Sounds and silence

Sound.  What does your house sound like? I can tell you what mine sounds like: a dog barking as he monitors the front window. A teenager chatting with friends over Skype as he shoots down an enemy in a videogame. Another teenager watching election news on CNN.  The occasional chirp of a cockatiel. A laundry machine swishing around. A dryer buzzing.

It’s amazing how we become so accustomed to the sounds around us. What might seem like a cacaphony of chaos to someone else is normal to me, even soothing. I’ve learned to work and play, read and write, with a variety of sounds. When any of them are taken away, it becomes unsettling.

Many years ago my beloved dog Susie died. I missed her companionship a lot but what I most noticed was how quiet the house was. There was no clicking of nails across the hardwood floor as she ran around. There was no barking when the mailman approached or someone rang the doorbell. The whole atmosphere of the house changed without her sounds. Several years later we got a new dog and it was interesting how quickly the house became full of dog sounds again. I welcomed it.

When I moved to Madrid for a year in 2011 I experienced big changes in my “soundscape” as well. Transitioning from suburban Northern California to urban Madrid meant I heard more horns honking but less birds chirping. Our apartment came with its own collection of beeps and buzzes. We quickly learned to tell the sound of the dishwasher cycle ending apart from the washing machine ending. The apartment walls weren’t thick. We could hear animated arguments in Spanish from our neighbors next door who had teenage children. (We once even heard plates smashing.) On the other side, we would hear an elderly couple’s cuckoo clock regularly sound. In the quiet of the night I would hear the elevator going up and down and wonder who in the building was out so late. On Sundays we could hear the shouts of the Ecuadorians and Columbians playing soccer on the sand lot down the street. I would say it took me a good month to get used to all those new sounds.

Some sounds are so engrained that they even show up in our dreams, years after we have encountered them. When I was growing up, I could often hear the fog horns on the San Francisco Bay at night. I don’t know why I noticed the fog horns more at night. Maybe there was more fog then? Maybe the horns stood out in the quiet of the night? In any case, one night in college, when I was living thousands of miles away from any fog horns, I stayed up late studying and fell into a half sleep. Suddenly I woke up, convenced I had heard a fog horn. Was it a dream or was there maybe a truck outside that reminded me of the sound? I’ll never know for sure but I was convinced I heard a fog horn.

I have to admit, pure silence is difficult for me. This week my kids both started after school sports teams and for the first time in many years neither of them is home or needs a ride anywhere after school. This means the house is quiet for several more hours than normal. It’s uncomfortable. I like the sounds of other people, even if we aren’t interacting. I find I turn the radio on more frequently. I know the NPR schedule like the back of my hand. Who knows, maybe I’ll even start listening to podcasts. On the other hand, silence could be good for me. It’s Lent after all, and maybe my discipline this Lent can be to embrace the silence.

Last night I attended our church’s Ash Wednesday service. The atmosphere was solemn and prayerful, with candles and soft music. Several times our pastor asked us to prostrate ourselves (kneel) on the floor. At the end of the service we received ashes on our forehead as we were told, “For dust you came and to dust you shall return, for God gives life.” It was and is a reminder that we owe our existence to God. He gives us life and allows us a short time on this earth to enjoy the wonders of living. I appreciated the quiet service to stop and ponder that thought and I look forward to more quiet this coming season.

Techno dreams and cell phone addictions

I had a dream last night that I was being attacked. I was in an airport restroom and four or  five tough-looking teenage girls surrounded me and started insulting me. I realized they wanted to hurt me. For what reason I don’t know. Just then, one of the girls took pity on me and lifted me up and carried me out of the bathroom. Somehow though, one of the girls managed to steal my purse on the way out and there was no way I was going to go back and get it. I strode down the airport corridor quickly to find my family. Feeling safe again I started to get angry. Someone needs to arrest those girls. What right did they have to threaten an innocent person? Soon though, I panicked. They had stolen my phone as well. That was the worst part of the whole thing. My phone was missing! Was the data saved? Would I ever get it back? Suddenly I woke up from the dream, wondering what would happen if I ever did lose my phone. That was worse than being threatened.

What does it say about me that my worst nightmare is losing my phone? Have I become too dependent on it? Only a few years ago I was a cell phone hold-out (hence the sign prohibiting cell phones which I placed in my house). Now, I can’t imagine life without my phone. Most people I know feel the same way. Is there any remedy for us who are addicted to devices? I think there is, but I’ll get to that later. First, a story about my friend Bruce.  

Recently my friend Bruce Wydick, a professor at the University of San Francisco, conducted an experiment with his college students in which he asked them to give up their phones for two weeks to show solidarity with the poor. For every student who gave up his or her phone a donor would give $50 to a non-profit organization working with the poor. Out of a room of 30 people, Bruce got about half to give up their phones. As you can imagine, the results were interesting. One student caved in after the first day and said he was going crazy without his phone. The rest of the group, including Bruce, lasted the two weeks and reported a mix of experiences. Some felt liberated without their phone and more engaged with real-life situations. Others felt more dependent on people and less “cluttered” in their thinking. Everyone seemed to miss the conveniences of their phone. One student, for example, had to make a collect call from a pay phone and found out that collect calls cost $25. Another student overslept without his cell phone’s alarm clock. Bruce got stuck in a bad traffic jam without the ability to use GPS.

While it’s certainly an admirable experiment to give up your phone for a period of time, most of us won’t do that willingly. Instead, I think we need to make an extra effort to spend time each day on low-tech hobbies, things that slow us down and make us appreciate life, like music or art. Maybe it’s been a while since you simply listened to music without also looking at your phone. When was the last time you leafed through an art book? We can also just observe our surroundings, wherever we are. For me on this January day, that means looking out my kitchen window and being dazzled by the white flowers on my ornamental pear tree. I take a moment to be thankful that I live in California and get to see a blossoming tree in the middle of winter! Out of another window I see my neighbor on top of his roof clearing leaves out of the gutter in anticipation of another storm. I’m thankful again for the abundant rain we’ve had so far this season. Slowing down our thinking means noticing our surroundings, appreciating the changing seasons and pausing between activities.

For a longer pause in the day you might try meditation, though in this age of constant communication that is a challenge. Sitting quietly without using a phone or other device is difficult. Another alternative is to engage your body while slowing down thoughts. I tried yoga for the first time last fall with a sense that I simply wanted to do something physical. Now I understand the popularity of yoga. You are in a room for an hour, concentrating simply on your breathing and following the instructions of the teacher to stretch your body this way or that. For that hour I am not thinking of worries or concerns or things to do. I can leave the outside world behind and enter a space that feels outside of time. I feel my muscles clench and tighten. I look forward to a particular pose. I wish we could skip another pose that is difficult. Am I getting better, more limber? Occasionally I get distracted by another person next to me, but then I come back to my own body and the teacher’s calm, soothing voice. Of course, my cell phone is turned off the whole time I am in yoga.

My kids are the first generation to grow up with smart phones as a staple of life. I wonder how life is different for them. I wonder if they notice everyday things in nature and the environment less. I wonder whether they would have given up their phones for two weeks if they had been in my friend Bruce’s lecture. Would they have simply replaced the phone with more time on their computers? Maybe the better experiment would be to go with no technology at all. Just about the only time that happens now is if we are on vacation in a remote place, which is very rare. Even last summer when we were camping, the campgrounds all had wi-fi.

I had another disturbing dream last night after the dream about losing my cell phone. (I guess it’s true you work out your anxieties in your dreams.) In this second dream my son, who is now 15, was a baby, and we were in a large modern art museum. I was holding him in my arms as we stood looking at a large room filled with undulating worm-like cylinders. The cylinders were lit from inside with flashing neon lights. My son got overstimulated by the lights and began to gag so I hurried away. Perhaps this was some kind of dreamlike warning to me to avoid technology? In any case, I’ll put my phone and my Ipad away a little earlier tonight and hope for better dreams.


The allure of TV in 2016


Watch more TV.  It sounds funny, but that’s my top resolution for the new year. I know most people want to watch less TV, but for me it would be quite an achievement to watch even one regular series. You see, I’ve resisted TV for so long that to even watch one series would be a big deal—and quite positive I think.

For one thing, I see that TV viewing brings a lot of pleasure to certain friends and family. They seem positively exuburant as they ask whether I’ve seen “House of Cards” or “Homeland.” (I always have to say no.) And then I watch them connect with someone who has seen their show and they relish the conversation, comparing notes on the various plots twists and character developments. I feel left out of a major part of routine social interactions.

I trace my TV aversion partly to the guilt I feel about having spent so many good hours of my childhood hooked on TV. Of course, I was like most kids of my era. Growing up in the 70s and 80s kids like me found their main source of entertainment in TV. After school I watched “Brady Bunch” reruns and other fluff. Within 30 seconds I could tell if I had already watched a particular Brady Bunch episode–but even if I’d seen it before, I’d watch it again. At night we watched “family” shows like “Eight is Enough” and “Little House on the Prairie” and comedies like “Golden Girls” and “Happy Days.” What innocent times those were! And maybe it wasn’t such a waste of time after all. Like TV viewing now, those times were social. I always watched TV with my brother or parents and we laughed a lot.

Later on, in the 90s, I became a big fan of  “Seinfeld” and watched every episode. I still remember the fun I had recounting episodes with my co-workers the following day. Sometime after that, however, I stopped watching TV altogether. I became busy with other activities, I went back to school, I traveled, I read more, and I had kids. Plus, there wasn’t a lot of good TV being produced. “Friends” just didn’t appeal to me.

They say that today TV is experiencing a golden age, with so many great series on Netflix, HBO and Showtime. The writing is great and acting is superb. I wouldn’t know. Instead I either spend my time reading a book or flying through the netherworld of the Internet. Somehow those activities feel more free. I can stop reading or surfing the web whenever I want whereas if I watch a show I’m commiting myself to something for an hour—or maybe many hours, as those who binge watch can attest to.

Maybe I can start this TV thing small. If an hour seems too long I can watch half a show each night. It’s easy enough to start and stop viewing on my Ipad. That should still leave plenty of time for other activities. Plus, I have the perfect show. That was a problem before. I didn’t want to watch a show about drug dealers (“Breaking Bad”) or scandal-ridden politicians (“Scandal”). But recently my son introduced me to “Newsroom,” a kind of updated and more sophisticated “Mary Tyler Moore.” It seems like the right amount of serious content, i.e. news, circa 2010, mixed with social manuevering among the staff. I’ve already watched three episodes, so I’m on my way.

I know that to really be successful about watching a TV series I have to make it a habit. In his book “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg talks a lot about how to change or create certain habits. (Anyone thinking about new year’s resolutions should read Duhigg’s book.) He says that habits are best cultivated by establishing a set routine. For example, doing the same thing at the same time every day. In my case, I could watch my series at the same time every night after dinner. Duhigg also emphasizes the importance of linking a reward to a habit. My “reward” for watching my show might be to enjoy a cup of my favorite tea. This is already sounding appealing. Duhigg goes on to say that certain “keystone” habits have a domino effect in influencing other behavoirs. For example, someone who stops smoking is also likely to start eating better and exercising more. I can’t see that TV watching would provide more benefits than simply existential happiness, but who knows? Maybe the characters will influence me to try something new. Maybe I’ll change my mind about some issue. At the least I can sound intelligent when social conversations turn to TV. I know that books can change me, so I don’t doubt that TV will too. I’ll report back in 2017.


















Smells Like Teen Spirit

A week ago my son and I went to the DMV at 8 am so he could take his driving test. It would be his second try and I waited nervously in my hard plastic seat while a computerized voice called out numbers over a loud speaker. I tried to read the newspaper to distract myself, but I kept wondering how the test was going. Would Miguel make a big error and automatically fail like he did the first time? Would he forget to do a few simple things like turn on his blinker and lose points? Miguel was a good driver but sometimes the testers were extremely picky. In fact we went early with the hopes that the testers would be rested and cheerful.

As it turned out, the second time was a charm. The text taker was friendly and polite. In what seemed like about 10 minutes, Miguel was done, proudly showing me the paperwork that showed he passed. He got in line to take a photo and that was that. He was a new driver. At age 18, he had finally gotten his license. We celebrated by going out for gourmet donuts on Telegraph Avenue.

Having a new driver in the house has been one of the biggest changes I’ve experienced as a parent. It’s changed our family dynamics in the space of a week. On the one hand, it’s good: I am no longer the shuttle driver for one of my kids. I can sit back and relax while he takes himself places. He’s driven to see friends, spend time with his girlfriend and even visit his grandparents. On the other hand, I feel wistful. Trips in the car were always a good time for conversation. I think of all the places we’ve gone—school, soccer games, baseball practices, swim lessons, friends’ houses—and realize we have spent hours and hours traveling together.

Driving is a rite of passage for teens in the U.S. and I can still remember the thrill I felt when I started driving. Unlike my son, who has grown up in Berkeley, I grew up in a small suburb in Marin County and almost everyone got their license when they turned 16. I was eager to stretch my wings and explore new places beyond my little town. Soon, to the consternation of my parents, I was driving to San Francisco and Berkeley, both about 40 minutes away. In San Francisco my friends and I hung out in North Beach, discovering funky little shops and good pizza. In Berkeley we walked up and down Telegraph Avenue, sampling more pizza and shops and mingling with college students. We felt sophisticated and free. The world was ours to explore.

I know that driving is one of the many steps toward adulthood my son will make this year. In less than a year, he’ll be on his own, doing his own laundry and keeping track of his money and schedule. He’ll enjoy more freedom, but also more responsibility; I have no doubt he’s ready.

In the meantime, while Miguel is still home, we have plenty to bond over. Miguel keeps me current on technology, music and culture. Last year he got me started on using Apple Music on my phone. I had no idea you could have access to every album ever made (almost), at the touch of button. Now I understand why no one buys albums anymore. On the TV front, recently we started watching an HBO show called “Newsroom,” about a fictitious TV station. We’re watching that via Amazon Prime, which was a revelation (again) to me. I didn’t know that our Amazon membership included TV shows. Through Miguel I’ve also discovered the comedian John Oliver (outrageous but funny). Most curiously, I’ve made many “appearances” on Miguel’s Snapchat feed. Why he likes to post pictures of his mother on Snapchat, I don’t know, but many of his friends meet me for the first time and they already recognize me from Snapchat.  

Fortunately for me, I am blessed with two sons, so I have another one at home for several more years. However, I realized the other day that my younger son could be driving in a year as well. If he’s like his brother though–and lots of other kids in Berkeley–he won’t get his license right away. That’s just fine with me. We have lots to bond over too, such as our shared love of reading (“The Girl in the Dragon’s Web” is on our Kindle now), our pets (dog and bird), and good snacks (peanut butter on banana is the current favorite). Driving can wait a while.

Am I nervous about having a child behind the wheel? Less than I thought. Fortunately children take many small steps between the big ones. Each step prepares them and their parents for the next one. Mostly, I’m happy to see Miguel grow up, enjoy adult responsibilities and make good decisions. I don’t know if I’m yet prepared to see him drive across the country on a road trip (which he has mentioned once or twice), but we have many steps before that happens. Now it’s just across town. Next week he plans to pick up friends at the airport. Next February he’s driving to a concert in Sacramento. We’re moving right along at just the right speed.
















Blogging: exercise for the mind

I never thought I’d write a blog. I didn’t even know exactly what a blog was 10 years ago. Many people didn’t–the art of blogging is relatively new. It didn’t really become a phenomenon until the late ‘90s, spurred on by a Swarthmore college student who kept an online diary starting in 1994. Now, it seems, lots of people have blogs. My friend Bruce has one, my friend Kathy occasionally writes one and even my son has a vlog of sorts, (that’s a video log in case you didn’t know and his videos are fantastic!)

I write a blog for the same reason some people run. It is cathartic. It lets me exercise my mind, discover new paths (of thought) and make contact with the outer world. I don’t always know where a given topic will lead me or what memories or hopes it may stir. That is the exciting part. Writing is a process of discovery and I always discover something new.

Sometimes writing a blog is tough, especially if you want to be consistent. Like the runner who must push herself to get out there, I don’t always feel inspired. Last week, for instance, I sat down with the intention to write something about Christmas. I wanted to explore why it was that the Christmas season inched along as a child and was full of waiting and anticipation, whereas it seems to fly by faster and faster each year as an adult. I couldn’t get past the first paragraph however. I kept thinking of the tragic shootings in San Bernadino and the craziness of the world. My thoughts on Christmas felt trite and inconsequential. My heart felt heavy.

To make myself feel better I wrote a Christmas letter instead of a blog post. I felt relieved to write a straightforward letter of news and updates on the family rather than face a more philosophical topic. And I did feel better afterwards. I had focused on joyful things and had a few moments of respite from the awful news of the day. Blogging could wait.

Like many things in life, I entered the world of blogging in a roundabout way. About six years ago I took a class called “Writing Your Personal Journey,” through a local non-profit Christian organization called New College Berkeley. The class focused on writing short personal essays on broad topics that incorporated spirituality, like “heart and soul” or “celebrations.” Each week we wrote essays and read them aloud to the class. For me, the process rekindled my love of writing, which had been dormant for a long time. I ended up taking the class three times and by the second time through I realized I wanted to share my writing more broadly, so I started posting my essays in blog format. It was easy enough to start, with the structure of a weekly class. The challenge is to maintain that rhythm, to keep a routine.

Many people seem to have set routines when they write. They always write at the same time of day or in the same place or with the same cup of tea. I know a woman who would put on a certain hat each time she sat down to write in order to demarcate her time—to signal, now is the time to write!

I don’t have a strict routine. Maybe I should. For now though, the time varies (morning, afternoon or evening), the place varies (home or café) and the process varies (quick or slow). Sometimes I have an idea that’s been burning for several weeks and I know more or less what I want to say. Other times I come up with an idea on the spot and invent as I go. Sometimes I finish in an hour; other times it might take several days. In all cases, there is a physical component. Just like the runner who feels the endorphins flow through her body, I feel pleasure and contentment in the physical act of typing words and seeing them come together on the screen. This is what keeps me going.

Sometimes I wonder if one day I’ll run out of ideas. I’ve started keeping a list of ideas in a notebook, just in case. So far, I haven’t used any of those ideas. Partly it’s because daily life supplies ideas and partly it’s because the ideas I’ve written down are a bit involved and entail interviews or research. One idea, for instance, is to research just how many resources (i.e. trees) were wasted on the latest 536-page catalog from Restoration Hardware. Another idea is interviewing some friends who are 50+ on their second-half-of-life careers. I think, when I get really get serious about blogging, I’ll work on this list.

I wonder if I’ll still be writing this blog 10 years from now. It’s hard to imagine what life will be like then or what I’ll be writing about. I do hope the world will be a more peaceful place. In the meantime, I am inspired by the many writers, like Natalie Goldberg or Mary Oliver, who keep going well into their later years. In that sense, writing is a tímeless activity. It keeps you young and alert. You are always looking for the next great topic and the discovery that comes from writing about it.

Reflections after the Paris attacks


My first thought when I heard about the Paris attacks on Friday was of my children. What kind of world was this that they would have to live in? Would these kinds of attacks become more and more frequent? Would they become as commonplace in Europe,as they already are in the Middle East? How could my children live and thrive in such a violent world? If I had to do it all over again, that is, have children, would I still do so in today’s world? I had to pause and think about it. So much has changed in the last 18 years since my first son was born.

My children were 4 and 1 when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center. I still remember sitting at the kitchen table with them having breakfast when my husband returned unexpectedly from a meeting. He had heard the news and instinctively came back home to be with us and tell us about it. We turned on the TV and saw the image of the crash replayed over and over. I don’t remember what we told the kids about the events or even if we let them watch TV. The truth is, 911 shook up my husband’s and my world, which had never seen this kind of attack before, but for our children, the effect was different. They had no point of comparison. They didn’t know 911 was so impactful. For them now, there is no pre-911 world.

Since 911 there have been countless terrorist attacks in many places, from a hotel in Mumbai to a shopping center in Nairobi to the city streets of Beirut to a train station in Madrid. Unfortunately, these attacks, combined with the many acts of gun violence we witness each year in the United States, has made our world a scarier place. The effects on my children’s world are subtle. After the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012 for instance, their school hired a security guard for the parking lot and installed a camera and buzzer for the front door. Thankfully we haven’t been affected personally by any of these events, but it’s impossible to escape the ever-present images of violent carnage and the caustic debates about gun ownership. Ironically, this violence even seeps into play time. One of my sons loves video games and many of his games feature shoot ‘em up type activity. One such popular game, called Counter-Strike, pits terrorists against counter-terrorists. It’s a little too realistic in my opinion, but when we’ve talked about it he assures me it’s just a game. Two seconds later, he switches to a game in which he’s a virtual teradactyl swooping through a jungle and seems just as immersed in this world.

Where do we look for hope amidst the darkness? I found it very hopeful that the day after the Paris attacks, people were out in the streets talking about the need to carry on life as usual and present a united front. In the same way, we need to celebrate all the acts of courage we see in the world. They are all around us. My retired neighbor, for instance, volunteers as an ESL teacher in inner-city Richmond. I’m sure my kids don’t know this. Wouldn’t it be great to invite her to dinner and have her share her experiences? My nephew JP is currently in Nepal, volunteering his time to help rebuild communities destroyed by the earthquake. It would be great to invite him over as well and hear his stories. I can probably think of dozens more people doing good in the world. For every terrorist there are many more good-hearted, courageous people.

As I write this, it is almost the time of advent, the month leading up to Christmas. As a Christian I am called to pause and reflect on the miracle of Jesus’ birth. God sent his son into a world that was marked by violence and war, much like our own. The Romans were brilliant but also ruthless. Indeed, just days after Jesus was born his family had to flee to Egypt because Herod had issued a decree ordering all baby boys in Bethlehem killed. Jesus spent his first five years as a refugee in Egypt. (That’s a point we should remember in debates about welcoming refugees.) In any case, God sent his son with a very specific mission. One of his chief motives was to give us an example of how to live a loving life. Even if you are not a Christian, Jesus’ life is inspiring, filled with acts of wisdom and kindness. He went as far as loving his enemies, even asking for God to forgive his persecutors as he died on the cross.

My prayer this year is that my sons (and myself) can live such a loving life. Despite the violence and hate around us, I pray for courage to face each day with hope and love and also opportunities to recognize those that are already doing good around us. In fact, one goal of my blog this coming year is to highlight the stories of outstanding people. We need more stories of hope to counter despair. And my boys need to hear the abundant good in the world today.


The Power of Story–from Edgar Allen Poe to Nancy Drew

I sat cross-legged on the hard floor of the library, a chill running down my spine. It was nearly Halloween and the usually cheerful librarian had decided to give my eighth grade class a scare by reading us “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe. In case you don’t remember, in this gruesome story, a man is haunted by an older man’s pale blue eye and sets out to kill him. Every night the man peers in at the older man sleeping until one night he literally scares him to death and proceeds to dismember him and bury him under the floorboards of the room. Unfortunately, the old man’s heart keeps beating even under the floor. The police arrive at the scene, called by concerned neighbors who heard a scream, and the murderer at first remains calm because there is no evidence of the deed. (He has done the dismemberment in the bath tub.) But the sound of the beating heart overwhelms him with guilt and he admits that he has killed the old man.

I can still remember studying the floor of the library as I listened to this story. Was it really possible to bury someone under a floor and not leave a trace of evidence? Would a heart really keep beating? Could there be someone under this floor right now? I wanted to get out of the library fast and onto the sunny safety of the playground. I never again entered the library with a completely neutral mind.

If you are like me, you can probably remember times as a child when a particular story made an impact. Did you cry when Charlotte in “Charlotte’s Web” died? Were you sad and incredulous at the brutality of humanity after reading Anne Frank’s diary? Were you jealous but captivated, like I was, by the adventures of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys? As humans, we seem to be drawn to stories from childhood on. In her most recent book, researcher and storyteller Brene Brown says we are “wired for story.” She cites the work of neuroeconomist Paul Zack who says that “hearing a narrative with a beginning, middle, end causes our brains to release cortisol an oxitocina. These chemicals trigger the uniquely human abilities to connect, empathize and make meaning.”

It seems that now, more than ever, our lives are filled with stories. I find it interesting that my son will often ask a friend, “Have you seen my story?” He’s talking about his latest post on SnapChat, the app that teenagers favor over Facebook. Similarly, sites like Humans of New York let us read brief accounts about the lives of everyday people and their remarkable stories.

In the last few years I’ve become a fan of audio books. Thanks to technology that allows me to download books onto my phone, I can easily listen to books while I’m driving, walking my dog or waiting for an appointment. There is something powerful about listening to stories that makes the experience different from reading or watching them. A particular actor can only use his or her voice to convey the drama of the story. In some cases, an actor nails it. Sissy Spacek does a great job reading “To Kill a Mockingbird,” for example. Her soothing Southern accent works well in capturing the voices of Scout, Jem and Atticus. Likewise, the actress who read my version of “Wuthering Heights” (Patricia Routledge) perfectly captured the Yorkshire accents of Heathcliff, Cathy and the others in Emily Bronte’s classic. She was so good, in fact, that I could not understand her rendition of the thick brogue of one of the servants in the novel. I didn’t mind that though; I felt it was a realístic potrayal. On the other hand, Toni Morrison does an almost too good job of reading her novel “Beloved.” The story itself is already heavy, focusing on an escaped slave and her new life trying to escape the ghosts and violence of her past. But Morrison reads with such a breathy, slow and downcast tone that the story became utterly depressing. I had read the whole thing in college and liked it, even found it transformative, but I only made it about halfway through the audio version before deciding to find something more uplifting.

Of course, great literature, and all stories, aren’t just great entertainment or the source of emotional connection. Sometimes they have the power to change. About a year ago I listened to a book by a Catholic priest named Greg Boyle called “Tattoos on the Heart.” In this book Boyle recounts his decades spent working in innercity Los Angeles with hardened gang members. Boyle is a great storyteller and he tells story after story of the lives of inviduals he helped navigate away from the world of drugs and crime into a productive life working for his organization, Homeboy Industries. He treats each person with respect, love and care and they begin to believe in themselves with his friendship. Boyle doesn’t shy away from reality, however, He recounts how several gangmembers couldn’t escape the life they had once led and even though they had left their gang, they were shot and killed for their one-time association. There is no completely happy ending or simple solution to this book. Still, the book made a deep impression. I was amazed with Greg Boyle’s connection with his work. He perfectly fit his calling, much like Atticus Finch fit his as a lawyer and father. His compassion, perservance and creative solutions with people were extraordinary. It made me think about my own calling in life and what gives me joy. I realized, for one thing, the value of doing creative work, such as writing, and sharing ideas with others. Sometimes creative work seems superfluous (like creating art or writing a blog), but this book taught me it may be necessary.

I’m pondering what I’ll listen to next. A classic or a new book? Non-fiction or fiction? With Halloween around the corner, maybe it’s time to return to Poe. 

Meri’s final gift

I didn’t want to go to my friend Meri’s memorial. Meri was only 60 years old when she passed away and it didn’t seem fair. Until a short time ago, she had been full of life, enjoying her garden, spending time with her grandchildren and making yearly excursions to Hawaii with her husband. Then she got cancer—an inoperable type that affected her blood—and it spread quickly. The last time I had seen her she had lost a lot of weight and when I asked her what her prognosis was, she said she didn’t want to know. In fact, she only lived a  year after her initial diagnosis.

For me memorial services are always sad but at least when the person who passes is older, they make sense. Last year I attended two memorials for people in their 80s and although it was still a shock to lose them, we could celebrate their lives, knowing they had lived a long time. In Meri’s case I felt she had been dealt an unfair hand—going so soon and so quickly. I imagined her memorial would be a depressing affair.

I first met Meri 25 years ago when I visited the church I would later join. At the time the church still had a choir, outfitted in swishy blue robes, and Meri was the enthusiastic arm-waving and always smiling director. Later, when the church adopted guitars and drums, Meri continued leading worship. She had a beautiful soprano voice and loved teaching us new songs. Meri also worked in the church’s front office, cheerfully greeting everyone who walked in and genuinely concerned with each person’s life, whether it be the pastor, little kids or those down and out of luck. On top of this, Meri also was a preschool teacher at the church’s preschool for many years and she cared for both of my kids at various times.

Twenty-five years is a long time to know someone and my husband and I watched Meri go through the ups and downs of life. She and her husband Rusty had three adopted children of different racial backgrounds and when we met they were almost teenagers, struggling with teenage things. Not long after that Meri and Rusty went through a difficult divorce. They had to sell their house and move. Rusty left the church. Meri met her second husband, Michael, at the church and they decided to start their new life at a different church. We missed them greatly.

Given all this history I knew I should attend Meri’s service, at least out of a sense of loyalty and support. The invitation said we should dress in “aloha” attire, given Meri’s love of Hawaii. So a few days beforehand I scoured Macy’s end-of-summer sale rack and bought a bright pink shirt with flowers. My husband checked his closet to make sure his faded Hawaiian shirt was still there.

Apropos to the Hawaiian theme, the day of the memorial was one of those rare hot days in the Bay Area. The church was packed with colorfully dressed people fanning themselves with the program. I looked around the room and saw many familiar faces, some of whom I had not seen in 20 years. Instead of feeling sad, I felt happy to see old friends and looked forward to talking to them afterwards. Then the music began. A simple band with a singer, guitar placer, piano and drums played some familiar and unfamiliar songs. They sounded great, more like a professional recording group than an amateur church band. After a few songs the pastor got up. He told us that Meri had planned all the details of the service, including who would sing which songs, what her biography would say and who would read it (her daughter), and who would share memories of her life. Meri had even thought to include a hula dancer midway through the service, a nice touch. I began to realize that this service was Meri’s final gift to us. She had done what she always did best, which was to bring people together and celebrate music and life.

After the service was over, we were invited to a reception. You might be able to tell how much someone is loved by the quantity and quality of food. There was tons of food, including lots of fresh sushi. As I made my way through the food line an old friend, who I hadn’t seen for years, invited me to sit down next to her. “I really want to hear what’s going on with you,” she said, in exactly the style Meri had always used. We had a great conversation about kids, writing and spiritual life. We agreed to get together again to chat more. I talked with several more old friends and was so engaged that I lost track of time. I had the strange sensation that Meri should be here to participate in all this, but then again, she was here in a way, creating this atmosphere.

In the end, I felt enriched by Meri’s service. I felt like I wanted to live a more joyful life and follow Meri’s example of care for others. I will miss Meri but I realize her impact has not ended. 

Return to Spain–Day 22-24–Farewell to Spain

Barcelona and Madrid are Spain’s two largest cities, but they are quite different. Barcelona is a coastal city on the Mediterranean, while Madrid is in the middle of the country. Barcelona has a more international, multi-cultural vibe, being closer to the rest of Europe, while Madrid has a more traditional Spanish feel. In some ways the difference between Barcelona and Madrid is a little like the difference between L.A. and San Francisco. Yes, they both belong to the same country but they have very distinct cultures and lifestyles. Even their sports teams have a strong rivalry. Miguel and Peter are big Barca soccer fans and our Madrid friends can’t quite understand why. For them the Madrid teams–Real Madrid and Atletico–are far superior. 

We like both cities for different reasons and were glad we could spend some time in each place on this trip. Unfortunately, Barcelona has gotten more and more popular with tourists, which we discovered on our trip four years ago. A visit to the Sagrada Familia cathedral meant standing in a line that wrapped around the block and lasted several hours. This time, we didn’t have the time to visit famous cathedral or Guadi buildings but we saw friends and explored their little town of Premia, which was probably even better. We ended our short stay in Premia with a quick trip to the beach, and then got in the car for the long drive (about six hours) back to Madrid. 

We arrived in Madrid around 10 p.m. and fortunately the A/C was working since it was still in the 90s! Last time we did our house exchange we went on a trip and came back to a sweltering house. The A/C in the house is delivered through the floor. There are pipes running under the floors with either cool or hot water, depending on whether you want A/C or heat. The system works well, but it takes a day or two to kick in. This time we were smart enough to ask our house exchange family to turn on the A/C a couple of days ahead of our arrival. Phew!

Temperatures are not going down. After coming home Wednesday, we spent much of Thursday hunkered down in the cool house. Even Madrilenos say they’ve never seen such a long and intense heat wave. Peter managed to do a few errands, like wash the car, and fill out paperwork for his lost suitcase. Finally, at about 6 p.m. we went to our friend’s urbanizacion (apartment complex) for a dip in the pool. Many big apartment complexes have their own pools here and it functions as a community gathering place. During the summer people get off work and head for the pool to cool off and catch up with their neighbors. After a couple of hours at the pool with friends Javier and Angeles and their chidren, we all walked down the street for dinner at the Eiffel, a popular restaurant. We met up wth our other friends Manu and Paloma and their three children as well as Paloma’s parents. Paloma and her mother gave us two sweet gifts–a new edition of Don Quioxte that translates the classic story into modern-day Spanish, and a vacuum-sealed package of meats and beans to make cocido, a popular Madrid dish. Technically, you are not allowed to  bring meats into the United States, but it’s definitely worth the risk. Four years ago we packed vacuum-sealed packages of jamon in our suitcases and they got through customs. It’s almost impossible to buy jamon in the U.S. and when you can buy it it’s very expensive. A tiny package that might cost $5 in Spain would cost $25 in the U.S. and a whole leg that costs $100 in Spain costs $1,000 through a mail-order company in the U.S.! Talking with our friends we realized we missed a great opportunity to mail some jamon home–we should have included a dozen packages or even a whole leg in the box with the chairs we sent home a few weeks ago! There was plenty of extra room in that box. Now, we’ll have to be satisfied with cramming a few packages in our suitcase and hope customs doesn’t spot it. 

Both Peter and I felt melancholy on Friday. The end of a satisfying vacation is always hard. We decided to go to the city center in Madrid one more time and enjoy a few sights. We’ve seen most of the big museums, like the Prado, so we decided to visit a small one, focusing on Romanticism, a period of art in the 1800s. The museum was actually the furnished rooms of an old mansion in the now-trendy Cheuca neighborhood of Madrid. It’s always fascinating to see how rich people lived. Even though Spain’s golden age had ended by the 19th century, the family that lived in this house was extremely wealthy. Oil paintings, gold mirrors, velvet sofas and even fancy children’s toys (like a miniature horse carriage and dollhouses) fill the home. It reminded me a little of Madrid’s Royal Palace, which is the most well-preserved palace, in terrms of furniture and decor, in Europe. After the museum, we walked over to El Corte Ingles, Madrid’s fancy department store, and we felt like royalty ourselves as we enjoyed a drink on their 7th floor terrace, overlooking the city. The day could have ended then quite satisfactorily, but we had another dinner date with friends later on. We had convinced our friends to do an American-style potluck, where they brought the food and we supplied the house and drinks!

In a fitting end to our time in Madrid, our dinner guests didn’t arrive until 10. They brought lots of ham, an huge empanada, dried tuna and almonds, salad, pizza, cheese and crackers and dip. What kind of things do you talk about with friends from a different culture? For one thing, they were fascinated with Peter’s work as a financial planning workshop presenter for Ernst and Young. They wanted to know all about the topic of pensions and health care in the U.S. Evidently there is little variation in pension and health care plans here in Spain, unlike in the U.S. That was the serious side of the conversation. Then Peter mentioned that one of his clients is 3M, the company that makes Post-Its. We talked about Post-its and someone mentioned something about duct tape. It turns out that Spainards call duct tape “cinta americana” because in lots of American movies bad guys tape up their victims with duct tape! We laughed. We then explained what a duct was and debated about whether it had been called “duck” tape originally, given its water repellent qualities. 

Around 1 a.m. we had a few copas (after-dinner drinks, a necessity in Spain) and our little party broke up around 2 a.m. We all exchanged many besos and promised to keep in touch via Skype and what’s app. It’s hard to keep in touch with friends in Europe due to the time change–they are nine hours ahead of us. However, even if we don’t keep in touch often, we feel like we’ve strengthened these friendships for many years to come. We hope to see them in California one day, but it is a long way. Many Spainards make it as far as New York, but not California. In any case, we’ll be back again someday soon. Spain’s people, food and sights continue to fascinate us! It’s been a great trip. 

Returning to Spain–Day 21–Que calor!

7-7–There’s no doubt about it–weather can greatly influence your travel experiences. Unforunately the ola de calor (heatwave) is not letting up anytime soon. As soon as I woke up at 10 this morning I was hot–and not looking forward to doing anything in the heat. Even going to the beach sounded almost unbearable. In the end we all opted to take the train into Barcelona where Miguel hoped to meet a few California friends who were also traveling. We struck out with the first friend–we never found her–and had five hours to kill before meeting the second friend, his high school Spanish teacher. What do you do with five hours to kill in Spain? First off, we had a long lunch in an air-conditioned restaurant. It was overpriced, since it was right off Las Ramblas, the main thoroughfare in the old quarter of Barcelona. Also, the drinks weren’t included in the menu of the day and Peter had a few words with the waiter about that. The paella was mediocre; not our best Spanish dining experiennce. After lunch we walked up and down Las Ramblas, observing other tourists and the schlocky keychains, name plates and caricatures for sale. I felt like I was at Fisherman’s Wharf. Pretty soon it was time for a drink and I ordered a glass of cava, which gave me a little boost of energy. Then we were off to another neighborhood to meet Miguel’s Spanish teacher. We walked through the Exiample section of town, and it was just as beautiful as ever, with elegant 19th century apartment buildings and wide boulevards. Poor Peter was just about dying from heat stroke at this point though, so we rested a bit in a park. Seeing Beatriz, the Spanish teacher, was a lot of fun for Miguel. She grew up in Venezuela but is spending the summer in Barcelona learning Catalan. I could tell she really liked Miguel and was happy to see him. He told me earlier this year that she would always call on him to read things in class because she liked his Spanish accent–acquired during the year in Madrid. Que guay!

The end of our day made up for the overheated beginning. We arrived back at Esther’s house in Premia around 7:30 and she had already prepared a big spread of dinner for later on–plates of jamon, sliced salami, sausage, cheese, bread, etc. Always a bundle of energy, Esther suggested we take a swim before dinner. We headed out to the beach, only two blocks away and took a quick dip in the Mediterranean. It was still hot and sunny at 8 pm! Refreshed, we came home and showered, then enjoyed a late-night dinner with Esther, her husband Frank and three of their children on their charming back patio. 

The Catalans are quite proud of their heritage and have strong opinions on many topics. Yesterday, while talking with Esther about Miguel’s college plans, I mentioned that Miguel might like to go to a Spanish-speaking country for a semester during university, maybe Spain or somewhere in South America. Esther responded with surprise. “Europe would be much better, don’t you think? The culture is much more similar for you. When we think of South America we just think of drugs and violence.” I told Esther that we’ve known many people who’ve had good experiences in South America, but she didn’t seem convinced. Probably it depends in large part on where you go. Today Beatriz, the Spanish teacher, said she no longer travels home to Venezuela because she is afraid of kidnappings. Her daughter is blond and fair-skinned, she said, and kidnappers might spot her and think she comes from a family with money. But Venezuela is one of the more problematic places, I think. Other countries, like Argentina and Peru, and more peaceful. It’s too bad that a few (well, maybe many) drug dealers have changed the image of a whole continent.  

On the subject of Catalan nationalism, Esther and Frank had a lot to say. Like many of their neighbors, they have a Catalan flag flying on their house. They support Catalan independence and plan to vote in support of it in a regional election this September. They are quite adamant that the Catalans, the most economically well-off people of Spain, unfairly “support” the rest of Spain. They explained that their tax dollars go to help poorer regions, like Extremadura, while the central government in Spain rarely invests in the infrastructure of Catalunya. Case in point is the fact that the first fast train in Spain was built to connect Madrid with Sevilla in the south, instead of the much more traveled route from Madrid to Barcelona. Peter tried to play devil’s advocate a bit and argued that some states of the U.S., like Texas and California, sometimes play with the idea of becoming an independent nation, but this is really a joke. Sure, Texas and California are big economies, but would they really support their own armies, currency, etc.? The beauty of the United States is that it is a union of very different cultures and places. Spain is the same, said Peter. Esther and Frank didn’t buy this argument. They said Catalunya was once an independent nation and it has a long history of its own apart from the rest of Spain, not to mention a different language. And the central government does not treat it fairly. In the end, Frank conceeded, the vote this September won’t be successful. Now there are many people from other parts of Spain living in Catalunya and they won’t support independence. 

Just as we wrapped up our talk about Catalunya, we heard fireworks overhead. It was midnight and the start of a five-day town celebration in honor of a long-ago battle with pirates. It seems every town in Spain has some kind of local celebration and we just happened to be here to see the beginning of this one. We wandered out on the streets to the local plaza, where we saw people dressed as giants (much like we had seen before in Tolosa) and a band of drummers. Tomorrow there will be a giant water battle in the streets, with children shooting water guns and others pouring buckets out of second-story windows. 
Viva Premia!