in the shadow of the mountain

Mt. Tam, April 22, 2014

Mt. Tam under the midday sun

Rarely a day goes by that I don’t take a photo of Mt. Tam. In 2012, in fact, I ran a blog, A Year of Mt. Tamalpais,  with the sole purpose of featuring a picture a day of the peaks of our iconic mountain, the Sleeping Maiden in her many moods in the changing light of a day and through the seasons. Lately though, since the recent death of two women hikers whose bodies were found within days of each other and in close proximity along the same drainage ditch, I’ve stopped taking pictures so readily. Every time I glance out my windows at the mountain, I feel a little uneasy, as if I were trying to keep the rippling shadows in her lush spring mane at a safe distance from my imagination.

The deaths of these two women conjured for many the haunting fear that kept Marin women terrorized in 1970s when the Mt. Tam trailside killer struck. Christine Bronstein over at the Huffington Post writes about the “wave of hiker deaths” on Mt. Tam and links these deaths, through fear, to the memory of David Carpenter’s “crime spree” that claimed the lives of a number of women hiking or jogging alone on Mt. Tam back in the 1970s. Bronstein wisely reminds us of the dangers of complacency, though I wonder about calling in those old ghosts with the mayhem on the mind.

I moved to the area a year after David Carpenter was caught and convicted. Until Joyce Maynard published After Her, a novel loosely inspired by the Mt. Tam trailside murders, I’ve never given that kind of terror any traction to link the mountain outside my window to the one in my imagination. Like those two hikers, for many years, I used to go hiking alone as well — and at all times of the day too — on the many trails that crisscross the slopes of Mt. Tam. Not once during those hikes did I give worry, fear, or anxiety about being attacked a single thought. Nor did I fear the mountain itself. After all, from so many of its trails, some even under the shelter of trees, my house was always still within sight just there, sitting across a lesser hill.

One day though, on one of those hikes for which I rarely prepared beyond taking a candy bar and a small bottle of water, I did get lost. It was an odd feeling, knowing exactly where I was in general but having no way to get myself to any known particular spot of it at all without having to wander off the trails. Lucky for me, before panic could set in fully, an equestrian appeared as she were some genie rising from the woods themselves and set me on the right course.

But I still remember that tightening of the chest from the fear taking root in me. Its sharpest, most honed edge was the least possible to describe in words. Later, I knew that the reason for that was that there was no reason in that fear. It was fear to the bone, without a name, or a face to hang it on.

I don’t know what happened to the two women who died so close to each other in time and place recently on Mt. Tam. Though the Marin County coroner’s division does not suspect foul play in these deaths, the investigation continues, as the sheriffs “have to keep an open mind.” I do know, however, that the “not knowing,” especially in this age of unremitting flow of information always at our fingertips, tempts the imagination. It’s easier to think that these two women perished by the evil design of someone’s will than to fathom the senselessness of their accidental deaths. It certainly seems more “reasonable” to give that fear a sinister will and the face of a killer than to try to accept such senseless deaths as vagaries of fate.

In her post, Christine Bronstein, who lives much closer to the mountain itself than I do, delves into the shadow of the anxiety these deaths have cast on a place that we have all taken for granted as practically our own little backyard, with all that this term implies. Since the mountain, so sweetly named as a sleeping maiden, is always in our view and accessible so readily, perhaps we have come to see its peaks and slopes much more as part of a tamed landscape, like a calculated trophy garden, rather than the unpredictable wilderness it really is.

wheeling the imagination

Earlier today on a little outing, the spouse and I ended up on Hawk Hill overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and a miniaturized San Francisco, the entire vista in a gray wash of light through the layer of high fog that wouldn’t dissipate at that morning hour just yet. It’s been a good number of years since I’ve been in those parts of the Marin Headlands, but even as the car climbed the curvy road, it wasn’t the scenery that held my interest. My attention bobbed along with the colorful spandex-clad cyclists, scores of them in different groups or alone, making their way up the hill, some with a swagger and ease that seemed unnatural, if not illusory, and the others, struggling valiantly, so hard in fact that I could feel their burn almost in my own quads.

In my imagination, in spin classes lately, I have been scaling steeper and steeper climbs all in an effort to give my “guts” as much of a workout as I was lavishing on my abs, and the rest of me, of course. But even if with those newly stretched neurons of fearlessness, I was having a hard time imagining myself on the bike, pedaling up and up and up, one steady stroke after another on the long climb that Hawk Hill is. May well be that my bike will never make it up Hawk Hill, at least not powered by my legs, but my imagination will keep on shifting into lighter gears for that little extra power as it keeps the summit in focus.

That said, I should simply take the bike out for spin, even if on the flats…. It’s been a really long stretch since I rode anything with wheels that weren’t fixed in place. The only actual speed I could gather outside lately were the attempts at running. Walk a minute, run another minute, and all the while trying to convince myself that this could be fun.

Why torture myself with running? I have some trips coming up and want to keep my fitness routine going. Running seemed the easiest option for logistics, but it’s turning out to be not so simple for the imagination that keeps pining for those wheels under it.

Marin Headlands, CA - April 12, 2014

Marin Headlands, CA – April 12, 2014

Still trying to catch up

OK, I’ll say it, even if it needs no stating: I have been missing in words here. Not that I lacked for action or words. On the contrary. It’s been a busy couple of weeks, with barely any time left to let the experiences distill into some tasty spirit of reflection.

One project that kept me busy was to get ready to give a presentation at the Quantified Self Meetup, which was held at the Exploratorium in San Francisco on March 26. I talked about the years of self-tracking aspects of my life, such as weight, exercise, and food intake in ways that helped me get healthier and fitter. David Bunnell wrote up my presentation and published it on Medium, so I’ll let that excellent summary speak about the presentation.

A couple of other writing projects also presented themselves rather unexpectedly, so I was busy churning out words elsewhere, thinking that I would have a few left over for here. But what time and energy I had left, I spent in fitness activities, mostly spin classes and slowly taking up running again. The bike has been gathering dust, as we had a few much-needed rainy spells around here. When it wasn’t wet, it was windy, which might be great for gathering speed on the bike in one direction, but is likely to take its toll when you have to go against it.

View from China Camp Beach, Marin, CA

View from China Camp Beach, Marin, CA

night drive

In my twenties, in another city, and in another country, I often drove around when I got off work in the middle of the night. Even back then, even in that provincial coastal city, there were plenty of signs of life on the streets at night. The inebriated, some belligerent, others just bewildered, lurching around. Lovers, their limbs entwined so there was no telling where one begun or the other ended, oblivious to all around them. A few lonely figures, lurching on the street, or glimpsed through the bright flash of windows of diners and cafes that never closed… there were always signs of life, even if those signs pointed more of than not to lives mis-lived.

I was driving on the streets of Marin the other night, the hour still a good one from this side of midnight, okay, near 11 pm to be exact, remembering those other rides as I turned from one deserted and dark street into another through Larkspur. The bleakness of so much absence in a place this beautiful in the light of day startled me.

Intersection at night, Larkspur, CA

holding pattern

Brick pavement

It’s been so long since I last posted that I forgot my password to my own blogging platform. Go figure. Writing here hasn’t been foremost (or even mid-most) on my mind, obviously. Decisions will have to be made about this blog. Pull the plug and be done with it? Transport it to another platform, hoping the move will revive it?

Who reads these kinds of posts these days, anyway, when so much more, it seems, can be had over at Twitter in 140 characters or fewer, or on Instagram, where a picture can be worth a month’s wordy posts? A symphony of voices and news from all over the world, instead of this lone voice, slightly out of tune, droning on and on.

Apropos of writing:

I’ve finished reading “Still Writing,” by Dani Shapiro. An autographed copy, though not for me. The book was a gift through an exchange at our last writing group session before Christmas. It’s a slim book, but it took me a long time to read. It’s a book about writing. I used to love reading books about writing. Felt about them like rich desserts or deep-flavored chocolates. They made all my thinking about writing creamy, sweet and so sublimely flavored with hope.

I don’t like books about writing anymore. It took a long time to get into this book and try to savor its small chapters, served up like an amuse-bouche to tease the appetite for writing. At odd moments into it, I did feel the old tinge of excitement about writing. Yes, I thought, maybe I can get back into the magic kitchen and whip up a poem or try to make a stew of that raw story I left bleeding on the counter of my imagination.

In the end, though, I have to confess that my appetite for books about writing is all but gone. At this stage of my wordy dabblings there is nothing I can learn from books about writing. And that’s not because they don’t have something valuable to teach, don’t get me wrong. Plenty savory recipes for to be had for turning words into the cake of prose, the frosting of a poem, the mixed salad of the personal essay, and so forth. But, as they say, the proof is in the pudding. Which means that, for me, the only lesson in making a feast of words is to go make a mess in the kitchen. Dirty up a number of pots, spill flour on the counter, dribble oil on the floor, burn the sugar, or fail to temper the chocolate…. and then start over again, and again. Until I have a dish that’s sure to hold together in texture and taste, and better yet, to nourish some hungry soul.

my labor day weekend

The Bay Bridge closed on the evening of Wednesday, August 28, 2013, through Labor Day (today) to prepare the big switch from the old East Span to the brand new one. This meant anticipating – and getting – plenty of traffic through Marin as an alternate route to and fro from San Francisco and the East Bay through the Golden Gate and the San Rafael/Richmond bridges. This also meant that all my plans for these days involved local venues, mostly of the kind easily accessible on two feet or two wheels.

On Thursday afternoon I met friends for happy hour, though I walked to the wrong venue, where I sat nursing a beer imagining my friends stuck in traffic. Thanks to my Twitter addiction it didn’t take long to realize I was a mile or so off the course. Soon I was back on my two feet, walking through places that have always been a blur from the window of the car. Not the prettiest walk along the edifice of ramps on US 101 going north, but I got to play a game of sorts. I took a tally of drivers exiting the ramp along which I made my way and discovered that less than one-fourth of the people passing me in their cars were what the Census would call White. The rest were Latinos and African Americans and Asians.

Meanwhile, my friends at the other venue made sure I would have a place at the bar, though they seemed to think I got lost, given how long it was taking for me to walk in the heat of the afternoon. Thanks to Twitter, though, they were alerted by another Twitter friend that I was nearly there, as that friend happened to spot this photo (below) I posted on Instagram along the way. And so the evening, or rather, the happy hour was saved and the beer was walked off in the many miles I covered on two feet that day.

Lucky Drive Overpass at US 101 in Corte Madera, CA
Pedestrian & bike overpass on US 101 near Lucky Drive, Larkspur

All that walking took its toll on the old legs that are more used to pedaling. Seems that 5 miles did them in way more than 36 miles on the pedals on Tuesday.

Yesterday brought us a show of clouds that turned pretty spectacular and ever more colorful with the passing of each hour. It also brought a few other odd sights, at least for me. As I walked through the hills of Greenbrae in the afternoon, when I decided it was too late for a bike ride, I had to do a double take when I spotted this bird, a denizen of the marshlands, standing around a lawn, swaying its neck, as if gently slapped by wind or wave. It moved slowly, as if practicing a dance for the first time, but then, all of a sudden, its head went fast forward and came back just as swiftly with a lizard twitching in its beak.

Egret on a suburban lawn

Sunset lit up those clouds and colored them wildly. My Instagram and Twitter feeds created instant albums from all parts of the Bay Area of the same sky from different angles.
Sunset in Greenbrae, CA

Sunset over Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, Greenbrae/Kentfield

sunday night

Sunset in Marin, August 26, 2013

Clear skies, rosy skies in fact. With the folds and winds of fog far on the horizon, past the ridge of hills. This is a California of the imagination, rendered even more colorful and even more distant through the kind of filter that is mostly the province of Hollywood and Silicon Valley.  And maybe a few kitschy painters….

It’s very quiet in this space between the day and nightfall. It’s Sunday night, but for the cicadas, keeping a low and steady sound, it makes no difference what the day is called. The chickens my neighbor keeps have settled a long time ago. The crows too, have worked out their roosting wars. The saws and leaf blowers and grass cutters that have flared up during the afternoon across the hills have been put away some time ago.

Years ago, this space between the day and night, and the week that was and the week that is going to be, the one between the world that is my house and the world at large that should be my home, this space would have been heaven. It still is, but even with that vast horizon out there, the space seems shrunken. No bigger than a hammock, precariously strung between trees with roots too tangled and limbs a little on the dry side.

bubbles

Samsung Wshing Machine

When in my early twenties I thought about all the ways in which I would find happiness later in life, there were plenty scenarios that spanned the genres from romance to adventure, all colored with the wash of fame and fortune, but not one of them involved a washing machine.

Yes. A washing machine. Even back in my late thirties, with kids and house and the taste of suburbia ingrained in my senses I would have never guessed that a washing machine would lift my spirits high enough for me to glimpse a brighter future.

A washing machine that gently spins me out of the summertime blues. Well, more like the onset-of-winter blues, if we want to go into the season of metaphors that mark the turns of the main cycles in life.

I spent the better part of my youth shedding countries and cities and abodes practically with the changes of seasons, but when I got married and had my children, we settled into this house, from which my husband has been going to the same job for nearly a quarter of a century, a rare feat in these times, it seems to me.

Back when we first moved into this house, we filled it with brand new things. Some of these things broke down years ago and we replaced them, once or twice. The house had its own crises, some minor, others major.  A new roof, a couple of times, in fact.  A new deck. A bathroom redone.  Rooms painted. Some by me, too.

Decisions had to be made about allocating funds once the kids went off to college and we weighed the pros and cons of investing more in the house or the future of our children. This was a no-brainer for us, to pour our resources into the future of our children, who were to move on.  Which left the house less of a home of our dreams and more as a means to provide a home in the wider world for the kids. In practical terms, this meant that though the bones of the house are still solid, its muscles have slackened and that glow has gone from its skin.

That these things are happening to the house at the same time as they are happening to us as well as we age, it’s an odd comfort and a constant alarm that knows only one ringtone: memento mori. In the last few years, both my husband and I have had brushes with ailments we never heard of in our younger years. Sure we came out of them, but probably a little worse for the wear and tear they left as they ran their course. Our appliances, too, broke down, but could still be repaired to go on, even if, at least to me, they seemed to have lost some of their former power to function predictably or clean or dry or whatever it was that they once did properly.

When it was the washing machine’s turn to go from several small crises to the big one that left it with a dead motor, even though we had a special service contract to fix it, I decided it was time to come clean…. I was tired of the tiny drum in this bleeding-edge version of front loaders from the turn of the century that had me doing several loads practically every day while my sons were teenagers. Even after they left, you could not do all the sheet from a king-size bed in a single load. It was as if when I got that machine, in my mind I was still living the glamorous single life in some cosmopolitan apartment beyond  the reach of suburban dreams.

After some work, which might have involved a wee drama at times, I convinced my husband that it was time for a new washing machine. And so I have my shiny new washing machine. With a drum big enough to spin the dirt out of a large family’s laundry. What I don’t have is the large family at home anymore.

But there is still laundry.

There is always laundry.

Which at this ripe old age and to my great astonishment, has become the foundation for happiness. Not exactly in the sense of those dreams of old from my younger years. Nope. It’s not even happiness per se. It’s a freedom from happiness, I suppose, much in the way Jack Kornfield already wrote about it in After The Ecstasy, The
Laundry
.

I happened on this happiness without happiness after all the sadness of living with things around me that I could perceive only as broken. The dreams of happiness, the ledgers of disappointments, the inventories of failures, the manifest of missed opportunities, well, come to think of it, as I watch the drum of my new washing machine turn and turn, are but suds. Life is in the wash.

empties

Empty pill and liquor bottles

Hmm… the bottles on the left, what the young have to recycle. The bottles on the right, more numerous, it’s what was shed by the oldsters in the house. Between the balm to forget and the one to keep it all going, there is the day, filled with … well what? I can’t remember; nor can I forget.

lines

Bridge by the Corte Madera Creek bike path

If you were to make a picture of Marin based only on the photos I post on the blog, you would find yourself in a world nearly devoid of people. It dawned on me the other day that just about every picture I take, if it’s not of food or the bike, is a landscape, whether natural or manmade, seemingly emptied of humans.

As if these pictures were meant to mark a journey in search of solitude. A way to carve private space from the commons, and in a public manner, both in the “real” world and online, in the form of blog posts. Or a way to watch, what else, but seeing.

It’s really not that complicated. The plain truth is that I never felt comfortable taking pictures of people, except of my children when they were young. I seem to get mesmerized by the intersection of lines and the play of shadows, not to mention the deceptive dance of colors in changing light.

So yes, my Marin, and the one I tend to share most often, is a stage of sorts where plots of geometry and caprices of light drive the action in search of a story.