Monday, September 28, 2009

Yom Kippur

I am not Jewish. But my husband is. And I am always drawn to anything that involves guilt and masochistic behavior. So today--Yom Kippur-- I will atone and fast. Except for my two cups of Graffeo coffee. Is that cheating?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Little Surfers

All I wanted to do this weekend was surf. The whole summer has gone by and I did not get on my surfboard once. No time in L.A.. The second week at Stinson (my surf week!) the beach was closed due to a Great White Shark sighting. So this morning we packed the board on the roof and headed to Santa Monica. A beach break with shitty waves but I am so desperate I just didn't care. If I aimed for Ventura or Malibu we never would have pulled it together. And I figured I would be so lame after not being in the water for a year that it didn't matter where I went. I just needed to get in the water!

So I did. The day was overcast, the water glassy and smooth. I surfed for awhile, wiped out a lot, and at least managed a few wobbly pop-ups on the white water. But I was happy. The positive ions floating above the water did their trick. Still, after awhile I gave up. It wasn't just me not catching waves. Nobody was.

I paddled in and told Theo it was his turn to try. He practiced a few pop-ups on the beach. I told him to fall back, and not on his butt. And then I took him out and told him to just ride the big board in like he was on a giant boogie board--because he has mastered the boogie board. I pushed him into the little waves twice, and he rode to shore perfectly. The third time he stood up. The fourth fifth and sixth time, too. He was adorable. I almost broke down and wept. It is a moment I have dreamed of since I was pregnant. Seeing my boy love the water, and stand, in stink-bug stance, on a giant long-board and ride to shore.

Then Benji wanted to try. Jonathan already was warming him up on the shore with tiny pop-ups. I took him out and told him NOT to try to stand up. To just try to hold on. Boards are big. Fins are sharp. I got him on and pushed him into a little wave. He rode to shore. The second wave he got to his knees and shakily stood up. I couldn't believe it!!!!

He rode another and then my fin broke from scraping on the sand in the shallow water--and being really really old. That was it. We went to get my fin replaced and the dude at the surf shop high-fived my boys but told me I shouldn't let them on such a big heavy board. They need foam.

We had seen a surf accident slightly earlier. A dude on his board slashed his leg open and the life guards and paramedic rushed down. We were too polite to go closer, but could tell it was bad.

"Oh, he slashed his leg open. The muscle is bubbling out," said an English tourist who walked by us. My God. His language was too vivid.

I was a bad mother. I let my boys surf the old way--on my giant fiberglass board. But what joy it gave me!

Theo wrote at school this week: "My bucket is full when I go to the beach."

Me, too. And my bucket overflows when I see my boys loving the water like I do. It is something they will always have.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

MORE Alcatraz

Check out my Alcatraz story in the Weekend Journal.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Best Summer Reads-Now That it is Fall!

I read like a madwoman this summer. I read for my life and my soul. As I look back these are my favorite books. They surprise me!

1) A River Runs Through It, Norman MacLean: I had seen the movie but never read the book. Exquisitely written, a gem of a book. The prose is as clear and pure and distilled as the Montana rivers he writes about. For anyone who has a sibling they love like crazy, but cannot help, this book will make you weep.

Here is a beautiful excerpt:

Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.


2) The "His Dark Materials" trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass), by Phillip Pullman: I found this when I was in the kids section of the library and decided to do some scouting for future reads for Theo. I was hooked. I read all three back to back and read every second I had for our entire beach vacation. They blew me away. I couldn't believe they were for children. The writing is better than in 95% of adult fiction, the story better than in 97% of adult fiction, and the philosophical ideas he tackles--of God, love, power, the soul--are the stuff of the greatest literature on earth. He says he was inspired by Milton's Paradise Lost.
Indeed I was so bewitched I began to wonder if I am indeed still a 12 year old girl, trapped in the body of a 42-year-old woman.

Here is what Pullman said about children's literature in a New Yorker profile (This made me feel better about being so smitten by a young adult novel)

Pullman’s appreciation for moral seriousness in fiction has made him deeply frustrated with adult contemporary literature. When “The Golden Compass” won the 1995 Carnegie Medal, a prize awarded by British librarians to the year’s best children’s book, he gave a speech in which he proclaimed, “There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.” He explained, “In adult literary fiction, stories are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important: technique, style, literary knowingness. . . . The present-day would-be George Eliots take up their stories as if with a pair of tongs. They’re embarrassed by them. If they could write novels without stories in them, they would. Sometimes they do.”

3) The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz: If you have not read this, run, don't walk, and buy it now. The sheer inventiveness and energy of the prose will have you laughing and marveling from page one. Nothing I can say would do this book justice. It is like a new multi-cultural genre all its own.

The Power of Story

I am one of those people who believe in the power of story. I believe stories are the most human of endeavors, and what feeds our souls. I live for stories. To find them. To be in them. To read them and hear them and celebrate them and learn from them. I fell in love with my husband because he told stories better than anyone I had ever met. I could give him a topic - any topic - and he would produce a great story.

Still, when I watch a story take hold of someone else I am always in awe.

Two nights ago our friend John Orloff came for dinner. After we ate he regaled us with tales of his upcoming movie--The Owls of Kahool. (I am sure I am spelling it wrong). It is a tale of talking owls and orphan owls and lost legends and good guys and bad guys. It is based on some young adult series of books of which there are 14. He is a consummate storyteller and a fantastic writer. But as he sat there in the twilight and told the tale of the owls (and Theo already has a strong owl connection in his spiritual life) the boys sat spellbound. They couldn't move. They sat there. Totally silent. Utterly enthralled. When he paused they threw out more questions and more and more and more. It was magic. It was the power of story.

When John got up to go to the bathroom for a minute the boys turned to us: When is the movie coming out? Why can't we see it now? I want to hear more!!!

It was the world's oldest entertainment. I could just imagine us all sitting around a bonfire in the woods in the Middle Ages. The effect would have been the same. Now they are hooked. Just like me and their Dad. Can anyone resist a great story?


Los Angeles is on fire. The air is like a sauna and the Santa Ana's are blowing. I walked at noon yesterday downtown and heard later it was 106 degrees here. I know it was hotter downtown on the pavement. Today I am broken out in a rash all over. Benji was so sapped by the heat that he fell in the car with his mouth wide open and never woke up until this morning, despite numerous moves, meals cooked, clothing changes and kisses from me, his worried mama.

I am dreaming of water.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


...the boys fighting over some important lego, outerspace, battle-type toy.

Theo: I'm going to kill you!

Benji: No you won't, because it would break Mommy's heart, and Daddy's heart, and then it would break your heart!

Friday, September 18, 2009


I love Po Bronson. I often think I would like to be him--a writer of fiction, original non-fiction, ground-breaking journalism with a social bent that aims to make the world a better place. So when his new book, NurtureShock, written with Ashley Merryman, came out, I scanned the reviews, liked what I saw, and ran out and bought the hardcover--even though I am rationing my impulsive book purchases in these tough economic times.

I couldn't wait. I dove right in.

I tore through the intro., the first chapter, the second.

I will keep reading, and I will recommend it to other people who read, like my husband, because there is a lot of interesting information in it. It is a good book. Especially for someone who has children in 2009.

Still, I found myself profoundly disappointed. It is as if he has morphed into Malcolm Gladwell. Now there is no denying that Malcolm Gladwell is awesome. His magazine articles are provocative, his books even better. His books are clear, lucid, entertaining, and short enough to read on a cross-country plane ride--and still have time to maybe catch a movie. And he is so much more sophisticated than he first appears. You read through his simple sentences, his delightful laugh out loud, unforgettable anecdotes, hear his thesis--and you think, "Reading him is like sitting around with your best and brightest friends, spewing out original theories about the way the world works." Only he is so original, and so creative, AND actually took the time to go try to prove his theory, by sifting through every article that appeared in the last 10 years and hunting down the quirky experts, that he inevitably ends up changing the cultural lexicon every time he writes a book. "Tipping point" and "outlier" pervade every NPR interview these days, it seems. People who have never read him and never will fling his words around freely. He comes up with his own intellectual filters to interpret the world, and by and large they work.

Po Bronson is different. What I always loved about Bronson is that he seemed to try to update and modernize the work of Studs Terkel. He had his own take and he went out and found stories. He is not the best writer, OR the most original thinker. But you LIKE him. He has a good heart, a curious mind, a can-do spirit, and there is something so delightful about the questions he comes up with, and the way he goes about finding the answers. He is less polished, but to me, his earlier books have really gotten into my bones, my skin, my thinking. He is not overbearing. He finds his stories, then lets you, the reader, draw many of your own conclusions. At least in, "What Should I Do With My Life?" and "Why Do I Love These People?" Also, as he is just a few years older than I, I feel like he is one of the important voices for my generation, facing the questions I am facing when I am facing them. I like moving along through his life with him. I would like him at my dinner table, too. He feels more earnest. But I like that.

But this time I was disappointed. I have not finished--so this is not completely fair. But I felt like he (or his editors) was trying to be more Malcolm Gladwell, and less Po. I like Gladwell. But no one can do Gladwell like Gladwell. He has perfected that particular genre. Woe betide the author who tries to follow him down that path because they risk comparisons, and that will be very very hard.

So I will keep reading. And I will finish. And I will recommend. I am a loyal reader who really does love Po Bronson, and even aspires to write books like him. But I miss the old Po. The from-the-heart Po. And, I guess I should add Ashley Merryman, too, because I know she has been an amazing part of all his books and sounds like a pretty incredible and inspiring person herself.

Still, I recommend it. I would love to hear what you think...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Facing the Wave-breasts-first!

I have read a lot more Buddhism since my friend, Natalia, died of breast cancer. She had me read to her in her final hours from the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and things that happen at times like that stick with you, forever. One thing that struck me is that Buddhism, or at least the way Westerners talk about it, use a lot of surf and water metaphors. That resonated for me -- since I love to surf.

I read a fair amount since her death--because I felt scared when she died. I was not ready. My spiritual house is not in order. I need to figure out what it is I believe and how I want to live and how (emotionally) I want to die. The rest I cannot control. But that I can.

One thing Buddhism demands is that you live awake. That you are totally in the moment--not thinking about the past or the future. It is about turning and facing the wave. When something scary and terrifying and horrible and maybe even exciting is racing toward you, do NOT turn your back, do not run. Turn around, look at it, size it up, take it on. That is the only way you will survive. That is the way to get through it.

I am a procrastinator. I face real waves. I know how to do that. I know how to go over the top and dive through. I know how to go under and escape the rough water. But the psychic waves are harder. I run. I close my eyes. I look away and try to pretend they are not happening. And like real waves, they knock me off my feet and pound me in the surf.

So I am trying to be better. From the big things to the small.

Today I went to get my annual mammogram. For me the issue is now so loaded I am practically quaking by the time I walk through the door of the imaging center. It does not help that the place I go-- the Beverly Tower Women's Center -- is cold, institutional and matter-of-fact. On top of that, a woman my age went there with a lump she was worried about, they told her she was fine, and a year later she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer--in the exact spot she had asked them to look at. Young women are hard. Our breasts are dense.

Still. You go in, they squeeze your breasts this way and that. Not tenderly like a lover, matter of factly and coldly. Like a meat cut. (Although the technicians tend to be the most human and kind.) You get all these photos taken, and a few weeks later you get a letter in the mail--formulaic and impersonal--telling you you are fine, or that you are not.

Last year they found something strange in me. Not a lump, but fibrousness. They told me to come back in 6 months (all in an impersonal letter, in difficult to understand medical language and no way to talk to the doctor or ask questions). My OB was aggressive--she is awesome--and sent me to a breast specialist at Cedars. I was so upset at that point that I started crying hysterically in the hallway and a white-coated woman ushered me into a small, windowless (soundproof?) room full of boxes of kleenex where I could cry freely. They were afraid I would send other semi-hysterical women over the edge, too, I am sure.

In the end I got an MRI--terrifying--and everything was OK. Needless to say I was not excited about going again.

Today I went. I faced the wave. I got the mammogram. I got the ultrasound. And today the Doc who signs off on the impersonal letters actually came out and talked to me. What a difference it makes. They gave me an ultrasound just to be sure. All clear. They told me so on the spot. I was so grateful I cried. I felt my whole body go limp. I was even more scared than I had thought.

But I faced the wave. I looked for the truth. And now I can move forward, put the worries behind me, and use my energy for good things. It's a tiny step on my Buddhist path.

Do you get nervous when you get mammograms? Do you go weak in the knees? What do you wish your doc did to make it easier?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Are You the Gardener or the Flower?

The leader or the follower?

One of the things Jonathan and I have struggled with most since our boy entered real school is not academic, but social. It is the struggle to teach him to be his own person, to be an individual, to not just follow to fit in, to hold his own against those he does not like or does not want to be like, to look inwards for approval, not outwards.

OK, it is a tough lesson, one that some people never learn.

But he has made great progress.

Still, he is enamored of one boy in his class. And the boy is a charming boy, a wild boy, a smart boy, a beautiful boy. He is a baby Clinton, in the body of a second generation Iranian immigrant. The boys worship him, the girls love him, the teachers are delighted by him. I fall under his spell. Theo is simitten. Sometimes this boy hurts Theo's feelings, and Theo steps away. Sometimes Theo follows this boy, and gets in trouble--again.

Sometimes he loves him, sometimes he hates him.

Jonathan said the other day on the way to school he was telling Theo, "You are a leader. People follow you. You need to remember that." Theo said, "Yes, that is true. And Omeed is my leader."

Today when he got in the car he said he had a wonderful day. The plants had sprouted and he had played with Omeed. I asked him what he had played.

"We played that he was the master and I was the slave robot," he said. "Oh," I said, trying not to be worried and project lifelong predictions and fears onto his first grade recess game. "Well, maybe sometimes you can be the master and Omeed can be the slave robot."

"No, Mommy, I like being his slave robot. I am better at being a robot."

What is a mama to say?

Alcatraz Journal

My Aunt Judy and me!

We did it! And I was so proud! So elated! Jonathan took pictures of me in the hours afterwards and I look euphoric. The endorphins and adrenaline were still pumping through my system. But the conditions were more treacherous than I had imagined, and not in the way I thought. Here is what happened.

Friday afternoon we arrived in San Fran. The weather was beautiful--downright hot for San Fran--a balmy 80 degrees. Unheard of. I felt good. A few hours later we went down to the Julius Kahn playground in Presidio Heights. As always, the weather was changing--rapidly. The fog horn boomed non stop, the wind was picking up. I wrapped my wool sweater tighter around my body. "What was I thinking?" I asked my husband as the hardy Monterey pines bent and creaked in the wind. Just remember this feeling, he said.

I cooked a pre-swim feast at Jonathan's Aunt's house. It was the classic Hilary happy food: Penne arrabiata, garlic bread on the finest San Fran bread, a wheaty, grainy levain, and a huge salad. I was in bed by 10.

Saturday morning Jonathan and I awoke at 4:55 to the sound of footsteps running up and down the hallway. Huge booms echoed through the dark. Then flashes of light. I struggled to open my eyes. My God! It was a thunderstorm! We are in California for Gods sake. Who ever heard of thunder in California??? Jonathan's aunt threw open our bedroom door cackling like a madwoman. "Look!" she cried. "I can't believe it."

Half of me prayed the race would be cancelled, the other half prayed it would go on. It seemed impossible. Could they throw us in the bay during a giant thunderstorm? With lightening crackling right overhead? Jonathan made me coffee, I gobbled down an instant oatmeal and a banana and we headed down to the harbor.

You feel like you are alone and crazy in the world until you meet other crazy people. At the corner of Hyde Street in the darkness and rain stood hundreds of people lining up with their IDs to get their numbers inked on their bodies, their yellow race caps and their earplugs. The race was on! No one even talked about the thunder.

We wiggled into our wet suits in the darkness, and a friend from the Y lent me bodyglide to rub on my neck so I wouldn't get a wet suit rash (I still did. I look like I got a huge hickey on a VERY exciting weekend in SF). I found my cousin Courtney (who started this whole endeavor, but was unable to swim because she got sick), her husband Mike (an amazing surfer from an extreme sports family in Santa Cruz) and my amazing Aunt Judy, ironman triathlete and all around brave, bold woman. We took endless pictures of ourselves waiting in the rain. A 25-year-old swimming in skin scared the bejesus out of me. "Why are we wearing yellow caps?" he asked a group of us. "It is the ONLY color sharks are attracted to. They have done tests. They don't like red, blue, green or black. Only yellow!" My stomach churned. "Are you serious?" I asked, over and over.

A guy on a bad mike stood up to tell us a few last things. If you are slow, aim for the Navy ship, he said, and the current will carry you back. If you are fast, aim for the masts of the Balthusah, and you will shoot right into the water park. And that was it. No more tips, no more instructions.

With that, a bagpiper in blue and green tartan and tam-o-shanter struck up a mournful tune and we followed behind him, "swim-ready" to the ferry three blocks away. It felt like a funeral. Or like we were being sent into battle. Mournful. Sad. Important! As we filed onto the ferry, wax stuck in our ears to prevent the cold water from seeping into our inner ears and making us disoriented and swimming off in the wrong direction, the bagpiper played on, saying good-bye to each us with his eyes as we filed past. Would we ever return from our journey to the watery deep?

It started to rain and the ferry pulled out into the bay, laden with 500 swimmers--about 400 in wetsuits, and a few crazy ones shivering in the chill wind in skin. There was even a woman in a bikini. We could see the kayakers and rowers--who would keep us safe and on course, straining against the water, the wind and the rain. They didn't seem to be moving. Why were we doing? Will human beings do anything if other people go with them?

At last the ferry pulled up 100 yards off Alcatraz. It is a lonely, barren island. There were white caps now, but there was no turning back. I felt like I was going to die. We were instructed to jump off the ferry three at a time in rapid succession. They had to get all of us off the boat in 3-5 minutes before the ferry got dashed on the rocks of the island. If you didn't move fast enough, they push you -- just like the white-gloved men on the Tokyo subways. And once you hit the water -- no time to catch your breath or readjust your goggles or calm your rioting mind-- no, you just had to swim so the next swimmers wouldn't land on your head.

As we moved toward the front, rubber bodies pushing us from behind, the water looking frigid and cold, we saw the first swimmers struggling against the wind and currents. They were strong, and they were not moving!

My aunt looked in my panicked eyes: "The water is alive," she said. "It will support you."

We came to the door, all three of us grabbed hands, and we were gone, on our own, lost in a cold, wet world.

There were swimmers everywhere going in what seemed like every direction, so you couldnt follow anyone. My goggles fogged up fast, and the sea was rough--on top and underneath. But I told myself to breathe and I settled into this cold, solitary isolation. They told us to stop in the middle and look up at the Bay Bridge, back at Alcatraz, and ahead at the city. I did. And it was magnificent. There is something spectacular about being tossed on the waves of a huge bay, looking up at the most beautiful bridge in the world, carried by water, yourself just a speck. completely insignificant. It was Heidigger's sublime. Then I put my head back down and started swimming.

I swam and swam. It was harder and rougher than I thought. Swimmers seemed to be doing crazy things. At certain points swimmers went across me perpendicular. At another point I thought I was swimming in the direction of the Golden Gate Bridge. Was I hallucinating from the cold?

At last I saw the yellow buoy and the gap in the breakwater. From there only 400 wind-sheltered yards to shore. As I swam by the buoy, I heard a tremendous BOOM that rocked my subterranean world. My God! Had the Golden Gate collapsed? I had never heard anything like that in the water. I raised my fogged up goggles to the sky. Lightening crackled across. Omigod! There was no way they could get us all out of the water. I got a second-wind right there, and sprinted for shore. I did not come this far to die!

Five minutes later I stumbled up the sand, under the giant clock and through the chute. The amazing Lynn Cox, who swam the Bering Strait without a wet suit (this is true!) placed a medal around my neck but I was so deliriously happy I never noticed. I pulled the wax out of my ears and shouted for joy!

My cousin had finished what seemed like hours before, my aunt was still in the water. I went down to watch the finishes. People were staggering out of the water and falling over. (Jonathan photographed strangers stumbling. He delights in documenting insane behavior) A little while later my aunt gracefully backstroked in.

A huge fireboat followed in the last swimmers and saluted us with 100 foot high streams of water.

I was alive! I did it! And I never even had time to think of a shark after I leapt into the water!

The challenge was 99% anticipation, 20% actual difficulty. But how long it has been since I challenged myself to do something utterly insane. I need to do it again soon!

She's Alive!

Mommy didn't get eaten by a shark!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Why This Matters

Tomorrow we leave for San Francisco so I can swim with the sharks--and brave my way across from Alcatraz. I am nervous. Quite nervous. But also tremendously excited.

This is why this matters to me:

1) It feels so good to be strong again. I work out lightly--the way you should to prevent serious health problems. But I rarely work out hard, consistently and for a serious goal. To feel my body become strong again, my stroke become smooth, and to realize that my body truly is happiest--even at 42--to be working out really really hard, well, it is a fabulous thing.

2) I love that my boys will see me do this macho event. May they marry strong, bold, adventurous women (who love the ocean!!)!

3) I am doing something unforgettable with an aunt I adore who has inspired me from afar all my life. To do this with her means more to me than I could have anticipated. I cannot wait to leap off the ferry with her.

But most of all

4) Doing this race--daring to do it -- is like reclaiming an old, bold, adventurous, pre-Mommy part of myself. Most of my adventures now are small, private and internal. It doesn't mean they aren't important, but they mostly matter only to me. How glorious to do something dangerous and scary and BIG. If I die, it will be dramatic. And if I make it, well, for me that will be dramatic, too. I miss that!

Do you ever long for the old, bold, adventurous you?

How do you keep her satisfied?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Public vs. Private

After yesterday's blog my husband called to say he liked it. He went to public schools, too, feels like it is a huge part of who he is, and is committed to improving public schools and letting our children have that experience. It is a view we share strongly.

At least it was until yesterday. After his morning's compliments, he came home and as we brushed our teeth he blurted out: I think we may need to think about sending our children to private school for high school. In today's world those who truly succeed go to private high school.

I was so insulted--it was the exact opposite of my point in my blog, and yet I, my life, and my thoughts, had convinced him that private school for high school is the way to go.

Look, he pointed out, the most amazing people in today's society went to private schools. We analyzed friends and famous people. And we know some really amazing people. But from the Obama administration on down, he insisted that those who have really done spectacular things--from creative to cultural to political--all went to private school. His argument is that private schools teach you to shoot for the stars. To believe you are entitled and brilliant. To think in high school (not when you graduate from college, like us) that you could change the world and what IS it that you want to be? A president? A Pulitzer Prize winner? A Hedge Fund manager? A playwright?

I do agree with this--no one at my high school paid much attention to the smart kids. We did our thing. The teachers were good. The guidance counselors would say things like: You are fine. You will get in wherever you want to go. I have other students I really need to worry about. Session over.

But I also think the compassion and view of the world gave me an outlook that gave me more passion and direction than those who attended elite private high schools. But maybe I just need to tell myself that to justify my life. I don't say that about my elite private college...

Barack Obama, Timothy Geithner, Sonia Sotomayor--all of them went to private school he argues. His argument is that after the Clinton generation things changed. I don't know. I have brilliant friends from both private and public high schools. Can it really have such a profound influence on your life? Is that the kind of society we have become?

What do you think? Do elite private high schools give you a better shot at success in life? Why?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

LCW West

Today was Theo's first day of school at the new site on the Rosewood campus. LCW is relegated to a clump of portables on the north side of the campus--nothing gorgeous--but land we are supremely grateful for. And the principal from Rosewood has been gracious and helpful every step of the way in a process that must be very difficult: sharing a campus with an upstart charter.

I walked in today and I was stunned. In a month parents and teachers have transformed the space. A new garden has been planted along the fence and hay bales have been placed out to sit upon--reminiscent of those at the original Edible School Yard in Berkeley, at Martin Luther King Middle School. The classrooms are painted freshly, and each door has the LCW insignia painted on it in bright green. I was reminded powerfully that a great school does not require endless money or high tech. This corner of a beautiful old school property looks amazing because a group of parents and teachers combed over it and worked every inch of it with love and care. It shows and they have made it a magical place. I did not a thing on this project but I was so proud. Parents and their labor make a difference. We are not helpless. We are the power.

No More Meat!

Here is an excerpt that arrived in my inbox today from the Alcatraz race committee:

Speaking of eating, while we are fairly confident there are no Great White Sharks in the San Francisco Bay, they were known to follow whaling vessels looking for food as far as the Sacramento river during the 1800's. For the most part shark's are carnivorous and primarily eat meat. Great Whites have also been known to eat objects that they are unable to digest. One Great White was caught and found to have half of a horse in it's stomach.

However the one thing we feel sharks really hate is the thought of eating vegetables. Shark mom's have for eons been trying to get their young pups to eat more greens and root vegetables to balance out their diet, but without much success- it's generally just meat, meat, meat, with these top apex predators.

But we've recently found a pill that seems to make human's taste like a vegetable. We will be selling this shark repellant pill at our swim for $5. We're not sure if they really work, but we feel it's better to err on the side of caution when dealing with a predator the size of a Great White Shark, whose size can often reach over 20 feet.

All proceeds from the sales of our shark repellant pills will be donated to the City of Hope and used for cancer research.

"...the greatest enjoyment of life is to live dangerously...just don't forget to take your shark pill." Friedrich Nietzsche.

I want to laugh. But what if it is true????

From now until race day no more animal products. I do not want to be shark bait. I will swim in the middle of the pack. I will not die! And I will definitely buy the shark repellant pill!


Check this out!

Obama will speak at my high school today and this article outlines why he would choose Wakefield--known as a "slum school" when I was there. Not by its own students, but by those at the other, richer, more well-endowed schools in Arlington--a suburb of Washington D.C..

I especially like the description about "the aging campus, which has a reputation for success with disadvantaged kids."

I didn't particularly like High School. I felt, in many ways, that my life began in college, when I was free at last of my controlling military father who still lived in the 1950s. However, looking back I do feel like my high school had a HUGE influence on my life. Not on my academics--like the kids who went to Exeter and Andover and took A.P. art history and economics in high school and studied in small seminars like college students. Rather my lessons were life lessons for which I am eternally grateful.

When I was there my high school had more languages spoken than any school in America, and was featured in a New York Times article at the time. There were immigrants from Laos, Cambodia, Latin America and countries that at the time I had never heard of. There were lots of African Americans and lots of diplomats kids. We had top A.P. classes, but the school was rough. There were knife fights in the halls between Vietnamese and Cambodians--who we clueless white kids could not tell apart. And the football games between our school and some other local largely African American High Schools got so violent that one year the schools decreed we could only have games before dark, so rumbles wouldn't break out.

I ran track with Africans and sat in calculus class with Vietnamese refugees who could only speak French but could solve the Russian math challenges our Quaker, Vietnam war boycotting calculus teacher handed out. I rode home on the after school bus with black kids who freak danced in the aisles, and waited at the busstop with a young Vietnamese kid who told me earnestly at the end of a year of not much conversation "I hope we have a truly immoral friendship." I knew he had been practicicing for months, so I said, "Me, too."

I think about all this a lot as I think about my kids. I think about what I want from them as I plan out their education. Do I want private school? or public? A diverse student body? Or a smart, homogeneous one?

I kicked ass in high school and got into a top college. I took multiple A.P. tests and scored so well I could have skipped my freshman year if my parents had wanted to save money. The schools were good. The latin and math programs legendary. But when I look back, the lesson I treasure most from my high school, was that it was my last snapshot of real life. I rubbed shoulders with every class and culture. I ran relays with immigrants and took computer and driver's ed class with kids who had escaped horrible regimes. My bus took me through expensive neighborhoods and slums. I learned to care. I learned that social justice matters. And I learned that every one of these kids had a story, a talent, and a right to everything I had.

As much as every school I attended after that bragged of diversity, no school except Wakefield ever achieved it.

It changed my life, my views, my perception of American society. It make me a journalist who cared about changing the world, and making it fairer for everyone in it.

My son now attends a charter school we helped found that is committed to high achievement across every social class--and to enrolling 35-40% title one kids to show that they, too,can score high and do well, with the right education. As I read about my high school today, I think, just like Wakefield.


Monday, September 7, 2009

The Countdown is ON!

Five days until Alcatraz! I did what will probably be my final ocean swim today and I am ready. My neck is sore from swimming, and my back is thrown out from a night of too much drinking with a friend last Friday and an overnight on a lumpy pull out couch. But today, I came out of the water in Santa Monica, and I knew I was ready. It will be cold, so unpleasant to leap off the ferry into the frigid waters but I can do it. And I cannot wait to swim this race with my spectacular, wonderful, brave and inspiring Aunt Judy, who is doing this at 70! May I be so cool one day!

Strange, But True

I love Benjamin's ears. (I promise I will post a picture of a perfect ear!) I love how big and perfect they are. They are not pinned to his head, nor sticking out like sails. They are not huge, not Buddha like. Just large and endearingly formed. His hair was just cut, and now I look at him, staring out the window, and admire his perfect ears.

Napatree Point

I love the West Coast, and everything about it. I love the Pacific, the redwoods, the Sierras and the desert of Los Angeles. I love the Mexican influence and the freedom of the west. But still. when I think of my archtypal beach, it is not here. It is back east, in Watch Hill. It is a sandy spit that curves out to the Atlantic, unprotected and wild--with a lighthouse at one end, and an old overgrown fort at the other. I have sailed and motored there since I was a child, and now I have taken my children there. I have watched my father spearfish there, gathered mussels there, and jogged and swum up and down the beach endlessly. I don't know why, but to me it is the most beautiful beach in the world.

As I grew up we always heard stories of the '38 Hurricane. We heard there had once been houses on Napatree--unbelievable now--there is not a foundation or a chimney or a staircase today. And on the beach at the Wadawanuck Yacht Club where we played in Stonington, the beach was littered with tiny plastic beads into the '70s. We would dig for them endlessly, the beach never ran out. Parents told us they were from a bead factory that blew down in the '38 Hurricane, scattering the beads to the wind.

Every time we went to Watch Hill I would go to the tiny bookstore there and look at pictures of the devastation of the hurricane. This year, my lovely sister-in-law Jessica gave me the book, Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938, by R.A. Scotti, a former journalist from the Providence Journal and a novelist. It was as if the book were written for me. I devoured it, but especially the sections about Napatree Point, and the 40 houses that had once stood on my favorite beach.

On that fateful day gigantic waves rose out of the sea and devastated Long Island, Rhode Island (most of all), Connecticut and Massachusetts. The hurricane, with no warning, ripped 40 houses from the ground and blew them away. Families surfed roofs and doors and mattresses across Little Narragansett Bay and ashore in Connecticut, on many of the islands and beaches and nature preserves I have walked many times. The Hurricane split Sandy Point from Napatree and opened up the bay (that we knew and heard often.) But as I read the book, saw the pictures of the houses that had once stood on the sandy spit of Napatree I was appalled again at the power of that storm, that could wipe 40 huge summer mansions away in three hours and leave no trace. Waves that could rise above first floors, second floors and into attics. Waves that could kill--on a stretch of beach where usually the waves lap gently at the shore.

It is a story that I have always partially known, but never completely. And now I cannot get it out of my mind.

I guess those people thought Napatree was the most beautiful beach in the world, as well. The story haunts me.

Summer's End

Tomorrow school starts. It has been a perfect summer and now it is over. Back to real life. To schedules and homework and discipline and achievement and real life.

Last Memory of Kindergarten...

All summer long people asked Theo about school. They asked him how he liked it, and what he had learned.

He said:

"I learned to read. And I learned that some whales have two blow holes and some whales have one."

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


After 40 years, my parents are finally cutting back, emptying out, getting rid of things. They are consolidating for their new life in their new house by the water. As tbey dig out of their old house in Mystic, unloading a lifetime of forgotten boxes from the attic, the barn, the shed, parts of my past life are resurfacing.

I have moved so much in my life, and things just get too heavy. So I traveled light, leaving things along the way. Pictures, friends, possessions. I always meant to go back and reclaim, but I never did.

So how strange when my parents handed me two boxes this past weekend, to find a record of my life all stored in bags in perfect detail. I could hole up for a weekend and go through them all. There were pictures of me as a midshipman, on my plebe year cruise, in uniform and on my LKA 117. There were pictures of me at Wellesley, with my roommates and friends, hooprolling and just lying around in my messy dorm, lip synching and being crazy. There were high school prom pictures, high school musicals, camping trips, tennis matches. There were pictures of me in Japan, dressed in kimono, learning tea ceremony, a giant gaijin in a strange land. There were pictures of me with Athena in Asia, on the beach in Thailand, with Indonesian guitar drivers and Bangkok tuk tuk drivers, in Jaipur, Delhi and the path to Anapurna, with marigolds all around. There were old boyfriends nearly forgotten and friends I will never see again. And there were pictures of Natalie, leading us around Kyoto, her hair still long and golden, wearing her hiking boats, in high anthropological/leader mode.

It was my life in a shoebox.

Back in L.A.

We were in Stonington Connecticut for 5 days visiting my parents and seeing my brother, his wife and his two beautiful, brilliant, pink girls (my nieces!). The air was clean, sweet and smelled like the Long Island Sound, like summer grass, like fish and tides and ocean.

What a rude awakening to return to my city. The skies are gray, the sun obscured by ash. A snow of ash is on the cars in the morning, and the air is thick, heavy, hot. At midnight it is still 75 degrees. The sun is blood red and apocalytpic. A day back in the city and my lungs are seizing. I am not made for fires.