Saturday, August 28, 2010

Christopher Walken (okay, his hair) and Me

Spent time today sitting in the car on Twin Peaks, looking down at all of San Francisco below, sunroof on the car wide open, wind blowing my hair straight up (I look like Christopher Walken, sort of…) and all the cobwebs from my mind. Just finished a couple of weeks filled with lots of work, and just agreed to start two new -- no, three -- projects.

Life, as the tee shirt says, is good.

What’s new? Soon I’ll be seeking corporate sponsors to help boost viewership of a series of short programs on conservation organizations around the world. No paperwork has been exchanged, but it’s likely I also will serve as co-author with a doctor who has a good idea for a book. And the guy who owns the best barbecue joint in town has asked for my help with his web site. (I see rib tips in my future…)

I’ll continue with my other work, of course. I’m still writing for the St. Louis Jewish Light, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (watch for a travel story coming soon), a marketing firm that publishes grocery magazines and a web site that promotes fitness. Also, I’ve been promised freelance assignments from the Jewish newspaper in San Francisco. And I applied for a temporary job writing paragraph-long blurbs on restaurants for a local weekly paper. Of course I’m still available to help out a couple of friends in business, too.

“So you’ve figured out how to piece together enough jobs to pay bills,” said a friend on Wednesday, a friend who is considering moving here and will need to do the same. I have. My income is never predictable, but money always comes. Five years ago, in October, I left the Post-Dispatch and kissed goodbye that regular paycheck. Five years ago I started seriously building on some freelance connections I’d already established, and I am still building. A little here, a little there – after a lot of hustling. I don’t make a lot, but I make enough.

The big reward is that I work for me. Working for me means that when I had a great time goofing off all day a week ago Thursday, I gave myself the day off on Friday as well. It means I can dunce around in the morning, get organized by lunchtime and then work or play according to the plan for the day – or the lack of plan for the day. I’m the boss, and when the boss decides to sit and watch episodes of “Arrested Development,” that’s the plan.

Gail put me in the lede of her recent story (see or go to and type in “Pennington Arrested”) about a movie version of the hilarious series, and that was fun. What isn’t fun is that I keep wanting to quote lines (“No touching!”) from the show, and everybody who watched it years ago is quoting lines from newer shows. If you haven’t seen “Arrested Development,” talk to TIVO or get it on Netflix. Very funny!

Don’t think I stay home all the time. I am conscious that I am not on vacation here and must continue to earn a living, but I’m making time to walk to my gym in Cole Valley and take my bus to yoga class. On Thursday, my bus chose not to come, so the cat and I did yoga in the living room because by the time I realized the bus had abandoned me, it was too late to try to drive to the recreation center.

I forgive the bus for that one incident. Picture this: Me climbing on a bus with a small bag of nectarines, bread and eggs in one hand and a 10-pound jug of kitty litter in the other. Or this: Me climbing on a bus with a brand new fan in a box to help circulate air on the three days a year when the wind for some reason ceases to blow here. Here’s the deal – my bus is rarely crowded, and I profusely thank the driver for being patient with me. Hey, I am not the only person my age boarding a bus with a bunch of stuff. It’s common here. It works. I like it.

Plus, missing a bus is a good reason to walk. Last week I missed the bus that goes up the huge hill to my apartment. I didn’t want to wait 20 minutes for the next bus, so I opted to walk seven blocks to Haight-Ashbury and check out the tie dye selection at a resale shop. The sun was shining, the air was cool and pleasant -- and what’s not to like about tie dye? Later, I took the bus back up the hill.

Yesterday was a Drive Day. I stacked up errands and knocked them off, one at a time. First I drove to the recycling center to donate some items I’m not using. The process of moving here (regular readers remember me whining about that process, often) has made me more adamant than ever: If I’m not using it, I’m not keeping it. Period. Next I dropped off my medical records from St. Louis with a doc I will see in October. Then I went to the Oceanic Society office to meet with the director.

On the way home, I had planned to stop at a store near me for a few things. Instead, I found a parking place in the Marina, a neighborhood I had not yet explored. San Francisco is full of small business districts with independently owned shops, restaurants and groceries. I walked and window-shopped for about 40 minutes, getting to know the area. Then I ducked into a grocery, got what I needed and drove home.

Today I returned calls, paid bills, wrote a few note cards to friends back home – and then drove to the top of the hill high (900-plus feet) above my new home. And I let the wind pull all the curl from my hair. Why not?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Impressed by Psychedelic Impressionism

A mid-August evening in San Francisco and I’m driving to a friend’s house at 5:45 p.m. I’m wearing a Polartec jacket. I dressed for how the weather looks – fog rapidly moving in, pushed by high winds.

Still, it’s not really cold enough for Polartec. The long-sleeved cotton jacket and long-sleeved cotton shirt are plenty warm for the evening, which will be spent inside the de Young Museum at the exhibit on “The Birth of Impressionism.” Ironically, it was much cooler earlier in the day, sitting in the sun outside the Academy of Sciences.

And that’s August in San Francisco.

Today was a day filled with crisp images, kaleidoscope moments, extreme concepts – no doubt influenced by a visit to the “Extreme Mammals” exhibit at the Academy of Sciences. Did you know lactating kangaroos can deliver two kinds of milk – one extra rich for newborn joeys and one not so much for older offspring? Neither did I.

I did know that manatees’ nipples are under their flippers. I did know that whales have vestigial leg bones. I did know that one-third of the musculature of a naked mole rat is in the animal’s jaws and that it can dig a tunnel with its teeth.

But the museum impressed me mightily with a model of a batodonoides, an extinct shrew-like mammal that weighed less than a dollar bill. The batodonoides is displayed next to a model of an indricotherium -- also extinct, and a relative of the rhino – and the largest land mammal ever. This guy stood 18 feet high and was 39 feet long. Nice pairing!

One glass-enclosed kiosk contained a green snake, tail wrapped around a branch and head dangling down, little tongue darting in and out. Below, sitting calmly, was a giant toad, maybe six inches high and six times as wide as the snake. Next I watched a man take a photo of a rare lizard from Madagascar in spite of the large sign on the reptile’s enclosure that read: “No Photos.”

The same sign – with one additional claim -- was posted on the glass wall that enclosed a tiny single tree shrew. “No Photos. I’m already jumpy.” Wide-eyed and clearly nervous, the tree shrew licked its tail just like the cat does when she’s fretting about something.

Sitting outside in the sun and chilly wind, eating a $21 lunch, I watched a toddler unfasten his slacks, stand in his underpants and scream for his mother. “They fell down,” he told her when she rushed over. After a visit to the four-story rainforest and a Philippine reef inside, outside I watched a slightly older boy plan to step into a fountain, actually step in that fountain and then burst into tears and leap out.

In between my two visits to museums today, I tried to right some wrongs. For instance, the brokerage firm that manages some of my money still sends statements to my condo in Creve Coeur, though they have my San Francisco address. One publication I write for also sends me mail at the wrong address – this after two phone calls and a letter. And why is it I have not heard from three people who promised to get some information to me today?

I also pondered my shopping list: Sticky mat for yoga, sturdier step stool for when I need to get to the higher cabinet shelves, and quarters for the coin-operated washer and dryer in my apartment building. The trick is to figure out to get all the items at one place. No solution yet.

After trying to right wrongs, set up appointments and ponder shopping needs, it was time to get ready to go to the de Young Museum. A night out called for dressing up. As I pulled on my new favorite tie-dye socks, I remembered before I left St. Louis that a friend laughed and said, “Finally, you’re going to live somewhere that will appreciate your taste in tie dye.” And I do!

As I finished dressing, thinking ahead to an evening spent with Monet, Manet, Morisot, Renoir, Pissarro and Degas (and Susan and Denise), it hit me – tie dye is psychedelic impressionism.

I wondered whether I can copyright that phrase. Then I grabbed my Polartec jacket and left.

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Whale of a Day

“This trip had more whales than we saw in Alaska.”

“We didn’t see anything like this in Hawaii.”

“I had no idea what to expect – what a day!”

Listening to my fellow passengers’ remarks, I realized that though I’ve seen many whales in Alaska, Hawaii and elsewhere, and though after almost 28 years of whale watching I did know what to expect – or at least hope for – even a rave review will not fully do justice to the Oceanic Society’s nature trip Sunday to the Farallon Islands.

Here, straight from the report of naturalist Izzy Szczepaniak, is the tally:

• Seabirds: Western gull, brown pelican, Brandt's cormorant, double-crested cormorant, red-necked phalarope, common murre, sooty shearwater, pink-footed shearwater, pigeon guillemot, Heermann's gull.

• Pinnipeds: California sea lions, northern fur seals, Steller sea lion, harbor seal, elephant seal.

• Cetaceans: One minke whale, three blue whales, two humpback whales, one gray whale, one orca.

Hey, I’m a big fan of seabirds and pinnipeds, but I’m out on the day-long trip to see whales. (For info on these trips, see And oh the whales we saw!

After lunch on our boat, the Salty Lady, in the relatively quiet waters of the mystical Farallon Islands, we headed out in search of more whales. We’d already watched blue whales feeding, had several good looks at the broad backs of the largest animals (up to 80-90 feet long, weighing more than a ton and a half per foot) ever to live on Earth. We’d caught a fleeting glimpse of a fleeing minke, a small baleen whale (a mere 30 feet long) that shows little and tells even less. And we had hung around a small humpback long enough to hear several blows and watch a few shallow dives. We’d even come upon a gray whale (said to be the most primitive of whale species) feeding close to the Farallons.

So we’re riding along on the back of the boat, many of us half dozing, cold and a bit damp (more on this later), when with no warning whatsoever, no tell-tale blow to indicate that a whale was nearby, a massive adult humpback, weighing about 40 tons, leaps fully out of the water and crashes back into the sea. Everyone screamed – even those who turned in time to see only the great splash. Izzy, who had been in the front of the boat, raced to the back, crying “Did you see that? Did you SEE that?”

Captain Jared slowed the boat. We waited. We watched. “This humpback’s heart is the size of a Volkswagen Beetle,” said Izzy. “The arteries are big enough to walk through -- if we stooped a little.” Then the whale breached again – and again and again! We were not tired of watching the breaching whale (how could we be?) but next the whale showed us every trick in a humpback’s bag: spyhopping (sticking its head out of the water), lobtailing (raising its tail high and then smacking it on the water’s surface) and flipper slapping (smacking those 12-foot-long flippers on the water). The whale rolled over and over, showing off the beautiful flippers, dark on top and white on the bottom. Next we were treated to a series of partial breaches. The whale actually wheezed during one expulsion of breath. ”All that activity takes a lot of exertion,” said Izzy, laughing.

Fog and chilly sea spray be damned – a golden glow settled over the Salty Lady. Everyone smiled – including Captain Jared and First Mate Tack. Then a woman from England asked about something she noticed in the distance – a dark fin high above the water. Someone asked it if were a shark. One wag aboard called out, “If it is, we’re going to need a bigger boat.” Izzy concurred, and kept searching with his binoculars. Suddenly he erupted in a huge laugh. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have an orca!” It was an adult male, with a six-foot-tall dorsal fin – not a common site in the area.

And so we watched the top predator of the sea move through the waves. Orcas have been known to kill great white sharks, though more often they go for baby whales or old, sick whales. I’ve read that they consider tongue of blue whale a special delicacy. The orca did not come as close to the boat as the blues and the humpbacks, but we were close enough to appreciate the sleek body and that impressive dorsal fin.

Then it was back to San Francisco, back to land, back to longing for my fleece sheets. Exhilarated, cold and exhausted, I made my way home, where I peeled off layers. How many? On top, a camisole, a long-sleeved base-layer turtle-neck shirt, a long-sleeved fleece pullover, and a fleece vest. On bottom, Capilene longjohns, fleece-lined leggings and rain pants over all that. I also wore a three-quarter-length, water-resistant raincoat with a hood, a fleece “ear wrap,” a water-proof brimmed hat, sock liners, wool socks and my sturdiest tennis shoes. Still, I was cold.

I climbed into bed, snuggled into the fleece sheets and begged the cat to heat up some soup for me. She decided instead to join me in a nap. Later, I fed both of us and sat replaying the day in my mind. I took no photos, took no notes – just took it all in. What a day indeed!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Everything has changed.

I live in a different place in a different city in a different state. I don’t go where I used to go. I don’t run into people I know everywhere I go (well, rarely – see the last post). Heck, I don’t even know how to go many places, but I’m learning.

Geographic transformations take time (though not nearly as much time as geologic transformations) and time is what I brought with me; time to start anew, time to rethink what the actor Ken Page once described so beautifully as “the cocktail hour of life.” So I’m taking my time.

“Oh – did I just push in front of you?” asked the man at the Upper Terrace Market, a few blocks from my apartment. We were standing in front of the beverage case.

“No,” I said. “I’m just moving slowly.”

He looked at me. “How do you do that?”

I laughed and said, “You get to be 62.”

He replied, “I just turned 40, and I recently fell down for the first time. I know I was moving too quickly, and I fell.”

We discussed how falling takes place in slow motion, how every second you are certain you will catch yourself – but you don’t. We discussed how you feel really stupid when you’re on the ground. We discussed how we are not the sort of people who expect to fall. We expect to get where we are going, and back, safely.

“I have on Birkenstocks, and that’s why I am moving slowly,” I said, pointing to my feet. “I didn’t want to take time to put on tennis shoes.”

He pointed to his feet. “I always wear tennis shoes. It’s safer.” Then he admitted that now that he has fallen for the first time, he figures it may happen again, at any time, regardless of what shoes he wears. “I’m only 40,” he said, “and I fell!” I assured him he had a lot of good years left.

We paid for our beverages, wished each other well and went our separate ways. I made it home, some three, maybe four blocks, all up hill. These walks to the mailbox and the market – and my new gym membership – may contribute to another sort of transformation. Especially now that I have thrown out half a box of those delicious Triple Peanut Cookies from Trader Joe’s.

When I walked in, the cell phone was pinging, to let me know I had a new email. The Kindle sat charging. And I remembered I wanted to send invitations to a couple of friends to download Skype.

This electronic transformation was not slow in coming. I arrived in San Francisco with a not-so-smart phone. Joel listed the advantages of a smart phone, and a few days later, I had one. The Kindle has intrigued me, a born book lover, from the beginning, and I’ve read a lot about them. Joel suggested that I borrow his Kindle for a few days. I read and read, quite happily, from the small plastic device. I read the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the New Yorker. I peeked at a couple of books Joel has downloaded. Then “The Good Guys” came on, and I’m a fan, so I put down the Kindle, but I am not ready to give it back.

I’m not new to Skype – Patricia and Joel called me on Skype when they were in New Zealand, and now I even have a web cam. Since I moved, I have been to two Skype parties – Judy’s birthday dinner and a gathering of my beloved Sherpa writing group. I’ve even given some Skype tours of my apartment for other friends in St. Louis. (Calling between Skypers is free.) I use Skype to interview people I am writing about (calling non-Skypers is inexpensive), and also to set up appointments, because sometimes the smart phone takes a break right in the middle of a call.

Not everything, of course, is different. I spend part of each day sitting at my desk, working on current assignments. I field emails from all over, on all topics – though lately many of them have been complaints, statements of outrage that it is 102 degrees in St. Louis and 57 degrees in San Francisco. I pull up maps, check on my bank balance and go in search of important information on the web, such as when “The Good Guys” will start up again in the fall.

Then I look out the window, and I am reminded that everything, after all, has changed.