Afternoon

In the fall, we transition from chasing shadow to chasing sun. At its brightest it is only just enough and cause for celebration. It is scarce and so savored. Sunblock and floppy hats are cast aside and we pretend not to notice the freckles we get in the fall. They can’t hurt us, what could be the harm.

Stretching, the cat extends one paw into the afternoon’s shadow and recoils it immediately, bringing it close to her body as if comforting it after its foray out of the light. The little yard looks dusty and unkept with dry leaves littering the back and the brown grass with clumps of rope weed like an unshaved beard, embarrassing to look at in conversation.

We don’t care. Me with my books and lists and recipes and coffee; Bella and Betty with their scraps of sun and satisfaction. It is all we need, this little open air room of a yard with trees, flowers, birds and a flat place to stretch out. It is our little place, an island in a sea of humanity.

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Blood was everywhere

The rat was dead at the edge of the sidewalk and there was blood everywhere. Apples were half-eaten and strewn around and chaos was king.

“Must’ve been one helluva fight,” some guy said over the top the fence.

“Yeah, but you should see the other guy,” came the ready reply.

Bada Bump Ba

Blood was everywhere, and so was chewed up gum, and spit, and shit, and there was no end to it. No wonder people don’t walk in this neighborhood. They’d have to burn their shoes when they got home each day. If they lived.

And the traffic roared by, and the sun baked the narrator’s brain, and the dead rat’s guts began to rot and the clock struck 9.

Across the street, two guys stood talking over the top of their car, not noticing the rat or anything else. The traffic raced and roared beside them, but the low-talking, men drew the ears of the women who sat on the other side, far from the rat, but in the middle of the nasty sidewalk, sipping coffee, trying not to notice the blood, and straining, ever so slightly, to make out the buzzing whispers. The secrecy was catnip, drawing them in, although in the end it was nothing and the men left, never seeming to notice the rat.

They were regulars here and they knew the coffee was strong and cheap, even if it was a health food store. The men filling the bulk bins with catnip had recognized them, shaking their heads, and they all slipped into a bantering game they had been playing for decades, with their hair thinning and graying, with rats coming and going, with people passing by and seeing only the filth on the sidewalk.

5 objects in juxtaposition

Outside the paella restaurant

I am driving under the freeway. Cars above me are inching along like my Grandma in winter with Creepers attached to the bottom of her boots. If I’d planned to get on, I wouldn’t, but watching them is peaceful, no stress, no impatience from here.

A train is blowing its whistle nearby, advising those capitol corridor dwellers to come hither, and reminding me that I, too, can ride the rail, the clickety clack rumble carrying me further on down the line. It rolls slowly between stops until it flies like a winged stallion up the delta, out of the fog and into the oven, like a rocket to the sun.

An older hippie gone button up office worker pedals his bike down Brush Street. His blondish grayish hair trails down his back in ropy pieces, not dreads, but he wishes they were. A bag of oranges is tied on the back of his bicycle, heading toward the ferry.

Brush Street ends near the train tracks, its perpendicular end point. On the other side of the tracks, a ferry rises out of the water. It’s not the Casco Bay Ferry of my youth, a slow moving donkey low in the water that carries mail, island dwellers with faces worn by the wind, and occasional cars, although most of the island are too small to use one. The beast before me rises out of the bay like a giant ready to grab cars off the street to swallow them. Lines of buttoned shirted, tie loosened, hair freed travelers line up for passage west, into the sunset only to return with its rise tomorrow.

Overshadowing my parking spot, there’s a squared off, painfully modern building. It sits like a pompous little man in a too-hip bar, forgetting that he’s wearing a Hello My Name Is label with Digital Realty written in block letters. I see Digital Reality and am reflexively disgusted.

I hope the paella is old-fashioned good.

Up & Down

Sitting on the short pier off Jack London Square, the sun is hitting my back and the wind is flying my hair around, which should make me look glamorous but doesn’t. I can hear two girls talking about a third, gulls calling out where the best dinner is to be had, music blasting from across the water, from Alameda where I live. An old man, bent and grizzled, looks like an old sailor as he aches his way off the bench at the end of the pier and climbs onto his mountain bike. He coasts by me, his tires clicking .

The yachts are rocking up and down, yawning and groaning with a deep satisfaction. The ferry’s low horn sounds in the estuary, its rumbling engine churns the water. The office toilers are returning home to bask in what remains of the fog-free afternoon.

My sinuses are swollen shut and I can’t smell the water that surrounds me, nor the food cooking in all the fancy restaurants.

My shadow is cast in front of me and in it I cannot see the frump fest of middle age, my crinkly eyes, the mottling of my Irish/Scottish/English skin. I can see my earrings bob when I shake my head and that I am writing in a shadow book.

The bay doesn’t care about bodies. It is the law of buoyancy that applies, the principal of wetness, the hydrogen oxygen mix of atoms that matter here. The water is no more or less wet on the Queen’s toe across the pond. If only human perception complied with nature’s rules, if discernment were a mathematical formula: knowable, predictable, true.

Old Story New

The township of Alameda was born in the mid-nineteenth century on a peninsula, conjoined to Oakland by tidal wetlands. At the time, Oakland was busy becoming an industrial city, with its natural ports and commitment to railroads. San Franciscans built summer cottages on its oak-covered hills, which they cleared to better view their city across the bay, shrouded in fog. Meanwhile Alameda was building its first school and digging the estuary, not as a means of separating, but of connecting more fluidly with the surrounding communities.

These days the locals call the estuary “the moat,” and as such it serves as a means of limiting ingress to a few access points. Behind billboards and manicured hedges, at the ends of our bridges and the Posey Tube, idling cruisers stand in for noble steeds. The forces, mostly-white knights, are commissioned in the protection of island inhabitants’ riches and safety.

Although barely separated from each other geographically, modern Alameda and Oakland are worlds apart. Alameda has a village-feel, with orderly square yards, neatly filled by Victorian-era single-family homes. Utterly flat, the island barely rises out of the bay, making it an ideal community for the aged and mobility challenged. For hills, one must cast ones gaze to the east, where the hills of Oakland stretch from north to south. The various hills and dales define the neighborhoods of Oakland, with the wealthiest neighborhoods having most elevation. While the flatness of Alameda indicates an ease of living, “the flats” in Oakland are better known for their food deserts, drive by shootings, and street side bonfires, lit to destroy evidence in cars stolen from surrounding communities.

Where Alameda prides itself on pleasant simplicity (although, oddly, not on friendliness) Oakland roils with tumult, each day bringing a new protest or three to the City Center in the Downtown district. From the ashes of occupying camps, a thriving arts and restaurant scene has emerged. While Alameda vigilantly whites out defacing graffiti, Oakland embraces the Oaklandishness of it, embracing and owning its bad ass-ness, ’cause we hella love Oakland, y’all.

Like first cousins, these communities are close-knit, thrown together at holidays and for various comings and goings. They share certain sensibilities and a basic position of inferiority in the shadow of San Francisco, the most popular child in the extended family. It’s easy to love Alameda, with its matching socks and its hair parted straight down the middle. But when Oakland shows up wearing a funky screen-printed tee-shirt and holding a batch of fresh-from-the-oven pot brownies, we know who we want to sit next to when it’s time to carve the bird.

The Boneyard

I park in the shade of the magnolia tree fifty yards past the mausoleum door, leaving the closest spots for the bereaved who creep and creak in to remember. I don’t know anyone stored in the body-sized drawers, but I go inside to use the restroom before my walk through the boneyard. The first few times, I felt like an intruder echoing down the corridors of the clammy cool granite and brass-filled building, with its faint odor of decay, but now I’m a regular.

My father-in-law was buried in a mausoleum. Before his internment, I’d presumed only the wealthy could afford the accommodations, but my in-laws weren’t particularly wealthy. In Illinois where Bob is entombed, a mausoleum makes sense for the visiting bereaved. At Christmas-time the year after he died, we drove through drifts of blowing, blinding snow to sit inside with him and the summers are no less rigorous on the other end of the spectrum.

I’m at a loss to explain the mausoleum in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery. Why deny the worms their due, as if embalming hasn’t hindered their work enough? Perhaps the mausoleum makes decomposition seem more tidy, where the inhabitants are safe from tree roots that stretch in search of nutrients and, finding them, grow large, pushing boxes open, tilting carefully-carved stones to dangerous angles.

Outside I wend my way around and up through the hundreds, no thousands, of graves covering the hillsides. I go around the pyramid-shaped mausoleum, which is behind the one with the bathroom, and climb up to the modestly wealthy families’ tombs, which  are finer than any cottage with this view that my little paycheck could afford. Here, as elsewhere, squirrels frantically gather and bury nuts from the picture perfect live oaks, planted at careful intervals. Hawks circle, noting the large bellied squirrels distracted by their work.

I hike past the University of California founder, past the stones of Julia Morgan, the ambassador of Micronesia, past Ina Donna Coobrith, California’s first poet laureate, past the locals and transplants who’ve left their marks on the world and lie here in the shadows of the captains of industry with their monuments up the hill.

There are hills covered with small stone rectangles that lie flat against the ground. I’d thought they epitomized modest means, but apparently they are also evidence of the evolution of graveyard philosophy and Mountain View’s partial transition to lawn cemetery design. Perhaps these hills of small stones are also monuments to post-mortem practicality and leaving what resources there are with the living. There is an Oakland-style Chinatown here, with Asian names and pictures of the departed on their stones. Here more than anywhere, I find evidence of the living. They leave flowers, moon cakes, jack-o-lantern, pinwheels spinning in the breeze, and generations of families gathered for a photo near the stone of their loved ones, long buried, but remembered.

My lifelong search for a grave with my family name outside of Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, has come to fruition only here. I’ve found a reasonable sized, brown-colored stone marking the burial of two married couples. Their names are united by the symbol for a fraternal order. This Raymond Farrar is unknown to my family, with its own Raymond Farrar. He lies with his friends on a sunny hillside. I leave a rock on his stone each time I pass by. I pull the weeds from the flower vase built onto the stone’s base. Someone who knows those buried here removes my stones and leaves none, but I persist. One day I found a single daisy, freshly picked on top of the stone with no one in sight.

Contact Lenses and PTSD: Surprising Connections

As part of my on-going Middle Age Immersion, I have been experimenting with bifocal contact lenses. I had little hope of them actually working and had preemptively begun the worrying-process about what I’d do when they failed me. There is no way these things should work for anyone, in my humble opinion.

I’ve had corrective lenses since I was in the fourth grade and have always gotten new lenses from the eye doctor when my eyes are not functioning as I expect. Despite this focus, ehem, on eyes, so much of how the body works comes back to the brain and so too with the eyes. Consider how a bifocal contact lens works: the near-focus and the and far-focus portions of the lens are in front of the pupil at the same time, meaning the brain has to determine which parts of the lens to use to get the best image resolution.

I was marveling at my brain and its tricky ways, enjoying the morning sunlight, as I headed to work on Monday. I maneuvered onto 880 during the morning rush (short-merge, road construction, freight-truck-wheels-at-eye-level to the left and a cement wall to the right, white knuckle-anxiety chaser to my morning cuppa joe), just as the California Report on KQED aired a story on the use of meditation with combat veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The part of the story that really captivated me was when the therapist leading the vets through a guided meditation kept repeating the phrase “…and they’re just like me…” So for example, “I’m walking out of a grocery store and the person behind me drops a jar of pickles that sounds like a bomb. He’s a guy getting his groceries and he’s just like me.”

The idea, if I understood it correctly, is that PTSD impacts the way the brain works, making the part that helps us experience compassion for others take a backseat to the fight/flight part of the brain. By gently leading the veterans through everyday challenging situations and providing them a different way of processing that information, guided meditation helps them re-build or restore the use of their brains’ compassion centers.

Although I am not a combat vet and do not, so far as I know, have PTSD, I have diagnosed myself with a condition I call Patience Deficit Disorder. I’m pretty certain I’m not the only one who has it. I think many people suffering this affliction are my blood relatives, but my research methods are not scientific. The condition, as manifested by me, is most pronounced when I am behind the wheel.

While listening to the PTSD meditation story, I realized that using the same mantra could be the antidote for my PDD. As I was already feeling tense from my perilous morning commute, I started using the mantra right away and it seems to have been very helpful this week. For example, when I’m merging onto an insane freeway during rush hour, I tell myself that the people in those cars are just like me. When someone changes lanes in front of me and stops quickly, “the person in that car is just like me.” When some lost driver sits through a green light, makes their turn at the end of the yellow, and leaves me at the red, I know the person in that car is just like me. When I am late, in the wrong lane, or lost, I appreciate a little compassion from my fellow drivers on the road we share.

Perhaps compassion is the antidote for many of the challenges that tax our minds and souls?