Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Making Old Friendships New

Cheri is coming to town.

Cheri, who lived behind the house we moved to when I was in sixth grade, Cheri who was my college roommate, Cheri who was my bridesmaid.

In the early years, we walked home from school together (except when it rained and her mom picked us up), went to the park and went to the pool. We considered our options for the future. She wanted to be a humanist-scientist (a term I think she made up), I wanted to be a writer.

We both wore the clunky desert boots that were in fashion – and they seem to be back, as I saw a pair in a shoe store window three days ago – and we wore cranberry skirts and sweaters, the hot color of the moment.

In high school, we walked home from school together (except when it rained and her mom picked us up), went to the park and the pool and played canasta for hours. Days. Weeks, even, in the summer. And we continued to consider our options for the future.

In college, we roomed together in a dorm for my junior year and her senior year. I remember discussing boys, getting drunk together on her 21st birthday and discussing boys, some of whom wanted to be options for our future.

I remember something else. These were the dear, ancient days when girls’ dorms had random “bed checks,” to make sure all the girls were in by curfew. Seniors could check out keys and come in late. The rest of us talked friends into propping open a back door so we could sneak in after curfew.

One night, Cheri was out for the evening – most likely for the night – without a key. As I said, the bed checks were random, and should someone in authority ask where a particular girl might be, a friend could always fib and say she was on a different floor studying or sobbing in the stairwell over a lost love or in one of the “fancy” gang showers that had a tub in a private room.

But when bed checks were held, everyone was expected to be in the dorm.

One night, the Resident Adviser – a friend -- whispered to me that bed check was on the schedule that evening and I should figure out how to get Cheri back to the dorm in time. I knew where Cheri’s boyfriend lived, but I didn’t have a car. I didn’t know his phone number or even the name of his roommate, who likely had the phone listed in his name.

I did not panic. I ordered a pizza sent to Cheri’s boyfriend’s apartment, with “CALL PAT” spelled out in sausage. The pizza got delivered, the phone call came and Cheri made it back in time for bed check.

After Cheri walked down the aisle in my wedding, I moved to Oklahoma while she went on to earn her master’s degree in microbiology. She married and moved to Delaware with her husband, Tom. In some order that I do not recall, I had a child and she had four. I do remember that one of her daughters is named for Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park.

At some point maybe 25-plus years ago, I traveled to the East Coast and spent some time with Cheri and Tom and then headed for New York City. I honestly can’t recall if we have seen each other since, though we have exchanged greetings and pertinent news at the holidays. Also, Cheri was kind enough to post a glowing review of one of my books on

Over time, her children married and moved to different parts of the country. My son moved to San Francisco and married in 2009. As regular readers know, I moved here seven months ago. I learned last week that Cheri and Tom’s son and his family also live in San Francisco, so 50 years after we met, Cheri is coming to town.

We have a past in common. Our futures took us in different directions. Now we have a chance to share some present time with both our families. What a gift!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Another Hundred People

In light of the heart-rending events that occurred last Saturday, I have been reluctant to prattle on here about the places I go, the people I see and the things I do in my new city. 

Today, though, I started thinking that the many experiences we have on a day-to-day basis are life affirming, and give our lives a richer texture, and that is always worth celebrating. So with no disrespect intended to the families in Tucson who are hurting so deeply, I’ll get back to filling space in “Late to the Haight.”

Did you see Stephen Sondheim’s “Company?” In the course of my explorations, I often find myself humming “Another Hundred People” from that show, especially when I am  getting off of the bus or off of the train. This “city of strangers” fascinates me. Read on!

Last Sunday, riding the bus to Susan’s, something happened that was like a small flash mob, only it was spontaneous. Four people were sitting in the front of the bus: Two older men, a college student and me. The student, a young man, was on his cell phone telling a friend that he might go see “True Grit” or “Country Strong” --  he couldn’t decide.

One of the older men, who had a serious case of bed head, looked at the young man and said, “True Grit.”  The other older man, with white hair and beard, a ruddy complexion  and green tennis shoes, said, “That’s right”  and nodded in agreement. I chimed in too. “Yep – go see ‘True Grit.’”

The younger man looked at each of us in turn and reported to the person he was speaking to on the phone that the decision had been made for him by people on the bus, and then ended his call. Looking our way, he said, “Tell me why.” So we did.

Once that was settled, we started telling each other about ourselves. The young man, a student at Stanford, said he was the product of six generations in Hiroshima but was “mixed,” with some Italian, French, and Spanish ancestry as well. He grew up in Whitehorse, in the Yukon Territory of Canada. I have been to Whitehorse and said so. The man with unruly hair said that he was from Canada but had lived in Japan for several years. The other man revealed that he grew up in a town in rural Northern Ireland.

In the middle of this lively conversation, a well-dressed woman boarded the bus and sat down near us. When she heard the young man say that he attends Stanford, she asked the  lot of us whether she should get her Ph.D. in anthropology at Stanford or the University of California at San Francisco. We all stopped talking and stared at her. Somehow, she did not fit in. I missed what happened next, because the bus came to my stop.

On a clear, sunny day last week I went to the beach to sit and stare at water. The wind was up and every breaking wave was topped with a frothy lace. Walking along, I came upon a tangle of 10 or more thick strands of bull kelp snarled in rope. I stared at it for a long time, half expecting the bull kelp to start wriggling. It didn’t.

On the N train heading out to the beach, I started a conversation with a dog named Pumpkin who spent part of the trip under the seat and part of the trip soliciting ear scratches from passengers. Pumpkin was quite engaging, as was her owner, a pretty red-haired woman who has lived in San Francisco all her life. In the course of our conversation, I learned that she is 38, plays in a band, and is thinking of moving to Austin. When she got off the train, she called out, “I’m also an astrologer!”

Riding home from the beach, I saw a man wearing those shoes that have toes and look like feet ( He also wore silver nail polish --  an odd choice considering he had on a three-piece suit. He topped off his ensemble with a baseball cap with a great drawing of a merman on it.

Two weeks ago, while waiting for a bus back home after seeing “True Grit,” I met a woman from Peoria whose dad is a cousin of Ken Boyer, the former Cardinals player.  I can’t remember how we went from talking about movies – she saw 100 in 2010 and now writes a blog about movies --  to Cardinals baseball, but when she mentioned Boyer I jumped off the bench and squealed, “I have a baseball with Kenny Boyer’s autograph on it.”  Of course, I didn’t have it with me – that would’ve been too weird. Daddy got the baseball for my brother in the early ‘60s. Stan “The Man” Musial,  Joe Cunningham and Lindy McDaniel also signed it.

So you don’t think I’m spending all my time with complete strangers, I need to mention that I had lunch twice recently with a woman who read my letter in Oprah's magazine last summer about picking up and moving to a new life. She's 52, from Atlanta, and thinking of doing the same thing. She spent three weeks here exploring San Francisco. If she decides to move here, this particular stranger will quickly become a friend.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Bin-ging for the Future

On the first day of 2011, I spent the morning living in the past, opening crumbling yellowed tear sheets from newspapers printed in days gone by -- and eliminating more than half of them. Before you think I may be a candidate for that TV show on hoarding, let me explain.

Time was when a closet shelf was stacked high with tear sheets, pages clipped from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, USA Today, the Portland Oregonian, the Contra Costa Times and other papers where my work has appeared. Before I moved to San Francisco, I donated 95 percent of those clippings to the media archives at the University of Missouri/St. Louis.

I kept the travel sections – my favorites – and a handful of other features I couldn’t bear to part with. (Ken and Alex, This Means You.) Before I moved, I did not separate the pertinent pages from the sections, some of which were 18 or 20 pages. (You won’t see that today!) I remember thinking as I packed the condo in Creve Coeur that I could cut a lot of bulk by pulling out just my pages, most of them cover stories (with glorious color photos) that continued on a “jump” page. But I didn’t.

Flash forward to this morning. Next to my desk in my excellent apartment that looks out over Golden Gate Park to the Pacific Ocean (have you admired my sunset photos here and on Facebook?) sit two big black plastic bins. Fortunately, they are mostly hidden by the love seat. One holds copies of books I’ve written, maybe five or six copies of each, and there is no room for more. The other is jam-packed with clippings, past and present, as well as copies of magazines that have published my work, newsletters I have edited and a couple articles about me.

In the last six months, that bin has filled up and overflowed. I started sticking tear sheets into desk drawers, in wire baskets on my desk and in the occasional nook and/or cranny. Why do I keep copies of my work? Good question. I had work published in national magazines when I was 17, and newspaper bylines in metropolitan dailies that long ago as well. With 45 years of experience, why would I need to prove to anyone that I can do what I do, and do it well?  

That’s an argument to have with myself on another day. Today, after a healthy breakfast designed to make up for too many chocolate truffles last night, I opened the bulging bin of books and extracted one to give to a friend. Then I opened the bin of tear sheets and magazines and newsletters and emptied it on the carpet.  

Out came exciting stories on Dublin, London, Paris, Buenos Aires, Sydney, Cairo, Venice, New York, Juneau, Quebec City and Varanasi. I admired my photos from Niagara Falls, the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Kilauea and the Galapagos Islands. I marveled at my work on Mount Rainer, the Grand Tetons, Glacier Bay, Yosemite and the Rockies. I smiled at stories on the series of ocean cruises I’ve enjoyed. And I was thrilled to find a dozen or more travel stories about whale-watch trips, dating back to 1983.

No wonder I told a stranger at a Christmas caroling party last month that it’s okay if I never go anywhere again. I made many trips on assignment for the Post-Dispatch, and since that party ended, I have continued to find ways to see the world and savor the experience of breathing air in places that other people call home. Am I finished traveling? I hope not. I’m good at it, and there are still places I want to go. But, oh the places I’ve been – and there they were, spread all around me.

In case you are wondering, I still write travel stories, some of them about northern California. An article on how to choose a cruise will run in the Post-Dispatch a week from tomorrow. (Thanks, Amy!) Next, I plucked my articles from issues of the St. Louis Jewish Light and jWeekly, the Jewish paper I write for in San Francisco. (Thanks to Ellen, Mike, Liz, Andy and Rachel!)

After pulling out pertinent pages from the newspaper sections, I tackled the magazines. I decided one copy of each was plenty. Except, of course, for the splendid July issue of Southwest Airlines’ Spirit Magazine, which published a 4,600-word love letter from me to St. Louis. I noted that I have written for four issues of Health Progress, a publication of the Catholic Health Association. (Thanks, Pam!) I admired the glossy grocery magazines from all over the country that have published my work. (Thanks, Kelli!) And I hugged the (really) old issue of Ms. Magazine that contains an article I penned. 

When I was finished culling, I had newsprint smeared all over my hands. (That's okay -- I like that!)  I also had enough newspaper pages and magazines to fill a grocery bag, ready for recycling. The "keepers" are back in the black plastic bin, along with all the randomly stored work samples, and now there is room for whatever work comes my way this year.

Okay, 2011 – I am ready!