Monday, December 29, 2014

Dine and Sleep

Making friends at Windsor castle. 
It's hard to believe on this wintry Northern California morning, but I was in London a couple months ago.  It was all rather sudden and seems a bit like a dream now. Lana's husband, Rich, was working there for seven weeks. Lana took a leave from work and went for a month. I took a leave from work and went for a week. Lucy went the same week and worked with her colleagues in the London Facebook office. We missed Allie, who had just begun her new job at Sunshine Sachs in NY and couldn't get away. We had to soldier on without her.

I love London. Who wouldn't? It's such a sensible, yet sophisticated city. I feel a connection to that city. I always wonder whether it's because my immigrant ancestor on the Partridge side (who departed in 1650 for the wilds of Massachusetts) was from England. If he had stayed maybe I'd be living there and have a cute British accent and adorable window boxes. 
Christmas Cherry
But no, we Partridges had to head west. We did the Midwest and the East Coast. Boston area, Ohio, Michigan, New York and Connecticut. In 1975 I left New York and moved to California. Within a couple years my brother, mother, stepfather, both my sisters (and both their boyfriends) and maternal grandmother had all joined me in the San Francisco Bay Area. A few years later we imported my other grandparents from Massachusetts because there was nobody left for them there.

Other than my stint in Hollywood, I seem to gravitate to upscale areas. This trip to London was no exception. Lana and Rich stayed in a gorgeous one-bedroom apartment in Knightsbridge and graciously allowed me to surf their high-end couch. A block from Brompton and two blocks from Harrods’s, the location was grand.

Harrods at night.

I am a bad tourist. Lana is a bad tourist. I plan to take tours but then talk myself out of it. I don't want to spend the money or deal with all the crowds. This time, we vowed, would be different, and it was. We hit the sights and hit them hard.

Drinks in Marylebone. 
We had fish 'n chip in Marylebone.We saw the Wedding Dress Exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum followed by lunch in Notting Hill. We took a boat down the Thames and got out and cruised around Greenwich. The Tower of London was very chilly so we warmed up at happy hour in The City. We saw a hilarious, slapstick play called "The 39 Steps” in Piccadilly Circus. We met friends at the trendy Indian place in Shoreditch called Dishoom.

One of the best meals we had was when we met Lucy for lunch at Facebook. The food was incredible. It was fun to see that location. It's a great space and so different from the Menlo Park campus. We also had an excellent dinner at Bistro One Ninety, the restaurant at The Gore Hotel in Kensington.

The fall weather was crisp and festive. I love how beautifully people dress in London. Yes, we were in upscale neighborhoods, but there wasn't a sweatshirt or pair of yoga pants to be seen. Try that in Beverly Hills. We saw men pushing babies in carriages dressed to the "nines". I'm not sure what that means. I'll have to look it up. Anyway, they wore gorgeous coats, scarves and shoes. They really ruin the look by smoking cigarettes, though.

My favorite historical outing was the trip to Windsor Castle. We took the train to Windsor and ate lunch in a pub that is hundreds of years old. Then we toured the castle. The Queen’s flag was being lowered just as we arrived so she was on her way out. Darn. Just missed her! The gothic St George's Chapel is spectacular. It's not every day you can commune with the tomb of Henry VIII. The dollhouse is amazing, the dish display dazzling. The weapons room is extremely weapony. Kind of a guy place.

The woodwork is gorgeous and the views from the castle are positively baronial, but what truly charmed us was the wallpaper. Since you're not allowed to photograph inside the castle I'm starting to forget the patterns, but I remember pink and yellow flocked wallpaper. We ran from room to room admiring each one more than the one before. I just love that house!

In fact, I'd like to be invited back. Several times a year the Queen invites folks over for dinner and then they spend the night. They arrive in the late afternoon; have dinner in one of the dining areas followed by witty repartee and entertainment in the library. Guests then sleep over and depart after breakfast. The problem is, you need to BE somebody in order to get invited. Last year actors Daniel Craig and Helena Bonham Carter were "Dine and Sleep" guests.

My bed and breakfast. In my dreams. 
The State Banquets in the extremely grand St George's Hall also look like a hoot. Since I'm obsessed with table settings, I can appreciate the work that goes into setting the table for 160 guests. I have now learned that each guest should have six glasses and chairs should be placed exactly 27 inches from the table. I'm thinking I may need to get a bigger table to hold all that glassware. The Queen's table has 68 leaves and it takes two days to set it. Now that's a dinner party.

I did digress from the tourism trade to do a strange thing. I got my nose pierced. Whatever possessed a 56-year-old woman to walk into the basement of Top Shop in Oxford Circus and get a pierce? I'm not really sure. I've always wanted a little post (not a ring) and after I saw a gorgeous woman and her adult daughters all with pierced noses I had to have it. 

The frightening creature who pierced my nose.
On my last day in London Lana and I were "knackered". We couldn't walk through one more exhibit, so we had breakfast in Kensington and took a bus over to Notting Hill. I wanted to look at some antique stores. This is more like what I usually do when I'm traveling; wander through shops, write in cafes and people watch. I like to absorb the local culture, compare and contrast with other places.

We got to talking with the owner of the first shop and he was familiar with Mill Valley. He wanted to know if we knew the Saarman family. Did we know them? Claire, Emily, Isaac, Norah and their mother, Sarah?! Of course. Our kids all went to Park School at different times together.

In the second shop the proprietor also knew Mill Valley. His wife is from Kentfield, his in-laws live in Noe Valley. In fact, he told us they named their child "Noe" after the street in San Francisco.  I'm not sure if it's a boy child or a girl child, but it's clearly an original choice for a name. We stopped talking to people after that. Who knows how many more connections we would have made. It IS a small world.

It all seems so long ago. Some details from the trip are drifting away, but I'll always have the pierced nose to remember it by. No, I won't. After a couple months I was over it. I took it out and let it close up. But I will always have my memories of Windsor Castle and the visions of Dine and Sleep that dance in my head.

Memorial poppies at the Tower of London. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Something I Ate

The calm before the crab.

For us, holidays have boiled down to being all about the food.  We shop. We cook. We eat. We clean up. Repeat. More precisely, Eric cooks. I set the table and we all clean up.
Crab craziness. 
The children are now grown and married or about to marry and such. The grandchildren have yet to arrive. Holidays can be whatever we make it and we make it about eating. It's the 27th of December.  I've been sick with a nasty cold all week and have finally given in to it. I'm in bed thinking about the last couple weeks.

We have eaten and eaten well. We had friends over for a "bring your own crab dinner". We had a nephew over for brunch. I hosted the Park School staff holiday party and 25 teachers came over one afternoon. That was easy because they brought everything and then took it all away again. Allie arrived from New York City and my brother and sister-in-law joined us for dinner one night. Eric made an excellent Spaghetti Bolognese sauce and butter lettuce salad with Green Goddess dressing. The man can cook.

In Grandpa Pat's plaid. 

Then it was Christmas. Christmas Eve crab dinner for seven. Christmas breakfast. 

Christmas breakfast. 

Standing rib roast for Christmas Dinner. It is such a luxury to be able to splurge on great food and special feasts. And no matter how you slice it, we can eat at the top of the food chain at home for a fraction of the cost of eating out. Factor in leftovers galore and you're amortizing nicely.

It's a bit ironic, because this year food has not really been my friend. Multiple bouts of major gastric distress have clouded many days. Severe abdominal pain nearly landed me in the hospital. I did end up in the doctor's office. She was flummoxed by the symptoms and put me on an extremely restrictive "Low FODMAP" regimen. If you've never heard of this dietary program, consider yourself blessed. You really don't want to know.

Counterintuitive as hell; you can eat half the fruits, but not the other half. Same with vegetables. No avocado, wheat, lactose, gum. It goes on and on. I've blocked it out, but it did work. All the symptoms disappeared while I was on it. After six weeks I couldn't stick to it and started cheating. The symptoms returned. I talked to a friend who is a nurse and she suggested I just avoid gluten, garlic and onions since they so commonly create issues.

The good news is that it worked. Garlic and cooked onions were reintroduced successfully. The bad news is, I'm obviously gluten-sensitive. I hate being someone with dietary constraints. No bread, cake, cookies! No regular pasta! I do not want to be that annoying person who has to tell their host about food restrictions. However, it appears that I am. It's really not that bad. There are so many choices out there and Eric is a sport about gluten free cooking and makes all sorts of accommodations.

I seem to find plenty to eat. Rice, corn, potatoes. I may be the only person to give up gluten and not lose weight. I'm just happy to not gain weight. I've decided that not gaining weight is a successful diet at my age. I miss cupcakes from Sweet Things and sticky buns from Beth's Kitchen, but I'm still eating pretty high on the hog. And I've got my avocados back. Now, if I can just get rid of this cold, I'll be able to taste them again. 

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and good eating to all!

Ruby admires my breakfast in bed. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Snow Day

I'm on the right in the red pants. 

When I was a child we lived in New York State. It was the sixties and we had real winters back then. We skated on the frozen lake, tromped around in the snow. We played outside until we had hives from the cold. We even had chestnut trees in the front yard and, yes; we roasted them over an open fire.

Every once in a while we were graced with a blizzard and schools were closed. Oh, how we loved having a "snow day". Of course there was no email in those prehistoric times. We had to listen to the radio to find out about school closings. Districts were announced one by one and we kids would erupt in cheers when they announced that Rockland County Schools would be closed. I think my mother hoped we would all just go back to bed, but that didn't happen. It was far too exciting.

Once we spent the whole day building an igloo fort around a tree. It was so substantial a child could almost stand up inside. At least that's how I remember it. We played outside a LOT. The TV was black and white and there were only a few channels. There were no computers or iPads. I shudder to think about how young minds are developing now with so much "screen" time. A school nurse told me she could tell how much a five year old plays outside by checking their eyesight.

Northern California coastal childhoods are very different. Many elementary schools don't have cafeterias. It is assumed lunch will be eaten outside at picnic tables every day. In a normal year there is a fair amount of rain so that plan is somewhat flawed. When it rains lunch is eaten inside the classroom.

We haven't had to worry about that for a few years because it's been so dry. "Dry" meaning a parched state in a cataclysmic, catastrophic historical drought and all that implies. I'm not fond of droughts. This is the second or third since I've lived here. It's stressful to think about there not being enough water. You worry about wasting a drop - even flushing the toilet, for god sakes! The last big drought spawned phrases like "If it's yellow, it's mellow" and "If it's brown, flush it down." Ugh.

Our weather here is confusing. It's likely to be warmer on Thanksgiving than the 4th of July. Summers are cold and foggy, but September and October can be oppressively hot. This year the weather was even more confusing. Late heat waves begat blossoms on Magnolias that usually bloom in January. Roses have been blooming in the garden. December roses! Spring may be strange, because so much of it has already sprung.

Now we have rain, glorious rain. Back to back storms for weeks: the storm door is officially open for business. Last week high tides collided with torrential downpours and gridlock ensued. It took Eric over four hours to reach downtown San Francisco by bus. The bus driver even had to stop and make a pit stop.

That was nothing compared to what was forecast for this week. Weather prognosticators threatened that we would have the most prodigious precipitation in five years. Considering it’s been almost completely dry for four years, that's not such a credible threat. Certainly not red or orange. High winds, power outages - the outlook appeared so dire that schools were cancelled all over Marin. Lucky us. We got a snow day!

It has been raining continuously, but still doesn't feel like the storm of the century. We have power and the street (which has flooded in the past) isn't flooding. It's lovely to be home, but snow days are different here in Marin County, California. For one thing, we don't have to spend half the day shoveling the sidewalk. That's a plus. We took a walk in the rain, read by the fire and drank hot chocolate.

I'm not complaining, but there was something so magical about those snowstorms we had as children. There is nothing like the silence of falling snow. Rain makes rat-a-tat sounds on the roof, especially on all our skylights. It can be irritating after a few days. Snow mutes sounds. It's indescribably peaceful.

Silent snow falling hour after hour covering every leaf and branch with an ivory glaze. Walking through the woods where no steps had gone before. Making snow angels, building snowmen, drinking mom's special "Russian Tea". Rosy cheeked, we warmed by the fire in our long underwear. Time seemed to stand still. Now that's a snow day.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Over The Rainbow

I've thought a lot about suicide recently. Not for myself, but for others. Several months ago I watched a TED talk given by Kevin Briggs. He was a California Highway Patrol officer in Southern Marin. His beat included the Golden Gate Bridge. His talk is called "The Bridge to Suicide" and I highly recommend it.

Officer Briggs spent 23 years talking would be jumpers down off the bridge. He was mostly successful. Listening, asking questions. Now he speaks of his experiences and about how to relate to those on the verge of suicide. One of his most salient points was that we are afraid to bring it up. It may give our depressed, distressed loves ones the idea. Officer Briggs debunks this theory.

Obviously, someone on the ledge of the bridge has already contemplated killing themselves and they are pretty damn close. For other folks you should just bring it up directly. Make a comment that they seem to be struggling. You can say that other people in similar circumstances sometimes hurt themselves or take their own lives. Ask the person if they feel that way, too.

The most chilling aspect of the talk was the conversations Briggs had with the jumpers who survived. Every single one of them regretted the action the instant they leapt from the bridge. They no longer wanted to die. They wished to live.  That's a morbid, uneasy thought.

Sometimes a suicidal impulse is a spontaneous reaction and not planned. I believe it can happen to anyone. It happened to me once. It was over thirty years ago and I was a young mother in a difficult relationship. I had no money and few prospects for making more. I couldn't figure out how to solve my problems. I couldn't figure out how to ask for help or even that I should.

I remember getting in the car with the baby, who was 8 or 9 months old, and driving towards the Golden Gate Bridge which was about 15 minutes from home. I was honestly trying to decide if it would be better to jump with the baby or leave her behind without a mother. I was that disconnected.

For some reason I pulled off at Tennessee Valley Road. I parked and strapped the baby in the snugli and walked to the beach. It was late afternoon, chilly and the light was fading. It's a mile out and a mile back and that human lump in front of me got heavy. She slept and I either thought a lot or didn't think at all. I don't remember. By the time we got back to the car it was over. I knew I could solve my problems.

I had family nearby who would have helped me if they had known I was in such distress. When I left the relationship about six months later they did help me. It's such a testament to the power of our own thoughts that we can feel so alone when we really aren't. I've never gone to that dark place again and I don't believe I ever will. I want to stay here as long as I can and see how everything turns out. I know how much my children still need me and I need them.

About a year later I went through the Marin Suicide Prevention Training Program. I learned how to talk to people on the Hotline, but I never followed through with it. I was on my own with a toddler and trying to go back to school. The impulse was there, but I just didn't have the capacity.

When the news broke that Robin Williams had committed suicide I was as sad as anyone. It just didn't seem possible that his life force could be extinguished, and by his own hand. Anyone living around here has interfaced with Robin numerous times. I have friends who went to high school with him.

The first time I met Robin was in May 1982. I was a waitress at The Boarding House and he did a run of shows there. The house was packed and it was extremely busy so I didn't see much of what happened on stage, but Robin loved to hang out in the waitress station and make a pest of himself. He was manic and just completely out of his mind. He was so in the way I finally shoved a cocktail napkin at him and made him autograph it.

In recent years Robin has seemed incredibly anxious. He and his wife used to shop in the store where I worked downtown. She was friendly and sweet, but Robin seemed very uncomfortable in his body. When not performing he could be painfully shy.

Depression kills. Obviously. We can only speculate about what finally tipped him over. He lived right on the water and it was a gloomy, foggy summer. In all of July and August we probably had three sunny mornings. It gets to you after a while. Even if it clears up eventually (and some days it doesn't) you still have missed the morning light.  You can never get that back. There's a doom with the gloom, at least for me.

A light that bright, a genius so strong may have just had a "sell by" date. It must have been a wear-out to be inside Robin's mind. Aging, ailing health, battles with substance abuse - it all adds up. And, yet, somehow it doesn't. Suicide seems so selfish because it's about the one who wants to leave - not those being left behind. If Robin, with his money, resources and support couldn't get the help he needed, where does that leave the rest of us?

The shock of Robin's suicide is wearing off and folks are trying to find appropriate ways to honor him. There is a plan afoot to rename the Waldo Tunnel (which we always call the Rainbow Tunnel) after him. It's ironic because he had some acerbic lines about the tunnel. There is a video of an old bit where Williams called the Rainbow Tunnel an "ethnic detecter".

 It's a fine gesture even if it won't bring him back. A rainbow is a happy image, but it may be more complicated than we realize. I recently overheard the kindergarteners talking and one little girl said this: "I know a lot about rainbows and you're not telling the truth".

After this post was published it was revealed that Robin was struggling with Lewy Body Dementia. For me, it makes his suicide more understandable. My step-mother suffered from the same diseases. I posted a piece about her called "My Dotty". It's a horrible way to go.

Marin Suicide Prevention Hotline: 415-499-1100

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Screw Screw Bang Bang

Every twenty years, whether I need it or not, I have to go into a frenzy of home improvement. Once you get started it’s hard to stop. More accurately, it’s hard to know where to begin and where to end. The last time we replaced a rotten back door. A hundred fifty thousand dollars later we had a new back door. And a new kitchen/great room, roof, furnace, and fire sprinkler system that was retrofitted throughout the old part of the house. We also built an upstairs master suite.

This time the same back door was rotten again. I’m starting to see the appeal of plastic. The top of the Dutch door was fine, but the lower part was full of dry rot. Then we replaced a rotten window and did use vinyl. That one came out so well that we replaced another old, aluminum window. A fence along the side of the house, a new gate and a window that turned into a door were also necessary.

When one project is finished the eye goes to the next project. At least my eye does. Eric just puts his fingers his ears and says “La, la, la”, hoping to divert my attention. Impossible. I get very focused when I’m doing projects. The door from the kitchen to the garage was out. The new, pretty fiberglass fire-resistant model took its place.

The closet under the stairs really needed to be turned into a tiny powder room. Obviously. It also needed wallpaper and a mini chandelier. Mandatory. And while we were at it, the downstairs bathroom finally had a fan installed.

Princess Potty Room.

Throughout the process we got up close and personal with a number of trades. It takes skill to work on your house. Skill and an abundance of patience. Scheduling, organizing and most of all, waiting. I had to resort to begging in several circumstances. There is a LOT of work out there now. It kind of makes me miss the recession.

I found a combo plumber/electrician, Glen, who was extremely competent, but also frustrating. He would squeeze me in when he could, but I ended up telling him he was worse than an obstetrician on call. He agreed. He said he’d go to bed and have no work and wake up and have seven emergency calls. There were many days when installing the mini chandelier in the princess potty room just did not rate.
Glen and his tools. 

We were so desperate for progress we even did some work ourselves. Eric and I put together and installed a cabinet. We put up a couple shelves and did some trim. When the handyman got in a car accident and couldn’t work we really had to get serious with the tools. I even bought a little circular saw, but Eric hasn’t let me use it. I’m allowed to measure and mark. He does the cutting.

When Allie and her roommates moved into an apartment off-campus at UConn, they had to put things together using hammers and screwdrivers. This activity was called, “Screw, screw, bang, bang.” There have been many recent evenings when we did screw, screw, bang, bang until after nine at night. It’s not as exciting as it sounds.

Our favorite worker was the window and door installer, Yuri. A portly Ukrainian Jew, the man knows his trade. He’s brilliant at hanging doors and even repurposed a couple old doors for me with aplomb. He worked on Sundays and it would take an entire day to install a door. Several times he did screw, screw, bang, bang at our house until well past dark.

We even invited Yuri to eat with us because he’s such a nice guy and Eric and he would talk about history, but he always refused. He wouldn’t even accept a beer. Yuri did manage to make Eric terribly jealous the last time he was over. Eric tore apart the junk drawer looking for the manual to the irrigation timer, to no avail. I pointed out that the directions were in the binder with all the other manuals. I may have sounded a wee bit impatient. Not two minutes later Yuri came in asking where I’d put a piece of half round trim. I was about to start digging through the mess that is now the garage, but Yuri spotted instantly. “”You’re a genius!” I exclaimed.

Of course Eric heard this and accused me of liking guys who can make things and find things more than I like him. I do like a guy who is good with his hands and I can relate to a fellow with a lot of tools. It’s true. I admire people who make things. Like my father did, like my brother does.

I love hardware stores and I miss them in our town. We used to have four and now we have one. If Goodman’s doesn’t have it I have to drive several towns away for supplies. Home Depot is fine, but it’s not the same as an old-fashioned hardware store or lumberyard. I adored going to the hardware store with my father when I was little. I’m still crazy for the smell of sawdust, toxic as it may be.

As much as I enjoy spending my days with virtual strangers who are making holes in the house and incredibly dusty messes, I’m ready to not have pick-up trucks parked out front. If it’s not done now, it’s not gonna get done. Also, tradesmen seem to trash the work of other trades. Twice our new irrigation pipes have been broken by a carpenter or handymen. It’s so frustrating to have things break before you’re even finished paying for them.

The sounds of screw, screw, bang, bang will be no more. There will only be the plink of me opening the paint can. I’m painting doors and trim and then I’ll attack the risers. I paint in my spare time, while I listen to music or edifying TED talks. At the rate I’m going I should be finished by Christmas. Painting trim is kind of relaxing for me. It’s a peaceful time to think. Best of all, if I need some blue tape or a new paintbrush, I can just walk over to the paint store. Imagine that.