Turning to Gratitude

I’ve found it easy to get frustrated with life in San Francisco recently. The city is more expensive than it ever has been (how did I just spend $52 on a small bag of groceries?), there’s construction going on on both streets that border my corner building (who wouldn’t think 7 am is a great time to start jack hammering?), and it’s been a while since the last rain, so the smells of the city can be overwhelming. So tonight I decided I would be intentional on my walk. I’d only focus on what I’m grateful for in the city.

I’m grateful that I can walk two blocks and eavesdrop on conversations in four different languages.

I’m grateful that there are still so many mom and pop businesses in my neighborhood that are thriving, and that we’re on a first name basis.

I’m grateful for hills that get my heart rate rising.

I’m grateful for sidewalks and for cars that yield to pedestrians.

I’m grateful for living in a city for so long that virtually every corner I turn I have a fond memory (the building I lived in when I first got divorced and the pancakes we made on New Year’s Day, the bar where we saw a friend’s band play and drunk them out of Jack Daniel’s, the now vacant lot where I got my first Christmas tree in San Francisco).

I’m grateful for the water that surrounds this city, offering calm and peacefulness.

And I’m grateful for living on the west coast, and watching the sun set at the end of the day.

Seventeen Years of Joy

Seventeen years ago my roommate at the time told me she was getting married and I needed to find a new home. The year was 2000, in San Francisco, and the dot com bubble had not yet burst. I showed up to open houses to find dozens of applicants ahead of me, cash deposit in hand, bidding on places of questionable character. I knew I would have to pay more to move from a shared place with a roommate to a place on my own, but I wasn’t prepared for the rents that were twice, and sometimes three times as much, as I had been paying, for places that were twice, and sometimes three times less nice, than where I had been living. After weeks of looking, the move-out date was approaching and I still didn’t have a place to live. I saw an ad for a studio on Craigslist, asked if I could see it that afternoon, left work early to beat the rush of applicants, and met the agent on the sidewalk. We walked up three flights of stairs, she opened the door, I walked into the hallway and said, “I’ll take it.” She looked perplexed. “Don’t you want to see the rest of the apartment?” “Nope, this is great.” It was clean, it was in a quiet neighborhood, and it was more or less (much more) in my budget.

I had a housewarming party a week later. Friends crowded in to the tiny studio; we toasted to new beginnings. And I received what would become one of my favorite gifts of all times. A simple vase with blue glass edging, with a note to invest in a $5 fresh bouquet of flowers each week. Since then, I’ve picked a small bouquet each week and arranged it in this vase that has followed me from that studio to multiple other homes. And it continues to bring me as much joy now as it did that first week in my new studio, seventeen years ago.

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A Day in Glenapp

While in Scotland, we wanted to visit the countryside and we wanted to stay in a castle. This is where Google is amazing. If you Google “stay in a castle in Scotland” one of the first results is a website that lists all the castles where you can stay in Scotland (as expected). We chose Glenapp Castle, a couple of hours train ride away from Edinburgh, and watched the scenery get greener and greener and more expansive the farther west we traveled.

The taxi driver picked us up at the tiny train station, and spoke to us about his profession (electrical pole raising), his mother’s summer house (up the cliff), the Ailsa Criag (where curling stones are mined), and the state of the sea. We told him we were from America and he smirked slightly and responded, “I guessed.” We passed a roundabout with a large stone ship that asked, “Whit’s yer hurry?” A good reminder for the upcoming weekend.

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Whit’s Yer Hurry?

We turned down smaller and smaller roads until we reached a gate, followed by another small winding road leading up a hill. And then, around a curve, the castle! With gates! And turrets! And dormer windows! And a fountain! We squealed and asked the driver to stop so that we could take a photo from farther out (not minding the rain that was falling).

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Our first view of Glenapp Castle

We entered a grand hall and were taken on tour: the dinner dining room, the breakfast room, the sitting rooms, the library, the outdoor patios and terraces. Despite the weather, we were ready to explore. We donned Wellies (Wellies!) and raincoats, foregoing umbrellas, and set out to walk the grounds (how proper!).

First stop, the Tea House. Which was as cozy and adorable as it sounds. Low ceilinged, slightly sloping floor, small tables just close enough apart, handmade lace and mismatched tea cups displayed on the walls. After a cuppa, we ventured to the conservatory, breathing in that earthly, humid, floral smell of greenhouses. As someone who is almost always in cities, it’s such a treat to be surrounded by plants. We admired the delicate African violets, breathed in the thick sweet smell of the honeysuckle, and marveled at the incredibly tiny bunches of grapes blooming on vines.

We meandered to the herb garden, greeted by beds of fragrant rosemary, velvety sage, and bursts of purple blooming clover. We strolled to the Azalea pond, marveling at the picture perfect view. It was almost too perfect, the pond, sprinkled with lily pads, lined with flowering azalea bushes in all colors: cotton candy pink, neon magenta, fiery red, heavenly yellow, flaming orange. We sat on the bench and took in the beauty, catching up on goings on since we last saw each other.

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Laughing by the azalea pond

We continued exploring, through the dense woods filled with beds of surprisingly intense blue bonnets, across the yard, littered with fallen petals, down narrow paths, not sure where we’d end up. We made our way back to the castle and discovered a croquet lawn. Not entirely sure of the rules (or the object of the game), we made our own, whacking the ball through wickets and high fiving each other when we were successful.

We decided it was time for a glass of wine on the patio. Inside, we selected a vintage, and asked if they could bring it to the patio. There was a split second, just a glimmer of surprise, on his face before he said of course they could do that. We sat in the very brisk dusk, overlooking the sea, as rain spitted from the sky. Not heavy enough to require umbrellas, just enough of a mist to barely wet your skin. We talked about what we would do the next day – a boat trip to Ailsa Craig or a hike along the coastal bluffs? It’s a good thing to be forced to choose between only excellent options.

Over dinner we discussed our options and decided on the 8-mile hike along the coastal bluffs. With each of the six courses we chatted and tried to keep our laughter at an appropriate level in the very hushed, very formal dining room. The conversations of other tables couldn’t be heard. The laughter of ours could. Before one course, I asked our waiter, Hugh, “So who owns this castle?” He motioned for me to keep my voice down and mentioned it was the gentleman in the corner.  Hugh shared the history of the castle, including the disappearance of a former owner’s daughter, Elsie Mackay, aka the actress Poppy Wyndham. We asked if there were ghosts, and he indulged us with stories of sightings. We said we hoped that we encountered a ghost during our stay. (we didn’t)

On Sunday we enjoyed a traditional Scottish breakfast (haggis is delicious) before embarking on our coastal hike. To be in the countryside, nary a soul in site, on a beautiful sunny day, on the coast of western Scotland, is pure heaven. We traipsed through meadows filled with sheep and cows, and spotted shy deer, bunnies, and partridges on the path. We climbed jagged hills strewn with rocks and walked through grassy leas. Mostly, though, we simply enjoyed the stunning beauty of the countryside, already planning when we could return and experience more of lovely Scotland.

A Day in London

“Have you been to Great Britain before?” asked the Immigration Official. “Yes,” I answered. “When was that?” I paused, and thought. “I don’t remember. It’s been at least six or seven years.” “That was a long time ago,” she said. Yes, I thought. It was.

Why had it been so long? I forget how much I love the UK, London in particular. I’m delighted simply to speak to people. I love hearing their accents; I love how polite and proper folks are. The city is so ultimately walkable and museums are free. And fish and chips. And black cabs where the seats fold down and you can ride backwards, seeing all that you’ve passed. And signs, reminding you to be careful: “Mind The Gap” and “Look Left” and “Stand Right.” And Big Ben. And tea served in dainty fine china cups. And beautiful, old train stations, with new trains that run on time. And theater, so much theater. And shop clerks who call you “love.” And cobblestone streets that cause you to take care so you won’t twist an ankle. And poets, sitting along the river Thames, offering to type you a poem on a manual typewriter:

                          Over there is a
big salty puddle called the Atlantic
in the other direction, another
even bigger puddle, that one we

call the Pacific. The difference is
Pacific folks are handsome and eat
a lot of grapef ruit and avocado
The people of the Atlantic are very
clever but ill formed. They read
the New Yorker a nd the London
review of Books but they  don’t unde
stand the word ‘lifestyle’ they
invented that stuff on the Pacific
Rim. Brunch, decking in the garden
barbecues and long walks along the
beach.
This, London, is a place for drinking
drinking is not a  lifestyle
it’s an occupation.

In Search of the Super Bloom

There’s been a lot in the news about how this spring California would erupt in a “Super Bloom” – something that only happens when we get a lot of rain after what seems like our constant state of drought. This winter we got a lot of rain. Enough to make several pundits declare the drought over. And pictures began showing up of the deserts erupting in color. I wondered if the Super Bloom effect could be seen closer to the Bay Area. I noticed 7×7, a magazine dedicated to all things San Francisco, had recently published the best spots to see flowers within a drive of San Francisco

Danielle and Eric were interested in seeing the Super Bloom as well, so we rented a car and set out for Henry Coe State Park, a couple of hours south of San Francisco. As we got further and further south, we noticed swaths of color along the highway. “Super Bloom!” we would shout as we spotted them.

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Super Bloom along the 101

We marveled at how beautiful the flowers along the highway were, and grew more and more excited about the 3.7 mile hike that would be awash with color. We exited the highway and began the twisty turvy route up to the park entrance. Houses became fewer and farther between and cows a more common site. As Danielle navigated, she proclaimed we were almost there. We slowly rounded the curve and stopped. A line of cars greeted us. We stopped. And waited. There was no movement for a while, so we got out of the car to see what was happening. Basically what was happening was 7×7 had published a best places to see the Super Bloom in the Bay Area article and hundreds had flocked to Henry Coe State Park. The park ranger was letting one car in as one car left. We waited, encouraged to see cars leaving. We were not next, but next next in line to enter the overflow parking lot when it a more senior ranger arrived on the scene. “Sorry, we’re full. No one else can enter the park.”

Oh, man. We looked at each other, not quite believing our luck. We turned around, as the park ranger instructed us, and headed back down the winding road. We stopped at a picnic area beside a lake to have our picnic lunch and discuss Plan B. We were still out of cell range, so we decided once we had service, we would look up another hike in the area and head there. We found ourselves driving up another steep climb, ears popping, cows on either side of us. We pulled into a tiny parking lot in the middle of nowhere and began the loop trail. A landscape of greens of every shade greeted us, a welcome change from the normal golden brown. A chipmunk poked its tiny head out of its burrow. A baby snake slithered across the path. Cows grazed on either side of us. We walked amidst grasses and trees, and only an occasional flower. It was a beautiful hike, despite not offering us the colorful views of flowers we had hoped for.

We left the park, driving back towards the neighborhoods of newly built beige row houses. And there, on the corner, we saw it, our Super Bloom! A carpet of fuchsia, blinding us in the afternoon sun. We pulled over to take pictures, not caring that it was someone’s carefully curated garden and not wildflowers aburst in the fields. We found our Super Bloom!

Hamilton – Absolutely Worth the Hype

Almost a year and a half ago, the group of women that I often go to the theater with were debating whether to buy another year of season’s tickets. The company is always delightful; however, the shows that season had been mediocre and it seemed like it was becoming more and more difficult to find a Friday night when all five of us could attend a show. And then it was announced that Hamilton would be one of the shows included for season tickets holders. We all committed.

I was curious about Hamilton. It received a lot of accolades, and friends who had seen it in NY praised it. I also was a little nervous about seeing it. People had talked it up SO much; could it really be that good? Hip hop is not my favorite form of music. Would it be one of those things that everyone else loved, and I just didn’t get it?

When I told people I had tickets, they immediately asked if I had listened to the soundtrack. I hadn’t, and I didn’t intend to before seeing the show. When I go to musicals, I like to be surprised; I like the music to unfold with the story. I didn’t want to have preconceived notions about the story from listening to the soundtrack prior. Besides, there are few musicals that I like the whole soundtrack; I usually will pick one or two favorites to listen to afterwards.

We arrived and settled into our seats. The lights dimmed, and then the music started. I was blown away. Everything about the production was so on point. The choreography was amazing. The lyrics were so clever (why can’t all of history be taught through musicals)? The music was phenomenal. Not just hip hop but also jazz and ballads and razzmatazz (accompanied by subdued jazz hands at one point). The plot. Yes, it was history, and the way it was told it was so riveting. At intermission we were fawning. So good, so good, so good! Afterwards we talked about what we loved most, shared pictures, and left on a musical high.

And when I got home, I downloaded the soundtrack.

An Artful February: Rent, Roxane Gay, John, and A Thousand Splendid Suns

I still love Rent, even after 20 years. I remember seeing it when it first came out in 1996 and it felt so relevant. Watching the friends struggle to pay rent, to live a life worth living, to cope with friends dying of AIDS. In real life, beginning to have hope that the drug cocktails would start to stem the ever present tide of AIDS related deaths. Daring to hope that the funerals would subside. For this performance, our tickets were in the second row. As we sat down, I thought, “This is close.” And it was amazing. I’m a convert to front of the house tickets for live performances.

Just an interviewer and an author, sitting on two couches. Roxane Gay commented that she’s better on Twitter, when she has a chance to think of responses before sharing them. I disagree. She’s perfect in person. She emphasized the importance of creating joy in our lives, otherwise it’s easy to become a secretary of despair. She looks forward to Benadryl nights, when she knows she’ll get a good night’s sleep. I loved this. One of the things that I relish about being sick is taking medicine that will make me sleepy. It’s such a heavy, drowsy, languid existence.
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John was long (3 hours, two intermissions) but was one of those plays that I thought about a lot afterward. The main guy in the play, Elias, well, I was so annoyed with him. But after the play I questioned Jenny’s character, and if maybe some of Elias’ actions were justified. And it was quirky.

I’ve read all of Khaled Hosseini’s books; they’re the type of stories where you’re so engrossed, you reach the end of a chapter and look up and it takes a moment to realize where you are, here in San Francisco, rather than in Afghanistan. ACT commissioned a play of A Thousand Splendid Suns and it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen there. The play (different from the book) is engaging, the actors dynamic, and the story of the growing friendship between Laila and Mariam is a reminder that even in times of despair, there can be love and joy.

Visiting Senator Feinstein’s Office

I have a special place in my heart for Senator Feinstein. I moved to San Francisco in late summer, 1992. One of my first memories of the city is going to a rally with my new flatmate (whom I had only met a few days before) at San Francisco State University for then candidates Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. *Two* women Senatorial candidates that I could vote for? Having just moved from Jesse Helm’s North Carolina, I was giddy with anticipation for that election day.

I was glad to see Senator Feinstein announce this morning that she would not support Jeff Sessions’ nomination as Attorney General. The release on her website listed the full transcript of her closing argument. I appreciated her arguments and supporting evidence. However, I was perplexed, and somewhat dismayed, by why she supported previous appointees. The statements on her website regarding confirmation for Mike Pompeo (Director of the CIA), James Mattis (Secretary of Defense), and John Kelly (Secretary of Homeland Security) didn’t contain many details, they read more or less as “fluff.” I attempted calling her offices and all mailboxes were full, no incoming messages accepted. Her website said that constituents were welcome to visit her offices between 9 am and 5 pm Monday through Friday, which surprised me. I kind of thought I’d need an appointment. Given that her San Francisco office is only a ten minute walk from my house, I decided to visit there this afternoon.

What I didn’t realize was that a protest had been planned outside her office, and access to the building was being closely monitored by a security guard. Figuring it was worth a shot, I walked to the door, said, “I’m here to visit Senator Feinstein’s office, please,” and waited. He pointed towards a group on the sidewalk and said, “The legislator is there.” I thanked him and walked over to a group of men and women holding signs, clasping stacks of letters and postcards, and talking, trying to figure out who “the legislator” was. It quickly became evident. He was the one in the middle of the circle, the one listening, nodding his head, then turning to the next person to hear their thoughts as soon as the prior person was finished speaking, the one who looked weary. After a few minutes, he moved the group to an alcove of the office building, so that we weren’t blocking the sidewalk.

There were probably 15 – 20 people that wanted to speak with him. I appreciated how he listened to each person, answered questions, received suggestions for Senator Feinstein, and offered suggestions for us. I thanked him for posting the detailed explanation of why Senator Feinstein wouldn’t support Sessions’ nomination. I said I’d like to learn more about why the Senator supported the prior presidential nominations, however. He explained that Senator Feinstein considered each nomination carefully, and she believed that each was the the best candidate that the president would put forward and each candidate would do an acceptable job. There were other people that may have been better for the job, but that the president likely would not consider putting forth for nomination. A woman next to me said that Feinstein should have voted against the nominations, that just because a nomination is the best presented, doesn’t mean that the person will be good for the job. He nodded. I asked if there was anything we could do about Bannon’s appointment. He told us that Chief Strategist is not a Senate approved position and at once several people asked about his appointment to the National Security Council, and if anything could be done about that. He said that it’s still to be determined if that appointment will require Senate confirmation but that it’s under investigation. Several people asked, desperation entering their voices, “But what can we do?” He encouraged us to call our friends in red states. Encourage them to hold protests outside of their Senators’ offices. Continue to call. Continue to email. Continue to write letters. Continue to share our thoughts, to make our voices heard. It does make a difference.

“I don’t understand the purpose. What good does it do to march?”

…my Uber driver asked when I confirmed that I had been at the march that day (I think the two huge painted posters gave it away). The question surprised me, as he was an older African-American man. “Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m happy to share my thoughts. I didn’t vote for Trump in Novem…”

He interrupted me, “Oh, neither did I.”

“Yesterday (inauguration day), I was pretty sad. I was disappointed that our country chose to elect a person who has not shown himself to be very presidential. He’s joked about personally sexually assaulting women. As a woman who has been sexually assaulted, I don’t find that funny. I find it frightening that his comments normalize an atrocious behavior. He’s mocked a reporter with a disability. I find that unacceptable behavior for anyone, much less a supposed leader. He’s said he wants to create a registry of Muslims. Targeting people and treating them differently because of their religious beliefs is strikingly similar to what happened in the not so distant past in Hitler’s Germany. And he refers to “the” groups of people: the Muslims, the African Americans, the Latinos, the Hispanics. He’s separating himself from groups that he’s supposed to represent. I can share more if you’d like.”

“But marching didn’t change any of that,” he said.

“Oh, you’re right. It didn’t. However, silence equals consent. And I don’t want anyone to think that I’m okay with what’s going on. Seems like there are a lot of people out there that think the same way I do. I’ve already heard people criticizing the march, saying “Where were they on election day?” We voted. Trump lost the popular vote by almost 3 million votes. I have no idea how many people marched today, but I’m guessing most of them were at the polls on November 8. Oh, and there’s another reason I marched today. Sometimes you need to do things that feed your soul. Being around hundreds of thousands of other people that are not okay with his behavior is uplifting. It is proof that you’re not alone. That there’s a reason to keep fighting, to keep resisting, to keep acting.”

“I hope he’ll surprise us all and be a good president.”

“I try to keep my mind open to that possibility. Based on what I’ve seen and heard, though, my hopes aren’t high. Until then, though, we’ll march, we’ll organize, we’ll protest, and we’ll do what we can to fight the gross oppression America has harbored for way too long. That’s my idea of making America great.”

He glanced at me in his rear-view mirror and gave me a big smile. “Now I see why you march.”