Friday, December 23, 2011

Ten Reasons to Slow Down

  1. It's 7 a.m. and you are running late for work. You stop at a red light with one car ahead of you. There are no other cars around. The driver, a young man, leans across the console to kiss his passenger. They are deep into the kiss as the light turns green. Do you honk?
  2. On a crowded street, you're behind an old, deflated man. Others are coming toward you, in a rush like you. You calculate that to pass him and keep your pace you will have to squeeze by him sideways. Instead, you brake and slow to his pace.
  3. They call you in for a second mammogram. That night, you walk slower to feel the warm breeze on your face and watch moonlight shatter across the water. The image proves to be clear.
  4. A young, shell-shocked father carries a six-week-old baby on his chest. He shows you the sleeping baby's face and tells you she is a twin.
  5. Your best friend's husband dies of cancer. You spend a week with her after the funeral to help her sort out his things. You don't sort through a single box, but do take long walks on the beach and listen as she tells you that grief runs deep.
  6. "It's hard to articulate the silence," says your husband, a welder who, again, surprises you with his eloquence.
  7. Wet hair waits for a brush as the sun pours through the stained glass window. A poem insists on being written.
  8. Young and black in Vallejo. Skirts way too short, a cigarette dangling out of 14-year-old lips. Shaking their booties when they win the pink, stuffed tiger that they cuddle in their arms. Little girls running too fast towards adulthood.
  9.  Cancer again, this time in someone you love. Treatable, but still the wake-up call of cancer.
  10. Admiring a drop of dew on a nasturtium leaf, your friend offers it to you and the drop slides into your mouth.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Dawn at the Golden Gate

Last night I attended a sold out screening of Rick Prelinger's Lost Landscapes of San Francisco, 6 at San Francisco's Castro Theatre. Film archivist Prelinger splices home movies, outtakes from films, and early ads to highlight San Francisco's cultural and natural past. A flash of last night's footage showed a Golden Gate without a bridge.

This morning, I walked the Golden Gate Bridge at first light and watched the sun bust through today's skyline. The commuters, the joggers, and the industrious cyclists reminded me of a line from The Annals of San Francisco in 1855, "[there was] no sauntering, no idleness, no dreaming. All was practical and real; all energy, perseverance and success. In business and in pleasure, the San Franciscans were fast folk: none were faster in the world."

I resisted any practical and real energy this morning. The city flamed against the sunrise, a match lit, and I was walking on water thanks to the industriousness of those who designed and built this bridge. The bridge turns 75 in May 2012.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Suisun Sundays: Walnut season in my neighborhood

It starts with a pop, crackle, and crunch underfoot. That's how I know it's walnut season.

The sound of walnut season inevitably comes when I'm walking my dogs, taking groceries out of the car, or otherwise not paying attention.

I live on the suburban edge of a historic farming community about an hour north of San Francisco. Here it's not unusual to see someone pulled over on the side of the road gathering walnuts from an abandoned tree that once belonged to an orchard. The tree doesn't know it has been abandoned and produces fruit year after year. In nearby Suisun Valley, a few old walnut orchards still thrive amid the row crops and grape vines, and on a hot summer day it's worth the drive to sit on the edge of the orchard with its grafted trees and afternoon sun slanting into soft shade. Golden California hills surround the spot, with quintessential oaks agreeably standing by.

But the walnuts strewn on my street are not from those orchards or the abandoned trees along the roads, but a solitary walnut tree in front of a 1960s apartment building two blocks from my house.

 Photo courtesy of

This time of year, the local crows take the fallen walnuts to the tops of telephone poles and drop them on the sidewalk or the street. If that doesn't crack them open and release the meat inside, they drop them in front of a moving vehicle. It's a pretty handy trick.

As for me, once I know it's walnut season, I begin looking for errant walnuts missed by the crows. When I find them, I crack them open with my foot, but not for the crows. I crack them open for my 16-year-old dog that has always loved walnuts. If you give him a walnut, or even a piece of one, he takes it in his lips and carries it gingerly to a special place to savor it.

I love walnuts, too. For the last few years, I've been ordering seven pounds of shelled organic walnuts by mail. It's enough for holiday baking and Christmas gifts, and will last in my fridge until next year's season. I share the nuts with my old dog, but the crows are on their own.

Here's a related article I wrote about an organic walnut farm for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Enjoy your walnuts!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Through a geographer's eye

Long ago I learned that a broadened view of geography is less about where a place is than how it came to be—whether it be country, neighborhood, watershed, or wetland.

Carlos Hagen, a Chilean geographer and UCLA map librarian, was my first teacher. Actually, he was a fellow student who sat next to me in a Social Studies class at Santa Monica Community College. He was a return student who wanted a second career as a Latino youth counselor. Carlos explained that many Americans thought that geography was the study of place names, but the tradition of European and Latin American geography was much broader than that. At the next class, he brought me a paper that he had written about the singing winds of the Atacama Desert. “That can be geography,” he said.

That semester, I was also taking a physical geography with William Selby. I originally signed up because the class fulfilled a lab requirement, but Selby drew me in by his enthusiasm. Each day we came to class we found an elaborate, colorful drawing of wave action, plate tectonics, or the moon’s pull of tides on the chalkboard. During class, Selby ran from drawings on the board to a globe on a table to a map on the wall.

I learned a simple phrase that captures geography from Max Kirkeberg at San Francisco State University (SFSU). Max was a cultural geographer that drilled one phrase into his students: Things go together.

  • A Russian community in San Francisco is a complex weave of history, food, music, religion—and the offspring who pull away from those things.
  • A creek has its own history, music, and relationships with the people who visit it.
  • A suburban neighborhood is more than rows of houses. The names of the streets—Kingfisher Road, Mallard Court, and Egret Way—tell a story of the land and wildlife that once lived there.
On the day I signed off on my classes at SFSU, the dean asked me what I planned to do with my degree. Would I get a job using geographic information systems, remote sensing, or work as an environmental consultant? “I want to be a writer,” I said. It was a long held dream, yet that was the first time I declared it.

As a writer, the old-school geographer’s point-of-view serves me well.  Kirkeberg’s admonition that “things go together” is always with me. It reminds me to dig into the story, deep and broad, with the winds of the Atacama desert whistling a distant soundtrack in my imagination.