Tuesday, December 29, 2009

When Does the Mind Close?

This Christmas we were with relatives and people of every age. And being with them made me wonder again something I have wondered since I was about 16: When do people's minds close?

Is there an age until which people are open, and then their mind closes? Is it caused by an event? Boredom? Socialization?

As a child I remember vividly how different my Godmother seemed. She was old, yes, and wise, but so open. She was curious, about me and what I thought. About new books. About the news. About new ideas. She knew so much, but she was as inquisitive as if she knew nothing. I knew so few adults like that I found her remarkable. Something in her remained soft, flexible, young. Not naive. Very wise. But open.

Other people seem to close up at age 20. It is as if all new inputs of information after that age will fit into pre-existing structures. New ideas, new experiences simply cannot penetrate. They have ossified. It is over. Of course they keep living. But their minds are closed. It is like a grate that shuts over their minds and hearts. Tiny slivers of things will go in through the grate--but nothing in its entirety--not the wonder, the ecstasy of something totally new. It will be made very very small so it can fit through the tiny slats. And then it won't feel so remarkable anymore.

What do you think? Do you think people's minds close? Why? What causes it? Is it just the passage of time? Or something traumatic?

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Jonathan Gold Moment

Last night after ice skating in Pasadena we went to Chinatown for dinner.

I love Chinatowns, even L.A.'s Chinatown, which never feels as bustling and healthy as other American Chinatowns. But I could sit in the main square forever, staring at the colorful pagodas and the strings of Chinese lanterns.

We went to go to Yang Chow, the best Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, according to Jonathan. But the line was so long, and our boys so tired, we headed down Broadway to try something new: the colorful and crowded Hop Woo. There were peking ducks hanging in front, the restaurant was all garish red and green (which I love). The booths were lime green with strings of crystal beads hanging down, and huge tanks of fish adorned the back wall. Not aquariums--tanks of fish to reach into to pull out your order.

We sat down in the back in a green booth, next to a table of Chinese men. Everything on their table looked delicious.

"What's that?" asked Jonathan, pointing to a huge pot of fish.

"Oh, Tilapia bowl," said the waitress. "It's not on the menu. They are Chinese."

We ordered it.

"What's that?" he asked, pointing to a mound of sauteed something or other, heaped on a pile of noodles with veggies. She went over and talked to the Chinese men.

"You no like it," she said. "It is Chinese. They are Chinese."

"Yes, but what is it?" Jonathan pushed. She went back and chattered away again.

"Frog," she said. "I'll see you later, OK?"

Theo looked stricken (he had seen the Muppet movie where Kermit goes on a cross country odyssey to escape some hungry frog leg eating bad guys)

We did not order the frog.

But we felt bold, brave, and very Jonathan Gold.

"Jonathan Gold would definitely have ordered this," Jonathan said. "This is real. A real Chinese experience."

The duck was delish, sticky and so flavorful I found myself sucking the duck out of the marrow of the duck bones. The skin and sauce and cruncky scallions were all mushed into a fluffy bread like a squishy taco. Divine. The tilapia bowl was homey and what felt to us foreigners like authentic Chinese cuisine. Who knows. The broth was full of hongo mushrooms, ginger, tofu skin and other secret spices.

We left full and happy, ready to head back to Hop Woo very soon!

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Question of Human Nature

Dear Reader,

Do you think it is just human nature to take and take whatever you can take?

I wonder about this sometimes. I think about our corporations--how they take and take from employees until the employees threaten to leave, or sue, or go public with their mistreatment. Until then corporations will do anything--cut salaries, double health care costs, take away vacation. If you do a good job and do not complain, you are vulnerable. Unless you have a group that can threaten mass action.

Same in relationships. If you give freely, without complaining, does that mean it comes at no cost to you? Does that mean that your gift, your time, is the new standard for what should be given? Give once, it is a gift. Give constantly and it is just the way it is. Soon someone will ask for more, and forget that what you are doing is already as much as you can give. That it was a sacrifice, something special, given out of love.

I hate to go all Germaine Greer over the holidays, but it makes me think about women. We are trained professionally to be kick ass and hard working. But socially, we are still taught to care for people, to think about how others feel, to serve with a smile. Even if you reject this notion wholeheartedly, this is our society, and this information seeps into you somewhere. It is present in expectations, in social interactions.

Children intensify this. Because you must give wholeheartedly with children. You cannot be on guard, or questioning what they ask for. You must give with love, and give as freely as you can, always. This does not mean spoiling. But it does mean often, very often, putting them before yourself.

And so I wonder, in a capitalist society, where on some deep level we are all trying to get something out of other people, are women at a disadvantage? Are we unwilling/unable to be as ruthless as we need to be? Does love, family, make us vulnerable to those who wish to take advantage of us?

Sure, there are non monetary rewards. Many. But it can also be a total mindfuck. And on some level you have to decide--do you want to be the US of A (a power to be reckoned with?) or Tunisia (beautiful, you should visit sometime, no power at all on the global stage, better join together with 100 other small, powerless nations to make your point on the international stage, at which point the point you were trying to make will be so diluted it will no longer be comprehensible--this was my lesson from Model U.N. in High School, where I was a representative from lowly Tunisia)

How do we walk this line? How do we navigate? How do you stand up without saying I can take advantage of YOU as much as you can take advantage of ME? How do you love and give and take care of those who need it, while also constantly staying on guard, and letting no one take advantage? Or, let's make it less overt and agressive--simply being taking for granted?

(Note: I remember after giving birth I could no long play ruthlessly on the racquet ball court, nor be really aggressive in interviews. I simply could not maintain both personas--the nurturer and the warrior)

How does an act of love turn into an act of weakness in a power play?

Any thoughts wise women of the world? Or wise men?

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Year of Great Books

I attended a top liberal arts college, and believe in the value of that type of education.

Still, despite four years at Wellesley I have great holes. I have not read Balzac or Cervantes or Borges or all of the Odyssey. As I sat and listened to Carlos Fuentes on Saturday night I wondered how this is possible. I read voraciously. I read junk, yes, but I read high-brow, too. I like the slog. I enjoy baroque language and writing that makes you really think.

This year I will try to read 30 great books. I will make up my list over the holidays. And I will let you know what I find right here on this blog. Do they stand the test of time for me? Will they change my life the way they have so many others?

I will let you know.

And, dear readers, are there any great books that changed your life? your philosophy? your mind?

Amir's Garden

It rained all weekend and by Sunday the air was clear and crisp. Like New England, not California. After we dropped off Jonathan's mother at the airport we headed into Griffith Park to hike, vowing to find something new. We drove down a road we have driven only once before and hiked up to a water tower. A man on the trail told us there was a garden there.

Sure enough, we got to the peak--just a peak between other peaks in a part of the park we had never seen--and there was a magnificent garden planted by citizens. It was full of crazy, secret paths, fences of broken trees, strange exotic plants and staircases to nowhere. It wound round and round the hillside. At the top were picnic tables and views of the zoo.

A red tail hawk circled above us, so close I thought it wanted to eat Benji. Magnificent and a little scary.

On the way down we saw a rainbow--which always feels like a blessing.

Thank you, Amir and friends, wherever you are, for creating this beautiful place for us. We will be back with oatmeal cookies and hot chocolate.

Do you know any beautiful secret places in Griffith Park? Share!

Knights and Damsels

Behold the tiny fencers! Theo and Benji are to the far right. This was a local birthday party--with real knights who came and taught our children fencing and flirted with the mothers (fair damsels!)

The boys were fantastic, the knights even better. Every woman should know how to fence! Like the intellectual/swordswoman/whore of Venice in Dangerous Beauty -- one of my favorite movies at one point in my younger days. Another resolution for my 44th year: Learn to fence with handsome knights!

(We tried finger fencing in the kitchen that night and I jammed my fingers when sparring with Jonathan--a skilled and trained fencer. I violated rule # 2: do not fence without armor, or a judge)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Writers Inspiration

On Saturday night, courtesy of Aliza Murrietta, whose husband was out of town at the Second City 50th Reunion, I got to go see Carlos Fuente speak. I almost didn't go. I said no, because it was the second night of Hannukah, and Jonathan's mother was visiting, but then I told Jonathan and he said, "Oh, you must go!"

Fuentes taught Jonathan at Harvard and somewhere in our house is a box of signed books from the great man. He is great, Jonathan told me. Then he began to imitate his former professor. (Something about a great negress's giant wet vagina)

We drove over. It was a dramatic night--very Mexican. There were sheets of rain, rivers of water running down the boulevards, and in Beverly Hills all the street lights and traffic lights were out. The city was dark. We arrived at Royce Hall at UCLA soggy and exhilarated.

The great man spoke. I bought some books. We listened. He gave a lecture. It was A-Z, This I Believe. It was OK. I was drowsy at first, after the adrenaline of the ride over, a belly full of latkes and apple sauce, and sitting in a big warm hall in the dark. I would awaken at certain letters and they would drill into my consciousness, beautiful images, incredible language. (J is for jealousy, O is for Odyssey, M is for Mexico, A is for Amor, L is for the Left) Others were more bland, or drifted by.

Then he answered questions, and here he was brilliant: quick-witted, hilarious, warm, witty, sharp, alive. He answered questions political, personal and literary and made us laugh and think deeply. Being in the presence of a mind like that is exhilarating, inspiring.

At the end someone asked about dreaming, and the writing process, and this is what he said:

At the end of each day, around nine or ten at night, I sit down to write. I jot down the plot points of what I will write th next morning, Important events, conversational turns, things various characters say, surprises and challenges that will arrive--maybe thirteen or fourteen in all. Then I go to sleep. I dream. I awake in the morning and the story is there. It is not usually what I have written down the night before. My subconscious has been at work, and tells me what to write. It is as if, during the night, I have been visited by a second me, who takes over from the first me, and then feeds the first me what to write in the morning.

This is a paraphrase. But it captures the magic of what can happen.

I think I am going to try.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Sadly, it has reached this point: where most of the new inputs in my brain come from books I am reading my children. One such book was called Snowflake Bentley. It is a children's book based on a true story about a Vermont man named Wilson Bentley who became obsessed with snowflakes. It was in the early 20th century and he so loved snowflakes and their shapes that on his sixteenth birthday he convinced his family to buy him either a microscope or camera, so he could look at htem more closely. Then he got a camera, and began to photograph them.

He spent his lifetime refining how to shoot them, where to shoot them, how to get them before they melted. He amassed a collection of thousands of snowflake photos over his lifetime. That wasn't his real job, just his passion.

Neighbors thought he was crazy. But he didn't care. He just kept shooting.

By the end of his life university libraries were collecting his photos and using them to study crystals and snow. That is the story, more or less. Somewhere in Vermont there is a town square with a simple monument to him.

The other night I was looking for snowflake designs for my annual Christmas card and I stumbled on some of his photos. Stunning! I printed them out. The detail, the miraculous patterns of these flakes. I love patterns. I love Islamic art and Oriental rugs and shapes and colors. I was trying to draw these snowflakes and they were wondrous.

I told Jonathan about Wilson Bentley and he had never heard of him either.

I am telling this story because he discovered something beautiful and devoted his life to it. No one cared much, but he advanced science, and helped us to understand the beauty of this world. I am inspired.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Subtle Energies

I am always astounded by what we pick up from each other without ever exchanging a word.

Of course that is true with those we love the most, where every gesture is loaded with meaning.

But I am more amazed by what we pick up, and put out, and is never formally acknowledged, but EVERYBODY knows. And in this case I mean with people we know less well.

For the last month and a half I was wholly and completely focused on my writing. Every waking moment, if I was not writing I was thinking about writing, interviewing for writing, blogging, pitching, rewriting. I was completely and wholly dedicated. I did not talk about it much. I just did it.

Jonathan backed up and made space, supported, helped. I did my thing.

When NANOWRIMO ended on Monday I told myself I could have a week to rest and regroup. To fantasize, to open up, to rest, and to prepare and plot for the next round of whatever it is I am trying to do. This week, I told myself, was to love, to eat, to help out, to think about the holidays.

Suddenly, out of the blue, I got a raft of requests for playdates and pickups and help from other mamas. I am happy to do it now, because this week I can, and someday I will ask back. But more amazing to me is what these women (who I like, but do not know deeply) picked up from me. Somehow when I was focused people backed up and made space for me and my work, when I open up again, that is out there, too. She is available. She can help.

No larger conclusions here. Just, it makes you think about every little thing we put out there. We all feel everything. And it guides us, and those around us, even if, in our culture, we do not acknowledge that power.

Do you believe this is true? Do you believe in the subtle energy? Or is it all too New Agey to be believed?

Tell me, dear readers.

Benetton Boys

From our Holiday photos, shot at the Los Feliz Charter School photo fundraiser--where we went to follow the amazing, astounding Lisa Franchot. But this photo was shot by another of their celebrity photographers. I love it because, as he said when he shot it, it looks like a Benetton ad. But also, I love how they look like mournful children from the far North. I have a sad streak that must be fed.

If you ask for a happy photo I will post one.

Letters from Writers

I wish NANOWRIMO went on all year long just so I could keep getting inspiring letters from amazing writers. All through the month you get topical, practical, earthy tips from published writers of every genre--and I confess this year I had read not one of them.

Yesterday we got our final letter from writer Peter Carey. The letter was so wonderful, I printed it out to post beside my desk, and went off to visit his web site.

How had I not heard of this man, a two-time Booker Prize winner, an adventurous Australian, and a man who has traveled to Japan and written about its crazy culture (soulmate!!!!!)?

I spent a half hour ignoring my children and scouting out his works (he also has the coolest author web site that I have ever seen, complete with reviews, summaries and video promotions of the books, like small abstract tiny movies!)

Today I will go to the library to find Peter Carey. I love finding a new author, a new ouevre to dive into.

Have any of you discovered any fabulous new authors I should check out?

Natalia post post post script

I have written an essay about my friend Natalia which I hope will appear somewhere soon--for real. Not just on my secret blog. It is about Natalia, the last trip I took with her, but also the tensions between my dear friend and my beloved husband--and what it was all like in those final months. I hope to offer a referral here to a national magazine when it appears. Cross your fingers.

But yesterday I realized I will have to change my ending.

We were sitting at TRAILS, Jonathan and I, munching on our organic baked products cooked with love and sipping our fair trade coffee, and I said, "Natalie would have loved this place. She would have opened this place. I miss her."

And then my husband startled me.

He said, "You know, I dream about her. I dream about her a couple of times a week."

What is she doing there? I asked. Is it a good feeling or a bad one? (I prayed their tensions were not carrying on in the sweet hereafter)

"Sometimes she is just standing around, in the room," he said. "Other times she is giving me something good--offering me a massage, or helping me with a yoga pose."

I guess healing can continue after death.

It fascinates me.

Has anything like that ever happened to you? A relationship actually evolving after death?

Practicing Non-Attachment

This Buddhist concept is important--perhaps the most important of all--but so hard for me.

As a Navy brat I did not get a chance to be attached to that many things. So the things I clung to--the very few--which I don't like to tell people about because some deep superstitious part of me believes then they will be stolen away--I keep secret. Or close to my heart. And I become VERY attached to.

They are not usually material things. They are usually a thing I do which brings me great joy, or a friend, or a place I love. Perhaps I pick things like these because they feel harder to take away. An activity is portable, a friend can still be reached if you try, and a place remains--like a perfect postcard--waiting for you to come back.

But even these rules do not hold. Activities change depending on where you live and what you have access to. Friends are tops-but the sweetest moments are still ephemeral. Just true--no matter how much you want it not to be true. And places--you promise yourself you will return, but it can take longer than you think, or worse still, you go back and it is different.

But I expect my yoga teacher to remain the same. She is one of the ones who espouses Buddhist precepts, and I need her to help me do so.

But my beloved yoga teacher is going on a journey. She is Tara Judelle, yoga star of the Hollywood YMCA, beautiful, flexible, philosophical, wonderful. I never speak or tell her what I think. I am a quiet, diligent student (except when I am breathing heavily in parsvovapassana, or something that sounds like that, when my liver is being wrung out and my hamstrings are about to snap) preferring to express my appreciation through effort.

She is going to Bali, and I am so happy for her. She deserves for some major good karma to shower down on her. I hope she visits the monkey temples, dances the dances, climbs Gunung Agung, the belly button of the world. But I will miss her.

She is a wonderful, sustaining, steady force in my life. I am trying trying not to feel attached--to believe another yoga teacher, who has much good to offer--new poses, new wisdom--will enter my life, via the YMCA. I am grateful for what I have gotten.


Vaya con dios, Tara

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Our favorite Christmas tree vendor is back at the bottom of the hill, making our whole neighborhood smell like a stand of Oregon pines.

I took the boys down to smell them, and to check out our prospects, even if we don't buy for two more weeks.

The air is cool, inside the fence it smelled like the country, and the boys raced around the temporary set-up like it was a real forest, so happy.

Is it a mistake to raise boys in a city?

Do they need a farm, a ranch, an ocean, a mountain? Or will they be OK?

Tell me all you mamas of boys out there. Or wives of woodsy men. Or sisters of mountain climbers and adventurers.

What do you think?

Daytime Date

We used to mock date nights--now we barely go on them, unless Jonathan has an event vaguely related to work, or we have something related to school, or a friend invites us over. Months go by, and we barely have a chance to speak alone together uninterrupted that is not on the phone, by email, as one of us is falling asleep, or at the Y, when one child is in childcare.

So today we stole a morning. We went to Griffith Park and did our most favorite hike--up from the cave, to the top of the park, down to get a drink of water at Dante's view, a minute to appreciate the skyline of downtown L.A. glimmering like a magical city, under huge shafts of golden light, then down down down, towards the ocean and the city and real life again.

It is our grounding hike. We hiked there on dates, when we were engaged, when we were newlyweds, when I was pregnant, when I had one boy, and then when we had two. We have taken soccer balls, strollers, and backpacks over the ridge. We have hiked in when the park was shut down, snatched our children from coyotes at twilight, climbed over washed out sections and smelled the mustard grass in the spring. We cried when the hill burned, and now we are back. Regrowing, just like the hillside.

Afterwards we stopped at Trails and sat under the crows and twinkly lights and drank coffee and ate a ranger tart and some apple pie.

Hours of conversation without interruption. Ability to follow tangents to the end of all ends and then back. Walking briskly with no children to drag, carry or bribe.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

To Ponder

Isn't life boring when you know what is going to happen?

Good to think when uncertainty is making you panic.

Being in Phoenix reminded me of this, because everything there seems so studiously, religiously, relentlessly predictable.

It would kill me.


I finished. I rewrote my novel. Start to finish. I lifted a few thousand words, but that's it. Otherwise a total rewrite. Almost a new story.

It was harder this time. I had so many other things to do this year, and I was sick and I was taking care of sick little people, and we traveled and I was trying to finish other things I would actually get paid for.

BUT, this I will say. I am getting better. I mean it is still a piece of shit I do not think I dare show anyone, not even my beloved husband who is begging. But it is a reminder that some things you can only learn by doing. I could read a thousand novels and take a million writing classes, but it is the act of actually writing that changes you, and that makes you learn.

The thing about novels is, that process alone could take decades. Which is why I needed(need) NANOWRIMO. This year I had the events unfold in real time and added more action. It made a difference.

I still need more action, more drama, unfolding in the present tense, but it is getting there. And, yes, there are passages buried in the garbage that I actually like. I read them and I think: This is actually good. Not many. But they are there.

And through the month I tried to read really good novels. I read TC Boyle's The Women (not his best, but I liked it, and went to see Taliesin in Scottsdale again) and Barbara Kingsolver's Lacuna (in the final third, not her best, but love Frida, Diego, Trotsky, Mexico City and the Aztecs and yes, always, her writing bewitches me and I want to write down passages to savor). As I read I watched how they dealt with the problems I was facing.

Exposition woven into brief dialogue. Backstory woven into present. You don't even notice when it is done well.

Very enlightening!

To all my writing buddies who finished, and those who tried but didn't, you ALL rock for taking the challenge.

Wasn't it cool?

Writing. Briefly.

While I was in Phoenix, I stumbled upon a book in my mother-in-law's house. It was called Not Quite What I Was Planning, and it collected 800 six-word memoirs into a book. Apparently this contest was created in 2006 by SMITH magazine (where was I?) as an antidote to the wordy novel churner-outers over at NANOWRIMO.

Be brief, they challenged. Say less.

I am more wordy than brief, but driving across the desert the words whirled in sixes.

Here are my top three (about me):

Virginia. Connecticut. Napoli. Tokyo. L.A.. Home?

Lost mermaid finds California waves. Happy.

Dreamer seeks beauty. Writes. Swims. Loves.

Which do you like? Cast your vote.

Then send one back to me! It's fun!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Road Trip!

I am waiting by the door, bags packed, CDs ready (we are going into non-streaming territory)

We are setting out across the desert for Phoenix, to have Thanksgiving with Jonathan's mother.

It will be wonderful, and perhaps bittersweet. She is sick. So I think she will make it, she is so strong, but the fear she will not lingers in your mind--or at least mine. I have been through this. I know, just savor what you have. Everything.

We will drive out by the windmills of Palm Springs, we will stop at Hadley's for date shakes (yum!) and drive across the moonscape of desert that will be most of our drive. We will listen to Harry Potter, Dan Zanes, and a little music for me and Jonathan. We will talk about our lives and look at this amazing country that is the U.S. of A.

I love driving on big American highways. It still represents freedom. To drive out of town for an adventure, with the stereo blasting, music packed at your feet, and who knows what ahead of you.

At the other end, who knows? Taliesin, hot tubs, bargain shopping, margaritas, camelback, superstitino mountain? quiet? family drama?

But today will be wonderful.

To all those I love, and those I do not know who stop by for a minute: Happy Thanksgiving!!!!!!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Paying for School

Blogs are a place to rant, and so, today, I will.

Public schools in L.A. are fucked up. It is tragic, frustrating and infuriating. Real public figures have suggested in public places that LAUSD is like the Kremlin--that it is so rotten, bureaucratic and labyrinthine--that the only way to fix it is to blow it up. (Yes, I really heard someone say this, and it was not an underground rally but a well-attended session at the LA book fair).

Budget cuts have made everything worse.

Our kids now receive so little money from the state that if I am not mistaken (part of ranting and blogging is NOT fact-checking) California schoolchildren rank in the bottom 10 states in per pupil spending in the country. Westchester County public school students get something like $24,000 per student annually. California kids get something like $7,500. It is an embarassment. It has reached the point where some top public schools now have 25 kids in a kindergarten class.

Have the people making these cuts ever been in a class with 25 kindergarteners?

This means, that if you are a parent, and you want your kid to learn ANYTHING, you are going to have to step up, volunteer, and, yes, probably give a lot of money to your school. Some schools ask for a number. Wonderland asks for $750 a kid. Ivanhoe has had pledge drives to save teachers where they accept checks from parents at drop off. The list goes on. And that does not even include the endless fundraisers--bakesales, silent auctions, yard sales, photo weekends, festivals...

Well, my son is at a charter school, which makes everything worse. Because we are getting 30% less money than a regular public school, and have to find a site, and, there is a built in animosity from the public schools who, rightfully or wrongfully, regard us as the competition. So the pledge drive and fundraising take on heightened significance. Our school must raise $1,800 a kid, somehow, to keep doing what it is doing, which is pretty stellar. We have a commitment to socioeconomic diversity, of having at least 30-40% Title I kids in our school, so that means we have to be creative. We can't just ask everyone to write a check.

In exchange we get to pick our own prinicipal, who in turn picks her own teachers. She can hire her own art teacher, music teacher, p.e. teacher and gardening teacher, and the amazing teachers who do everything else. She can do the Edible Schoolyard program and she can act immediately when she sees something going wrong. This is huge.

Well, it is the fundraising season. And how crazy it is.

I do not do fundraising. I am uncomfortable asking for money. I give in other ways. But my husband is leading the charge.

But here is what is blowing my mind: educating your kid takes money. It just does. It should not be that way. It is not fair. The way we treat a kids shows what we really think about society, which is, if you are rich, pay a lot and send your kids to a top private school and don't worry about what happens to the rest of society, if you don't ship em off to the school down the block, which. to their credit, is going to do their very very best with the pathetic amount of money they have. Somewhere, in big offices downtown, a lot of administrators are being paid fat salaries while teachers lose job security, get pink slips, or, for the older ones in the union, coast along without doing much, secure until they retire.

Well, our school is just finishing its fundraising effort. We are aiming for 100% participation, and we will get it. Even teachers give. But here is what blows my mind on this Tuesday morning. Some families I know live in tiny apartments, drive beaters, and both parents have just lost their jobs. They are sacrificing and making HUGE payments. It actually hurts me--in a good way--to hear what they are giving. Others drive big cars and live what from the outside looks like a lavish lifestyle (you never really know in L.A.). They give $50.

And I don't understand.

I know I do not know all the details. You never do.

And yet, it is hard to watch. People say they care about education, but I look at our little community and I think we, too, are just a microcosm of society itself. We want everything for nothing. We want top teachers, music, creative education, personal attention, small class size, an aesthetically pleasing campus, love, attention for ourselves and our children. We want the education to be as good as the Center for Early Education, that looms like a castle across the blacktop. But those same people are not willing to shell out the money to get us where we need to be to provide the basics.

Some do.

Some go so far beyond the call of duty you want to tell them, "that is enough. take care of yourself." You want to publicly recognize them and sing their praises and drag them by the sleeve to stand in front of others who have so much to say,"See this person? Do you see what they have done???"

But it is private. Probably to keep more people from feeling like me. I wish I didn't know.

And I guess it is like all of life. Some people just care more.

I have no answer.

Perhaps, for today, all I have is judgement. But I am also genuinely puzzled. How do you expect your school to do great things for your child if you know the numbers, you know what it takes, you know what it costs, and still you do not give. That is the part I do not understand.

What do you think?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Today I am 43

It's true. Today is my birthday. Me and Georgia O'Keefe.

I would like to say I had a huge party with a million friends who all love me. But that would be a lie.

I was going to invite 12 of my coolest women friends over for dinner. I was going to have my wondeful hubbie cook dinner for us all--his legendary paella of love--which no one can eat and be unaffected by. It is pure happy food. Or, as the Japanese say, it is umami. Deeply comforting on some primal level. I imagined Jonathan coming in with his toke and his apron, charming, witty and wonderful, as he is, and all of us drinking Sofia champagne and laughing and telling wonderful stories. All my truly awesome fabulous friends getting to know each other. I would have had my oldest, dearest friends, and new friends who excite me, who have more recently come into my life, who just delight me. Each would have brought a poem, or some words or a quote of inspiration. That would have been their gift to me.

But as the day drew nearer, and I thought about what I really really wanted, I changed. If I shut out what I am supposed to want, how you are supposed to celebrate, I realized that more than anything I really wanted to be alone. I wanted one glorious day where I did not take care of anyone else. Where I truly got to be queen for a day. And did I mention, I wanted to be alone.

It was a strange realization about myself.

But I listened. And as soon as I decided I knew it was right. And so, today I got to sleep late. Glorious. I got to have all those vivid, hyper-real technicolor dreams you can only have when you sleep too late and get to just keep dozing off over and over again. The fun ones you remember and can talk about over breakfast, if anyone wants to listen.

I came down and my sons came running with beautiful cards they had made me. Jonathan had cooked me up a perfect Hilary breakfast: panettone baked warm in the oven, bacon (protein, yum) a mocha of espresso and the finest Tcho hot chocolate. I sat in my silk bathrobe and cuddled with Jonathan and my boys. Theo fitted me for a crown, and made it while I was out.

Then I got sad and took it out on Jonathan (I won't publicize that here...but doesn't everyone get some version of the birthday blues? Tell me you do! Tell me I am not alone!).

Then I went to Koreatown and soaked in the Beverly Hills hot springs. I let the alkaline water make me smooth and slippery, and imagined, again, the deadness I do not need from the last year wash away. A Korean granny in black underwear scrubbed me clean and I floated there for hours underground near a stone Buddha. It reminded me of Japan, of the neighborhood o-furos, of scrubbing your friends backs and having them scrub yours. I steamed and dunked myself in cold water til my heart felt like it would jump out of my chest. I lay there and cleared my mind.

Then I went and worked on my novel in a cafe with a big, foamy cappucino, and came home for a perfect dinner: the paella of love, made my Jonathan, and a cake made (and tasted) by my boys. It was perfect.

The weekend was perfect. I saw a friend, got better, read my new Barbara Kingsolver novel, and skimmed my new Alice Waters cookbook, which i love love LOVE.

And here is what I realized: It has taken me until I am 43 to quiet the voices of society, the world, my programming--that tell me what I should do on a certain occasion, and to listen to what I really and truly wanted to do on my birthday. What made me happy, even if most people would find it dull. And so, as I get ready to go upstairs, I celebrate that in myself. That after four decades and a little on this earth, I can finally listen a little bit better to my own heart, and let it have its way.

Good night, friends.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Still Sick..

And housebound. I am munching on dry toast and home alone, at last.

With all the illness I have fallen behind on my word count for NANOWRIMO. But I wanted to share--for any fellow NANOWRIMO writers who may stop by, the strange and cool thing that has happened to me this time around.

Depite all the time you put in, the whole process is nothing but a huge, month-long experiment. Once you accept that your standards can drop appropriately, and you can plow forwards.

One of the biggest lessons I got from my writing group this past year was that I needed to let the events unfold for the reader. They had to feel--as they read--that they were in the middle of it. That everything was not already resolved.

Part of that, as I wrote in some earlier blog, is my newspaper training. Each day, as you write your story--even if the event is still unfolding--you write as if YOU are the definitive account. You take what you have. You start with the most important thing and grab the reader's attention, and tell them the punch line just in case they do not have the time or inclination to carry on to the end.

But as I read over what I read last year, I realize something else. There is something about my writing that is indeed backwards looking. I have been told through my life by various people that I am "a disillusioned Romantic" (John Rechy), that I am "wistful" ( an L.A. Times colleague) or that there is something sad about me when my face is in repose (true!).

My writing is like that. Even my non journalistic writing has a nostalgic, wistful, poetic quality to it. That is also in the music I like, the poetry I read, the books I devour, and part of how I see myself. It is the wabi-sabi of existence--I try to capture those exquisite moments of beauty or pain. Underlying those descriptions, I suppose, is the notion that most of life is pain.

So now I am writing my novel as the events unfold. It is hard for me to click into this mode. And yet how fun! How liberating! My characters are walking off and doing things I never expected! The story is much more powerful, even if the writing is much worse. I thought I knew what was going to happen--and I must get back to a particular point--but now everything is a possibility.

It is as if, in the process of writing this novel, I am retraining my brain to think forward, instead of backwards. I am looking at the possibilities of the future, rather than reviewing and reliving (however poetically in my own melodramatic mind) the past.

I am about to turn 43, and perhaps for the first time my brain is truly shifting, down to the molecular level, as a result of rewriting this novel. And, like a daily exercise regimen, I will have to keep thinking this way, for at least an hour a day, for the next 23 days.

How astonishing!

How does your mind work? Has writing ever changed how you think?

Thursday, November 5, 2009


This is the topic I am to speak on next week at a school tour for LCW (Larchmont Charter West Hollywood). There are few restrictions, no guidelines, and I am, to be clear, not the main attraction. That would be our outstanding and inspiring principal Kristin Droege, who is truly one of a kind--Phd in education from LAUSD, hands-on teaching experience in both public and private schools, and entrepreneurial--she has already started a Charter School herself in Victorville that runs on Montessori principles. Now she is running ours. If we could clone her she could save LAUSD.

Anyway, at the end of the tour, her presentation, and a few words from a teacher, I will speak. About community.

What will I say?

When I heard my assignment I wanted to back out. It is not that I do not believe in community (I do!). It is just that I am still more comfortable being the observer than the motivator. I like facts and tangible things more than squishy intangibles. And now I will be standing in front of people I don't know talking about the absolutely squishiest of intangibles, trying to inspire them. The thought makes my stomach curdle.

So for the past week this word has been rattling around in my mind.

And I think of what this school has taught me. In many ways it has changed my life--or at least my outlook on life. And I know that when I die being part of this grand and inspiring experiment--whatever happens in the end--will be one of the things I am most proud of in my life.

When Marya and Jay (THE two founding parents) came to us (referred to us by a friend who helped start the original Larchmont Charter) to ask if we would help start a school we went and met them on a playground in February. It was the four of us and some kids. They wanted to get the school up and running by the following September. Jonathan said yes. I nodded politely, but thought, there is no way in HELL this is going to happen. Believe me, we had a backup plan for our son.

Before we even got the charter approved Marya gathered a group of founding parents and told us we needed to raise $200,000 by September. We didn't have a charter yet, which meant we didn't have anyone to call except ourselves to raise money. Inwardly I scoffed. And the next day I made sure my paperwork was in order for Melrose Elementary (another great neighborhood school, now a magnet).

The charter was approved. A principal was hired. A lottery was held. Teachers were hired. We had two classrooms in half of an old Catholic school that we would share with the original Larchmont to help them pay the rent. Two kindergarten classes were squeezed into one large old classroom with a moveable wall in the middle that did little to stop the noise between two boisterous classes. The teachers endured and did a fantastic job with our kids. My son dreamed of being in first grade so he could have a full classroom just for his class.

By March we had held a drawing for the following year, but still had found no spot for our school. It was a crisis. Would the experiment end so soon? We scrambled. And so did a lot of other people. Again, by the skin of our teeth, Prop 39 came through about four months late and we got four classrooms at Rosewood Elementary School. The new principal graciously agreed to share the space and even gave us an extra room.

Over the summer parent volunteers came, painted, planted trees, put our insignia on the doors. When school started in September the school looked spectacular. I almost wept, the transformation was so complete.

All through this process I was the skeptic. I did not believe we could open the school by September. (we did) I did not believe we could raise $200,000 by September (we did). I grew anxious in the spring that we would not have a site for the following year. (in the end, after sleepless nights and much anxiety, we got one!)

I wasn't a downer or a negatroid. Throughout the process I kept my thoughts (mostly) to myself, and I always pitched in and tried to help out--as did ALL the other parents.

And this is what I learned: with a community, you can achieve incredible things. You really can change the world. What I personally did was not spectacular or amazing. There are some amazing people on board to make this school work. But even they could not have done it alone. The miracle is, that if everyone really pitches in, really volunteers, really does their best to make something work, it really can happen. If you add the labor of 80 dedicated parents, or 120, or 160, then throw in fantastic teachers and staff, you can accomplish a lot. In a society where we cannot typically reach those in power to even say what we think, and reform can take years, if not decades, this experience was so empowering.

I care about making the world better. I wrote for a newspaper so I could try to do that. But to join forces with others, to stand side by side with people and build something out of nothing--it is an amazing feeling. The lessons extend so far beyond the school and your own children.

And our children are all watching. They know their parents built this school. We don't run it. We leave it to the professionals. But we are essential to making it function. And that passes that feeling on to them: that with work, they can engage, they can work with their friends who share their vision, to make the world a better place.

As our Executive Director Brian Johnson said last week: "Part of what we are teaching at the Larchmont Schools is how to build a community from the ground up. And that is something people do not know how to do in Los Angeles."

Those lessons on how to build community are woven throughout the curriculum for our children. They learn it when they sit down to eat lunch family style in our Edible Schoolyard program. They learn it when they build the garden. They learn it in projects they do at school that teach them about the world, and their responsibility in it. And they learn it watching all of us pitching in--not being critics or consumers--but community members.

This isn't a church. But it is a cause. It is a vibrant community that is building a school committed to community, diversity, eco-literacy--that is determined to provide an extraordinary education to children of every social, racial and economic group.

To be part of something like this is a privilege. And it makes you feel good besides.

Have you ever been part of a community that changed how you looked at the world?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Their 15 Minutes of Fame...

Check this out, to see my boys. Scroll down to Halloween Weekend to see my boys on the blog of our most favorite babysitter.

A Rumination for Writers

I read recently, and I think this is true, that the job of writers is to take the reader somewhere they either do not access, or cannot access. In journalism this was absolutely true. Our job, in the best cases, was to break into some world, some subculture, some political group, some organization, and tell the reader how it really worked from the inside.

In the past, writers traveled to distant lands and wrote great tales of what they saw there. I think this kind of British writing influenced me greatly.

But now, when people can travel wherever they want to go, where do readers want to be taken? Do they want to travel into someone else's life (the memoir)? Do they want to travel inside an institution that is basically blocked to everyone, including the media, to get the real, inside scoop (hence the rise in tell-all books from people once they leave an organization. The "This is what it was really like" genre of memoir).

Do they want to go inside a religious cult? Inside Hollywood? Inside a school? Inside a mind? Inside a dysfunctional family?

In this age where a staggering amount (too much?) incredibly personal information is available with a dance on the keyboard that takes you to a blog (like this one!) facebook, or youtube, tell me, dear readers and fellow writers, where is it that you want your storytellers to take you?

Or, is that, since we can now find a way to go anywhere, that we are looking more for a specific kind of a guide to take us there. Are we looking for a certain perspective? A certain voice? Is that the change?

Please drop me a line with your thoughts. I am so curious.

...and MORE

Forgive me! But they are so cute, so irresistable. So I indulge myself, and here are two more.

So tell me, what were YOU?

Halloween Pix

Belated pix from Halloween

Above: Theo and Benji.

Below: Theo the wizard (angry because he forgot his giant trick or treat bag) Benji the knight, Elsa, as Glinda the Good (her fantastic costume made by her mama, Gina) and Sloane, as Dumbo (another amazing costume made by the magical Gina)

Down With the Flu

This is day 3 of being trapped in the house with sick boys, watching too much television and eating nothing but chicken soup, apple sauce and Ritz crackers.

Is it swine flu? We don't know. It is fever and headaches and achiness and malaise. Pray you don't get it.

By today the boys still have a low fever but Theo is jumping off the sofa inspired by Peter Pan and Benji is spending a lot of time feeling himself. I hope to God I do not throttle them today. There is nothing worse than keeping almost-but-not-quite-well children stuck in the house.

As for me, I feel like a caged animal, but this has all been very very good for my writing.

Stay healthy, dear readers, wherever you are.

Direct Dial to the Goddess of Fiction

I am blessed to count among my friends some truly amazing people. Among them is the fabulous, wonderful, exquisite writer Sarah Shun Lien Bynum, National Book Award finalist and author of two hauntingly beautiful books.

As I woke up this morning I found myself still trying to figure out which voice I wanted to tell my novel in for NANOWRIMO. This is not just a masturbatory procrastination technique. I am really struggling.

Last year I tried telling every chapter in the voice of a particular character (you know the literary device, it is practially de rigueur for fiction now) , but I stumbled. I realized that really, my book was about the struggle between two of the characters. The story was what was going on in both of their heads, even if there are other characters who are essential the story. So this year, as I wade back in, reworking, fictionalizing, and adding plot to the mix, I found myself using the classic omniscient narrator. But going into night three I realized that wasn't working either. I could not get the voice, the perspective, the DEEP motivations of these two main characters into this mode. And yet, I did not want to be redundant, telling the same important incident twice from different perspectives in a Rashomon type account. Nor did I want to write in first person.

I talked to Jonathan, who listened carefully and said he would have to read it to comment. I am not ready for that.

So I headed to my computer and typed a "HELP ME" email to Sarah. Minutes later, she called from her little green Mini, on her long trek down to San Diego to teach at UCSD.

"Yes," she said.

I laid out my problem and she considered carefully. She knew the basics of my story from last year, and had followed my dilemmas and, remarkably, retained every detail. She asked me a few probing questions. Well, she said, omniscient narrator is usually for a grand cast of characters you can barely keep track of all laid out on a huge canvas (nope, not me). First person can work, do you want to do that? (no) I find limited third person can be even more revealing than first person, if you are trying to get to deep-seated emotional truths (interesting, and upon consideration, true!) And I wouldn't worry about repeating some sections with the point of view of different characters. That is fine (really?) And, from me, one more question. Should I add in the other characters and their perspectives. Oh no, said Sarah. Your lesson from last year was that two characters emerged as the main ones. Do not push it. Go with that.

And with that brilliant advice, dispensed from a speeding car racing through San Clemente, I am on my way, ready to go, and dive into DAY FOUR,

All you secret NANOWRIMO writers, where are you now? I would out you all, but I know you chose secret names and Everytown USA addresses for a reason.

I am at 5981.

Onward and upwards!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

This is What Revolution Feels Like

Our school forges on in its quest to serve sustainable, locally grown, freshly prepared, healthy hot lunch to every child for $5 a day, trying to carry out the ambitious vision of Alice Waters-who just wants to teach children what good food tastes like. Along with lessons in community, sensory awareness, sustaining the earth, and the joys of sharing a meal together.

The backlash continues and this week our hot lunch coordinator and cooking teacher--an amazing woman with two kids of her own--seemed beaten down. "I feel like people hate me," she said. "They tell me the hot lunch is not kid-friendly."

She was breaking my heart.

But all I could tell her is: "This is what revolution feels like."

Who would think trying to make kids eat well, and forcing parents to pay for good food, would be so controversial. Not even the parents who are complaining I don't think. And yet, this IS what it feels like.

It is not like the end of Les Mis. It is not like celebrations of the Revolutionary War after we beat the British. In the middle of it, while it is going on, it feels lonely, uncertain and often discouraging. Even when you know it is worth it, it sometimes feels like the energy against your deepest desires is insurmountable. The status quo will always be the driving force, whatever the conditions.

I say this as someone who is not bearing the brunt of parent complaints, inquiries, fears and skepticism. I am on the side-lines watching, and sometimes helping out.

But this is change. Small, incremental, difficult, with incredible effort involved just to move people's minds and habits a few degrees. It is true of all of us. It is sobering.

Alice Waters is coming to the Larchmont Schools on November 9.

Have you ever been part of a revolution? What did it feel like for you?

Happy Halloween!

Scary face with State of Texas/city skyline mouth: carved by Theo Fernandez

Scary/Happy/Frightening/Frightened pumpkin: designed by Benji, mouth perfected by Benji

Funky white pumpkin with weird eyeballs: me

(Note: I always disdained the pumpkin carving kits with tiny plastic knives probably made by prisoners in China and purchased at the 99 cent store. But we went to a pumpkin carving party with packages full of these specialized carving tools and WOW! They are miraculous! For ambitious carvers they are definitely worth the investment.)
Which one speaks to you?

Last Night

Last night I dreamed I wrote 3,850 words in a sitting. This may seem like nothing...but to stay on schedule for NANOWRIMO you have to write 1,667 words a day. What was remarkable about the number was not that it was so many words--it was that it was effortless. In my dream I was lost in the zone. The world dropped away and I was writing. When I looked down at the little number counter on my mac I was SHOCKED to see that number.

All of this is reminiscent of my Shamanic Journey this summer. In my travels to the underworld (no, this is not fiction, or a lost, experimental chapter of my book) I went down and met my power animal--a big she-bear. I had met her before and there she was again. This time she held my gaze--she kept telling me to look into her eyes. And she told me, "This is what it will feel like to write the way you want to write." My attention kept wandering. I kept looking up at these jagged mountain peaks, at the moon, at the stars, trying to figure out where I was, what I was doing, struggling to get my bearings, and she kept pulling me back, telling me to stop getting distracted. To look in her eyes and feel what it was like to drop into the writing zone.

Our subconscious can be so literal! I DO get so distracted. I AM always trying to figure out where I am and what I am doing. But she just kept trying to train me, to build up my powers of concentration, pulling me back to that feeling of being in the zone. She was letting me know; "This is what it will feel like. This is how it should feel. It will be effortless once you drop in, but you need to discipline your mind and get there."

Well, in my dream I was there. And that was cool.

Do you ever have dreams like that? Teaching you a feeling that you then have to seek out in real life?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

NANOWRIMO is here again!

It's official. I signed up again for NANOWRIMO--aka national novel writing month. If this piques your curiosity, click

Last year was a fantastic experience with lingering lessons. I cranked out a novel. No matter how bad, it is an accomplishment. Above my desk hangs--not my Wellesley diploma, my Columbia diploma or my UW diploma--no, it is my NANOWRIMO winner certificate.

It showed me that with discipline, I can carve out the time. The experience launched me to start my own writing group, and broke me through a million mental barriers. The challenge also appeals to the adrenaline-fueled, ADD, need-for-instant-gratification part of my personality--which in truth is not so novelistic.

It is also like a crutch. NANOWRIMO, and the mysterious Chris Baty send out encouraging reminders, and advice from great novelists. Because you are all doing this at the same time, writing at the same rate, you end up going through a lot of the lonely writerly crises at exactly the same time (like on day 10 you think, oh, no, i am writing the wrong book, i should be writing this OTHER book, or on day 17 you are thinking, my god, i am half way through my so called novel and there is no plot? and right then a perfect email comes from some amazing writer saying, that always happens, or MAKE something happen now...)

So I am doing it again. I am cheating a little. This time I am rewriting my "memoir" and really really novelizing it. I will radically fictionalize and actually add in a plot. From page 1. I will be weaving real themes throughout--not just the themes I intended, but the hidden, latent themes I found I had in there thanks to the comments from my writing group.

Still, like meditation, there is something powerful about jumping in and doing something with a lot of other people. There is added power. Meditation teachers say yes, you can meditate alone. But when you have 60 people in a room it is like a rocket ship taking off.

Well, when you have 200,000 people around the world writing like literary madmen it keeps you accountable. Every cafe you go into you wonder if that person is part of your secret society of speed novelists. My friend Lee Rose Emery is doing it with me, and I hope Dave Marko, too.

I will kick off the month this Sunday night (Nov. 1) with a toste of LUCID (absinthe superieure) and a night of noveling at my local Argentinean cafe, Solar de Cahuenga.

Do you have a novel in you waiting to come out? If you do, sign up! It will make you feel wonderful!

Teabag Wisdom

I have a confession: I buy Yogi Tea just for the tea bags. That is what I have come to. And, because I buy so many teas, I have become a connoisseur of tea bag wisdom. On each tea bag is a little message/bit of inspiration. On the woman's teas there are softer, more "love" oriented messages, on the more unisex teas more general messages. Ginger tea is a staple for me, and I found this time around that the messages have changed again. This time they are more provocative and less comforting. But that's OK. I'm along for the ride.

Last night I pulled out my tea bag and it said: What is your identity and what will be your legacy?

Wow! That can really stir a woman up as she is climbing into bed. My identity????/ My legacy?????? It goes to the core of our time on earth, to the subject of my blog, It was enough to give me a panic attack.

And yet--how important. And now that the question has been raised I cannot push it down again.

And so I think. I think how my legacy is not the traditional ego-driven monument dream of males at this point in my life. I do not long to erect a cathedral, or a sky-scraper, or write a peace treaty, or change the world in that way. A way that will say "I was GREAT!" forever. As I grow older, and live life as a mother, I feel my ideas of my legacy and what I want it to be changing. I find myself thinking of the importance of small change more--and seeing how big change can only be effected by small change.

Legacy: Of course I think of my boys. They are the most tangible legacy. They look like me and will carry pieces of me inside them--whether in the form of DNA, memories, tastes, smells, or how to live. So I care a lot about them.

And I care about stories. I care that people continue to see the world as storytellers, to seek their own truth, and to realize that they have their own stories to tell. I hope to inspire people by doing that myself, and by teaching and helping others to do that. The way stories are told is shifting again as newspapers die, print is endangered, books are on the verge of extinction, free to Google--stories are downgraded to content, and people can only consume information in the form of power point or bullet points. I feel like I am part of a bridge from the old to the new. I am not cursing the new, neither am I completely seduced by it. I know the value of storytellers, researchers, novelists, reporters, journalists and truth-seekers. And there are fewer and fewer of these people around. And it is harder and harder to make a living as a writer. Writing and storytelling are being devalued.

So maybe I will be part of the bridge generation. I imagine that when the world went from oral storytelling to written much was lost. And maybe some people had to work to insure that the BEST qualities of oral storytelling could be preserved, even within the new written tradition. I hope I will be one of those people helping to drag the best of the print tradition into the computer tradition.

And finally I hope that I will teach my boys that many of the simplest things in life are not products. I hope to preserve in them a knowledge that as long as they can eat good food, walk outside in nature, sing a song to themselves, tell stories, and laugh with friends, make art and dance, that life will be sweet. More and more I see the power of capitalism in our culture and wonder if anything that is not making money for a corporation will survive into the future--whether it is apples, family dinners or friendship. I hope that quiet knowledge will be a legacy that is passed on to my boys.

Finally, I would like to create beauty. Whether in the form of preserving the environment, growing a garden, making people see stars, or serving a meal that makes people deeply happy, I want to do that. That is the accumulation of a thousand tiny tasks performed over a lifetime. But it matters. Beautiful things stick in people's minds.

That's me on this fine October morning.

What do you want YOUR legacy to be?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

More Journal/Less Blog

Ok, so this entry would be better off between the scrawled inky pages of my tattered journal, but I am putting it here in case it helps someone else. It is about how shooting for less can make you (or one, or in this case ME) feel better.

At the beginning of the summer I was back in therapy asking for help. At one point I was telling my therapist how I really really wanted to write, but every morning I told myself I would get up at 5:30 and write for an hour before my children got up but I could never do it and then I started every day already mad at myself.

"Well," she asked. "Is that realistic?"

I stopped.

"I mean, are you good at getting up in the morning? Have you ever done that?"

Confession: I am horrible at getting up in the morning. I am a night owl, a lazy bones, a slow-waker and a caffeine addict. Only the thought of espresso with cream and sugar can get me up. And even then it is very, very hard.

"No," I said. "But it is the only time I have. I have wracked my brain. There is no other time that is mine. And, even if i could do it in the evening I am usually so tired it is hard to think clearly."

"It sounds like your goal is impossible and is only making you feel bad," she said. "Maybe you should pick something you have a better shot at."

I had never thought of it like that. That I was just setting myself up for failure. And, the lesson went a long way, because I am perpetually setting myself ambitious goals I cannot possibly achieve. And then I just feel really really bad. Don't get me wrong. I am not saying don't dream big. But I am saying, do not set a goal that you literally have almost no chance of achieving--really looking at yourself honestly--or at least no chance of making yourself do.

So I gave up on that one. And instantly I felt so much better. I still want to write. I still try to carve out time. I still wish I could get up at 5:30 and write. But I accept that at this point in my life that particular arrangement is just not going to happen.

Indeed, the liberation from my own unrealistic goal (without relinquishing the larger goal, which was to find time to write) was so freeing that I began to keep a secret list in my journal for no one but me that listed what I had actually done that day--no matter how dull and monotonous and mommy-like. What an education. I was dumbfounded at how much I do each day. Even I had been tricked by own mind constantly telling me what I was not doing. It just made me feel a little gentler with myself--in a secret place for my eyes only. I granted myself patience, thanks, appreciation.

And then I vowed to find a way to write that is a little bit more realistic, a little bit less of a swim-workout type of discipline (and even when I had swim practice at 5:30 a.m. I was a nightmare. I remember being the last one to get into the water, and my coach would have to push me in). Stay tuned and I will let you know how it is going, curious writers!

For now, I must go do on-line traffic school, my due diligence for speeding at 90 m.p.h. on the 5 in Orange County last spring. I was rocking out at such high volume, fantasizing about Big Macs and Large Fries as they flashed by my window in the darkness, so lost in my food hallucinations, that I did not notice the cop with flashing lights bearing down on me and shouting at me through the mounted loudspeaker on the car to GET OFF THE FREEWAY!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Orionid Meteor Shower

Last night meteors rained down over Earth for the Orionid Meteor shower. Scientists estimated that you could see up to 60 shooting stars an hour between 1 a.m. and dawn--with the shower peaking around 6 a.m.. We live in L.A. where the entire region glows from electricity and dims the stars.

Still, we decided we would try to see the meteor shower. Jonathan said skip it, and I couldn't budge Benji, but when I went to grab Theo at 5:45 he jumped right out of bed and dragged his sleeping bag with us.

We put on jackets and tiptoed through the dark into the back garden. We lay down on the cement of the terrace--he in his sleeping bag and I on the cushion from our lawn chair. We lay there and looked up at the stars. The city is so bright we could count the stars--20 out of millions visible to the naked eye. But if you looked longer, like magic, more points of light would emerge.

We lay there, smelling the trees, watching the stars, listening to neighbors' sprinklers going on. We snuggled and looked up at the city sky.

We watched for 30 minutes, but never saw a shooting star. It is just too bright in the city. I felt sad that I was not out lying under the stars on a mountaintop in a place where you can see the milky way arching over you like a river. I mourned that man has taken away one of nature's most awesome wonders. In the darkness Theo and I walked back downstairs.

"I still liked lying there in the dark and looking at the stars," he said. "It was fun."

And..I had to admit...it was. There was something magical in the quest to see the meteor shower, and a beauty in the (semi) quiet stillness of the dawn--even in the middle of the city.

We went back inside, curled up on the couch, and overslept. Fun.

A Friend, Gone

Last night my mother called to deliver bad news. My family is not good at this. I often don't find out about deaths of import for months. I know it is to protect me--but it is hard.

So we talked for 20 minutes and then she dropped the bomb. I can hear her change of tone and when she heard my fear she almost didn't tell me.

A friend had died. In a horrible accident.

His name was Nick Givotovsky. Our parents were friends and in truth we only saw each other maybe a total of five times as adults. But they were important. He sought me out at Columbia, introduced me to one of my best friends in Japan, and came and hunted me down in Los Angeles, and we met on the beach and played--me, him and his beautiful, open actress wife Laura.

So I was not one of his closest friends. But this I can say about him. He had the life force of about 7 normal people. He was, simply, dazzling. He was warm, open, quick and exciting. He came to our house for dinner once and we joked that he was an entire dinner party unto himself--providing every thought, counterpoint, interesting critique and resolution. And yet, in him, it did not feel overwhelming. It was like witnessing live theater. You just felt lucky to be there. He just had a mind that was that lively, absolutely on fire. To bask in his presence was a gift. My father called him a bright star.

He was beautiful.

On July 3 he was bounced from his tractor when it hit a stump and run over by the blades. He was killed almost instantly. It is hard to explain what I feel. Sadness, yes, of course. But why do we lose our brightest stars early? Why?

Goodbye, Nick. I feel so lucky to have known you.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Los Angeles Times

Last night I sat and watched the PBS documentary on the Los Angeles Times and Southern California. I had read David Halberstam's 1000 page tome on the great newspapers of this country and the families who run them. And this documentary drew heavily on that--with attribution. But still--it was fantastic--and it left me so stirred up I could hardly sleep afterwards.

Part of it was the visuals--what California looked like, the visuals of Nixon riding around with the newspaper editors in a chummy way as they printed one sided stories to get him elected, the vision of the San Fernando Valley, its development, and the role the Chandlers played in making that happen.

And part of it was watching this extraordinarily well-made documentary about my newspaper--the one I read daily, love and worked for for eleven years, where I made many of my greatest friends and covered some of the coolest stories--and knowing this was an obituary. It was like reading your own obituary--before you were dead. You were terminally ill--yes--but you could still turn around. It is too early. Too soon, I wanted to shout at the screen. The paper is not dead yet! That is how it felt.

Later, after I processed more, I thought a lot about newspapers and community. I thought how much having a world-class newspaper made Los Angeles a world class city. San Francisco is a great city. But it never, ever had a world-class paper. That would have changed things.

A newspaper really does affect how that city and the world think about it. It creates a city's identity, even as it writes it down and prints out that first rough draft of history. Even people who never read the paper will read other publications that copy from that paper and pick up the attitude, the dreams, the races, the struggles, and how the city presents itself.

Otis Chandler dreamed big. He dared to put black people on the cover, hire Hispanic writers (well, one, and he was killed) write about Democrats, open bureaus all over the world so that Los Angeles would be an international city. It was also the times--everyone believed journalism could change the world back then. It was the age of Watergate. Journalists could bring down presidents.

But more than anything I wondered--with a newspaper that is dying, that is closing its foreign bureaus and can barely cover its own city, that is clearly writing more boosterish stories that seem like they were printed to make developers happy (like the old days?) -- will Los Angeles shrink in the world?

The story you tell about yourself is the story that becomes the truth--whether you are a person, a family or a city. Who will tell our stories now? And what kinds of stories will they be?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Rainy Day Yumminess!

The rainy season is here. Wet, soggy and depressing. L.A. is not beautiful in the rain. So we took it inside. I pulled out a tin of my TCHO hot chocolate--made of nubs of the highest quality chocolate, and scalded some milk.

We sat down, stirred in the chocolate, and savored. Bubbles, chocolate, melted chocolatey goop. Chocolate in your teeth, on your lip, on your tongue. A French Cafe in your kitchen, via a stylish tin. Yum!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Edible Schoolyard

This September our school launched the Edible Schoolyard project. We are the fourth site in the country to be handpicked by Alice Waters to try to revolutionize the way children think about food. With a gardening and a school lunch component, Waters, the culinary visionary who founded Chez Panisse, believes that through food children can awaken their senses and learn to eat well, live fully, care for the environment, and create community.

That is a lot of lofty goals wrapped up in a seemingly simple program.

My husband was skeptical. I believed, but also felt that many of these lessons are already taught by the kind of parents who choose to send their children to Charter School--because it ends up being a pretty self-selecting group.

Last Thursday I went to school to help out with hot lunch. No two schools interpret the Edible Schoolyard program the same way. It is up to the teachers on the ground to find systems and a curriculum that work in their particular urban environment, with their students. At our school every student is required to buy school lunch, at a cost of $5 a day. No exceptions. The food is prepared by the Farmer's Market, a new restaurant non-profit that aims to support sustainable, locally grown produce and micro-businesses. It is delicious.

The students sit at long tables and cannot eat until everyone sits down. An adult sits at every table. Places are set before they arrive by parents. Milk or water is served from pitchers. Often there are fresh flowers. Before they eat they all sing a song of thanks. They do not get up until everyone is done.

It seems simple. But I was surprised by how moved I was. The song was beautiful. The food, delicious. And the children were eating together, like family.

And I realized how many lessons were packed into this tiny ritual. These children were learning about nutrition, civility, community. They were learning about culture. And the school is training their tastebuds and their bodies to crave and desire healthy foods. Here in this simple ritual lay the foundations of a lifetime of learning.

I have also been surprised at the reaction.

Many children do not touch their food. One little girl across from me looked down at her chicken enchilada, herbed beans, and home-made applesauce, and declared, "I am allergic to food." (She isn't. The allergic children have special meals served). I asked if she were allergic to chicken, beans or applesauce. "All food," she said. "That is why I have this blue band-aid on my chest." She pulled back her shirt to show me and grinned. The boy next to her mashed his applesauce with his fork but wouldn't touch the rest of it. He refused. Another girl dove in. "This is good," she said. "This is really good."

A third little girl called me over. "What is this?" she demanded. She pointed to the enchilada. I said, it is an enchilada. Then she peeked in. "What is that?" she said, poking at the chicken. "Chicken," I said. A minute later she called me back to ask me about the cheese and the green onion. The applesauce. But in the end she ate it all.

I know there are days the children do not even know what they are eating. One day they were served a juicy, sweet yellow fruit. They all ate it, and loved it, but no one knew what it was. Finally, at afternoon recess, one girl figured it out. "Yellow watermelon," she declared. The word spread like gossip across the campus. They were delighted. Who knew watermelon could be yellow? Who knew it could be so delicious?

Those who are there every day say slowly the kids are eating more, trying more, getting braver. A lick becomes a bite becomes a serving. Slowly.

But the most surprising thing is the parents. They signed on for this school knowing what was coming. And yet still, what resistance. One parent asked on the school web site if the school could serve more pizza, mac n'cheese and pasta. Another said she is terrified her child will not eat, so she gives a big huge snack before lunch, and meets him with a reward in the car after school. (Is it sweet? Is it salty? Is it fatty?)

I am soooo sympathetic. I have one natural healthy food lover and one junk food lover. These are their natural settings. Still, I know it is my job to set them so that they at least know they need real food to live. As I watched the resistance unfold on the school web site, and listened to parents complain, I realized how truly revolutionary Alice Waters is. I realized many children live on mac n' cheese, pizza and pasta. (and believe me, my kids have their share and they love it!) I realized how few families have the time to eat together. I realized that even though parents want their children to eat well, want it more than anything, they instinctively fight to keep their kids eating what they already do, because it is easy, and fast. Even if it might not be that good. Or even actively bad.

People may pull their kids from the school over the school lunch program. Our school has taken a more drastic approach than the original Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, where the program flourishes and is a national pilgrimage spot for foodies and educators. Friends whose daughters attend said even there not every child is required to buy the school lunch.

But I pray Alice Waters succeeds. A day at school has shown me how desperately we need to overhaul school lunch programs--and not leave our children's nutritional futures to the USDA and its agricultural surplus programs, to corporations who care only about developing the cheapest food and getting our kids addicted to fat, sugar and salt. I am outing myself! I am a convert!

Kale for dinner!!!!!


I am living in hiding right now. When I go out I wear sunglasses, so no one can see my red, blood-shot, swollen eye. I speak less and move quietly. I try not to go out at all.

We had friends over on Saturday night and I sat at dinner, by candlelight, with my shades on. I spoke little and just followed the conversation. Jonathan kept calling me Sophia Loren. I smiled. But said nothing. At the Y I meet with people and have important conversations, in rooms with no windows, with my shades on.

My eye hurts. Not a lot. Just the stitches on my eyeball rubbing against my lid. And then I have fears that the graft is not taking and I will have a lumpy misshapen eyeball forever. And my mind goes crazy.

And I realize two things.

First, a small pain can affect your life and personality in a big way. It affects me in obvious ways--I do not want to talk much. I dart in and out of meetings and drop offs, just trying to get them to end. And this small pain--barely enough to merit a tylenol--irritates me. It makes me grumpy. I snap at my children and give up on things easily.

Second, how you carry yourself--whatever the reason--begins to affect how people see you, and then how they react to you begins to affect again how you are acting. So I hide behind my glasses, not making eye contact and not speaking. That makes me mysterious, and I can see that for some people that attitude translates as arrogance, and judgement.

In the end, my eye, which is not even serious, makes me do less. I do not want to be out in the world. I do not want to interview people or pitch stories. Even though no one can see me, I feel less confident, less at ease. I long, even more than usual, to engage in solitary pursuits. Or to be with my children, who love me so much they do not even notice that my eye is red and bloody and big.

And suddenly, with a rush, I realize how blessed I am. I have a body so strong it has always come through for me when my mind and heart have faltered. But physical frailty derails me.

And I think of all those with chronic illness, chronic pain, treatments that make them miserable with no guarantee of a positive outcome, and I think I was not compassionate. I could not anticipate the layers of emotion, and how that single physical ailment can completely alter the way you move through the world.

Now, in a very small way, I understand.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Obama and the Nobel

I believe I am a minority of one here, but I am overjoyed that Obama got the Nobel Peace prize. I only had one working eye on Saturday morning when I saw the paper, but with my one functioning eye, I wept.

I know I know--he hasn't done anything yet. The Republicans will just use it to bring him down. He is all oratory and no action.

I have read every criticism from the right and the left. I have read about how he is skewered by the late night talk show hosts. I have read New York Times columnists writing the acceptance speech they think he should give when he goes to Oslo. I have argued over brunch with a man I barely met who swears he is an Obama supporter but still says this is wrong.

And I disagree. I know I am earnest, and alone. But here is why I think the way I do. I am not a blind Obama supporter. I think he is moving too slowly. I think he has compromised too much with the insurance companies, the Republicans and every other opponent on health care and I feel disappointed. But this is why I believe he deserves the prize.

At a time when this country feels devoid of hope, he is trying on all fronts. He is not trying to pass easy-to-get-concensus-on, everybody-can agree-with-me-on-this, let's-lock-up-the-molesters type legislation. He is tackling head on the most difficult issues of our time. And they have been waiting there for a long time, and no one so far dared to take them on. He is not focusing all his energy on one thing, so that he can assure himself a legacy and a place in the history books. He is not just trying to satisfy his crony friends in corporate positions. He is not blaming others for problems his administration was handed that he had no part in creating. He is simply doing what MUST be done. And there is a lot. Our world is pretty fucked up right now.

He is doing his best. He is trying to help the world disarm nuclear weapons and he is trying to move on climate change. He is trying to get us out of Iraq and he is trying to settle Afghanistan in a way that is sustainable and does not let that country dissolve into civil war again. He is trying to get kids to eat better and people to plant organic gardens. He is trying to improve public education. He is trying to reform health care and make it fairer, more available, and economically ustainable for our nation. He is trying to inspire people to graduate from community college. Some say he is doing too much. And maybe he is. But this is his moment. He is not thinking only of himself and how he will be perceived. He is not bending and playing the game of partisan politics and trafficking in hate, in a political environment that has deadlocked our nation for the last 12 years.

He is really really trying. This doesn't give the Republicans more ammo. They turn everything into ammo. This will not handicap him. It will encourage him to try harder and let him know that at least the world is on his side, even if half his country isn't. He has given me hope, in an era where hope is out, and everything is about small, petty victories that move you nowhere. He is daring to have vision, and to fight for it. Whether he succeeds or not, the very fact that he dared to try to lay out a vision when no one else does, gives him my vote, my heart, my support.

I am so happy that what he is doing--and what he is desperately trying to do -- is being recognized by the Nobel Prize board.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


I am deep into Cheerful Money, the surprisingly touching and emotionally open and gorgeously written memoir by Tad Friend, about himself, his family, and the decline of the WASP in America.

I read with interest because all my life I have been mistaken for a WASP--in good situations and bad. Those assumptions have brought me both acceptance and hatred, with me always lagging a few steps behind what people were thinking about me.

No, no, I wanted to tell them. That is not me. Those people look like me. But I am not that. I promise you.

It is true, I am white, anglo-saxon and protestant. And I grew up at least partially in New England, in a white-clapboard house with green shutters that was kept at a frigid temperature in the winter. I summered at the Wadawanuck Club in Stonington, learnws to sail and swim there, wore Izod shirts every day, and watched a lot of adults drink a lot of gin and tonics. But they weren't my parents.

And I did not come from money. Or attend an elite prep school in New England. Or have a hot French au pair in the summer. Or have a family compound on Watch Hill. Or grow up with a sense of entitlement.

I met people like that at the Wad club. But I was just a townie, with parents who perhaps had aspirations. I don't know.

My father was in the Navy, from California, raised a Catholic, with a spirit far too ebullient to ever be classified as WASP. My mother fit the mold more, I suppose, with her Smith and Yale pedigrees, and her deep emotional reserve, but still, she was the daughter of a Pennsylvania farm boy and a history teacher.

Still, as I headed off to college people often mistook me for the real thing. A real, died-in-the-wool, flesh and blood WASP. It was more the people from outside New England who made the error. Some of them hated me. And would scream at me about my sense of entitlement--though it was I who had gone to a crazy public school, while they attended a private school in the suburbs of Tulsa, or wherever. Other people assumed I was the real thing--that I did not have to work in the summer--or that my parents gave me whatever I wanted and I had a trust fund. And they liked me more because of it. I have a friend here who asks me to help her with a distant, emotionally dysfunctional WASP character in her novel. It was said with love.

So it is strange to read this book and find out, perhaps, what it is people were assigning to me, when they saw my pleasant-but not exotic-Anglo features, found out I could sail, or play tennis, was well-read and polite, and had lived--for a time--in New England. It is like getting the back story to a tale I never understood but was always assumed to be part of because of my looks. And this case of mistaken identity--layered on top of various chameleon personas pulled out for survival in new towns and new schools because I was a Navy Brat--just added to my eternal sense that the real me could not be seen.

And I wonder, deep down inside, if one of the reasons I like California is that all of that is left behind. I do not need to confirm or deny what a WASP is, and whether I am one. Because out here in Los Angeles it just doesn't matter.

And I like that.

Two More Days, Two Less Teeth

Here is my boy, with a mouth full of gaps. He lost two teeth in two days! The bottom tooth came out at last, in a mouthful of carrot--to make room for the new tooth which is already half way in!

The top tooth came out the next night--after a week of sticking out perpendicular and hanging by a thread--and being used as a trick to gross out his sqeamish mama.

How will he chew?

He looks like a madman. Or a meth baby. But so cute.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Stick a Knife in My Eye

This blog is not meant to be catalogue of middle age ailments. The fact is that I have been so blessedly free of ailments of any sort my whole life I have no tolerance at all, and I am a big fat baby. Add to that a natural skepticism of doctors, a fear of hospitals, a cynicism about medicine, pharmaceutical trials, doctor's distance from pharmaceutical companies, a leeriness of medicines' often unmentioned side effects, and the sudden appearance of allergies to medicines and bee stings I never had, and I am in trouble.

So, maybe that is why I cannot sleep. And was close to hyperventilating in the doctor's office. And picked a fight with my husband over nothing this morning.

On Friday an opthalmologist will operate on my eye to remove a pterigium. Basically, it is a condition that afflicts fishermen, farmers, and pale people that were meant to live in foggy climes but instead live in sunny California--like me. It is not serious. Nothing will be done that really affects my vision. And yet the legal documents you have to sign before you get an operation seem designed to terrify (I understand I could die or lose my vision or damage it significantly...). It is hard to get an accurate sense of what is really going on.

Basically, a doctor will cut this thing out of my eye and graft some eyeball from another part of my eye into the old hole. The skin will be held in place with four neat little stitches and some glue. The cutting, slicing, stitching and sewing will take a half hour. Then I have to wear a patch for a few days, and my eye will be irritated for awhile. And then I will be better.


It is my eye. I like my eye. And I am scared.

Oh Dear, Oh My, Oh Goodness Me...

These are some of the things I said this past weekend, after my father-in-law went roller blading with Jonathan and Benji at the beach, and fell and fractured his pelvis, and had to go to the emergency room at Cedars, and stay overnight, and take morphine, and couldn't move for the whole weekend.

Pictured here: Three generations of Fernandi hitching a ride on a wheelchair in Santa Monica

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Chicken Nuggets

...or chicken luggages, as my son likes to call them.

They are ubiquitous in American culture. Some children won't eat anything else. This is not an urban myth. I have known some of these children, who refuse to eat anything but. I have heard from docs I used to gossip with when I covered health that companies hire people to come up with the perfect blend of fat, salt and sugar--which is absolutely irresistable--like crack for young children. And since this is just a blog--not a newspaper article where I must fact-check--I remember one friend saying that when Costco stopped selling their chicken nugget monster pack parents across the nation rioted to bring them back.

Well, they are back. And Dino-nuggets feature prominently in the Canyon School diet. I never buy them or serve them at home. But I suppose it is just part of life in America today. When I try to stage a nutritional insurgency on Mondays at the co-op, serving only whole wheat bread, fruits and veggies for snack, some parents grumble, saying there is nothing their children can eat. I looked at the strawberries, the edamame, the ham sandwich and the carrots. Well, what can your child eat? I ask. Dino-nuggets and Tater-tots, she said. We are trying to introduce some new foods at home. "I licked a strawberry," her child said proudly before he asked for juice.

Yesterday Benji, who loves junk food (but, to his credit, eats a lot of other things, too), came home with ketchup spattered all over his shirt. He had had dino-nuggets for lunch. Just as her child is having to try new foods, my child is being exposed to the highly addictive properties of dino-nuggets.

This was our conversation:

B: Mommy, can we have those fish things again? They tasted like Dino Nuggets. (A single-Mommy confession: I cooked baked Halibut from Trader Joe's, telling myself my boys were eating fish. Omega 3 Fatty Acids, critical for their growing brains. Backed up by research!)

Me: Oh. You liked them? They tasted like chicken?

B: Yes. They are just like Dino nuggets, only a different shape. They taste the same on the inside.
(Do companies share research to find out what kids like? Do they pay for the secret recipe that will addict young children? Is there some giant factory that takes meat waste from all protein sources and grinds it up and fries it and sells it in frozen packages to parents everywhere?)

Me: (defeated) Well, I guess they do taste the same. But they were fish. (Still trying to impart a nutritional lesson that will last) Fish is really good for you.

B: Well. They taste the same. We had Dino Nuggets at school today. I ate a baby pterodactyl. Dino nuggets look like killed baby dinosaurs. Right, Mommy? They (dino nuggets and fish sticks) are the same, because they both taste good with ketchup.

Hmm. I guess they do.