Sunday, July 16, 2017

Corneal Dystrophy: A Threat to Eye Health

Map. Dot. Fingerprint. These words don’t appear to make sense together, but they describe a type of corneal dystrophy, the most common of several degenerative eye conditions that occur when material builds up on the cornea. Another name for map-dot-fingerprint dystrophy -- equally odd -- is epithelial basement membrane dystrophy.

By either name, symptoms include blurred vision, intermittent pain in the affected eye, sensitivity to light, streaming tears and the feeling that a clump of eyelashes has gathered in the eye and refuses to come out. The condition most often develops between 40 and 70, literally disrupting any rosy view you may have had about aging.


I know this because after map-dot-fingerprint dystrophy lay dormant for almost two decades, it has recurred, and I am typing this without benefit of clear vision in both eyes. When I was first diagnosed some 18 years ago, my vision was blurry for a couple of months. This time, I experienced blurred vision and occasional pain.

Early in June, for two weeks, I was awakened repeatedly by a stabbing pain in my left eye and the feeling that my eyelid was stuck shut. It was. I was experiencing corneal erosions. That’s what caused the pain, the swelling, the redness and the eventual breakdown of corneal tissue.

Dry eyes play a part in some corneal dystrophy

The epithelium is the cornea’s outermost layer, the clear dome that serves as the first line of defense in protecting our eyes. During an erosion, errant cells on the outermost layer of the epithelium rise up and can stick to the inside of the eyelid. Tears help nourish the cornea, but everyone’s eyes get dry during sleep. That lack of lubrication, I’ve learned, can contribute to flare-ups of map-dot-fingerprint dystrophy.

“I’m glad it stayed away for so long, but I’m not surprised it came back,” said my ophthalmologist. “You’re female, and older now, and all older women tend to have dry eyes. Also, some medications also cause dry eyes. I’m not surprised.”

I was. When the blurriness first began, I dallied, blaming spring allergies. When the corneal erosions began, I started using artificial tears more often during the day and a thick eye ointment at night, treatments recommended when the condition was first diagnosed so long ago. When the erosions increased, I headed to my eye doctor. He said I was doing all the right things; to keep it up.

Three weeks later, an exceptionally painful erosion woke me before 6 a.m. on a Sunday. Though I immediately flooded the affected eye with artificial tears and applied an eye ointment I had on hand, the pain and throbbing did not abate for over 90 minutes. I was back in the doctor’s office the next morning.

Stocking up on OTC eye treatments

I was told to use preservative-free eye drops to both eyes every hour that I am awake, to use ointment in the affected eye three times a day and to apply ointment to both eyes every night. If I wake up during the night, I am to apply additional ointment or drops as needed.

“None of these treatments include medication, so you can use them as often as needed to keep your eyes moist,” the doctor said. The extra moisture could help the cornea heal itself, she said. Because of the corneal breakdown caused by the erosions, the doctor emphasized that I could not slack off. “Be vigilant,” she said. I headed to the pharmacy and bought the eye drops and ointments, all over-the-counter products.

An eye exam eight days later revealed that the cornea was healing and that the bumpy surface caused by the map-dot-fingerprint dystrophy was smoothing out. I asked the ophthalmologist what to expect in the future, what to regard as a benchmark of healing and what would indicate a regression.

“You could improve, you could stay the same or you could have another corneal breakdown,” she said. “It’s too soon to tell what’s next. You may have vision changes because of this and you may not – we don't know. Keep treating your eyes around the clock and we will continue to monitor you.” On the way home, I stopped at a pharmacy and cleaned out another shelf in the eye care section. I’ve done that several more times since.

What’s behind the unusual name

I did find out why this disease is called map-dot-fingerprint dystrophy. The National Eye Institute (https://nei.nih.gov/health/cornealdisease) notes that the dystrophy occurs when the epithelial basement membrane develops abnormally and forms folds in the tissue.

“The folds create gray shapes that look like continents on a map. There also may be clusters of opaque dots underneath or close to the map­like patches. Less frequently, the folds form concentric lines in the central cornea that resemble small fingerprints.”

The site also reports that some people who have map-dot-fingerprint dystrophy never experience any symptoms. For the rest of us, if treatment fails, there are options for outpatient surgery.

Also, I learned that map-dot-fingerprint dystrophy usually is genetic, as are other eye dystrophies. They include Keratoconus, which affects one in every 2,000 people in the U.S., mostly teens and young adults; Fuchs’ dystrophy, which causes a gradual decline in vision and is most often diagnosed in people in their 50s or 60s; and Lattice dystrophy, a condition that most often begins in childhood.

Most of these diseases affect both eyes and most progress gradually. They are not related to other eye diseases or diseases that affect other parts of the body. Some corneal dystrophies cause blindness; others do not.

Costs and a word of caution

So far, map-dot-fingerprint dystrophy has cost me several trips with Uber and Lyft when my vision was especially blurry, co-pays at the doctor’s office and an unknown sum (I am reluctant to add it up) for the eye drops and ointments.

Because I have cut back on screen time, I am not working. I am behind on the news (not a bad thing), FaceBook and on-line Scrabble and Words With Friends. What have I gained?

A sense of peace about my slower days and also time to think about what I want the next stage of my life to look like. (Yes, I am counting on stable vision eventually – and I want to get back to writing about wildlife!) In a rare recent moment dedicated to math, I figured out that I have spent 43 years of my life working, 32 of them full time. Maybe that’s enough!

I also have an increased appreciation for my eyes and the importance of caring for them and an immense sense of gratitude that I was able to see well enough to write this. Listen up: If your vision becomes blurry or you wake up with dry eyes and stabbing pain, get to an eye doctor right away.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Monet, Defiant Bears and Good Pals

Claude Monet was born 108 years before I was, and I didn’t learn about him until I was 15, when a gifted French teacher decided to instruct us about the art, the music, the literature and the architecture as well as the language. His work, as pictured in art books the teacher brought to class, astounded me. When I saw some of his paintings close up at the St. Louis Art Museum, they took my breath away.

Three years later, when I received my first check for freelance work, from Dell Publishing Company’s Ingenue magazine, I used the money to buy a biography of Monet. At the time, I had no idea the magazine was written by old white men, so when I submitted the article, I didn’t mention I was a teenage girl. The check was for $25. My mom photocopied it for me at her office.


In the decades since, I have continued to read about Monet, think about him and seek out exhibitions of his work. Earlier this week, I abandoned my current freelance assignments and ran off to the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco to see “Monet: The Early Years,” a splendid exhibit of 53 works painted between 1858 and 1872.

The exhibit is exhilarating – read more about it at https://legionofhonor.famsf.org/monet-early-years and if you are a fan, do try to get to San Francisco to see it before it closes May 29. Many of the paintings depict light dancing on water. One shows a haystack, not purely realistic but not yet infused with light at different times of day. Some show the early influence of Japanese art on Monet’s work.

In one gallery, I zeroed in on an immediate favorite, a painting I’d never seen before. “A Hut at Sainte-Adresse” shows a humble structure hard by the sea, with flowers crowded just behind and sailboats in the distance on the waves. I looked at it a long time. “I want to live there,” I thought. Then I realized in so many ways, I already do, with the edge of this continent in such close proximity to my apartment.  I bought a postcard of the painting.


It was fun to see “Luncheon on the Grass,” Monet’s jibe at Édouard Manet’s painting of the same name. “The Magpie” is here, a painting I’ve always loved. Dear friends in St. Louis have a large print of it hanging in their home. Toward the end of the exhibit are the works that led Monet to Impressionism, the movement he named and the genre he mastered beyond any other artist.

Before I left, I sat for awhile in the outdoor café, just steps from the Golden Gate Strait. As wisps of fog drifted over the café wall, two nearby fog horns sounded like cellos warming up for a concert. Then I headed back to my excellent parking spot, just a short walk from the museum. I had scored the spot by calling on the spirit of the museum’s founder and benefactor.  “Alma Spreckels,” I yelled as I approached the museum, “I need a good place to park!” She came through.

Spreckels’s story is highly entertaining. For one thing, she was the model for the 9-foot-tall statue atop the 85-foot-high Dewey Monument in the center of Union Square. Read about that in Bernice Scharlach’s fun book “Big Alma,” which also teaches much about San Francisco’s history. Spreckels was friends with dancer Loie Fuller (one of my favorite women from history -- see us together, below), and it's Fuller that gets the credit for the many Rodin sculptures at The Legion of Honor.


Driving away, I rolled down all the car windows and invited in the sea air as I cruised slowly along Ocean Beach. Next I stopped to shop and schmooze at 3 Fish Studios in the Outer Sunset, where Eric Rewitzer makes linocut prints and Annie Galvin paints. The shop sells affordable original paintings and prints, postcards, other works on paper and particularly appealing totes.

Right now, the big draw at 3 Fish Studios is an image depicting Eric’s personal response to the election. “California Rising” depicts a giant bear, standing erect and roaring loud, with California poppies at its feet. The image and Eric’s story appeared recently in Time magazine (http://time.com/4657662/california-president-donald-trump/ ).


About bears: Since 1911, the California flag has depicted a grizzly bear. Much more recently, Annie has painted assorted versions of a sweet brown bear hugging a cut-out of the state of California. This particular bear image is in the public domain, but Annie’s interpretations are unique. (For a look at her work and Eric’s as well, see 3fishstudios.com)

A few blocks away is Avenues Dry Goods (https://avenuesdrygoods.com/), a cozy Outer Sunset emporium specializing in "useful, practical and delightful things," many of them made locally. The company in the shop is always good too. Eve Batey, my co-author for “100 Things to Do in San Francisco Before You Die” (https://www.facebook.com/100thingsSF/), owns the store with her husband, Tim Ehhalt, and most of the time, one dog or another is in residence. Also, gifted florist Peter Cochrane works out of the adjacent space.

We sat and talked about Monet, defiant bears, the Outer Sunset and more -- a lovely ending to a perfect afternoon.



Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Good Catch: Memories of Fishing

At 8:45 a.m., I am riding in a Zodiac raft on the lower Palouse River, a tributary of the Snake. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark met members of the Palouse tribe on this river in October 1805. Now I’m following part of their trail on a river cruise with Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic.


The Palouse River canyon was formed during the catastrophic Missoula Floods between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago, but today all is calm on the river in the soft morning light. We see a mule deer on shore, limping through the brush. We take note of mergansers, coots, a harrier hawk, Canada geese and magpies. The naturalist identifies the call of a canyon wren and we visit nests abandoned by cliff swallows.


I take all this in. I smell the sage, examine the beaver dam, admire the cattails and am delighted to learn that Daffy Duck is a scoter – a sea duck. This naturalist knows a lot about many things.

Most of all, I find myself fixated on the outboard motor and the wake behind it.

Being dressed and sitting anywhere by 8:45 a.m. is not natural for me. I like the night, and am fairly slow and stupid in the morning, even on those rare occasions when I am up, dressed and out the door. First, I think I'm staring at the outboard because I am in my morning daze. This annoys me. I purposely turn to the nearest hillside and snap a picture or two. Then my attention is drawn back to the outboard motor once again.


Suddenly it hits me: I'VE DRIVEN A BOAT!

I have, many times, on boats with an outboard much like the one I've been staring at on this morning.

Daddy liked to fish -- no, he loved to fish – and we owned an outboard motor that hung in our garage. Many of our family vacations were spent at lakes, mostly in southern Missouri. Lake Wappapello. Lake Killarney. The Lake of the Ozarks. I’ve been fishing in all of them, and sometimes, Daddy let me steer the boats we rented.

I was better at steering than I was at baiting hooks. Daddy taught me how to safely handle a hook, but I didn’t want to touch the bait. If we were fishing with minnows, I’d wrap the tiny fish in a tissue before putting it on the hook. Because the tissue obscured the hook, most often I would pierce the minnow repeatedly, and it would bleed all over the tissue. I refused to touch a worm, wrapped or not.

Daddy put up with all this, and we both were thrilled the day I caught three crappie on one nightcrawler.

We spent so many weekends at one family-owned lodge in the Ozarks that the owners featured a picture of Daddy with his catch on their brochure. When he wasn’t fishing with the family, Daddy was off on a weekend trip with his fishing buddies, most often on the White River in Arkansas.


I grew up eating fresh trout back when you ate a slice of Wonderbread with every bite of fish, to enrobe any stray bones you may have swallowed. It was Daddy who taught me to efficiently debone a trout one night after I had complained more than usual about all the bones.

“The bones hold the fish together,” he said. “If there were no bones, there would be no fish.” He also tried to teach me to savor crispy, cornmeal-encrusted, fried fish tails -- but that didn’t take.

At home, I was always served a fish with the head removed, which was also my mother’s preference. A few years later, on a rare non-fishing vacation in Colorado, we were served trout with the heads on. Mom showed me how to cover the head with my napkin, saw it off with my knife and slip the head under the coffee cup, all without ever looking the dead fish in the eye.

I still do that. Sometimes, I warn my server.

Another moment on the river cruise involved fish, or at least artistic expressions of them. Riding on a tour bus, heading for the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center in The Dalles, Ore., we learned that some years ago a fellow had been released from the local jail to make metal sculptures of fish to decorate one side of a bridge in town. When he finished the work, the man disappeared.


Later, he was caught and returned to jail, and his sentence was extended. Then a city official decided metal fish sculptures should grace the other side of the bridge as well. The metalsmith was released once again, and promised a shorter sentence. He made the sculptures, including a beautiful pair now on display at the Discovery Center, and he disappeared once again. Then the tour guide told us that rumor has it that the metalsmith is now a tour bus driver.

How’s that for a great fish tale?

I don't believe the end of that story, but I remain delighted that an early morning cruise on the Palouse River brought back fond memories of my days driving boats in Missouri lakes. I don’t fish now – don’t ask me.



Saturday, September 10, 2016

Reunions, Plural: Love Fest in St. Louis

Grandchildren. Crepey skin. Politics. Recipes for stuffed pepper soup. Kindles versus “real” books. Crabby knees. Empathy among Gen Xers. River cruises. These topics and many more came up over the course of a weeklong visit to St. Louis, where I grew up and lived most of my adult life before moving to San Francisco in 2010.

The occasion was my 50th high school reunion, but that stellar event took up just one evening. The rest of the week was one big love fest, with brunches, lunches, coffee dates, happy hours, dinners and parties. I also managed assorted drive-by hugs (thanks go to Judy, who drove), two shopping expeditions, an appointment with Michael, my in-town acupuncturist (doesn’t everybody have two?) and some quality time hanging out with dear friends.


The big reunion was great (do go to yours) though it started off oddly. When I walked into the upstairs party space at Schlafly’s Tap Room, I looked at all the happy people talking there and thought, “These are my parents’ friends! Maybe I will see Dorothy and Tony.”

Quickly I realized they are gone, as are my parents. These people in the room were MY friends.

With that, I joined the group closest to where I stood and soon was laughing and talking with them, though I was disappointed momentarily to learn from Randy that our classmate Dennis had stayed home to watch Randy’s dog instead of coming to the party.

About 170 people were at the event; a good turnout for a graduating class that numbered over 630. Two or three of my classmates look exactly as they did in high school, and I told them so. Most of them look their age – our age – in spite of professional hair color and artfully applied makeup. But as Mary said, “We’re all beautiful!”


In a previous post, I wrote about looking forward to seeing Don because I remember dancing the polka with him back in junior high. When I found him in the crowd, I asked if he had read what I wrote. He laughed and said yes. When I said, “Please don’t ask me to dance,” he laughed harder and replied, “I can’t.” We certainly aren’t feeble, but we aren’t all as mobile as we used to be either.

One lovely moment occurred when Alan, the editor of the junior high paper, and Bob, the editor of the high school paper, stood mock-arguing about who could take some credit for my success as a writer. “Hey, I had something to do with it,” I said, and we all laughed.

Another classmate and I take credit for convincing the president of our senior class to attend the event, and Jim clearly was glad he had made the trip from California. Mary, Jim and I took a photo to send to Dean, his wife, who graduated in the class behind us. Next year is her big year.

Driving downtown for the reunion, I got a bonus: A great view of the Gateway Arch, my favorite national monument. There it was in all its glory! I remembered I was present on Oct. 28, 1965, when the Arch was “topped out” and the last section was put in place. I also remembered I wrote the magazine cover story for the Post-Dispatch when the city celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Arch. Or was it the 30th?


My high school reunion was a grand event, and the largest of the many mini-reunions that filled the rest of my time in St. Louis. For instance, I reconnected with

my Five Favorite Female Friends (we met over 40 years ago)

my son’s dad and Other Mother, who held a Labor Day potluck (seven desserts!)

a dozen female pals from my days at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

two favorite editors from the same paper

a special friend from my former water exercise group

on-line Scrabble pals for a real-time game that included a cat

the writing workshop group I started over a decade ago

the Wise Women Book Club

friends from the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Not only did I get to see my theater buddies – with my longtime pal Gail I got to see the dress rehearsal for an extraordinary production of “Follies.” The Rep is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and I’m proud to say I was in the audience when the theater opened a few blocks from my high school back in 1966.


For many years, I was a Rep subscriber. Then I attended as a theater critic for the paper. After I left that job, I continued to see shows right up until I moved away. Walking into the familiar lobby Sept. 6 was eerie in a good way, evoking an acute awareness of the many, many times I have done so before. It was great to be back, and such a privilege to get a sneak peak at this wonderful show.


While in town, I also walked into a lot of restaurants and enjoyed some great food. With friends, I went to Remy’s for mahi mahi and polenta fries, Cravings for bacon-wrapped figs and a remarkable fresh peach sundae, the Boardwalk Café for pancakes, Milagro for tacos and street corn, PJ’s Tavern for a hearty Reuben, Robust for “figgy piggy” flatbread and Big Sky Café for vanilla brioche French toast. Yum! And of course I hit Starbucks more than once (even more than twice) with Champe, Judy and Vickie.
 
 

Another day, I walked into a senior living center, where my best friend from high school and the maid of honor at my wedding now lives in the memory care unit. Susan knew me, she was glad to see me and I now know she is content and well cared for in a safe, structured environment. After the visit, I had lunch with her husband, and I like to think we were able to help each other on this journey that neither of us ever imagined.

You can go home again, even after you’ve made a new home in a different city – and this weeklong return to my roots overflowed with love.










Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Packing Memories for a 50th High School Reunion

Ann and Ginny. I will see them. Susan. No – Susan won’t be there. She has early-onset Alzheimer’s and now lives in a memory care unit. Peggy has made extended trips to the mainland twice this year from her home on the Big Island and will not attend.

Carl. Will he be there? As an adult, I bought candy from him when he worked at an upscale chocolatier, and when he transferred to a bed store in the same mall, I bought a bed. I hope I will see Carl.

As kids, Carl and I once spent an evening with half a dozen other kids draping toilet paper over trees and shrubs in the yards of a fancy neighborhood. “TPing,” as it was called, was a precursor to filling lawns with plastic pink flamingoes. Maybe that morphed into the much crueler cyber bullying? 

All this is what comes to mind as I pack to travel from San Francisco to St. Louis for my 50th high school reunion.


Tempus fugit

Fifty years! How can that be? “It is what it is,” my 87-year old aunt said, laughing at my amazement. She knows more about the passing of time than I do.

Jim will be there. I didn't know Jim well in high school. Oh, I knew who he was – he was president of the senior class, but more than 600 people were in my class. For 46 years, I had no idea what had happened to him. Then four years ago, I got an email from Dean, the woman Jim married. She was one year behind us, and Dean and I had become friends in journalism class.

Dean wrote to say that Jim was now president of a seminary in the Bay Area, and when she learned I live in San Francisco, she wanted to reconnect. The three of us met for dinner, and have continued to do so. Plus, Jim directed me to the seminary’s marketing department, and now I write for them from time to time.

At a barbecue at Jim and Dean’s in July, another member of our high school class and I were on a mission. Mary and I had learned that Jim was not planning to attend the reunion because of schedule conflicts at work, but we were determined to convince him to make the trip. We succeeded. Now I can’t wait to tell people at the reunion that our class president bakes a mean strawberry-rhubarb pie.

Carol, a classmate I have stayed in touch with, has decided not to drive from her second home in Michigan for the reunion party Friday night or the picnic later in the weekend. She avoids all large, loud crowds, she says. Plus, the idea of sitting outside at a picnic in the Midwest over Labor Day weekend gives many people pause – and that was true before climate change, too.

Carol and I helped organize the 10th reunion for our class. Our research back then revealed that half the Class of 1966 still lived in the same suburb where we went to school or in the neighboring suburb, which in high school was considered a rival. The others were spread all over the world. One woman lived in a tree house in Tahiti. Sitting in St.Louis, I was envious!

Memories of reunions past

I skipped the 20th reunion, which was held at a country club – not my natural habitat. The 30th was a blast. I remember dancing the night away in a big group that included Ronnie. He’s gone now. The 40th reunion was the best yet, held on the top floor of a popular brew pub. I remember laughing a lot.

There was some sadness, too. At that reunion I learned that Don had died. His ex-wife, also a classmate, told me. To her, it was old news, but I was shaken by it. My first date was with Don, Ann and Don’s best friend, Charlie, when we were 14. The four of us took three buses to see a matinee showing of the movie “West Side Story.” Soon after, Don bought me an inexpensive ring with my birthstone, a gift that upset my mother. “It’s just a ring,” I said, trying to calm her. I have it still. 

Another classmate named Don will be at the reunion. I remember many great things about him, but especially that from time to time we would take off across a crowded room in a spontaneous polka. Those were the days! I also will see Tina, another dear friend I have kept in touch with over the years.

Other classmates come to mind, people who have not been located by the reunion committee. Some were quirky in high school, and seemed headed for interesting lives. I am sorry I won’t see them at the party, but maybe their lives are so interesting that they choose not to be in touch.

Though I had good friends, I didn’t much like high school. My family moved from the city to the suburbs when I was in sixth grade, so I was always an outsider, on the fringe among the kids who had been together since kindergarten. That feeling is difficult to forget, especially when you also are misidentified in your yearbook. (Bob, a classmate who since has died, wrote on the photo to make me feel better.) Also, at graduation the principal mispronounced my name.

Writing to the rescue

Journalism saved me. In ninth grade, I was on the junior high school newspaper staff. The student editor (Alan -- he'll be at the reunion) may recall that was the year I decided to be a reporter when I grew up. Later, I was on staff of the high school paper. My senior year, I also wrote for a neighborhood weekly paper and for a teen page in the St. Louis Globe Democrat, one of the city’s two daily newspapers at the time.

One day, a story I wrote was published on the front page of the Globe Democrat for all of metropolitan St. Louis to see. A CBS news team had come to my high school to film “16 in Webster Groves,” a documentary about teens in an upper-class suburb. When the show aired, I wrote for the Globe about the students’ reactions. 

For decades, the documentary was shown in sociology classes at universities across the country, and people in Webster Groves still debate to what degree the film misrepresented the students. I quit talking about the show years ago. At the time “16 in Webster Groves” aired, I was 17 in Shrewsbury (a working-class suburb in the Webster Groves School District) and I was busy looking ahead, excited about getting ready to leave for college. Maybe the subject will come up at the 50th reunion. Maybe not.

Last week, a friend in San Francisco asked, “Are you nervous about going to the reunion?” I am not. It’s a party. We 68-year-olds will celebrate being alive 50 years after our graduation and enjoy our time together. It will be fun!



Sunday, July 24, 2016

Viking Cruise to Culinary Delights

Charming towns, the storied Rhine, modern cities, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the winding Main, world-class museums, busy marketplaces, the beautiful Danube and even waltz lessons in Vienna – Viking Cruises offers all that and more as part of its Grand European Tour, a 15-day trip from Amsterdam to Budapest.

I made the trip in July. While researching the geography, culture and history of Central Europe, a refrain from an old song skittered through my mind, something about pretzels and beer. (The song was “Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer,” released in 1963.) Apparently I was headed to a part of the world that worships both – and sausage too!

On Viking-sponsored outings and also during free time after daily walking tours, I sampled some of each and enjoyed every moment. Here are some of the highlights of my personal culinary tour.

Cologne, Germany

Viking offers an evening excursion in Cologne, a traditional dinner at Brauhaus zur Malzmuhle (established in 1858) that includes stops at two other brew houses.  Kölsch, the local beer, is served ice cold in seven-ounce glasses, and the only way to stop waiters from replacing a half-empty glass is to top it with a cardboard coaster.




What a great excursion! We dined on haxenhaus (tender, slow-roasted pig’s knuckle), sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and salad dressed with a pungent mustard vinaigrette. Dessert was a custard of malt sugar topped with pieces of dark chocolate. Philip Crowder, a native of San Francisco who has lived in Cologne for decades, led our lively group, and the beer dinner absolutely was a highlight of the trip.

Miltenberg, Germany     

At the center of this small, historic town is the Gasthaus zum Riesen – a 425-year-old guesthouse – where I stopped with friends for beer (Faust Hefe-Weizen),  pretzels (served with a sweet, hot mustard) and apple strudel (served with vanilla ice cream).




Flushed with joy (okay, and maybe from the beer) after buying an Ulla Popken jacket marked down from E60 to E10 in a classy nearby shop, I also bought a Faust beer glass, perfect for enjoying Hefeweizen at home.

Bamberg, Germany

A trip to the Franconian countryside (an optional tour out of Bamberg), was a must so I could taste the legendary Rauchbier, a smoked beer. At Drei Kronen (Three Crowns) in the town of Memmelsdorf, the brew master greeted us, pretzels were brought to the table and each of us was served a glass of the smoked beer and a glass of a light wheat beer.




Some say the smoked beer tastes like ham, and most people – including the captain on the Viking ship – don’t care for it. It was OK, but the wheat beer, made with hops from Oregon, suited me better. Everybody enjoyed the pretzels, and some of us darted across the street to a bakery to buy some to take back to the ship.

Nuremberg, Germany

Here I went in search of the famous gingerbread cookies (which I didn’t like at all) and then I settled in at a table at Bratwurst Röslein, a restaurant known for excellent sausage served on a traditional tin plate, with sauerkraut on the side. What a great lunch!




Later, meandering around the Nuremberg market, I came across a booth selling beer ice cream – on a stick! Brewer Michael Bellair (see red-castle-brew.de) also makes beer ice cream from his dark beer and mascarpone cheese. Yum!

Regensburg, Germany

The Alte WurstKuche (Old Sausage Kitchen), said to be the world’s oldest bratwurst grill, is in a tiny building, so customers sit at picnic tables outdoors near the river. I sat down at an empty table, ordered a small plate of sausages and a beer, and was quickly joined by seven Australians traveling together on another cruise ship.




A new server appeared and handed the lone man in the group a plate of food. When the original server came back to the able with my beer, she looked at the man, looked at the food, looked at me and said, “That’s your food.” She asked the man if he had even ordered. He admitted he had not, and continued to eat my lunch.

When the server walked away, the Australian women (one was the guy’s wife) and I all burst out laughing. After we all had been served, the group bought my lunch because they said I was such a good sport. (Friends know I love Australians. Ross Winter, an Australian who was very important in my life, likely would have swiped the plate back from the guy, but even Ross would have laughed.)

Aboard the Viking Longship Gefjon 

Two nights later, dinner on the Viking ship honored the cuisines of Germany and Austria, so it was time for more sausage, pretzels and beer as well as other traditional dishes and enticing desserts. (Dirndls and Lederhosen were not required, but some were in evidence.)




Before I left the dining room, I asked the ship’s hotel manager – who happened to be Bavarian – to thank his people for their fine foods and beverages.



Thursday, December 31, 2015

Fun Ain't What It Used to Be -- and That's Okay

I used to be fun.

I think that a lot, and sometimes I say it aloud. In a recent email, a friend said it about herself:

“Went to the office Christmas party. Was dragging, then had a Manhattan and perked up. It reminded me that I used to be fun.”

Maybe a bumper sticker is in order? Or even a book?

(Though first I have to write a book called “All Women Are Tired.“ Been threatening to write that one for decades. Too tired.)

Fun. Yes – I remember!

I have dusty memories of testimonials from friends claiming I was fun and even dustier photos showing me being fun. In many of the photos, I am dressed in one costume or another (though I consider all clothing as costumes), probably drinking a bit and definitely dancing a lot.



Not far from where I now sit typing in my jammies is a remnant of those days, a throwback to fun from years gone by. In a bag, high in the closet, is my nine-foot-long feather boa, its shiny black rooster feathers now sparse and definitely bedraggled.

Still, it’s here, which means I wanted to be prepared to have fun when I moved to San Francisco five and a half years ago. In preparation for the move, I got rid of two-thirds of my stuff. I did bring remnants of the fun years, but not long after I settled in, I took most of them to the classiest of the vintage shops on Haight Street and I sold them.

Goodbye to the black silk-lined cape I bought in Sydney; goodbye to the deep purple opera gloves I bought in Paris; goodbye to the velvet clutch purse fronted with a bejeweled peacock I bought in Delhi. All these items came from flea markets and all these items served me well.

“Why are you getting rid of these lovely things?” the shop owner asked.

“Because this is not who I am anymore,” I said. “My life is different now and it’s time for these things to go to others who will enjoy them.” I didn’t say it, but I remember thinking, “I used to be fun.”

I’m not saying I don’t have fun now. I do!

Moving somewhere new at 62 changed so very much about my life, and the new beginning was more than welcome. For instance, I am fascinated with San Francisco’s history and have a shelf of books about this city, which was rowdy then and is rowdy now. Also, every day, things happen in the Bay Area that surprise me, and some of the most astonishing events are part of the natural world.

One day on a road trip to Bolinas, I drove past six turkey vultures perched on a single power line. When a dead humpback whale washed ashore in Pacifica, I went to watch the necropsy. This week a 900-pound pregnant elephant seal charged up out of the water and tried to cross Highway 37. She even attacked a car that got in her way! I’m a fan – and to me, all this counts as great fun.

Because I can, I drive to the edge of the continent often and stare at the sea. It’s always different and I never know what to expect. In addition to watching the ocean steal the land with every wave, I see pelicans, surfers, gulls fighting over garbage, people flying kites. Last week, I saw a guy trying to master his new hoverboard, and wondered whether it would catch fire as I watched. (It did not.)

To me, these trips are fun -- and restorative at the same time.

Of course I still enjoy spending time with friends. I go to parties via Skype with pals in St. Louis, and here I initiated a Full Moon Cocktail group. Four of us go out for drinks and bar food once a month, sometimes even on the night of the full moon. A silky smooth pear martini, a basket of truffle fries and friends to laugh with – that’s my idea of fun!

My family is here and I treasure time spent with all of them, but especially time spent with my grandson, who is almost 4.  We work puzzles, play with cars, interview his stuffed animals about their favorite colors and foods and go on adventures to the zoo and the science museum, where I can teach him about animals and the Earth.

Maybe instead of thinking that I used to be fun, it’s time to admit my definition of fun has changed, and be okay with that.

And maybe – just maybe – tonight when I put on my nicest sweater and my best jeans before I head out for a casual New Year’s Eve dinner party, I will top off my ensemble with that nine-foot-long feather boa.

Wouldn’t that be fun?