21 December 2008


Someone asked me recently where I was at this point in my life and the word equilibrium came to mind. Not the same as contentment, although surely in the same hemisphere. A state of equanimity. What a chemist might define as stasis: a state of stability. A state of balance created by forces of opposition of equal strength so as to neutralize each other in the middle. Also known as equality of effect. Is this perhaps the true meaning of middle age? No longer the moment by moment changeability of childhood. Neither the anticipation or expectation, or anxiety, of youth. None of the angst of young love or the intensity of motherhood, nor the fearsome grind of career development, the nurturing of a marriage. This is a time of presence of mind. In fact, presence of being, true presence, without always looking back for comfort or looking forward in quest of all things meant to be. Will the more peaceful course of the future in fact compensate for the more difficult past. Steady as you go, but not an end-point. One never knows what’s ahead and one of the great joys of living in the moment is being open to the unexpected.

Four years ago I visited Laguna Beach for the winter, never imagining I might soon take up residence. In fact, if you had ever asked me if I might someday live in Southern California, I would have denied the possibility. Another aspect of equilibrium is knowing never to say never. I know that for certain now. Thus, personal equilibrium is not so much stasis as a state of calm, a state of readiness, without expectation. This is not to say that I don't [way too often] ponder what might be next or where I might explore, but I do enjoy a sense of personal contentment that I never experienced or expected.

Knowing oneself, accepting oneself and others, accepting one’s destiny without disappointment, rather willingness, this is the essence of equilibrium. An excellent place to be, in the context of a very dynamic and difficult world. News all around is bad. We – the global we – are in a terrible place, and I for one expect much worse and of much longer duration. This is not pessimism, quite the contrary. Crisis is an opportunity. The word comes from the Greek word, krisis, meaning to separate. In English, it is defined as a critical situation, a turning point. It’s antonym is peace or calm. The Chinese write the word crisis with two characters – danger and what some have interpreted as opportunity and others outcome. Either way, a sense of necessitated new direction. Perhaps America will see this economic crisis as an opportunity to reconsider our ways. Capitalism contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, said Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto, and certainly there is evidence of this these days in the intensity of poverty, even in this rich country, in combination with rising unemployment, home foreclosures, business closings, and, above all, a lack of confidence in our future, and in those who have been entrusted with that future. There is little we can rely on and a state of disequilibrium is anathema for most Americans. All the more reason to take this moment to restructure the way we do business and the way we live.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said that the speed of change is directly proportionate to the speed of communication. In today’s world, communications are in real time, thus the pace of change is constant, omnipresent. In fact, change may be the only thing we can count on. Such dynamism is traumatic to both person and planet. A perpetual state of psychic chaos. So it would behoove us all to step slowly and carefully, and move into the future with a different view. A real global attitude adjustment. And while we will all surely suffer in some way – few will escape this economic debacle – we have an opportunity to emerge perhaps saner. Perhaps closer to global peace of mind. Economic, sociological, environmental equilibrium. Wouldn’t that be something! Happy new year.

22 November 2008

In Praise of Off Season

No two beach towns in America are exactly alike, but at the peak of the season, they seem so.

From Cape Cod to the Jersey shore, the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia Beach, gulf towns and throughout the West Coast, beach communities come to life to serve the vacation traveler, seduced by sandy shorelines, sunny skies and perpetual hospitality. There are few differences beyond the eccentricities of their landscape and the length of the season.
They look alike, they sound alike. They share a gently frenzied ambiance. They all smell like commingled sun block, sweat and seared meats. When the weather cooperates, sunlight is ubiquitous and bright, but the streets so densely populated that hardly a shadow is cast, except by the occasional shade of tree line. Clouds drift by as if setting the pace, exhorting vacationers to slow down. Children run and splash and delight in their liberation from otherwise structured lives. Car doors and screen doors slam throughout the day. Engines whir and stall, thwarted by pedestrian traffic. Shops overflow with whimsical necessities – kites shaped like lobsters or parrots, primary colored plastic pails wrapped with shovels in white netting, striped beach umbrellas, film and lotions, post-cards stacked on racks and T-shirts blowing in the breeze. Sidewalk strollers ebb and flow like the surf. On the beach, shiny plastic beach balls roll in the wind, below the serrated fringes of kite tails flapping overhead. Small planes murmur now and then against skies of every possible shade of blue. Rock music competes with the calls of families, lovers and friends clustered together on the sand. Drum beats blare from car radios passing by and the constant din of chatter blankets all other sounds, like beach towels that punctuate the shoreline. Weekend walkers linger to watch impromptu games of volleyball or admire shapely bodies that drape the landscape.
The so-called quiet of vacation is a cacophony of sounds and scents and scenery that comfortably collide, much like waves that crash against the shore over and over again. The din subsides only late at night, long after the pink hues of sunset, when the last child collapses into peaceful dreams, the last glass of wine sipped, the last beach towels hung to dry, accompanied by the orchestral lullaby of katydids and grasshoppers crying through the stillness.
Beach town life is a spell that settles happily over inhabitants year after year. People thrive on it, long for it, and wait patiently for the season to return, because it is only in season when they permit themselves the freedom to explore, to abandon their responsibilities for a time, bond to their loved ones with neither obligation nor resignation nor rancor, and ignore the clock other than to prepare lunch or turn over on the sand. The vacation season, with its colors and music and singular scents, is the ultimate refuge from what might be seen as the colorless odorless monotony of daily living, even for those blessed with a satisfying life.
The very landscape jolts into ebullience as the season approaches, reaching its arms out to welcome the throng, then returning blissfully to hibernation in the off-season, because the landscape, as life in all forms, in the off-season exists only for itself. Craggy edges of shoreline spring back into view, no longer obfuscated by the crowd. Seagulls soar overhead, no need to share the sand. The surf surges with renewed vigor as if reclaiming its shore. A thin layer of sand blows about in chillier wind, unencumbered by the accoutrements of vacationers. The sun’s rays spread wide, diffusing shadows into abstracted muted images. Clouds drift closer to land. Long sunny days turn to short, warmth to chill. Runners breathe more deeply, walkers walk more slowly.
There is a collective sigh among the locals when their community is returned to them, because they know, rather than diminished by the quiet, their beach town is enhanced, strengthened from within like a delicate rose that’s been trimmed to its roots to restore vigor and balance, to bloom once again in the new season. It is the throng that most characterizes these towns in season – the throng of people on the streets, bodies on the beach. The throng of sound and scent. And it is the sheer absence of the throng that defines the off season, that time when a beach community is at its best: free of the frenzy, relinquished to residents and the occasional visitor to re-capture its true natural beauty, like an ancient succulent that blossoms only in the rain.
The off-season is more than a respite, it is a restoration, a haven of sorts, when the terrain is permitted to go wild, returning to a more organic state. The ocean is more gray than blue. The weather and the colors of the sky more volatile. Untamed and unobstructed, solemnity hovers over the town like an ancient church, deeply encrypted with mystical powers, where one might commune privately on a weekday morning, without parishioners or dictum, only the solace of silence and the wisdom of one’s inner voice.
Off-season was when I began my life in Laguna Beach and it is in the off-season that I am reminded most why I remain, its natural beauty best exposed to those of us that call this place home.

16 November 2008

Study in Contrasts

The days are short again. We return home from work in the dark. Mornings are cool, nearly brisk. The sun moves in a different angle across the sky, casting a light more silver than golden, and lands farther south than in summer, setting just behind Catalina Island, fashioning a halo behind the island's hilly terrain. And yet, the afternoon temperature hovers in the 80's. The air is oppressively hot and dry. A wild shockingly bright full moon woke me in the middle of the night as if a spotlight, and stars gleemed in the glow. Today, brush fires burned out of control in northern hills and too many people are homeless tonight. My eyes burn, my skin is dry, my throat perpetually parched. Yet, at this very moment, a gigantic orange ball is spreading ribbons of color across the horizon. And now, having fallen just behind the island, those ribbons rise to blanket the view like a color chart. The shades of sunset. As if on cue, the breeze picks up to blow away the last of the heat.

Everyone I know is grappling with their finances. Worrying about what comes next. How severe the recession might be, how long, how deep. Heaving with the weight of another year of college tuition. Loans to be repaid. Excessive credit card debt. Retirements postponed. Travels plans scrapped. Worry lines deepening. I came close this year to reaching a financial goal, a year or two away from working less and spending more time with friends and family in other places. We can never be certain of anything, but I know this for sure right now - I have to work harder and longer than I'd hoped. But I'm one of the lucky ones - I have a job I like and I still have savings. And the hope of recovery. Far better off still than most.

In the midst of great anxiety there is a palpable sense of political optimism. Obama has given us hope and the prospect of change. Straight talk reminds us that we are in for the long haul and we will have to play our part in recovery, but now there is a new destiny, within which we are not helpless. Optimism compensates for the fear. Perhaps the holiday season, despite the portent of gloom and doom in the marketplace, will bring a sense of renewal, or at least a sense of connection with fellow man. What ails us ails us all, and we face the future as one.

Summer has passed. Fall here has been among the warmest on record and there is no sign of winter, not event a Southern California winter. And yet, night comes quickly and it feels like winter. I should be wearing boots and sweaters by now, and, as if in protest, young people have already slipped their uggs on to the bottom of long tanned legs still in shorts. My friends in Connecticut bemoan gloomy wet days while many here would sell their souls for rain. I am already envisioning blustery days in New York City brightened by holiday lights and electric tinsel hanging across the facades on Fifth Avenue. I can picture the tree of angels at the Metropolitan Museum and origami at MOMA. Lights adorm much of downtown Laguna now and candlelight flickers in restaurant windows where, despite shrinking bank accounts and credit crunches, friends gather together to make merry.

Tomorrow morning I will slip into my sweat pants and clogs to walk Mona and by mid-day will seek shade. But tonight, I will pull the blanket up to my chin and huddle close to the dog for warmth, welcoming just a little bit of cooler air, which is always just a moment past sunset. Night is not day, and the days are bright before the dark. That is all we can count on, and that will just have to do for now. Life is a study in contrasts.

09 November 2008

On a Clear Day in SoCal

I imagine it seems odd in this a historic week to write about such a lowly subject as window screens, but read on, as there is a connection.

Among the many differences between east coast and west is the simple window screen. Not an item one finds in poetry, nor significant in the larger scheme of life, but of interest in this part of the world by virtue of its absence. One rarely finds a screen on windows in southern California. Nor on doors. No need. Despite green hillsides, tall palm trees and the constant surrounds of the sea, we live in a desert clime. Little or no humidity most of the time. And that sea brings with it sea breezes. Thus, no bugs. At least not the flying insects that screens are meant to obstruct. No annoying mosquitoes buzzing dangerously close to your ear in the dead of night. Rarely a wasp or a bee. Flies found largely in the orbit of open garbage pails or the sodden remains of an ice-cream cone. Termites are ubiquitous but largely unseen and they don’t fly through windows. On occasion, I spy a dragonfly and spiders abound, but they borrow their way in through the tiniest cracks and crevices. Flying roaches and killer bees seem to congregate in Texas and the panhandle, where they belong.

One day, a hummingbird flew through my open door to find itself trapped in the tiny solarium that borders my room. I watched in horror as that stunning creature fought against the glass and immediately called Byron, then living next door and the knower of all things, to determine how to help. Leave it by, he advised, as it relies on its radar and once it calms down it will find its way home. Sure enough, after just long enough for me to admire its form, it lifted its long nose, beamed on to the scent of a flower nearby and took off through the open doorway.
Tree rats are common, tiny squirrels flitting under cover of darkness among thick growths of ivy along back fences, but, thankfully, do not fly. I know this because the first few nights I slept here, I was kept awake by such rats in the overhead crawl space [no attic, that’s another thing not often found here – they interfere with views] and my only protection, I thought, was to keep the windows closed for safety, although the thunder of those little hooves overhead was nearly enough to turn this modern-day pioneer back east.
Now and then ants descend, although I’ve only seen a few now and then, hovering near the dog’s food bowl in anticipation of nearly invisible remains; Mona is a very thorough diner.
I’ve not seen any water bugs, my nemesis when a young girl in the city. In fact, perhaps the only creature that regularly sparked terror in my heart, even more so than the roaches with whom the poor in the city make peace by avoiding the kitchen after lights out. No, no nasty bugs in Laguna Beach, rarely a screen, and thus, the view is all the more clarified. A metaphor for the general sense of expansiveness one feels in Southern California. Nothing much stands between us and our environs. Breezes blow through windows without encumbrance. One steps from the inside to outside through fully open doorways, a constant connection from inside to out.
I attended a birthday party recently at a newly renovated 4-story home set into a steep incline. Every floor had a patio or two, encompassing roughly 280 degrees of breathtaking view, and floor-to-ceiling glass receded seamlessly and silently into walls so that it was hard to tell where the structure ended and the landscape began. On the upper floor, a Jacuzzi was carved into a terrace bordering the master bedroom, where I imagine sunset reflects in the wine glasses of the lucky couple while submerged in the soothing flow of rippled waters. Ah, SoCal.
However, there is one thing missing, nearly synonymous with my childhood summers – the sound of screen doors slamming through the day. I attended a summer camp in upstate New York where the sound of those doors marked the beginning and ends of day even more than flag-raising or taps. Screen doors slam in a gentler way, lighter by virtue of voided glass and thus more easily slammed, but less damning in the slamming. Warm week-ends at my husband’s family home on Candlewood Lake in Connecticut were defined by the constant banging of summerhouse screen doors, punctuating the ebb and flow of deliciously long days on the lake. I occasionally long for that sound as I long for crunchy leaves beneath my feet and the hum of the subway just below the surface on Broadway. The east coast has weather, my friend Diane reminded me not long ago, and here we have only climate, albeit lovely. And few bugs.

This week, as we celebrate President-elect Obama, and welcome a new way in the world, I imagine screens lifted from our collective consciousness, eliminating the rusted remains of mesh marring our vision for the future, a vision of hope and a new destiny, for which I am most grateful. Perhaps we have permanently shuttered screened windows against racism and opened wide a more expansive view of our humanity. I hope so.

01 November 2008

One More Hour

We set the clocks back tonight and tomorrow morning I will rise nearly with the sun and enjoy that delicious semi-annual sensation of having somehow beat Mother Nature. As much as we all love that moment in spring when we seem to extend the day, I prefer the fall because we truly gain the hour. One brief but precious hour. My body clock seamlessly realigned to earlier mornings and shorter evenings, which for those of us living alone is often a blessing. The hours of darkness can be painfully long for a single – work day done, dog walked, dinner dishes cleaned, and while a blissful time for reading or writing or the occasional visit with friends, often a bit too long. In fact, about an hour too long.
NPR yesterday reported results of a long-term longitudinal study that suggests that this one hour more of sleep alone may be the significant factor producing a 5% reduction in heart attacks during the 24-hours immediately following the fall-back time change. In a remarkable correlation, heart attacks increase exactly 5% in the wake of the spring time change that equates to one hour less of sleep.
Of course not everyone uses the extra hour for sleep as our bodies take time to adapt, so what becomes of that extra hour? Do we languish in bed just a bit longer given the gift of time? The dog may feel like she has to be walked, but she too will have to adjust. I might enjoy an hour of early morning reading in bed, a special reward as reading time, albeit the most cherished time of my day, always waits until all else has been fulfilled. Perhaps I will call daughter Dana in London, where clocks were reset a week earlier for some reason, and might catch her at a café on waiting for the tube, so that we might have an impromptu chat, cell phone to cell phone, a phenomenon I confess I still find remarkable and inexplicable.
This day of the time change always feels surreal, as no matter the actual hour it feels later. There is a great jolt of pleasure when peering at the newly set clocks to realize that less of the day has passed than expected, although a harsh realization when too soon the sun falls into the sea. The hour longer day plunges us into the semblance of winter, when we will return home from work in the dark and awaken early and before we’ve even had a chance to enjoy the extra time it slips away.
I’d like to use this hour well. Perhaps a bit more sleep. Read. Blog. Perhaps I will meditate, which I do rarely, largely because my mind wanders, although day-dreaming is a nearly daily pasttime. Perhaps the hour of Pilates that tends to fall into the cracks of a busy schedule. An extra long walk without rushing back in service of work or chore. Have a long talk with an East Coast friend, whose longer day is well underway. Perhaps I will take a nap, now there’s a rare treat. On the East Coast, I often used the time to switch out from the summer to winter closet, which one does not do so fully here, the lines less pronounced between seasons, clothing etiquette blurred. This year, I am invited to a cocktail party at 5:00 PM, but I will have a very full day before I leave, having slept well and used my time well and paid closer attention to the day, the attention we should all pay daily so that we use all our hours well. And when my body yearns for sleep, sooner than the clock would suggest, I will hold off and hold on to this day just a bit longer, granted this small coveted pleasure of one more hour in the day.

11 October 2008

The Joys of October

October may be the best month of the year, wherever you live. In Connecticut it is an especially beautiful time, leaves rippling, changing, casting a burnt orange tint over the landscape, and the air as crisp as the fallen leaves that will soon lay a blanket over sidewalks and driveways. And while the weather is fungible, there is always that one last burst of warmth mid to late October that holds you for the months ahead. I know this because my #1 daughter was born on the 20th and we brought her home to 70 degree temperature and every year since [OMG – 30 years this month!] we always enjoy “Dana-weather” some time close to her birthday. Seems like yesterday that I took her out for her first walk in her English pram [perhaps shades of her future life in London] and wrapped her gently in a matching coverlet to protect her from the morning chill. October in New York, the sun slants a bit, casting softer shadows between skyscrapers and bathing parks in a uniquely golden glow. Europe is lovely in October, both the weather and the absence of the throng of [American] tourists that have hovered all summer. London is drier in October. So is Seattle. San Francisco and the Bay area are best in early fall, when a silvery light filters through the early morning fog and a nearly summer sunshine warms the day.
Sonoma County wine country is stunning in fall, when mornings are so cold the dew is nearly frosted, and by mid-day it’s summer-hot, every leaf and vine soaking in warmth to last through the chilly night. My friend Chris tells me the season is sweet. Mustard seed and lavendar blanket hillsides, the air smells of the grape. Perfect final days and nights for the vines before harvest.
In New Orleans the worst of the heat has evaporated and hurricane season has blessedly past. Same in Austin. Florida is also at its best. I imagine Chicago is lovely in fall. Even in Buffalo snow rarely falls in October.
Is it no wonder that Libra, the astrological sign of the October born, is the sign of balance. Like the scales of justice that Libra represents, Librans are objective. They abhor unfairness and conflict. They strive for peace, something always in short supply.
My friend Byron tells me that Hong Kong is warm but not hot right now, drier and brighter and the nights so clear one might almost make out the stars. And in Southern California, where people say there are no seasons, October marks the end of summer heat, although not the end of fire season if Santa Ana winds blow in from the desert. It is however a period of equanimity. Mornings and evenings are cooler, the marine layer dissipates quickly leaving a mere residue of moisture along the shoreline, where waves crash more forcefully to shore as the Pacific reclaims its cold. Summer blossoms remain but the foliage prepares for a brief winer respite. Sunsets are especially spectacular, which some suggest is pollution but I prefer to believe is the rapid descent of the autumn sun at day's end, its rays spreading their halo beyond Catalina Island.
A simply beautiful month, a beautiful time of year, a time of ancient holidays, pumpkins, pie and candy. Apples are bountiful, gords everywhere, and while we all love summer, there is a lighter step and a brighter spirit in October. A season of harvest and for many a season of reflection and rededication to another year of days. The season of atonement.
October comes upon us quickly and disappears too soon. Then again, November is quite lovely in Laguna Beach, and for all of us this year, that time when the election will at last come and go, and perhaps the many crises that exist in our world right now might subside, just a bit, hopefully, we will all have a chance to breathe before the darker days of winter. Enjoy the moments.

28 September 2008

Risk = Individualism Squared

NPR this morning reported on an event that took place in 1971 in honor of the dedication of the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. The always controversial and extraordinary Leonard Bernstein was commissioned to create an original work for the opening ceremony. Bernstein, as you likely know, was a force for contemporary music and a devout non-conformist. He created a work in honor of JFK that included unique pairings of instruments, dissonant rhythms sometimes reminiscent of West Side Story and shades of Bach. Known only as “Mass” the performance was not well received critically at the time, but continues to be played by symphony orchestras throughout the world and is viewed now as a masterpiece.*
At its conclusion, the audience neither moved nor responded for three minutes. Deafening silence. Three minutes may not seem like much in the general scheme of time, but three minutes of stillness is surreal. According to the report, the silence was followed by applause and cheers from a standing audience for roughly half an hour. Ten times as long the jubilance as the silence.
Here’s what struck me on this story: who was the first person to clap? Surely one person broke the silence and initiated the thunder. What precipitated that sudden alteration? What is it that makes one member of a crowd break out? Surely it’s never easy to decide to be the one to stand apart from the pack, risking ostentation or scorn. Was it some sort of intuition that suggested the pack needed only one to lead? Or was it one individualist determined to answer the stunning absence of response?
I have always favored individualists and admired, even envied, those who listen only to their inner voice. Joni Mitchell is an idol of mine, not only for her exorbitant talent, but her steadfast determination to play her music her way and continually explore alternate genres. No surprise that Joni was also a painter, what she called her true talent, a woman with a devout sense of independence, what some have accused as selfish to the core, but perhaps only those who stay resolute to their vision retain true creative integrity. Other names come to mind, we all know who they are, and we know because the dared to be different.
Inner directness has been often maligned, but one can and should stay true to oneself, as Polonius directed Hamlet, while exhibiting consideration for others. The truth lies in one’s willingness to take risk. And what is risk after all but an acceptance that we cannot lose what we never had. That was a favorite saying of my father, a man who struggled his entire life with the balance between creating some sort of security for his family while living a larger opportunistic and frequently manic life. He was a gambler and as such recognized that easy come will easy go, and then hopefully come again. Something my financial advisor-friend keeps repeating as mantra, especially these days, related to the cycles of the economy.
So while I sit here in my little idle by the sea, having made this marginally bold mid-life move across country, I find myself fascinated with that one person who brought hands together to honor risk and in so doing took what in that theater in that moment must have felt a Herculean risk, only to discover that in the bold move he/she moved the mass. What can each of us do to lead such a charge and reap the rewards? Or, do we sit on our hands and wait for someone else to take the lead and, if no one emerges, do we take the greatest risk of all, that of complacence. What might also be known as inertia, that place we stay when we are too frightened to take that first step towards something if not bigger perhaps better and, if not better, certainly challenging. If we do not challenge ourselves, and others, we might find ourselves immersed within a metaphorical life of profound stillness. A collective flat affect reflecting off the walls of silence. I shudder at the thought.

*Though 37 years have passed since its debut, the spiritual and political messages of Bernstein's Mass are still as relevant as ever. Mass mixes classical music with a wide range of musical idioms: Broadway, opera, blues, rock, even a marching band! Commissioned for the opening of The Kennedy Center in 1971, Mass candidly explorers what Bernstein called "the crisis of faith" in our time.

24 September 2008

New Places, New Faces

People travel in packs. This town is a very friendly and welcoming place, but most grown-ups have long-standing relationships and are not exactly foraging for new ones. Being the newbie is not easy. Making friends, real friends, takes time and cultivation. Something most of us at this age haven’t had to do in a long time, relying as we do on our own pack for the comfort of connection.
Shortly after I settled in Laguna Beach, I placed an ad at CraigsList for a middle-aged movie buddy. Strictly platonic. A like-kind responded immediately. A quintessential New Yorker, although she’d been in CA for 25 years, she had a big personality, an east coast sort of neurotic endearment, and an apparent interest in many things artsy. As she was single and perpetually on the prowl, she preferred meeting at big noisy theme restaurant bars that I hate, but I was determined to go with the flow and grateful for the company. We began to tell each other our stories and I found to my dismay that while she was a welcome cohort in those first lonely days, our values did not mesh. An awkward stumbling block. After all, one cannot be friends with the first or perhaps second or third person you meet. Friendships evolve and there must be common ground. But how do you reject a 50-something gal pal? I began to be busy and, in the end, she dismissed me as unfriendly. I suppose I deserved that.
Bit by bit, thanks in large part to a stint as Lois Lane at the local newspaper, I got to meet and interview many mostly interesting people. Thus, walking through town, I slowly discovered familiar faces and became less of a stranger. Still, making friends is hard. Friends, just like lovers, must be courted. You meet for coffee. You share stories. You make the call to go to a movie or shopping or to a local event. You invite each other to dinner with or without spouses/partners. You call now and then just to chew the rag, but not too often to appear intrusive. Finding friends is like finding a good job – it takes time and effort and a willingness to put yourself out there. And as important as friends are to me, I am too frequently content to curl up with a book or Netflix.
And then there are the friends you lose too soon. My first and best friend in Laguna, my next door neighbor Byron, moved to Hong Kong. The blessings of Skype keep us close but he is no longer the constant presence that made my relocation so much easier. Always just over the fence, we both worked at home and frequently ended the day with a dog walk and a glass of wine. Couldn't have scripted a more perfect union, but, alas, not to last. My other neighbor and walking buddy Joanne moved back East. Melony, a new friend but clearly a friend of another lifetime, moved north to a simpler lifestyle. Easy come, easy go. However, bit by bit, there are people in my California life I can call friend. Not the same as the forever friends, those with whom kids are raised, graduations rejoiced, disappoints and despair shared, weddings and now grandchildren celebrated, funerals mourned. However new friends are a different sort of blessing. One is truly oneself in middle age and unafraid to bare our personal truths. Unwilling to compromise who we are. This makes for more instant and honest friendships. And there are many ways to meet new people… Always a book club. Fundraising luncheons. Film programs. Yoga class. Talks at the local Business or Women’s Club. Friday night wine tastings where, at communal dining tables, you get to know the regulars and perhaps become one. And now there’s http://www.meetup.com/ where you can latch on to all kinds of shared-passions groups from hikers to diners to pug lovers – a gold mine for newbies. Volunteers are in need. Mah Jong is enjoying a Renaissance. There is always a garden club, if that’s your fancy, and always a class to take. And along the way, you discover more and more of who you are in the choice of friends, and in their reflection. There are good people everywhere. And, the more known, the less alone, and more at home.

13 September 2008

A Serious Soul

"Nothing holds its truth for long enough. Home leaves us, not the other way around..." Words of wisdom from Helen Humphreys, Canadian writer, from Coventry, her new novel to be published in February [Until then, read Lost Garden or Wild Dogs or Afterimage]
I am a serious soul. Have always been. Frivolity does not come easy to me. I do love to laugh and appreciate sophisticated humor, but I tend to be a bit high brow. I come by this naturally. I was the only child of immigrant parents, much to live up to, although in the homes of Eastern European immigrants there was always more laughter than despair. However, most of my life, my mother was struggling for her own life, which she lost when I was an adolescent. Thus, at a very young age I took on more responsibility than any young person should shoulder, and also found myself recognizing the fragility of life, needing to feel a sense of meaning in all things.
This sort of personality does not easily embrace anything that seems a waste of time. Or a waste of imagination. I abhor frat-boy humor and find myself increasingly embarassed by American pop culture. My book group thinks I'm a snob, which in literary terms I am. I don't read chic lit and rarely watch network television. I thank my blessings for NetFlix so I can always watch a good film of my own choosing in my own home. Although I confess I saw Sex in the City opening week-end, for the fun of it, and I saw the Dark Knight for Heath Ledger's final breathtaking performance. I blast rock and roll at home and in my car, but at concerts I rarely stand or dance, rather listen with intent.
I married a similar sort and we ended up taking our differences way too seriously.
I took one of those personality tests recently for a seminar at work and I was classified as a "Thinker." The life coach looked at my profile and said "You really need to have more fun." This of course made me laugh. It's funny to me to be nailed so quickly by a stranger. What was not funny to me was when I was invited last week to attend a chocolate tasting-sale at the home of an acquaintance. I stared at the e-invite with disdain. So much of the world is at war. Poverty is ubiquitous and ignorance rampant. I work for an organizaton that shelters the homeless and I shudder at their lives on the streets. The right wing has taken over the Republican party and Rove is once again master-minding a candidacy that may permanently mark this country, founded on religious freedom and opportunity, as fundamentalists determined to do battle with perceived evil across the world. Women are being bamboozled by an inexperienced opportunist. Greed is imploding our banking system, while war and special interests are mounting insurmountable debt. I watch my portfolio hemmorage and my hopes for any sort of retirement vanish into a far more distant future than was in reach only a year ago. Friends are battling cancer. There are people who still don't believe in global warming. And the other day, I was invited to a chocolate tasting and sale at the home of an acquaintance. I stared at the e-invite in horror. Who has time for such nonsense? One of my friends asks - why not? She's right. One must balance reality with a bit of frivolity. Still, the chocolate is Dove, and if it were Scharfenberger or some new Swedish conconction, I might have felt differently. Dove? I'd rather munch on M&M's.
Truth is, I can and do have fun. I recognize that serious can border too often on stuffy. I get that. Still, life is short - each of us must choose how we spend our time and I prefer a more existential existence. We are meant to know ourselves and live accordingly. And though living in Laguna Beach is instantaneous lightening up, home is within.

10 September 2008

Beach Town Brat

The downside of living in a beach town is that you are always at the beach. While this sounds like a paradox, for an east coast winter weather resident, there are particular joys associated with leaving home and heading to a beach. In the depths of winter, when you have been chilled fully through to the bone and wonder if you might ever again be warm, a holiday to a tropical place is Nirvana. For me, there was an indescribable jolt of joy at that moment when stepping off a plane, usually onto one of those rickety aluminum staircases, to feel that blanket of steamy air envelope your body, shocking in its torpor, with that simultaneous thrill of knowing you have left behind the cold and stress and tedium of the every day and landed on vacation at last. For me, the only reward of living in a cold weather climate, besides that phenomenal first flush of spring, is the leaving, and also the always welcome first days of summer. That moment you open your windows to capture the breeze and banish that stale overheated winter air. But it isn't only in winter when leaving is a delight. We spent many joyous holidays on Cape Cod and there is nothing equal to the thrill of crossing the bridge as that salty clean air fills your lungs and you know, once again, you are on holiday, in a totally different place, albeit familiar. A place that resonates with summer. For some, it's a lake that shimmers in the sunlight. A cabin in the woods, screen doors slamming all day and the nearly deafening sound of crickets at night. A bungalow on a secluded beach on an exotic island. An old-world hotel sitting on a hill in a secluded small town where the pleasure of the day is measured by tanned faces at dinner. Where sleep nearly overwhelms the body, eclipsing all sense and sound with the exception of that delicious flutter of moist night air through an open window. Ah, vacations in the warm. I have never been a winter weather vacationer, no skiing for me, but I suspect, beyond the difference in temperature, that the thrill of the familiar in an otherwise unfamiliar place is the essence of holiday no matter the climate. All wonderful and all the more wonderful because it is different. Away from the every day, not matter how wonderful. Okay, I'm a brat.
Understand please that living in a beach town is a gift and I know this. I see that fantastically ubiquitous Pacific every day, and delight in cool sea breezes blowing through the night. I can walk to the beach, even for a moment in the middle of the work-day, when the intensity is a bit too much, and that soothing sense of being that one can only find at the beach is always within reach. So wonderful. However, by virtue of its constancy, the beach town loses distinction. Hard to imagine why one would want to get away, and yet even the best in high doses can lose its glow. So, I’ve planned a holiday to Mexico with my daughters and even though that western coast offers not much more than what I have right here in Laguna Beach, when I get off the plane, I will be somewhere else, with different sights and scents and sensibilities. The sand might feel different, the scent of the sea perhaps more or less, and I might happily while away an afternoon at the hotel pool, my nose buried in a book, occasionally dipping my toes into cool water that is perpetually refreshed. Pools are a different feeling entirely, a vacation feeling. The beach is organic, connected to earth and sky, strengthened by the undulation of ocean waters and punctuated by the natural cushion of a billions of grains of sand. Pools are man-made and no matter their irregular edges or infinity shapes, they are an artifice, and as such, a distinct change of scene for a girl from a beach town. I will look forward to lounging there and enjoying the sounds and flavors of our southern neighbor, with the distinct pleasure of knowing that I will return to my beautiful little beach town refreshed and always grateful. How blessed are we, always to return to this place by the sea.

05 September 2008

Feminist Boomer

One can hardly be a boomer without being feminist. We are the perpetrators of the modern feminist movement. In 1970, the official launch of this phase, I entered the corporate world. Not by choice exactly. I had intended to be a writer or songwriter, but I lacked courage and I lacked resources. And I liked to eat. Quite by accident, I got a job as a gal-friday [remember that moniker?] at a marketing firm and because I was inquisitive and a quick study, I found myself suddenly elevated to a marketing analyst. The bottom rung on a ladder totally occupied by Harvard MBA's and former high-powered consultants and the only woman in a company that produced products for women. I didn't really want to be there but I found myself captured by the daily sense of productivity based only on good common sense, and an oppotunity to make more money in one year that my father had made in any five years of his life. I wasn't eager to be wealthy but oh how lovely to have money in your pocket and a savings account and a trip to the Caribbean each winter. I didn't exactly break any glass ceilings but I fractured a few. I wore pants suits with pride, although I steadfastly refused to wear those silk ties that truly serious business women wore in those days, and I remember an unexpected sense of achievement when I was refused entry to the Plaza Bar because I had pants on - I know this seems nearly barbaric now, but it was a rite of passage that we baby boomer working women endured. I mentored women in MBA programs both before and after I had my own. I stood up for flex time and part time assignments even though in those days they were anathema to the corporate big boys. I left my rising career slot at Lever Brothers when my first daughter was born because they refused me a 3-day a week assignment, despite my label as a "rising star" because, the personnel director said, "what kind of precedent might we set?" I withstood the advances of sales men at sales meetings, including the pressing of hotel room keys into my palm, and I resisted the advances of'[most]of my male colleagues, because it was bad form, although ultimately I married the man who had me at hello, but only after we were working at different firms. I kept my own checking account. I advocated for women's right to work and raise families or to choose one or the other. I educated my daughters to make lives of their own choosing and tried every single day to model such a life in order to prove it possible. And now, when a woman has advanced to a vice-presidential candidacy, I should be proud. Instead, I am ashamed that the candidate wants to ban books and drill into sacred land and holds her baby facing out as a talisman of motherhood, while neglecting to teach her daughter about safe sex. A woman who seems to see herself as a pit bull and behaves as such, and thus behaves more like a man, which I guess is her definition of feminism. Equal rights and equal opportunity, that's the essence of feminism, and the right to live the life of our own choosing, the same right generally afforded to [straight white] men. Opportunity not tokenism, that's what we're after, not opportunism or delusions of grandeur. I believe that we earn what we have, we seize opportunities worthy of our efforts, and we always, always consider the common good, not only for women but for all. Nearly 40 years later, we have part-time and flex-time and equal opportunity although still too often without equal pay, and we can have it all, but hopefully recognize that no one can be all things to all people and be equally good at everything. I've learned that good enough is often good enough, not to sacrifice goals or personal achievement, but because balance is everything, in all things. In the end, it is not our gender that matters, but our motives and our integrity. Truly, I want to be proud at this moment in history, but this is a set-back. And an insult to the many hard-working, experienced and wonderful women in important political positions who should have come first. Ironic that politics of the womb should be the greatest threat to equality for women since we first voted, and we need these votes to count more than ever. Vote for what matters, vote for the future in a way that fulfills the past.

02 September 2008

Making the Move

I never planned to move. I wasn’t sure what was in store for me once the kids had grown and my husband was gone. I just realized, after a lifetime of working and doing what was expected of me, that I was ready for something different, but what? I tend to be a planner, but this one time I rode the current of spontaneity and decided to relieve myself of winter and try something else on for size. I rented my house in CT and moved for three months to a little town I’d seen only twice in my life, but remembered well: Laguna Beach. My friend Ed called it a cross between Westport CT and Provincetown MA and that's a pretty good description. I didn’t even know about MTV or the OC at the time, but I knew that this town of craggy shoreline and voluptuous hillsides appealed to me. I have a fondness for topography and uneven edges. I like what the locals fondly refer to as shabby chic.

The first time I drove down the winding access road that insulates the town from the noise and grit of the freeway, I marveled that only seconds removed from a 10-lane highway the canyon takes over and you might be in Colorado or Utah for all the similarity to what most of us think of as Southern California. Brown in summer, green in winter, exactly the opposite of where I’d come from and only one of many fascinations. I was immediately charmed. No longer tethered from the type-A life of the East Coast, I learned to move a little slower, talk a little slower and savor much more of the natural environs. It was 2005, the winter of the rains, but even so, more often than not the sun broke through and the sky seemed bigger and brighter to me, and that Pacific Ocean was always there, a guidepost - one can never get lost because the Pacific is always south/west and mountains east. The ocean is always a slightly different shade of blue, sometimes churning, sometimes nearly flat as a lake, and perpetually enthralling for those who love water and love the color blue, as I do. Solitude those first three months was at times oppressive, and yet didn't damper my enthusiasm for the place. In fact, I discovered some comfort in the solitary life, with the environs of this lovely town a constant and true companion.

Three months later I returned to the beautiful suburb of New York City that I called home, happy to reconnect to my wonderful friends, but found myself longing for outdoor café’s and hikes in the hills and those remarkable sunsets at day's end. Truly, if you had ever asked me that I might find myself in middle age living in southern California, I would have asked you what you were smoking. I lived in San Francisco for a few months after college but it wasn’t a good time for me then, so I returned to NYC. All through the years, California called to me, despite my life-long love affair with NYC. I thought I might find myself someday in Berkeley, a wonderful place for literarati’s and intellectuals and social advocates, and also people who love great food. Or maybe Sausalito, that patch of land that shares some of the characteristics of this town. I spent a week-end in Santa Cruz once, another interesting coastal community, and of course have always marveled at Big Sur and Carmel and the endlessly hip and blustery towns further north, but I’m here on the Southern shore now, and I’ve found a way to make a life, a good life. Slowly but steadily making friends and becoming more and more familiar with the surrounds. Just last month I visited all the people I love most in CT and NYC and hated to leave, but as I drove back into the modest bustle of summertime Laguna Beach and caught sight of sunlight glimmering on the water, I felt that I had come home.

If you have even an inkling that there’s a place out there that might suit you better than where you are, or delight you in some new way, take the risk. A great way to get in touch with yourself, and who you might wish to become in the later stage of life. I’m not talking about retirement, I’m talking about simply another way of life. What’s that platitude? Never too late to become the person you want to be. I would say it’s never too late to adopt a lifestyle that you’d like to live. If nothing else, you challenge your own senses and perspective and shake yourself out of the inertia where so many of us too often reside forever. I prefer Laguna Beach.

01 September 2008

In praise of breakfast

This was a very good day. Labor Day, designated a holiday in order to skip labor. Well done. The day began [after the obligatory dog walk] with breakfast with Byron. Breakfast with Byron is one of my favorite pastimes, unfortunately more past than present as Byron now lives in Hong Kong. The best we can do as a rule is eat at the same time as we Skype, not the same. Now he is here visiting friends and family and we frequently meet in the morning. Breakfast is an under-rated outing. People gather for lunch or drinks or dinner, all good, but breakfast at an outdoor café may be the best dining out of all. Europeans know this well. So do South Americans. And Lagunans get it as well, as every morning, every café in town is flush with patrons sipping their lattes and munching on muffins and either scanning the newspaper, especially Fridays when the two local papers publish, or arguing the merits of town planning and politics with intimates. I know people who meet every morning this way. They all have their favorite place. Zinc is the chic breakfast place, known largely by locals but occasionally found by tourists who are forever confounded by the one door to the take-out market and another to the café, largely because all seating is outside.

There are at least a half dozen similar breakfast café’s around town, and all close by four. As if to clam that daylight is the best time for food with friends. Meetings are best held at breakfast. Deals are done as much over breakfast as on the golf course. Awakening to a new day we’re relaxed, open-minded, cheerful. The stresses of the day have not yet set in. Breakfast is an intimate act, like that first morning after the night before. It’s the time we once spent with children and before that our own parents. With room-mates and spouses and lovers. I like to meet friends for breakfast, although I’m known as a lady who lunches, which I also like to do, especially on the spur of the moment, and frankly, I’m quick to put down my pan and meet for a light dinner. I like scanning a menu to choose just what suits me at the moment. I like someone serving me with a smile [or not as in Europe. In Spain, they bark at you, Diga me! And of course one must order from the menu, no special orders as we Americans have turned into high art. Still, the experience is enhanced by the very presence of someone else doing the work.]

I do not mean for a moment to disparage home cooking. I like slow food, freshly prepared. But home is where the phone is. Where email alerts ring out from the desk. Where chores remain incomplete, laundry and ironing to be done. There’s enough of that all day, and always waiting for the return home. On the way to breakfast, all that is left behind the locked door for quiet time with a friend. I confess, I often take a book to breakfast, another not-so-guilty pleasure. Also a great place to read the newspaper without interruption, although alone it’s hard to bitch or read aloud smart words or stories that sting. Lunch is better served as a quick visit with a friend or business. Dinner is social or the quiet end to a busy day. Breakfast, nothing has started, nothing to finish, nothing to distract, not just yet.

The one great irony… I don’t drink coffee. Only tea, usually iced, and I knew I had truly landed in Laguna Beach the first time I stopped in at Heidelberg Café, one of my favorites, and before I placed my order for a lightly toasted healthy harvest muffin [whole grains and nuts and sweetened with juice, hits the spot] when Fernando, one of the constants behind the morning counter, poured my iced tea, no lemon. He doesn’t ever remember my name, but he knows what I drink. There is something truly wonderful about being known. Especially at breakfast. Makes one feel right at home.

What is home?

What is home? Where the heart is? What heart is that – with your husband or partner, friends or family? Perhaps home is truly where you grew up, if you grew up in one place, although your parents or siblings are likely somewhere else and your childhood home is now a condo complex or a mall. I wonder if the whole concept of home is an economic construct, especially in this country, to support a consumerist economy where home means residence, with all the latest must-have stuff. A man I know makes his home on the street, by choice, largely because he’s easily frightened and claustrophobic, and his home he says is his guitar, a constant companion, which makes the sweet music one might associate with contentment. Home may traditionally be defined as native habitat, or perhaps a launch pad, and in cyberspace, the place to begin, like the home page, although home base is also the place one aims to land. A dictionary suggests home is simply an environment offering security and happiness, or a place of refuge. For those fleeing war, plague or poverty, home is their beloved country or the culture they cling to. What about the workplace as that home away from home? Surely we have multiple homes.

My first home was a tiny apartment where I shared a bedroom with my parents – my little bed pushed into a corner diagonally across from my parents’ not much larger one. In the dark of night, but before they came to bed, I listened to the distant omnipresent tremor of New York City and the regular punctuation of a subway train. Is home a series of sounds? Smells? I walk the streets of that city sometimes and the scents emanating from every bakery and restaurant remind me of the cacophony of pungent aromas wafting from apartment windows to greet a throng of street kids charging home to dinner. Is home merely environs that feel familiar? Or is home the place where you simply surround yourself with the familiar – my books are always first out of the box, and those few knick-knacks I retain only because they trigger sweet memories. Is home the place where you store memory? My parents moved from that tiny apartment when I turned twelve to a bigger apartment in a slightly more upscale neighborhood where my mother felt a sense of upward mobility and I slept in a little bedroom all alone, longing longed for the distant rumbling of a train. We lived there three years but I never felt at home there. As a young adult in Manhattan, I was awakened repeatedly by the sounds of drunks tossed from 2nd Avenue bars and the harsh blare of sirens, until I kept a promise to my new husband to move to our first of three houses in a picture-perfect suburb, sleeping to the sounds of leaves rustling on giant maple trees. One might say my home remained East Coast, or more specifically, the tri-state area, but in that pristine bedroom community I never felt completely at home until now when I go back to visit, and only because so many dear friends remain there.

Like the pioneers of old, when my husband was gone and my kids grown and flown, I migrated West, and soon after I relocated to Laguna Beach, my older daughter, who makes her home in London, visited me and said she was struck by the sense of home, she said, because our stuff was there. Stuff is easy to take with you. She, who in her short life has made homes for herself in New Orleans, Austin and Barcelona, forgave me moving away from her childhood home because, she said, home is where I am. So now I hang my hat in a beach town where I sometimes awaken to the sound of the surf, dulled by day by traffic along Pacific Coast Highway, and I feel at home, perhaps because I chose this place as where I want to be at this moment in my life. Is that all home is – the place that fits at this moment in your life? Works for me.