeles on Highway 5 when I didn’t know how to drive a stick shift.

It was August of 1986. I was living out in the avenues in San Francisco, working as a freelance editor and proofreader for a variety of publishing houses but mostly for an advertising agency called West End Studios. It was a giddy time. Work was easy, I was dating like a drunken sailor, I managed a softball team, and it was not uncommon for us to close down a bar after polishing off endless pitchers of cheap beer, only to get up four hours later to go to work.

One of my West End cohorts – a diminutive Irish woman from the Sunset District named Lori – drove a motorcycle all over town and had given me a few rides, often on our lunch hour. Something about carrying a helmet around made me feel like a tough chick. So I decided that, in my wildest dreams, I’d like to own a motorcycle. But of course I didn’t have the dough.

Then our receptionist Maria told me that her sister wanted to sell a 1982 red Honda Passport C70. Those little three-speed bikes were the cutest things ever. The engines were only 70cc, so I knew I could pick the bike up with one hand. The 44 mph top speed, too, would be great for tooling around the City. I had to have that Honda.

***

The only snag was that Maria’s sister lived in Los Angeles. I would need to pick up the bike and somehow transport it back to San Francisco – a task that my Toyota Corolla obviously could not handle. So my brother Marc agreed to lend me his truck.

Oh, wait, there was a second snag. His truck had a manual transmission.

Now, I’d driven a standard transmission once before – six years earlier, when I’d tooled around the country with a girlfriend in an old ’67 VW bus. But its skinny, on-the-floor gear shift was about three feet long, and we really didn’t even have to engage the clutch when we shifted. Honestly, that thing just drove no matter what. So I had not acquired the delicate skill of engaging a clutch in its normal tiny window of kinetic mystery, especially when starting out from neutral into first gear.

But, whatever. I breezily decided that I would somehow wrangle that truck down to L.A., stopping only once at a gas station. That seemed like a great plan, although I’d forgotten that when I got into Los Angeles I would be forced to brake at red lights.

Amazingly, my “frighteningly inept drive down to L.A.,” as my diary reports, yielded no dramatics except for my embarrassing, multiple attempts to clumsily get the vehicle in gear after the gas station stop. Once off the freeway I somehow managed never to come to a halt again until I reached my grandparents’ house in La Crescenta. I accomplished this by a) making dozens of unnecessary rolling right turns when I came to red lights, or b) approaching the red lights at an anemic 15 mph crawl so that I never had to come to a complete stop.

Long story short, I brought my grandfather and my uncle, in my uncle’s truck, to buy the bike. Once there, Maria’s airhead sister had the audacity to suddenly declare that she didn’t think she really wanted to sell the Honda after all. In my ensuing rage I let her know that that change of heart was simply not an option. She took one look at my muscular uncle and burly grandfather and decided to back down.

I don’t remember the trip back to San Francisco at all, and my diary makes no mention of it. But my experience with the truck wasn’t over. Before returning it to my brother, I parked in the UCSF indoor lot when I went to get one of my endless series of allergy shots. Afterwards, when I began to back the truck out of its space, an explosive “BOOM” shook me, the truck, and even the concrete walls of the parking lot. I suddenly realized that I had forgotten to engage the clutch when I put the truck in Reverse. Oops. Oh, well. I was unconcerned. I didn’t think it was any big deal.

The truck seemed perfectly fine after that, and it ran like a trooper. A day or so after it was back in my brother’s hands, though, he called me. “Say, did anything happen while you had the truck?” he asked me. “It won’t go into Reverse.”

I had ruined the transmission. It cost my brother $1,000. And for reasons I will never fathom, he didn’t ask me to pay him back.

***

Paula with Honda Passport

Everyone called my little bike a scooter or, even worse, a moped, but it was technically a motorcycle. A “hog,” as I preferred to call it. Unlike scooters, the Honda C70s were straddled like a motorcycle, had a manual gear shift, and ran on motorcycle-sized tires. I was required, in fact, to get an M1 motorcycle license, which in those days was not required of scooter riders.

Man, I loved getting on that bike and taking off flying through the streets of San Francisco. I felt light as a feather, and with those large-size tires I could lean into every curve with ease and speed. The open air was bracing. My leather jacket had a sensual, earthy rasp. On any random street I could catch whiffs of fried rice, pizza, sizzling steak, baking sourdough. I loved passing by laundromats and smelling the warm, comforting fragrance of running dryers. The Haight was a wash of patchouli. In Golden Gate Park the temperature dropped 10 degrees immediately, and the Monterey pines and minty eucalyptus would clear your lungs like Vapo-Rub. Out by the beach, the air was salty, the fog thick and fresh.

***

I’ve always been a good driver, but I became a much better one on that bike. I knew that the majority of motorcycle accidents occur when automobiles turn left directly into the path of the cycle, so I was always acutely aware of that possibility. But I also became extraordinarily defensive and anticipatory. I learned, for example, to watch drivers’ eyes in their rearview mirrors. Their eyes told me what they were considering, so when drivers were about to change lanes right on top of me, I could slow down preemptively. At the same time, I constantly had to scour the road ahead of me for potholes, puddles, and other hazards. It all required fine-tuned coordination.

Nevertheless, I was involved in three accidents on that bike. One day I’d just started home from a work party near Levi’s Plaza after drinking a glass of wine. Three sets of unused railroad tracks, part of the defunct State Belt Railroad that once served San Francisco’s waterfront, converged in an angular pattern outside in the mist, and the bike and I tipped over as I tried to cross them. Slippery and oddly angled tracks are a cyclist’s nightmare no matter what, but I vowed never again to consume any alcohol before getting on the bike. Luckily I was probably going only about 5 mph, and I wasn’t hurt.

untitled
A perfect example of what not to cross on a bike

Another time I was downtown making a turn from the left lane when a driver in the middle lane decided to turn left illegally, right on top of me. He hit me at a very slow speed and dragged me a bit before I fell over, at which point a homeless man came running over, helped me up, picked up the bike, and vehemently cursed the driver, who had pulled over about half a block away but never got out of his car. I thanked the homeless man profusely. Since that day, I’ve always felt differently about street people.

The last incident involved Kentucky Fried Chicken. I was stopped at a light on my way home from work in the middle of the day because I felt ill. Looking up, I noticed a KFC, and despite my flu-like symptoms I started reminiscing about the delicious sliders they used to make called Chicken Littles. “I wish I could have a Chicken Little right now,” I was thinking. “My friends could never believe that I’d order five of those things and . . . ” WHAM! I was flat on my back on the asphalt. A car had hit me from behind so directly that the bike just lurched straight ahead and I flew right over the handlebars. The driver, who’d been daydreaming, was extremely distraught, told me he rode a motorcycle himself, and insisted on giving me his business card even though I insisted I was okay. An ambulance happened to be parked right there, and the EMTs rushed over and checked me out right in the middle of the street because apparently they were bound to by law. Eventually I drove home just fine, albeit shaken up, and all I had to show for it were a bruised ankle, sore legs, and torn pants. The Honda, as always, was fine. That little thing had nine lives.

***

My bike and I went through a lot together. For 25 years it was my standard transportation to work – to Levi’s Plaza, to downtown, to south of Market, and to the Civic Center. I was riding home from the State Building when the big earthquake of ’89 hit. The tremor threw the Honda and me into the next lane but I stayed on like a cowboy and we were both unscathed. (See, however, my previous blog post, Shakin’ All Over, about an embarrassing situation involving the quake, my bike, and my standing in my apartment doorway with nothing on but my helmet.)

Together we rode in more than one Pride Parade, and at times my bike was the only tiny entrant among a massive horde of roaring motorcycles. The happy crowd loved us.

I rode it to play flag football in Golden Gate Park. It brought me and my drumsticks to my early days of band practice. I could park it anywhere, so I often took it to North Beach, where I could pick up some focaccia at Liguria bakery and a book of beat poetry at City Lights bookstore and never once have to circle a block.

I’ve never felt more connected to San Francisco than I did then. I miss those days.

Paula and Kelly in Parade-1
With Kelly Tipton, Pride parade, June 1995

***

Taking my bike to and from work every day provided me with more than just the joy of the ride. It was a way for me to actually look forward to the daily grind, as well as to wind down afterwards. It got me outdoors. It got me in tune with the city I loved so much.

When I left the house in the morning it was about 6:30 a.m., dark, and often biting cold. (And that was in the summer!) I wore a leather jacket and gloves, of course, as well as my full-face helmet, but they weren’t always adequate protection. My gloves, in particular, didn’t keep my hands completely warm because I have a benign but annoying condition called Raynaud’s disease. My hands don’t get enough blood circulation in cold weather and my fingers lose their color and feel like they’re growing numb with frostbite. It can be quite painful, so I developed a chant that I repeated loudly into my helmet to take my mind off the piercing pain in my fingers:

“I can’t wait to get to work
’Cause it’s so f—ing cold.
It’s so f—ing,
It’s so f—ing,
It’s so f—ing cold.”

It’s not very imaginative, and I don’t know why I decided to use the “f” word considering I typically don’t use it in my everyday life, but it definitely helped.

I also had another trick up my sleeve. When it was really cold, I stayed right behind a big truck, and its exhaust would warm me. No matter how slowly a truck chugged up the hills, I refused to pass, hugging closely to its maternal warmth.

***

A few years ago, the engine on my little bike finally gave out, and when I tried to get it repaired, the mechanic told me that so many tiny pieces were involved that “it wouldn’t be worth it” for me to get it fixed. I begged to differ, thinking that it might well be worth it to me if he would only give me a price, but he refused. I think he just didn’t want to bother doing the work.

Then I heard about a place south of Market, owned by a guy who worked only on old Hondas. He suggested that he install an aftermarket engine for me. I excitedly agreed, but the bike was never the same after that. The kickstarter was so stiff that I didn’t have the strength to engage it. To make matters worse, the new engine had four gears rather than three, with the gears in a reverse position from my old bike. I just couldn’t get used to it. My muscle memory was too ingrained. I’d shift down into first gear when I thought I was shifting up into third, and my bike would smoke and skid for yards down the street. It made me terrified to ride it. Meanwhile I had aged, and I knew that a fall off my bike would no longer mean that I’d pick it up and head on home. It would mean multiple injuries and maybe a hospital stay.

So I knew I had to sell it. It broke my heart.

***

When you weigh the pros and cons of owning a motorcycle, the pros are spiritual but the cons are practical. These days, I don’t see as many motorcycles or scooters on the streets of San Francisco. It makes perfect practical sense. “You know,” I say to Julie every month or so, “you’d almost have to be a fool to ride a motorcycle here these days. The City has become much more dangerous for bikes. The number of cars on the street has nearly doubled, thanks to the influx of tech company employees and the rise in Lyft and Uber drivers, who generally live out of town and have no idea where they’re going as they clog up our streets. Not to mention all the drivers distracted by their phones. No amount of good defensive driving can predict what the heck a distracted driver will do next.”

But the spiritual part . . . the smells, the freedom, the road, the rush of air, the adrenaline, the joy . . . . how do you let that go?

Sym Wolf Classic 150
SYM Wolf Classic 150

A couple of weeks ago, on my way home from a PT appointment, I saw a truly beautiful motorcycle cruise by our car. “Hurry up,” I demanded of Julie, “and drive alongside that bike so I can see what it is.” It turned out to be the SYM Wolf Classic 150. Gorgeous. Diminutive. Just the right size for a feeble dame like me. Enough to get up the hills, but not enough to take on the freeway. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Hmm. I’ve kept up my requirements and still have a license to drive a motorcycle.

A girl can dream, can’t she?

 

the end

***

I want to thank all the people who sent me such kind suggestions and good wishes after I posted January’s blog. My short update is that I am finally feeling at least 50 percent better, and I no longer have times of despair, which is absolutely wonderful. I’m seeing two physical therapists and hoping that they can get me back to feeling 100 percent really soon. I’ll keep everyone posted.

***

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.

1/31/72 [age 16]: [Note: I was the editor of our school newspaper and this was back in the dark ages when our copy went off to a typesetter and came back to us to manually lay out]

“On Wednesday we get the copy back and have to paste it all up to get everything to fit properly, cut things down, make sure it’s all straight. Then we have to correct the mistakes our rotten printer makes, and we have to cut out each teeny letter and paste on the right one. That’s murder with my tremendous coordination.”

1/19/72 [age 16]:

“I got my Learner’s Permit today, 100% on the written test, passed eye test (miracle). When I came home I couldn’t find it and I thought I left it in A-3, called school, Mr. B looked, said no deal. I was in a panic. Decided to check my purse once more. It was there? Sho’ ’nuff.”

1/15/72 [age 16]:

“I think I must be very lucky. I am physically healthy. My mind is efficient. I’m athletic. I have good parents and brother and sister. I like my friends and my school. I have almost everything I want – a bike, good music, and good grades. I go a lot of places. And I’m at least average-looking.”

1/13/72 [age 16]:

“Gosh, tomorrow is my Driver’s Training test. LET US PRAY. But I made two major mistakes in driving today. I was quite clutzy on the ‘Y’ turn. Also I sort of moved toward the left down one road and didn’t look toward the side. This car was there. I would have hit him if Mr. Locicero hadn’t stopped me. Oh, wow, bad deal.”

1/11/72 [age 16]:

“[In Driver’s Training] We went on the freeway today. At one point I got up to 72 m.p.h. When I looked at that speedometer, believe me, I slowed down in a hurry! Look in your mirror every 5 seconds, stay on the road, watch for lane changers . . . when you’re doing 60 or 65 it’s hard to watch all that at the same time. I’m alive, but it doesn’t seem like I’m too satisfied with myself. I’m going to be so nervous on test day I may die.”

1/10/72 [age 16]:

“I guess I was a little rusty at Driver’s Training today. First I forgot to take the parking brake off. And he had to tell me where one red light was; my visor was in the way and I couldn’t see the signals. Gosh, darn. And downtown [San Jose] – my God, it was murder. All those horrible, unannounced one-way streets!”

1/9/72 [age 16]:

“We had pheasant for dinner tonight. I don’t believe we should shoot them. I remember when [my brother] Marc first got his BB gun. I used to love shooting army men off the retaining wall out back. Then I kept hoping for a bird to come down. Day after day I waited. Finally a little sparrow landed on the lawn. Marc was saying, ‘Now! Now’s your chance!’ So I looked through the sight and could not shoot. When I looked at that poor helpless creature I vowed NEVER to shoot 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.]

 

 

I’ll stand by you

I’ll stand by you

One of my former colleagues needs a new liver.

The problem is, in order to be eligible for an immediate liver transplant a patient must be very high up on the waiting list and practically at death’s door. She is not there yet, although she has suffered terribly with this condition for many years. More than 17,500 people are on the waiting list in the United States.

There is, however, a way for “living donors” to give someone a portion of their healthy liver. The donor’s liver regenerates; we can actually lose up to 75 percent of that organ and it will grow right back. The recipient, in turn, grows a virtually new liver from the piece he or she was given.

My friend’s hepatologist works out of the University of California, San Francisco, and I decided to research the procedure on the UCSF website. It turns out that it is no walk in the park for the donor. The potential complications are severe and could even be life-threatening. The postsurgical pain is brutal – worse for the donor, in fact, than for the recipient. Recovery takes a week in the hospital and many months afterwards, and some donors suffer from pain and complications for life.

Strongly shaken, I closed my eyes and tried to assess the degree of courage I had. To what length would I go to save a life? What amount of pain and potentially life-changing discomfort could I imagine going through? And for whom?

***

I was thinking about friendship on my recent ’cross-country train trip. I’d met an older woman in the observation car, a mentally and physically strong widow who went to the gym every day and kept up with politics and had a plethora of art-related hobbies and was taking the trip by herself to visit her daughter in Florida. “I’ve gotten along just fine living alone,” she said, “and I’ve kept myself healthy, but this year I lost my best friend, and that’s what kicked me hard in the gut.”

It was the third time I’d gone back East, by rail, to the beautiful state of Maryland. Three of my friends happen to live in the Baltimore area, which is both fortunate and unfortunate. Fortunate for me that they happen to live within 60 miles of each other. Unfortunate that they’re not in San Francisco any longer. They weren’t West Coast people in the first place, but they’d all ventured out to the Bay Area for a time, shortly after college. Eventually, and for varied reasons, they made their way back and settled in Maryland. All of their departures broke my heart.

So, on the first day I ride the train back from Baltimore, I cry. It’s become a tradition.

***

There is little in the world that I value more highly than friendship. It probably even irritates a few people who may, in fact, consider my persistent loyalty and sentimentality to be an unwanted annoyance.

I’ve always longed to enjoy the “Cheers” or “Sex and the City” dynamic with a few really close friends – that is, a group of people who get together on a regular basis, rain or shine, at a preordained spot, over coffee or wine or a meal. But that is not to be. Almost everyone I know has moved out of San Francisco, or left the Bay Area or the state entirely. So I jealously take note of the small group of retired bearded gents who take up the same table at my neighborhood Peet’s Coffee every day. Or my high school teachers who meet once a month for a sandwich, half a century after they worked together. Or my father-in-law’s high school and college buddies from Shelbyville and Georgetown (KY) who get together like clockwork. In fact, he told me that he has eight different groups, from different parts of his life, that he sees on a regular basis for lunch. They’re all in their eighties, by the way. “And normally I don’t even eat lunch,” he recently told me. “I have to take care not to spoil my boyish figure.”

***

So, what qualities do I look for, instinctively, in a friend? The ability to laugh. Shared values. Kindness. Intellectual curiosity. A complete lack of arrogance or pretense. A strong respect for older people and institutions. And most importantly, the willingness to listen. I have to admit, I’ve jettisoned a few “friends” over the last few years because I suddenly realized, after many decades, that they’d never listened to a word I’d said!

And to further escalate my demands, I prefer that people not only listen but also respond.

Lest I start getting too serious, let me give you an example of someone who listens to my tedious minutiae and follows up, which is the critical thing. One day this summer I was at the ballpark with my attorney friend Char. Char has been a bandmate of mine off and on for many years now. And I don’t think she would mind my saying that she has virtually zero interest in baseball, so when we go to a game I have to occasionally (and discreetly) shift one eye to the field if I have any hope of keeping track of the game at all. Char is an example of one of the world’s greatest conversationalists. The topics range from the ridiculous (“Paula, would you kiss so-and-so if you were the last two people on the planet and stuck on a desert island?”) to the less so (“Char, for the love of God, please explain emoluments to me”).

(By the way, if there were only two people left on the planet, why would they have to be stuck on a desert island?)

At our game this summer, Char mentioned that when she saw Springsteen with me two years ago, it was a life-changing concert for her. I think she actually said “life-changing.” Swoon! I started yammering on about how I was in the middle of a years-long process of listening to, cataloguing, notating, and rating all of my Springsteen bootlegs. My end goal, I told her, is to come up with “The Definitive Bruce Show,” with the best live version of each song I feel worthy of inclusion.

What I didn’t mention, because who on earth would care, is that I’ve been obsessing all these years about what format to use for the final output. CDs? (but there would be multiple CDs, and who but me listens to them anymore?) MP3 disks? (but would they play in precisely the order I decree?) Anyway, I didn’t mention my obsession because who cares. No one.

“By the way,” Char responded immediately, “what format are you going to use for this project?”

This is why Char is a gem.

***

When I arrive on the East Coast, I’m typically met at the train station by my friend Ellen, whom I met when we worked together at a nonprofit political think tank in San Francisco. Ellen came from a huge East Coast family, went to college in Oberlin, shared my undying love for Springsteen when we were young, introduced me to a host of terrific Oberlin and Jersey guys, drank profusely with me throughout the 80s, lost her husband at a way-too-young age, works in book publishing in Washington, D.C., lives in a lovely home in the country, and still amuses me with her opinionated, broad-based, funny takes on all of life’s variables, from the profound to the mundane. We like to rave about how cool we are. Springsteen’s gorgeous ode to friendship – “Bobby Jean” – always reminds me of her:

We liked the same music, we liked the same bands
We liked the same clothes.
We told each other that we were the wildest,
The wildest things we’d ever seen.

We have so many laughs. I’ll never forget the day I finally came out to her, in 1984, after years of friendship. I was absolutely terrified that that would be the end of our carefree years of running around town together. This is how she reacted:

“Well, if I’d known that all along, I could have become your plaything and you could have been my sugar momma!”

Ellen Loerke and granddaughter Allie
Ellen and her granddaughter Allie

***

After a couple of days with Ellen, I check in for a week at a hotel in downtown Baltimore, just a few blocks from my friend Julie R.’s apartment.

I’ve known Julie for more than 25 years. When we first met in San Francisco, she claimed – at the time, at least – to be an anarchist. And she’d been “warned” by a mutual friend that I was – at the time, at least – a Republican. I’m sure we both did an inner eyeroll. All these years hence, I think I can accurately assume that we’ve both been pulled a few degrees towards the middle.

Riffle Mohawk
Julie R. and her scary mohawk

Julie had more contradictions than anyone I’d ever met. I knew that she had formerly rocked a mohawk and had been arrested in a variety of political demonstrations, yet she was earnestly, by degree and trade, an accountant. An aficionado of the punk scene and devotee of Iggy Pop, she had painted obscene epithets on her bedroom walls back home, yet her inner core was sweet and sensitive. She wore black. She was a serious introvert. She refused to eat any green foods or anything crunchy. She laughed easily. And she played the guitar like Keith Richards.

Julie and I had a band called Three Hour Tour for many years, but eventually she headed back to Maryland where, among other things, the cost of living was a lot lower. A few years ago, to my unending admiration, Julie courageously decided to completely raze her career path and go into physical therapy. It required getting into a school with very specific requirements, following a point system I never understood, and the first time she applied she was rejected. Most of her friends and family responded in the same way: that she just needed to be patient and try again the following year. My response, by contrast, was abject anger. “What?! What kind of so-called school is that – that would reject someone clearly smarter and more qualified than any other possible applicant? Are they blind??!” I was aghast, outraged. She later told me that my response was the one she liked best. (And she got into that idiotic school the next year.)

We typically keep in touch via phone conversations that can last for hours. She also frequently sends me envelopes full of newspaper clippings about topics ranging from baseball (she’s an avid sports fan) to music to Maryland history and lore. (Using the U.S. Mail! Who does that anymore?)

A few years ago, for Christmas, I bought Julie a book called The Doctors’ Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignac Semmelweis. Yes, it sounds odd. But I had seen it on her Amazon wish list and, knowing her broad range of interests, I didn’t think too much of it. It turns out, though, that she’d put the book on her list so she could remember to buy it for her sister, who does medical research. After she opened my “gift,” she was too polite to tell me that I had made an idiotic mistake until I forced the issue when I asked her how she was enjoying her wonderful new book on childbed fever.

***

During our week in Baltimore this time we toured the Bromo Seltzer Tower (much more interesting than it sounds!), visited the Peabody Institute Library, frequented any number of charming Baltimore taverns (although one drink puts Julie under the table), walked 40 miles (at Julie’s insistence, of course – she’s a long-distance runner) to find the 49ers game at one such tavern, saw an Orioles game at Camden Yards, went through Baltimore’s fantastic African American History Museum, watched a Lynyrd Skynyrd documentary, embarked on a self-guided literary walking tour (to which Julie had made her own personal additions), sought out all the best Maryland crabcakes around, and played music nearly every day.

Julie Riffle Bike 2011
Julie on one of her innumerable athletic endeavors

One day, Julie and I drove out to her parents’ house, in her home town of Thurmont, to work out with her mother and other ladies of, shall we say, an advanced age. More advanced than mine, to put it one way. Julie has been a certified personal trainer, and she really loves older people, so she enjoys torturing putting the screws to the ladies and forcing them to keep up with their exercises. She’s coerced them into getting together regularly at her mom’s house for strength training and conditioning, and on her rare days off Julie drives out there and makes sure they’re not shirking their commitment. Then, after their workout, they all tell stories and scarf a bunch of doughnuts.

Julie has always loved older people. She arrived at work one day recently to find one of her elderly hospital patients crying hard. Julie asked what was wrong, and the woman (let’s call her “Dottie”) said that she couldn’t find her beloved stuffed animal. It had gotten misplaced somehow and Dottie couldn’t bear the thought of going on without it.

“Honey,” she sniffled, “I didn’t sleep one minute last night because all I did was cry and pray to God that He would bring my teddy back.”

Her plight was not taken seriously at all by the nursing assistants. But Julie would have none of that nonsense.

Over the years, Julie’s tendencies toward steely introspection have softened into a gentle, universal, empathic kindness. Most of us mellow with age, I suppose. In any case, the stuffed animal situation sent her into action. During one of her spare moments (God forbid she do this on company time), she whisked herself down to the hospital laundry in hopes that somehow the animal had been caught up in her patient’s bedding. Sure enough, there it was, perched on a shelf. Julie brought it back to the ecstatic woman, who then proceeded to tell everyone within earshot about “that white woman who was so kind to me.”

“You would have thought I was some kind of saint,” Julie told me, unassumingly mystified.

***

cajonIt’s become a tradition that, when I visit Baltimore, Julie and my friend Lauren and I play a gig in a small café called The Village Square. I’m a drummer, and obviously I don’t lug a drumset across the country with me on a train, nor would the café tolerate the noise, nor would it fit well with the folk-acoustic style music we play. So I accompany my bandmates on the cajon (box drum).

(For those of you not on Facebook, a link to one of our songs is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OoxZDnREiCQ. Notice that I had no idea when the song was supposed to end.)

185_Baltimore_Paula, Lauren, Diana
Paula, Lauren, Diana

Lauren worked for a short time with Ellen and me at the think tank in San Francisco. A native of Chicago, she is a wickedly brilliant writer (and editor) on a variety of topics, mostly related to politics and the arts (oh, and did I mention that she was the speechwriter for the U.S. Secretary of Defense for three years?). Anyhoo, she has a beautiful voice and plays a deft guitar and those qualities, accompanied by her encyclopedic knowledge of American folk music and singer-songwriters in general, are what she brings to our little trio, Transcontinental Railroad.

***

I like it when friends champion each other’s passions. Julie has always known how important my blog is to me and continues to mention it in conversation. She says she appreciates that my writing “covers a lot of ground.” Well, that’s a nice way of putting it. Someone else once said that my blogs are “too long and have too many facts.”

Friends can also help nudge us in better directions. Julie, of course, is always touting the value of exercise and checking in to make sure I don’t spend all my hours sitting on the couch eating clam dip. She’s also recently been chastising me for not seeing enough live music. So I’ve got a couple of shows lined up in the near future. Lately she’s started nagging encouraging me to take piano lessons, which I haven’t done since I was seven. “For God’s sake, do things out of your comfort zone,” she keeps telling me. Hmmm. Staying firmly in my comfort zone is actually one of my life’s goals. But deep down I know she’s right.

 

Finish line_May 15, 2011
Julie and Paula, Bay to Breakers, May 15, 2011

***

As the years go by, I’m realizing that the nature of my friendships has become wildly varied. Some friends are good for a laugh, but nothing deeper. Some are extroverts who can make any moment fun, and they serve a special role for me because often I live too closely bottled up in my own tiny anxieties and can’t always see the forest for the trees. Some were friends from long ago but are now Facebook acquaintances, and we keep abreast of each other’s lives but never talk; still, I enjoy knowing they’re doing well. Some share the unbreakable bonds we formed at a particular moment in our lives, like high school classmates or bandmates or teammates. Some are former lovers, and I’ve kept in touch with almost all of them (okay, there aren’t very many, but still).

Each kind of friend represents a lovely trinket in a box of treasures. We have to appreciate them for whatever role they play in our lives.

But the gold nuggets are hard to come by. They endure. “We carry each other’s history,” as songwriter Carole Bayer Sager says. We see each other through all of our relationships, moves, job and career changes, perceived slights, setbacks, right turns and wrong turns, hangovers, regrets, embarrassments, illnesses, failures, triumphs, moments of beauty and creativity, and moments of sheer vulnerability.

True friendship is a very, very rare connection. Sometimes it develops very slowly over the years, sometimes in fits and starts, and sometimes in an instant. However it begins, its nurturing takes care and commitment. If you take it for granted, it can slowly and imperceptibly trickle like sand through your fingers until one day you realize it’s gone. But if you make an effort to sustain it, you will have a lifelong gift. Hang on tightly.

109_Lauren's house_Lauren, Riffle 3 - Copy
Julie and Lauren

***

The day before I left Baltimore, we played music together, this time without the pressure of preparing for our gig (which had been, of course, a triumphant success). I like the language of musicians. It’s unspoken, based on a shared affinity. It’s like a secret code.

After we finished playing, we were talking about something health-related and I told her my story about living liver donations. She, of course, was very attentive.

I thought about the people most important to me. I thought about the history we carry. I thought about how life without Julie R. would kick me hard in the gut.

I looked up at her. “Julie,” I said sincerely, “if you needed it, I would gladly give you a piece of my liver.”

 

THIS BLOG POST IS DEDICATED TO JULIE’S MOTHER,

NANCY JAYNE CARBACK RIFFLE,

5/12/37 – 10/30/18

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.

6/29/71:

“[This summer] has been rather boring. Besides getting my one suntan hour every day, I am making a cassette of my favorite songs. Most of the time I am outside. We are in the middle of a Frisbee fad. We play tag with them, war with them, or else we line up along the curbs and throw them at a poor kid who runs the gauntlet down the middle of the street.”

6/11/71:

“We went to a surprise party for Judy Czarnecki today. It was supposed to be mixed, but only one of the 15 guys showed up. But it was fun. Mom bought me some good plaid western pants and a gold blouse to wear. We sat around and talked, and even had a séance and levitated and stuff.”

6/9/71:

“All we did today was sign yearbooks. I always write really good things in other people’s books. Most of them are funny. But everybody always writes really clutzy stuff in mine, like how smart I am or ‘you’re a nice girl. Stay that way.’ Aauggh! I could just scream!”

5/31/71 [Memorial Day weekend]:

“Saturday we worked all day, and Sunday we went to a late mass, which wrecks the WHOLE DAY. So I thought Monday we could do something I like, maybe get some kids together and go down to play ball at Noble [School] or Piedmont Hills. But I guess I expected too much. We went fishing and (you guessed it) caught nothing. And they force me to go, which makes no sense at all. Why, why, why? I can see it all now – if I forced them to go to rock concerts on their free days. No way, man, no way.”

5/24/71:

“We lost in A-league softball today and Andrew Hill [High School] got the championship. We both were undefeated. Now, being objective, I can sure criticize the plate and base umps. They were boys from their school!”

5/11/71:

“What a dream I had last night! First I had a wierd [sic] short one about Bruce Tambling trying to teach me how to play the drums on a set that must have cost 25 cents. But then I dreamed that we were going to go fishing up this mountain that looked like granite and had roads like glass. There was water all over the roads. Reports came in that 52 people had died already, because their cars had slipped off the roads and plunged to their deaths. So I begged and pleaded that we wouldn’t go and everyone was all mad at me and I kept saying, ‘But don’t you see? People are DYING!’ When I woke up I was in agony, and my heart was on the verge of exploding. Why do I always have such terrible dreams?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An iron road runnin’

An iron road runnin’

For they looked in the future and what did they see
They saw an iron road runnin’ from the sea to the sea
Bringin’ the goods to a young growin’ land
All up through the seaports and into their hands

Gordon Lightfoot

A remarkable American event occurred nearly 150 years ago on April 28, 1869 – something that was considered to be an unimaginable feat at the time.

On that day, during the construction of the first transcontinental railroad in the world, a group of men laid down 10 miles and 56 feet of rail in the high ground of Utah in less than 12 hours.

We may not be able to appreciate it fully today, when automation and technology have reduced most tasks to the push of a button. But in those days it was a feat of human perseverance, brute strength, endurance, planning, ingenuity, guts, cooperation, and commitment. It was a record that would never be broken.

***

Construction of an expansive rail system spanning the continent was one of President Abraham Lincoln’s most pressing goals. By the 1860s railroads were up and running in the east, but they came to an end near Omaha, Nebraska. From that point, it would take four months for anyone to make the trip west to California by stagecoach or wagon train.

The overall plan was that the Union Pacific Railroad would construct tracks heading east out of Omaha (well, technically, Council Bluffs, Iowa). Its counterpart would build a railroad from the west that would meet the Union Pacific in northern Utah.

Transcontinental-Railroad-map-wiki
The Union Pacific (in blue) and Central Pacific (in red) segments of the Transcontinental Railroad

The logistics of building the western segment over the Sierra Nevada mountains were considered to be prohibitive, however, both physically and financially. General William Tecumseh Sherman, in fact, had visited northern California and declared that laying down tracks over the Sierras would require the work of none other than “giants.”

But the collective hubris of California’s “Big Four” rail tycoons – Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis Potter Huntington, and Charles Crocker – led them to pool their amassed fortunes and take on an enormous gamble: financing a railroad that would face the challenge of traversing some of the most challenging geography in the country as it headed towards its terminus at Promontory Point, Utah Territory. And so the Central Pacific Railroad was born.

1997.58.150
Central Pacific Railroad at Cape Horn, Colfax, CA

Work on the Transcontinental Railroad by the two powerful railway companies went on for six years, and the Central Pacific had a much tougher time of it. Crossing the Sierras was backbreaking, and the weather and topography proved to be formidable adversaries. The snow was deep, the gorges steep, and the mountain rock nearly impenetrable. Imagine tunneling through the Sierras by hand. To create each tunnel, two men would work an entire day to pound holes 5 feet into the rock using only hammers and chisels. Then other workers were hung from the rock faces and suspended in baskets while they stuck black dynamite into the holes, lit the fuses, and were frantically yanked to safety before the explosives erupted. More than a dozen tunnels were blasted through the mountains. And of course grades needed to be carved and bridges constructed.

The Big Four neared bankruptcy. But the work continued, and eventually the exhausted Central Pacific crew broke through and descended into the Nevada desert.

At this point, I’d like to note that both of the companies involved in the building of the Transcontinental Railroad hired immigrants for the hard labor. About 8,000 of the railroad workers were employed by the Union Pacific and were primarily of Irish, German, and Italian descent. The majority of the laborers (13,000), however, were Chinese immigrants working for the Central Pacific. These guys were, reportedly, extremely hardy and committed workers. They built Buddhist shrines to tend to their spiritual well-being. For their physical health, they wisely arranged for deliveries of rice, dried vegetables, dried oysters and abalone, pork, and poultry, so their food was healthier than the meat-and-potato staples of the other workers. And because they drank boiled tea rather than untreated water, they tended not to fall prey to the dysentery and other infectious diseases that roared through the camps. Of course, they were paid far, far less than the white workers. And to make matters worse, although meals were included in the white workers’ salaries, the Chinese men had the cost of their food deducted from their wages.

Still, they persisted.

tc-railroad

As the Central Pacific guys were moving across the Nevada flatlands, the workers of the Union Pacific were slapping down track at breakneck speed as they headed west out of Omaha towards the Great Salt Lake. And at this point the effort became a race, of sorts – a rivalry to determine which group of workers could lay the longest amount of track in the fastest amount of time. That is when Charles Crocker of the Central Pacific Railroad made the claim that everyone thought was foolish: that his men could put down 10 miles of track in a single day.

At 7 a.m. on April 28, the sprint began. The plan, as executed, involved bringing in 16-car trains loaded with rails, bolts, spikes, and other materials needed for two miles of track. All 16 cars were then miraculously unloaded in eight minutes, “cleared with a noise like the bombardment of an army,” according to Erle Heath, associate editor of the Southern Pacific Bulletin. The emptied train would be hauled immediately out of the way and a new loaded train pulled into the appropriate position.

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Buster Keaton on a handcar

Enter those little iron handcars we’ve all seen in Buster Keaton movies. A keg of bolts, a keg of nails, a bundle of fish plates, and 16 iron rails would be loaded onto a handcar, each of which was manned by six Chinese laborers and their white boss. On flatlands and uphill grades, the handcars were pulled by two horses in tandem. On the downhills, they went sailing along at full tilt, with one man serving as brakeman, the horses galloping alongside until they reached level ground. Keep in mind that while all of this was happening, the empty handcars returning from their position were on the same track. So as the fully loaded cars came whizzing toward them, the guys on the empty handcar had to leap off, hoist the car off the rails, and then put it back on again after the full car had zoomed by without slackening its speed.

Then came the Irish rail handlers – an elite crew of only eight men who actually laid down all the track. And on the tough grades and curves, the rails had to be bent through the sheer force of heavy hammers. Each rail was 30 feet long and weighed – get this – more than half a ton. By the end of the day, each of these guys had lifted 125 tons of iron.

After the rail handlers came the spikers, the bolters, the guys who “surfaced” the tracks by shoveling ballast under them, and finally the tampers – at least 400 of them – with shovels and tamping bars. Foremen on horseback raced back and forth along the tracks.

“It could only be compared to the advance of an army,” said Heath.

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But it all went down smoothly, at the rate of about a mile of track laid down every hour. All in all, in that one day the workers placed 25,800 ties, 3,520 rails, 55,000 spikes, 14,080 bolts, and other material for a total of 4,462,000 pounds. Ten miles and 56 feet of rail in one workday.

It brought the Central Pacific railhead within four miles of the eventual connection, a month later, with the Union Pacific railroad at Promontory Summit.

***

800px-The-Golden-Spike-7Oct2012
The original Golden Spike

On May 10, 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad opened up for through traffic after Leland Stanford, using a silver hammer, drove in the historic Golden Spike connecting the two railroads at Promontory Summit. (Side note: the spike was actually gold-plated, because real gold is too soft.) Both the hammer and the spike were connected by wire to the telegraph line, which would enable the hammer strokes to be heard as clicks at telegraph stations throughout the land. The entire country was listening in. But there were technical difficulties, as the story goes, so the clicks were actually “sent” by the telegraph operator. Uh, oh. FAKE NEWS!!

***

In the end, about 1,900 miles of rail were laid for the Transcontinental Railroad, with tracks reaching as high as 8,242 feet (at Sherman Pass, Wyoming). Estimates are that fully a quarter of the American labor force worked, in some capacity, to build that railroad.

And it would now take only a week for goods and people to travel from coast to coast.

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Golden Spike ceremony, May 10, 1869, Promontory Summit, Utah Territory

As with all “progress,” the emergence of the national rail system was not without its drawbacks. It permanently disrupted the way of life of many Native Americans, for one thing. And the railroad barons, driven by greed, exploited their workers.

But intercontinental train travel allowed the restless and growing American populace to find their place in whatever part of the American landscape captured their hearts. It provided a way for poor Southern blacks to migrate northward and westward. It offered employment to thousands. It allowed farmers to transport their goods anywhere quickly. It was the face of the Industrial Revolution.

Labor Day was not yet a holiday when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed. But we celebrate it today to honor the labor movements of the late 19th century that were borne out of the suffering of workers who toiled under truly harrowing conditions, with 12-hour workdays, unsafe labor conditions, and paltry wages. Some of those workers were children as young as 5 years old.

Let us be reminded, on this first Monday in September, of the sweat of our ancestors who made possible for us the comforts with which we are living today. Let us be grateful for the miners, the lamplighters, and the stevedores. And let’s think about those railroad workers grinding their way, under the most difficult of conditions, to give us the gift of mobility and freedom.

***

This week I’ll be boarding the California Zephyr, as I do every couple of years, and traveling across the country by train. To this day, the Zephyr – which goes from Emeryville to Chicago – runs on a part of the original Transcontinental Railroad, from Sacramento to Winnemucca, Nevada.

When I get to the eastern shore, four days later, I’ll be spending time with my Maryland friends and playing music with two of them in a Baltimore coffeehouse.

The name of our band?

“Transcontinental Railroad.”

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.

5/7/71:

“Boy, hardly any days left of school. This year went by so fast it’s hard to believe. And thinking we only have one year left at this great school just tears me apart. Skipping [a grade] has taken away one year of my youth. I have been thinking about waiting a year before college. Heck, I’ll only be 16 and just a baby. I’ll be sucking my thumb while everyone else is walking already.”

4/25/71:

“I sure love music. I used to listen to KLOK, but I don’t too much anymore because they play too many oldies, which I hate. But KYA has the good rock and roll. The current songs I like are ‘Sweet and Innocent’ by Donny Osmond and ‘Timothy’ by the Buoys (which is about cannibalism).”

4/3/71:

“The Blanchettes came over for a pheasant dinner tonight [with their two sons, Butch and Carl]. A couple of weeks ago when we were at the beach, Butch and I went out pretty deep in the water and when he said ‘Better hold my hand’ I thought he was getting fresh or something, but he wasn’t. Now he’s in the ‘in’ crowd. [My sister] Janine was telling jokes like a book called ‘Music Theory’ by Clara Net. Ho ho. But here’s a good one offered by Carl: ‘Hole in the Mattress’ by (ready?) Mister Completely!”

3/30/71:

“I don’t feel too bad today. I made it through OK. Only threw up 4 times. My temperature was up to 102 degrees and climbing, but I took an aspirin and it zooped down to 100.6. But my stomach was in agony & I thought I was in a furnace. It’s funny how under these conditions your mind kind of leaves your body and wanders around on its own, while the mortal body will only lay and suffer, and hope for an end to the torment.”

2/25/71: “I had a murderous Chem test today and I’m beginning to get very worried. So far I have about a B-, and if I don’t bring it up I may wreck my 4.0 average. And I just CAN’T do that! It’s practically my life!”

Next day, 2/26/71: “I got the highest at our table on the Chem test [yesterday]. But it was only 41 out of 50. I hope he gives us some extra credit this semester or I’ll really just BOMB OUT!”

2/24/71:

“Mr. Curtis came up to me today and said that he was shocked that I wasn’t taking Algebra II. However, baby, NO AMOUNT of coercing from him will prompt me to take it. I cannot stand math (except Geometry, which I love) and do not wish to burden my schedule with a course I do not like!”

2/18/71:

“Today was rather unusual. I got to school at about 8:40 as usual, but inside it was dark. When the bell rang the power was still out and they wouldn’t let us in. We knew that if the power was off for about an hour, they’d let us go. So we stood outside and prayed until, at 9:30, the glorious words came: SCHOOL IS DISMISSED!”

Into that good night

Into that good night

Julie and I have celebrated a couple of milestones over the past few weeks. I’ll save the more monumental one for later and begin by noting that June 23 was our 10th official wedding anniversary. We’ve really been together more than 20 years, but it was June 23, 2008, when we scrambled to get married in the brief window of opportunity afforded us before California’s (short-lived, thankfully) Proposition 8 yanked that privilege away. The ceremony took place at City Hall on a Monday, which I know is an odd day but it all happened in a rush and people all around us were hastening to tie the knot. There was no time, really, to plan anything large and elaborate, so we gathered at a suite at the Fairmont Hotel for our small reception. I chose that establishment because to me it embodied old San Francisco, and I was grateful to the City in so many ways for the rich, fascinating, and happy life it had provided to me.

So my plan, 10 years later, was to surprise Julie with a return to the Fairmont.

***

It didn’t go exactly as planned, and I blame our dog Buster. Of course, he has no idea about his part in this. I had thought through all the details meticulously, calling the hotel directly instead of making online reservations just in case Julie were to see something on my computer, and arranging months in advance (by text) for our trusted dogwalker to board Buster. My chosen restaurant didn’t take reservations (ensuring that Julie couldn’t see any confirmations on our OpenTable account) but was open steadily from 11 a.m. on, so we could waltz in for a meal in the late afternoon and likely have no problem being seated. Tutto a posto, as they say in Italy. Everything was in place.

But not so fast.

Just a few days before June 23 arrived, our dogwalker’s husband informed her that they had a wedding to attend in southern California. And when she called to tell me the news, I idiotically answered the phone as Julie sat in the same room watching television. “Hi, Louise!” I said brightly before noticing Julie’s puzzled look. I then proceeded to splutter all kinds of nonsense into the phone as I tried to figure out a way to be covert. It soon became obvious to all concerned that the jig was up, and ultimately I had to confess my plan.

Of course, we then had to scramble to figure out where to leave our dog for the night. We don’t do kennels because Buster considers himself far too regal for cages. I thought of asking a neighbor but didn’t want to impose Buster’s quirky, barky little personality on anyone.

Finally, in desperation, I texted our former dogwalker – who now lives in New Orleans! – and bless her heart she did some long-distance liaison work and found us a substitute. All was well again.

***

For those of us who have lived in San Francisco for most or all of our lives, the City these days can be a difficult place to navigate, both physically and emotionally. Its changes have been monumental. I’m going to save my thoughts on that for another day, though, because for our anniversary I wanted us to honor, cherish, and celebrate some of the very oldest, and most respectable, places in town. Checking into the Fairmont would begin our tribute.

Flags outside of Fairmont - from Fairmont site

The Fairmont is not the oldest hotel in San Francisco – the Palace Hotel holds that distinction – but it is one of the few grand pre-Earthquake survivors. When the Big One hit in April of 1906, the building’s structure was complete, the rooms were about to get their finishing touches, and the hotel was about to open its doors to customers for the first time. The Fairmont was one of the “Big Four” hotels on Nob Hill that were named after three of the era’s Big Four railroad tycoons who built the Central Pacific Railroad: Leland Stanford (the Stanford Court), Mark Hopkins (the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins), Collis Potter Huntington (the Scarlet Huntington), and Charles Crocker (Crocker didn’t get a hotel named after him, although what is now the Westin St. Francis was supposed to be called the Crocker Hotel). The Fairmont had no ties with the railroad business but was named for sisters Jessie and Virginia Fair, the original owners who wanted to build a monument to their father. Nob Hill, around which all four hotels were built, was so named because the Big Four railroad men had been given the moniker “The Nobs.” (A nob is a nabob, or “a person of great wealth or prominence,” according to Merriam-Webster. Remember when former Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew referred to the “nattering nabobs of negativism”?)

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The Fairmont stands tall amidst the rubble, 1906

Anyway, although everything around it was reduced to rubble after the Great Earthquake and Fire, the Fairmont Hotel stood like a heroic, indestructible symbol of the resilience of San Francisco. As the writer Gertrude Atherton said at the time, “I forgot the doomed city as I gazed at The Fairmont, a tremendous volume of white smoke pouring from the roof, every window a shimmering sheet of gold; not a flame, nor a spark shot forth. The Fairmont will never be as demonic in its beauty again.”

Stanford White
Stanford White

Before I leave the Fairmont’s story, I must note how San Francisco’s colorful history was exemplified in the refurbishing of the damaged hotel. The first choice for an architect to repair and redecorate the Fairmont was one Stanford White, a New Yorker with a ridiculous moustache who nevertheless was well respected for his use of Beaux Arts design principles. The moustache did not, apparently, prevent his being a bit of a tomcat because he was dining pleasantly during a show at Madison Square Garden on the evening of June 25, 1906, when he was shot dead by millionaire Harry Thaw over White’s relationship with Thaw’s wife. Ironically, the murder occurred during the show’s finale, “I Could Love a Million Girls.”

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Julia Morgan

With Mr. White permanently out of commission, the hotel’s owners – quite progressively – then brought on Julie Morgan, who in 1904 had become the first woman licensed to practice architecture in California. Another aficionado of the Beaux-Arts style, she was later to become the principal designer for Hearst Castle. Morgan was apparently chosen because of her knowledge of earthquake-resistant, reinforced concrete construction, and after supervising every aspect of the job for 12 months with very little sleep, she was able to preside over the reopening of the Fairmont exactly a year after the earthquake.

The place is spectacular. The Charter of the United Nations was drafted and signed at the Fairmont in 1945, so the flags of the signatory countries still fly to this day at the front entrance. The grand and flamboyant lobby welcomes guests with ornate Corinthian pillars, marble floors, and gilded ceilings. The hotel’s Venetian Room is the lush showroom in which Tony Bennett first sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” The Laurel Court restaurant sits under three domes and is a dashing remnant of the past. The tiki-themed Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, a charming blend of kitsch and sophistication, is just a barrel of fun, with coconut-sized tropical drinks, an indoor lagoon and floating stage, occasional “rainstorms” complete with thunder and lightning, and a dance floor that was originally the deck of the S.S. Forrester, one of the last of the tall ships that sailed the south seas. And the city views from the Tower rooms are, in a word, stunning. Outside lie the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, the vast cityscape of San Francisco and, right below your bedroom window, little cable cars climbing halfway to the stars.

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View from our room

***

Dinner that afternoon would be at the Tadich Grill, and we could get there easily by cable car. Because both of us are generally ravenous by 3:30 p.m., I knew that the restaurant’s no-reservations policy would not be a problem, even in the middle of tourist season.

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Tadich Grill, founded in 1849, is the oldest restaurant in California. It also happens to be two doors down from 260 California Street, where I worked for much of the 1980s. My very first job out of college had been as a production assistant at Harper & Row Publishers, but when the parent company moved its textbook division back to New York, I was suddenly out of a regular job. Thus began my seven-year stint as a freelance copy editor, during which time I worked periodically at the Institute for Contemporary Studies (ICS), a nonprofit think tank and publishing house. This was during the halcyon days of working in downtown San Francisco. We’re talking short hours, midday martinis, spirited political discussions, expensive vendor lunches, and lots of drama among us young employees. Every day at 11:30 a.m., like clockwork, the thick, smoky aroma of Tadich’s grilled steak made its way through the open windows. It was exquisite and torturous and a sensory memory I’ll never forget.

Tadich is primarily a seafood restaurant, though, and Julie and I both ordered fish in one form or another. Julie chose the seafood sauté and I was reminded of the first time we had dinner together 23 years ago, at McCormick & Kuleto’s in Ghirardelli Square. Although she is from Kentucky and had never eaten a mollusk in her life, she ordered the seafood cioppino, threw on a bib, and dug with gusto into a messy bowl of Dungeness crab, mussels, clams, squid, shrimp, and who knows what all. It was most impressive.

I love the old, rich look of the Tadich Grill. Dark wood fills the interior. A mahogany bar extends almost the length of the restaurant. The booths are set back into individual dark alcoves that must have seen many a clandestine meeting of one sort or another. The lamps are antique brass. Everything is polished. And on each white-clothed table, waiting for diners, sit a bowl of lemon quarters and a basket piled high with authentic, chewy sourdough – not the namby-pamby stuff that supposedly passes for bread these days.

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Hangtown Fry

I pondered ordering one of the local specialties, like the Crab Louie or perhaps the Hangtown Fry (an omelet made with bacon and oysters), which has been on the menu for almost 170 years. Legend has it that the dish was created when a successful Placerville gold prospector asked his hotel proprietor to serve him the most expensive meal possible. The three priciest foods at the time were eggs, bacon, and oysters, which had to be brought to Placerville on ice from San Francisco, more than a hundred miles away.

Ultimately, though, I settled on my perennial favorite, petrale sole.

“Would you recommend the mesquite-grilled or the pan-fried?” I asked our white-coated, black-tied waiter.

He gave me a smirk. “Do you want healthy,” he asked, “or do you want tasty?”

***

025_2018_06-23_10th anniversary_Cable car_Julie, PaulaTo cap off the evening it seemed appropriate that we hop a cable car back up California street to the Top of the Mark, the glass-walled penthouse lounge on the 19th floor of the Mark Hopkins hotel. San Francisco’s cable cars are part of the last manually operated cable car system in the world. Only three lines remain, and the California Street line, established in 1878, is the oldest. We clanged our way towards Nob Hill, rumbling and lurching along the track. It’s a hard job to manually operate the levers controlling the car’s movement along the cables. It was an uncommonly balmy evening, and the gripman pulled and sweated and cursed.

Since 1939, the Top of the Mark with its 360-degree view of the city has been a destination for tourists, entertainers, sailors, soldiers, and natives. Some say that during World War II, soldiers would buy a bottle of liquor and leave it with the bartender so that the next guy from that squadron to visit the establishment could enjoy a drink – a practice that remained ongoing as long as whoever had the last sip bought the next bottle.

A man and woman with thick Georgia accents sat behind us. He was dressed rakishly, and she wore a hat. “We had no idea we’d be here in San Francisco on such a special weekend,” the woman said, warmly. It was Gay Pride weekend, but Julie and I had stayed away from all the events this year. We go to the parade every once in a while, but it takes fortitude to stand on Market Street for 8 hours. I’m not kidding about the time frame. Sometimes half an hour goes by between floats. I don’t know what it is but gay people can be extremely disorganized.

Top-of-the-Mark-56Julie ordered a tropical cocktail called the “Bay Bridge” and my choice was the “Indonesia Nu Fashioned,” a mixture of Woodford Reserve Distillers Select Bourbon (my nod to Kentucky), dark crème de cacao, and Angostura bitters served on the rocks. I gave it a stir and gazed outside at the breathtaking view.

“I wish I were wild and elegant like that Georgia lady,” I said, a little regretfully.

The sky was clear over Nob Hill as we headed across the street and back to the Fairmont, but fog was drifting in slowly from out past the Golden Gate. Julie said that to her the fog in San Francisco is like a blanket, always there to tuck us in at night.

***

Three weeks have passed, and today marks the other milestone for us.

Today is the first day of Julie’s retirement.

Last Friday – her final workday ever – we went downtown, dropped off her work computer, turned in her badge, and drove out to the beach to have lunch at the Cliff House, another venerable SF institution. It’s a place where we’ve celebrated significant events in our lives. We’d gone there after we applied for our marriage license, on the day the CA Supreme Court granted us that privilege. We’d eaten there on the day I retired, nearly 5 years ago. And now this. A comfortable fog hung over the surfers. Julie said it was perfect.

There is, of course, no telling what the future has in store, and whether this new freedom of ours will last for one day or 20 years. With the liberation of age comes the restriction of physical changes. The body is often sore for no reason. Despite all efforts and all manner of exercise and healthy eating, the bones grow tired and the muscles get weaker.

There are times when I rue the fact that I now glide through my days unnoticed. Darn it, I want to be appreciated, respected, and even heralded, like the Fairmont, Tadich Grill, the Top of the Mark, the Cliff House, and the cable cars that manage to keep on rumbling up the hills.

Maybe I am like the San Francisco of old. Some of me is weathered, some of me is gone completely, but other parts still stand resolutely. And there are promising days ahead. There will be more causes for celebration. There will be good food and wine and laughter. There will be beauty and unexpected discoveries. There are trains to be taken and there is music to be played.

A new chapter starts now. I want healthy, but I also want tasty. I will not go gently into that good night.

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At the Cliff House, Julie ponders what on earth she’ll do in retirement

 

***

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.

2/21/71:

“I went to see LOVE STORY today and was a bit disappointed, mainly because of the buildup I had been getting from other people. When the girl died, I cried one tear and that’s all. It wasn’t that good. Then I went to Colleen’s and they took me out to eat at MacDonald’s. Now, I am sitting here sniffling as the after-effect of the hay fever attack I got over there. Know why? Well, because they have lots of hay, of course.”

 

2/1/71:

“What has been occupying my thoughts partly lately has been a sorry feeling for my teachers – three in particular. Mrs. Dossa is one. We make fun of her because of her unwashed, uncombed hair and her unkempt clothes, especially her lack of a sense of humor. Well, it is really not her fault. And she really tries to teach us everything and let us enjoy it. But we just complain and don’t respond. She seems really interested in our American Lit projects but all we do is . . . well, nothing. Same with Mr. Ferguson. To make history less boring he even lets us try simulation games. But we just say we hate them. He took it personally and said, ‘Well, I thought it was kind of interesting.’ I felt sorry for him and hoped we could continue our game. And nobody listened to our poor devoted P.E. substitute.”

 

1/29/71:

“We got report cards [today]. . . . I wrote ‘excellent student’ next to my A+ P.E. grade and [my P.E. teacher] Azama got kind of mad.”

 

1/23/71:

“Since I am in such a sorry state of affairs [I had a cold] I doubt that I will go to church tomorrow. But we haven’t gone in such a long time. I keep begging them to take me to Confession but we never seem to get around to it. We didn’t even go on CHRISTMAS! I am ashamed to go to Confession and say that I haven’t been to Mass the past 106 times.”

 

A thank-you lives forever

A thank-you lives forever

My father hand-picked my high school teachers. That’s right. He was the principal, so he had special powers, and this was one of them. I didn’t have a particular opinion about it at first, but I grew to realize that although he generally chose the toughest, strictest instructors, he knew exactly what he was doing. Most of my teachers were on the “excellent” end of the scale.

It’s been many decades since I graduated from high school, but since then I’ve thought often about one teacher in particular: Ellen Giannini, who taught Spanish. And I was reminded of her again over the Christmas holidays when I was in Kentucky. It’s become somewhat of a tradition that Julie and I get together every year with my old grade-school classmate Mary and her sister Patty, who now live in Georgetown, KY. Both of them attended my high school, Piedmont Hills (in San Jose). While we were slamming down our hearty diner food, Patty (who graduated a few years before I did) pulled out a few photos of her 50th reunion and I immediately recognized my beloved Mrs. Giannini, who might have aged a little (she’s now nearly 80), but overall she looked much the same as I remembered her.

At that moment, I fell into the vise of yet another Paula Bocciardi obsession: I had to contact her. All these years, I hadn’t even known whether she was alive. Now here she was in the photo, the same woman who’d embodied what I most respect and admire about teachers. And I needed to tell her how much she had meant to me.

With Patty’s help and encouragement, and with some investigative twists and turns, I finally got Mrs. Giannini’s address. Then I sent her a letter in February, telling her what she meant to me and citing examples of her efficacy and her kindness. I told her that she didn’t need to respond, although I was fervently hoping that she would.

But I heard nothing back.

A couple of weeks later, I got this chilling e-mail from the person who’d passed her address on to me:

“At our monthly PHHS luncheon today, I found out that Ellen has had a stroke.”

“Oh, no!” I thought. “She never got my letter.”

***

Ellen Delucchi (her maiden name; she was single then) was the very first teacher I saw when I walked onto the Piedmont Hills grounds in September of 1968. Spanish I was my first class of the day. She was a tiny spitfire with a beehive hairdo, and I liked her immediately because her unwavering no-nonsense demeanor was always accompanied by a persistent twinkle in her eye. The twinkle suggested not only a keen sense of humor but a kind and flexible heart. She was so human, with a rare and perfect combination of toughness and sensitivity.

1971_Ellen Delucchi-GianniniIt didn’t take long – perhaps mere minutes – for her empathy to reveal itself in a way I wouldn’t have expected. That first day, the principal of the school – aka “Dad” – stopped by to just “check in on things.” When he strolled to the open doorway of the classroom and leaned oh so casually against the jamb, I was an instant wreck. With a fire-red face I tried to squirm as low into my desk as possible. Dad was probably there less than a minute, but during that time I died a thousand deaths. I was, after all, only 12 years old. And what did Miss Delucchi do? Nothing overt, of course. But then she called the roll. Her routine was to refer to everyone by last name. “Señorita Atkinson?” she would call out. “Señor Azevedo?” Oh, God, I thought, she’s going to say “Señorita Bocciardi” next and they’re all going to turn and stare at me with disdain.

Except she didn’t. “Paula?” she called out, nonchalantly.

You know, even today, as I write this, I get tears in my eyes. She broke her own previously inviolable classroom rule for one reason only: to save me the embarrassment of having the same name as the principal. She couldn’t have been more than 29 years old at the time, but she had the discerning heart of a woman with vast perspective.

Yet she was also a disciplinary stickler to the core. We all knew that she would allow no señor or señorita to stray even one micrometer over the line. And she had the uncanny scofflaw-detecting abilities of a bloodhound. In those days, for instance, the school did not abide gum-chewing by any student. It was an intolerable crime (probably in no small part thanks to Dad). Yet on one particular occasion, Carolyn Edmonds – who sat in the very back row – decided to flout the rules. Miss Delucchi was up at the board, with her back turned to the classroom, writing out some conjugation or another. “Señorita Edmonds?” she called out, without turning even one degree towards us. Uh oh. “Spit out that gum!”

We all gasped. How on earth . . . ? Obviously she had sonor capabilities that could detect a gum-chewer a mile away.

Carolyn slunk up to the garbage can and tossed the offending Chiclets.

The same Carolyn, who was mature beyond her years – after all, she wore a bra in grade school! – was of course also the first to spot the ring on Miss Delucchi’s finger one day. “Miss Delucchi, don’t you have something you need to tell us?” she demanded. Miss Delucchi smiled sheepishly but broadly, telling us that yes, she was soon to be married to a certain Mr. Peter Giannini. We were all delighted for her.

***

Five decades later, I still remember much of the three years of Spanish that I took with Mrs. Giannini, because her passion made it all so enthralling. Learning a foreign language truly enriches our world. It also teaches us about elements of grammar that we may not even have known existed. I learned, for example, about the subjunctive mood, which is used in situations expressing doubt, possibility, desire, or circumstances contrary to fact. It’s complicated, and I was annoyed by it initially, but it’s actually quite beautiful. We don’t use it much in English, but it has its place nonetheless (“If only I were there with you”). A former work colleague in the process of getting his master’s in English once told me that his college professor believed the subjunctive to be useless and therefore not worth teaching. I almost lost consciousness. And I fantasized about siccing Mrs. Giannini on that guy.

***

A few weeks ago, while I was sitting at the Giants game enjoying a sunny day at the park, my cell phone started ringing. Of course, I would never answer the phone at a ballgame, but I did glance at the caller I.D., which merely said “Unknown.” Another robocall, I thought, no doubt about my being an IRS outlaw on the brink of arrest. But the caller left a message (odd!), and my curiosity got to me, so I immediately checked the transcription (this is a much abbreviated version):

“Hi, Paula, this is Ellen Giannini. You probably thought I fell off the face of the earth! What happened was I had a cerebral hemorrhage and I was at the hospital for four days. I go to the ‘Y’ every day to work out, though, and that really saved my goose! But anyway, I wanted to get back to you with regard to that beautiful letter you sent me. You actually took my breath away when I read it. I just couldn’t believe it.”

***

“Oh, my gosh, I thought maybe my letter had killed you!” I joked to Mrs. Giannini when we connected on the phone later that day. “Call me Ellen,” she insisted, although it was hard for me. Lucky for all of us, Ellen’s stroke had left absolutely no residual effects. When I heard her voice, I could tell that she was exactly the same person who’d made such a mark on me 50 years ago. Funny, loquacious, spirited, kind.

“All three of you Bocciardi kids were different,” she said. “You hit the nail right on the head when you said that I didn’t use your last name for a reason. I knew how sensitive you were, and I could tell you were shrinking in embarrassment when your dad showed up. But your sister was the real character. When your dad would come on over the loudspeaker with an announcement, she’d just yell out, ‘Now what do you want?!’ ”

We both cracked up.

I asked her about how times have changed, especially in regard to students with attitude who think there’s no need to listen to their elders. “It’s actually the parents who have changed,” she told me. “A lot of them are now telling teachers what to do. You never saw that back when I started in my career. As for any problem kids, my philosophy was always this: First, talk directly to the student. Don’t immediately resort to taking action by sending the kid to the administrative office. If that doesn’t work, phone the parents. Then, only if all else fails, write a disciplinary referral. The bottom line is that I never took any guff. ‘If you don’t want to stay in this class,’ I’d tell them, ‘go see a counselor and transfer out.’ ”

Before we got off the phone, Mrs. Giannini told me that a group of retired teachers from my school got together regularly, and she thought it would be nice if I could come to her house, chat with her awhile, and then go to the luncheon. It would be held at Harry’s Hofbrau – a deli from my childhood that was a personal favorite because of its enormous portions of freshly carved meat heaped on huge sourdough sandwich rolls. I agreed immediately.

2018_05-29_Harry's Hofbrau_Ellen Giannini, Paula 1I suppose the lunch was a bit anticlimactic. I have to admit that many of the teachers who were there from my era hardly remembered me. All of them, though, seemed to recall my character of a sister!

The overriding sentiment I sensed at that lunch was that these people were genuinely happy. They had a camaraderie that reflected not only their shared experiences but also their shared commitment to education. I would think – or at least hope – that they’re content with, and proud of, their careers in public service.

Teachers have to deal with a lot. They’re instructors, parents, psychologists, and disciplinarians. They have to deal with demanding and critical parents. They work long days, spending many an evening at home correcting papers and preparing lesson plans. In inflation-adjusted terms, teacher pay has fallen nationally over the past decade, yet 94 percent of teachers, according to the stats I’ve read, spend their own money to buy school supplies. And in this country, at least, they now have the added worry about feeling secure in their classrooms. But their dedication persists. They deserve our deepest respect and our greatest gratitude.

***

All of us can look back and appreciate the scores of people who, along the way, have made a positive impact on our lives. And it could have been just a gesture, a word, the slightest whisper of an influence that blew us gently in one direction or another.

Maybe somebody suggested you have an artistic talent you were unsure about. Maybe they said a kind word when you nervously told them a secret. Maybe they held you while you cried. Maybe someone hired you just when you were getting desperate. Maybe someone called just when you thought you were going to fly apart over a broken heart. Maybe they gave you a book to read that steered you away from self-destruction. Maybe they told you that you were beautiful, in one way or another.

I suggest thanking them. Write them a letter, call them, send them a text – just let them know. Show appreciation for someone who is least expecting it. Don’t let a life end before you show your gratitude. It will make both of you happy. A thank-you will live forever in both of your hearts.

Before I left her house, Mrs. Giannini mentioned to me that she had re-read my letter many times. I had a twinkle in my eye all the way home.

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.

 

1/11/71:

“I have made up my mind a long time ago not to ever smoke weed. But now that I’ve listened to the other side I’m not so sure. I mean, I’m not really going to, I don’t think. But it doesn’t sound that bad. I’m getting [the info] straight from someone who does it and really knows. Oh, shoooooooooot!!!”

 

12/26/70:

“Today and Sunday were average days. We got up around 9:30. After breakfast we watched football. The SAN FRANCISCO 49ers are division champions! And today they beat Minnesota and I hope they go all the way to the SUPER BOWL. I practiced shooting with Grampy’s pellet gun and can now do 13 jumps on the pogo stick. I got blisters on my hand from the pogo stick. In the afternoon we went over to the cousins [house] and looked at dirty books until [my sister] Janine squealed and we got in trouble.”

 

12/11/70:

“You know, for some strange, wierd [sic], unexplainable, mystical reason I began to think about Nonna’s [my grandparents’ house]. It began Sunday when I saw some old pictures. Now, I feel, I don’t know, crushed, it feels hard to breathe. I know I will never again see those days. I remember we used to watch Shirley Temple. I remember the chicken store, Nonno’s love, fresh fugaccia [dialect for focaccia], the old house, the garage with the scales, the “treasures” we used to find in the chairs, the old ball park, the zucchini and the flowers, how we used to play on the porch, soccer on the cracked patio, naps in the cold bedroom, the pantry, the basement with the old games, and bottles, and the dirt where I thought money was buried. I can’t get over that ache in my heart.”

 

The lonely neurotic

The lonely neurotic

This past week, Julie had to fly off to Denver on business. She doesn’t love traveling by air or staying alone in hotels, so she was dreading the entire trip. I, however, was eagerly looking on the bright side. For one thing, I was going to have multiple days free of political jabber and, in fact, free of any news whatsoever except for my morning Chronicle read. Julie, you see – the woman who moved to California 22 years ago with not a scintilla of interest in politics – has now become a journalistic junkie, whereas I am so roiled by national and world events that even the slightest passing glimpse of the news gives me agita. One evening I fell asleep while she was listening to cable news on headphones, and the next morning I awoke to a 1,000-word e-mail message from her – a series of bullet points, no less! – summarizing the previous day’s political revelations, accompanied by a succinct legal analysis of each incident. My heartburn erupted.

More importantly, Julie’s absence for a prolonged period of time also means that I can clean out all of our expired food. Oh, the rapture! Our cupboards, refrigerator, and freezer are always filled with food that we’ve forgotten we have, or that we bought for one exotic recipe years ago, or that we purchased after one too many wine-tastings, if you know what I mean. Julie never wants to get rid of it but I can’t stand to have solidified fig preserves cluttering up my space! So when she is gone I gleefully throw open the cupboards, take out our stepstool, and start TOSSING, baby!

My time of uninterrupted organizational bliss was about to begin.

 

MONDAY

After dropping Julie off at the airport, I stop at the UPS Store to pick up a couple of parcels. The guy behind the counter says I have seven packages. I’m rather surprised. By my calculations, all I am expecting are printer ink and some orange shoelaces. Maybe Julie has bought me a raft of presents! He hands me the packages and I start hefting them out to the car. I can’t wait to tear into them. When I glance down, though, I see that they’re all for someone else. Dejectedly I trudge back into the store. The guy apologizes and says he thought I was another woman. I’m kind of excited to think that I have a doppelganger in West Portal.

I then race home, eager to get started on the kitchen. My rule is that the expiration dates on the bottles, jars, and packages must have come and gone. I spot about 11 expired bottles of assorted vinegar varieties. Can vinegar even go bad? It’s already so bad. Then again, we bought these bottles when we lived in a different house. It’s been more than 12 years! Surely they must be riddled with sediment at the very least. Can sediment kill us? It’s certainly possible. I throw out the vinegar.

I throw away half-used bars of Ghirardelli Cooking Chocolate from 2009. Out goes the stoneground mustard that is so desiccated it has become colored pebbles. With an athletic hook shot, I toss the foil-wrapped beige-colored thing from the freezer that cannot be identified. I take the rubbery Triscuits and sink a fade-away jumper into the trash.

I empty dozens of jars and haul many bags of recycling down to the garage. I’m so lucky that tonight is garbage night.

IMG_1660-[edited for blog]My rotator cuff starts to burn from all the “kitchen basketball” heroics. I down a bunch of Advil.

Buster sleeps for part of the night in the foyer, right by the front door, waiting for Julie to come home. I don’t think he usually does that when I’m gone. He obviously likes her better. Why am I so unlikable?

 

TUESDAY

As per my usual morning routine, I go downstairs and exercise on the elliptical. Thankfully I’m on a roll and I’ve been able to work out for a full 30 minutes regularly for about a year without tearing any muscles or snapping any bones. As usual, I listen to one of my CDs and fantasize that I am asked to play drums for the performer when the regular drummer has a sudden but nonfatal bowel emergency. Today I am listening to Hitsville USA, which is a box set of the Motown singles. I notice that the main Motown drummers (Benny Benjamin and Uriel Jones, members of the Funk Brothers) would often start a song (like “My Girl” and the sublime “This Old Heart of Mine”) with the same fill: one hit on the high tom, some 16th notes on the snare, and then one bass drum BOOM before the song starts. But they never finish the fill with a crash. Why? Everyone crashes at the end of a fill! When I get back upstairs I obsessively comb the Internet looking for an answer. This takes hours. Finally, I watch a video and find out that in those days the singers and musicians all recorded together in one room and the drummers were afraid that if they crashed, especially going into the start of a song, the sound would bleed into the other mics. Ah. Now I can relax.

I go in to take a shower and start worrying about what could happen if someone broke in. Buster is a prize-winning barker but I don’t think he would deter a marauder. I start hearing voices. It sounds like someone is begging for his life! Why would a criminal be begging for his life? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Or does Buster have him cornered? I shut off the water to listen. Nothing.

In the kitchen I see some purple bloodstains on the counter. Is someone in the house? Aren’t bloodstains red? Wait a minute, that’s where I inadvertently smashed a blueberry with my elbow.

In the afternoons I like to lie out in our backyard and read for a while. I’m beginning to have an unsightly farmer’s tan. Right now I’m continuing to make my way through A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I really enjoy it and I think Dave Eggers is brilliant. Many people reviled this work as an overblown exercise in self-indulgence. They are clearly misguided. I, for one, love stream-of-consciousness. Give me the hearty Thomas Wolfe or William Faulkner any day rather than, say, that insufferable Henry James. Gad. When you read that guy’s prose it’s as if you can actually hear the delicate tinkling of teacups.

It’s about 43 degrees outside with a blustery northwest wind (welcome, summer!), so I last only a few minutes. After I come inside I realize that Julie’s dad has called but the downstairs phone was malfunctioning and I could not hear the ringer. It is a beige 1970s wall model that I cherish. I decide to look at it and the entire phone clatters off the wall and falls on the floor with a bunch of electrical things hanging out of it. I’m horrified. I leave it on the dining room table for Julie to fix.

I decide to spend the latter part of the day watching all the documentaries that are piled up on my DVR. I can’t believe Julie has no interest in watching docuseries about the Kennedys or the Patty Hearst kidnapping. Tonight I choose HBO’s The Searcher, about Elvis Presley. Gosh, I never knew how much his manager Colonel Tom Parker screwed him by insisting he take time off from music to take on movie roles in Hollywood. And wasn’t he a handsome guy? Those lips!

IMG_1661-[edited for blog]
Lou Seal
Buster spends another couple of hours in the foyer at bedtime, waiting for Julie. He finally saunters back to the bedroom, where he sees our cute little stuffed Giants mascot Lou Seal. He eyes it warily and smashes up against me, far away from that terrifying seal.

 

WEDNESDAY

In the middle of the night I am startled awake by a robocaller. I cuss heartily. I decide that I should change our answering machine greeting to simply state that I already know I owe the IRS and have debilitating credit card debt and could use a vigorous carpet cleaning.

In the morning I wake up with lower back pain because I have had to sleep curled around Buster like a paper clip. The bed is 76 inches wide. Buster has somehow taken up 70 inches.

I down more Advil.

The Chronicle points out that Southwest Airlines keeps having to make emergency landings. Julie is flying Southwest. What if she gets sucked out of an airplane?

This morning while exercising I worry that I could have a heart attack like Sheryl Sandberg’s husband did while he was working out in a hotel gym. What if I keel over and die right here in the garage? I’m not wearing pants!

I am going to the Giants day game today against the Reds. And I have a huge decision to make. Do I leave the door to the backyard open for Buster? I am afraid that he might encounter a coyote or start eating landscape bark. After an agonizing three hours I finally settle on leaving the door closed. After all, finding a small pile of poop in the house is much preferable to Buster’s being devoured by wild animals or choking to death on mulch.

For this ballgame I am bravely attempting something new: I’ve resolved to find the crab sandwiches! I am filled with excitement and anxiety. Normally I sit in the same general area: sections 310-314, between home plate and first base, on the top level because that’s where the cheapest seats are. I keep a spreadsheet on the specific seats I’ve gotten over the last 5 years. The spreadsheet rates the seats according to the following criteria, among others:

  1. How long am I in the sun? (I prefer that it be half the game.)
  2. Do I have to look through that infernal Plexiglas wall?
  3. Are the season-ticket holders around me obnoxious or friendly?
  4. How close are the bathrooms?

The problem is, some of my favorite food items near those sections have, over the last few years, disappeared. So I am left primarily with my old standby: the “Sports Meal,” which consists of a hot dog, popcorn, and a beer. However, I really really really love AT&T Park’s crab sandwiches. They’re on buttered, crisp toasted sourdough with some kind of herb sprinkled on them. Heavenly! But, unless you are sitting in the luxurious Club-level seats, you can get them only on the opposite side of the stadium, near the bleachers.

IMG_1659-[edited for blog]
Success!
Julie has told me not to worry. She says that I should try to find the Marina Gate, which will likely be the nearest entrance to the precious sandwiches. Then I can “just trot upstairs and find the crab.” I obsess about the whole procedure all the way to the game on Muni. Sure enough, I can’t find the Marina Gate. But I adopt a new tactic: ask for help. Ask repeatedly. I get there early enough that all of the Giants personnel are still eager to assist. So I ask about the gate, I ask how to get upstairs, I ask where the crab is (that gentleman is so happy to help me out that he escorts me directly to the sandwiches!), and I ask how on earth I can then get back around the entire stadium to section 311. It all goes off somewhat without a hitch. I carry my sandwich delicately all the way around the ballpark, more than once narrowly avoiding having it knocked out of my hand by clueless frat boys, and make my way to my tried-and-true vendor where I buy my Sierra Nevada beer. My stress levels ease as I get to my seat. I then sit there and smugly scorn all the people who have a hard time figuring out on which side of the section to enter while trying to find their seats. Dolts.

Buster is still alive when I get home.

I decide to watch more documentaries, but they are starting to get tedious.

At some point in the evening our landline rings and the phone identifies the caller as my nephew Alec. What?? No one under 40 uses the telephone anymore! Someone must have died!!

(No, thank goodness.)

 

THURSDAY

The Chronicle runs a long article detailing how scores of people are dying from carbon monoxide poisoning because they don’t realize that they’ve left the engines of their keyless cars running in the garage. I immediately become convinced that I will easily make the same mistake and that I have very little time to live before I die of carbon monoxide poisoning myself.

While exercising I tell myself for the 50th time that I really should let my hair go grey. But I don’t have a young face. I have furrows in my brow the size of the Marianas Trench. If I go grey, that guy at the UPS Store might start mistaking me for Mel Brooks.

I go to Safeway to replenish our stock of expired food. I buy 11 replacement bottles of vinegar. Julie will never know what I’ve done. I have successfully covered all my tracks.

I spend some time continuing to work on my long-running project to finish scanning and naming (using a very strict naming protocol, of course) my parents’ and grandparents’ old photos. I’m also continuing to get my Super 8 films digitized, including my two-hour movie (with soundtrack and narration!) of my three-month 1980 round-the-country trip with a girlfriend in a VW van. It’s an epic and Oscar-worthy film. The thing is, who is going to care about any of this when I’m gone, which will be soon because I will imminently be murdered in the shower, suffer a massive heart attack while exercising, or asphyxiate myself with our keyless car? No one will care about your silly digitized photos and movies, Paula. They will just be summarily deleted.

Like me!

Thank goodness Julie is coming home today. Being alone, even with freshly organized cupboards and brand-new vinegar, isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

Meanwhile, I’ve still got my next blog hanging over my head. I’m letting down my legions of fans. Maybe I should write about the time I got an X-rated videotape stuck in my VCR. No, that would sully my pristine reputation.

Buster has developed a sudden fear of uncarpeted stairs. Good grief, where is he getting all of his strange neuroses?

Julie’s plane is late but she finally lands around dinnertime. Hallelujah! Buster and I pick her up. The “Human Anti-Anxiety Pill” has arrived!

***

As soon as we walk in the door, she heads to the kitchen for a snack. “Hey, you rearranged the cupboards!” she announces. “And have you heard about today’s chaos in Washington?”

Strangely, I feel a wash of serenity.

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.

 

11/19/70 [Ed.’s note: I was a couple of years younger than others in my class]:

“Today was a great day! They sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me in Spanish and we went through the whole age routine. At lunch, everyone got me ‘Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour’ album. During Geometry, someone wrote ‘Happy Birthday’ on the board and I went through the whole age bit again. Tonight I got a Glen Campbell song book from Mom & Dad, 5 dollars from Zia, Grammy, and Auntie Jackie, a belt from Marc, a guitar strap from Jan, ‘Oh, Happy Day’ record from Colleen, and personalized stickers from Barb. It was all very happy, except now I realize I’ll never be 14 again. Never!”

 

11/6/70:

“Tonight, [my sister] Jan discovered that [our tiny pet frog] Toby wasn’t in his cage. I love that frog. We’ve had him for a year and a half. I feel like crying. We looked all over for him and finally found the poor little guy all dried and shriveled up under the T.V.”

 

10/19/70:

“Tonight at 6:00 we went to the Blanchettes for dinner. We had barbecued bonito. It doesn’t sound too good, but by that time I was so starving I would have eaten anything. We had a little game of football and Butch and I were the best. Then Butch and I went into his mom’s room to watch T.V. Once he called me “honey.” How romantic! I wish I was clever or humorous or something. But I’m such a complete dud, I swear. We watched interesting things like bullfights.”

 

10/7/70: [Ed.’s note: I think Eddie Ryan was just a guy who went to our school]

“[My brother] Marc and I have a thing going when we walk to school every day. We have to see ten landmarks: 1) “Whistle-’em-up” the crossing lady (she told us to whistle when we want to cross), 2) A pet, 3) “Hawkins” written on sidewalk, 4) “Rhonda Kelly was here” on sidewalk, 5) Piedmont Hills bus, 6) little bus, 7) Boys’ P.E. bus, 8) Girls’ P.E. bus, 9) A motorcycle, and 10) Eddie Ryan. That’s the hardest one.”

 

10/4/70:
“You know, I really want a bike for Christmas. But Dad thinks it’s too dangerous. To him, everything is too dangerous. But Mom said she’d rather wait and give us a Honda. So now I want a Honda. You don’t need a license except for the streets. Like Bronson –the feel of the wind on your face. Groovy!”

 

 

La bella vita

La bella vita

Well before dawn this coming Wednesday, city officials and a parade of fire trucks will convene downtown for the annual commemoration, at Lotta’s Fountain, of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, which killed up to 3,000 people, destroyed 28,000 buildings, and rendered 225,000 people homeless. Lotta’s Fountain was a gift to the City from Lotta Crabtree, a local actress, and it was used as a meeting place for residents after the quake. The last two survivors of the devastation died a couple of years ago, but the annual ceremony continues, beginning at 4:30 a.m. and counting down to a moment of silence at 5:12 a.m., which is the moment the earthquake struck.

My grandmother, 18-year-old Ambrogia Fontana, was one of the survivors. Newly arrived from Italy through Ellis Island, she had been in San Francisco less than a week. She spoke no English. She and her younger brother David were aiming to get a foothold in the new land, trying to figure out the people, the food, the language, the urban hustle. The culture shock was immeasurable. The two of them were asleep on Wednesday morning, April 18, 1906, when the most devastating natural trauma ever to hit San Francisco shook and burned the city. David was smashed in the head by a falling ceiling beam and was injured so badly that he was knocked unconscious and lapsed into a coma. The two of them were carted off to a tent city for quake refugees. Ambrogia had no idea where she was, where to go, or what to do, and no one could understand her. All around her, the city was in ruins.

***

Ambrogia, who was born in 1887, had grown up cutting quite a rebellious figure in the tiny northern Italian town of Staffoli, near Lucca in the Tuscan region. The oldest of 8 children, she worked in her father’s bottega (shop) where, at the age of 9, she spent her days making panini (sandwiches) while pouring a bit of grappa for herself every time she served a glass to a customer. Stern, robust, and always resentful of authority, as a teenager she would deliberately walk the streets of Staffoli wearing – gasp! – pants and smoking a Toscano cigar, just because it wasn’t done in those days.

(As an aside, Staffoli was originally in the province of Florence, but when Mussolini tinkered with the divisions in 1920 [gerrymandering!], he made Staffoli part of the province of Pisa. This would enrage my grandmother, who considered all Pisans to be thieves. The sentiment seems to endure somewhat today, and it may have stemmed from a time in history when many Pisans were tax collectors. One of my grandmother’s favorite [albeit skeevy] sayings was “Meglio che mangiare la tigna dalla testa di un cane che avere un Pisano alla porta!” [“Better to eat the mange off the head of a dog than to have a Pisan at the door!”])

Ambrogia’s father Pietro was a fairly successful businessman. In addition to owning the bottega, he was a cattle dealer, buying the animals in Milan or Venice and selling them in Florence. He also traveled extensively to Sao Pao, Brazil, where he had a coffee plantation, and to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he owned a brewery. Rumor has it that he kept a woman in every port, and the fact that two of his children were named Brasila and America certainly nurtured the speculation.

Although he was one of Staffoli’s few wealthy residents, Pietro was, for some reason, a socialist. In fact, he periodically hosted neighborhood socialist meetings with about 15 other men – a risky proposition, given that at that time the Italian government was cracking down hard on political activists, especially anarchists and socialists. The women, of course, were not allowed to participate in the meetings. Ambrogia was required to serve the males, and she grew increasingly resentful of her father’s rigorous authoritarianism. (Little did he know that when he went off on his trips, she would gather up her younger siblings, haul a bounty of salame, bread, and a bottle of chianti up to their room, and host a food-and-wine fest on their beds!)

At one particular political meeting, at which the now-18-year-old Ambrogia was, as usual, serving, Pietro’s rigid child-rearing practices were questioned by one of his more lenient buddies. “My children,” he responded angrily, “can do whatever they want in life.” This was the moment my quick-witted grandmother seized like a snake. “Oh, yeah?” she piped up in front of everyone. “Then I want to go to America.” Shocked by her audacity, the rest of the men challenged him. “You heard her, Pietro. So you will really send your daughter to America, then,” they said, mockingly. Pietro was stuck. He had made a proclamation and he couldn’t backtrack. His ego overruled his common sense. “Sure,” he answered. His wife immediately began to cry. But it was done.

That’s how my grandmother came to find herself boarding the steamship Prinzess Irene in Genoa, Italy, on March 22, 1906. It was unheard-of in those days for a young woman to travel alone; typically, in fact, it was a household’s father or eldest son who made the voyage and then sent for the rest of the family when life was settled. In this case, though, Ambrogia’s dim-witted 16-year-old brother Davide (David) was sent with her as a “chaperone.”

PrinzessIrene2-[edited for blog]

The Prinzess Irene was a German-built ocean liner that ran on the Genoa-to-New York line beginning in 1903. She was 540 feet long and 60 feet wide, weighed almost 11,000 tons, and traveled at about 15 knots (18 mph). The ship carried more than 2,000 passengers – most of them, including my grandmother, in 3rd class or “steerage.”

Before boarding, passengers were asked to answer a number of questions, the oddest of which included whether they were polygamists or anarchists. I’m fairly sure my grandmother was not the former, but she may well have been the latter. In any case, both she and David answered “no” appropriately. They also were subject to medical examinations and to “disinfection.”

generic 1909 passport-[edited for blog]There is no way to sugarcoat the experience of the passengers in steerage. In fact, up to 10 percent of them died on the way. They sat crowded together, in the dark, under the most unsanitary of conditions. The air was chokingly foul. Five years after my grandmother’s trip, the U.S. Immigrant Service reported that “[t]he open deck space reserved for steerage passengers is usually very limited, and situated in the worst part of the ship, subject to the most violent motion, to the dirt from the stacks and the odors from the hold and galleys. . . . The ventilation is almost always inadequate, and the air soon becomes foul. The unattended vomit of the seasick, the odors of not too clean bodies, the reek of food and the awful stench of the nearby toilet rooms make the atmosphere of the steerage such that it is a marvel that human flesh can endure it . . . . Most immigrants lie in their berths for most of the voyage, in a stupor caused by the foul air. The food often repels them. . . . It is almost impossible to keep personally clean. All of these conditions are naturally aggravated by the crowding.”

In my grandmother’s case, this went on for 15 days. She and David arrived in New York on April 6. She had $25 in her pocket.

***

Three million Italians came to the United States between 1900 and 1915 during the “New Immigration” of Slavs, Jews, and Italians. Most of them were farm workers and unskilled laborers fleeing not only a politically chaotic country but also the crush of abject poverty. That was not the case with my grandmother, but it did apply to my grandfather.

Gustavo Bocciardi, a Tuscan like my grandmother, grew up extremely poor and with very little education. In April 1904, Gustavo came to America (also on the Prinzess Irene) by himself, as a teenager, in search of work. A couple of aunts in California had wired him the money to find his way out west. While on the train from Ellis Island to San Francisco, he was nearly taken advantage of when the guy at the café counter tried to charge him something like $30 for a 52-cent sandwich. As the story goes, my grandfather – short in stature, but strong as a bull – grabbed the guy by the collar and throttled him until he got his money back.

1956_07_Gustavo Bocciardi, Paula(b)
Gustavo Bocciardi (Nonno) and me, 1956

My grandfather was an interesting dichotomy. He was an emotional pushover who, in his later years, liked to push me around the neighborhood in a stroller to show me off. But apparently he had a temper – one I never, ever saw. Maybe his attitude was hardened by the bigotry that Italians regularly endured in this country. My dad told me that one day a passerby called Gustavo a “dago” to his face. “So he dropped the son of a bitch,” my father said, rather dryly. The man hit his head on the sidewalk, and Gustavo thought he’d killed him. While he was trying to explain the situation to his aunts afterwards, a police officer arrived at the door – a fellow who knew the aunts and liked them. “That guy is a jerk,” said the officer. “He’s just fine, he didn’t die, and you just tell your nephew Gustavo not to worry about it.”

***

In the few days between the time they arrived in San Francisco and the time the Great Earthquake hit, Ambrogia and her brother David had been staying in SF with their relatives the Mancinis. On April 18, the Mancinis had already gone to work by 5:12 am. – the moment the house was destroyed, and David was critically hurt – and they had no idea where their young charges were. The American Red Cross and local charities were providing food and medical care to everyone in the tent cities, which is where Ambrogia found herself, along with David, who was unconscious for days. One day, as Ambrogia was still trying to make sense out of what had happened to her, she heard Italian being spoken outside their tent. She ran out and discovered that a representative from the Italian consulate was walking around offering assistance, and she was able to tell him that she had been separated from the Mancinis, who, she knew, had relatives in Redwood City. Somehow the Consulate ended up finding the relatives and providing Ambrogia and David with transportation to their home. David would recover from his injuries.

***

By 1907, after working for a short time as a nanny, Ambrogia packed up and moved to San Leandro, a small city across the Bay from San Francisco to which many people displaced by the quake had relocated. She began working at the King-Morse cannery off of San Leandro Boulevard (now the site of the San Leandro BART station). Meanwhile, Gustavo Bocciardi – who’d been working as a logger in Boulder Creek – had also moved to San Leandro and was working at the same place.

Del Monte Cannery-[edited for blog]
The cannery
San Leandro has perhaps the greatest weather in California, and in the late 1800s and early 1900s there were plenty of farmers growing stone fruits, asparagus, and other produce in the area. The farmers made a lot of noise about getting a local cannery built to help ensure that their produce didn’t rot, and the first San Leandro cannery was established in 1898. In 1916 it became part of the California Packing Corporation (CPC), which eventually merged with the Del Monte conglomerate and became the largest fruit and vegetable canning company in the world. (Del Monte moved the San Leandro operation to the Central Valley in 1967.) The cannery employed a lot of Italians, and it was one of the few businesses in the area that provided employment to women. It was even so progressive as to offer free on-site day care. It also supplied little living shacks, for minimal rent, to some of the workers.

Gustavo and Ambrogia saw each other for the first time at that cannery. And here’s the craziest thing: they discovered that they were from the same tiny town in Italy! And they hadn’t known each other! I don’t know the population of Staffoli back then, but even now it has only a few thousand people. I can’t imagine how they could not have run into each other, especially because they were only two years apart in age. But my grandfather was poor and uneducated, and my grandmother traveled in a different universe.

Not surprisingly, Gustavo and Ambrogia ended up getting married, in Oakland, on December 30, 1907. A year later they had their first child, my aunt Nini, whose real name was actually Maria. [Ed’s note: every Italian family has a Maria!] My grandfather apparently won the naming rights and chose to name my aunt after his grandmother Maria, even though my grandmother – who was very anti-clerical (but not anti-religious) at the time – emphatically insisted that the Biblical Maria (Mary) was “the world’s first whore”!

1916_(L to R)_Giannina Corti, Gino Corti, Rizzieri Matteucci, Gustavo Bocciardi, Marie Bocciardi, Ambrogia Bocciardi-[edited for blog]
Gustavo (sitting) and Ambrogia Bocciardi, with daughter Maria (Nini), 1916
My aunt Nini – who was loud and very funny, often unwittingly – used to tell us that she was “born dead.” That declaration always amused and puzzled us kids, but my mother explained that although the doctors did initially pronounce her dead because she wasn’t breathing, she suddenly took a gasping breath and that was that. Nini slept, as an infant, in a dresser drawer, and when she was a month old my grandmother took her to work with her in a shoebox. They were all still living, at the time, in a cannery shack.

What continues to amaze me to this day is that my indefatigable grandmother found an additional way to make money. At night she would cook up an abundance of food that she could feed at lunch the following day to the many single young men who worked alongside her at the cannery: stews, chicken in sauce, etc. In the morning she would set the table, and at noon she’d race home to heat up the food. Then the cannery workers would come over and buy lunch from her to eat while they rested! How she did all this and cared for a baby, I do not know. She was strong, smart, and determined. It didn’t matter that she had been brought up in a family of means. She was on her own now, and she had no expectations of being handed anything anymore. She could stand on her own two feet. And hold everybody else up as well.

***

San Leandro ballpark sign-[edited for blog]At some point my grandmother quit the Cannery and they rented a house in San Leandro. Gustavo then worked at a variety of jobs – lumberyard, sawmill, munitions factory during World War I, etc. – for a few years each until his hot temper got him kicked out. Finally, nearly 20 years later, they could afford to have their first home built in 1926, right across the street from the San Leandro Ballpark (adjacent to the cannery) where my father says he saw Billy Martin play before he made it into the majors. Tickets to the Sunday afternoon baseball games cost 15 cents for gentlemen and 10 cents for ladies. What a steal! (That field, which I remember well, is now long gone, demolished when the BART station was built.)

By then my grandfather had gotten into the poultry business, and eventually he established his own market with two other guys – one of whom was his new son-in-law Ray. My grandparents weren’t keen on Ray because he was, irony of ironies, a Pisan! And true to stereotype, Ray’s father was a crook – a bootlegger who somehow cheated my grandfather out of a lot of money, although no one quite remembers how.

1925_San Leandro_Gustavo Bocciardi in Dodge truck-[edited for blog]
1925
***

Nearly nineteen years after Maria was born (yes, you read that right), along came my father in 1927. He was almost named “Sbaglio” (“Mistake”) because my grandparents had been convinced that they were too old to have children. In fact, once she started to show, my grandmother went to the local pharmacist to ask him what to do for her “tumor.” His reply? “That’s no tumor, lady. That’s a baby!”

Dad once said that they should have named him “Tumor.”

1937_12_Dad, Gustavo and Ambrogia Bocciardi-[edited for blog]
Gerald (my dad), Gustavo, and Ambrogia Bocciardi, 1937
My father had a wonderful childhood in San Leandro, in what he calls “the Italian ghetto.” He was adored and spoiled and many of the neighbors spoke Italian (or Spanish or Portuguese) and everyone watched out for each other. When he ran home from his first day of school because he couldn’t speak English, my grandmother ushered him right back. Her children were going to make something of themselves, and they would have an easier life.

***

1956_11-19_Gustavo Bocciardi, Paula(b)
Nonno and me, 1956

I’m only half Italian, but nearly all of my historical and cultural understanding of my heritage came from that side of the family. The German relatives on my mother’s side were almost guarded about their ancestry. But the Italians were proud and joyful.

My first language was actually Italian. I didn’t know how to speak English until I was about three years old and my maternal grandmother was babysitting me one day, couldn’t understand my repeated requests for acqua (water), and implored my parents to for God’s sake teach me some English.

1956_07_Mom, Paula, Ambrogia Bocciardi(b)-[edited for blog]
Beverly Bocciardi (Mom), me, and Nonna, 1956
When I was a child, I had the great fortune of spending at least every other weekend at my grandparents’ house in San Leandro. Nonna (my grandmother) wore aprons all the time and was constantly at the stove. Nonno (my grandfather), as I mentioned before, pushed me around in my stroller and visited all the neighborhood ladies. He let me help him pick vegetables from their perfect garden and dig for treasures in their basement. The Southern Pacific Railroad ran two lines near the house because the cannery depended on trains to bring in produce and ship out the canned goods. In the middle of the night the house would shake and rumble and the train whistle would practically wake the dead as the “choo-choo” thundered by. I loved the comfort of it.

1957_09_Marc's Baptism_Paula, Gustavo Bocciardi, Marc 1(b)
Nonno with me and my brother Marc, 1957

***

What great resilience and fortitude the immigrants had. How did those people from quiet little towns – some of them teenagers, like my relatives – find the courage to leave their homes and families and travel in horrid conditions across an ocean without knowing whether they would even survive the journey or, if they did, what they would do when they arrived? Most of the time they would end up sacrificing everything for their own new families in America. And yet, despite the prejudice and the barriers, they did it without complaint. Without defeat. They were heroes without monuments.

One of my very favorite movies, Mi Familia, ends with a scene in which the mother and father of an immigrant family from Mexico sit at a table and reflect back on their lives. The mother had suffered terribly getting to this country as a young woman. Their oldest son had been murdered. Their daughter-in-law had died soon after giving birth. But ultimately their remaining children and their grandchildren had found their way in life. As the parents savor their coffee and reflect on their marriage and family, José says, “Maria, we’ve had a good life. We’ve been very lucky.”

She nods but then pauses. “It would have been even better if . . . .”

But José won’t hear of it. “No, Maria, don’t say it,” he says. “Don’t even say it. It is wrong to wish for too much in this life. God has been good to us.”

“You’re right,” Maria says. “We have had a very good life.” And they kiss.

Sometimes I wonder what my grandparents would say if they knew what the world was like today. How could they comprehend people pulling out guns and shooting up schools and workplaces because they’re frustrated that things aren’t going quite perfectly for them?

And what would they think about those of us who show off pictures of our own food? How self-important have we become?

And how high are our expectations about the happiness we think life owes us?

Ambrogia and Gustavo lived in their little white San Leandro house for the rest of their lives. It was a simple existence, but they provided their two children with everything they needed: love, support, and education. My grandparents worked hard and had no time to be self-important. Life wasn’t easy. But they were self-reliant and they were happy. They talked, they laughed, they loved, they ate, and they drank with gusto.

And even when they were practically penniless, they were rich with courage, culture, and ideals.

It was the good life. It was la bella vita.

Salute, Nonno and Nonna. Vi voglio bene. I will love you forever.

1949_Ambrogia Bocciardi(a)-[edited for blog]

 

 

 

***

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.

 

9/24/71:

“6th period I have Geometry with Miss McCulloh. I always get done before everyone else in there. She said kiddingly, “I’ll have to give you extra work.” Well, brother, I have had enough of THAT before!”

 

 

10/26/71:

“I had to stay home from school today because I was sick. What a bummer! I’ll have to miss tennis tomorrow. Shoot! Not much else to say. I watched Graham Kerr [“The Galloping Gourmet” on TV] make poached eggs in wine sauce. Then I got hungry so I went up and had lunch. I had green-pea soup, a salami-ham-cheese sandwich, potato chips, an apple, a Ding-Dong, and a Coke.”

 

Christmas, 1967:

“Today we went to Church in our red plaid Scottish skirts and blouses and berets. The blouses were wool blue and so were our sweaters. Janine and I were scared with our berets.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tibby is king!

Tibby is king!

I have been lazy of late, dear readers, for no particular reason, and I know that it’s high time I got back on the blogging horse. I’m working on a more dignified piece right now, but in the meantime, just to sate your appetite for my literary pearls, I’ve decided to present to you the official minutes of the Tibby Club of America. And I will reward you with more substantive content in the days to come.

The Bocciardi kids founded two groundbreaking organizations in the 1960s. One of those – The Fishing Club – has already been covered here on Monday Morning Rail. The other was dedicated to my grandmother’s dog. Luckily, in both cases I appointed myself the recorder of the meeting minutes, and the historic proposals and decisions we made as members of these clubs are now saved for posterity.

As a bit of background, my mother’s parents lived in La Crescenta, California, which is in the southern part of the state near Los Angeles. At some point when we were kids, my grandmother acquired a cute little Lhasa Apso puppy whom she named Tibby, presumably because that breed of dog originated in Tibet (and was in fact not introduced to the United States until the 1930s).

Tibby was an adorable but completely spoiled little white bundle of hair. Now that Julie and I have a Lhasa Apso of our own, we’re quite familiar with the breed’s extreme stubbornness, tendency to bark maniacally at perceived dangers (their name in Tibetan means “Bark Lion Sentinel”), mischievous ability to outsmart their owners, and marked distrust of strangers and children, with whom they can be quite snippy.

Luckily, Tibby was a fairly chill little dude. His worst trait came about only because my grandparents fed him “people food,” a practice that was frequently evidenced by Tibby’s walking around with an orange beard after slurping Ragu-drenched spaghetti out of his bowl. (These grandparents weren’t the Italian side, hence the dubious sauce.) However, when the family sat down to dinner, Tibby would expect additional tidbits and would beg and yap ceaselessly in a voice so shrill that it could cause serious tinnitus. He would then be banished to the backyard, where he would continue to yip, all the while pawing and scratching incessantly at the sliding glass door until we went nearly insane.

Otherwise, though, he was very good with children, and he put up with our constant mauling in a manner that was both aloof and patient. We absolutely worshipped him.

1965_05_Janine, Marc, Agnes (Hansen) and Frank Steger, Jackie Gross, Dad, Mom, Carla Gross, Kathie Gross, Ron Gross, Tibby
Adults in back: My grandmother Agnes (holding Tibby), grandfather Frank, aunt Jackie, Dad, and mom. Standing kids: My sister Janine, brother Marc, and cousins Kathy and Carla. Kneeling teenager is my cousin Ronnie, whom we’d just as soon forget.

When the first meeting of the ambitiously named “Tibby Club of America” was convened at our house in San Jose, I had just turned 12, my brother Marc (obviously the money guy) was 10, and my sister Janine was 7. Occasionally our grandparents drove up to visit from SoCal, bringing Tibby and sometimes the two other people present for the club meetings: our first cousins Carla (12) and Kathy (10), the two daughters of our beloved hippie aunt Jackie who lived just a few blocks from my grandparents.

This is an abridged version of the complete minutes of the Tibby Club. If I were to include the full documents, you’d all be snoring. My comments are bracketed in italics.

***

 

TIBBY CLUB OF AMERICA

Minutes

The meeting came to order at 8:25 p.m., Friday, November 24, 1967. Kathy Gross, Janine, Marc, and Paula Bocciardi attended.

The President, Marc Bocciardi, said that the four slips of paper in front of us may be wrote on about a suggestion [sic] after you call time out.

We all called time out and wrote our suggestions. Then we all called time in after putting our suggestions in the bandage box located behind Paula, the Great.

Marc then proceeded to write down the Tibby motto.

Tibby Club of AmericaPaula voted that we read the suggestions. Marc took them out and the first one was Janine’s. It said, “My thing is this – we should feed Tibby every day except once in a while.” Everyone voted on it.

The next suggestion was Janine’s. It said, “Do the Tibby sulut [sic] every day.” Everyone almost voted it in. Then Janine got a demerit for talking about how Marc once said, “Dear Grammy and Grumpy.”

Next was Paula’s. It said, “We should have an itiation [sic; initiation] for Kathy and other new members.” Everyone voted for it.

Kathy got a demerit of salivaing [drooling on] her knee. Paula said Kathy should say to Grampy, “Grampy, damn it.” The inititon [sic again!; initiation] was decided to be a tickle torture.

Paula said, “Wall – damn it” after Jan fell and Paula made a loud poop [fart].

Next was Janine’s. It said, “I love Tibby . . . I love Tibby.”

Next was Kathy’s. It said, “I don’t love Tibby.” Kathy almost got a demerit for it.

Next was Marc’s. It said, “I think we should all five of us (Kathy and Carla, Marc, Jan, and Paula) should contribute 10¢ for Tibby’s birthday present and 10¢ for his Christmas present.” We all voted for it.

Then Janine said, “I think that we should play with Tibby more often.” We all voted for it.

Then I read this, and the meeting was adjourned at 9:04 p.m.

Signed,
Paula Bocciardi
Minute Man

 

***

Minutes

The meeting started Saturday, November 25, 1967 at 8:10 a.m. Marc, Paula, Jan Bocciardi and Kathy Gross were present.

Marc, the President, passed out suggestion slips. Everyone called time out and wrote down their suggestions. We all called time in.

Then we decided to collect the 20¢ for Tibby’s presents. Everyone contributed 20¢ except Kathy and Marc. Marc had done it the previous night.

1965_05_Felicia Morrow, Agnes (Hansen) Steger, Tibby, Janine, Marc-2
Neighborhood friend Felicia, my grandmother Agnes (with Tibby), Janine, and Marc

Then Marc read the first suggestions. It was Paula’s and Marc’s and Kathy’s. They said, “We should give Tibby a final salute and have a salute every meeting and a final playing with.” Everyone voted for the first and third, everyone except Paula for the second.

Next was NOBODY. It said NOTHING. [It appears that I had left blank spaces where someone later filled in the “nobody” and “nothing.” The handwriting was clearly my brother’s.]

The meeting adjourned at 8:26 a.m.

 

***

Minutes

The meeting came to order at 7:31 p.m. on Saturday, November 25, 1967. Kathy Gross, Paula, Jan, and Marc attended.

Kathy suggested that we read the promotion. Then Paula said to Kathy, “You stink.” Then it was decided that Kathy and Janine were to be promoted. Kathy was promoted to first class and swore (an oath, that is). Janine was promoted to first class and swore.

We discussed swearing.

Marc suggested we read the suggestions. The first one – Jan read. It was Marc’s. He said that we should have a crown [for Tibby]. Suggestion was overruled.

Then Kathy read Jan’s. It said that we should comb, brush, feed, and give water to Tibby everyday.

Then Marc read Kathy’s. It said that Carla should send up her membership and that we should care for Tibby better. The first part was voted for by everyone.

Paula moved that we should adjourn the meeting and give the Tibby salute. We all voted on it.

The meeting adjourned at 7:55.

Signed,
Paula Bocciardi
Co-Chairman
(Minute Man)

 

***

Minutes [these are written by my brother]

I had to write the minutes because Paula got mad and threw the orig. ones in the wastebasket.

President, Marc

The meeting came to order at 3:57 p.m. on Thursday, December 21, 1967. Kathy and Carla Gross and Marc, Paula, and Janine Bocciardi were present.

We wrote our suggestions.

The first one read, “Let’s give Carla her Initiation Tickle Torture.” Everyone but Carla voted for it.

The next one said, “let’s have a party.” Everyone voted for it. The next said, “We should give Marc demerits when he needs them.” Everyone voted for it.

The next said, “let’s make a Tibby song.” It was overruled.

The next one said, “we should have interest on dues.” [Guess whose suggestion THAT was?] It was overrruled. The meeting was adjourned at 4:31 p.m.

President,
Marc

1969_06 Marc, Tibby, Paula, Janine-2
Marc, Paula (with Tibby), Janine

***

Minutes

P.R. – Marc (President)
M.M. – Paula (Minute Man)
1st class Jan – Janine

The meeting came to order at 10:05 a.m. PAT (Paula’s alarm clock time) on Sunday, June 30, 1968. Then Paula read the minutes of the last meeting. After Marc passed out the suggestion slips, we wrote them down and put them in a jacks bag.

The first Marc read’s [sic] was 1st class Jan’s. It said, “We should take turns reading these.” That was voted in. Then Jan read her own, which said that we should sell Tibby badges for 5¢ apiece [and] that she could make some – Marc’s idea. Then she read Marc’s which said the same, but also 5¢ for folders, money to Tibby fund. We voted that in.

Marc read Paula’s, which said we should have a Tibby scroll. Jan read Paula’s, which said she’ll make a Pig crown for Uncle Dave.

Then Paula read Jan’s, which said, “I think every day we should give Tibby rewards because he’s KING. First-class Jan.”

Then Marc read Paula’s, which said not to go too far or Mom or Dad will get mad.

Janine then left to go to the bathroom.

The meeting was adjourned at 10:35 a.m. PAT.

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 1971 and 1987.

12/13 and 12/14, 1971 [the hard life of a teenager]:

“Mrs. Moore gave me a tutoring assignment today. I was really happy about it until she told me it was in Algebra. Yecch! My worst, most hated, dumbest subject! Yecch! First period P.E. has (glory of all glories) BASKETBALL IN THE GYM. And do you know what I got stuck with? Huh? FENCING!! That’s right! I’m so sore I can’t move.”

12/5/71:

“I was very busy today and did not go to church. Dad had a cold, Mom had a stomach pain; yet I could have walked. I should have. Somehow I know that I am a good person, and perhaps those religious standards made me that way. Yet there are all these new voices proclaiming that we do not have to go to Mass. I hate to think that they are right, and that all my Masses and all my Confessions were for nothing!”

12/7/71:

“Tonight, I went with Mary Pasek to my first P.A.L. [at the time, sort of like little junior police officers] meeting. We got a thing for our parents to sign saying that if we are killed or seriously injured, the Police Department is not liable. We are binded to risk our lives for policemen. The rigidness of conduct and the very strict inspection scared us into a panic. However, it scared me INTO P.A.L. because I have found that I have a certain desire for very authoritative procedures. We MUST have black shoes and a pen.”

11/26/71:

“I watched the Baltimore Bullitts [sic] beat the Atlanta Hawks today, 105-118. Pete Maravich is the only reason I watched. I used to like ‘Pistol Pete’ a couple years ago when he played college ball. I can’t say he’s too much of a shooter, but he sure can handle that ball. I used to think he was cute. YICK!”

11/30/71:
“Boy, did we see a tear-jerking movie tonight. The movie was “Brian’s Song” about Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers of the Chicago Bears. Brian died of cancer. I cried the last half hour and 15 minutes AFTER that movie!”

11/23/71:

“Today I was notified that I am going to be Editor-in-Chief for the next issue of our [school] paper. SWELL. I had to fork out an editorial today. I also got my senior pictures taken. At first I was really scared, but it didn’t take too long, thank goodness. One thing I am afraid of is Driver’s Training. I’m getting it sometime this quarter. Boy, I am so scared. Thank goodness tomorrow is the last day of this week. Yay, Thanksgiving! Food!”

11/21/71:

“What did I do today? I went to Church, finished selling my box of candy bars, vacuumed my room (there were 26,962 pieces of confetti on the rug), wrote thank-you notes, got Mom to let me wear pants once a week, made up a schedule for wearing my clothes, and took a BBGO (Big Bath and General Overhaul).”

 

Please! No results!

Please! No results!

February 21, 1992, was going to be a problem for me. The Olympic Winter Games in Albertville, France, were in full swing, and I was finding myself riveted by the competition in women’s figure skating. Americans Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding were rivals then (this was two years before one of Harding’s goons would whack Kerrigan on the knee in a failed attempt to end her career). Nancy was the more elegant, graceful skater, in the old tradition, and Tonya was stronger and more athletic, able to land a triple axel. Nancy’s mother, sitting in the stands, was legally blind and the cameras kept cutting to her face, full of love and anticipation, an inch away from a monitor to better see her daughter. So I felt an emotional attachment to the Kerrigans. But Kristi Yamaguchi was also in the mix, as was a sturdy Japanese woman named Midori Ito who, like Harding, could pull off the triple axel.

Anyway, my problem was that I wanted to be able to put in my full workday without hearing anything about the Olympics and then rush home to watch the results of the skating final on television. Because of the time difference between the U.S. and France, the actual event was held in the middle of our day, but the networks, of course, ran their programming in prime time. Remember that in 1992 people did not own cellphones, so there was no chance I’d accidentally see any kind of sports news alert. But in the workplace there was bound to be a colleague who would listen to the results on the radio and then spill the beans. The restroom alone was a veritable hotbed of skating gossip.

1991_AOC_Lisa Crystal, Paula
Lisa and Paula, 1991

I was an editor at the time, and I shared a huge cubicle with my fellow editor Lisa. Lisa and I had asked that the wall separating our adjoining cubicles be taken down so that we could cohabit a much larger area. The person in charge of office space, Carmen, told me that it was the most refreshing request she’d ever had. “Most people ask me to put up as many barriers as possible between them and their co-workers,” she said. “I’ve never had a request like this!” But Lisa and I were great friends. When we petitioned for the cubicle modification we claimed that we needed to be able to discuss the finer points of grammar on a regular basis (“Hey, did you know that the subjunctive is not a tense but a mood?”), but in reality we just wanted to gab freely all the livelong day.

Lisa was as obsessed with the skating competition as I was, and we were fixated on ways in which we could keep our colleagues from spilling the beans. It wasn’t too difficult if I happened to cross paths with someone talking about it in the restroom: I would simply shriek “NO OLYMPICS!” and blaze out the door. But dozens of people visited our “editing zone” every day, whether to drop off a manuscript, throw us a grammar question, or just shoot the breeze.

We sweated and fussed about this issue so much that the people in our typesetting department finally came to us with a solution in hand. They had printed out – and strung together so as to resemble crime scene tape – yellow pieces of paper imprinted with the words “Please! No skating results beyond this point.” And they strung the yellow “tape” across the entrance to our cubicle.

Crime scene tape

The caution tape became a conversation piece and, of course, drew even more gawkers to our space. But it did the trick. No one dared speak a word about the Olympics. And we didn’t care that we had to limbo under it to leave our cubicle.

Having made it through the day without hearing any results, my last task was merely to get home and ensure that no one called me. I figured I would unplug the phone, turn off the answering machine, and just read a book until the CBS coverage started. It was do-able! So I took off on my beloved red Honda C70 scooter and set out for home. The weather was foggy and in the 50s that day, and it was a cool, grey ride heading west down Geary, through Golden Gate Park, and up 19th Avenue toward my house on 21st Avenue. I remember sitting at the last stoplight on 19th, two blocks from home, dreaming of the sports meal I would soon be eating, when I absently glanced to my right and saw the evening’s San Francisco Examiner, in a newsrack right by the curb, with its bold headline blaring straight at me:

“YAMAGUCHI WINS GOLD!”

Oh, bloody hell!

***

I hadn’t cared about figure skating for very long. Truth be told, I’d never considered figure skating to be a sport, especially on the women’s side. Until women started adding triple jumps into the mix, I thought figure skating was more like dancing on ice. Contributing to my disdain was the fact that until 1990 the skating competition included an event called the “compulsories,” in which participants were forced to skate various patterns in the ice that generally all looked like figure eights. It was slow, tedious, and – to my mind – ridiculous.

I remember that one day at softball practice my teammate Elena M. and I were standing around on the field, waiting for someone to hit grounders to us. The “what constitutes a sport?” topic came up, and Elena and I riffed on it so long that at some point we fell on the grass choking with laughter. I was, however, mostly serious. I declared that there had to be some element of danger in a sport. The act of figure skating seemed like it barely qualified, although we both acknowledged that flying around on the ice and then falling on your bones could possibly result in injury. But then I brought up the compulsories. I spouted that there was absolutely no risk involved and thus it was not a sport in any way. Elena and I decided that a perilous element would need to be added and that if we were in charge we would modify the competition: sharp spikes would be placed all around the ice so if someone were to waver and trip while doing the compulsories, he or she would be instantly impaled. This solution satisfied us both.

***

The potential for injury has not been my only criterion, over the years, for defining a sport. I feel that there needs to be strenuous movement and exertion involved. My friend Julie Riffle agrees and adds that if you can drink and/or smoke while playing something at the competitive level, it is not a sport. Long ago I ruled out golf as a sport (and decreed it to be a game instead) because generally one does not break a sweat while playing – unless it’s nervous perspiration triggered by the knowledge that your bungled chip shot just cost you a $3 million prize.

Lugers
Two-man luge

So consider the luge – one of the mainstays of the Winter Olympics. I must admit that up until this writing I’d assumed that the worst that could happen during a luge event was a bruised tailbone. However, my research today revealed that two lugers have actually died in practice runs leading up to the Olympics. Okay, so there is an element of danger involved. Still, the gist of the sport is that you lie down on a sled and go careening down a slope. On many occasions I have suggested to Julie R. that she become a luger because, as I still insist, anyone can do it. She’s in good shape, she’s smart, and she’s not a scaredy-cat, so in my view she has the DNA to be a champion luger. And except for the few seconds at the beginning of the run, when the luger flaps his or her hands four times on the ice to get going, the event requires no physical exertion whatsoever. I maintain, therefore, that luging is a skill, not a sport.

Even more absurd is the four-man bobsled. It’s almost the same idea as the luge, but it’s slower, and in this event two members of the team do nothing except push the bobsled for a few feet and then jump into it, put their heads down, and pray! I COULD DO THAT!

Bobsledders
Four-man bobsled

If we deemed any skill – however difficult – to be a sport, then knitting, parallel parking, and pulling out splinters would be considered sports. Case closed. Mic drop.

***

Coincidentally, the other day I was digging through my online “memorabilia” when I found this letter that Julie R. and I had penned to the San Francisco Chronicle editors. Neither she nor I remembers the letter now, but I will publish it here in its entirety:

August 2, 1996

Sporting Green Editor:

 We were greatly amused to see the story in Friday’s Chronicle about the poor guy who accidentally had explosives lodge in his nose and who underwent delicate underwater surgery to have them removed.

But it occurred to us that this story ties in with our current disgust over the many non-sports in the Olympic Games: among others, synchronized swimming, skeet shooting, and the laughable rhythmic gymnastics. Since we believe that a “sport” should at least involve sweating and/or risk-taking, we think that rhythmic gymnasts should be required to compete with explosives up their nose.

                                                                        Sincerely,

                                                                        Paula Bocciardi                                                                         Julie Riffle

The letter was not selected for publication. Quelle surprise!

***

Of course, even if we were to agree about what constitutes a sport, there is still the matter of whether a particular event belongs in the Olympics. Basketball and baseball are sports, in my view, but I don’t think they should be Olympic events. In general I’m not keen about any team sports in the Olympics, except for relay events, which depend on each runner or swimmer to maximize his or her time. With baseball and basketball, one team member could do absolutely nothing and still come home with a medal. When teams merely play against each other, the win or loss is dependent as much upon the other team as it is upon one’s own, so a medal doesn’t necessarily reflect an individual’s ability at all.

And then there are the events I find just plain ludicrous, like rhythmic gymnastics, curling, ping-pong, and anything involving horses, in which case the horses should get the medals, not the riders.

For a long time I was such a purist about the Olympics that I thought only individual sports involving the body exclusively – without any accoutrement, tool, or accessory – should be allowed. I figured the Olympics should be about pure athletic ability (running, jumping, swimming, throwing), and I didn’t think any event should be dependent upon the manufacturer of a ski, a sled, or a skate. But I came to realize that if you eliminated accoutrements from the Winter Games, you would be left with no events at all. After all, it’s not as if you can run or swim on ice. “That’s fine,” I thought, “then we should do away with the Winter Olympics altogether, because there was no such thing when the Olympics were invented.” Well, true, but the original, oh-so-sacred Olympics that took place in Greece hundreds of years B.C. involved naked men running, jumping, and throwing (aha! I knew it!) but also wrestling (the contestants were covered in oil) and chariot racing. Oops. I have to concede that a chariot is an accoutrement.

And I suppose it might be fun if all the contestants today had to be naked – especially the greased-up wrestlers – but then again, if that were the case the sumo wrestling competition might not entice many spectators.

***

As the years have gone by, and I’m finding myself less and less opinionated, I’ve softened my beliefs about sports and about the Olympics. Life is so much more enjoyable when one is open-minded, and I can now enjoy events like short-track speedskating and the gloriously exciting snowboard cross.

snowboard cross
Snowboard cross

But do you know what I most anticipate watching? It happens only once every four years, people!

The biathlon.

Oh, yes!

I am pleased to point out that the biathlon does fit the Paula Bocciardi definition of “sport” – at least in part. Although it includes a skill (shooting a gun), it also includes a sport (skiing). And although it does involve an accoutrement (a gun), it also involves sweating.

biathlete
A biathlete

The essence of the biathlon (there are many permutations) is that the athletes are required to perform grueling cross-country ski sprints intermixed with swooshing to a dead stop, grabbing seven-pound rifles off their backs, somehow tamping down their racing hearts, and shooting at precision targets 160 feet away, from both prone and standing positions. And the killer is that if they don’t hit five targets, they are penalized by having extra time added to their total or having to ski a penalty loop for each target they miss! I mean, it’s both physical and mental torture! Nirvana to watch!

***

This week marks the time of year when my sports-related depression starts to hit. The football season just ended (in a glorious fashion, I might add), and baseball players haven’t yet set foot on the grass. I call the next couple of months the “sports drought.” But every four years the pain is nullified by the Winter Games, and to my delight the Opening Ceremonies for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea will take place this Friday, February 9.

I can give myself permission to sit on the couch and eat sports meals (hot dogs, popcorn, and beer) for more than two weeks straight. I will shed my usual buckets of tears for each poignant story about the athletes’ heartbreaks and triumphs. And I will enjoy every single event and every single individual accomplishment – whether in victory or in defeat – as I remind myself that these athletes from all over the world have dedicated their lives to being the best that they can be, and they have all conjured up heroic levels of hard work, persistence, and mental toughness that I could never imagine in myself.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

***

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.

11/10/71:

“Mr. Healy was very sad today because of our class’s remarks about how boring it all was. Why does he listen to them? Anyway, he asked us to put down our goals. Mine were 1) To uphold justice 2) To become coordinated 3) To be sensible and not be so absent-minded, and 4) To not be alone.”

10/30/71:

“I’ve been pretty dumb this past week. All week long I worried about the Faculty-GAA tennis tournament. I figured that since Mr. B is so good, I’d make every single one of our mistakes. Well, Mary Pasek and Jeanne came down to watch and I was really scared because I thought I’d show them how lousy I was. But they must have given me [divine] guidance because I hardly flubbed at all. We then went out to the Circle Star [Theater] to see Glen Campbell. Wow, what a thrill! It was neat when I saw him run down the aisle right by us. Seeing such a god in person is too much. I’ll never forget it!”

10/21/71:

“Boy, so far I have a “B” in English. On our last test, EVERY SINGLE person around me cheated. [The teacher] gave it orally, and they all just discussed. If I heard them say the right answer, but I hadn’t known the answer before, I didn’t put it down. THAT is will power. So as it was, I got an 80 and they got 90. I’m beginning to wonder — should I cheat, too?”

9/19/71:

“Last night [our family] went to a movie ‘Billy Jack,’ rated R. But we had called up and they had told us it was rated GP. So we decided to try it. It wasn’t too bad, no nudity or anything, but it sort of condoned unwed pregnancy for [my 10-year-old sister] Jan. So we came out and Dad said he’d call ‘Action Line’ and all. [My brother] Marc and I were figuring how embarrassing it would be.”

9/9/71:

“Dad suggested tonight that I drive to Payless part-way. I never expected to go that far and I was nervous, but really nervous with Dad making sarcastic comments. I almost hit the Penitencia bridge. Perhaps I had better wait until Driver’s Training. Mom just sat there and died a thousand deaths.”

8/7/71:

“Another boring day. I even offered to scrub off the popcorn popper and Mom refused. And that’s hard work! We were going to go to Confession, but then we decided to go to a movie instead.”

 

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.”

 

 

 

 

The high cost of Slurpees

The high cost of Slurpees

In 1971, when I was 15, the allowance allotted to me by my parents was a meager $5 – PER MONTH! Under that kind of economic pressure I finally came to the conclusion that I should pitch a $3 increase, and I wrote them a letter in my best teenage legalese and accounting-speak. On a light note this week, I am reproducing the letter here, verbatim. Maybe Congress can use it as a model in the forthcoming budget negotiations.

From the desk of Miss Paula Rae Bocciardi on this day, July 1, in the year A.D. 1971 to Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Raymond Bocciardi:

A request for a raise in allowance to increase my previous income of $5 monthly. The underlying are reasons why $5 is too small a sum.

  1. Presents – counting up all gifts, we have Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Marc’s birthday, Janine’s birthday, Beverly’s birthday, Gerald’s birthday, Colleen’s birthday, Beverly’s Christmas present, Gerald’s Christmas present, Marc’s Christmas present, Jan’s Christmas present, Carla’s Christmas present, Kathy’s Christmas present (this year), Colleen’s Christmas present, Mary Blasi’s Christmas present, and let’s assume 1 assorted birthday party, even though there were 2 last year. These total 18. Assuming $3 are spent on each on an average, a sum of $48 is spent per annum, or $4 per month. This leaves only $1 per month.
  2. Food – rather than spend $.10 a day for hot bread, I suffer at “B” period [break]. But a $.10 root beer at lunch is absolutely necessary, since its absence will cause withdrawal symptoms known only to root beer addicts, such as falling asleep 5th period, a certain listlessness in 6th period, and a tendency to get hit in the eye with the ball in P.E. Also I develop kleptomaniac symptoms in G.A.A. [Girls Athletic Association]. Now, assuming that I get a root beer only 120 school days, the total is $12.00, or $1 per month, leaving me totally broke. Bankrupt. Caput.
  3. Slurpees – after hot hours of tennis I can take one of two alternatives: a) buy a Slurpee, or b) watch everyone else gurgle and slurp theirs and die of 1) jealousy, and 2) extreme thirst and dehydration. Obviously, step a) is the only possible choice. Considering 24 days of tennis, Slurpee cost would be $4.80, or $.40 monthly, leaving me $.40 in the hole.
  4. Other costs – necessities such as $.50 for G.A.A., money for gifts, and G.A.A. parties in which I seem to be the only one to chip. School presents many new and fascination [sic] expenses every week. So far, $2.00 in the hole.
  5. “Luxuries” – things which I don’t have to get, but should. Film and developing are quite costly. Occasionally I get invited somewhere and must buy something to keep myself from starving. $3.00 in the hole.
  6. Entertainment – since I have the unique ability to attract only little boys and wierdos [sic], and lack for dates and/or good* (*clean) fun with the opposite sex, and don’t enjoy or believe in turning on, and don’t drive, I turn to music. Once a half-year I might like a record. A far-fetched thought, I know. I haven’t gotten one in months and months, unless counted is the $1.97 1932 Glen Campbell record I got where he sounds 12 at the most and howls as he sings “Those Lonesome Lonely Jailhouse Bluuuues.” YECCH!
  7. Other income – none. The Gallos have no work to offer. Since I am only 15 I cannot get a decent job. I can’t babysit. I’d destroy the babies.
  8. Bank – I should think ahead. The $130 I have saved for 10 years won’t go too far in college. Birthday money should go to the bank, but is always needed to put me out of the hole.

All in all, we can conclude that a raise is desperately needed. I have been proven to be very resourceful in times of crisis and butt operations. [Ed.’s note: I believe this referred to a procedure my father had done at the hospital. We’ll leave it at that.] I was uncomplaining. I have helped more and thoroughly destroyed the house, but that is unimportant. I have a $1 raise already, but now that the causes are understood, perhaps sometime in the near future the remaining $2 in the hole monthly will be considered.

Thank you and sincerely yours,
Miss Paula Rae Bocciardi

zzz 3

My parents caved. I got the full $3 raise.

 

***

 

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.

 

5/10/71:

“Softball was wierd [sic] today. Mom and Dad came for the first time and watched the other team get 10 runs in the first inning. We made about 15 errors (me not included). But after that we held them scoreless. I got a home run. Soon we had only 10 minutes left and we were up. The score was 10-8. All we needed was 3 runs. All of a sudden it was 13-10. What a comeback, man! Right on!”

April-May 1971:

“We went to Coyote [Reservoir] to fish and have a little picnic. We caught about 76 crappie – the best we’ve ever done, not counting Clear Lake. They are small, but plentiful. It would have been perfect except as usual my hay fever started acting up around lunchtime. Hay fever is one thing I simply cannot stand. I don’t mind all the work I’ve had done on my teeth, or my operations, or even having to wear glasses. But hay fever is terrible. I sure wish we could have shots for it. But for some reason good ole Doc Williams won’t give us the shots. Let me tell you, I’d suffer any amount of pain. And I had taken a [Ornade prescription antihistamine] pill in the morning! Those babies are strong, too, boy.”

5/27/71:

“Marc [my brother], Ted, and I have a dirty book storehouse in Rudy’s poolroom. We’ve only got two books, but they’ve got loads of Playboys to read. I’ve read one of the books so far. It was called ‘Retribution.’ Some name, huh?”

Parlour lessons

Parlour lessons

A number of years ago, both of my ears spontaneously plugged up at the same time, and all I could hear was an internal roaring wind. This lasted for days. I wasn’t prone to seeing doctors then, but I had no problem complaining about my plight to everyone around me, and someone suggested that I follow the instructions of an old wives’ tale. To wit: I should heat an onion in a 400-degree oven, slice the onion in half, cover each piece in a towel so as not to inflict any burns on myself, and hold each piece to an ear, thereby allegedly drawing out whatever it was that was clogging up my hearing. Although I’m not normally one to experiment with alternative remedies, out of desperation I gave this a shot.

It didn’t work.

I was just about at the end of my rope when my old friend M.L. happened to call. M.L. (her name is Mary Lynne, but some of us just use her initials) is a now-retired career military officer and nurse practitioner, and she was stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs at the time. I didn’t miss the opportunity to whine to her about my ear problem and recount my failures with all the suggested remedies, including the onion that I was still holding in my hand.

“Paula, first of all, put down the onion,” she ordered.

“Oh. Okay.”

“Now, I want you to go to the drugstore and buy some Sudafed. The box will tell you to take one or two, but you should take four.”

That scared me. “But drugs always have super-adverse effects on me,” I argued. “Are you sure?”

“Yep. Just be quiet and listen. Take four Sudafeds. You’ll feel like shit. But your ears will open right up.”

Nurse practitioners always know what they’re talking about, and she was positive and convincing. So I went to the drugstore, bought some Sudafed, took four, felt like shit, and my ears opened right up.

Such are the curative powers of Lieutenant Colonel Mary Lynne Bement.

***

I like to take a train trip every year, and a few weeks ago I embarked on my excursion for 2017. I had decided to ask M.L. to accompany me because she was visiting her legions of friends on the West Coast anyway, and we’d always talked about doing a train trip together. I thought we should start out small – i.e., not a full ’cross-country run – because neither of us was certain it would work. This would be new territory for M.L., and she didn’t know whether she could be cooped up for a long period of time, unable to participate in her usual hikes, climbs, triathlons, and heaven knows what other super-athletic events in which she’s typically involved on any given day. I was unsure, too; I’d always ridden alone, and M.L. is a loquacious extrovert, full of restless energy, who could be easily bored by my cautious reserve.

031_Coast Starlight train trip, September 2017_outside of train 1

So I suggested the Coast Starlight, which runs from Seattle to Los Angeles. The entire length of the route spans two days of travel, but we would board in Oakland in the morning, disembark 12 hours later in Los Angeles, stay in a hotel that night, and come back the following day.

Beginning in Seattle, the Coast Starlight winds south through Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, and Klamath Falls and then into California through Mt. Shasta, down to Sacramento, and into Oakland, where we would board. After that, it churns through the Santa Clara and Salinas Valleys, kicking up dust in agricultural land before it hits the coast at San Luis Obispo. After a few hours hugging the gorgeous California coastline, it heads inward after Santa Barbara, continuing through Ventura and Van Nuys before terminating in L.A.

Although this route is touted for its views of the California coast, my love for the Starlight is all about the Parlour Car, a luxurious passenger railcar from the mid-19th century that was considered to be the gold standard at the time and that remains in existence today only on the Coast Starlight.

AMTRAKSPACIFICPARLOURCAR2-vi-copy

The Parlour Car is elegantly beautiful, rich with wood and brass and burgundy velour. It has its own little bar at the end of the car, padded swiveling chairs for observation, six dining tables with white tablecloths, decorative gold sconces and etched glass logos, a lounge area, and a tiny “library” with books and games. And it has a multitude of uses. At any time of day you can just lounge in its cushioned seats and watch the scenery roll by. At lunch and dinner, it offers a special menu for passengers who might not want the dining car offerings or who might not want to sit with strangers (in that car, there is no mandate to fill the tables with four people). Downstairs, amazingly, passengers will find a movie theater, where I once saw McFarland USA, starring Kevin Costner as a real-life high school track coach in the central California valley. And then there is my favorite Parlour Car activity: the afternoon wine-tasting.

018_Coast Starlight train trip, September 2017_Parlour Car_Paula 1

Generally, only the sleeper-car passengers are allowed access to the Parlour Car, which initially appeared to be an obstacle for me because our trip would run (if on schedule) from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and we would have no practical need for the extra cost of a sleeper. But here’s where my sterling train smarts came into play. Amtrak – whether wittingly or unwittingly – provides an incentive for passengers on non-overnight trips to purchase a sleeper. The cost is only an extra $50 for two people. But all meals are free for sleeper-car ticketholders, so M.L. and I together would get 6 free meals, plus access to the Parlour Car, for that amount. Sleeper-car passengers get free water, juice, and coffee, too. It makes financial sense, doesn’t it?

We plunked down the dough.

***

M.L. grew up in a large family in Avon, New York. She was a mischievous but extremely likeable kid who kept everybody laughing while she ran around smoking a pipe and regularly getting sent to the office for too much yakking and horsing around. When she was about 13 she ditched class so that she could spell out, in the snow, “Class of ’82” in the school courtyard. The school was built in an L shape around the courtyard, so the antic had its intended effect of luring every single student to the classroom windows. Another time in high school she decided to grab onto her friend’s car door handle and “ski” alongside the car while the friend spun doughnuts in the schoolyard snow. “Mary Lynne!” she heard over the school loudspeaker. “Report to the principal’s office right away!” She and the principal were well acquainted.

The local constables periodically showed up at the Bement family’s front door, but those were simpler times, and M.L.’s antics were those of a lively and playful kid, not a delinquent. When her family couldn’t afford a live Christmas tree, she illegally whacked one down on public property behind the schoolyard and had it all decorated by the time her mother got home from work. When she and her friends concocted some homemade bows and arrows – built with saplings, twine, and some stiff weeds – to shoot at cars, one of the drivers didn’t take a shine to the notion and got the police involved. Officer Pete Piampiano (or “Pipi-anno,” as the kids called him) was the one who nailed her for painting graffiti on a local bridge. And then there was the time, before she had a driver’s license, that M.L. noticed a student’s car parked in the school lot with the keys left in the ignition. The car – which belonged to a girl named, of all things, Pinkie Dodge – was calling M.L.’s name, of course, and she “borrowed” it, drove it around the lot, and left it in a different parking spot. But she got caught and Pinkie pressed charges. M.L. made a formal apology, though, and Pinkie’s family backed off.

M.L. says that despite all of her shenanigans, she never got into any real trouble. The reason, she claims, is that she was “so good at making formal apologies and then lying low for a while.”

As she grew older, M.L.’s mischievousness would evolve into an endearing playfulness and a fervor for life that would imbue every experience with meaning and a sense of adventure. There was a certain hardiness in her family. In his early days, her uncle Frank lost his job for protesting against the Vietnam War when he was a teacher in New York; he fought to get his job back, won, worked one day, and then resigned – all out of principle. After that, he worked for the Transportation Communication Union and, coincidentally, retired from the railroads. Her aunt Katie was a nurse and served as M.L.’s muse and inspiration. And her mother Mary raised five energetic children by herself from the time her husband left when M.L. was 12. It was not easy in those days. Among other things, Mary owned a fabric shop, worked as a bookkeeper, did wallpapering and child care, and served as a deputy town clerk – all the while keeping tabs on her young ones and making sure they grew up with the right values.

When M.L. graduated from Plattsburg State with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, she enlisted in the U.S. Army on something called a “Direct Commission,” which enabled her to “walk in” as an officer. She wanted to serve the country, and she looked forward to the promised retirement that would be in store at a relatively young age, but mostly she did it for the adventure, she says – to explore the world. And to have a “double career” as a nurse and an officer. One of her friends begs to differ, however; she claims that M.L. announced at the time that she was going into the military simply to avoid the prospect of interviewing for a job!

No. 12m EFMB SF
M.L. in center.

We met when she was stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco from 1987 to 1993 (a plum assignment!), but she also spent a great deal of time elsewhere in the country, along with stints in South Korea and Honduras and time spent getting her nurse practitioner degree in New York. Her most challenging year in the military, though, was 2009, when she was stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington. She was handed a taxing assignment as the Officer in Charge of the medical component of Warrior Forge, an ROTC leadership course for about 1,000 cadets from around the country. At the same time, she was also dealing with a horrendous personal tragedy, and in the middle of it all she was asked to prepare to deploy to Iraq. “But I didn’t hesitate,” she told me.

Shortly after completing her deployment in the Iraq War, M.L. retired as a Lt. Colonel with 23 years of service.

One last thing: Organization and planning are not M.L.’s strong suits, because they take a distant back seat to her practice of living intensely in the moment. When M.L. retired in 2010, she and her two dogs left Fort Lewis behind in September, pulling a little orange teardrop travel trailer behind them as they headed east for home in upstate New York. She was expected home within a couple of weeks. Along the way, as she was passing through South Dakota, she was so delighted and distracted by the wildlife, the rugged environment, and the salt-of-the-earth people in that state that she ended up staying awhile. And by awhile I mean weeks. This happened so frequently that eventually she found herself barreling along a dark highway in upstate New York as she tried to make it home in time for Thanksgiving dinner.

***

We caught the Amtrak bus at the Temporary Transbay Terminal early on Tuesday morning, and it took us to the Oakland train station. As always there was confusion about where to catch the bus, on what platform we should stand to wait for the train, when the train would actually arrive, etc. Communication is not Amtrak’s strongest asset.  But as if she were still responsible for her troops, M.L. ran around sniffing out the accurate information and reporting it back to the assembled group. She would always address people by calling them “my dear,” which I realized was a respectful way to show humanity for someone. She uses that term of endearment for anyone, young or old, male or female. It makes everyone feel good. I’m sure it was cultivated from her years in the medical profession, but I know that M.L. was born with the qualities that she says are critical to successful nursing: empathy, patience, and compassion. Her mother passed on those qualities by example, but M.L. also just has natural warmth and sensitivity.

When we boarded the train, we stowed our bags in the roomette and waited for our room attendant to come by. One attendant is assigned to every sleeper car, to help passengers with turning the bed down at night (which we wouldn’t need) but also to answer questions, help with luggage if necessary, and keep the room stocked with things like bottled water. When our guy Michael came around and shot the breeze with us, M.L. pulled out one of her Ben’s Bells handmade ceramic “Kindness Coins” and handed it to him with a flourish. “Here you are, my dear,” she said. “For your kindness.”

kindness-coin-10-pack
Kindness Coins

***

We had breakfast almost as soon as we boarded, and we had no tablemates because the train was late getting in and there were no other passengers still eating. In the dining car, passengers are seated so that the entire four-person table is filled up, so most of the time – when I’m alone – I’m sitting with three strangers. While we were gobbling up our “free” meals, M.L. told me that around Watsonville we would probably have the privilege of seeing Elkhorn Slough Reserve, a natural sanctuary that most people don’t have the chance to see casually because no roads run past it. I did not know this. Elkhorn Slough is a tidal salt marsh 7 miles long that is home to more than 300 kinds of birds as well as sea otters, harbor seals, and sea lions. Amtrak runs right through it. It’s a privilege to be able to see it from the window of a passing vehicle, so we headed to the Observation Car to spend the afternoon taking in the sights.

007_Coast Starlight train trip, September 2017_breakfast_ML 3

As I’ve mentioned, the best part of the afternoon on the Coast Starlight is the 3:00 wine-tasting in the Parlour Car, open to sleeper-car and Business Class passengers. For a mere $7.50, you can participate in an attendant-led tasting of three wines. You can also buy a cracker-and-cheese plate, which I never pass up. Typically, so few people participate that it’s like a personal event during which, in addition to learning about wines, you can ask all kinds of train-related questions if you want to. The wines themselves can be red or white, mediocre or delicious. It’s a gamble, like much of the Amtrak experience.

028_Coast Starlight train trip, September 2017_Parlour car wine-tasting_ML, Paula

Michael was our server, and he served a chardonnay, a cabernet, and a Malbec, talking nonstop about wine-making as he poured. He seemed to know his stuff, and when M.L. mentioned the “ice wines” of the Finger Lakes region in New York (where she currently lives) he seemed to know all about them. Ice wine, I learned, is frozen on the vine itself. After the usual fall harvest, some of the grapes are left on the vine to continue maturing throughout the winter, which raises their sugar content. In turn, the soil content contributes the right amount of acidity. Each grape, by the way, produces only one drop of the sweet wine. The Finger Lakes region is perfectly suited to the very delicate creation of ice wine because of the combination of rich soil and sub-freezing climate. I munched on my crackers, sipped my wine, listened to these two give me a viticulture lesson, and eyed the farmland out my window a bit blurrily.

043a_Coast Starlight train trip, September 2017_scenery 8a

At some point during the day, it became clear that we had been stopped for a long time. Two hours, in fact. A shopping cart on the tracks had gotten lodged under the train. Thank goodness the owner of the cart was not in the vicinity. But the incident did mean that our arrival time in L.A. would be pushed back considerably.

It didn’t really matter. We had a nice dinner with a couple of young honeymooners from Alaska. The young woman had a lovely name (Sarai), sported myriad tattoos and piercings (but none of those earlobe-disc thingies, thank goodness), and told us she manages a social program for kids with disabilities. She and her new husband used to work together but now he’s a landscaper. Both of them were engaging, attentive, and fine-tuned to life’s details. How delightful that they had decided to spend their honeymoon on a train. They’re going to have a long life together.

***

On Wednesday, M.L. and I boarded the train heading back northbound at about 10:00 a.m. after having spent the night at the Miyako Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. The air conditioning in my room was functioning at only about what must have been 10 percent of its capacity, because I absolutely boiled and hardly got a wink of sleep all night. I couldn’t help but muse on the fact that had I slept on a train, I would have had a peaceful night’s slumber. The train whistles, the squeaks and hisses and rumbles, the jostling of the car never seem to keep me awake. But that night in the hotel was a killer.

046_Coast Starlight train trip, September 2017_Jim, Bonnie Blue, ML, Paula
Jim and Bonnie Blue

I was raging with hunger as soon as we boarded the train and M.L. agreeably assented to my fervid wish that we grab the earliest lunch reservations. Our tablemates were Jim and Bonnie Blue. That’s right – Bonnie Blue is her first name. I vaguely remembered a song with “Bonnie Blue” in the lyrics, and it turns out that “Bonnie Blue Flag” is an 1861 Confederate marching song. Our Bonnie Blue, however, was born and raised in Orange County, which put to rest my internal contention that I had detected a faint southern accent in her voice. The two of them have two children. One son has cerebral palsy, and Jim and Bonnie Blue have devoted their lives to caring for him while keeping him at arm’s length as much as possible to nurture his independence. Mathematically brilliant, but hamstrung by his physical limitations, he actually has become a successful professional gambler. The other son – in the sad process of divorcing his wife, who left him for another man – was just diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Jim and Bonnie Blue, however, have retained sunny dispositions and love train travel so much that they deliberately racked up thousands and thousands of miles on their Amtrak credit card when they had their business. Now they ride the rails for free everywhere, and they keep trying out different routes to help them keep their minds off the challenges their sons are facing.

***

068a_Coast Starlight train trip, September 2017_scenery 30a

We looked forward to our wine-tasting in the afternoon, but for some reason the rules had changed. When we arrived at the designated hour, we were told by the bartender that we had to have reservations – even though there had been no such restriction the day before. Amtrak’s rules and procedures are extremely fluid. And this bartender was dead-set on not serving us because, she said, she feared that there would not be “enough glasses.” Of course, my eyes kept resting on one of the tables that was set with glasses but never used. This kind of inconsistency and illogic is the kind of thing that sets my blood boiling. I was an instant, seething grouch. M.L., on the other hand, chatted up the woman (although I noticed she did not bestow a Kindness coin on her!). The woman didn’t budge, but the tenor of the conversation was calm and friendly. Perhaps that is why M.L. has been a leader and I have not. When I sense an injustice, I want to hit someone upside the head with a mallet. M.L. set a beautiful example of how to be patient and respectful and keep one’s cool.

And also how to turn lemons into lemonade.

“You know, instead of spending our money on the wine-tasting, let’s go get some ice from the café car,” she suggested. “I brought a teeny bit of bourbon in my suitcase, and we can have a cocktail back in the roomette.”

The café car is downstairs below the observation car. It serves snacks, sandwiches, microwaveable meals like hamburgers and hot dogs, and all kinds of beverages, ranging from Coke to juice to beer to hard liquor. We got ourselves some ice in plastic glasses and repaired to the roomette.

(By the way, only sleeper-car passengers are allowed to bring alcohol onto the train, although there’s no question that M.L. would have flouted that rule had we been in Coach.)

I poured myself a full glass of water over the ice, then gingerly dropped in a smidgen of bourbon.

“What on earth are you doing?” she asked, incredulous. “That’s not enough bourbon! Your proportions are all wrong!”

“You mean, this won’t work?” I asked.

“Paula, that’s like putting an eye dropper of bourbon in a pond of water! It couldn’t give a buzz to an ant!”

***

055_Coast Starlight train trip, September 2017_scenery 16

We whiled away the afternoon talking about everything from sports to families to our medical conditions. (Gotta get that in!) The fertile valley earth, the laborers in the field, the pristine coastline, the languid sunbathers – all of them rolled by our windows.

We got pensive. M.L. told me that she was starting to realize that she is more nostalgic for the Army than she thought.

“I can well imagine,” I said. “It was all about youth, adventure, travel . . .”

“And all the camaraderie,” she added wistfully. “The camaraderie is what I miss the most.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Is that a cigar? Some things never change.

We delved a little bit into politics. One of my unending lamentations is the lack of rational discourse about political policy today. And when I say policy, I don’t mean frivolous, half-baked ideas. I mean well-thought-out solutions to our national – and global – issues. Instead, all we do is micro-scrutinize and insult each other.

I’m sure my brow was furrowed.

She clinked my glass. “Don’t worry, my dear,” she said. “With a touch of alcohol, we will all be okay.”

***

Our last meal on the train was our dinner with Michael and Kay on Wednesday evening.

Michael, a young tech industry worker from Irvine who had just gotten a job with Hyundai, was taking his mother on a trip to San Francisco. His mom – a very beautiful, primly dressed older Asian woman – wasn’t speaking at all. When the waiter came, in fact, Michael ordered for her while she just nodded. I assumed that she didn’t speak English, and, although I addressed the two of them when I spoke, I didn’t pursue anything with her because I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable. M.L., however, finally couldn’t take it anymore and decided that our internal conclusions might be wrong. So she looked directly at Kay.

“My dear,” she asked, “tell me this – have you been to San Francisco before?”

Kay smiled broadly and answered the question perfectly. From that point on, we had a full and lovely conversation about everything from movies to the economy. The sun set and we were all throwing our heads back, laughing.

***

I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but Congress is still going back and forth about cutting funding for Amtrak and effectively dismantling the country’s passenger rail system. The current budget proposal seeks to maintain funding for intercity commuter service in the Northeast corridor and a few other high-passenger runs while eliminating the service for others. Estimates are that 144 million people in 220 communities would lose local access to trains. Incredibly, 23 states would lose all access to Amtrak passenger rail service, and another 12 would retain only partial access. Funding for long-distance trains would be eliminated altogether. The upshot: passenger rail service would be preserved for only the wealthiest communities.

I’ve learned so much on trains. They’ve provided me with rich instruction on the vast geography of our country as well as the wide-ranging humanity of our fellow Americans.  I feel like cutting access to Amtrak would be akin to cutting funding for institutions of higher learning.

020_Coast Starlight train trip, September 2017_Parlour Car_ML, Paula

On this trip I learned how to properly mix bourbon and water. I learned about ice wine and Elkhorn Slough. I learned about people with disabilities. I learned from M.L. how to look people in the eye and treat them kindly and without judgment.

And I learned to just chill out.

Thank you for being my friend, M.L. Thank you for your service. And thank you for teaching me that, with a touch of alcohol, we will all be okay.

 

ML as pilot

 

***

 

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.

4/17/71:
They told me I have to go fishing tomorrow. But I hate to go! Why? 1) Hay fever, 2) Getting up early, and 3) They never get any fish! Why don’t they let me stay home? Then we all could have a good time.
4/18/71:
Since they decided to go to Lexington [Reservoir], I got to stay home. I played basketball with Ted and Bruce Tambling, and Frisbee, too. Then the whole family came home. Naturally they only got 1 fish. I played catch with Marc, and played basketball and hide-and-seek at Ted’s. It was fun having two lunches today. At 10:30 I had a ham sandwich, potato chips, and root beer, and at 2:00 I had a salami sandwich, potato chips, Coke, and licorice.

3/15/71:

“Now, about Mrs. Dossa [my English teacher, who was on maternity leave] — what she tried to teach us was okay, but I did not like how she did it. She is almost completely humorless. Now we have a substitute. It’s always hard to get used to a substitute anyway, but this one is really wierd [sic]. She is about 23 years old and 5’2 or 5’0 inches tall. But remember when I said Mrs. Dossa was almost completely humorless? Well, this one is COMPLETELY HUMORLESS!”

3/7/71:

“Mom is very great. Today she turned in my library books while I was at G.A.A. [Girls Athletic Association]. I appreciate everything she does. Anyway, she is making me a skirt that I’ll be able to wear with my G.A.A. sweater. I was trying it on today when I suddenly remembered how LONG the last skirt she made me was. Now, I am not the kind who likes to wear mini-skirts to school or even come close. I really am very reasonable when it comes to that. But I hate wearing skirts down to my knees. All my dresses are a good length but for some reason Mom FLUBS UP on the skirts. They look like I’m a grandmother!”

 3/5/71:

“Mrs. Dossa [my English teacher] came back today and we gave her a WARM welcome (you’ll get the pun). Mary Pasek and I turned the heat up to 90 degrees and she didn’t even notice it when it got really hot later on, we heard. A kid turned it down. Mrs. Dossa was still rather sick and it probably felt good. We’ll have to do it again sometime. It was reminiscent of the time when Mary Blasi and I turned the heat up so high during an art show in the St. Victor’s library that the tape on the pictures melted and they all fell off the wall.”

August 15-20, 1971 [from my week spent at the Santa Clara County Fair with my friend Colleen, who was in 4-H]:

“There weren’t too many hippies there. Wednesday I got to try out a waterbed. Wow, are they cool. You move constantly, but I guess you could get seasick. I also watched a milking contest with DJ’s and a milking machine. I played free Bingo for two hours and Sharon won a $7.50 carving set but I only won a can of Stridex [acne pads] and a can of hairspray. The only clumsy thing I did was to spill Kool Aid all over an exhibit in Fiesta Hall.”

 

 

 

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)

Busted!

Busted!

I’m calling this my “By Popular Demand” post because I’ve gotten repeated requests for a few specific items. First, people who read my last blog are wondering about the brushes with the law that I mentioned briefly. Second, friends who are not on Facebook are asking me to repeat my weekly diary entries so that they can see them as well. Finally, the non-Facebook people also continually ask me when my band will be playing. So I’ll cover all three requests in this week’s post.

***

PART ONE

My first scrape involving law enforcement involved, as usual, my friend Jeanne who had wire-rimmed glasses and the intense disapproval of my parents. (I’m beginning to see why!) I was visiting Jeanne in August 1975 and we’d just come back to North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, after a trip up to Maine to meet her new husband Steve’s family (see “Return to Triangle Acres”).

For whatever idiotic notion, we decided to head over to a nearby private beach on Steve’s decrepit motorcycle. And this was, according to my diary, after I’d already donned my nightgown and “put on my curlers and retainers.” So I threw off the curlers and retainers, we grabbed a bottle of rum (never a good idea) and packed a knapsack, and we took off. Along the way we purchased some Cokes and napkins, and my diary says that “we had to use the napkins to sop up some of the gas which kept spilling out of the tank.” Again, never a good thing.

Leaving the motorcycle up off the road, we walked down to the beach in the balmy moonlight. The white sandy dunes were, of course, beautiful, and we proceeded to alternately drink rum and Cokes and then take plunges into the warm Atlantic waters (we had bathing suits on under our regular clothes). Once again, not a good idea. Luckily, neither of us drowned, and we spent hours making ill-informed forays into philosophy, all the while slamming down liquor as if there were no tomorrow.

Eventually we passed out on the beach, and a few hours later we awoke, shivering, both of us heavily encrusted with wet sand. It was time to go home, we thought, and off we trundled towards the poor excuse of a motorcycle that was waiting for us. A hideous idea. Anyway, as we approached we saw, squinting through drunken eyelids, that the bike was surrounded by police cars and a group of clean-cut men, many of whom were in uniform. Someone asked Jeanne for her license and registration, which she cheerfully handed over, but we knew that the bike itself was an illegal mess. It had no brake light, no license plate, and lots of duct tape everywhere. Oy. One of the local police officers said that the infractions amounted to a $66 ticket and he began to write it up.

Another of the officers – with a rather rough bedside manner – asked me for my license, but I wasn’t carrying one and explained to him that, since I wasn’t driving, I didn’t have it with me. “Well, show it to me anyway!” he barked nonsensically.

Then for some reason the police cars both drove off and we were never issued the ticket.

Still, a group of men remained, and one of them – not in any kind of uniform – sort of took us under his wing as we stood there perplexed, still reeking, I’m sure, of spirits. He explained that the local officers could not ticket or arrest us because we and the motorcycle were on private property. But he pointed out that they were parked just across the beach line on the public road and would surely nab us, if we dared to start the bike and venture home, for not only the vehicle infractions but also for trespassing, sleeping on a beach, and of course driving while intoxicated.

Then he asked us if we were “holding.” I had no idea what that meant. But Jeanne said yes, she had a lid (an ounce of marijuana, for any of you under 55). This was news to me.

Then the man pulled out his badge and flashlight and identified himself as a state SLED (South Carolina Law Enforcement Division) officer.

I just about died.

As luck would have it, though, he had much, much bigger fish to fry. He explained that we had actually stumbled into the middle of an enormous statewide drug stakeout whose mission was to break up a network of heroin dealers. To prove it, he shined his flashlight up into the hills surrounding the beach, and about 50 flashlights blinked back.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said, sympathetically. “Let me take you up into the trailer park across the road, and you can sleep off your intoxication in the lounge chairs by the side of the pool. By the time you sober up, those cops will be gone. They’re not going to sit there all night waiting to nab you.” I could tell that there was some tension between the city and state officers, and he was happy to thwart the efforts of what he thought were clumsy local goons. I myself was happy to take advantage of that, so I thanked him until the cows came home.

Jeanne and I climbed into his Volkswagen – really, another stupid move because he could have been an axe murderer – and sure enough he took us to the trailer park and helped us find lounge chairs. And he watched over us all night.

At sunrise he woke us up and told us we had to get moving because the residents were starting to rise. So we dragged our sand-encrusted carcasses to the bike, started it up, and got home safely.

Then, of course, we went out to breakfast and, according to my diary, “had a beer to settle our stomachs.”

Youth: Reckless, dumb, and lucky.

***

On Friday, November 22, 1985, I had just turned 30 a few days earlier and was driving over to my friend Ellen’s house on 21st Avenue in San Francisco’s Richmond District, ostensibly to pick her up to go to dinner at Speckmann’s, a German restaurant that I’d heard served great spaetzle. Sampling that spaetzle was my one and only fervent birthday wish. When I got to Ellen’s, though, I found myself ushered into a surprise party. All of us had a great time, and I remember that at one point we all donned streamers to mimic Bruce Springsteen’s then-ubiquitous headband as we danced much of the night away to Springsteen tapes. After most of the guests said their goodnights, the few of us remaining were still full of residual energy. So at 3:00 in the morning we came up with the brilliant idea of playing “knee football” on the hardwood floors (ouch!), using a birthday balloon as the football. Three guys and three gals. As we were scuffling around on our knees, laughing loudly and hysterically, we looked up and saw flashlight beams coming through the slatted doors that we had closed to shut off the living room. Two police officers were out in the hallway; we’d never heard their robust knocking at the front door. Uh oh. They admonished us to be quiet, and after they left, still wanting to play, we came up with the idea of “silent knee football.” The idea was that we would no utter no sounds at all, so as not to disturb any neighbors. As my diary says, that “made the whole game even more fun. I must say that I was the star of the game, making most of our touchdowns. Boy did we all have bruised knees the next day.”

By the time she was 30, my mother had three kids. I, on the other hand, was single and playing Silent Knee Football.

** *

I’ve been pulled over three times while driving. The first two instances happened with Julie behind the wheel. In 2001 we were in my new T-Bird on Route 66 – or should I say, accidentally well off of Route 66 – going a tad over the limit as we sped past an Oklahoma police officer who just happened to be sitting by the side of the highway with a radar gun. When he asked us where we were headed, we told him the truth, that we were dreadfully lost going north trying to go west, and we admitted that we had absolutely no excuse for flying along as fast as we were (except gosh, in that car it really feels like you’re just CRAWLING if you’re going 80). We were so polite and deferential and confused that he pointed us in the right direction and let us go.

Much more recently, we had just left Safeway and were driving TWO BLOCKS to our local meat market, Guerra’s. I reminded Julie, who was driving, that she needed to put on her seatbelt, but she insisted that there was no need for that as we were going to be in the car only 90 seconds, and I retorted back that people had been known to die in low-speed collisions not far from home. Of course she refused, and of course we then saw the flashing lights. I was almost smug about it. The female officer told Julie that she was in violation of the seatbelt law and that “people have been known to die in low-speed collisions not far from home,” at which point I smacked Julie on the shoulder and said, “See?! What did I just say?” and thanked the officer. She let us off.

The only time in my life I’ve been personally pulled over was in the late 1980s when some of my workmates and I piled into my Corolla to attend a wedding in Chinatown. I was driving all of us down Oak Street, and it was one of those situations in which I had to keep flying through yellow lights in order to beat the red. As a side note, for reasons I cannot recall, my girlfriend Adair’s wisdom teeth, which she had just had removed, were in one of the front seat cupholders. I swear to this day that I was already in the intersections when the lights turned yellow, but we were driving at a fast enough clip that my friend Leon Acord – possibly the funniest human being who ever lived – began screaming dramatically and then grabbed the teeth and hurled them into the air as though all the passengers were losing their teeth from the ultrasonic speed.

Of course, then came the flashing light.

The officer pulled me over and asked me for my license and registration. The license was in my purse, which was in the trunk of the Toyota, so I got out and wobbled to the back of the car in my dress and high heels (yes, I know that I’m not normally associated with purses, dresses, and heels, but I was going to a wedding, for crying out loud). I cannot possibly replicate in words how my hands were shaking, but let’s just say that it took me about four hours to get my license out of its little plastic holder. I think the officer was starting to feel sorry for me. I pleaded with him that the lights had all been yellow, and he said he wasn’t so sure about that. “Besides,” he continued, “what on earth were those things flying through the air?” “Teeth,” I answered.

By the time I got through explaining why the wisdom teeth were in the car in the first place, he was probably weary. So he let me go.

***

One experience with the law, though, caused me great mortification twice – 10 years apart. Yes, the same offense.

Rusty Hamer
Rusty Hamer

In 1975 I was living in the dorms at San Jose State and working towards my (first) degree in law enforcement. One Saturday night in December, a friend of my brother’s called me up and wanted to know if I wanted to go see a movie. I don’t think either of us thought it was a date, but we were both feeling kind of gloomy and thought it would be nice to get together. I will call him “Rusty,” after my childhood crush Rusty Hamer from the “Make Room for Daddy” TV show. (Truth be told, there was some resemblance between the two lads.)

Warning: This anecdote carries a PG rating, so please tear your small children away from this blog immediately.

Anyway, after the movie Rusty and I decided to drive to Santa Cruz. This was what young people always did in those days if we were feeling shiftless and wanted to seek out some form of adventure. No matter what we were doing, or what time of day, “Hey, let’s go over the hill!” was always cause for excitement.

Long story short, the two us ended up on a deserted dirt road in Scotts Valley and let’s just say that Rusty ended up on one of the bases. I don’t know all of the distinctions between the bases, but I can say with certainty that he did not get a home run or even a triple. I think he ended up only on second base, and nothing below the waist was involved. So it was fairly innocent. But we had a lovely time, and he was just cute as a button. A lovable, freckle-faced cad.

As luck would have it, though, just as we were about to leave the scene of the crime we saw the telltale flashing red light in the rearview mirror. I frantically threw my shirt on backwards.

It was a patrol officer, and he admonished us for parking on private property. We were trespassing, technically. After sitting in his police car and taking what seemed like forever to make sure we weren’t wanted anywhere, he jotted down our names and addresses and employer’s addresses and said that we were now going to be put on the Scotts Valley “list” of offenders, that we’d now be “on file,” and that if we were ever caught again we’d be in a heap of trouble.

I was mortified.

Now, at the time I was working part-time as a teacher’s aide in San Jose at James Lick High School, which is part of the same school district for which my father was working as principal of Piedmont Hills High School.

On Monday, I was at work when I was summoned to the office of Lick’s vice-principal, Russ Phillips, who was a giant of a man, an ex-football coach with a huge square head and heavy, oversized rings on his fingers. I was absolutely sure that the Scotts Valley Police Department had called Mr. Phillips to tell him that he had an immoral employee working for him. I was also sure that he was going to fire me and then call Dad. I was about to bring shame down on my entire extended Italian family and on all devotees of the Catholic faith.

“Principal’s Daughter Caught Canoodling in Scotts Valley,” the San Jose Mercury-News headline would read the next day. Or so I imagined.

I panicked and started to sniffle as I headed to Mr. Phillips’ office.

Luckily, he wanted only to ask me something about my payroll form.

And my father, bless his soul, never knew about Rusty and me. On top of everything, he never really liked Rusty much, either.

***

A decade or so later, this incident actually was a factor in influencing the course of my career. I was a freelance editor at the time, after having gotten a second degree in English. I’d all but given up on a career in law enforcement because police departments were requiring perfect vision among their recruits and I wore contacts, but times started changing and two local departments had no such requirement: Fairfax in Marin County and Fremont in Alameda County. So I applied to both and began working to build up my legendary herculean strength.

Fairfax, like most departments, had a physical skills requirement, and the one possible impediment to my getting past that test was The Wall. We had to perform other tasks like dragging a heavy mannequin or stepping rapidly through tires while wearing a heavy weight belt, and I was able to do those easily. The Wall, though, was a different story. It was taller than we were and we had to leap up, grab the top of the wall, and hoist ourselves over it using sheer upper-body strength. In general, men are taller and their upper-body strength is much greater than women’s. All of the other women at the test site failed; they just weren’t able to pull themselves over that thing. I was the last hope for my gender. I went flying towards that wall, leaped up with every ounce of momentum I had, grabbed the wall, and flung myself over. It was all adrenaline, I think.

I was secretly happy, I have to admit, because all of the other women had been effectively eliminated, which greatly increased my chances of getting the one open position. Or so I thought. Then they allowed the women to all try again, with some help, and a couple of them made it. I was furious. Damned liberal Fairfax!!

I didn’t get the job, but it’s interesting that a couple of years after that, my parents in Clearlake met their new police chief, who just happened to have arrived there from Fairfax. Upon hearing their last name, he remembered me and apologized to them for my not having been picked. He said the department brass had been impressed with me (it must have been my domination of the wall!), but they already had had someone picked out before testing had even started – a guy who was a police cadet serving in that department. I guess that made me feel a little better.

Then came Fremont. It was a much larger and seemingly more professional department. There was no physical agility test, for some reason, but there was a written test and a grueling oral exam. After both of those, I was #1 on the recruitment list. All that was left was the lie detector test.

So I found myself sitting in a little room, wired up to the polygraph, with a kindly young officer. It was the last question, and it was an odd one: “Have you ever committed rape, child molestation, or indecent exposure?”

I said no, and the polygraph needle started jumping all over the place.

“That’s odd,” he said. “Let me try again.”

Same result. That needle was flying.

He turned off the machine. “Okay,” he said, “I’m quite sure that you have not committed rape or child molestation. Tell me what’s going on with the indecent exposure thing.”

I was – of course! – mortified. I knew I was thinking about Rusty and that night in Scotts Valley with my shirt off! But I didn’t want to tell the officer. My heart started hammering and I completely lost focus, to the extent that I neglected to mention that Rusty and I had been out in public, which was of course what triggered the “indecent exposure” fear in my head.

Instead, all I said to the officer was, “Well, one time I was with a guy and we had our shirts off.”

There was a pause. He looked at me with a puzzled expression.

Then very gently he said, “Really, dear, that’s okaaaaaaay.”

***

I didn’t get the Fremont job. My status as #1 on their list must have plummeted after that polygraph test. They probably thought I was just too weird for words.

Of course, in retrospect it was good not only for me but for the safety of all the citizens of the Bay Area that I did not become a police officer. Things, as they say, happen for a reason.

There are countless people in our lives who say or do something, however insignificant it seems at the time, that we will remember all of our lives. I wish I could thank all of them. When I think back on that sweet little evening in Scotts Valley, I can’t help but smile. It really did me a world of good, in so many ways. Thanks, Rusty.

***

PART TWO

Due to popular demand, for those of you who are NOT on Facebook, I am including for you, here, the 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, and they’re all inadvertently hilarious. From now on, my most recent entries will be at the top.

3/26/71:

“We went to Clear Lake today. Big deal. It was miserably cold, miserably rainy, and miserable. Dad took us out to dinner and I became ill. There’s a lot of flu going around. It’s weird — you get very depressed and feel very blecchy. And another weird thing is you feel like crying. So I ate only 2 pieces of chicken, 1 helping of beans, 1/2 baked potato, 2 pieces of bread, and a chocolate sundae. Since I hardly ate anything, they KNEW I was sick.”

2/27/71:

“I wanted to see what sport I’ll be in in P.E. It’ll probably be tennis, basketball, or flag football. All of those choices are good, but I like basketball best. I just adore the feel of that big orange ball.”

1/3/71:

“Today I took my ‘big bath.’ There I 1) wash face with special soap, 2) pluck eyebrows, 3) clean ears, 4) blow nose, 5) brush teeth, 6) shave, 7) take the bath, and 8) clean my nostrils, etc.”

12/22/70, one of many displaying my teenage eating prowess:

“While there I ate an egg sandwich, macaroni salad, toast, popcorn, and Tab. Then I came home and ate dinner.”

12/21/70:

“Today [my cousin] and I stayed at [my aunt’s] house while they all went shopping. We played with [the baby] a lot, and we looked at all their dirty books. One that was really a crackup was A Guide to Sex in Marriage, and man, it told the whole procedure!”

11/11/70 (and it MUST be the winner of the “Unclear on the Concept” award):

“We went to the Veterans Day parade on 1st Street today. We were going to march in the ‘Silent Majority’ section but there wasn’t one.”

11/1/70:

“[My brother] Marc beat me 17 games to 0 in Hex today. It’s a game like Twix but on paper. It was the first time I played, and quite possibly the last. How humiliating!”

9/17/70:

“Mark, the president of our class, is in my History class with Mr. Ferguson and he is the most good-looking boy I’ve ever seen. He says hello all the time and WOW!”

4/24/71:

“Barb and Denise came up later and we just talked in my room for hours. I showed them my big Glen Campbell poster and we tied all our shoes together and other such mature stuff.”

1970:

“On another one of our numerous high school surveys, I had to put down 3 careers I want to enter. I was tempted to put down prostitution but I’m sure Dad would find out.”

***

PART THREE:

Again, this is just for people NOT on Facebook:

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)

 

Return to Triangle Acres

Return to Triangle Acres

 

It was really right out of a movie script, and a saccharine one at that. A couple of years ago I drove all the way to a small town in Maine in search of a farm, a house, and a family that I had loved and lost four decades earlier. Against all reason, I wondered if I could find the glorious place where, on the verge of adulthood, I had once spent three idyllic summers. But when I finally arrived, I saw that all of it had vanished. And then I turned . . . .

***

The people in Maine say that there are only two seasons in the state: August, and winter.

I saw Maine for the first time in August of 1975. My high school friend Jeanne – she of the wire-rimmed glasses whom my parents mistrusted – had married a man named Steve Harrington (I’m changing his last name, out of respect for his family’s privacy). How Jeanne – a paragon of narcissism – had landed Steve is something I’ll probably never understand, because he was the gentlest, sweetest man I’ve ever met. The two of them lived in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, but he was a native Maine-iac and was up visiting his family at the time. The plan was that I would fly out to meet Jeanne in South Carolina and the two of us would drive up the East Coast together to Maine, where she would reunite with Steve and meet her new in-laws for the first time.

It was a crazy vacation because we were young (19) and somewhat reckless, and our adventures were abundant. We spent some time in New York City, seeing off-color shows at the Village Gate and closing down the bars. (It was a Village bartender who first introduced me to the wonders of Sambuca Romana, the clear licorice-flavored liqueur that’s as strong as whisky and absolutely must be drunk with three coffee beans floating in the glass. The drink is called “Sambuca con la Mosca,” which in Italian means “Sambuca with a Fly.” And there must be three beans, representing health, prosperity, and happiness. But, as usual, I digress.)

We also got stuck in the middle of a statewide drug bust in South Carolina – a bizarre story that will be told at some later date when I discuss my brushes with the law.  😉

Anyway, eventually Jeanne and I made it, pulling up at the Harringtons’ farmhouse at 5:00 one morning after an 18-hour drive through some dangerously misty backroads in New Hampshire. I remember the instrumental “Tubular Bells” coming eerily through the radio, white birches glowing like spectres in the blackness, and wisps of fog skulking low along the road. We’d been through so much that day. We’d driven 60 miles out of our way to the town of Woodstock so that we could stand on the farm where half a million kids had spent three days of love and rock ‘n’ roll, and it turned out to be the wrong site. We’d gotten stuck with a flat tire and no tools on the New York Thruway, and had had to sit miserable and shivering in a downpour until relief came. And after I accidentally loosened my grip on our trusty map and let it fly out through the open sunroof, we’d meandered lost down every side route, dirt road, and ghostly trail along the way.

Anyway, long after our edge of exhaustion, the mountains became level and the darkness became dawn. Jeanne and I pulled up to the farmhouse and were instantly met with the strongest, longest hugs imaginable from an extended family that had come in from far and wide to meet Steve’s new wife. And that was my warm orientation to rural Maine – a stone’s throw from the capital, Augusta, but a world away.

1976_Maine_Chris, Paula, Steve Purington
Steve

“Triangle Acres” read the sign on the roadside that marked the entrance to the farm. I don’t know how many acres the family had, but the land was enough to provide lodging for horses, cattle, a rooster, hens, sheep, a ram, and four dogs, all running around neighing, mooing, crowing, clucking, bleating, and barking at once. The land also provided sustenance for the Harrington garden, a veritable Eden of beans, squash, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peas, and oh-so-sweet butter-and-cream Maine corn. Off to the left stood a huge weatherbeaten barn, complete with cats and barn swallows and a hayloft. Behind the barn were woods and fields. And down by the road stood the family’s vegetable stand, which was never manned; a sign merely instructed customers to “Pick out your vegetables and put money in the jug,” which they did, on the honor system, with nary a hint of thievery.

The Harringtons lived in a century-old, two-story white clapboard farmhouse. I don’t remember much about the house except that it was well-worn but tidy, and it had many of the “appointments” common to old farmhouses, like pantries and built-in corner cupboards and a wood-burning stove. At night it was a little crazy – people on couches, cots, or on the floor, or outside in tents, trailers, or the hayloft in the barn. I suppose out of deference to my being a guest and a girl, though, I got to sleep upstairs in a tiny bedroom full of Charlie’s dusty Zane Gray paperbacks about the American frontier.

Charlie – to this day one of my favorite human beings of all time – was the patriarch of the family, a beanpole of a man, with a bald, sunburned head, a smattering of whiskers, a cigarette or pipe constantly hanging out of his mouth, and pants rolled up about six inches on the bottom (“darn these things,” he’d say, “they’re too blasted stiff”). He was born around 1909, which would have made him about 66 when we met. After the eighth grade he’d left school and gone to work on the railroads and then on construction sites.

1980_07_Gardiner, Maine_Charlie Purington, Paula
Charlie

I loved his stories and recorded some of them. “I been up to the top of Maine and back down again with this construction company, used to work seven days a week, holidays, 12-14 hours a day; we’d be so weary we’d walk along and trip over a little pebble in the road,” he told me. “Once it rained and stormed and we all decided to go home. The boss got mad but we said hell, we been workin’ every day since spring, we got a right to come home, but my little daughter Cherie, she was but 8 or 9 months at the time, if I saw her and came to pick her up in my arms, why, she’d scream ’cause she didn’t know me, her own fatha. Three years I lived in a tent. It had a hahdwood floor and a gas stove and heata and a sink, a bed . . . why, it’d be 20 degrees outside but so warm and comftable in my tent, maybe 70, 75 degrees, you know, yes, it was comftable. I took a bulldozah and plowed a hole in the woods so the wind’d go right over the top, see, and took a tarpaulin and put it over a pole, makin’ whatcha call a ‘fly,’ and covered everything with snow and leaves. I tell you it was comftable. But lonely, oh, it was so lonely.”

Charlie was sinewy but strong, hard-working but playful, and he had a keen sense of honor. The only time I ever saw him mad was when we all sat around the table one night and drank up all his whisky. For this I could be forgiven, because I was simply following his children’s lead. But that whisky was precious to him, and he laid into his kids the next morning when he discovered the empty bottle. We all sat there sheepishly and full of shame and of course replaced the booze the next day. Other than that, he was a jokester and a prankster and perennially of good cheer. I’ll never forget his favorite line about his philosophy of life and death: “I’ll know when I get t’heaven, because I’ll get t’live my dream of walkin’ barefoot across a field of naked women’s breasts.” He always said it with a twinkly grin and would leave us all laughing as he strolled off to the barn.

“Not everyone can get as much out of their land as you do, Papa Charlie. You must be awfully proud of this farm,” I once told him as he took some tobacco and rolled a cigarette. (I’d gotten that line from Easy Rider, but I meant it nonetheless. I thought he was everything a great man ought to be.)

“Dahlin’,” he said, “I’ve got everything heah with me. I’m retired now, but I do desehve t’be after so many yehs of wehk, and I’ve got my gahden and my woodchoppin.’ It’s so good, so good for a man t’be able to make a little money from his own hands, and I love my house so much that whenevah I leave, even just for a minute, I look back and akchally cry.”

In front of the house sat an ancient truck (the “Tonka Toy,” as it was affectionately named), an old beat-up ’52 pickup with wires and rusty bolts and levers hanging out, windows blistered or broken, seats torn out to reveal just bare springs. But it did its job, however haltingly. When Charlie finished talking to me about his house, he went screaming off with it into the woods, over the stumps and the rocks and the trees, choking to a stop every couple of minutes.

1976_Maine_Gert Purington, Chris
Gert and cousin Chris, my flyfishing teacher

Gert, his wife, was four years younger. She was shaped like a barrel and had a raspy voice and wiry gray curls, and her teeth were either missing or askew. But she was loud and jolly, and she loved every second of managing this insane houseful of Maine-iacs. She’d been a looker in her younger years; I saw a photo of her once and nearly gasped with the recognition of what the aging process does to us. “Why do you insist on looking at those old scrapbooks?” she asked me. “I hate lookin’ at myself.” I remember that she said it with sadness, and it was the first time I realized the melancholy that can catch us when we’re not looking, when we are reminded what the years have wrought.

Jeanne’s husband Steve, with his soft southern drawl and his kind eyes, was one of five kids in the Harrington family. One sister, Judy, lived in California but was out visiting with her two young children. Brother George, who lived in Connecticut, sported an impeccable haircut and seemed a bit more upscale than the rest of the family. Cheryl, the youngest, was a good-humored young woman who always seemed to be rubbing cake in someone’s face. I didn’t know it then, but the next year she would catch leukemia and it would take her very quickly. After Cheryl died, they told me that Charlie would cry almost every night, thinking that no one heard him.

1976_Maine_Paula, Ronnie Purington
Ron, always the scamp

Then there was brother Ron, the oldest, who reminded me of Jack Kerouac – my favorite author at the time. Ron had been all over the country from east coast to west, bumming and fighting and riding the rails and doing odd jobs, and he was still a perennial vagabond. He was coarse and had an annoying giggle, but because he was a rambler and even physically resembled Kerouac, I romanticized him for a long time until I learned what a scalawag he was. He had a darling son we all called “Little Ronnie” who was only about 6 years old and whose mom hung around a lot but was no longer in any kind of relationship with his father. There was simply an understanding.

1980_07_Gardiner, Maine_Ronnie Purington, Jr, Paula
Little Ronnie

***

I was a child of the suburbs, and although I ran free in the San Jose orchards and knew my way around a fishing pole or a county fair, this was the first time I was introduced to rural living. And to say it was heavenly would be an understatement. The family and all of its cousins and extensions loved each other fiercely, and I was now a part of it.

I got to swim in the ice-cold, crystal-clear, cobalt blue waters of the local quarry.

I spent $4.50 on tickets to the drag races.

I dug my own worms, caught a few bass, and took flyfishing lessons from one of the cousins.

Out in the barn, I spent hours talking about life in the earthy-smelling hayloft. Sometimes a joint may have been involved.

We chased escaped piglets up and down the road until we were exhausted from laughing and running, and, by the way, we never caught the pigs.

I once accidentally left a gate open and a steer got loose, resulting in lots of hollering until he was recaptured.

1976_Maine_Jeanne Andrishok and Bucky
“Bucky”

I was also violently slammed in the butt by “Bucky” the ram. I’d been standing around in the pasture, minding my own business, when without warning I found myself hurtling through the air and landing squarely on my back. Luckily I was young and no body parts were damaged. And true to their code of integrity around woman and guests, the boys who witnessed it did not laugh. Not even a smirk.

We took the coon dogs out into the misty Maine woods at 1:00 in the morning, seeing no raccoons but inhaling deeply the fresh odor of loamy soil.

I went bareback horse riding down empty streets at midnight.

I shot high-caliber pistols at targets up near the waterfall.

I picked my own vegetables and shelled my own peas.

I saw Tom Petty in concert in Augusta, with a crowd about 1,000 times rowdier than any I’d ever experienced in the Bay Area. Beer, brawls, and beards in abundance.

In the evening, we sat outside and had huge family feasts. Once or twice we picked out lobsters and clams from a nearby distributor and cooked them up, but they were luxuries. So usually dinner was something like venison, thick homemade potato bread with fresh raspberry jam, abundant ears of garden corn, mustard pickles, fiddleheads, fresh peas, new potatoes, and strawberries. I mean, delicious.

At night we played spoons and drank whisky and made up stories and laughed until long past midnight.

Never once did we want for anything to do or anyone to hug.

***

So it was that shortly after Memorial Day in 2014, I pulled into that small town in Maine in search of a memory. All I wanted was to see that white clapboard house again, if it was still standing.

I couldn’t remember the address, so I’d done an Internet search, finding only the business address of a roofing company operated by a Harrington I didn’t know. Still, as soon as I saw the street name I knew it was the one. I thought that maybe one of the descendants was operating a business out of the old house.

When Julie and I pulled up, however, we saw that there was no more open land on the old spot – just some small, nondescript homes. I hadn’t had high expectations about seeing the old place again, so I just sat in the car and sighed and submitted wistfully to the inevitable shifts of time.

As we started to pull away, though, I glanced towards the opposite side of the street and thought for a moment that I saw a flash of white hanging from the bottom of a tree. It was a familiar-shaped sign with worn black lettering, and since it was hanging perpendicular to the street I had to get out and walk up to it to make out the words.

“Triangle Acres,” it read.

***

248_Gardiner, Maine_Purington residence

I looked up and saw the old house. The front of the bottom story was stripped down to bare wood. Wires and antennae and satellite dishes were now attached to the roof.  But it was the same place, all right. A couple of boats were in the backyard, looking as if they had been marooned there for quite some time. There were a few sheds and a woodpile and a rusted-out garbage can.

I decided to take a picture of the sign, for old times’ sake, and I was standing in the road adjusting the focus when a woman strolled purposefully out of the house and directly towards me. “Can I help you?” she asked, in a way that was neither friendly nor antagonistic, just direct. She wanted to know who the hell I was, this stranger with a camera and a rental car with New York license plates.

“Well, I know this is kind of weird, but I’m from California and I came all the way up here just to see if I could find the house where I spent many summers – maybe before you were even born – with a wonderful family called the Harringtons,” I explained, taking out my old photo album so I could show her that I wasn’t a loon.

“Well, you’ve found it,” she said. “I live here with Ronnie Harrington and his father. I’m Ronnie’s girlfriend.”

***

Her name was Jamie, and she texted Little Ronnie (as he was apparently still called!), who was away as he often was, for weeks at a time, working seasonal construction jobs and trying to make ends meet. I figured he’d have forgotten me, but I was wrong. “Damn,” he texted back to her. “Paula was supposed to wait for me so I could marry her.”

His dad, Ron, had driven into town, and Jamie called him and asked him to come back right away, saying he had an old friend waiting for him.

There was no garden anymore, no barn, no animals. Jamie invited us in for a drink of water, and when I looked around I saw that the house was in some disrepair. I remember thinking that someone could easily fall through the floorboards. I doubt that Little Ronnie’s hard but sporadic work in construction was able to provide enough for upkeep and repairs on an old, creaky home. I started to feel embarrassed to be breezing in with my fancy camera and my L.L. Bean sweater.

250_Gardiner, Maine_Purington residence_Ronnie, Paula
Ron

Ron drove up about half an hour later. I figure he was about 80, still robust and not all that aged despite the 40 years, and he held my hand and was sweet as can be and wanted us to stay for dinner. We weren’t able to stay, but we spent a few hours talking about the family, especially old man Charlie, and much to their amusement I repeated Charlie’s notion of heaven and the naked breasts, and they laughed knowingly.

Gert had died of cancer in 1985, and Charlie had passed in 1990. Steve and Jeanne had long since divorced – such a shock! – and Steve was still living in the Carolinas, although he was struggling with health problems.

I don’t know exactly why Ron and his son hadn’t kept up the farm. I don’t know whether the younger Ronnie made a choice to work seasonally, or whether that was the only job he could find in an unsteady economy, or whether it was the only one for which he was suited. I don’t know how many strikes he may or may not have had against him, especially considering his father’s propensity for a nomadic, adventurous, but somewhat shiftless life.

But does the cause – which was probably a mix of many factors – really matter? I’m just plain lucky that I’ve been able to retire before the age of 60 and carry a fancy camera and hail from the land of artisanal toast and hand-massaged beef. So many of us live in a ridiculous bubble of comfort and security, and we take for granted how fortunate we are. Out here most of us think alike and vote the same way and share the same outrage at things we believe to be uncouth or boorish. We forget that many people live differently and suffer pain and hardships that we could never imagine having while we hunch over our computer screens or sit around with our glass of chardonnay and exclaim over mango foam.

***

This weekend I finished reading a little book called The Rangity Tango Kids by Lorraine Rominger. I would not recommend it to anyone looking for exceptional prose, nor would I recommend it to anyone under 50 who hails from an urban or suburban environment. It’s a folksy memoir written by a local woman from Winters, in northern California, about her childhood on a farm in Sonoma County, and what it was like growing up with a passel of brothers and sisters in a time whose traces are disappearing so fast that there are very few remnants left for us to savor. Although I didn’t spend my childhood on a farm, the memories and the values evoked in Ms. Rominger’s book brought me back to my youth.

“There were things I took for granted growing up that are gone now,” Rominger writes, “things my nieces and nephews will not have the opportunity to experience, like the simplicity of a farm family whose lives revolved around a place where we lived and worked, so our family and farm would prosper. Dad’s attachment to the land, and his father’s, is like none any of us will ever know. My grandparents have passed, but Dad and Grandpa Rominger have collectively been on the farm for nearly a century and have witnessed the wild, open country taken away over time. I prefer the world I grew up in, not the world I am growing old in.”

To our detriment, I believe, so many simple pleasures have vanished. If I could go back in time for a moment, I would. I would walk back onto that farm in Maine and remember the joys of physical exertion, the tastes of food right out of the earth, and the prolonged laughter that comes from family and friends actually interacting with each other, without judgment. I would let Bucky ram me from behind just so I could sail through the air again, free, without a care in the world. I would ride a horse bareback down an empty street at midnight.

So don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot

For one brief, shining moment . . . .

Oops!

Oops!

And then there was the time I found myself downtown at rush hour with my nylons around my ankles.

My latest blog posts have been a bit on the serious side, so I decided that today’s would be simple and light – another in my endless series of embarrassing moments now set forth for all eternity.

I’ve had a number of clothing-related mortifications in my life. I once walked out the door and all the way to the bus stop before realizing that I was wearing only a slip. The uncommon chill is what finally tipped me off.

But a couple of other incidents stand out.

Early in my career in San Francisco, I would periodically wear dresses to work. I had landed a job as an “editorial assistant” at Harper & Row Publishers right out of college, and while most English majors would have swooned at that opportunity, I worked in the production side of things, which meant that I really functioned as an accountant. I dealt with lots of invoices and spreadsheets (all by hand, of course) as I developed a growing familiarity with the intricacies of offsheet presses and bookbinding.

Anyway, one evening I was walking down Sutter Street after a long day at work when quite suddenly both of my nylons rolled down around my ankles. I was wearing thigh-high hose at the time – individual nylons with a tight band at mid-thigh level that miraculously gripped one’s leg. They were supposed to stay there. I don’t know why I preferred them over your standard-issue panty hose, but that was my scene at the time. (By the way, I just Googled them and discovered that they still exist today, so perhaps I was not as far afield fashion-wise as you might be thinking.)

I have no idea why both nylons decided to defy all odds and slide to earth at the same time. In fact, I don’t understand why they slipped down at all. My best guess is that they were getting on in years and perhaps I’d stretched them out when I was heavier – when I had put on the “freshman 15” living in the dorms at SF State, scarfing down as many carbohydrates as I could stuff into my gaping maw. Well, that and the sodas.

Speaking of sodas, I must digress for a moment, because one day I was in line at the college cafeteria with my friend Kati. I had poured myself a Coca-Cola and she had gotten a Pepsi, both in gigantic paper cups, but I’m sure we were distracted by a million things and by the time we paid our “scrip” for them we couldn’t remember which was which. “Don’t worry; I can tell just by smelling them,” she assured me. So she proceeded to stick her nose down into one of the cups and draw in a huge, dramatic sniff. Well, in front of a long line of students, the soda shot way up her nostril, so far that it then streamed out the other nostril and back onto the counter. We both guffawed so hard that she practically choked to death. It caused quite a delay at the counter.

“Well, I can say with clarity that that was definitely not the Pepsi,” she deadpanned.

And that, my friends, was the only time I’ve been around someone snorting Coke.

Anyway, back to the nylons. So now I’m in a torrent of people heading home, my stockings are bunched loosely around my ankles, and I’m overcome with embarrassment. What the heck am I going to do?  Undress right in the middle of Sutter Street?

So, I decided to ever-so-gradually back into a doorway so that I would go undiscovered by at least the majority of the people on the street. I eased myself slowly backwards until I could lean up against the solid wall behind me, at which point I took off my heels, rolled each piece of hosiery all the way down and off, stuffed the nylons in my backpack, and slipped my shoes back on. It took quite a bit of time because I was very deliberate and protracted in my actions so as not to draw attention.

Then I turned around to look at the building.

Oops.

The “wall” that I had backed into was really a window. A huge plate-glass window. And inside the lobby of that building was a large crowd of people, all of them staring. They had had quite a show. A long show at that. They could have consumed an entire tub of popcorn watching me undress!

***

I suppose the most mortifying of all my clothing situations, though, occurred the day I went to the water-slide park with my sister Janine, my former brother-in-law John, and their children. This time I planned carefully in advance and donned a one-piece bathing suit to avoid any mishaps.

I had a fantastic time that day. It was an hour of pure joy and laughing and screaming.

On my last trip down the largest slide, a 10-year-old boy had somehow gotten stuck partway down and along I came, barreling towards him. I flailed around and tried to stop myself, but to no avail, so I careened into him and ended up taking him down with me, the both of us shrieking and hopelessly entangled.

Now, at the bottom of the slide was a shallow pool. Just beyond that was a large, grassy hillside, on which all of the parents sat to watch their kids as they splash-landed after a wild ride.

I stood up out of the pool, cackling and grinning from the delight of not only the fast ride but also the craziness of being intertwined with the startled little boy.

John and the kids met me at the edge of the pool, and I began breathlessly recounting the details of the slide.

As I stood there jabbering, facing not only my family but the hordes of parents on the grass, I noticed that John was staring perplexedly at me. And not at my face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, still catching my breath.

He just pointed.

Somehow in all the chaos my bathing suit had slipped down on one side, and my entire lily-white left breast was out and pointing like a beacon at not only him but also the large crowd on the hill.

“For God’s sake, John, why didn’t you say anything?” I blurted at him while stuffing everything back into place. “A hundred people are staring at me!”

Hand to God, this was his response:

“I wasn’t sure what it was.”

**********

For SF Giants fans, my latest Giants blog posts (most of which are dullsville) are at http://sportsspotlight.com/blog/author/paulabocciardi/

 

 

 

 

Lovely to see you again, my friends

Lovely to see you again, my friends

 

TO THE CLASS OF 2017:

It was 45 years ago this month that I graduated from high school, and every so often a few of my old friends get together for a weekend of wine, memories, laughs, and sentiment. This time we met up in Ventura. Even though our school – Piedmont Hills – was located on the east side of San Jose, a handful of us have relocated to southern California, and we thought we’d gather down there for a change.

Two days, many cocktails, countless stories, a plethora of hugs, and a few tears later, I drove back home, cranking up the tunes (a luxury best reserved for solo driving) and reflecting on where we’d all come from and where all these years had taken us.

***

I was utterly terrified on my first day of high school. I’d come from a Catholic school and had never known what it was like to have lockers, carry books, change classes, navigate from building to building, or walk hallways filled with students who were older, more mature, and almost adults. “I couldn’t believe that I was now surrounded by men,” one of us said this weekend. “Not boys, but men. With beards.” To some of us that was exhilarating. To me, it was just plain frightening. Raised by loving but extremely protective parents, I was naïve and unsophisticated.

Within minutes after I arrived at school that first day, a senior boy/man saw me and took off his class ring, slipping it on my finger and asking me how that felt. I didn’t know what to make of the entire thing. I was only 12 years old. Just a baby. I went home and told my father about the whole mystifying situation, and he made quick work of tracking down that senior and handing him a stern lecture. My father, you see, was the principal.

Obviously I had a few strikes against me.

Barb-2
Barb

Later that day, we were all asked to pair up and choose locker partners. Most of my St. Victor’s Elementary School classmates were off at Catholic high schools, and I didn’t know a soul. The time ticked down and I found myself standing alone, consumed, as always, with worry. But I mustered my courage, walked up to a total stranger, and asked her to be my partner. Her name was Barbara. I don’t know why I picked her. Maybe it was because she looked reserved, she wasn’t rocking a miniskirt, and she wasn’t sporting two tons of blue eye shadow. I hoped that my intuition was right and that she wouldn’t reject me. Saints be praised, she said yes immediately, which was a great act of gallantry because she had to have known that I was the principal’s daughter and that her association with me could prove to be an inconvenience at best. Almost half a century later, we’re still in touch. And by the way, she still looks exactly the same.

Barb didn’t have a single affectation. There wasn’t an elitist or supercilious bone in her body. Her parents worked on a farm, and she routinely presented me with gorgeous fresh produce as gifts. One time she gave me some sweet anise on my birthday and I was so thrilled that I gushed about it in my diary. I also remember driving out to the farm with my parents to pick squash blossoms, because there is nothing more delicious in this world than fried zucchini flowers. (Just dip them in egg and flour, fry briefly in oil, and be prepared to swoon.)

In those days, San Jose was not the technology mecca it is today. Much of it, in fact – especially on the east side, where we lived – was agricultural land. As my high school years went on, I would befriend lots of kids who had grown up on ranches and farms and knew their way around the county fair.

***

Barb had met Sue when they started kindergarten at Orchard Elementary School, one of the oldest educational institutions in the state (1856) and one that served residents of a part of the city that remained agrarian despite the burgeoning presence of housing tracts and malls. The two girls bonded at naptime that first day because Sue had an apparently-coveted Huckleberry Hound mat.

Sue-2
Sue

While Barb was more reticent, Sue was outgoing and full of spirit. She was optimistic and quick to laugh. I also thought she was very grown up – not in a “blue eye shadow” kind of way, but in a wise kind of way. She meant a lot to me because she always gave me good advice that came from a warm place deep in her heart.

In preparation for this reunion, I decided to drag out my diaries. For about 17 years, I diligently wrote in those little books every night, with the tiniest of Parker pen nibs. The diaries were delightfully unfiltered and un-self-censored, and when I think about it, I really have in my hands a remarkably honest chronicle of a young girl’s adolescence and young adulthood.

According to my diary, in March of 1972 I decided to run away from home. I loved my parents dearly, but holy cats they were strict with me! I wasn’t allowed to wear pants to school when girls were finally given that “privilege.” I wasn’t allowed to spend the night at a friend’s house ever, even if both sets of parents knew and thought highly of each other, because my father thought it was barbaric not to be at home at night. On my first date (I was a senior) with Jerry Miyakusu, my curfew was so early that Jerry had to shatter speed records racing home from Shakey’s Pizza Parlor in his sports car on dangerously curvy backroads. I’ve never wolfed down a pizza that fast since. And I think Jerry created a sonic boom as he hurtled me home. He wouldn’t have had time to kiss me even if he had wanted to.

(By the way, in 1972 when I was finally allowed to wear pants to school – but only on Fridays – I donned a super-cool ensemble that consisted of tight gold-plaid pants and long-sleeved gold Western blouses with lots of embroidered curlicues and snaps.)

Anyway, my frustrations with my folks had been piling up, and according to my diary, on March 21:

I called Sue because I thought she had an empty duplex, but it’s inhabited. She said, “Don’t leave, Paula, it won’t solve anything.” So I didn’t.

It was as simple as that. My plans were instantly jettisoned. Sue had spoken.

I guess it makes sense that Sue would go on to be a teacher and a motivational speaker.

***

I was an absent-minded little thing. It was legendary. My mother would ask me to “watch the rolls,” and I stood and stared at the oven glass and watched the rolls burn to a crisp. I routinely threw my socks away. I was playing the board game Risk once, with a Ritz cracker in my hand, and I popped the dice into my mouth and rolled the cracker!

Wednesday I looked in my purse for my glasses but they weren’t there. Obviously I almost had a heart attack! I decided to tell the parents at Clear Lake this weekend when they were in a good mood. But luckily I asked Miss Lasagna [yes, that was her real name] and she said she found them and my badminton racket on her desk. Whew! I don’t know how many times I have come so close to losing my glasses. And last Thursday I came home from badminton, changed, took off my blouse, and calmly went into the bathroom and deposited it in the toilet!

When I read back over those diaries, I am absolutely astounded at how worried I was about every little thing. I mean, I was a roiling cauldron of anxiety.

Boy, am I worried. Last semester I had a lot of points wrapped up by Final time, but not this year. In Chem I have a 90%, and I need an 86 on the Final to get an A. Shoot! His Finals are tough. I may shoot myself if I miss it. You won’t believe how worried I am. Every so often little pangs of fear go through me.

I am worried sick about the swim test tomorrow because of only one thing – diving. I can do everything else but that, and I get so embarrassed when I bellyflop.

Friday is the GAA/Faculty Mixed Doubles Tennis Tournament, and I am worried. I have to play some of the best players. It’ll be worse with Mr. Barisich as my partner because now he’ll know how really lousy I am.

Nearly every page is filled with one anxiety or another, sometimes accompanied by beseeching prayers to the Almighty. This one really takes the cake:

I, my friends, am really up-tight about something which most people would be happy about. “Our gang,” or, as we have come to call ourselves, “the out crowd,” has informed me that I may accidentally get a lot of nominations for Junior Prom Princess. Well, for one thing, I am not pretty. The only time I may be cute is when I smile, which helps decrease the length of my nose. Maybe I can persuade the kids to put up somebody else. Help me, God!

Finally, there’s this:

Today I went to the dentist. I had no cavities but I had fluoride. YICK! I hate it, and it always upsets me for a long time.

I honestly can’t figure out what on earth that last one means.

***

It was an interesting time to be young, back then. Just a few months before we started as freshmen, both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. The number of Vietnam War casualties would hit an all-time high of nearly 17,000 in 1968. New and wilder kinds of drugs were infiltrating the schools.

Over the next four years, the war engagement would start to wind down. Men’s hair would grow longer. Women would start to speak up. The voting age would be reduced from 21 to 18. Meanwhile, we were learning who we were and how we fit in with the changing times. Some of us (myself not included) wore black armbands to school to protest the war. Some of us struggled with figuring out our political identities and how to behave in a world in which gender roles were suddenly changing. We made mistakes and we were insecure and we were sometimes jealous in the most petty of ways, but we were all finding our way, bound together by the fears and joys and struggles of adolescence.

I remained – not altogether voluntarily – essentially a Puritan. My friends still remember the long skirts my mother sewed for me. And of course, as the principal’s daughter, I could get away with nothing. On Senior Cut Day I was one of the few hapless kids forced to come to school. The worst thing I ever did was steal some pre-signed get-out-of-class-free pink slips from one of the counselors and use them liberally during my senior year. I was finally caught by a sympathetic teacher who never ratted me out to my father, thank goodness.

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Jane

Some of the friends I hung out with, though, were a little wilder. I loved them for what they were, but I think they deliberately withheld a lot of their activities from me – an arrangement that, in truth, was beneficial to all parties concerned. One of those friends was Jane, who had a gorgeous English accent and whom I always considered to be supremely exotic. She seemed so worldly. She flowed mysteriously through our group and I was never quite sure what she was up to, believing that one day she’d end up as some kind of insurgent – maybe one of those radicals who joined the Weather Underground and set off explosives.

Uh, no.

Jane became a nurse. A Critical Care nurse, in fact. I imagine she has helped save thousands of lives in her career. In Ventura we talked about what retirement would mean for her, and she said she feared that leaving her job would mean losing her purpose in life. So we all discussed options that would enable her to maintain her dedication to health care, such as volunteering in places like homeless shelters. As she wavered about eventual retirement, I could see, in her eyes, her devotion to her calling.

***

Jane wasn’t the only one of the group who went into public service. I suppose it was the specific time in which we graduated, but it’s interesting that no one in our group left high school with the goal of making money. That wasn’t even in our vernacular. I think it was because we graduated at the tail end of the peace-and-love days. We were many years removed from the Summer of Love, but we were also two years ahead of the invention of the microprocessor and the total domination of the world by Silicon Valley. Just a couple of years after we left high school, people’s values began to change. But we just wanted to study the arts and help people and have a lot of goofy fun along the way.

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Terrie

Our friend Terrie became a lifelong public servant, too. After high school I lost track of her until many years later when I was reading the San Francisco Chronicle and her name suddenly appeared. I don’t remember what the story was about, but I learned that Terrie was a police officer in Morgan Hill. Eventually she would become Commander. Remember that in the 1970s there were very few female police officers anywhere, and Terrie was the only woman on the Morgan Hill force for a long time. To this day she says she didn’t think about it much. If she faced any biases, she never let them get under her skin. And she truly loved her job. In Ventura she talked about how people she’d arrested had come back to thank her because she listened so openly to them and, if they were willing, she helped them find their way towards becoming productive members of society. “It’s how you handle yourself,” she once said. “That goes across the board. If you have the ability to talk to people, to respect them, you can accomplish a lot. You always aim for diffusing a situation, not using force.” Terrie is probably one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met, and when she retired after serving for 26 years, the whole community felt the loss. A 2006 Letter to the Editor in the Morgan Hill Times said, “We have never met a more kind, generous, hard-working and professional public servant in our lives. Morgan Hill has been blessed. The force will be without her, but we know that she will only redirect her many talents in other community aspects. The quality of our community is so much better because of Terrie. May the force continue to be with you Terrie.”

***

Mary-2
Mary

Our friend Mary is the one who keeps everyone laughing, and she increases the hilarity quotient of any gathering by 1,000 percent.  I mean, spend 5 minutes with the woman and you need to take Advil to soothe your stretched-out-from-laughing jaw muscles. I love her stories of our high school days, like the time she found an entire unopened jug of Spañada wine in the orchard and considered it to be the greatest treasure find of her young life. From what I gather, she dipped into that thing any number of times during the school year. My favorite family anecdote of hers is that she “started a campaign around Christmas time one year to convince my two younger sisters that Santa was indeed watching them – even in the bathroom. I constructed little paper cameras and colored them black, then placed them on top of the light so they could just see enough to be nervous!”

Mary left her home in northern California a number of years ago so that she could care for her mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease. She gave up a lot, but that’s who she is, and she wouldn’t have dreamed of doing things differently. She’s currently thinking about starting a humor blog, and we couldn’t be more encouraging about that. Start it now, Mary. It’s never too late.

***

When I really think about it, there weren’t all that many things that our group had in common. But we didn’t judge each other. We weren’t snarky. We were never arrogant. We never thought that we were the most interesting creatures on the planet.

Hmmm. Maybe that’s what we had in common.

Half of us turned out to be gay, proving, beyond a shadow of a doubt, my longtime contention that something sketchy was going on with the drinking water in the East San Jose foothills. Half of us ended up caring for parents with Alzheimer’s. Half of us had kids and grandchildren. And all of us have been successful. It really rankles me that the term “successful” means, to many people, earning a lot of money. You never hear people say that someone is “a successful preschool teacher” or “a successful police officer” or “a successful court clerk.” Well, in my book we’re successful if we pay our taxes and behave like responsible citizens. We’re successful if we raise our children with all the selflessness that that role demands. We’re successful if we keep our commitments to friends and family. Really, we’re successful if we manage to navigate our way gracefully through life’s challenges.

Being with these old classmates, despite the years and the miles, was easy. We don’t have to get to know each other all over again. It’s like the comfort of being bandmates or teammates or lovers. You may move on, but you can’t dismiss the times you spent together and the influences you had on each other’s lives.

As Sue summed it up later, “I just can’t put into words how precious every moment, every laugh, every tear is to my heart.”

***

A few days after I returned from Ventura, my family got together in San Jose to bestow our Gerald and Beverly Bocciardi scholarships on four remarkable seniors. All of them have specific goals and majors in mind, but the truth is, some of them will end up in places, and enjoying accomplishments, that they cannot even imagine now. We shook their hands and asked them about their college choices and their chosen fields, but if I’d had the time I would have said a lot more than that.

Don’t short-change yourself. Every so often, say hello to someone you don’t know. Be grateful for fresh produce. If someone you love wants to run away from home, or from life, talk them through it. Make others laugh. Consider public service. If you venture into the business world, keep your integrity; they’ll take your soul if you let them, ah, but don’t you let them. Take care of your parents, and learn about their lives; they are far more interesting than you think. Most importantly, hang on to your friends with character – the ones who count. If they call out your name, come running.

And for God’s sake, don’t be upset by fluoride.

Write your own life’s music. Learn the chords and the rudiments from the people who came before you, but then make the score your own. Play it loudly and then eventually teach it to others. That’s the reason you’re here.

That’s what we were doing, back in 1968. We were just trying to figure out our songs.

 

1972_06_Paula

 

Their last full measure

Their last full measure

 

My mother told me more than once, in her later years, that when she reflected on my upbringing she had only one major regret: that she did not buy me the thing I most wanted for Christmas. I begged for it every year. It was in the Sears Christmas catalog, on the costume page with the nurse’s outfits and the ballerina tutus. But I didn’t want those, of course. What I was dying to have was a U.S. Marine Corps dress uniform.

Sears catalog 1969There is no more beautiful uniform in the world than the Marine Corps “dress blues.”  The sky-blue pants had a dark red stripe running down the outside of the leg. And the jacket – oh, that dignified jacket! – was a deep midnight blue and sported red trim, gold buttons, a sergeant’s insignia on the sleeve, epaulettes on the shoulders, a mandarin collar, and – best of all – a beautiful, wide white belt to make it all look so crisp.

I never found my coveted dress blues under the Christmas tree, so I spent many hours marching in circles around the dining room table wearing my father’s old olive-colored army hat and listening to my most cherished LP, “American Patriotic and Marching Songs.” My favorites were the military anthems, and I would belt out “Anchors Aweigh,” “The Caissons Go Rolling Along,” “The Halls of Montezuma,” and “The Army Air Corps Song” until my parents wanted to rip that record right off the turntable.

Mom mentioned her regrets about the uniform so often that a few years ago I decided to find some dress blues and surprise her by strolling into her house wearing them. I checked ebay and costume shops and military surplus stores, but unfortunately I came up short. Even though I did find one or two authentic uniforms for sale, they wouldn’t nearly have fit me. I guess there aren’t too many 5’6”, 135-pound Marines. I did find some old Women’s Army Corps uniforms, but they were skirt outfits. Ew.

Album cover-2

***

On this Memorial Day, I wanted to pay tribute to my great-uncle Reuben Steger – a genuine hero who lost his life in World War II. Uncle Ruby, like most of the relatives from my mother’s side of the family, grew up in Marshfield, Wisconsin. There were nine boys and two girls in the family and Ruby was the most loving of the boys, many of whom had dispositions coarsened by their hardscrabble lives. They wore shoes only to church on Sundays; otherwise, they roamed the farmlands barefooted. Their mother, despite having 11 children of her own, took in other people’s laundry to make ends meet. They grew their own potatoes and cabbage, raised their own cow for milk, and ate meat only when it was killed by one of the sons – squirrels, rabbits, deer, whatever they could find hunting the open lands.

When he was 19 years old, Ruby joined the Wisconsin National Guard, and he was a guardsman for four years until his unit was placed into active service in October 1940. He was almost immediately shipped to Australia, where he and his comrades spent more than a year in a tent city, waiting to be sent to New Guinea, into a war that President Franklin Roosevelt undoubtedly wanted us to join, despite his assertions to the contrary. Ruby and his fellow soldiers, in fact, may have been sitting in front of a crackly radio somewhere when the President gave his October 30 campaign address in Boston and brazenly stated to the American people, “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”

Uncle Ruby-2
Sgt. Reuben J. Steger

But everyone knew it was inevitable. The United States declared war on Japan one day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and three days after that Germany declared war on the U.S.

Japan invaded New Guinea in January of 1942, and the Allies sought to retake it later that year. Ruby was 25 years old and a first sergeant in the 128th Infantry, Company C, when he found himself suddenly in command of a group of men in Papua, at the Battle of Buna. It was a miserable battle, fought in jungles and swamps during the wettest season of the year. Up to 95 percent of the Allied forces were carrying malaria. There was a terrible shortage of food and ammunition. Allied losses were enormous; it was one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific Theater.

On November 20, all four of the officers in charge of the 128th Infantry were killed. The next day, sergeants Reuben Steger and Carl Cherney, both from the same small town in Wisconsin, assumed command. Reports were that the troops fought heroically, almost maniacally, but they made almost no progress. The carnage was overwhelming. In three days of combat, the 128th lost 63 men. But Ruby saved at least half a dozen. Time and again, under raging machine gun fire, he ran into the field to bring his wounded men to safety. Eventually, on the sixth or seventh foray, his luck ran out. He was picked off and drew his last breath on that field. His buddy Carl Cherney died a few hours later.

What courage and fearlessness and heart that young man displayed. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and the Distinguished Service Cross, which is for “extraordinary heroism.”

It wasn’t until 1949, for some reason, that the army got its act together to present the long-overdue medals to Ruby’s parents, my great-grandparents John and Caroline. The Marshfield News-Herald’s article about the private presentation says that “the 83-year-old father’s shoulders were shaking and Mrs. Steger’s eyes were blinded by tears.”

1949_10-20_posthumous receipt of Reuben Steger medals_John and Caroline Steger 1
John and Caroline Steger, receiving their son’s medals, 1949

My mother always had a special place in her heart for Ruby, who was not only her uncle but her godfather, and his death hit her hard. She never forgot him, and decades later she embarked on a four-year mission to get copies of his medals. She found the relevant photos and news articles with the help of the Marshfield Public Library, and ultimately she was able to get the medals through the efforts of Rep. Mike Thompson of California’s 5th Congressional District. Congressman Thompson himself was a Purple Heart recipient for wounds he suffered in the Vietnam War.

***

Although Memorial Day is meant to honor soldiers who lost their lives, I can’t help but think about another American soldier who survived his wounds but showed a kind of honor and commitment that went beyond what he endured on the battlefield. His name was Kunio Shimamoto.

Kunio was a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was primarily a Nisei unit. Most Japanese Americans who fought in World War II were Nisei, which means that they were “second generation” – born in the United States to immigrant parents. The 442nd was the most highly decorated military unit, for its size and its length of service, in the history of the American armed forces. The unit’s motto was “Go for Broke.”

japanese-internment-poster-optWhat absolutely astonishes me about the Nisei soldiers, though, is that so many of them experienced fierce bigotry during the war, and many had families who had suffered forced relocation to internment camps. President Roosevelt ordered more than 100,000 Japanese Americans to be relocated and imprisoned in internment camps after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. Anyone with an ounce of Japanese heritage was ordered out of California and certain regions of other West Coast states unless they were in government camps.

The relocations were ostensibly conducted because there were fears of security risks. But statements made by high-ranking officials at the time would indicate that there was no small amount of racism involved. Lieutenant General John L. Dewitt, head of the Western Command and administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress that “I don’t want any of them [Japanese Americans] here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty. . . . [W]e must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.” The Joint Immigration Committee of the California Legislature alleged that Japanese Americans were “totally unassimilable.”

The conditions at the camps were spartan at best. Some centers offered only cramped housing with no plumbing or cooking facilities. Beds were just saggy cots. Medical facilities were often unsanitary and overcrowded. Food poisoning was common, and diseases like dysentery and malaria made their way easily into the camps.

Kunio Shimamoto and his family were interned at the Rohwer War Relocation Center in southeastern Arkansas. “My grandparents came over from Japan and ended up in Los Angeles County as sharecroppers in strawberry farming,” Kunio’s daughter Joyce told me. “They lost their home and all belongings when they returned from camp. My dad was very much into photography before being interned and had to leave his darkroom and cameras behind. They were staged at the Santa Anita racetrack for a couple of months while waiting to be shipped to Arkansas. I remember my dad telling me that they lived in the horse stalls, which were not cleaned out, and they only had straw to sleep on. Writing this brings tears to my eyes.”

Kunio Shimamoto
SP6 Kunio Shimamoto

I don’t know all the details, but Kunio was eventually able to leave Rohwer on a work furlough, so he was employed for a while at auto plants in Detroit, helping to make parts for military tanks.

Then he decided to volunteer for the United States military. For the very government that had forcibly relocated his family to rural Arkansas.

“My dad was always very pro-American despite his internment,” Joyce says. “I was always amazed at how patriotic he was after all that he went through. It was even to the point of buying an American-made car. I once asked him why he just didn’t leave and go to Japan. He said that Japan wasn’t his home.”

I cannot begin to fathom the strength of character it took for a man to defend so honorably a country that had been so ignoble to him and everyone he loved. Kunio fought in Italy, France, and Germany and was awarded both the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. He was injured more than once, at one point hospitalized for three months because of devastating shrapnel wounds. Painful back problems that he endured throughout his life were a result of those injuries.

But he rarely talked to anyone about his experiences. “He didn’t want to discuss the hardships he went through,” Joyce remembers. “When he did tell me things, it was still very upsetting to him even after several decades. I didn’t even find out that he and his family were interned until I was in high school.”

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which apologized for the internment and admitted that U.S. government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

Kunio Shimamoto passed away exactly 7 years ago today. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

***

Like so many superlatives today, the word “hero” is tremendously overused. I’ve always said that heroes are people who actually do things like throw themselves on grenades. Reuben Steger ran repeatedly into a hail of bullets and knew that eventually one would kill him. Kunio Shimamoto put himself in harm’s way to protect a country that hurt him but that he loved deeply. These were noble men fighting for a noble cause.

Thank you, Uncle Ruby and Kunio, for your dedication, your courage, and your patriotism. Thank you for having a sense of purpose that transcended your individual selves. You were both true heroes. Thank you for giving us your last full measure of devotion.

 

**********

For SF Giants fans, my latest Giants blog posts (most of which are dullsville) are at http://sportsspotlight.com/blog/author/paulabocciardi/

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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.