Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Sea Lions Are Back on Seal Rock!

Living two blocks from Ocean Beach, Seal Rock, Lands End and the ruins of the Sutro Baths, I often walk or run around the area. A few weeks ago, I heard something unusual: It sounded like the bark of sea lions, which most commonly haul themselves onto the floating docks at Pier 39. (Live Web cam here.)

But while Seal Rock used to be a popular sunning spot for the pinnipeds, I understood from researching and writing this story that they mysteriously had abandoned the hangout around the time of the '89 earthquake.

So today, when I set out for my walk, I looped binoculars around my neck and determined to get to the bottom of this. (Cue Harriet the Spy, my inspiration.)

Sure enough, when I reached the Lands End parking lot and peered through the goggles, there were sea lions atop Seal Rock!

I padded down the trail for a closer look and, as luck would have it, ran into a volunteer from the Marine Mammal Center who had been called on a report of a stranding (the subject of the call, luckily, had returned to the ocean). In fact, this volunteer had been featured in a story by a colleague of mine about a disturbing increase in the incidents of sick sea lions.

He said that this year, for some undetermined reason, hundreds of pups have shown up much farther north than usual.

I put the spy glasses to my eyes again and couldn't believe what I saw -- what I previously had taken for vegetation on the rock was actually hundreds of chocolate brown pups.

In the dead of night, through my bedroom window, I listen to the sound of waves crashing. I can only hope a time comes when the pups' barking will punctuate the lull of the ocean and the moans of the moody fog horn.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Ridiculous Things Delight Me

It was one of those days. Long and chock full of "moles" needing to be whacked. Like the Rashomon interpretations of our new deadlines (it's kind of like a scavenger hunt for good information in the newsroom).

So I was all kinds of prickly when I reached the Walgreens by my house, where I was picking up some dog food. When I came across the most ridiculous dog bed -- on sale! -- that I just had to buy. I whisked it to the cashier and announced, "I'll take this ridiculous thing." I couldn't keep the smile from my face.

I have to admit: I am that consumer -- the definition of impulsive and impressionable.

So here it is, before and after Lucy found it. (1 1/2 cats included to show actual size.)

Sunday, July 05, 2009

My Neighbors Stink.

I happened to look out the window this afternoon and caught a phalanx of four skunks slinking across my neighbor's back yard. I've seen coyotes and raccoons, and once a skunk on my steps in Noe Valley (it was so cute I had to restrain myself from coming right up to it and trying to pet it), but never around here. I'm a bit concerned for them to be out in broad daylight, as they are nocturnal, and hawks commonly frequent this area. They moved so gracefully, and close together, that at first I couldn't tell how many there were. I was amused at how like cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew they looked. Adding to the scenario was a black-and-white neighborhood cat who was watching them, camouflaged in the grass, no doubt to avoid their ardor.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Color My World

I made two brilliant purchases, for a collective $3, at the Alemany Flea Market today. The flea market shares the site of the Farmers' Market, which operates on Saturdays and was established as a wartime measure to allow farmers to unload their surplus crops in town. Previously at Market and Duboce, it has been at its Alemany location since 1947. I just love that link to the past.

I adore this flea market because it's the great equalizer. The parking lot is filled with everything from Mercedes to Priuses (Prii?) to banged up vans and vintage vehicles. You'll find every language you can think of spoken, every color of skin, every age, every style. Sometimes there's the old lady who plays the saw and simultaneously makes a wooden cat puppet dance using a foot pedal.

Many of the vendors recognize me now, as I've been haunting the place for years, ever since my good friend Elliot would take me there using a circuitous route to mix me up so that for the longest time, I didn't know how to get there myself; it was just this magical destination at the end of a magic ride.

It's probably a safe bet that about 30 percent of my clothes, jewelry, books, furniture and artwork have been purchased from this flea market.

Wandering among the stalls is like a spiritual experience for me. There are constant reminders of my childhood in the toys, of my parents in the 50s cookware and of our communal history in the war memorabilia and photographs.

It is bittersweet. I like to hold an object in my hand and imagine its former owner. What kind of life did he lead? Are these from his estate? Were there no children to inherit them, or did they not care for these personal items, these photo albums and collections of owls and swans and matchbooks?

When I first moved to San Francisco, with my then-fiance, we sought out garage and estate sales to outfit our small apartment. At one home in Ingleside, a woman with no children had died, leaving everything from her slippers to a fully equipped barber shop in the basement that she had left as-is was when her husband died.

One of the loneliest things I have ever seen was my own mother's slippers after she died, toes tucked under her bed. Clothes are one thing, but there's something heart-rending about a pair of well worn shoes having been set aside carefully, sitting there awaiting their owner's return, when she never will.

I still have a round mirror from that barber shop that we purchased for $30. I also sneaked away a note that I found in the woman's kitchen cupboard, a hand-written recipe for bran muffins, "Very Good!"

On the way home, I said to Mark that I thought the estate sale was sad. No, he said, those items are getting a second life.

And that is how I've come to think of it: A continuation of life.

In any case, there I was today, on a blustery overcast afternoon, perusing the tables, when I was lured by a collection of old Ellery Queen paperbacks. I find old books delicious, especially ones that still contain un-P.C. references. It's like being on an anthropological dig.

I could not resist the siren call of Ellery Queen's Siamese Twin Mystery, penned in 1933, though it appears my $2 version was printed in 1942. There are so many juicy tidbits to this volume, starting with the declaration that, "In order to cooperate with the government's war effort, this book has been made in strict conformity with WPB regulations restricting the use of certain materials. For victory, buy United States war bonds and stamps," and moving on to such engaging chapter titles as, "The 'Thing,' " "The Queer People" and "Cheater Cheated."

Enough said. (I'll let you know how it ends; it will be my reading when I venture to Shaken Mama's abode tomorrow, to spend a few days with her family while she gives birth to her third daughter in a scheduled C-section Tuesday morning. I have been tasked with notifying the stationer of the details and yet-to-be-revealed name of the girl we know so far only as "Leaf," and announcing her entrance into the world on Shaken Mama's blog. As S.M. and I have a long-standing mutual threat of embarrassing each other in the obituary of whoever dies first, giving me access to her blog is quite a leap of faith on her part.)

Have you read this far? Oh, goodie! Now I can tell you of my second thrilling purchase.

A $1 box of 24 Crayola crayons.

Now, hold on! Yes, it was worth it: They are older than I am. How do I know?

First, let me give you a window into my daily morning meeting at the newspaper with the Web producer (Swedish), the deputy section editor (Chinese, 6th-generation San Franciscan), photo editor (Chinese), page designer (black) and wire editor (Filipino). Then there's me, second-generation Polish-American. I believe we are the most diverse group at the paper. And the absurdity of the "flesh" colored Crayola crayon has come up in conversation.

And so there I was today, at the flea market, when my eyes lit upon an old-looking 24-crayon box. I opened it up, found the peachiest color and pulled it out. "Flesh," it read. Which, by Crayola's reckoning, was changed to "peach" in 1962.

Other colors you won't find these days: rose-pink, dark green, middle blue green, gold ochre and prussian blue, which was changed to midnight blue in 1958 -- well before I was born.

And not a one is broken.

Monday, May 04, 2009

'Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets'

I have surprisingly few regrets in my life.

I was thinking about the course of people's lives on yesterday's occasion of what would have been my father's 86th birthday. He's been gone now four years; my mom for 19. For a long time, I have felt different from people who still have their parents.

Today, I realized that regardless of when mom and dad died, by now it's likely that I would have lost them anyway. Dad would be 86, Mom turning 85 in November.

And it made me think: I'm not such an oddball anymore (at least where this issue is concerned). Life is pretty normal.

And I got to thinking about the course of my own life, and what I would have done differently. And I know I'm going to sound like a boring Pollyanna, but the truth is, not much -- even regarding the decisions that wound up taking me unexpected places, like getting married.

How annoying is that?

Of course, there are some things I would have done differently, knowing what I know now.

1) I would have been nicer, all around. Those who know me now would probably comment about how "nice" I am. It was learned. And I still can be pretty selfish.

2) I would have attended more classes in college. I skipped so many that I still have nightmares about it.

3) I would have considered going out of state for college. I had the scholarships, but it never dawned on me this was possible.

4) I would have gotten involved in sports at a young age. They're so important for girls -- they teach discipline, self-esteem and how to lose with grace.

5) I would have learned how to play the guitar earlier.

6) I wouldn't have gotten a credit card when I was in college.

7) I would have been more discriminating with men.

8) I might have had a child.

This list, however, paled in comparison to what I am thankful I did do; for example:

1) Lived outside of Delaware, in N.C., Boston and S.F.

2) Got married, even though it didn't last.

3) Got divorced!

4) Bought a convertible.

5) Maintained several life-long friendships.

6) Went to London on a blind date.

7) Went to graduate school and earned an MFA in creative writing.

8) Went far enough in the application process to know I could have entered the SFPD academy.

9) Bought a house.

10) Adopted three cats and a dog.

11) Didn't do drugs.

12) Witnessed the birth of my best friend's first child.

13) Went home to stay with Dad indefinitely when he was diagnosed with cancer.

14) Told both my mom and my dad how much I loved them before they died.

15) Drove cross-country by myself.

16) Laughed. A lot.

So, Arthur Miller, I think I can say, I have the right regrets.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Calgon Commercials, Pull-off Soda Can Tabs and Other Things That Show My Age

Do you remember those hot summer days when you would buy a can of soda, pull off the tab and drop it into the can?

If you don't, chances are you were born in the 80s, by which time the "stay-tab" invented by Daniel F. Cudzik had widely replaced the pull-off tab, which had been vilified in suburban legend as slicing kids' toes if carelessly discarded, or being accidentally ingested when dropped into the can.

Ye olde pull tab came to mind as I was driving home on the Great Highway along Ocean Beach today, a stunningly beautiful sunny Saturday, and began jonesing for a rootbeer. Rootbeer, along with Dr. Pepper and Mr. Pibb (I was always rooting for him to at least get his doctorate; I mean, how can you compete with that title-dropping Pepper character?), was my favorite soda as a kid. I was suddenly struck by the physical memory of running my tongue along the rough metal lip of the soda can opening.

My mind began to wander to other things I remember as a 41-year-old, and I lit upon a conversation I had with my 31-year-old colleague's husband the other day, regarding a comment I'd made in a group e-mail that I thought was rather witty at the time: "Calgon, take her away!" When I saw him later, K. laughed and said, "You're showing your age!"

Then there are phone booths, which recently were in the news thanks to a group of St. Mary's College students who staged a re-enactment of the famous Life magazine photo of 22 students stuffed into said container.

As my brilliant colleague, Steve Rubenstein, wrote:

"It was not easy to cram into a phone booth 50 years ago, and it has not gotten any easier. In the first place, there are no longer any phone booths around, and the college had to dig one up from storage in a warehouse in Los Angeles, a town full of useless stuff. Many of the students confessed that they had never been inside a real phone booth before."

To be sure, if my life depended on it, I don't believe I could locate one myself.

And speaking of phones, a former colleague of mine several years ago shared a laugh with me upon digging up a rotary phone and showing it to her 12-year-old daughter. M. asked the girl and her friends how they thought it worked. They started pushing their fingers into the holes in the dial.

Then there's another colleague, T., whose little girl Sarah was so excited when they rented a pick-up truck to cart some things to the dump, and she found it had a handle to roll down the passenger's window manually. (When, I wonder, will people actually forget how the hand motion of rolling down a car window originated?)

Several years ago, my brilliant ex-boyfriend E. and I were enjoying a mild evening on the fabulous roof deck of my former Noe Valley apartment, and I voiced wonderment at all the inventions that had been witnessed in the lifetime of my father, who was born in 1923 and at the time was in his late 70s. In his time, TVs were invented (he told me he proposed to my mom as they were watching the first set her family bought. "When we're married, I'll buy you a bigger set," he said.) For Pete's sake, cars were still fairly new, with the first automobile commercially produced in 1901. Add to that cordless and cell phones, ATM machines, the Internet, and I said to E.: "I think we've invented everything. I can't imagine that we'll see the same type of world-changing inventions in our time."

"Oh no," he said. "We haven't seen anything yet."

I'm beginning to believe him. Being a technology editor, and editing our departing -- :( -- awesome biotech reporter, I am continually amazed at what people are inventing.

I was talking to another talented reporter yesterday about our 90-year-old colleague David Perlman, who invariably conveys a childlike sense of wonder in his science stories.

We talked about how, at some point, it must feel like everything is so foreign. But we agreed that it would never feel foreign enough to think about wanting to leave this world.

And so I sit here wondering at what more will be invented in my lifetime, and hoping in the back of my mind that something they come up with will extend my life, say, 100 years. And drinking my (diet) A&W rootbeer in a plastic bottle, with a twist-off cap that I forgot in the car.

I hope I don't slice my toe on it.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Living the Life of a Mayfly

Back when I lived in Yorklyn, Del., our house was infested with little red beetles. When the exterminator came to spray, I followed him around and quizzed him about his job.

He told me of the Mayfly, which lives only long enough to reproduce other Mayflies -- anywhere from 30 minutes to 24 hours.

That blew my mind. It seemed so sad and meaningless.

I've been thinking about the Mayfly lately, because we go to work at The Chronicle each day now knowing how limited our time is. And it begs the question: Why bother with anything?

As my father would have responded, in his short time after being diagnosed with cancer: "Why bother with anything."

And I realize that, at least for me, the answer is that we are all like the Mayfly, just on different scales.

Would we live our lives any less earnestly if we lived just 24 hours?

And so it is that I go to work each day until the end of our lifespan, finding meaning in simple existence. Because if you don't bother with anything, you don't bother with anything.

And how meaningless would that be?

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Lost Weekend Day

It was bound to happen.

When my father was alive, he would telephone me whenever I needed to "spring forward" or "fall back." Because she knew Dad did this, my sister took up the tradition after his death.

Well, D., you called and left a message for me yesterday, but nowhere was there a mention of having to adjust my clocks. Instead, I spent the day in a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. In a middle ground between light and shadow. That's right: in The Twlight Zone.

Somehow, the stars aligned to deliver me a day in which I had no time commitments. I played hooky from church, decided against the flea market and treated myself to chocolate chip pancakes for my last day of vacation.

Then I scooped up Kerry Kennedy's "Being Catholic Now," which was overdue (my dad would not approve) and headed off for a walk to the library. (Church hooky + overdue Catholic book = ? I wonder.) There, I checked out the newest from one of my favorite -- and local -- authors, Diane Johnson, "Lulu in Marrakech."

I trotted on down to a bodega on Balboa and picked up some lemons to -- yes, how fitting, given the economic and newspaper situations -- make lemonade.

Arriving home, I spirited pup Lucy and the New York Times crossword out into the back yard. When the sun got too warm, I popped back inside and dove into "Lulu."

About 7:30 p.m., I surfed over to the blog "Rex Parker does the New York Times crossword puzzle" and saw his reminder of Daylight Saving Time.

Just then, my cell phone rang: my boss. "Hey -- when does Daylight Saving Time start, today?" I asked. "Uh, that was last night," he said.

So where was I all day?

Sunday, March 08, 2009

A Girl and Her Dog, Out on the Town

As I don't have kids, I'm fortunate that in San Francisco, people treat their pets like children, so I don't feel too left out. And so it was that my rescue girl, Lucy (formerly Coconut), was invited to Doggy Happy Hour at a cool bar in the Mission called Doc's Clock. I highly recommend it -- it's homey, has shuffleboard (love me some shuffleboard, puts me in mind of Comegys Pub in Wilmington, Del., where you can get a drink served by one of the most talented photographers with whom I've ever worked). And, the proceeds went to Muttville, whose founder, Sherri Franklin, saved my little Peke from the mean streets of Oakland.

Lucy, who clearly had been bred and abandoned, had little interest in the other mutts. ("I know dogs," she told me. "They're only interested in one thing.") She preferred nibbling treats from her perch on the counter as the other canines nudged their noses into each other's buckeyes. Why is it, I have always wondered, that an animal that literally can smell something a mile away needs to get up close and personal to confirm the scent? "Yep, that's Spike. I thought so when I smelled him crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. But damn, what the hell has he been eating?"

Friday, March 06, 2009

I'm in a 3-year-old State of Mind

Shaken Mama and I have have been wringing every moment we can out of these days leading up to June 1, when she will birth her third daughter and, needless to say, become too preoccupied to foray into the city for dim sum and hijinks.

Yesterday afternoon I dropped the top down on my convertible and shot over the bridge to visit. The moment I entered the house, 3-year-old "Chebs" looked up from her lunch of pasta and peas and said, "Aunt Sue, let's get into the hot tub Right Now!"

Maybe it's the big sister in me I was never able to express, being the youngest, or maybe -- as a former newspaper editor advised -- I apparently default to being "ornery for ornery's sake," but whatever it is, I can't let her have what she wants immediately, regardless of how hedonistic the request. So first I raided the refrigerator and popped a tofu dog into the microwave. Then I pulled on my one-piece.

The hot tub is delightfully deep, situated beneath three mature redwoods. Chebs tore off her clothes, grabbed a floatie ring and kickboard and slid in. With the ring around her middle, she propped her chubby perfect feet up on the kickboard and stretched out her arms.

"See, Aunt Sue," she said proudly, "I can float all by myself."

"No, you can't," said my evil little voice. "You have a floatie ring and a kickboard. That's not all by yourself."

"Yes, it is."

"No, it's not."

"Yes, it is!" she popped up her head to explain: "I'm using my ring and kickboard. That's what 'all by myself' means."

The way she said it somehow made sense. And with that, I sank into the world of 3-year-old logic.

After a few minutes, she held the ring and board in front of her. "Which one do you want?" she asked. Thinking the ring better suited her, I pointed to the board. She ran her little hand lovingly over the board, circling the many colors with a finger and shaking her head. "No, this board has too many colors in it for you to have." I should have known.

Next up was where I should sit. "Don't sit there," she instructed, pointing to the corner from which the bubbles were emanating.

"But I want to," I said, sliding into said spot.

"No!" she said with a laugh, pushing at me. "You don't own this, it's not yours."

Then she got distracted by the rhinestone-studded heart necklace I was wearing. "I want that, put it on me. I'm allowed."

"Nope," I said, swishing away. "It's not yours. You don't own it."

"But I want it."

"Well, we don't always get what we want."

She screwed up her face, brought it close in to mine, and said, "I do."

"You're a smart cookie, but I'm just as smart," I said.

"No, you're not."

"All right, then, what comes after fifteen?"

She paused. "Six?"

"Close, sixteen," I said, proving my superiority, which paled beside the magnificence of being 3, with the whole illogical world ahead of you.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

For Some Jobs, Pessimists Simply Need Not Apply

On a dreary Boston evening, on the last day of April in 1996, I finished packing a suitcase, kissed the walls of my beloved Beacon Street basement hovel goodbye and climbed into a cab headed to Logan Airport with my best friend E. and two cats.

Our hearts were heavy, our eyes were moist, the cats were drugged. After nearly two years of a "Friends"-like existence earning my master's degree at Emerson College and working at Houghton Mifflin, I was leaving behind the first city I had ever loved and the people in it to start over in San Francisco. You see, I had accepted a marriage proposal (an unimpressive proposal, but I digress. Maybe I'll write about it some time).

E. and I toted the crate o' cats over to the pet check-in, where an unsmiling woman asked, "Have they got water?" "Um, no," I responded. (Actually, I'd found their carrying crate in an alley in the Back Bay, which I trolled every trash day eve to recoup the objects discarded by my rich neighbors. [Thus earning from E. the nickname "Trash Picker."] I furnished my apartment in this manner. Anyway, the previous owner of the crate had not discarded the attachable plastic water bowl with it.)

"I can't check them in without water," the clerk said dispassionately, shaking her head. My emotional state was about to crack into territories. "Well, what can I do?" I asked.

E., ever the "take charge, save-the-shit problem solver," said, "There must be something we can do. Can we buy a bowl?"

The woman pursed her lips, furrowed her brow and said skeptically, "Mmmm ... it has to be a specific type. I don't think we have any spares. If I can find one, maybe ..."

"So what if we send them without water?" I asked, thinking that surely, if the cats were to be handled in any manner akin to how they treated bags, the water would slosh out anyway.

The woman stared at me as if I had just said, "OK then, do you have a sharp blade I can borrow so I can just slice their throats right here?"

"They must have water," she said stonily.

"OK, so can you please see if you can find a spare bowl?" I pleaded.

The woman radioed someone, no doubt Animal Care & Control -- if not the police -- and spoke in hushed tones that I was sure were describing my flagrant irresponsibility and undeserved cat-momitude. If she'd had the authority, I felt at that moment, she would say, "No cats for you!" in the manner of Seinfeld's soup nazi.

"Yeah, we have one," she said a few moments later.

With the threat of having to delay my flight behind me, I felt a sudden affection for this woman. "So, they're going to be OK, right? I mean, I've never flown with them before. It'll be fine, won't it?"

She looked up at me, met my eyes and said, "Probably."

"Probably?" I (probably) shrieked. "Animals fly all the time! They'll be fine, won't they?"

At this point, truly disgusted with having spent so much time with us, she sighed and said, "Let me put it this way: I wouldn't fly my cats on this airline."

I was put in mind of this woman, whom E. and I despise to this day, while getting my teeth cleaned today.

Now, don't get me wrong: I love my dentist. But that medical craft has bedeviled me my whole life, and so I am always in hyper-aware mode while lying back in the chair, mouth open, tray of lethal weapons at the hygienist's disposal.

First, she wanted to review a letter from a root canal specialist to whom they had referred me three years ago. "It says here that your one front tooth is 'non-vital' and a root canal is recommended."

"Dr. X told me that it was a valid decision to wait and see if it gives me pain or gets loose before opting for surgery," I said, clearly to her disapproval and/or disbelief.

She proceeded to measure my gum pockets and the recession of my gums. When she'd finished calling out all the numbers, I asked what they meant.

"Well, ideally, you would have only 2's and 3's," she said, knowing that I'd heard her call out a number of 4's in the back of my mouth. "And as for the gum recession, ideally you would have none."

She brought one of my bottom front teeth to my attention. "That's a 2, and if it recedes any further, well ..."

"Well, what? There's always something you can do, right?"

"Mmmm ... a graft. But you don't have to worry about that until it gets to be a '3.' "

I was relieved. Painful it might be, but it was available -- a graft!

Now that the specter of losing my front tooth was behind me, I said collegially, "I guess these days, there's always something you can do to save a tooth."

She screwed up her nose. "Well, not always," she said, explaining that sometimes there isn't sufficient integrity of the bone to hold an implant.

"I guess there's always dentures," she said. "Of course, that's not optimal if you want to enjoy your food and be able to speak properly and such ..."

With no E. there to defend me, I just closed my eyes and thought of the pet check-in clerk and resigned myself to the comfort that my teeth wouldn't be falling out anytime soon. Probably.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Delighting in My Life

(Vesper and Lucy on the couch)

Enough about the heavy topic of The Chronicle's future.

The good thing about bad things is that they make the good things seem so much better. Of course, it does help that I'm on vacation this week ...

Anyway, I've always appreciated opposites' effect. Like, leave the bedroom window open in Yorklyn, Del., in the winter, and it makes the comforter feel that much more cozy. You can't have cold without hot; things are defined by their opposites. So maybe it is that I've been doubly appreciating all the delightful aspects of my life in San Francisco.

Those of you who know me know that's not difficult for me to do. I am constantly tickled by such sights as a unicycler making his way up The Great Highway by the Cliff House, the Amgen Tour randomly snaking past my house and my new rescue dog waking me up with an unprecedented bark in my ear.

These things give me joy. Others:

Waking up at 4 a.m., when the buses aren't yet running and traffic has ceased on Clement Street. Listening to the mournful call of the fog horn, the crash of the waves at Ocean Beach, the contented breathing of my pets.

The whisper of air touching my skin when I realize a cat has silently sidled up to me.

The state of my house when my best friend's 3-year-old has visited: a painting lying on the couch, a pinecone on the window sill, costume jewelry in the bed sheets, ornamental glass objects where the cat food bowl used to be ...

My neighbors' brown lab, Harry, when he or his wife take him out. Harry sniffs at my door as if he wants in, then thumps his tail against it.

I am here. I am. And that's more than enough for me.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Surreal Life

There are certain times when life takes on a surreal tint, when opposite emotions co-exist and make perfect sense. A time when I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop, and everything seems meaningless -- and poignantly meaningful.

The first of my adulthood was when my mother slipped into a coma the weekend before Christmas in 1989. That one lasted three months, until she passed away on March 15 (fittingly, the Ides of March). Next up: my brother's two-week trial on bank robbery charges in June 1994 (conviction on circumstantial evidence). Then there was the two-month hell of knowing my husband wanted to leave me but he hadn't yet moved out (also June, in 1999). Followed in 2005 by my father's diagnosis (guess what month? Right) of late stage stomach/esophageal cancer.

It is this last that feels the most familiar now, with The Chronicle having been diagnosed as terminal. The question is: How long does it have?

In my dad's case, it was 16 days.

He insisted on opening the mail, paying his bills, taking his eye drops for borderline glaucoma. This aggravated one of my other brothers to no end. "Why bother with anything?" he asked my dad one day. "Why bother with anything," my dad repeated and responded.

As my father became more incapacitated and uncomfortable, I would wish for it to be over at the same time I would hate myself for thinking that and sink into denial that it ever would be.

I feel like that now: I want the layoffs to start at the same time I hate myself for thinking that, and I can't believe they will. In my dad's case, I knew who I was going to lose. Now, I look around the newsroom and think, "Will it be me? Will it be him? Her? You?"

My boss and I had lunch on Friday and he observed that all we're doing is commiserating on Facebook and talking and writing about saving The Chronicle. But the thing is, how do you have the stomach to try to save something that, in the end, might not want you to be part of it? How identity-crushing would that be?

So I go through my days in a surreal-tinted haze, trying to convince myself that my loved one has more days than the doctor said. And desperately hoping that, regardless of what state he is in after surgery, I will be welcome in the hospital room.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Why Newspapers Matter, or, Where Do You Think the News on the Web Comes From?

Note: Since writing this entry, I was able to locate the original clip. My memory erred regarding several details, as follows: Adriene is spelled with one "n"; her parents were James and Teresa; Adriene was 5; and her sister was 1 1/2.

In the summer of 1988, between my junior and senior years at the University of Delaware, I was a reporting intern at the Wilmington News Journal. One day, an editor came over to my desk and said, "Have you ever done a 'dying baby' story?" I looked at her stupidly and she said, "If you're going to be a reporter, you have to learn how to do a dying baby story. Here."

She handed me a piece of paper with some names and phone numbers on it. It was a couple with a 3-year-old girl in the final stages of a rare, fatal disease. They wanted their daughter to be able to die in her bed at home, but because the father's employer had switched health insurance providers and the new one didn't want to pay for the equipment they would need in their home, they were stuck. They were reaching out to the newspaper -- and unbeknownst to them, to me -- for help.

Twenty-one years later, as I thought of that story while driving home from work at yet another newspaper, I could still remember her name: Adrienne Merganthaler. I want to say her parents were John and Marianne.

I visited the Merganthalers and Adrienne in the hospital. And I called the insurance companies. And I wrote a story about an everyday couple who could be in your family, in your neighborhood, in your church, who didn't want an insurance company to pay for extraordinary measures to keep their daughter alive. They were realistic. They were human. They were parents. They just wanted their little girl not to be scared in her last days. To be home with her family -- there was an older sister, I believe.

And guess what? The day the story was published, both of the insurance companies called the newspaper. They were fighting over which one would get to pay to bring Adrienne home. And so it was that Blue Cross paid for Adrienne to come home and die in her own bed.

I did that.

A college classmate of mine, Dino Ciliberti, said to me once that he chose to go into journalism to help people. At the time, I thought, "Then be a doctor." But I would go on to learn that he was right: newspapers (in my case The San Francisco Chronicle) can help people.

The reason I was thinking of this story was twofold: Yesterday, our editor stood before the newsroom and told us some grim news. The newspaper is losing too much money. Many of us will be laid off, and if we can't turn the situation around -- and quickly -- the paper will be put up for sale. And if no buyer can be found (keep in mind that when Hearst bought The Chronicle back in 2000, it had to pay the Fang family $66 million to take the Examiner off its hands), we would close.

I don't know if I was the only one who began to cry, but I cried longest. And I don't cry. The last time I cried like this was when my dad died in 2005.

Of course, we published a story about the news. It generated vicious comments online attacking the newspaper. And people were quoted on TV saying, "It doesn't matter because I get my news online."

Exactly who do you think gathers that news, vets it and delivers it to you online? Without The Chronicle, there is no SF Gate, one of the top 10 most visited news sites in the country.

Adrienne also came to mind because I was rushing home to edit a story by one of our most talented reporters, Carolyn Said, who covers real estate. (I was going to do it from home so I could let me dog out before her bladder burst.)

You've probably heard about that guy Obama, and his housing rescue plan? Well, it turns out that many Bay Area homeowners won't qualify for relief because our loans are so large. Carolyn, being the veteran, trusted journalist she is, outlined this in her analysis of Obama's plan. And U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier read it. And amended Obama's plan so that more homeowners in the Bay Area will be able to keep their homes.

The bill is set to be approved tomorrow. Because of a newspaper reporter.

You're welcome.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

25 Random Things About Me

OK, this is kind of cheating in the area of "orginal content," but it was a fun exercise on Facebook, so I thought I would post it here. If you're tagged, you have to write a list of 25 random facts about yourself. Here's what I wrote:

1. I am freakishly impervious to cold and often run the A/C in my car even in the winter (sorry, enviros).

2. Herel is not my "real" name.

3. At various times in my life -- and to varying degrees of seriousness -- I have wanted to be: a spelunker, airline pilot, nun, model, war correspondent, novelist, police officer, nurse, EMT, spy, lawyer, florist, fireman, FBI agent and professor -- but never an astronaut, actor or politician.

4. I am the proud mama of two cats and a dog: Vesper, 18; Stosh, 5; Lucy (a rescue Pekingese from a puppy mill), 9. They get along swimmingly.

5. I ran with the Olympic torch in 1985, and I still have it (you only pass on the flame).

6. I miss my dad, who died in 2005, more than he or I ever would have imagined.

7. If I could meet anyone, alive or dead, it would be my grandparents, who died before I was born. Second choice? Cary Grant.

8. I am infinitely curious what my mom, who died when I was 22, would think of me today. Enough about death ...

9. I have worked as a hand model, and my hands remain on some instruction booklets for small kitchen appliances. (My feet were registered with the studio, too, but I never had the occasion to work as a foot model.)

10. I have a thing for even numbers, but I have only ever lived at odd-numbered addresses.

11. I once flew to London for a blind date. London was great!

12. I love horror movies -- and classics. Dual favorites: The Thin Man and Halloween.

13. This year I will turn 42, the age my mom was when I was conceived/born. No longer will this reassuring thought be true: "I’m not as old as Mom was when she had me."

14. I feel like I should have been this age in the 1950s.

15. I still sleep with the teddy bear my brother gave me when I was 5.

16. My fashion sense and taste in music are arrested at 1989.

17. I feel incredibly fortunate that my U of Del. roommate, Victoria Lyon, and best friend from graduate school in Boston, Erica Kain, live in the Bay Area. I also am terribly excited to have found my first girlfriends ever -- Lori Shew-Jones and Sara Shostak -- on Facebook.

18. I have an abundant fondness for every city and every apartment I have lived in: Newark, Wilmington, Yorklyn and Hockessin, Del. (I love ya, Joe Biden!); Wilmington, N.C.; Boston; and S.F.

19. If I weren’t so terrified of public speaking, I would like to be a comedian. The biggest compliment you can give me is if I make you laugh.

20. I cut the tags out of all my shirts because I can’t stand how they feel (if you are a friend or colleague, there’s a fair chance that I’ve employed you to help me with this).

21. I really wish they would bring back Melrose Place, Seinfeld and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

22. Things that make me happy: anything retro, 40s music, the library, reading, crossword puzzles, flea markets, peanut butter cookies, butterscotch, buttons, cooking, my pets, friends, (some!) family, Nip/Tuck, Real Housewives of Orange County, Saw movies, Julian McMahon, David Boreanaz, Robert Downey Jr., gardening, the beach, being tan, running at Lands End, chardonnay, cowboy boots and The San Francisco Chronicle.

23. I have never been to Disneyland and really want to go there.

24. I own hundreds of Pez dispensers.

25. I snore. I dream vividly and remember my dreams. I believe in ghosts. I'm one of the happiest people I know. And I'm out of numbers.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

We Are All But Actors on a Stage

When my then-husband called it quits in the summer of 1999, my sister-in-law encouraged me to talk with his first ex-wife. K was curious, my sister-in-law said, to compare notes. So I gave her a call.

We talked for about two hours.

Ten years later, I find that K, a poet (a talented one at that; M picks good wives, as I've told him), has written our conversation into her book of poetry.

It's due to arrive from Amazon tomorrow, but I have been able to find some of it on the Web. The main section of "The Paragon" is a collection of 42 sonnets titled, "His Next Ex-Wife."

It's been 10 years since we split up -- nearly 20 for K -- and I still became faint reading about my life, from someone else's perspective.

I had to order it, in hopes that maybe K's poetry would help me understand my own life.

It is, however, exceedingly strange to read. Take this excerpt from a review, for example:

And what setting could be better than the California of legends with its new-world wines, self-consciously healthful cuisine, superimposed track of Sex,
Lies & Videotape and cameo appearances by Barbie, Mr. Spock and The Frugal Gourmet? ... But just when the biting recreations of "made-for-TV-drama" resemble Hollywood scripts too perfectly, a complex picture underimposes itself beneath the film. This undercurrent cannot be paraphrased and its grief is real.

That would be my grief. Her grief. Ours?

Funny thing is, I fictionalized K as well, in a short story I had published in my graduate literary magazine. Escher is working overtime here.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Nothing Much Happened Today

I was 10 when I got my first diary for Christmas. Its cover was soft orange faux leather with the word "Diary" written in gold script. More than likely it came from Woolworth's or Di'Iorio's, a variety store where my mom worked at the time. There is a feeling of power a little book like that and a writing instrument inpart. But also an odd sense of obligation. After dutifully filling up January's pages with my fifth-grade dramas, the entries became more sparing, until a nagging sense of guilt would lead me to write in big letters over the span of several days or weeks something like, "Sorry, Diary, nothing much happened today. I will be better about writing in here. Sorry sorry sorry!" All the while remaining unclear on the concept that no one gave a hoot whether I wrote anything. Strangely, however, I feel a similar urge to apologize when I haven't written in my blog. What a vain, silly sense of self-importance!

Anyway, for what it's worth, here is my first entry of the new year. I feel an unexpected sense of relief that the holidays are over, though like my sister I don't care for years with uneven numbers. And not because anything bad transpired in 2008. To the contrary, I was quite fortunate, especially given the state of the economy. I fared well at work, got a cheap interest rate on my mortgage, began to mend fences with my family, enjoyed Christmas -- for the first time since college -- with a blood relative and, finally, adopted a rescue Peke I named Lucy (see pic). Oh, and I returned to church, Catholic, St. Monica's up at 23rd and Geary.

People who know me are surprised I go to church. They ask me why. Sometimes they don't wait for an answer and proceed to list all the things wrong with organized religion. I'm not even sure myself exactly why I sought out the church again, after spending eight years in Catholic grade school followed by an excruciating four in an all girls Catholic high school and many adult sessions with psychotherapists in which I worked to exorcise the feelings of guilt and inadequacy that Catholicisim arguably implanted.

Here's what I know: Mass was the one place I sat still with my parents, sharing an experience, for more time than any occasion other than, perhaps, dinner. I have few links to my past like that, and none that is as comfortingly the same as when I was a kid. It is the one place my parents don't feel like a dream I made up. In fact, you could say that it was more unusual that I didn't go to church for so many years, it is so familiar. Now, I can't say I believe every tenet of the faith -- heck, it's difficult for me to simply believe in God -- but there is the nut of something there that centers me. In any case, it's an escape where I can turn off my cell phone, listen to stories, sing, smell incense and fall back into ritual as if it were the Snoopy sheets on my trundle bed at 837 Lehigh. I like being part of a community. And if it allows me to take time to contemplate my life and my actions, and how I can bring joy into the world around me, I think it's worth it, regardless of anyone's feelings about organized religion.