Monday, December 2, 2013


Guess who has relocated his blog to Wordpress?

That would be yours truly.

To reach my blog these days, go to:

Friday, November 22, 2013

Texas School Book Depository

I was only eight, trying to make sense of how the Texas schools related to the killing of the president. My third grade class had been sent home from school. I have no idea if my mother knew I was coming home. Since it was only a two-block walk, I found out soon enough.

All the curtains were drawn, my mother was in her favorite chair, pulled up close to the television, a box of Kleenex in her lap, used tissues surrounding her. She explained, but I was still confused, "But Mom--you voted for Nixon..."

"You just don't understand!" I understood the president was dead, I would come to understand that Lee Harvey Oswald worked in the Texas Schoolbook Depository, a high-rise warehouse in downtown Dallas with a sharpshooter's view of President Kennedy's motorcade. I would, over the next three days, find out a great deal more about the world.

As was my habit, I ended up two doors down the street at my friend Bobby's house. Their television was tuned into the wall-to-wall coverage as well. After the umpteenth reference to to President Kennedy as the first and only Catholic president," I asked Bobby's mom to help me understand the problem.

"But Ellie, why is it such a big deal that he was Catholic? Everybody's Catholic but my family..." She roared, perhaps the first and only time time she would laugh that weekend. I didn't understand what was so funny.

My housing tract was full of World War II veterans and their little baby boomer broods. German-American  Catholics had founded the little community that became South San Francisco. As Irish and Italian Americans raised their standard of living, many moved out of the city to the nearest suburb (mine) that already had Catholic churches and communities. Hispanic families soon swelled the neighborhoods, likely for the same or similar reasoning.

My neighborhood was so Catholic, that one day almost my entire second grade class was missing. All five classes of seven year-olds had been combined into one group of five kids for the day: the two Jewish kids, two Protestants and me. It was First Communion day at St. Veronica's and the rest of the 150 or so second graders were at mass. So yeah, to me, the world was overwhelmingly Catholic.

My family made one of their intermittent forays to the First Baptist Church in San Francisco that weekend. It was important to pray for our country that horrible weekend. As I waited for my parents and older siblings to finish readying for church, I sat in front of the TV again. The newsfeed was coming in from the garage of the Dallas police station. "Oswald is going to be on TV!" I shouted, but no one came. Then, live on television, I saw the assassin get murdered. The on-camera death of the lone gunman from the Texas School Book Depository would forever be featured in perhaps the most infamous live moment in TV history. A handcuffed prisoner, surrounded by law enforcement officers in the bowels of their very own building, killed on my own television set.

Sometimes, the adult world just doesn't make any sense at all.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Cousin Stewart

The Golden Boy

Cousin is a flexible term. Going back to Shakespeare, it could mean “close friend” or a generic relative of most any kind. Even if you limit the term to blood or in-law relations, I still have lots of cousins. If my father hadn’t been an only child, my large family would really be out of control.

I even went to school from K to 12 with two female cousins, one a year older, the other a year younger. Their mother was my mother’s kid sister. Those girls had a family of first cousins on the other side of the golf course, the four children of their father’s kid brother. Stewart, the second of those four; became my favorite cousin, hands down. Since he was a cousin-of-my-cousin, he wasn't a blood relative at all. But there was no way to explain our relationship other than “cousin,” so there it was. 

He was three years older than I, a very quiet boy. My first memory of Stewart was coming over to his house when I was about six, he would have nine. Painfully shy, the lanky boy didn’t talk to me at all. He did get out his six-foot tall unicycle and rode up and down the hilly neighborhood like the most agile of circus acrobats. He may not have been big on conversation, but Stewart sure did know how to make a lasting impression.

When I was in junior high, my parents separated for the umpteenth time before an eventual divorce. My mother decided that she needed to start becoming a regular at church again. As her youngest child, she took no excuses from me and I soon found myself spending time at the First Baptist Church. I knew no one there except Stewart and his two younger sisters. He still didn’t talk a whole lot, but the taciturn teen made it clear I was family and he took me under his wing. We became instantly close, as if we’d been hanging out since that day with his unicycle years before.

Stewart’s family took the moralistic tenets of the Baptist church seriously: No smoking, no drinking, no dancing. My family was a bit more flexible. I never could stand cigarette smoke, but I loved to dance and I’ve been known to liken champagne to mother’s milk. Stewart became what we now would call my “designated driver.”
Goofing with his sisters

Cousin Stewart never wanted to go to college. He worked for Sears and later in an industrial gold mine near Fairbanks, Alaska. In the spring, he would drive a truck from San Francisco up to Canada and follow the Al-Can Highway all the way to Fairbanks. When the ground thawed, they would resume digging for gold. When the ground froze again in the fall, Stewart would return to California.

My cousin would come up to visit me at college for a weekend of partying during those long winter breaks. I would party, he would just hang close. On his first trip to see me, I had prepared my female friends who'd become enamored of his photos. “Stewart is a good-looking kid, kinda like the actor Jan-Michael Vincent. Only taller. But he doesn't drink and he won't dance," I warned them. Of course, a major part of the agenda that weekend was a college dance.

Everything during his visit went just about as expected. Stewart and I had a good time together, but he was mostly a handsome fly-on-the-wall during the bacchanalian events. Then came the Saturday night dance. While I was on the dance floor, my friend Kira grabbed me and pulled me close. 

"Hey! I thought your cute cousin didn't dance?" There was Stewart, dancing like a stiff cracker with my friend Mary. "So..?" She asked.

"Well, I guess he does now. Maybe you should just ask him to dance, then?" 

She did. Stewart's reply? "Sorry, I don't dance."  

Kira slapped me right across the face, hard, and stalked off.

"Stewart, what the hell?" I whined. "Why'd you turn her down?"

"You know I don't dance," he said.

"But you did, with Mary."

"I didn't have a choice, she dragged me out there." That didn't exactly take the sting out of my cheek.

I have lots of stories about my enigmatic, contradictory cousin. Mostly about skiing--water skiing, that is. His fluid athleticism intimidated me too much to invest in a snow ski trip when I knew I would end up skiing by myself anyway. Stewart would return to California permanently, got married and had two daughters. My cousin bought back his father's old ski boat, a wood-hulled gem that his dad built with his brother (my uncle Bob). My squeaky-clean tea-totaling cousin rechristened the boat "My Vice." As far as anyone could tell, it was the only vice he ever indulged.

With his wife and one of his daughters
After I moved back to California in '97, I was fortunate enough to spend time with Stewart and his family water skiing. Whether it was a long summer day on Turlock Lake or the week-long water-ski orgy during our four-family houseboat excursion on Lake Shasta, skiing with Stewart was something special. His boat was beautiful,and he certainly was a generous and patient teacher and host. But the best part of any ski day was at the end, when Stewart got in the water. Considerate to a fault, he always waited for his guests to exhaust themselves first before allowing himself a turn behind the boat.

When Stewart skied--on two skis, one or even none--he was a vision to behold. Calm, strong, graceful, acrobatic, I have never seen a more beautiful skier cut through the water, not even professionals. Our mutual cousin Jackie said he was the most gorgeous man alive when he was barefoot-skiing. She dreamed of those afternoons watching our cousin glide over the boat's wake like a bird on the wing. We believed he could walk on water if he'd cared to. Diligent, humble, kind, giving and quietly religious, he was the perfect embodiment of what a man should be. 

But no man is perfect.

Our cousin Jackie called me up one day with the most incredible of news: cousin Stewart, our golden boy, was dead. A suicide. 

Stewart at 52

Thursday, November 14, 2013


The mere mention of the word “reunion” sends many people running for cover. Of course, some people love them, as I often do. Naturally, it depends upon the kind of reunion that’s up for discussion: family, school, neighbors or the old gang from that job you had ten years ago. Those last two usually revolve around some social opportunity like a wedding or a funeral.

Some reunions I skip right off the top (they have to sound like fun), some are conflicts on my schedule, or the effort is  just too much to make them worthwhile (ROI analysis). If the event has passed the screening process and I can make it happen (and I want to make it happen), I go. I’d be hard- pressed to think of any reunion I attended and regretted. These events are the epitome of the old adage: It is what you make it out to be.”  But a word to the wise: don’t subject your spouse to these more often than once, if you want to stay married that is.

The family reunion I attended recently was centered on my aunt’s 90th. The actual reconnecting with her and my cousins was just as warm and affirming as I’d hoped. The pleasant surprise was how much fun and interesting it was to meet their relations from the other side of their family, those who are unrelated to me. The common platform that brought us together was enough to break the ice and more. Soon we were sharing stories and perspectives, feeding off of one another’s enthusiasm. It was great fun.

The classic vision of a reunion is school-related. Some dread these like the plague: “I didn’t like those people when I was in school,” “I’m afraid my ex will be there,” or the ever-popular “I feel too fat.” My favorite is “Who else is going?” Why don’t you go and find out? Heavens knows? It could be as whacky as that classic comedy, Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (click on the link to refresh your memory).

With my fraternity Little Sister Susie and my roommate Kevin

Just last month was a reunion at my college. University of the Pacific no longer has a football team (sadly), so they don’t focus on a football game. They can get creative. For years this meant holding the event in June, but I (for one) complained that it was too darned hot for outdoor activities in Stockton that time of year. Add to the above list of complaints: “I don’t look my best bathed in sweat.” And don't we all want to look our best at a reunion?

With two of my Theta sorority favorites, another Susie and Luann 

Recently, my college reunions returned to October. Hooray! Of course, it now conflicts with other reunions as October is just that perfect time of year for such things. This year shouldn’t have been a conflict with my high school's reunion. However, the university rotates events to focus on selected fraternities and sororities. This year, they featured my frat and the sorority where I worked in food service (Yes, I was a “hasher” at the Theta house). I love my frat brothers and my Theta girls.

Was it fun? In the words of my best bud Mike, “I wish I could’ve been there.” The pleasure I get at a reunion is not so much “reliving old times,” it is reinvigorating the positive connections with people whose friendship and company I enjoyed (and still do). There were satisfying connections with old friends, catching up on newer times.

But what of the high school reunion that I blew off? I followed up with another friend and old neighbor John, who did attend. Even though we were blended with the rival high school surprising number of my old high school classmates had attended. Hearing some of the names made me smile and think, “”I wish I could’ve been there.”

Friday, November 8, 2013


One summer day, when I was a college, I spent some time working on my father’s place in near Sebastopol in Sonoma County. One particular afternoon, I was helping him dig a new septic line. It was pretty hot, and I worn out, and pretty darn hungry.

“Lunch?” My dad said,  “You want lunch already?” It was pushing 1:00 mind you. Yes I wanted lunch. I needed fuel.

“I’m a growing boy, Dad. I need something for energy, even if its just an apple. .”

My father scowled. This was a very touchy subject.  After my father left my mother, he and his new wife had settled on this five-acre apple farm. My father didn’t feel he had to pay alimony or child support, so he didn’t. “I don’t have a dime, judge. Everything I own is in apples,” he’d claim. 

So one day, he and wife #2 showed up at the home he'd abandoned. They presented fifteen year-old me with a dozen or so boxes of Gravenstein apples. “You can make apple sauce, apple pie, apple butter…you won’t go hungry,” my stepmonster cackled. 
Dad never paid up. My mother arranged for me to get free lunches at school, and I learned the benefits of hanging around my friends’ houses around dinner time to score a meal.

Three years later, I’d been coaxed into augmenting my summer income by helping my father with some projects. “Free room and board”, he promised. “And I’ll pay you what you’re worth.” I thought it might be a chance to mend fences with my father. 

After five hours of manual labor in the hot August sun, lunch seemed to be a reasonable request.

“I’ve got a better idea,” Dad said. He walked over to a nearby tree and plucked a rather strange-looking fruit. He tossed it to me, along with a pocketknife.

“What’s this?” I said.

“The fruit of the quince,” he replied. “You never heard of it, college boy? It’s in a lot of the food you eat every day. Have a bite.”

Yes, I was a city boy, a suburban kid. I’d done a lot of hiking and camping in my day, I even lived on a farm one summer. But there was still a lot I didn’t know about the more agrarian side of life. Of course, you’d think that I’d learned to be wary of my father’s odd sense of humor by then, too. 

I sliced a wedge and took a big bite. Sour, bitter and tart only begin to describe the explosion of horrid tastes that seared my mouth. Major food ingredient? Well, yeah, technically. Quinces are a source of pectin, an essential element in the processing of jams and jellies.They are not fit to be eaten raw and unripe by anybody. I bent over our newly-dug ditch and retched.

“Lunchtime!” my stepmonster yelled.

“Well, c’mon,” Dad said. “Hurry up…you said you were hungry.”

The pretty flower of the quince tree

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


I'm talkin' 'bout Pittsburgh with an “H” on the end, not the small California town on Susuin Bay. The Three Rivers town, where the Allegheny and Monogahela Rivers meet to form the Ohio. Home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Pittsburgh Penguins and the Steelers. I can tell if you’re from “the ‘Burgh” if you pronounce their team’s name “Stillers.”

If you were in the Deep South, you might hear an expression such as:
       "Y'all are a buncha damn fools."
In Pittsburgh, that translates as:
       "Yinz jag offs!"

There is a whole range of unique Pittsburgh dialectical terminology, much of it indexed to their particular gastronomy. I worked in Pittsburgh for more than a year in my twenties and loved the town—all Western Pennsylvania, in fact. It's fun to learn the language--literally. From the "chipped ham sammitches," "kilbassa," "pisghetti" dinners or" hoagies," there's a lot to love. For a glossary of Pittsburghese, cut and paste this link:

My last visit to the ‘Burgh was on the occasion of a baseball trip that I took with my good friend Mike.  We connected with my old buddy Mark, who I’d met during my two-year Pittsburgh sojourn in the early Eighties. (Mark and I met in a night class at the University of Pittsburgh).

I do not remember who won or who played against the Pirates game, but that wasn't he point. Mike had never been to the ‘Burgh before, and even though he didn’t recall Mark from my wedding many years before, they got on famously. Easy conversations were struck up with random seatmates , fellow pedestrians coming to and from the stadium, folks in line for a kilbassa or Iron City beer. We sampled the local cuisine, drank in the view of the golden-colored Allegheny Bridge and the lovely cityscape that formed the right field backdrop, and we laughed the night away.

“This is the best ballpark—next to AT&T—in the majors,” Mike said. Quite a statement from my fellow SF Giants season ticket-holder. “But this town is flat-out great. The people are so damn friendly. I really mean it. Lots of places claim to be friendly, but everyone here walks around with a great attitude and they’re sharin’ the love.” That feeling is contagious: cue "What a Feeling," the hit song from Flashdance, filmed on location when I was living there.

For our brunch the next day, we went to one of my favorite old haunts. Primanti Brothers is a restaurant and bar in the Strip District, a warehouse neighborhood sandwiched between the hills and the Allegheny River east of downtown.  Mark had introduced me to this true slice of life in the Three Rivers City decades before. Then, it had been difficult to find Mark in the warren of streets clogged with produce carts and delivery trucks. My how times had changed. This time, I found that most of the neighborhood buildings were the same, but spiffed and polished. Restaurants and retail establishments dotted the area. The Strip District had become trendy.

Primanti Brothers was still the same, homey eatery, and packed with customers as always, but now there were nearly as many polo shirts as overalls filling the joint. Their soups are now world-famous, but it’s the sandwiches we come for. Fries and slaw are piled high on top of your sandwich or burger—my favorite is pastrami and cheese. It may sound a little off, but it tastes mmm good! Just keep your cardiologist on speed-dial, will ya? Framed and signed photos of TV celebrity chefs and travel hosts who’ve made the pilgrimage may don the walls, but this destination restaurant hasn’t lost any of its unique flavor.

Pittsburgh is definitely charming.
Reinvented as a center of education, medicine and high-tech, the ‘Burgh retains the unique character of its rust-belt roots. Pittsburgh's dramatic location and idiosyncratic natives will surprise,you. It's a special and essential community that is a truly American experience.

Go, Stillers!

Friday, November 1, 2013


“I live in the Oleander district,” he said.

“Oleander?” He had no idea what a significant place that plant had in my memory.

“Yeah, it’s a pretty nice part of Bakersfield—have you ever been?”

“No, I, I…”

“Look, it’s a pretty neighborhood, even if the plant is poisonous.”

“Yeah, oleander grows like crazy in this heat—wait! Poisonous?” I had a different take.

“I’m sure you heard the story about the Boy Scouts who died using oleander branches to roast hot dogs…” he was shaking his head in disgust.

“What, really?”

“Just an urban legend,” he waved his hand dismissively as if he were erasing a chalkboard. “Gosh, don’t get upset. Check it out on—it’s all a bunch of hooey.”

Hooey? My new acquaintance was a forty-something who sometimes talked like a seventy-something Okie.

“Yeah, but oleander can still be deadly—take it from me.”

My experience related to a bad car accident when I was seven. Returning from a long trip from San Francisco to Mexico, our station wagon flipped into the median of US 99 just north of Merced. Intermittent strips of oleander bushes line many of California’s highway medians, including that one. Perhaps our car would have had a softer landing if that’s all there was separating the north and southbound lanes of that freeway. But it wasn’t.

Our car was impaled upon a hidden danger lurking beneath the lavender-colored greenery: a 40” high concrete post. It was one of a series of obscured pylons topped with steel rings (their original purpose was to be chained to its neighbors as a deterrent to illegal u-turns). It staked our spinning, sliding vehicle, perhaps preventing us from careening into the on-coming traffic.

When the spinning stopped, I was pinned under my parent’s bodies in a cloud of dust and shattered glass. The only movement was the slow settling of oleander leaves and disturbed soil settling over a mass of rendered luggage, clothing and bodies inside our crushed vehicle.

“They’re dead, they’re all dead!” came a scream from the rear of the car. I could see my sister Sher through the tumult, standing like a bloodied flamingo on her uninjured leg, quaking, crying. The horrible scene was all tinted red, as if I looked through rose-colored glasses.

So this is what it’s like to be dead? I thought.  Just looking at the world moving on without me, in slow-motion?

Luckily, there were no fatalities, all seven of my family survived.  First my mother, then a sister, and finally the others began to cough. Slowly they moved. A woman appeared behind the car and hugged my flamingo sister. A man’s face appeared above me and called down into the overturned vehicle, “Are you alright in there?”
We were very lucky, but we weren’t quite all right: my sister’s leg, my mother’s ribs, and my eye were the main casualties. Strangers hurriedly pulled the remaining six of us from the broken grey Chevy wagon. The stench of spilled oil and gasoline was everywhere. After I emerged from the wreck, every person, family or not, looked at me and covered their mouths, horrified by the bloody mess where my left eye should be.

A white cloth appeared and an anonymous lady placed it over my eye. “Don’t move this until the ambulance gets here,’ she commanded. My sister retrieved the sombrero we’d picked up in Tijuana, hoping to raise my spirits. It was very hot that August afternoon, so my mother settled me down in the shade of a nearby bush to await the ambulance.

Everything was quiet once again, even the rushing traffic seemed silenced.  My sight was obscured by blood caked over my one good eye.  My mouth was soiled with loamy dust.

“What’s that funny smell, Mom?” I asked,

“Don’t worry, honey, it’s just the oil from the car.” The Samaritans had righted the station wagon somewhat, believing it would suppress any fire hazard.

“No, Mommy—I mean the sweet, flowery smell.”
It was oleander. The oleander that masked the dangerous pylon that ripped open our wildly careening vehicle, nearly killing my family. Yet it was that fist of concrete punching through the metal of the station wagon which held us—along with those cushioning floral bushes—and that may have saved us from an even more hellish fate.

So I rested in the shade of the oleander and inhaled its faint, sweet smell, sheltered from the heat of the sun and the stares of well-meaning strangers in my blood-stained orange-striped shirt, straining to hear the distant wail of an ambulance siren rushing ever closer.

I'm in the orange-striped shirt, under the oleander, held by
 one sister who is wearing my sombrero.
My mother in the green dress tends to my
sister Sher while we await the ambulance