It gets better!

Long post. Sorry, not sorry. It’s important, and please feel free to share a link to this post anywhere you want to, if you are so moved.

Since suicide is a contagious disease, and it’s in the headlines again, I think it’s urgent for parents, friends, family, teachers, coaches, and vague acquaintances of young gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer, and questioning folk to be on the alert in coming weeks.

\LGBTQQ youth are statistically at extremely high risk for suicide, because, let’s face it—adolescence, middle school, and high school are awful to begin with. Teenagers are in the most oppressive, least supportive environment that most of us will ever face in our whole lives. For anyone who’s a little different, it’s a whole lot worse. For young folks who are dealing with all the usual adolescent crap AND are beginning to wonder if they’re even bigger misfits than everybody else around them, middle school and high school crap goes way beyond annoying and difficult to potentially fatal.

If you are LGBTQQ:

  • It gets better! Life sucks now, but it won’t always suck. Just get through it somehow. Live into adulthood.
  • Look around for the people who see you—they can help. They might not be able to relate to everything you’re going through, but they will help.
  • If your family is awful, that’s not your fault—get the support you need wherever you can, and maybe someday your family will come around. They probably will. If they don’t, they suck, and they’re not your fault. Move on. Save your own life.
  • Grow into adulthood—because IT GETS BETTER. Life will be really, really good someday, and the stuff that makes it hardest now will be some of the stuff that makes it the most beautiful later on, but you have to keep yourself alive to reach the promised land.
  • If what you’re hearing in a church or shul or mosque or temple or wherever isn’t that you are loved, worthwhile, and meaningful, then it’s that place that is wrong, not you. These places are made up of people, and people get stuff wrong, but God isn’t taking orders from those people. Any god worth believing in loves you just the way you are. (And for that matter, any people worth believing in love you just the way you are, too.)

If you are family, friend, acquaintance, teacher, coach, or something to LGBTQQ kids:

  • It doesn’t matter if you understand or can relate to the LGBTQQ stuff. You don’t have to. All you have to remember is that these are young people going through difficult stuff on their way to becoming beautiful, loving, fulfilled adults, and they need love and support like everybody else.
  • They’re getting all kinds of messages that something about them makes them not good enough, and all those messages are wrong. Give them the messages they desperately need to hear: that they’re good people, they’re worthwhile, they’re lovable, they matter.
  • And IT GETS BETTER. It just does. They need to know that.
  • If what they’re hearing in a church or shul or mosque or temple or wherever is part of the problem, remind them that this place is made up of people who get stuff wrong sometimes, and God doesn’t take orders from those people. Any god worth believing in loves them just the way they are.

My own adolescence wasn’t too bad. I grew up with parents and other adults who might have been clueless at the time about LGBTQQ stuff, but they had that unconditional love thing figured out. As a result, the crap I heard at school and church didn’t get far enough under my skin to do real damage—but I sure heard a lot of damaging crap! And I know way too many people for whom the crap they heard at school and at church and worst of all at home became overpowering, fatal messages, and they’re no longer with us.

We’ve lost way too many good people to fear, despair, and ignorance. Please do not let yourself or someone you see become yet another one of them. IT GETS BETTER.

A weather report for la longue durée

My dad writes a weekly outdoors column, and yesterday’s installment mentioned something I’ve been teasing him about for years: his almost-daily emails to the family always include a weather report. Typically we learn what actually happened yesterday (as opposed to yesterday’s email’s speculation), what’s happening now, and what he thinks is going to happen next. For Dad, this stuff matters. As he puts it:

Some people in our extended family think I’m a little strange because I’m always reporting on the daily weather. I plead guilty, but my weather fascination comes from growing up on a farm, where virtually everything that happens, good or bad, is weather related. My farm days were long ago, but when it comes to outdoor activities, it’s still the weather that makes the rules.

Mira replied with her reassurance that she should not be counted among those in the extended family who question it. To which I replied, “No, Mira, he means me–and the more I tease him about it, the more “extended” is the part of the family I belong to. Right, Pop?” 

And this blog post was born…

Because me, I just don’t get it. Growing up in the snow belt, I wanted it to snow, soon, often, and deep, with blizzards a plus. Ten below or forty, it was all good–although ten was certainly better for the rare tobogganing opportunity or routine fort-building exercises, and on an ice-fishing day, it might as well have been forty below, because after half an hour of looking at a hole in the lake not going anywhere, it was going to feel forty below no matter what the temperature actually was.

Winter wasn’t the only season, of course, just the longest and best one. By spring when you’re just sick to death of it all, and here I mean May, the important weather details are 30˚: over this, Mom lets us ditch the boots and get our bikes out. And 40˚: over this,  Mom lets us wear our jean jackets.

an acrylic painting by Kevin Vang
an acrylic painting by Kevin Vang

From spring until summer, the weather details don’t matter–not until the swimming pool opens, and cooler than 62 or so means that biking to the pool in the morning for lessons wearing only a swimsuit, with a towel around your neck, is achingly cold, and the pool is hard to get into. Rain matters but only a lot of it–a wimpy little summer shower means hurry up and bike to your lessons; only a full-on thunderstorm means swimming lessons are canceled. A thunderstorm also means that the plains feel electric, not just literally; the big prairie sky cooks itself up some drama to go with the bolts of lightning, which you’ve noticed in Kevin’s skyscapes. (My brother is a painter, and an example of his skyscapes is what you see here.)

Above 80 means it’s too damned hot. Clouds or blue skies don’t matter much when it’s too damned hot.

Well, above 70 means that, really.

Which brings us to fall. Fall is just a long, slow tease, where the evenings darken earlier and earlier until it’s just plain unfair that we’re still waiting for the first snowstorm. Fall rains are boring. Without the electricity of a good summer gullywasher, fall rains are just wet. Soggy maybe. The ground gets mucky, your feet get heavier, and yeah, on those other days, the leaves are pretty–and, oh, look! there’s Orion!–but can we just have a blizzard now and get on with it?

That, to me, is the yearlong cycle of relevant weather reports. The day to day details just change what it is you see outside while you’re inside practicing or at school wondering when it’s going to snow already.

Here in California–and now I’m writing to my biological family, not to you, Mira–the weather isn’t daily or even seasonal, so much as it is geographical. My neighborhood, cool and foggy, warmer in the afternoon, foggy and cold at night. For a month or two around the winter solstice, we usually get a lot of rain but rarely so much as a wimpy twig of lightning–just wet cold rain, and lots of it, except for the decades where we barely get any and have to think twice about flushing. This is the time of year it gets down into the 40s, and in our wimpy California clothing and poorly insulated houses with single-pane windows, that can feel darned cold. “It’s a WET cold,” you hear us protest, as if that means anything–because it does. Wet cold feels colder. It gets into your bones, so that nothing short of a long soak in a hot tub can warm you back up. I know because I commute through the fog, over the bridge, on a motorcycle, and certain times of year, that electric vest barely keeps up.

For a few weeks every summer, it gets warm enough that we plug in fans and worry that the critters in their fur coats might wilt while we’re in an air-conditioned office building.

Mira’s neighborhood? Pretty much the same, but a little cooler and foggier.

Other neighborhoods–many of them called “suburbs”–can get more of a summer going, pretty much year-round, except for the rains when they come. They don’t get the daily cloud-scrub we do, so their air is dirtier, and we don’t like to be in those places longer than we have to. There’s a reason we live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and we call it “The Fog.”

So there you have it, one weather commentary to cover the first thirty and the last eighteen years of my life.

What the next thirty might bring is the stuff of Mira’s nightmares. We call it “climate change,” and far from leaving us skeptical it’s freaking us the heck out.


Old Selvig family photos

I finally got around to scanning a box of photos I inherited when Gramma Selvig (Bernelda Neumann, m. Morris Herman Selvig) moved into the nursing home. I’d love to hear from anyone who has better details on these photos.

Graduating from Beginning to Intermediate Home Ownership

On Friday, the plumber came finally to do a long-delayed project: replacing my shower mixers with the new thermostatic mixers I’d purchased a few years ago, intending to have them installed as part of the office-remodeling project.

We knew that it couldn’t be as simple as a one-day job. No, indeed, it was not. Naturally, something went wrong—one of the valves I’d ordered wasn’t quite right, so he had to come back on Monday with more parts to finish the job.

But wait, there’s more!

I also, it turns out, had a dying water heater. He was supposed to replace that yesterday, too, but the shower-mixer job from Friday took all of yesterday to resolve, so the near-dead water heater had to wait another day. That’s why I’m home again today, still babysitting the plumber, who is at this very moment using tools of a sort I’ve never seen before (that have astonishing hearing-damage capabilities) to wrest the old beast from its lair. Seeing it leave my house today brings me a certain perverse satisfaction as I recall its installation and my indoctrination into the never-ending anxieties of home ownership.

It was the fall of 1999. I had just bought and moved into this house that August, and one fine November morning I found myself taking a warm, then tepid, then suddenly cold shower; and then looking at cold, rusty water rushing down my driveway; and then using my dialup internet service to research water heaters; and then on the phone with Sears to order one. After that I found myself on the phone with all manner of people for several more days, trying to navigate all the headaches of converting from electric to gas, pulling permits, getting through inspections, wrangling recalcitrant service people, and fighting with the world’s worst customer service department. Three days later I finally had water again (let alone hot), and many exasperating calls after that I had a $500 gift card from Sears in apology for the multiple circles of hell I’d visited on my way to a hot shower.

The progressive wussitude of that Sears water heater in recent years meant that I was not terribly surprised when on Friday my plumber (here to do something completely else) noticed white plastic debris in the faucet screens and diagnosed its terminal illness:

“Dip tube failure!”

Turns out there’s a pipe in old-fashioned (“big ol’ tank”) water heaters that brings fresh cold water in through the top and down to the bottom of the tank where it is to be heated. It should then rise (recall your grade school physics lessons) to the top where it enters the hot water pipes supplying the house. The way water heater makers get us to buy new water heaters every ten years, now that tanks don’t rust out as reliably as they once did, is to make that pipe out of a white plastic that starts breaking down just a few months after the ten-year warranty expires. As it disintegrates, the fresh cold water starts leaking out, then trickling, and eventually rushing into the upper, no longer hot region of the tank, where it eddies and cools what used to be hot water, thereby sending merely warm, then tepid, and eventually cold water into the hot water pipes. It also sends its telltale white plastic debris to the screens of faucets, where wise plumbers can see that they’re about to get another call from a homeowner who is willing to pay overtime.

But when those homeowners have already learned that after a cold shower is the wrong time to deal with such a thing, and that Sears is the wrong place to call for it, they instead turn to said plumbers and say, “What kind of water heater do you think I should get, and can you put it in on Monday?”

That was Friday afternoon. Saturday I had a lukewarm shower. Sunday I had a cool shower. Yesterday I didn’t even try. Today I had a cold shower. The water heater knew, apparently, that its days were numbered and took advantage of its last opportunities to vex me. Tonight I shall pay the nice plumber whatever he asks and then mix myself a stiff martini and try to forget the number.

And that, my friends, is how I will graduate after twelve and half years from Beginning to Intermediate Home Ownership.

In the land of the olive orchards

I’ve been visiting the cave of the Sun Goddess in the land of the Olive Orchards. Vikings do things like that. Spend time. Get to know the natives. Borrow their best recipes. Learn the language. But this time, it’s a language made up of throat-clearing. Hairballs, and microscopic curly squiggles where some tidy angles would do nicely, and the like. My phlegm can’t get organized around the language at all.

The cave is snug, and I feel like Leif Eriksson. Need to set my legs and head aside in order to get through openings intact. Everywhere I turn is a door-knocker waiting to take out my forehead, a low passageway ready to bang my skull, a stack of chairs ready to grab my long, ski-like feet. The wine glasses hold four tablespoons, and the mugs are colorful, delicate things that hold barely enough water for me to gargle.

Everything’s dark and red and layered. Textiles everywhere; on the floors, on the walls, piled on the furniture, under the other textiles; the doors wear tassles, and the table gets a rug, a schmatte, a placemat, and another placemat. Mediterranean eclectic or with a capital E as well. Humble, worn, and warm. Layers of paint, and blood. Even the leather is green, and purple. Speckled porcelain tin plates.

Vikings love such places. New lands to conquer, new peoples to seduce. Cultural identity on every surface. And in the fridge and freezer. The Sun Goddess knows who she is. She celebrates her identity. Maintains it in this Jewish Diaspora, and then goes and learns a few strains of Arabic besides—they’re all dark and warm and hairy and short, right? Even her tattoos speak to her identity. The alphabets on her divine hand. Her—well, her everything.

In this, she’s just like me.

But I’m a tall Nordic person. With sleek Scandinavian modern in my house. And beige Nordic foods. Like lefse (potato flatbread) and bockwurst (pork and veal sausage). Doesn’t get any paler than that.

We both eat gravet laks, however.

So. Here’s the deal. Vikings are committed for the long haul, despite the impossible throat-clearing. But what we want is to immerse in the other in her native ecosystem. That would be: delight in the warmth of the dark-haired, dark-eyed ones. Participant/colonization in the cave of the Olive Oil Peoples. I mean, how lucky can you get to have a gig like that? I myself am used to shoveling snow. Tall skiers. Not that dissimilar from me.

While we Vikings have long observed that there are no pure cultures (or not any more, at least) (and likely never were) (other seafarers, and all) (and trade) (etc etc) this comes as close to anywhere I’ve been to studying an intact culture.

And, miracle of miracles—she’s basically doing the same with me.

Mutual exotification.

She laughs when I call her exotic. She’s more used to hegemonic. Brunette and brown eyes and olive skin and olive oil and all that goes with it. Brass trays and ibriqs and gardening and harvesting. And long black sleeves and long black legs no matter how hot it gets. And Jewish of a certain persuasion. In my book, she’s a rare species of a fish.

I laugh when she calls me exotic. I feel more the snow-belt norm. Pale. And blonde. With good akevit. We Vikings ought to stick together, right? But no. I’m drawn to the Sun Goddess.

You know the old adage. It’s straight out of the sagas. Kristin Lavransdatter. Get the lilting tones right; they sound like your boat pitching and rolling and yawing in the wintry seas.

It’s a good thing when you don’t dare do something if you don’t think it’s right. But it’s not good when you think something’s not right because you don’t dare do it.


Good days can last a long time if one tends to things with care and caution.

We’re okay, if she’s the native and I’m the Viking. We’re okay, if the Sun Goddess’s making her yaprakas to bring along whither the tall Nordic adventuring goes.

But not build a home together?

Preserve and weaken pure systems?

The only way to even approach life is with an understated sense of humor. Wry, inscrutable grins, and a mischievous appreciation for the dramatic, exotic, differently-neurotic ones. Celebrate diversity and all that. Syncretism. Heterosis. Mix it up and depurify.

It’s the dream I had when I first learned about charoset and matzohbrei. College, as I recall.

All the people of the world would blend together. No more pure-blooded high foreheads. No more this-sea-is-my-sea/that-sea-is-your-sea. Hoist the sails, get rowing, mix it up. And we’d all be merely human.

But that would mean no more zaftig olive oil farmers with audacious noses, no more Sun Goddesses, and no more tall, pale, blue-eyed, blonde-haired Vikings.

I’ve never been able to figure it out. Have appreciated those who know their own identity. Who celebrate the intactness of their heritage, the chosen-ness of their people, the tribal identification of their spices. How wonderful, right? But I’ve admired more those who have the courage to set sail. Not the ones who misunderstand indigenous recipes and make everything beige and sweet. But those who bring together the best of multiple ways—and live it.

I’m balled up inside the argument. Patient at best. Syncretism leads to impossible conglomerations of furniture and way too many tchochkes. But pure systems lead to blandness and alcoholism.

Gardening skills can be borrowed just like a cup of flour

My kaddish collaborator has sent me the dearest little bucket of brightly-colored plastic aleph-beit refrigerator magnets for Christmas, and since I need to write my thanks properly in ink on a dead-tree product, she revealed to me her street address. She mentioned that if I googled the address and used street view, I would see…

…which I did, of course. I discovered that I know her neighborhood quite well, because I used to live a few neighborhoods away and visited hers regularly…

…but this is supposed to be a story about gardening.

My point is that I told her, when she googled my old address, to take note of a sad little shrub in front of the house. I wanted to tell her this story about its glory days and the brief moment in my life when I had gardening skills.

When The Chef and I moved in, all those autumns ago, it was an enormous hulk of a fallen-over mystery bush. Near the end of winter, when it finally stopped raining, a surprisingly warm afternoon found me so tired of having to walk around that mess that I finally grabbed the barbaric giant scissors I found in the garage and went to work.

Hack, hack, hack, hack, hack. So that I could see what I was doing, I flopped it back upright over the banister and kind of spread it out, and hack, hack, hack, hack. Finally I got it thinned down enough to think it had a chance of supporting its own weight.

It had been flopped over so long, though, I figured it would need some help. I found some twine to fan out over the stucco, and I wove strategically chosen branches through the strings. I kept hacking and stringing, with no particular plan or competency, until I thought the poor thing might actually stay upright. Whatever it was.

By now several hours had gone by, and thorns of the slain beast had shredded my arms, shoulders, face. I looked like I’d lost a fight with a wet cat, and I was dirty and sweaty.

Which is when the woman with the shock of gorgeously silvering hair from across the street wandered over to say hello—but what she said first was, “You’ve done a beautiful job of espaliering that bouganvillea! It’s going to be glorious when it starts to blossom.”

I asked the attractive woman her name (Veronica!), mumbled my own, wished I looked less catastrophically catastrophic, and then asked her to translate whatever it was she had just said to me. I hadn’t understood any of it.

She cracked up and explained that the bush was a bouganvillea and would be displaying beautiful magenta blossoms in a few weeks. And what I had done—entirely by accident, I swore then and reiterate now—was a time-honored method of managing bouganvilleas by splaying them out and training them to climb up walls.

She said I had actually done it quite well. The murderously brutal surgery I had performed was exactly what it needed, and although wire was more common, my fan of strings was the usual way to get an espalier started.

I admitted that I had no idea what kind of bush it was, and I didn’t have the first clue about bouganvilleas. (I grew up in the snow belt. What did I know about Mediterranean plants?) I had no idea that it was traditional to espalier them, nor even that there was such a word. I must have seen it done somewhere, but really I was just trying to get the damned thing to be vertical again. Since I also didn’t know the first thing about pruning, I figured I had probably killed it and I’d soon be using the barbaric giant scissors to cut dead vines and strings off our staircase.

She chuckled through my confession. At some point during my tale she reached over to wipe a bit of blood off my shredded shoulder with a spit-dampened thumb. It was the sort of half-conscious gesture a mom makes—or daughter of an aging mom, I eventually learned. She probably didn’t realize she did it. Or perhaps she did, and this shouldn’t be a story about gardening. But it is.

She patiently explained to me all about “bougs,” as she called them. How they need ruthless pruning, the more barbaric the better. How and why they’re traditionally espaliered—something about the more sunlight the better, I think. How you see bougs crawling up all the houses in Spain and Portugal (aha! that’s where I’d seen it done—in Lisboa, which I’d visited five years earlier on a business trip!). How this boug wouldn’t need any watering; that its annual winter soaking would be plenty to get it through our foggy summer.

Veronica was right. A few weeks later, The Boug was a riot of magenta.

It took a while to reform The Boug’s slouching ways, so every so often I would be back out there with my string and my screwdriver and the giant barbaric scissors.

My combatant was a worthy adversary, always extracting its share of my blood while I hacked away at it. I learned to wear heavier, longer-sleeved shirts for these skirmishes, but The Boug sharpened its thorns and remained undaunted. As I bled over my labors, the neighbors would wander over to say hi, and that is how over the next several years I got to know Veronica and her mother from across the street—and the creaky, squeaky woman next door whose brain managed to hang onto a vast knowledge of gardening even as all the rest of her marbles rolled away.

I grew fond of Crazy Lady during our growing-season chats. Occasionally her social needs were inconvenient, but she always seemed genuinely delighted to greet me and tell me the latest battle in her war with the redwood behind my house—how its cones and needles littered her backyard, mainly, but also something else I never quite managed to follow that had to do with space aliens and that giant tree’s service as their antenna. I found that it was best to smile a lot and wait for her to circle back around to the things I saw on our planet.

She, too, was generous with her plant wisdom. It was she who encouraged me to weed-whack the little area to the right of The Boug and scatter a packet of wildflower seeds she plucked out of her apron and handed me.

It wasn’t my patch to garden, though—it was over the property line, on Boo Radley’s lot, fronting his ramshackle barn that we hoped wouldn’t fall over onto our rental house. Boo’s unkempt weeds were an eyesore stealing The Boug’s spotlight.

But I did as she said. I surreptitiously weed-whacked while Boo slept one off, and then I nonchalantly waved the packet over the stubble. For a few weeks I had bad aim when I rinsed off my stucco with the garden hose I’d found out back.

Sure enough, the snail-infested weed thicket was soon transformed into a colorful, tiny meadow. It was just the right thing to do with that funny space that wasn’t mine: lovely, accidental, nature’s spontaneous victory over dilapidation. Genius, that Crazy Lady.

Boo Radley must have died finally, because I see now in Google street view that the house has been propped up. Our little guerilla meadow is a tidy, deliberate-looking gardenlet now. Crazy Lady’s house looks the same, and if she’s gone off with the space aliens by now, at least I know she’s happy that her birds of paradise out front are their same outrageous selves.

When I bought my house in Montclair a few years later, I brought along to the East Bay a small cutting of The Boug, which had by then climbed all over that staircase. We, too, had become friends. I planted it in the sunniest spot I could find, but it was no use. The Boug had not agreed to move with me.

Nor had, would it seem, any gardening skills. They must have been on loan from Veronica and Crazy Lady, just while I was their neighbor. Since moving here I have killed not only Boug, Jr. but a set of rhubarb roots, two and a half dwarf Meyer lemon trees, a Eureka lemon treeling, an extravagantly flamboyant spider plant, a mother-in-law’s tongue, and dozens of pots of herbs. The spider plant might have been my cat’s fault.

The only plant to survive my malevolent neglect thus far is a potted jade tree. I’d managed to keep this cutting from my mom’s magnificent jade tree alive since my junior year in college, in five cities and eight dwellings. After taking up residence in Montclair, though, it began to droop and mold. I moved it from room to room, trying to find a spot with enough sunlight to cheer it back up, to no avail. It died.

Too busy to deal with depotting its shriveled corpse, I moved the pot out onto the front deck and forgot about it.

Over the next several years, though, a sprout volunteered from that jade’s grave and decided it liked Oakland. It grew tall and stout, and it edged its leaves in red.

Silly Northerner that I am, I’d thought it was a green, indoor plant.

But, no. Little Jade knew better. It lives on, joyful to be living outside at last, in a forest, where it knows it belongs.

optimism in the face of reason, or: another kaddish for new orleans

Mira wrote about having a grudge against optimism recently in an essay that has left me wandering lost in my own mind. See, I agree with just about everything she wrote. I largely agree with her worldview. But I am a persistent optimist.

I am an optimist in the face of considerable clear evidence that optimism is irrational.

I am the most rational person I know. I am a skeptic. I am an empiricist. I do numbers. I annoy people who ask me what my sign is by responding with a lecture they find humorless (I disagree). Do I do this because I’m a Virgo, or because I have a second-grader’s grasp of how gravity works and can therefore deduce that astrology is horseshit? Yeah, must be because I’m a Virgo.

I think Mira’s right when she lists five faiths driving optimism and abandons each of them as hopelessly fluffy, along with hope itself. I have my own issues with faith. We’ve already been over this (see “on playing kaddish“). Faith is a pretty big deal for Lutherans, but I’ve never had any.

Yet I am an optimist, even though I should know better. The biggest heartaches in my life have followed in the wake of my unshakable certainty that people will do good, choose well, act honorably. I keep managing to forget somehow that healthy people who grew up bathed in unconditional love in functional families are a scant minority, and the far more probable case is that any given individual is too broken to recognize a good choice let alone find the strength to act on it in the face of adversity.

Perhaps this optimism comes from pragmatism. On some level I do realize that many people will disappoint me, frequently, and usually without good reasons, but does it help for me to assume that they will? Does it hurt for me to assume that they will not?

In my management career, I’ve seen people trying hard to meet my expectations, which are high. Yes, they disappoint me frequently, but when they fall, they get back up. They try again. They get better. They surprise themselves—and me—with success.

So, Mira’s #1, faith in others: nope. She’s right; I assume incorrectly when I assume people will do the right thing. I get better results from communicating clearly what I think the right thing is.

In #2, Mira dismisses faith in self in favor of preparation. I think she’s right. Her devastating essay yesterday about the water going out in New Orleans has had me thinking about this:

Chicago, where I used to live, was routinely brought to its knees by less than an inch of snow.

Minneapolis, where I used to live, was routinely undisturbed by a foot of snow.

Jane Byrne famously unseated the incumbent to become Chicago’s mayor for basically one reason: the other guy couldn’t get the snow plowed. He talked about it, though. He’d get on radio and TV and go on and on about how he had all the snow plows out and working overtime, and nobody was quitting until the job was done. And it was true.

The difference? Minneapolis had a lot more snow plows than Chicago.


Which costs money. Taxes are the cost of infrastructure we expect. Disastrous failure of infrastructure we ignore is the price of tax cuts. Minneapolis had a big bridge collapse a few years back, and we’re lucky we haven’t seen a lot more headlines like that one, because not maintaining our interstate highway system is one way we’ve been paying for all those big tax cuts. But I’m getting ahead of myself—this is my lack of faith in society, Mira’s #3.

Back to faith in self, #2: not really. I have a surplus of self-confidence in most of what I do, but that’s only because I either see to it that I’m well prepared or I avoid having anything to do with it. I can walk out on stage and play horn because I’ve worked ridiculously hard at horn since I was nine. I’m not good at sports, so I won’t even watch other people play them. Right—preparation.

Which brings us to #4-5, faith in the planet and universe. Where do I even start? Let’s just say my nocturnal insomnial hours look a lot like Mira’s.

So why am I an optimist?

Let’s go back to Minnesota. And New Orleans.

Thomas Friedman has probably the most depressing beat in journalism, the Middle East, with side trips to economic globalism, and yet he describes himself as an optimist—a description that anyone who follows his column in the New York Times would be hard-pressed to refute. The guy even managed to find cause for hope in Dubya’s plan to get back at Osama bin Laden by bombing Saddam Hussein to kingdom come. I may be an optimist, but that plan had “insane” and “quagmire” written all over it.

Friedman’s explanation for his optimism? He says he grew up in Minneapolis. He describes Minneapolis as a city that works in a state that works, and he thinks that is the source of his enduring optimism that places can work, that politicians can lead, that policies can do good.

I think there might be something to this.

I grew up in the snow belt, too, and I went to college in Minnesota about an hour south of Minneapolis. I found Minnesota politics more interesting, but I always voted absentee in North Dakota, because North Dakota needed my liberal vote a lot more than Minnesota did. Mind you, North Dakota is practically a socialist state, with its own bank and its own mill and elevator (a farm thing—don’t worry about it). At the time it was also the world’s fourth largest nuclear power, or would have been had it seceded from the union, so don’t tell me Reagan wasn’t worried about us liver-lilied liberals up there. But compared to Minnesota? Republican enclave.

Perhaps you’ve forgotten. Reagan was reelected in a “landslide” with all but thirteen electoral votes. I’m not sure how a 59%-41% split of the popular vote could be described as a landslide, or how a candidate that almost half the population couldn’t stand could be considered universally popular, but this isn’t supposed to be an essay about why we need a third political party and ranked-choice voting, so never mind that.

But those thirteen electoral votes that Mondale got?


The map in 1984 showed the entire United States in red except for Minnesota, wearing a lonely coat of blue up there in the frozen north.

Minnesota is the state that sent Paul Wellstone to the US Senate, may he rest in peace. He was a poli-sci prof at the college across the river from mine. A rumpled tweed sportcoat kind of guy—probably with the elbow patches, even—a thoughtful liberal who made sense, cared about doing good, and quietly stole the election from the shoo-in who paid for it fair and square.

What does all this have to do with optimism?

There is an essential optimism to this kind of consistent progressivism. Linguist George Lakoff argues that progressives lose a lot of elections because conservatives frame politics in selfish, fearful terms where a strict father protects his family against the evils of the outside world. By contrast, progressives frame politics in empathic, positive terms where a nurturing parent teaches children self-discipline so that they can realize their potential and be responsible for others. That second worldview is a whole lot more optimistic, and optimism just doesn’t play as well on TV. Fear sells. Nurturance is wimpy.

Minnesota was a place, though, where that optimism crowded fear out. Perhaps I’m an optimist because I, like Thomas Friedman, grew up in that place that worked.

I think long winters and all that snow had something to do with it, too. You don’t get through six months of below-zero temperatures on your own. As Mira knew to share water in the Sahara, I knew that “neighbor” is the person whose sidewalk also needs to be shoveled out before you go back inside to warm up, and whose car might start when yours needs a jump.

As for New Orleans—well, I almost moved there.

Eighteen years ago, I won the assistant principal horn audition in the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, which was the co-op struggling to rise from the ashes of the New Orleans Philharmonic’s bankruptcy. I was ecstatic. This was the first audition I’d won for a real job—the job I’d been preparing for since I was nine, playing horn full-time in a symphony orchestra. And it was in New Orleans, a city I’d spent the weekend exploring and falling in love with. Where I’d enjoyed staying with a role model-turned-friend, whose company I could now have regularly.

I didn’t expect this, but within a few minutes of winning the audition, I knew I had to turn the job down. I asked about details of the wage forecast the job announcement had left vague and got grim answers. I asked about the schedule and learned details that ruled out any hope I might have of continuing my software work on the side. I asked about teaching work and chamber music work and learned that there was little demand in town for either.

I asked about the LPO’s financial situation and the factors that had led to the previous orchestra’s collapse and didn’t hear anything that had changed. I thought about the city I’d been enjoying and how I hadn’t seen one speck of classical music. For that matter, I hadn’t seen any music that was being produced for anyone but tourists, and I knew that tourists aren’t known for keeping orchestras in business. I hadn’t seen much of a local population that could afford symphony tickets. I saw an awful lot of people who couldn’t afford lunch. I saw an awful lot of dilapidation.

I knew what all these things meant: New Orleans was not a city that worked.

So on the long flight home, I had a big argument with myself, trying desperately to find any reason whatsoever to believe that I should take the job. All I could come up with was a variety of story-lines that all ended with me too poor to buy a plane ticket to an audition for a better job. (I also got a bit hung up on knowing I’d never be able to afford air conditioning.) The next day I phoned and mailed my decision.

Thing is, I didn’t give up the job out of pessimism about the LPO or New Orleans. I kept my job in Chicago out of optimism that I was on my way to winning a better horn job somewhere else and appreciation that the situation I had in the meantime was a good one.

A few years later I moved to San Francisco with the optimistic plan of trading software for freelancing—a plan that lasted only a few weeks, until a Rottweiler bit me in the face and I couldn’t play horn for the next four years or, for all I knew, ever again. I made the optimistic—and pragmatic—decision to carry on with software. Which is how it came to be that I watched Katrina on a big TV in a house I own in the beautiful Oakland hills.

I was heartbroken along with everyone else. It took me a week to reach my friend. And I couldn’t figure out why anybody was surprised that a town that was known for tourists and poverty fell apart when a big storm blew through. The only surprise was that it didn’t happen sooner.

About New Orleans I have no optimism. I never never, as much as I loved what I experienced in 1992—as much as I’d like to visit again now. A city that makes its money by being a place for tourists to get drunk isn’t spending any of that money on its infrastructure. Nobody’s flying in and buying tickets to see levies. New Orleans’ news-making entrepreneur post-Katrina is a guy who dispatches big, shiny black trucks to the tourism centers every single night to pick up the garbage and hose the vomit out of the streets with a pleasant-smelling detergent, and anybody who doesn’t find that depressing is delusional.


I’m excited to announce a new blog, “kaddish in two-part harmony.”

If you’ve been following my blog lately, you’ll know that I’ve embarked upon a collaborative project with Mira Z. Amiras that we’re calling “kaddish in two-part harmony.” This whole thing started when I happened upon a blog posting Mira had written about Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer used for mourning, among many other purposes. Her post entitled “war stories” inspired my lengthy post “On playing Kaddish,” and the ensuing flurry of comments and email between us led to our starting this new project.

The project is introduced in our joint post, “about the project,” which appears on our new joint blog, “kaddish in two-part harmony” on, Mira’s website. I’m deeply honored to be invited into Mira’s intellectual home for this collaborative project of ours.

What is this project, exactly? Go read that “about the project,” page! If you really can’t bring yourself to click one more link, here’s the gist of it: for a year and a day, I am recording Lev Kogan’s “Kaddish” every day, and Mira and others are listening to it. We’re a virtual minyan of sorts.

Throughout the year and a day, Mira and I are writing about the Kaddish, Kogan’s “Kaddish,” themes of death, dying, and mourning, the dynamics among text, composer, music,  musician, listener, and mourner. Much of the writing will appear on our joint blog, and some of it will remain private between the two of us. At the end of the year and a day, the entirety of the project will come together in some new form—perhaps a presentation, a book, a CD, or all of the above.

We are working on sharing the daily “Kaddish” recordings publicly in a podcast. We have gratefully received permission from the publisher, OrTav/Israel Brass Woodwind Publications, to use Kogan’s composition in our project. Now we are working with the publisher to secure the necessary mechanical rights with ACUM/ASCAP. In the meantime, if you’d like to listen along, please get in touch.

No, I’ve never met Mira. She’s the friend of a friend. We will not meet face-to-face until after the year and a day.

This blog isn’t going anywhere, but my activity here will probably slow down a lot while I focus on my collaboration with Mira. Please follow us at “kaddish in two-part harmony,” and check back here for the latest in food, freelancing, cocktails, nano-scale opera plot synapses, geekery, politics, and the usual randomness.

a kaddish for everybody i have eaten

A response to Mira’s latest, “of gummy-worms and larger creatures.”

Let’s start with the easy part: I love gummi worms.

While I was running along Skyline with Kjersten tonight, I got to thinking about how I’m actually thinking about taking a pheasant-hunting lesson in November.

I don’t hunt. Never have. I trudged alongside my dad once after pheasants. It was a cold fall morning, and my six-year-old stride couldn’t keep up. He didn’t slow down for me, nor did he explain much of what was going on. The only punctuation in the long, hard, all-day march (he probably remembers it as a few hours, but this is my story) was a lunch that was too brief and featured not nearly enough hot chocolate. And a moment when a weird flapping sound to our prompted him to grab up his gun and point, only to drop it again. The pheasant had flushed too quickly.

I don’t have any desire to hunt. Never have.

I don’t know if I could actually pull the trigger on an animal. Never have.

And yet.

I eat meat. My hunting dad still stocks my freezer with wild game, and I love cooking it, eating it, sharing it with friends. Recently I served our mutual friend a beautiful Viennese-style pheasant, seared off and then roasted in little bacon boxer shorts, disassembled into parts over wild rice, and drizzled with a gravy made from deglazing the dutch oven with chicken stock and thickening with roux. Her pleasure at the new flavor tasted even better to me than the pheasant itself. I enjoyed her delight at hearing it was a bird that Flicka, the dog Mom and Dad got after Candy retired to live with us in California, had helped hunt.

Kjersti is an exquisite young chocolate lab in the tall, athletic, high-spirited, intelligent Canadian labrador retriever style. This is not to be confused with the English lab style that we mostly see around here: dopey, mellow, short, pudgy, block-headed barrels with paws. Kjersti comes from a long line of field trial champions. She was bred to hunt, and I see her hunting intelligence every day—how she freezes into a quiet point at the sight of the wild turkeys that wander through our neighborhood, and holds it until I acknowledge them and she knows I know. How she tears after a fallen tennis ball, carries it back to me at top speed, and drops it at my feet. How when I walk her off-leash at Redwood or Sibley, she fans the area, running quietly ahead of me and sweeping from one side to the other, looking back frequently to check my progress. How she holds our youngest Siamese cat’s head in her mouth, ever so gently—dampening her fur, but not frightening or injuring her—not mangling any fur or feathers, not bruising any meat.


I eat animals all the time. I don’t mind cleaning and butchering them, when they’re already dead. But can I hunt them myself? Kill them myself? I doubt it. But because I love my dog, my beautiful brown animal who works the brush ahead of me with such intelligence and enthusiasm, I’m actually considering it. It almost feels like an obligation to her, my animal, to go kill animals with her. I don’t begin to know how to unwind this conundrum, so I am likely to convince myself that I’m too busy even to consider it and then move on quickly.

I suppose it should be an obligation of my carnivorous ways to join in the violence of my reality. Dad always talks about the sacred connection he feels with the game as he kills it. I have spent much of my life thinking that’s a creepy, horrible cop-out, but when I buy my meat already dead, nicely sliced and wrapped on hygienic-looking white styrofoam trays, my complacency is shaken. If I’m even paying attention. Usually I am not.

My Japanese friends are good at mindful reverence at the table. They say “itadakimas” before starting to eat. Translations vary, but the way my favorite translators, Masako and Tomoko, explained it to me, it means thank you to the animals and plants, the farmers and ranchers and fishers and butchers, the truck drivers, the grocers, the cooks, and everyone else who brought the food to us. At the end of the meal, they say “gotso sama deshita,” which thanks the food directly, using the same respectful particle, sama, that is used for addressing the Shinto gods.

A kaddish for everybody I have eaten. Gotso sama deshita.

In praise of neti pots

A few years ago, after seeing a character in Six Feet Under use a neti pot, I mumbled something to my wife about having always been curious to try a neti pot. A few days later, she brought one home from the store for me, and I’ve been a neti pot fanatic ever since.

I’ve spent my entire life dealing with various hay fever-like symptoms, just like my mom, brother, grandfather, and numerous other relatives. Since it was normal in my family, I thought my way of life was universal, but it turns out that normal people do not, in fact, always have at least one Kleenex in their pockets at all times. I was in college before I realized that some families don’t even buy Kleenexes unless someone has a cold. Everyone in my family keeps a box of Kleenex in nearly every room of the house!

Apparently it’s also not normal to wake up in the morning so congested that you can’t wait to take a shower, because that’s where you keep your neti pot, and after using your neti pot in the shower, your nose is cleared out enough that you can breathe through it again.

I’ve never been sure why I’m so full of snot, exactly. I was treated for allergies during my teen years by several allergists whose methods are scoffed at now, and allergists I’ve seen since then have all told me I have no allergies. The last one I saw told me I have “non-allergic” or “mechanical rhinitis,” which basically means that my body reacts to just about any foreign body as if allergic to it, indiscriminately. So, I’m not actually allergic to dust, molds, mites, tobacco, smoke, smog, pollen, dander, or any of the other hundred typical allergens that they tested me for, but my system freaks out and puts on an allergy party for all of them anyway. The basic hay-fever symptom is for your immune system to detect an allergen, trap it with mucus, and evacuate it. My system does that, and how exactly this is different from actually having allergies to all those things is beyond me. One difference seems to be that if these were actual allergies, then somebody would have a clue how to help me.

It wouldn’t be that big a deal if my system would evacuate mucus efficiently, like it’s supposed to, but it doesn’t. Apparently there are several reasons for this. One, rhinitis patients’ snot is thicker than normal, so it gets stuck. Two, there’s more of it, so the body gets behind in clearing.

Three, until last week I had a deviated septum. The septum is the thin bone that divides right nostril from left. It’s a tongue-and-groove kind of thing, and mine had gotten derailed from its groove so that the front tip was off the rails toward the left, and the back end was off the rails toward the right. It was basically diagonal, which is why my nose has always looked a little curved if you looked closely. My ENT knocked it back into the groove and then shaved it down on one side until it was even. This is bones we’re talking about, people. Mine were seriously out of whack. They’ve been that way since 1994—therein lies a story.

I was walking from the Dempster train station to my apartment by the lake in Evanston, IL. I was coming from a gig downtown and had my (heavy) horn backpack on, and I was hurrying home to eat and change for a gig I had to drive to, so I was pitched forward and walking fast. As I walked past a coffee shop (Café Express, which most of us nicknamed “Café Repressed”), I kept walking fast but turned to look in the window to see if anyone I knew was there. Another pedestrian, also moving fast but toward me, was doing the same thing. We slammed into each other, the right side of my nose striking her left cheekbone. We hit so hard we both fell backwards. We helped each other up, made sure we were both okay, exchanged apologies, felt stupid, and continued on our ways.

My nose hurt like hell and soon I had a pounding headache. While eating my hurried dinner, I tried to remember what the checklist for concussion was and concluded that if I was coherent enough to be working on that problem, I was probably okay, although my head pounded, my vision was blurry for a while, and my cognitive functioning was off kilter. I drove to the gig, navigating Chicago and operating my vehicle successfully but was completely unable to comprehend “All Things Considered” no matter how hard I tried to focus on it.

I got through the gig somehow, and by the time I drove home, I was better able to understand the radio.

Remembering (I thought) something about not taking pain meds or sleeping when you have a concussion, I held off as long as I could on both but finally gave up and did both. I spent most of the weekend with a headache, and my nose was sore and creaky, but I seemed to be okay, so I made a non-urgent appointment to see my regular doctor that Thursday.

By the time I got to my doctor on Thursday, something else had come up that took over the visit (boring story) and it was literally as an afterthought that I said, “Oh! The reason I came here in the first place was…” and then I told the tale of my nose injury. She checked it out, confirmed that my nose was creaky (gosh, thanks!), and said she just saw a little swelling but that it was nothing to worry about.

And now I know–it was creaky because I’d banged it off the rails and made it diagonal! Sheesh! (In my 1994 internist’s defense, my ENT didn’t realize it was deviated until he saw a sinus CT, and I got the impression in talking with him about it after the surgery that he didn’t even know the details of how it was deviated until he was performing the surgery, but I could be mistaken about that.)

Four, until last week, I had oversized turbinates. Turbinates are bones on either side of the nose covered with fleshy material, and they function as humidifiers. Mine were too big, which meant they were narrowing the passages that are supposed to handle drainage. In March my ENT had done a less invasive procedure (zapping them with a small RF probe) to reduce them, which had helped but not enough. This time he used sharp tools to cut them down to size, and on the right side he actually had to shave down the bone, which apparently was way too large–just bad genetics there.

Once I’ve finished recovering from all that, my nose should work much better. I’m looking forward to it!

Anyway, back to the neti pot…

A few tangents and years ago, my wife had bought me a neti pot. She’d gotten me one of these little guys at her favorite hippie-dippy pharmacy in Berkeley:

I procrastinated figuring out how to use it for several weeks. Like most people, I was afraid. I’ve had those awful swimming pool experiences that make you dread getting water up your nose.

Then one morning, I heard a story on Morning Edition about neti pots and decided to get over my bad self. I googled up some video demonstrations like this one and then got to work. Five minutes later I was triumphant but unimpressed. It wasn’t that bad, and I did get some crud out of my system, but it didn’t feel revelatory.

About an hour later, though, I could feel things unplugging, and gradually everything opened up like never before. My voice even sounded different. It was great.

A few days later, I left on a business trip to Tokyo, and to save luggage space, I decided not to bring my new neti pot along. What a mistake! I’d forgotten that the Great Dust Cloud of China hasn’t been very good about staying inside China’s borders. I spent the entire week in Japan looking for neti pots or anything else that could possibly work as a temporary neti pot. Toward the end of our visit, my colleagues and friends Trish and Katja and I visited Kappabashi Market, a neighborhood famous for its restaurant supply stores. All three of us dropped far too many yen at a particularly nice ceramics store, and my browsing was considerably slowed down by my quest to find a small teapot or soy sauce pot or some other kind of pot whose spout would have the right fit for my nostrils—without actually testing the spouts on my nostrils, of course. I did not succeed. I also was unable to find a bottle of water with a sport top, something I’d seen pressed into emergency neti pot stand-in duty on somebody’s blog. Nor did I successfully purchase plain old salt, mistakenly thinking it was called “aji no moto,” which is actually MSG. Oops. (Fortunately I figured that out when I got back to my hotel room and tasted it before attempting to use it in my nose.) Nor, in short, did I figure out any other strategy during my visit. I made many puddles on my hotel bathroom’s counter trying, though.

When I got back home to Oakland, I had one whole day to unpack, do laundry, and repack for the next business trip—to China. My wife and mom were coming along on that trip, and Mom actually flew into SFO from Montana the same day I did from Tokyo. On our day-in-between, I told Mom all about my neti pot and how much I’d missed it. She was curious (you might recall from about a page ago that I inherited my useless nose from her), so I gave her a demo, and then she tried it herself. She was impressed right away, so later that day, she insisted we visit Victoria’s hippie-dippy pharmacy. She bought several extras to give to other members of our phlegm-plagued family.

I also told Mom about how the Great Dust Cloud of China and its awful pollution meant we’d definitely want our neti pots along. We did not regret allocating luggage space to them, and anyone who saw the heinous black crud that came out of my nose twice a day would need no further persuasion to buy themselves a neti pot before visiting China. We coudn’t persuade Victoria to give it a try, though—early in our visit, she’d tripped on an unexpected curbstone and broken her shoulder while trying to stop her fall, and that pain had her full attention.

It wasn’t long before I decided to upgrade to a larger stainless steel neti pot, which is what I strongly recommend. A number of my family and friends got these for Christmas last year. I like this kind better because:

  • I’m a klutz. It was only a matter of time before I would drop and break the ceramic one.
  • I travel a lot, and fragile stuff in luggage breaks sooner or later.
  • It’s a lot larger. I needed to measure and mix salt four times with the other kind to complete my routine, and I can get it all done with one batch in this one.
  • Its shape is convenient. With a little effort, you can find a nonbreakable container that will hold several weeks’ worth of salt and fit inside the neti pot for compact packing.

About a year ago, Victoria finally got on the neti pot bandwagon. She’d bought herself one but kept refusing to try it, but sooner or later she decided that if Mom could do it, so could she. Also, her internist recommended trying it, and later her internist recommended using it twice a day if once a day was helping but she was still having trouble. It’s now a part of her morning shower routine. She says, “I like it! And I have to say, I like the big stainless steel pot that you got me much better than the little plastic jobber I started with. It fits well, and you can get a lot of salt water in it. It’s a good tool!”

So how do you get started?

  1. If you’re not convinced yet, read why this is such a good idea at WebMD or the New York Times.
  2. Buy, borrow, or steal a large stainless steel neti pot.
  3. Buy, borrow, or steal the biggest nonbreakable container you can that will fit inside it. I use the container some chocolates I bought in Korea came in. It’s perfect!
  4. Fill that container with kosher salt or uniodized sea salt. I use Diamond brand kosher salt because that’s what Barbara Tropp used, may she rest in peace. (Other blog posts will harangue you on why you should throw away your other salt and start using kosher salt in the kitchen.)
  5. Optionally add some baking soda to your salt and shake it up. Supposedly baking soda gives your nasal passages a bacteria-hostile pH. Mom adds just a spoonful to her salt container, but a little googling reveals that other people believe in a one-to-one mixture of baking soda and salt. I’ve just begun trying Mom’s method after years of using just kosher salt, and I haven’t formed any opinions yet.
  6. Find a cheap teaspoon or 5ml measuring spoon and do a Uri Geller number on it so it’ll fit inside your neti pot, too. I find that a heaping tablespoon per pot is about right for me, and too much salt is far better than too little, but decide for yourself.
  7. Keep all this stuff in or near your shower. Shower-temperature water is perfect, and if you do your neti routine in the shower, you don’t have to worry about dribbling on your clothes or needing to rinse yourself or the sink.
  8. Read and watch how to do it.
  9. Give it a try. You will not die. It’s not even uncomfortable.
  10. After you’ve been successful for a few days with the basic technique, learn how to do “jala neti stage 2” and give that a try. If you suffer from postnasal drip, this is awesome. I typically do a quarter pot stage 1 for each nostril then do a quarter pot stage 2 for each nostril.

If it hurts, then you’re doing it wrong

If it’s the least bit uncomfortable, you’re doing something wrong:

  • Stinging: the salt level isn’t right. Either too much or too little is bad, but if you ask me too little is worse than too much. Get in a habit of tasting your water before you use it each time, and you’ll quickly develop a sense of the optimal salt level for you. It should taste pretty salty—about like your tears.
  • Aching: the temperature isn’t right. It’s probably too cool. A lot of people recommend body temperature or room temperature, but I like it warmer than that. To me, my regular shower water temperature is perfect.
  • Burning: the temperature is too hot.

Keep it simple

You can buy special salts and pre-mixed packets of salt and all kinds of other crap, but don’t bother. You’re just making things fussier and more expensive for yourself.

You can also buy various neti pot “solutions,” where you’re typically supposed to add an eyedropper full to your salt water. Don’t bother. I tried one that was recommended for sinus infections—some kind of homeopathic or herbal junk, but I can’t remember the details—and it actually made things worse for me.

Have you tried using a neti pot?

I’d love to hear about your experiences. Leave me a comment!