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.