kicking up the dust on memory lane

A long time ago, when I first started blogging and saw the “platform” not as the opportunity to sell things or brand myself, but yet another way to explore writing in general, my posts alternated between opinion pieces, little essays, and vignettes that tried to capture moments of life in Marin.

I randomly pulled this entry from September 16, 2002, which I can barely believe I posted nearly 12 years ago on the original “alembic” blog. That blog has been pulled from its home on a server years ago, but it still lives on in the wayback machine on the Internet.

So here we go with the old post, unedited from the original:

September 16, 2002
Health Nut

She and her husband are shopping for a last-minute dinner treat at one of Marin’s upscale grocery stores. Her teenage son is in tow, seeing how he begged to drive the ‘good’ car some distance. This is the son that lives on frozen pizzas, on one particular brand, to be precise.

Her cart is littered with a couple of gourmet cheese chunks, a couple of prepared salads, a bag of tomatoes, and the aforementioned son’s stack of frozen pizzas. She’s been working hard lately, and one of her treats at times like these is a glass – or two – of red wine in the evening. So she checks out the lower shelves of the wine aisles, where they keep the wines that sell under $15, and she picks up something called Pellegrini that boasts to be a “Carignane,” or old vine from the Alexander Valley.

On any given day, there is an army of staff ready to dispense wine advice and lore to her whenever she passes these aisles, but not today. She finally locates the Assistant Wine Whatever-His-Title-Is, and he of the broad-smile-on-a-wide-face recommends the wine as if it were the next best thing since sliced bread.

A minute later, the man of the broad smiles is standing by her cart, looking at her and saying something she can’t make out to another employee who is stacking boxes of crackers. Ever self-conscious, she smiles at the two by way of apology and says: “I can’t help it, I like weird wines….”

“It’s not the weird wines that concern me,” says the man of wide smiles, “it’s those pizzas in your cart that have me worried.”

“You should try Ruby’s pizza,” he goes on, but she cuts him off, because she has already had this conversation with this same man some months ago.

“I did try Ruby’s … and it’s much higher in fat than Celeste’s,” she says as haughtily as she can muster.

“Which is worse, fat or preservatives?” He challenges her now, not just with his question, but also with the bulk of his body, which he shifts in front of her cart.

“Fat,” she says, beating a hasty retreat through the dairy aisle. As she nears the cleaning products, she thinks, “Hell, a few preservatives now and then might in fact help us along the evolutionary scale. It’s quite possible, isn’t it, that some day, preservatives could become part of our bodies in new and beneficial ways…”

She joins her husband and son in the produce section. She has barely parked her cart, when she looks up to find the man of broad smiles standing in front of her once again, wielding a Ruby’s pizza in his large hand.

“Here, see for yourself … Ruby’s has….”

And she is livid now. She can’t really make much sense of what he is spouting on about the comparative size of the pizzas in ounces and fat grams. She recalls that some months ago, she and her husband figured out that the health food Ruby’s pizza, which was smaller than the Celeste, had all those stats measured per serving. And, she recalls something about there being many servings in the Ruby’s pizza, compared to the one serving that was the entire Celeste pizza … but she can’t find the presence of mind to explain all this to the man standing before her, so she blurts out:

“I don’t want a Ruby’s pizza, okay? I tried one before, and I didn’t like it. I don’t want to buy it, okay?”

She would like to tell him to leave her alone, but there is no need, he’s already gone. She wonders why she feels as if she has to apologize for the things in her cart to an employee of the store, especially when she doesn’t even eat that damn pizza herself. She would like to tell the man of the broad smile to go screw himself and that she’s unto him. She knows that it’s not her health he has in mind, but his wallet. He must be connected to that fat-saturated butt-ugly Ruby’s pizza in some way or other, and she is really pissed now … but he has left, and she is stuck behind her cart and the mountain of heirloom tomatoes behind her. With a quick glance she takes in the small crowd that has gathered to watch her and the man of the broad smiles, and, with each word she utters to no one in particular, she raises her voice to a higher pitch:

“I don’t care to be told what I should and shouldn’t buy by employees of this establishment. Who the hell is he to tell me what is good for me? I really don’t care for it.”

She can see her husband and her son, both of them keeping their distance standing right by the nut bins.

a crow at odds

At first, I thought the crow was in dire distress. Before I could even spot it, I heard the cries. They struck like strings torn from a guitar, snapping and entwining in mid-air. I was at the Bon Air Center, near the Bank of America building with its wide expanse of second floor windows that reflect skies and at times play back the random show of clouds. It was late afternoon, the hour of dusk a hint at the fringed edge of fog rolling over Mt. Tam in the distance.

The crow was perched on the railing of one of the narrow-ledged balconies, facing in toward the window. From there it would fly up to the height of the window, then drop down, then fly up again, shrieking all along and fluttering its roughed-up wings when it landed back on the ledge.

I tried whistling to it to get its attention. I was so sure that it was mistaking the reflection of the swatch of world in the window for its true territory. The crow ignored my signals and kept on flying up and down, shrieking. At the other end of the building, at a considerable distance, a couple of other crows were watching it and me.

Finally, after calling out and whistling for some time, I went a little closer to the building and took out my car keys and jingled them while waving my arms high. The crow, during one of its landings on the balcony ledge, turned around and looked at me. I waved with a little more urgency, and the crow flew off, but not before giving one more backward glance to the world reflected in the window behind it. I walked away feeling as if I had done a god deed, indeed….

An hour later, when I came back the same way, I heard that unmistakable shriek. The crow was back on its perch, launching itself up and against the window and dropping down, flapping its wings, pecking at the glass. The next day, when I went back out of curiosity, the crow was at it again, shrieking, flying up and down, and pecking at the glass. Far off, at the other end of the building, a couple of crows were watching. Perhaps they were the same ones as the day before, perhaps not. The stood nearly motionless, keeping their distance.

For some reason, maybe because lately my own ideas about art have been flapping around, like that crow’s bedraggled wings against the glass, I thought of William Butler Yeats, the poet, who had said that “out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.”

The crow, in such a deep quarrel with itself, was not making poetry, obviously. But it was making me think about the nature of quarrels, especially those that we have with ourselves. For the majority of us, the quarrel with oneself will never give rise to poetry. For the majority of that majority, those “selfie” squabbles will end up settled in therapy or AA meetings, or in the copious consumption of volumes of self-help books.

For the minority of self-debaters that fall into the poet category, a quarrel with oneself may well be a welcome boost out of the mud of prose. But for a few, though still numerous if you care to acknowledge them, like for that crow at Bon Air, the sudden lift in the heated drafts of squabbles with oneself will always run up against a window in which the reflection of endless horizons remains tantalizing.

For them, the quarrel with the self will go on in repetitive patterns and rhythms, but these patterns will not be that of the lyric lifting the sorrows of self into a receptive world. Instead, these quarrels will remain the confines of a madness in which the world is bound by the angle of reflections in a window against which reason flaps. Whistles, jangling of keys, and other forms of attempted rescues, useless, as we watch, whether from a distance, like those other crows did, or up close, but inexplicably separated the glass of lucidity from which we keep looking out and through which the afflicted cannot see in.

Crow on balcony ledge at Bon Air Shopping Center in Greenbrae

tracks

Margit Bridge, Budapest
Margit Bridge, Budapest

I saw an old woman on the tram in Budapest the other day. By old, I mean perhaps in her late seventies. She was beautiful. Though she must have been so already when young, age seemed to have deepened her beauty in a way youth’s freshness can’t match. I’ve seen other women here in Budapest who were as beautiful and as old as this woman was. Not a single one of these women seemed to care about her age in that awkward way in which the anxious composure of women of a certain age in Marin shows their concern about the inevitable passing of time, if one is lucky to survive into old age. Not one of these women in Hungary looked to me to have had cosmetic surgery, and not all of them even bothered to color their hair.

*

A few days ago, I was on my way to attend an inaugural lecture at the Hungarian Academy by George Szirtes, the English poet, born in Hungary, whom I “know” from his Twitter poetry, as well as some of his books I have read some time ago. Along the way, I was remembering my days in Budapest as a young girl with big hopes for a literary future. Poetry back then was a sideline, with my main ambition clamoring for the stage, but not as an actor. I wanted to be the one to put the words in the mouths of actors, to determine the course of action, that is, to write the play.

As I rode on the tram on the way to see George Szirtes, I tried as much as I could in my mind, to pick up those lost threads of my teenage life here, so frayed now by so many decades of absence, trying to imagine what my life would have been like, had I stayed here. I remembered being 17 and hanging out with a few older friends who attended university. One of them lived in a room in what my memory brings up now as a garret, filled with books, the kind of place I imagined I would have some day. It would have been a different life from the one I have in California, that is for sure. As for any feelings about either, I had none, since these are facts now.

Listening to George Szirtes talk about language, poetry, and translation, I wondered what kind of writer would I have become, had I stayed in Hungary. As it is, all my published poetry has been written in English, informed by a different sensibility. Would I have written those plays, or would the curtain have gone down on my ambitions with the passing of years here too?

*

On the tram again… when I got on, wearing my running shoes, which I use actually for running, not just dressing as a tourist, a young girl tapped me on the shoulder as I stood there. She offered me her seat, like the young people were taught a long time ago here to respect the elderly. So it has come to this, while I am dreaming of picking up the threads of my Hungarian self, that 17-year-old girl of yore, the woman I am now, with my hair obviously showing lots of grey, 17-year-olds are seeing me closer to 71, probably, given the skewed perspective of the young on the old.

*

My mother aged considerably since I last saw her here in Budapest. The Budapest that in my mind was so much her place, with its territory mapped by her personality. With this trip, I am finding that as she is diminishing in so many ways, Budapest is opening up for me like never before, as if the pall my mother had cast over this city for me is now lifting ever so slowly. I am discovering this city anew, and am doing so on my own. For decades, every visit I made here had me bringing company. In the early years, back in the days of the old communist regime, I might have been afflicted with a case of survivor guilt. As if I had escaped the hard years and if people knew how easy my life was, they would hold me back, close the borders, and take away even my memory of my sunny North American life. Oddly, many of those earlier visits took place at times of year when trees were bare, skies were grey, the air thick with smog, and all around rain-washed gloom hung like a noose.

More recent visits with my own family, in sunnier times perhaps, were still unsettling, as they had me translating furiously between Hungarian and English, making me lose my footing in both linguistic worlds and leaving me exhausted and nearly wordless in the world of things.

It’s different now, though I can’t quite explain it yet.

clueless in budapest

Gate, Budapest, May 2014
Gate, Budapest, May 2014

I happen to track many aspects of my life, from fitness activities to eating patterns, to random notes about the quality of my sleep. You could call me a conscientious  member in good standing in the “quantified self” movement, which aims for wider and deeper knowledge about the self through numbers. As such, you would think that “tracking” the necessities to make travel easier would be just another simple list of things I would need to tick off in some neatly designed tracking system for it, which, by the way, would also be instructive about my travel habits.

The lists, well, those I made, plenty of them over the weeks before leaving. I even organized these lists in files by what I should pack for clothes and what gadgets I need to take. Those lists got plenty check-marks as I started packed and then took off for the first leg of my journey, to Amsterdam, with my bags laden with the things I assumed were essential.

But my mind, now there is that blank page, which never got populated with the right list for what it means to travel solo. Even to places one has been before. Or worse, places where one has lived, even if briefly so. Which is what happened when I landed in Budapest, with plenty of socks and T-shirts and enough gizmos to outfit a small company, but no map and no memory of the territory. Which I realized on my third day in the city, when I found myself utterly lost on a corner in a maze of streets.

It was fine to get a little lost in Amsterdam the week before. It’s what tourists often do, and I was a tourist for a week, which is the best thing to be, if one is after derailing a few rusty habitual trains of thought. In Amsterdam everything was new, even that sensation of being lost I often think of being analogous to weightlessness. As if, for a moment you are granted a release from the bonds of gravity. But when you experience that lightness in place you have been to a few times before, a place one you have called home for a few years, a place in which you can never be a tourist again, fear drops a weighty anchor in the pit of the stomach.

And, as you stand befuddled at that corner,  your mind,  perhaps a little too toned these years on the finer aspects of self-tracking, sinks into wondering if having arrived to Budapest without a map, be it physical or mental, is a sign of age, or just another symptom of “the” age in which we live now. That is, is this disorientation the beginning of dementia, or just another ordinary phase in our increasing reliance on tethering our minds and imaginations to our mobiles that we let walk and talk and see for us?

jitters

Suitcses_May6_14

As if getting ready for travel weren’t stressful enough, I seem to want to pack a lot more than just those (probably way too many) changes of clothes and the absolute (ha, there’s a relative term in this case, if ever there was one) necessities. For some reason, my ego has been loading on a bunch of “shoulds” on me, and in a way in which it actually has the nerve to suggest that these “shoulds” would make my journey so much easier. For that ego, set in the stone of old habits as it is, those “shoulds” will make the trip a breeze, I suppose, given how in its vocabulary “easier” means pretty much the same thing as “predictable.”

The list of “shoulds” includes working out on a regular schedule according to a plan that has no room for deviation either by will or circumstance. Eating a limited diet, meaning nothing but a bit of bland food. Knowing how to pack only what is needed, or rather, making what is packed the extent of needs, regardless of circumstances.

Sure, I would love to be the kind of traveler for whom travel is just another appointment on the agenda. An agenda that is both natural and source of pleasure in the way in which binds one to one thing at a time, then pulls, without a tug, unto the next thing. I would also love to get up and run, or bike, or do the perfect yoga poses for keeping my body in a shape of its own, without getting bent out of it by the exigencies of travel these days. To meditate myself straight into a blissful state of calm in my own quiet bubble in the hubbub of those airport hubs.

I am not that kind of traveler. I will sweat the packing, even having started on it days ago, for a change. I will probably unpack and repack the suitcase a few more times before tomorrow morning. I will agonize over which electronic gadget to leave behind. I will check and re-check my travel documents more than a couple of times. I will even pack for the Cloud, organizing those files to which I’ll need access along the way.

And just to spite my ego, I might even don my running shoes this afternoon and go for a run, for as far and as long, and as fast as it will feel good, which may not be to the ego’s plan, but whether I run or not, I should trust that it will all go according to plan.

The irony is that my travel plans include a stop in Amsterdam for the Quantified Self Global Conference, where I will do a “Show&Tell” presentation on some of the self-tracking I have been doing over the years. The Quantified selfers aim for knowledge through numbers. These pre-travel jitters resist the lure of numbers, opting for the full force of quality in the still uncharted realms of my experiences. Oh well, I am sure to find an app soon for making a measure out of their meddlesomeness. Meanwhile back to packing. And the unsettling company of those jitters….

land’s end

View from the Beach Chalet, San Francisco
View from the Beach Chalet, San Francisco

One day last week, by chance, or rather by the accidental traffic backup on US 280, the spouse and I decided to take the Great Highway route back to the Golden Gate Bridge from the airport. It was nearly lunchtime when I spotted the Beach Chalet, all spiffy and bright, even in the dulling wash of fog, thinned as it was, but still hanging around the beach here and there.

The last time I saw that building, seems to me, it was falling into disrepair. Which means that the last time I was around the building in a sense to remember it had to be before 1997, as according to both the Beach Chalet‘s website and that of the Golden Gate Park Visitor’s Center, the place was renovated with the upstairs transformed into a restaurant and brewpub in 1997.

As we entered the building, which apparently was the last built design of Willis Polk, I was amazed at the richness of the WPA frescoes that were the creation of Lucien Labaudt back in the 1930s. Maybe if my pride at never playing tourist on my home turf would have been a little less, I could have easily nodded my head in recognition of the mural’s qualities as of the same warp of work and woof of vision that is the fabric of the murals in Coit Tower, which I have never seen inside.

Since we arrived just as the restaurant was opening for lunch, we got our pick of tables by the windows that framed a mural of a different sort: that of the beach dotted with zigzagging people and dogs and the ocean at the edge in perpetual motion. In the middling light of that day, between bites of my salad I kept looking out to the Pacific and found myself remembering other times at this shore. The lunch I ate was nothing like Proust’s madeleine, but the taste of memory was just as bittersweet.

I remembered how I used to look out from these shores a long time ago and how my eyes, but instruments of my imagination, let me see all the way to the other side of the Pacific, which is just a fancy way of saying that back then I could see other ways of living waiting for me in the still-vast ocean of a future. Back then the waves came with news of elsewhere, depositing possibilities, opportunities, adventures and such right at my feet.

I realized, as I kept staring at the shoreline from the restaurant’s huge arched window that what I was seeing now was the waves gnawing away at the sandy shore gingerly, as if they had long lost the power in their bite or even their appetite. These were not the waves with news of other shores; here in my view, the water lapped aimlessly, over and over, at land’s end.

Perhaps my vision was clouded not just by the gossamer fog on the horizon, but also by a set of circumstances that came suddenly like a wave, then seemed to retreat with the same swiftness back into the deep seas so out my reach, even that of my imagination, these days.

Or, perhaps, this kind of shift in shore and sea comes with the territory of aging and is as natural as, well, that actual shifting of the lines between shores and seas.

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