Another Year Flies By

Burlingame, CA
August 2008 

Last August, I stared out my office window across the San Francisco bay and saw infinity, a future full of endless possibilities.  What I wanted was attainable, or so I thought.

This year, the office belongs to a different company, the future is hazy at best.  And what I want ... well ... what do I want?  Whatever it is, it lurks, just beyond sight, beyond my grasp.

Somewhere in the past year or two, I forgot more than once that what I desire is not as important as the path I take.  As I finish out this year, two things weigh on my mind:  whether I made the right decisions; and whether I will be able to find my way again, or if it will just become easier to compromise.

In this final week of 2009, I want to take the opportunity to wish all my friends and family a happy, healthy 2010.


It never rains in Southern California

A Mother's Hands

Long Beach, December 2009
Or so they say.  But the dark grey sky over Long Beach turned into a giant, cold, shower stall Saturday morning, as I arrived at my destination.  Walking into the building, I saw people filing into a room at the end of the hall.  I signed the guest book, turned to follow the others.  She was at the door, hugging everyone as they entered.  And then it was my turn.

"I'm glad you made it."

"There is no way I would miss this.  I love you."

"I love you, too."

Long Day for Grandma
Long Beach, December 2009

Similar stops with her husband, sister, mother, in-laws, before taking a seat.  Her mother walked to the front, put a hand on the tiny creme-coloured box, not much larger than a shoe box, closed her eyes, and put her head down.  They say there is nothing more difficult than having to bury your own child.  In that moment, I could see that burying a grandchild is just as painful.  This particular grandchild never had the opportunity to breathe even the smoggy Southern California air.  And this particular grandmother came within a hair of losing one of her children at the same time.  In delivering her stillborn child, an infection traveled up the umbilical cord, sending her into septic shock, and she battled for her life for almost a week before the doctors finally cleared her to return home, 40 years to the day that she had been born herself.

The moisture absorbed by our clothes and hair in the 30 seconds it took us to get from the building to the car was enough to fog up the windows, even with the defroster running full blast.  Large drops continued to fall.  At the cemetery, we ran for the shelter of the canopy set up for us, huddling with the others.  The burial service began, and suddenly, the rain stopped.  Above us, a small slit appeared between the clouds.  A slender shaft of light reached down.  As we said farewell to Genevieve, we all imagined that particular ray of sunshine had come for her, to carry her to her next destination.


A Hiatus

I have just received some sad news and need to disappear for a bit.  I will catch up with everyone when I return.

Je viens d'avoir des nouvelles tristes.  Je visiterai tout le monde quand je reviens.



Scarred by a Yard of Chard

Chard in the Yard
December 2009
Ten years ago, I scattered half a packet of Swiss Chard seeds in my vegetable garden.  Long after the other fruits and vegetables had given up and died off, and I had tired of eating anything green or tending the garden, the chard was still growing.  And then it bolted (sent out seed heads)!

Lazy gardener that I am, the stuff reseeded every year.  This year, almost the entire 50 x 50 foot plot was choked with chard, hollyhocks, grasses and weeds.  During spring and summer, my housemate chopped everything down.  He cultivated a patch, built a fence around it, and planted beets, turnips and garlic (too late in the season for anything else).  A few weeks later, he noticed some beets had sprouted in places he hadn't sown seeds.  That's when he discovered that beet and chard seedlings look a lot alike.

I picked some today and sautéed them with onion, julienned ginger and red pepper, then added sesame seeds and a dash of maple syrup toward the end of cooking.  Served with udon noodles with butter and curry, it made a simple, light dinner.

So ... what's on your dinner table?


Giving Thanks

Montara, CA
February 2007

The path ahead is uncertain and unstable,
but I continue.

The situation I desire is improbable,
but I wait for it.

Through everything, only one person is there
to pick up the pieces when I fail.

I don't always agree with you.
And no one else can piss me off like you,
but you've always been there when I needed you.

Thanks, dad.

p.s.:  I will deny this tomorrow.


Fiction as Reality

«L'espace m'a happé dans ses contours sans fin.»
"Space has caught me in its endless contours."

- Mabrouck Rachedi -
Photo:  Ryder Park, San Mateo, California, October 2009

I have been re-reading "A Writer's Reality," Mario Vargas Llosa's autobiography, mainly an essay on his thought processes during the writing of his novels.  Llosa speaks of two types of fiction, ideological fiction, an inverse to objective reality, and literary fiction, the product of the writer.  As I ponder the former, I think that perhaps fiction and reality can be the same, changeable depending upon perspective.

correction:  objective reality and ideological fiction are not so much inverses as they are points of comparison.  Ideological fiction is what one perceives as seen through one's own ideologies.

In some cases, fact and fiction seem pretty clear.  Llosa marvels at how intellectuals (he limits his scope to those in Latin America) have contributed to  intolerance as he describes the civil war of Canudos, where soldiers of the newly formed republic of Brasíl, achieved through a joint effort by the military and intellectuals, crushed a rebellion in Canudos, a village in a remote area of Bahía.  The republic leaders assumed that exiled monarchists had conspired with the English to create the rebellion.  So strong was this belief that reporter Euclides da Cunha confirmed this belief from the front lines. Da Cunha truly believed that he saw blonde haired English officers among the rebels.

After every rebel had been slaughtered and every building in Canudos razed by the Brazilian army, it was discovered that, in fact, the rebels were entirely made up of a rag-tag band of illiterate peasants, stirred up into a frenzy by fanatical catholic priests to drive out those foreign invaders who must have come from the Devil himself.  The priests were anti-republic, but the peasants themselves had no knowledge of it.   Both sides had allowed their beliefs to filter what they saw.  So the members of the republic saw a conspiracy cooked up by the English and the old regime, and the peasants saw evil.  Da Cunha's book, "Os Sertões", is a "personal and national self-criticism" of this event.

I-beam, San Mateo, California, October 2009

But most situations are not so cut and dry, and the lines between fiction and reality are often blurry.  Proponents of different socio-economic systems claim their own system is the ideal and that others are flawed and/or evil.  They are all correct ... and they are all wrong.  All systems have strengths and weaknesses and the right fit for one group of people may not be the best for another.  Two fighting people each believe the other is the instigator.  Again, the way in which events unfolded can make both correct.  There seems no clear distinction between an idealized fiction and the truth with situations such as these, because either argument could be valid.

How do you feel?  Is the difference between fantasy and reality black and white, or are there shades of grey?


Spare a Penny for the Guy?

Guy waits for the inevitable.

I read an article yesterday mentioning that Guy Fawkes celebrations in Britain are down, mainly due to a shift in focus to Halloween...


I felt for the Gunpowder Plot conspirator, whose life ended with several days of torture, hanging, and being cut up into pieces. Or at least for the 400+ year old tradition (longer if you consider the practice is based on even older autumn bonfire traditions) of burning his effigy and setting off fireworks every 5th of November. So when I woke up today, I decided to keep the tradition alive here in California, where it actually isn't a tradition!

Alas, there are ordinances in my city against open fires and fireworks, so Guy would burn in my fireplace. I raided my woodpile and grabbed dead leaves from my neighbor's dracaena to bind twig arms and legs onto a log body. I stuck a printed picture of Guy's face onto the body, which I doused in charcoal lighting fluid for good measure.  The result (above) looks more like the Burning Man than any effigy of Guy Fawkes I've seen, but my building skills have never been good and I had work to do, so that was as good as it would get. A bit embarrassed at my handiwork, Guy went straight into the fireplace, rather than being paraded down the street.
This Guy's on Fire!

Later in the evening, I set a match to the kindling underneath, and WHOOSH, the whole pile burst into flames and shot up Guy's body, as the lighter fluid in it combusted!  I grabbed my camera and tried to snap a photo while he still had a face, but it was too late.  His face was vaporized, his body completely engulfed (right).

Who knew the lighter fluid would catch so quickly? It's been sitting in my yard for years, is missing its stopper, and has been rained on.

This burning of the Guy is in honor of Lobo, who is English, but never partook in these juvenile pursuits when he was a pup.


Halloween 2009

Back in the day, children dressed up in costumes and knocked on doors begging for candy.  Now what do they do?  Two years in a row, not a single trick or treater!  I had no definite plans myself, so no costume, but I went to a rent party for my housemate's friend, who was evicted recently.

Banjo player.  An accordion player also played on this stage.

 I can't remember the name of this band, but I like them 
because the drummer reminds me of a good friend.
My friend has no tramp stamps and is a better drummer, though.

Projection screen, people, 
and the Extra Action Band

The candy lady takes a break.


Eric Besson in the News

Versailles, July 2009

For once, it isn't the US taking heat for its immigration practices.  French Immigration Minister, Eric Besson, is making waves.  Mr. Besson argues for enforcing French identity and history on immigrants, which to him, according to the news reports, seems to mean Christianity, the French language, and the lack of burkas.  The issues of diversity and freedom versus homogeneity and integration are, indeed, a hotbed of debate in many countries, as we hammer out what it means to be a nation, and what individual expression and cultural identity are, in a transnational world.

Defining ourselves, individually and collectively, is perhaps not so simple.  Taking a long-term, objective look at humans, we see that as a species, we are not quite as heterogeneous as we would think and that as "nations," we are not quite as unique as we would like to believe! We all share the same gene sequences which make us Homo sapiens sapiens, yet those sequences that make up individual traits have done a heck of a lot of traveling through the millenia.

Human history consists of groups branching out all over the globe, with some populations invading other populations to control their resources.  Gene pools were separated enough for characteristics to differentiate between regions, but also intermixed enough to keep gene pools fresh. In Europe, there are quite a few shared lineages -- the Romans were everywhere!  And the reach of the Normans and the Moors was nothing to sneeze at, either.

In any given region, people develop not just genetic traits, but also cultural ones.  As "outsiders" migrated in and out and administrative rule changed hands, some customs were lost in the shuffle, while new ones were created.  But many have persisted for generations and evolved with the influx of new ideas, regardless of who was in charge and what those rulers chose to call their territory.  Even in a country as young as the US, we have developed regional customs and traditions, separate from those of the nation as a whole.
My First Quiche, June 2009
Within the current borders of France, where Besson is attempting to define a singular identity, there are still localized languages, customs and cuisines (granted, most of those languages are dying quickly) that existed before France was France, or before those regions were part of France.  Take quiche.  We think of it as French, but some have argued that it is German:  Lorraine (née Lotharingia) was a part of Germany, or what we now consider Germany, when it was developed; and the word quiche has a Germanic (as opposed to Latin) derivation -- from Küche, a diminutive of Kuchen (cake).  And populations in the Alps, Pyrenees and along the Mediterranean share more cultural heritage with others in their respective areas that happen to be across modern day borders than they do with current countrymen from other départements.

It would be difficult to justify banning an article of clothing based on it not being a part of a culture without likewise banning others.  If France bans burkas based on that reasoning, they'd also have to ban caftans, kimonos, kilts, hula skirts, cowboy hats, Bermuda shorts...  Granted, kimonos wouldn't be a problem, since Japanese women have replaced them with Chanel and Vuitton.

Speaking of kimonos, 50 years after women in my family burned theirs attempting to fit in and be more American, the soon-to-be stepmother of the man I was dating shelled out a fortune for a Japanese wedding kimono to wear at her own wedding because it was unique and exotic for her, a fashion statement.  I wonder if women will be doing the same with burkas 50 years from now.

Kidding aside, how far should a government go in suppressing personal choices and compelling uniformity, particularly one that spans so many subcultures?  I think we all agree that actions that adversely affect others, such as stealing or physically harming someone, should be controlled, although there is often disagreement with regard to the how, but beyond that, I'm interested in knowing what you think...


Au Marché

Ah, nuts!
Francesca's Organic/Bio Nuts

Now that I'm home, I buy produce at the farmers' market on Saturday mornings (there are others on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, as well) something I rarely did in the past. I miss Metz much more than I missed Bristol, perhaps because I met more people in France than in England (go figure, my spoken French is horrible and English is my mother tongue). This ritual is similar to my Saturday mornings there, maybe that is why I have latched onto it.
The mushroom lady...
Sorry, I don't have a business name for her!

American farmers' markets are different than French braderies. They are almost exclusively produce, agricultural products, and food, while the marchés also have household and personal care items and clothing. I outfitted my apartment in Metz during one frantic morning at the marché. I had the bad sense to move into town on Easter weekend, and as I found out, unfortunately for me, Europeans actually take holidays off, they don't use them as opportunities to shop (or hold) holiday sales!

Free samples from Swank Farms,
Organic/Bio produce

Then there are the samples.  Many vendors here set out sample plates.  French vendors will give you a sample taste if you ask, but they don't generally set out a whole spread. I think there are actually people who come to the farmers' market with the intent of making a meal of the freebies!

This week, I picked up some chanterelles to put in a crème sauce I saw on Les Cuisines de Garance, except I added a dash of the pasta water, which contained vegetable stock. Crème sauces tend to be a little heavy for my taste, and the stock lightened it up and added a subtle complexity without overpowering the mushrooms.

Bon weekend!

More Information: Pacific Coast Farmers' Market Association


Of Virtue and Vice

Japanese Tea Garden
San Mateo, CA USA

No one is perfect.  But people seem to be judged based on what seems to be one-sided recognition of either one's improprieties or virtues.  As I scroll through the blogs and news stories in my feed reader, I see people either completely condemning others for their faults or idolizing them for their proprieties:

- the Dalai Lama associated with Nazis and is a potential despot and therefore lacks all credibility;

- the Dalai Lama brings messages of peace and hope and should be put on a pedestal as a perfect example of wisdom and compassion;

- Mother Theresa brought health care to thousands in need and should be put on a pedestal as an example of selflessness;

- Mother Theresa inflated her numbers to make herself look better and flew first class on interviews, so none of her achievements should count.

I like to think the truth lies somewhere between these extremes, that we all have our vices as well as our virtues and that too much or too little of either is not a good thing.  I have found at least one person who agrees.  In a recent blog entry, writer Isabel Chalumeau opines that rather than being completely blackballed for fleeing his statutory rape sentence or having his crime completely forgiven because of his cinematographic genius, Roman Polansky's work as a filmmaker should continue to be respected while he is still held responsible for his crime.  Sounds reasonable to me, but it seems like most people seem to fall on the extremes with regard to their opinions of him.

In my current bathroom read, The Book of Vices:  A Collection of Classic Immoral Tales, editor Robert Hutchinson argues that vice and virtue are both important, and that Aristotle had stressed the importance of moderation, not too much of one or the other.  But in this day and age, we are pressured to at least seem perfect, and he points out that the world has only seemingly become too virtuous, when, in fact, we have become the opposite.  Humans "have a singular talent for elevating their basest impulses into lofty virtues; and the most craven acts of self-interest are almost always cloaked in the silken robes of noble intentions."  We do nice things not out of kindness, but because we are forced to do them.  I would add that we also attempt to justify our misdeeds by turning them into acts of selflessness or by reasoning that we were forced into them by others.

The majority of us are spared the burden of having our whole being judged on the sum of our good deeds or our misdeeds, but many of us are.  I wonder ... at what point do one's transgressions make one irredeemable, and at what point do one's good deeds make one untouchable?  And why do so many in the spotlight seem to fall into both categories?  Is it really all about sensationalism and ratings?



This past spring, I bought a book from a young author while browsing through a book fair in Metz. At the time, he mentioned the possibility of attending a workshop in Iowa this summer.  By chance, I asked him last week if he had attended the workshop.  He told me that he had, indeed, made it to Iowa, was in fact, still there, and would be making a side trip to San Francisco the next day.  He would have one day free, during which we planned to pass some time together.

Early (for me) last Friday morning, I hopped into my midlife crisis convertible and drove up to Union Square. I parked, walked down the street and saw the Saint Francis, and the Sir Francis Drake hotels ... and realized that all I remembered about his hotel was that "Francis" was one of the words in it!  I sort of recalled when I first found out where he was staying that I pictured a beefeater-style doorman, so I took a chance on Sir Francis.  Luckily, my recollection was correct!  A minute or two after I sat down in the lobby, Mabrouck walked out.

This spider was obviously on acid.  Sutro Baths, San Francisco.

Mabrouck is fascinating.  He gave up the (relative) security of a  career in finance to pursue his passion as a writer.  He didn't just continue his day job while he wrote in his spare time, he completely quit his job to write.  He has since published one essay and two novels, one of which was in the works for filming when budget cuts in French public television ended production.

I'm in the process of reading his second novel, le Petit Malik.  It is a funny story about a boy growing up in a banlieu, but there are also bittersweet elements to it.  Mabrouck himself grew up in a banlieu (the French equivalent of an American inner city area, except they tend to be on the outskirts of the city -- the term can be confusing, because the literal translation is suburb), and when his first novel, le Poids d'une Âme (the Weight of a Soul) was published, he was asked if someone had ghost written the book for him.  Ouch!  I can say that in my communications with him that he is well-spoken, well-written and sharp as a tack.  Plus, he not only understands, but puts up with, my horrible French.

Above:  a long exposure on the dish of the Giant Camera Obscura, a giant pinhole camera.
The camera sports a rotating lens that gives a 360 degree view of the area.
The image is projected onto a concave dish. 

I am always in awe of people who are so focused, so sure of what they want.  My best friend in Metz was similarly captivated by his work.  He had dropped out of University to work to support his family when his daughter was born and began working as a vendor, traveling to the braderies around northern France.  I asked if he planned to return to the University.  He said no, that he had found happiness in what he was doing.  And there was a contentment in his stature, a certain indescribable fire in his eyes when he was spinning his pitch.  On the Saturdays he worked the braderie in Metz, I would pass by just to watch him work.  To watch someone with such ardor for what he or she does is intoxicating to the observer as well.

I do not recall ever being so enraptured by my work or hobbies.  Most of my decisions have been logic-driven, rather than those of the heart.  Perhaps that is one reason why I am so fascinated by people with such strong passion.

 Above:  sunset over the Pacific Ocean, Ocean Beach, San Francisco

EDIT:  I spelled Mabrouck's last name wrong in my comment.  It is Rachedi, not Rached.
His blog address ...


Ten Days

Ten days of sponge baths, washing a sink full of dishes with a liter and a half of water (it can be done, if you do it in the right order), and carting drinking water in my miniscule Mazda MX-5 from my father's house, which I admit, is better than having to walk with buckets of water from the town well.  I realize now just how much I have taken indoor plumbing for granted.

The plumber who said "no job is too small!" was supposed to drill a hole under the sidewalk for us so we could upgrade our water service to a larger diameter. He never showed up and never returned our calls.  I'm writing a bad review for him on Yelp!  I helped dig the trenches a little, but mostly I sat around whining pitifully while my housemate did everything.

Finally, yesterday afternoon, we held our breath as he turned the water back on, and ... no water spurted from anywhere it wasn't supposed to be spurting!  He went through the house opening all the taps, and everything worked fine.  After ten days of dreaming about being able to launder my clothes and take a luxurious, steamy shower, I was so relieved and happy that I took a two hour nap!

We are still waiting for the city's inspector to come out tomorrow and sign off, and there is a chance he will make us sink everything down deeper (we're short a few inches in spots), but the hard work is essentially done, and my housemate saved me a few thousand dollars by doing the entire job himself.  I don't know what I would have done without him.

Photo:  The labrador retriever in Piglet comes out when I turn on the hose. She loves to jump in the stream and stick her face in it!



"... the greatest gift someone can give me, is the gift of their time."

The above statement was made by Cassandra Ross, one of my social networking contacts.  Its simple truth touched me deeply and stirred bittersweet emotions within me:  melancholy and hope; turmoil and peace.  Time is the most precious commodity in our lives, because once it has passed, we can never get it back.  And so, the amount of time one invests in another is a clue to one's regard for the other.

How often do we give more time to someone than they are willing to give back?
 How many minutes do we waste in dwelling on time lost?


Halcyon Days

I remember when I could sit in the shade of my orange tree, engrossed in a book, sipping iced coffee and crunching on almonds, while the dog patrolled the yard and one of the cats curled beneath my legs, secure in the knowledge that if I happened to spill on myself, as is often the case, I could rinse my clothes in the sink and hop in the shower, and the incident would quickly be just a memory.  My security was compromised in the wee hours last Sunday (see last week's post), when my water line burst.  No running water for me for awhile!

While awaiting the return of my housemate, I showered at my father's house and toted jugs of water from his place to mine.  My housemate finally arrived late Wednesday night and began digging Thursday in the hole I'd started, when he hit a huge mass of roots from the yew tree, which emitted a metal-sounding ping when he hit them.  Those puppies were wrapped around the service line connecting the house to the water company's feed, and they were holding on for dear life so tightly, they broke through.  A good two meters of the iron pipe were badly corroded.

He spent a day figuring out where everything runs.  The feed originally went under the foundation, where it was embedded in a concrete slab under the house and virtually untraceable.  Panic!  And then, he found the feed was diverted to another, easily accessible point, probably due to a previous failure in the line that fed my back house (which was never restored).  We will be replacing the entire line with copper pipe from the service point to the point where the line enters the house.

I helped dig the trench yesterday, a total of 8 meters in length, although we need to hire someone to drill out the last meter and a half under the sidewalk.  That will happen Monday.  In the meantime, the housemate will begin measuring, cutting and sweating pipe for the sections he can complete before then, and installing a pressure regulator.

I am still getting drinking water from dad, but the housemate  rigged up a temporary spigot in the garden for everything else.  At some point, I, the woman who, by choice, used to trudge into the middle of nowhere for days on end without a bath, whimpered about feeling like my house had become a third world country, because I had to bathe using a squeezable water bottle, which was very unsatisfying.  And because I lost one kg for not eating because washing dishes is now an ordeal.  I got no sympathy.  Heavy sigh.

Hopefully, everything will be finished sometime Tuesday, and I will be able to return to my post under the tree, spilling on myself with abandon, and this whole plumbing issue will be a faint memory ... until I receive the bills!


Labor Day, 2009, a bit belated

The US recognizes the worker on the first Monday of September.  Many people take advantage of the long weekend by taking a short trip.  Some recognize the winding down of the warm season by heading outdoors and barbecuing.  And still others, in what could be considered an anti-labor gesture, shop the Labor Day sales (someone has to work those sales).

I went for option #2.  My housemate and I drove up to Petaluma in my midlife crisis convertible to spend the day with friends and eat food cooked in the great outdoors. I brought corn, and my housemate baked the loaf of bread in the photo on the left.  He attributes its odd shape to having to rise during the hour drive up to Petaluma.

I saw these fungi at right on a tree stump behind the grill.  I briefly contemplated tossing them on the grill, but I know absolutely nothing about mycology, and for now at least, am happy to be alive and healthy.

As I reflect on the meaning of the day, I also ponder the future of the worker.  The "stimulus" provided by the US government served to allow recipient companies the cash flow to be able to make massive layoffs in order to preserve the bottom line, which boosted the market a bit and allowed executives to receive bonuses.  Those who have benefited from the "stimulus," the executives and investors, are the ones who least needed help. 

No one sees any of that money trickling down to the (former) workers any time soon.  The vast majority of people, even those with jobs, have had to curb their spending. It is seemingly a Catch-22.  We stop spending because our dollars are devaluing rapidly, but the economy relies on spending.  When revenues are down, companies look to cut their largest expense.  And particularly when you take into account employer taxes, workers' comp insurance and benefits packages, that expense is Human Resources, so in a sense, we are cutting our own throats.  As it turns out, the mass consumerism we all bemoan was keeping us afloat, in a sense.

It has been speculated that these spending habits may persist for a considerable amount of time, so I imagine that out of necessity, the economic model will have to change, as well.  How, I don't know.  Will the government ease regulations or their enforcement?  Will boards of directors revisit executive compensation or even their own remuneration? Will the displaced workers form new types of businesses, or will they choose to revolt?  I guess we will find out in the months to come.



Sometime during the wee hours this morning, a sudden, muffled pop emitted from somewhere outside. My housemate's dog erupted into a barrage of barking and thunderous foot thumping, as she jumped off my bed where she'd been sound asleep a moment before, and raced through the house. I probably should have gotten up to investigate, but I figured if it were any type of animal intrusion (including human), she would have already scared it off. Anything else could wait until morning.
Sometime around 9:30, I rolled out of bed, shuffled through the house, picked up pet bowls, dumped them into the sink, and opened the tap to refill them. A thin line of clear liquid trickled out. I opened the tap more, but got nothing resembling more flow. The bowls filled painfully slowly. After I shut the tap, I heard the sound of water running through pipes somewhere. "Drip system must be on and sprung a leak."

I finished watering and feeding the housemate's and my fuzzy quadripeds, and shuffled out the front door to check the drip system. Two men walking by started waving and saying something in Spanish. I hadn't had coffee yet, so I could only look stupidly. My foot was suddenly cold and I realized they were trying to tell me my yard was flooded. Water was cascading down the planter box.
I turned off the drip system, but the river that was my planter continued to flow. I ran back into the house, tracking in mud, water, pine needles, filled both Brita (water filter) dispensers, threw on shorts and a shirt, grabbed the shutoff key to the water line, and ran back outside to shut down the water feed to my house.

The leak was somewhere behind a yew tree and next to a Meyer lemon bush next to the porch, the most difficult place to reach! The distance between the house (right) and yew (left) is about .75m. Out of the photo, about a meter beyond the lemon is another lemon. To get to the leak, I had to prune back the yew branches, then squeeze myself and my tools between the yew and lemons.

The water had been pooled between lemon and yew, so I began digging there, but when I turned the feed back on to retest, water was coming from the corner formed by the foundation and the porch. Even worse! My housemate is a welder, and is pretty sure he can fix it (he's in Sacramento with his girlfriend for the weekend), but I was seriously contemplating calling a plumber. Then I remembered I'd have to dump a few investments to pay a plumber and they charge extra for Sunday calls! I continued digging. I began a trench next to the porch (the red brick), but it was too narrow, and too cramped, and it could only be about a hand wide without interfering with the lemon's roots. The lemon had to go.

Seven hours later, I had:
1. Made it through the day on a double espresso, an iced coffee, an almond-rum croissant, some almonds and crackers with peanut butter, and a lot of water. I carefully avoided anything with too much fiber or lactose, so I wouldn't have to flush the toilet.
2. Dug up and re-potted the lemon. Sort of. I threw some soil around the roots, but not enough to cover them all, and I had no water for it. I'll probably lose it.
3. Tried to look in the crawlspace under the house to see if water had gotten there and if the pipe might be accessible from there, but the crawlspace entrance is on the opposite side of the house, and spider webs covered the portal. I decided to wait until my housemate gets home to do that.

4. Widened my trench, and dug about a meter down without seeing or feeling anything resembling a pipe.

I gave up for the day and headed to my father's house for a shower and to steal several containers of water from him. Well, I know what I'm doing tomorrow...


Pier 39

My stroll with my niece along the Embarcadero to Fisherman's Wharf included Pier 39.  The pier was converted into a shopping center in 1978.
This Coca Cola sign was not at the shopping center, but across the Embarcadero a few blocks up.  It has been there for as long as I can remember, and has been weather beaten and rusty for a long time, as well.  Maybe it was made to look like that!  There are two stages for performers and musicians within the complex.  Admission is usually free, although the performers do work for tips.  One of the biggest attractions along the pier, though, was an accident!
In 1990, sea lions began camping out on the docks.  Look at them, they're so cute and docile ... not!  Boat owners could not get to their vessels -- the sea lions weighed down the floating docks and chased away anyone brave enough to walk out onto them!  I remember the sea lions were originally considered a nuisance and plans were underway to chase them off.  But then the boisterous pinnipeds began to attract crowds.  And those crowds brought business to the restaurants and stores in the shopping center.  So new docks were installed and the boats were relocated.  The sea lions still attract a large crowd (caveat if you plan on visiting: the smell is quite strong), and they are the only performers that are completely free to see!


Fisherman's Wharf

Although San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf was built around commercial fishing, most people think of it in terms of the kitschy tourist attractions which exist today -- oddball museums, chain restaurants,  souvenir shops, and street artists and performers, such as Michael Lee (right), who does impersonations. When Michael started talking to us, my niece kept walking, eyes focused straight ahead of her,  trying to ignore him, but I made her stop and be social.  Michael likes to drink coffee in North Beach on his days off, and has lived in Germany, where he has a son.
I actually buy dungeness crab live off the boats at Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay, but no wharf visit is complete without a stroll past the crab pots on Pier 47. Dungeness crab is slightly sweet, delicious eaten plain.  I usually serve it in cioppino, an Italian-style fish stew, with sourdough bread.  We saw these guys piled up after being boiled, waiting to be someone's dinner.


Small Kindnesses

I have been fortunate to have two kindnesses bestowed on me in a short time frame, both of which came at low points for me.

Not all was perfect in Metz. My boyfriend and I didn't see each-other as often as we would have liked and the days we spent together were often cut short. Combine that with my inability to find work, and I had quite a few low days. One day, Mickaël brought me roses his aunt had picked. Both had gone out of their way (their days are mentally and physically demanding, and often long) to pick and bring the flowers. It was a beautiful gift, given with no expectation other than the wish to make me happy, plus, it was a low day, and it had been awhile since someone made an extra effort to make me feel special. I cried. I pressed two of them for easy transport home to California.

The rest of the flowers have been dried, and are currently in a town in the French Alps, near Geneva, with the bestower of the second kindness. Didier is one of my oldest friends. I have not seen him in over 20 years, but he is storing four boxes totaling four square meters and 20 kg of my junk for me (his mother has a large home). I was at another low, and feeling stressed about having to move back home and he swooped in, my knight in shining armour, to help an old friend in distress.

Right, one of my final views of Paris on this trip, from Gare de l'Est. Across the street at l'Ecu (on the right), my new favorite Parisian waiter, Chris, works breakfast. Okay, technically, he isn't Parisian, he's English. If Chris worked at l'Insulaire, my favorite restaurant (thanks to my sister for bringing me there), that would be the perfect combination for me.


Musée Mécanique

When she was small, I used to take my niece to the Cliff House at the North end of Ocean Beach in San Francisco.  We'd head downstairs to a dark room off the terrace and throw a quarter into the box in front of the 8 foot tall doll with red, curly hair.  The giant's upper body would start moving, and hideous cackles and laughs issued from somewhere in her depths.  My niece and every other kid under the age of seven within view would begin to cry!  Laughing Sal had been terrifying children since her days across the street at the Playland amusement park, and when it closed, she found a home with Edward Zelinsky's collection of coin-operated mechanical creations.

We'd head across the terrace to the giant Camera Obscura after leaving the musée, and inside the giant pinhole camera, we'd watch the waves of ocean beach projected onto a white disc before going back out to explore the remains of the old Sutro Baths.  If it was late enough in the day, we'd have a snack at the Cliff House and watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean.  Alas, that routine is now broken up

Several years ago, the Cliff House renovated and recreated itself as a stark art deco building, and the musée was kicked out of its home.  It found a new space on Fisherman's Wharf, a better location for foot traffic.  When my niece, who is now a married woman, and I went by recently, we were not as impressed.  The space is brighter, cleaner and has higher ceilings.  But without the dark, closed-in feel, it lost a little of its charm for me.  Even Sal seems a bit less imposing!  I still enjoy the machines, though, and more likely than not, I'll be back.


Sunset, San Francisco Bay, 28 August 2009

As I finish dinner with my family at a restaurant along the Bay Trail in Burlingame, California, I watch the last rays of the day's light sinking into the horizon.  When we walk outside, I pull my camera out and set it on a sign post for stability to catch those beams before they are completely absorbed by the earth.  Evening flights are taking off and landing at San Francisco airport, just north of where I am standing and the lights in the distance are beginning to twinkle on.  I snap a few, close my eyes and allow myself the luxury of imagining that he miraculously has been able to come here and enjoy this moment with me.  I brush away the tears before turning around to head back toward my family.


My Apple!

The apples from the tree my grandfather planted in his (now my) back garden were kind of a dull, mottled red. Not the prettiest of fruits.  But wow, they were juicy, shot through with sugary veins, the flesh firm and crunchy.  Perfect for eating right off the tree, and for baking, as well.

Several years ago, my father announced that the tree was diseased and had it cut down.  On the bright side, it gave a little plum seedling that had appeared a few years earlier in its shadow the opportunity to grow.  But there would be no more apples.  Maybe it was dad's way of telling me he didn't want any more of my apple sauce!

The next year, another seedling appeared, almost in the grave of the original apple tree.  With smooth bark, and large green leaves, it looked suspiciously like an apple tree, so I let it grow.  This year, small, whitish-pinkish blossoms appeared, again, a lot like apple blossoms.  And last week, a tiny little green nub appeared high on one of the top branches!

The little apple is already beginning to take shape and color and has grown considerably in one week.   It is difficult to tell at this point, whether it sprouted from fruit that dropped from the original tree, or one that fell out of the compost pile, but I plan to cover it with netting before it ripens too much, so I can "test" it properly.


The Mess that is my Garden

I mentioned mounting a 20 foot tall ladder to prune a bonsai on Martina's page, and failed to mention it was not the kind that is confined to a small container!  This tree takes up half my front garden, is unfortunate enough to have to depend on me, and therefore has not been pruned for over three years!  Originally, my grandfather shaped it into neat ovals, which are indistinguishable, now.  Those branches shooting straight up?  Not supposed to be there.  Some are already over three centimeters in diameter, too large for my loppers.  I have to use a hand saw to remove them.

 For two days, I have been chipping away at the overgrowth with bypass hedge trimmers, loppers and the hand saw.  The photo at left shows how far I got ... not very!

As I look at the photos, I want to try to preserve some of the randomness and airiness of the overgrown look.  In a traditional garden, trees are shaped to represent the sky, and I want my clouds a bit less compact and controlled than my grandfather had them (sorry, grandpa!).


Summer Reading

I was in the town of Nancy one Saturday, and happened upon a used bookstore. I love used books. The worn pages, the musty smell, sometimes with a note inside the front cover, sometimes something clever in a margin. And I love used bookstores, because the people working in them tend to be a tad more passionate about their merchandise than clerks in other retail establishments.

I walked in and headed straight for the sale bin. Smack dab in front was Patrick Süskind's Perfume! My boyfriend had mentioned it a long time ago, and it is also the favorite book of my best friend in Metz, so it had been on my shopping list. I snapped it up.

That night, I discovered it would be an almost impossible read for me. Much of the vocabulary was beyond my comprehension. I had to first read a sentence for gist, translate the words I didn't know, reread it, then read the whole paragraph again after following that sequence for every sentence ... and then re-translate some of the words I'd forgotten! After one hour, I had read and understood five paragraphs.

But what a sensual five paragraphs! Laden with nouns and adjectives, I could smell 18th century Paris from the safety of my 20th century Metz apartment! I was excited! And disappointed, as I knew I would have to read the English version to fully understand it.

As I prepared to move back to California, I discovered a new used bookstore had opened in my hometown a few doors down from what used to be my parent's pharmacy. My first week back, I walked into B Street Books. The man behind the counter asked if he could help me find anything.

"I'm looking for Patrick Süskind's Perfume."

And a voice behind one of the shelves said "It just so happens I have a copy of it in my hand!"

Well, that was easy! My French is better now, so I am reading a paragraph in French first, then reading the English version to see what I missed and using the French-English dictionary for the words I can't figure out. The going is still slow, but it is a little faster than before. I wonder what everyone else is reading this summer...


What would you do?

I am supposed to be packing this week, but my last entry spawned so many interesting answers ... and new questions for me. Yes, I know the hypothetical is always much safer than reality, so they do not always line up, but today I ask you to sit in a quiet place and close your eyes...

Imagine yourself in the security of your own home, when the doorbell rings. A uniformed officer hands you a paper and tells you that you have ten days to put everything you want to take with you into two suitcases and report to a relocation center, where you will be processed, then taken to a holding center for an indefinite amount of time. When you ask what you have done, the reply is not anything you have done, but rather a characteristic such as your hair color, or perhaps your political affiliation. When you ask about your job, home and possessions, you are told that dealing with those is your own business.

Tell me what would go on in your head. What would your initial reaction be? What would you ultimately do? What range of feelings do you think you would experience?

Conversely, if you were not a member of this group that was to be taken away, what do you think would you do? If you were walking down the street and ran into someone you knew who was a member of this group, what would you do? What if it were someone you didn't know?

Here is my answer ...

I have always been a vocal defender of rights ... as long as they are not my own ... and I think that in a case like this, I would probably follow suit.

I am ashamed to admit that if the powers that be came for me, I believe my docile genes would win out over my rebellious upbringing. And though I think I would initially be indignant, and I believe every fiber of my being would be screaming "injustice!" I think ultimately, I would end up following the decree to the letter and going quietly.

Conversely, if I were not in the target group, I think I would be much more vocal about fighting such a decision... and I would like to think that nothing would change with my perception of or how I treated others in that group. For me, it has always been much easier to fight for what I believe in if I think I am defending someone else other than myself, even if, ultimately, their freedom is also mine.



From gang symbols and rebellious teenage statements, to doodles and elaborate artwork, graffiti is everywhere. Just as varied as the content, are the reactions to it ... blight on humanity, sign of declining neighborhoods, defacement of property, art, socio-political statement, any combination of those.

Police Everywhere Justice Nowhere is in a tunnel by Fort de Bellecroix. I thought it a fitting description of our post-9/11 world. Governments have taken our freedoms and privacy under the guise of security. But we are no safer than before, although considerably more impinged upon, inconveniences paid for by our taxes.

This green guy looks more innocuous than the statements above, and is one of a series painted on the flower boxes on a bridge over the Digue de la Pucelle here in Metz. They seem to be sanctioned by the city, since all the boxes seem to have been painted by the same person.

Not graffiti, but I saw this display in someone's yard as I was walking down the street. I find this still life of children's toys and garden gnomes odd, creepy and fascinating. Did an adult set these up, or did a child create his or her own little world?

I often wonder how others feel about expressions, sanctioned or taboo. In a recent blog entry, Zaz discusses her dilemma with Freedom of Expression. As a writer, self expression is important for her, but as a mother, she found it impossible to defend a rapper who had been banned from a music festival for lyrics that were racist, misogynistic, and violent.

On the other hand, another friend of mine, who is a father, told me he is against censure because it gives more power to the target group. To wit, I believe that the rapper in question had a surge in downloads of his work since that date.

I am not a parent. Nor does my livelihood depend on artistic expression. But I am a member of an ethnic group that has faced socio-political discrimination. I am inclined to agree that censure tends to grant power to the target, and often forces the movement underground, where it is more difficult to track. In this respect, I would much rather have someone's feelings out in the open.

I had a student who was a self-described racist, due to growing up in a small town with limited exposure to many ethnic groups, and prison time, where racist tendencies are reinforced due to the way inmates group themselves. After her release, she forced herself to deal with her issues, and did that very much out in the open. I spent many evenings after class discussing her progress with her. I appreciated her candor and efforts to overcome her issues. It was important that she express how she felt and why, no matter how ugly those feelings were, in order to work through them. Interestingly, I was disappointed by other peoples' reactions when I described her and her efforts. People I had thought were open-minded were quick to condemn her, completely overlooking her background and the fact that she was working hard to evolve her way of thinking. I did not see the same efforts from them.

I would love to hear how others feel about the freedom of expression, artistic, social, political or otherwise. My door is always open.

Tthis is my final weekend in Metz for most likely a long time. There are so many things I still want to see and experience here, but I am out of time on this run. And as luck would have it, I'm fighting off a cold and feeling a little run-down, so I stayed relatively close to the apartment and packed a few items this weekend, rather than go anywhere interesting.


Packing Up

I'm in the midst of packing and figuring out what to do with what I've packed. The process is a bit more complicated than last year, since I actually had to buy housewares when I arrived. I have two weeks to move out of my apartment, and am not sure yet whether I will try to ship my things home, pay excess baggage to take them on the plane (possibly the cheapest solution, although a pain, since I plan to travel a bit before I leave and I'd have to tote them everywhere), or give them away to my neighbors or the next tenant of this apartment. I think I am probably agonizing over this more than I should, but I am a worrier by nature, so I guess I am just doing what comes naturally to me.

I did make time Tuesday night to join the festivities for the Féte Nationale/quatorze juillet (we call it Bastille Day in the US, probably to distinguish it from the national holidays of other countries). I took some photos of the fireworks (above) and carnival rides (left), and since I was out, took the opportunity to snap other sites around town I have been meaning to shooot at night, including Temple Neuf, which I had photographed during the day when I first arrived. I don't have a tripod, and was using a long exposure time, so it was difficult to get a good shot, but I actually like the way that shaky shot turned out!

On a bittersweet note, I found a store here that sells my favorite Single Malt, Benromach Peat Smoke. Back home, I have to drive ten miles to the Wine Globe to get it (I can also order it from the web, but I am an immediate want kind of shopper). Here, I take a 15 minute walk to the town center. I bought a bottle this week, and am debating cracking it open before I pack it up (I cannot polish off a bottle in two weeks). Too bad I have to leave...

... and something to look forward to when I get home: a used bookstore has opened in downtown San Mateo, which is walking distance from my house. Back before the chain bookstores, sometime in the 1980's, I spent countless happy hours perusing books and newspapers from around the world at the Central Park Bookstore/Café while I sipped my favorite drink at the time, a double mocha with soy milk (I'm asian -- if I use real milk, everyone is miserable). Unfortunately, the building owner refused to renew the lease when it came up, and there has not been a decent bookstore in the area since then, and it has been at least 15 years since it closed. It is not quite the same, as I believe the new store lacks the café and newspapers, and my drink has changed to a shot of espresso with a spoonful of honey (or maple syrup, if I'm home) and a little rice milk on the days my stomach acid is making me unhappy, but I am looking forward to the books! I hope they have a copy of Perfume, by Patrick Süskind. I have the French version, but the vocabulary is too advanced for me to read with any decent comprehension.



Every summer, every temple in my parent's sect (jodo shinshu, an offshoot of Pure Land Buddhism, I personally do not identify with a sect) has a fundraising bazaar, with the bazaars staggered throughout the summer so members can support each-other's churches. The main attractions of these fundraisers are the food which is lovingly prepared by church members, catching up with people you haven't seen since last summer... and, of course, Bingo, the fundraising staple of all religious groups in the US.

The bazaar for my parents' temple was this weekend, so I spent the last two evenings gorging on sushi, udon (noodles), yaki soba (more noodles), chicken teriyaki, imagawayaki (photo, front left) and kuri manju (photo, front right). The last two items on this list are forms of Wagashi, a lightly sweet confection traditionally served with green tea. Wikipedia has a description and photos of wagashi, and Benkyodo has photos of the varieties of manju that they sell, if you are interested in learning more about it.

Tonight I attended with my father, and we played Bingo for a solid hour and a half. It was cash bingo all night, with an occasional "second chance," where play continued after the cash winner banked out and the consolation prize was a bag of groceries. No cash for me (and anyway, it would have gone to my dad, since he actually paid for my games), but my father and I both won a bag of consolation groceries at the same time. Those are my groceries behind the plates. Sorry about the messy counter and the bowl of compost in the background -- sometimes I'm a little lazy! I can use the rice oil and shoyu (soy sauce), and the ramen noodles and instant miso soup will go into the pile with the Costco ramen from 6 months ago for those days I'm too lazy to cook. And the flavored seaweed in the red-topped containers is good for snacking. The individually wrapped marshmallows, however...

The last time I bought marshmallows was a little after my housemate moved in. In the backyard, he set up a woodstove he had made from leftover welding yard parts and I wanted to make s'mores with it. We sat in the dark yard sipping beer and toasting marshmallows on skewers, had two s'mores each, and got sick from the sugar. A few marshmallows were sacrificed to the fire, just to watch them puff up and burn. The rest of the bag sat in the cupboard until the contents fused together and we tossed them. Given the rate at which marshmallows are consumed here, I think it would take more than ten years to finish these off. The scary thing is that since they are individually wrapped, they would probably last that long! I am debating tossing them now, or a few years from now when I happen upon them again.