Ben Popik, Age 5

For several years I have been afraid of water and therefore seldom mustered the courage to snorkel, even while wearing a life vest.  When our kids were little, I would sit on the sand of some vacation spot and wave at them as they flippered around, enjoying the beautiful coral reefs.  I saved the drawing above, produced by my son Ben when he was five years old, because I loved the idea that he was afraid and understood that it took courage to dive into a pool for the first time.  He overcame his fear and now is a regular scuba diver in Belize, where he lives.

We visited Ben and his wife, Jo, on their island last week and he suggested that if I could overcome my fear of deep water, scuba diving is much more pleasant than snorkeling. He swore he knew someone who could teach me in four feet of water and keep me calm on a deeper dive.  I took the long, boring on-line course required by PADI (the Professional Association of Dive Instructors), managed to get through the four-feet-of-water part (thank you, Raul Cruz of White Sands Dive Shop) and went on to the open water tests.

Let’s just say that the beginning was a little rough.  I was terrified and could hardly breathe, even though I was still on the boat. I will spare you most of the details, except you should know that in order to become a PADI-Certified Open Water Diver, you need to demonstrate—down there 40-50 feet below the surface—that you can fill your mask with water and then clear it out, take your air-supplying tube out of your mouth, fling it away from your body, then locate it with your right arm and get it back into your mouth.  There were other terrifying maneuvers and with Raul’s calming instruction, I did them.


It’s official!

I’m writing this, not because I expect praise but because it is has been decades since I have felt so proud and confident.  As a little girl, I believed I could do anything I set my mind to (thank you, Mom).  As an adult, it has been much easier to refuse uncomfortable challenges. It took one of my children to push me to act like a grownup.

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Like Me!

I'm grateful you like me.

I’m grateful.

Some things never change.  One of them is the importance of “Likes” on my Facebook author’s page.  If you haven’t already clicked “Like,” I’d be grateful if you would do so.



Time to “Like” me again. I know, I know—it’s ridiculous, but it matters in the wonderful webbie world. Why? Because search engines keep track of these things, so the more popular a site is on the web, the easier it is to find on Google, Yahoo, Chrome and other search engines. Heather Havrilesky’s very funny essay, “How to Contact the Author” in September 8’s New Yorker takes this business of “liking” to its extreme and is definitely worth reading.

Here’s a personal example of why “Likes” are useful: I get an unsolicited weekly report from Facebook about how I’m doing by its system’s standards. Say I acquired a new “Like” last week but none this week. My score will be (in red type) “-100% Likes.” I know this information is (until now) between only the reporting program and me, but it is just as dispiriting as a “sedentary” daily report from Fitbit.

So if you haven’t already, please:
1. Subscribe to this blog and ask a friend, roommate, spouse—anyone–to sign up, too. So far I have resisted signing up my cat, but who knows? CatmanDeux may be subscribers one of these days.
2. “Like” the blog and “Like” my author’s page on Facebook.

And thank you. I’m grateful.

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smoky haze

On a normal day, this view stretches 20 miles to the Bay. This is approximately 1.5 miles.

Living with the daily news of death and destruction from California’s wildfires and looking out our windows on what used to be a view of hills and San Francisco Bay, it is difficult not to be overcome by uneasiness.  Those of us who live in the immediate Bay Area are, at this moment, lucky.  The fires in Paradise and the Los Angeles area are hundreds of miles away.  Everyone, though, knows people who have lost their houses, pets and livelihoods.  I have not met anyone whose loved ones are on the lists of the missing but every day all of us hope that those people turn up.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the air quality index on Friday  was “extremely unhealthy.”  In Sacramento, where my sisters live, it was rated “hazardous.”  In our area most of the schools, from Kindergarten through college, have closed to protect students’ lungs.

smokey haze

From Mt. View Cemetery you can usually see Oakland, San Francisco and Mt. Tamalpais

This horror is not, as the president has claimed, simply a problem created by forest mismanagement. It is much more complicated than that, which you can read about here. California has endured five years of drought that caused more than 100 million trees to die. Try to manage that!  California is not only a place of beaches, palm trees and Yosemite. It has huge unpopulated areas, deserts, and a vast acreage of hills covered by dry yellow grass (from which it got its name:  The Golden State).  The dangerous weather cycle is drought, fire, heavy rainstorms and then mudslides. Droughts are more frequent in California now.  The weather is changing and we haven’t yet had those blessed November rains that would have prevented the current fires.  California is not the only place this is happening. I lived in New England for 20+ years and people there talk about how the weather has changed, too.

I feel too sad and uneasy to launch into a diatribe about global warning, but spare me the idiocy of blaming only forest mismanagement.


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Kitty looking evil

We all have evil thoughts sometimes.

Do you ever have sudden evil thoughts—the kind that make you blink hard and shake your head to drive them away?  I have had evil thoughts all my adult life and whenever I have mentioned one to friends, they deny ever having entertained such fantasies.  Here’s an easy one:  I asked a group of close women friends if they had ever had the urge to shove a pedicurist backwards off her stool and watch  her lie there, astonished, with her legs kicking in the air.  Their responses ranged from one choking on her coffee to another shaking her head in emphatic disapproval. I have had many pedicures over the years and have never even wiggled my toes in a threatening way, but I was surprised that my friends were shocked at the fantasy.

I started thinking about this after reading an article about Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl and several other books and screenplays. The piece caught my eye because it concerned Flynn’s writing about “the dark side of femininity.”  You can read it here, though I warn you that there is a sentence that includes “uses…the evocation of post-recession malaise..to flow into incisive cultural critique, and even employs postmodernist flourishes like metafiction.”  When I reached that whopper of a sentence, my mind wandered to my own “dark side.”

I cannot think of a single violent act I have ever committed except punching my brother in the nose when I was 12 (he was nine, so at that time I had the size advantage).  I have fantasized about driving my car through a crowded intersection (hard blink, shake of the head) but I know I would never do such a thing. I used to hug the wall while carrying my infant son downstairs because I was afraid I would throw him over the bannister. Would I do that?  Of course not.  I believe it was a way to be particularly careful carrying a baby downstairs but when I mentioned to another new mother at the time, she was shocked. I hope, Dear Reader, that you aren’t shocked as well, but just in case, I’m keeping the rest of my “evil thoughts” to myself.  But I’d love to hear about yours–and I promise not to publish them, even if they are shocking.

Photo by Callum Wale via Unsplash.

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enthusiastic, enthusiasm

NOTE:  Last week my friend Darcey sent me this link to Nikki Waller’s article in the Wall Street Journal about exclamation points and, as my friend commented, “how much weight one little symbol holds.”  Here is a blog I wrote on that very subject four years ago.  I have since resumed using exclamation points–judiciously, of course–because I don’t want to seem grumpy.


On Facebook and Twitter, being enthusiastic seems to be very important. There’s no such thing as a comment like “That’s funny.” Instead, the responses are more on the order of “That’s funny!!! LOL!!!”

Here are some comments from my Facebook timeline today:

It’s genius!
Share to Agree!
You will LOVE!
Great pic!!!
Squirrel and cat play together!
Love!!!!! (no kidding—5 exclamation points)

I was taught that it is bad form to use exclamation points in writing. Either I am behind the times (entirely possible) or most users of Facebook and Twitter don’t give a fig about punctuation (also possible). The problem with all this over-punctuation is that while “Congratulations!!!” sounds as if you’re really excited for your Facebook friend, “Congratulations.” sounds forced and grudging, as if you really aren’t happy for the friend and may even be resentful.

A subcategory of Exclamation Enthusiasm is that babies are always “Cute!!!” “Adorable!!!” “So precious!” Let’s face it, not all of those babies look that great, especially when they’ve just been born. Photos of women friends also come in for lavish praise: “Beautiful!” “Lovely lady!” “Gorgeous!!!” I’m glad we all support each other by cheering our friends on, but again, sometimes photos don’t merit such enthusiastic responses.

What is to be done? Nothing. No matter how apt, I can’t see commenting, “Baby Olivia is going to be cute as a button in a few months,” or “You look pretty good for your age.”

But at least we can drop all those exclamation points!!!!!

NOTE: It has been a while since I’ve reminded readers to buy my novel, Kiss Me Over the Garden Gate. It is a very well received exploration of a fictional family’s journey through the ups and downs of living with Bipolar Disorder.
If you haven’t bought a copy, go to the link at the top right of this page. If you have read it and like it, urge a friend to buy it. And thank you. (I’d add an exclamation point but that would be hypocritical.)

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This past weekend my two sisters, my brother and I enjoyed a “siblings’ reunion”  at my brother’s house in the mountains of California. While the idea of a reunion is laughable because we see each other every week or two, it was unusual and interesting to spend three days and nights all together under the same roof.

The four of us

Liz, Chris, Alexis, Mark

Genetics is fascinating. I remember how surprised I was to see my newborn son sleep with one arm in the same weird position my husband finds comfortable. Still, I knew that physical traits, no matter how insignificant, are passed down through the generations.  What is more striking, though, is how similar our family is when it comes to behavior. Domestic habits are good examples. We all make our beds.  Every blessed day.  If I have somehow neglected to make my bed during daylight hours, I make it before I get into it at night.  We all seem to share (in different degrees, of course) a neatness gene.  My brother and I are countertop wipers. We did a lot of hanging around the kitchen and I noticed that all four of us value speed and efficiency over finesse. Our unspoken motto seems to be “Just get it done.”

7 of us in my car

Family Gang


Also included in the reunion: Bill, my spouse; sister-in-law Pam; brother-in-law Steve. And just to complicate family matters, Pam and Steve are cousins (but that’s another story).



If someone had told me when I was 15 that someday my siblings would be among my very best friends, I would not have believed it.  Now I can’t imagine what life would be like without them.


P.S. If you want to read about favorite literary families, Bookstr.com has a list here.

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Airborne soccer ball

Go, Sparkle Cats!                                                                                                  

On Saturday I had the pleasure of watching our little granddaughter run around a soccer field in Alameda, California with her team, the Sparkle Cats.  Although they were outscored by the Lemon Drops (the opposing team), the Sparkle Cats have definitely improved their skills and understanding of the basics of the game.   They no longer hug each other on the field while the game is in progress, as they did in Year 1.  They don’t rearrange their pony tails while the ball is in play (that was Year 2). This year, they actually kick the ball towards the goal and even pass to each other (as a last resort).

Our family has a history with that particular soccer field.  We lived in Alameda from1987 to 1997 and it was on that same field that the Loma Prieta earthquake of October 17, 1989 was strong enough to cause our 8-year-old son and most of his soccer team to fall down while practicing for their upcoming game.  Sixty-three people died and 3,757 were injured in that temblor.  I will never forget walking to Alameda’s bay shore that night with my friend Morella and looking across the water towards where we should have seen the Bay Bridge with San Francisco behind it but instead there was only darkness.  In this place, at this time of year, the temperature, smell of the air and angle of the sun all bring back those memories.


Owl Butterly, Ecuador

On a different note, two of the most memorable images I have brought back from Ecuador are photos of this Owl Butterfly.  Held upside down by the young biologist, the butterfly looks like an owl— something potential predators would avoid.  Even more interesting, when turned on its side (as the butterly would be if resting on a limb or leaf), the left corners of the wings look quite a bit like snake heads.  Not bad, eh?

Owl Butterfly

Owl Butterfly

Have a good week!


Soccer ball photo by Slava Keyzman via Unsplash.

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In case you missed it, 2018 is “The Year of the Bird” and in celebration thereof, NatGeo (i.e., National Geographic) has inaugurated an avian tour in Ecuador.  Dorky as it may sound, my sister Liz and I like birdwatching, so we signed up for NatGeo’s expedition and spent ten days in Ecuadorian rain and cloud forests watching hundreds of that country’s 1,600 species of birds.  Here are a few photos from that trip.

Let me sleep, please.

Hey! Can’t anyone get a good sleep around here?

This bird is a Lyre-tailed Nightjar and, as you can see from his expression, he is not quite ready to wake up and start the day (or, in his case, the night).  This is exactly how I felt most mornings when we rose at 5:00 a.m. so we wouldn’t miss the morning bird activity.


Dawn on the Lagoon at Napo

Our dugout canoe at the Napo Wildlife Center, waiting for us to set out for the day.  Luckily, our guide, Marcelo, and his assistant, Fausto, did all the paddling.

Jungle foliage

The view of the jungle from our dugout canoe.

“Dense” doesn’t begin to describe the ecosystem of the rain forest.  This stretch is on a small stream off the Amazon River in the Yasuni National Park.  Hours after I took this photo we returned by canoe to this area just in time to see a jaguar resting in the bushes.

Liz in canoe

My sister Liz prior to the appearance of the jaguar.

A few days into the trip, we traveled to Antisana Ecological Reserve.  There is a volcano hidden in the clouds behind us.  Of the two or three specks (humans) in this vast landscape, I am the short one.

liz and Juan Carlos

Breakfast al fresco with our biologist/avian expert guide, Juan Carlos.

For more information about this wonderful trip, check out National Geographic’s description HERE.



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From the Archive:

Kale in its uncooked state.

Kale in its uncooked state.

Food Fads come and go. One that has lasted way too long, in my opinion, is kale.The omnipresence of kale reminds me of a scene from Forrest Gump in which Bubba lists the many ways shrimp can be prepared:

“Anyway, like I was sayin’, shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it. Dey’s uh, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There’s pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich. That- that’s about it.”

The same could be said about the many forms kale takes: braised kale, roasted kale, kale chips, kale soup, raw kale, kale frittata—and let’s not forget kale juice. Enough already!

Food fads can help us recall past decades. Who can forget the wine-and-cheese period of the 1970’s? Or the Cajun blackened redfish of the 80’s? (I can almost feel my hair springing into a giant perm.) In the 90’s I made several unsuccessful attempts at baking molten chocolate cake. Since 2010, we’ve seen cupcakes and macarons gain favor as desserts, and comfort food is popular now to, well, comfort us. Even that harkens back to food fads of the 1950’s: mac and cheese, dumplings, slow-cooked stews.

I have another candidate for food oblivion that will have to wait for another time: “gluten-free.” Don’t get me started. I’ll be satisfied for now if the next time I go to a restaurant, kale is not on the menu.

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Pensive monkey

Photo by Paolo Nicolello via Unsplash.

Monkey Mind is a Buddhist term for mental noise.  It’s what can happen when (if you’re lucky) you are having a massage and trying to enjoy the experience.  If you are like I am, focusing on a massage is difficult because there is so much swirling around my brain:  to-do lists, the sound of steps in the hall, the masseuse’s breathing, my itchy nose and–the granddaddy of them all–self-reproach for the inability to relax and enjoy the experience.

A couple of weeks ago I spent a morning meditating with my son and daughter-in-law and 20 of their fellow-Buddhists in a zendo in the Sierra foothills.  The meditation period was divided into four 30-minute segments with 10-minute breaks between each of the sessions.  If your idea of Buddhism is that it is an easy-going sort of practice, scotch that idea immediately.  The sessions are precisely timed, the meditation cushions are set out in a pattern around the room and there is a gong for every segment of the proceedings.

Clearing one’s Monkey Mind is difficult.  To make it easier, many meditators count their breaths.  One breath in, one breath out:  1-1, 2-2, 3-3—up to 10.  I use this system when I go to sleep at night and it works well.  But at the zendo there was so much noise in my fevered brain that I would get up to 23 or more before I reined my thoughts in and went back to one.  The brain noise felt literal:  a marching band of worries, physical discomfort from sitting still, self-recrimination for being unable to concentrate and repressed giggles at the various digestive noises in the room.  When the occasional period of clarity made an appearance, it was exciting (in a calm kind of way, of course).

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