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.

Nano-opera: Aida

Two princesses love the same army guy. They dance a war for six years in real time, during which six herald trumpeterss (the only heroes of the opera) try valiantly to get a melody going. After the war they sing about it for six more years. He wins the home girl’s hand in marriage but likes the away girl better. They spend six years arguing about whose house to live in, until his ex comes along, tries to get him killed, and then spends three years changing her mind about it. Finally he and the away girl die together for the final three years of singing, while home girl mopes.

Twenty-four years with two melodies, only a few trumpeter heroes, and no elephant. Why is this mess a classic?

Answer key for the November 2016 ballot

OK, folks, time to prepare our crib sheets for the big test on November 8th–or to fill out our mail-in ballots.

This is my semi-regular voting guidance for people who want to vote like Bay Area lesbian musician tech nerd manager consultant progressive types. As you’ll see below, I’m puzzled in plenty of places—please advise.

img_4776First, let’s take stock of the challenge. Voting in California–as in Chicago–is not for wimps. This is advanced citizenship. Kaja shown for scale.

Now let’s talk voter disenfranchisement:


WTH? Are they discriminating against fountain pen users?

No, probably not. Apparently, the real message is not “use ballpoints” but “use black or blue ink, but not a Sharpie,” because Sharpies can bleed through the paper and make the back side hard to scan, thus invalidating a whole ballot. In California, we have thick cardstock ballots, so it’s probably not an issue. I’m using my fountain pen. So there. A Visconti Homo Sapiens bronze extra fine filled with Visconti black ink, if anyone cares.

Ballot the first: party-nominated offices

President and Vice President

Have you not been paying attention? Hillary. She’s the adult in this race. She’s also wicked smart and progressive. She’s been working almost her entire life on civil rights, women and children’s issues, family issues, and all the other good progressive causes. Hillary starts with a capital H and that rhymes with H and that stands for Health care–which children have thanks to her good work as First Lady and policy advisor in the 1990s. As President she’ll work to fix some of the gaps in Obamacare, which does have some serious problems–Bernie was right about that, and Hillary agreed with him. They differed on how to fix it, but no sane adult would argue that any of the other candidates for Leader of the World on this ballot would be better for health care than Hillary.

She’s also better on all the other issues. She’s not perfect on lots of them, but she’s pragmatic and smart, she has a good track record of doing her homework, listening to all sides, and looking for common ground to write policies that will pass. She screws up sometimes. Maybe too often. But she also listens, learns, and adjusts. On that point, too, she is better than all the alternatives.

And: Hillary! Yeah. About damn time. Why? It’s 2016.


Loretta Sanchez and Kamala Harris are both good choices. Pick your favorite. When in doubt, go with the woman.

Oops! Both women.

When in doubt, go with the minority.

Oops! Both minorities. Sanchez is Latina. Harris is African American.

When in doubt, go with the one wh…

Ah, screw it. I like Kamala Harris. She did good work as District Attorney of San Francisco and as Attorney General of California. She’s smart and works hard. Her sister is one of Hillary’s policy advisors. Good enough for Governor Moonbeam is good enough for me. I’m voting for Kamala.

Loretta’s good, too. Kamala’s generally considered to be more progressive, Sanchez more moderate.

I’ll miss Barbara Boxer.

U.S. House, District 13

Barbara Lee! See above. And may I remind you, she was the one person who had the courage and the sense to vote against Dubya’s rush to war in Iraq? (Yeah, Hillary screwed that one up. She had a reasonable argument, not that anyone has paid attention to it, and she’s the first to agree that it turns out to have been a mistake.)

State Senator, District 9

Nancy Skinner vs Sandré Swanson. Tough one. Really close on all the issues; both are strong choices. White woman vs. African American man: see above, “when in doubt, go with the woman.” I’m going with her, but he’s a worthy choice. Robert Reich likes her. So does our awesome Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. Works for me.

State Assembly, District 15

Tony Thurmond, male Democrat, vs. Claire Chiara, female Republican. Supposedly he’s a progressive, but he’s kind of meh. Meh.

Superior Court Judge, Office #1

These are hard. Scott Jackson gets a slight nod from the Green Party voter guide and DailyKos.

Peralta Board, Area 6

Oy. Trans-man vs. woman. Hard to tell apart. Greens say Weinstein mainly because Resnick did not return a questionnaire and because his Facebook page suggests leanings toward charter schools. Weinstein.

AC Transit, Director at Large

Geez. Why is this an elected office? Greens say Peeples has done a lot of good but they complain about his boongdoggle with a Van Hool bus purchase and give a nod to Dollene Jones “with reservations.” Oy. But when in doubt, women. And when in doubt, black over white. Three votes for Dollene.

AC Transit, Director, Ward 2

Oy again. Seriously, does anyone have advice on this mess?

BART Board, District 3

Rebecca Saltzman. Progressive who’s learning. Varun Paul is a Green that the Green party has issues with–among which, an infatuation with Uber and Lyft. Nuh-uh. Uber is evil, Lyft is close. And when in doubt, vote for the woman.

East Bay Regional Park District, Ward 2

First, can I just point out that I’m in District 13, District 9, District 15, Office #1, Area 6, District 2, District 3, and District 2 already, and I’m just finishing up my first ballot? I’m telling you, voting in California is not for wimps.

Take your choice of Rosario or Jones-Taylor.

I’m going with Jones-Taylor and the goats. She says,

“The risk of wildfires and the need to retain native plant diversity from the onslaught of nonnative plants is real. A great deal of this effort can be accomplished with hand crews from various Conservation Corp programs, volunteer work days like we did in the city of Oakland. I support non pesticide uses whenever possible, this includes a carefully managed goat grazing program, until we are able to come up with the proper means and funding to remove all the non native trees and plants. I do support limited pest/herbicide use as a spot effort on certain stumps to prevent sprouting of additional non native trees. One of the ideas I intend to really look into is the plan that phases the removal over time in an effective way to replaces nonnative plants like eucalyptus with native plant communities that existed before the eucalyptus sprouted, as what has already occurred in the Claremont Canyon. I have looked into this and at the present time it is cost prohibitive. I am interested in having a more in-depth looks at the overall cost and seeking outside funding to assist in the implementation and removal of the nonnative trees. What I am clear about is that we cannot afford to not take action.” [Green questionnaire responses]

Ballot the second: Measures submitted to the voters.

As I wrote in November 2010:

Fasten your seatbelts. The propositions are where democracy is at its most challenging in California. Holy crap, I hate our so-called voter initiative process. Let’s face it, most of the propositions are so poorly worded that it’s hard to figure out how to vote even after you’ve figured out how you feel about the issue. Most of them address things our Assembly is too wimpy to do, more badly than even the Assembly could manage to do them. Most of them are heavily funded by massive corporations who do not have the needs of California citizens in mind.

So, my first rule is always: when in doubt, not just no, but hell no.Now let’s struggle through each one of them.

No. I can’t even. Let’s start with some progressive voter guides. This one summarizes advice from all the left wing organizations:, and the ones they make seem clear are:

51 yesimg_4779
52 yes
53 no
55 yes
56 yes
57 yes
58 yes
59 yes
60 no

But, wait–WTF?! How could there be so many yes propositions? Propositions suck. Do we have to dig in after all? Crap.

51. Greens say no. Gov Moonbeam says no. My rule says no. The yes people are backing Big Real Estate. No.

52. Yeah, no. The supposedly nonpartisan says yes, reports that “Before we explain anything, you should know that the only group that opposed this measure withdrew its opposition and switched from ‘opposed’ to ‘neutral.’ So at this point, no group opposes the measure, and it is very widely supported,” and clinches the deal for me by mentioning “Note: we intentionally omit the official arguments/rebuttals found in the official voter guide. We believe they exaggerate claims, mislead through emotions, and use ALL CAPS irresponsibly.” I am not in favor of irresponsible caps. Yes.

53. Just no. Requires more voter involvement in spending money, and if there’s anything we know, it’s that people vote against taxes, which means nothing ever gets done because people are more worried about saving 50 cents a year in taxes than they have ever worried about how much they spend every day on cigarettes, coffee, and junk food. Not just no, hell no.

54. Sounds like BS to me. It’s a proposition. When in doubt, not just no, hell no.

55. Everyone says yes on taxing the rich to pay for education and healthcare, including the Greens. OK.

56. Cigarette tax to fund… well, who even cares what? As long as it’s not Donald Trump’s campaign fund, I’m in favor of taxing cigarettes, because higher taxes mean fewer kids start smoking. Been proven over and over again. Yes.

57. Parole on non-violent sentences. Everyone says yes, and we all know that the private prisons for profit situation has led to lots of stupid imprisonment and racially unbalanced sentencing. Yes.

58. English proficiency. Whoa! This one is tricky. That title suggests that it’s racist BS, but that’s to trick racists into voting yes. It’s really about bilingual education, which is good. Yes.

59. Repeal Citizens United. Not just yes, hell yes.

60. Adult films, condoms. First, let’s enjoy that the Greens advise, “Very strange, you decide.” Pause to enjoy. And then, “The porn industry and many outspoken performers have opposed stiffer standards at every turn.” Dunno. Seems like a good idea, but it also risks destroying the California porn film industry. Is that good? Dunno, you decide, very strange.

61. State prescription drug purchases. Uff da.

62. Repeal the death penalty? Well, duh. Yes. Are you pro life? Vote yes. Are you pro choice? Vote yes. Do you believe in science? Vote yes. Are you humane? Vote yes.

63. Firearms, ammunition sales. The hell? Seems good but exempts retired cops. Propositions create bad laws that are hard to clean up. Hell no.

64. Marijuana legalization. Dude!

65. Carryout bags. Greens say “Out-of-state manufacturers of flimsy single-use plastic bags are trying to confuse California voters.” California Porgressive gives it 3 red Xes. Remember rule one about propositions: Hell no.

66. Speed up the death penalty. Hell no.

67. Ban on single-use plastic bags. Yes. This one is opposed by Big Plastic. What more do you need to know?

Uff da.

Two ballots down. Two more to go.

There might not be enough Scotch in my house.

A1. Alameda affordable housing bond. Sounds good but looks dodgy. Rule 1. Hell no.

G1. Parcel tax for art, music, languages, blah blah. Yes.

HH. The soda tax or the grocery tax, depending on which propaganda you read. Yes. It’s only a start, but it’s a start.

II. Increase of maximum lease term. Oy AND uff da. Beats the spit out of me.

JJ. Something something rent control. Just yes.

KK. Fix potholes. Yeah.

LL. Police commission oversight. The Oakland police chief scandals one through ninety-eight have been a bit of an embarrassment. Our awesome Mayor Libby Schaaf is in favor. I’m with her.

C1. More frakking AC Transit yada yada. Uff da. Oy. Taxes for transit. OK, I guess.

RR. BART something something. Yeah, all right.

Ballot the fourth! And final!

Nonpartisan offices. My ass.

City Council, At Large

Ranked voting, thank god. Peggy, Rebecca, and Matt are the reasonable answers. Vote your conscience in deciding how to rank them.

img_4778img_4780Origami. Our ballots come with folding instructions. Which do not specify whether to tear off the stubs at the top. I’m assuming the perforation is there for a reason. The ballots themselves say to detach and keep in two languages. All righty, then.

Return address, stuff, lick, seal, sign, stamp.

Additional postage required. Is this a poll tax? How much? The county knows how much paper they sent me; why can’t they just provide the answer? It’s two stamps. I have a kitchen scale. I’m not afraid to use it.

Don’t forget to fill in a return address and sign the back.

Nano-opera: Der fliegende Holländer

The bass’s loud approximando and unbecoming costume joins us in his wish for an imminent death. Instead he is taken aboard another ship whose captain must not love his daughter very much, since he soon agrees to give her to the morose ghost captain in exchange for his riches.

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.

Nano-opera: Rigoletto by Verdi

Men are total assholes, and women pay for it every time.

(Nothing tricky about this opera; the trumpets state the premise in the opening notes, the rest of the overture tells the whole story, and then you get to sit around for three hours while they sing about it. If you heard SF Opera’s production last night, those were three hours well spent—some of the best duet-singing I’ve heard in years.)

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.