BACK TO WHERE I ONCE BELONGED

gaetan-pautler-707

The Golden Gate Bridge

I used to belong in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’ve gone to college here, given birth to three children, rented, bought and sold houses in a large swath of the East Bay: Berkeley, Oakland, Kensington and Alameda. And now, after 21 years in New England, returned to where I once belonged.

New England in 1996 was a culture shock. In our small Connecticut town, I learned that many families had occupied the same land for more than one hundred years and that a five-minute wait at a traffic light was a traffic jam. Children addressed adults as “Mrs.” or “Mr.” No one referred to men as “dudes.” When someone said “Let’s get together,” they meant it and “reserved” doesn’t mean “unfriendly.”  I really love New England, a place where I came to belong.

Now we are back in the Bay Area for most of the time. There have been a lot of changes. The traffic is dreadful; the housing prices are ridiculous. I’m not used to constant ambient noise. On the other hand, I love the friendliness. People talk to you in line at the grocery store! Everywhere you turn there is diversity of all sorts. Our Asian letter carrier has a southern accent. The project manager for our new house was born in Afghanistan. I can’t get over how people dress. It was 75 degrees last week and people were walking around in sweaters. Looking out the window while drinking coffee at a local spot, I was startled when a rather large woman in a wheel chair cruised by in a Santa Claus suit, complete with fur-edged hat.

It is going to take a while to get used to this new environment, though obviously there is no need to worry about dressing appropriately. I’ll take you along on this adventure as I learn to belong in an old new place.

X  X  X

 

Photo by Gaetan Pautler via unsplash.com

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MOTELS, MOOSE AND MOON SHADOWS

A MALE MOOSE

MOOSE

Last Friday I embarked on a real adventure—viewing the total eclipse–with part of my family: Bill, my daughter Sara and the fabulous Kamiko, our granddaughter. Here are a few impressions.

THE SURPRISES OF ELKO
We spent the first night in Elko, Nevada, a city that is roughly halfway between Oakland, California and Jackson Hole, Wyoming (from where we hope to get a good view of from the “Path of Totality”). Elko may not be known as a destination spot but we enjoyed it. We stayed at the Best Western. For Kamiko, this motel with its free, fresh cookies in the lobby and indoor swimming pool, this was the height of luxury. Forget the Taj or the Four Seasons! It’s the Elko Best Western or nothing! [In our photographic travels we have stayed at several levels of accommodation, from the Yak and Yeti in Katmandu (very nice) to the Everest Base Camp lodgings in Tibet (no heat, no plumbing, a thermos of hot water and two metal bowls—you decide what to use them for).]

We arrived at dinner time, resigned to some dreadful pizza joint on Business 80. However, the hotel provided a list of local restaurants and that’s where we really lucked out. The Fresh Fare Bistro and Pub was only six minutes away and it lived up to its name. The food was fresh and interesting. The beers and ales were good, according to Bill. The house white wine was delicious, according to me. So if you’re ever anywhere near Elko, Nevada, stop and stay a while. We have already made reservations for our journey back home.

MOOSE IN THE WILD AND AT HOME
I have always wanted to see a moose in the wild. I’ve seen a couple standing beside New Hampshire freeways, contemplating destruction of either themselves or a passing car, but I’ve yet to see one moosing around. All that changed today. We spent an hour admiring a moose feeding in a pond (Moose Pond, actually). It’s a messy process involving lots of clumps of aquatic weeds, dripping water and giant moose head-shaking. Then when we got back to our friends’ condo, we noticed a group of people standing around a clump of trees—some with cameras, others with glasses of wine—watching two young male mooses stripping the leaves off the compound’s bushes. The larger of the two stared us down a couple of times and then resumed eating. Impossible to count him as a wild moose.

THE MOON ‘S SHADOW
The only thing I have ever known about a moon shadow is from Cat Stevens’ song. It has a lovely tune but the lyrics are not informative. Now, with all the news about the eclipse everywhere, I have discovered an odd and moving essay by Annie Dillard with a thrilling description of the moon’s shadow. You can read it at the Atlantic Monthly’s site here. It’s unforgettable.

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ON THE ROAD WITH BILL AND JIM, PART II

For the second week, we have a “Guest Blogger,” my spouse, Bill Popik. He and Jim Martin–our friend, photography guru and sometime-photo trip guide—embarked on a cross-country trip to photograph parts of the northern United States. This is Bill’s next installment.

Suspension Bridge

Mackinac Bridge,
Michigan

MICHIGAN

After leaving Detroit, we headed north for Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, or “UP.” For those who have never been there, the UP is that portion of the state on the northern side of the Mackinac Straits, the site of the confluence of two Great Lakes—Michigan and Huron. To get there, one crosses the Mackinac Bridge. In the Upper Peninsula, everyone is friendly. You’ve heard the term “Minnesota nice”—the same ethic exists in the Michigan countryside.

 

Minnesota city

Duluth, Minnesota

MINNESOTA

Our plan was to stay on Lake Superior but all the lodgings were full, so we headed for Duluth. What a great move that was. Duluth is incredible! Its early history was trapping and trading with the Indians. That gave way to mining, lumbering and later steel production. The opening of the Soo Locks allowed the passage of ships from the Atlantic all the way to Duluth, a distance of 2500 miles. That enabled shipping goods into and out of the mid-point of the country. In the 20th century, Duluth became the busiest port by tonnage in the United States.

storefront

Repurposed building.

The city’s decline started in the 1950’s when the iron mines petered out. It continued into the 1990’s, when the city realized that tourism could play a major part in its future. With that guidepost, the city began a transformation into a vibrant and exciting place. (If you are interested in learning more about Duluth, check out James Fallows’ American Futures Project. Duluth is one of the cities highlighted there). Old buildings have been renovated and house shops. There is a thriving arts community. The shore of Lake Superior has bike paths and boardwalks. It’s a city made for being outside when the weather permits.

Duluth Memorial

Memorial to slain African Americans

There are restaurants everywhere. We had breakfast at Uncle Loui’s, a highly recommended short order joint where the pancake is as large as the plate it’s served on. We walked around several downtown blocks and at Second Ave and First St. came across a memorial to three innocent black men who were accused of raping a white girl and were lynched. This is a city that does not try to bury the sins of its past but honors the memory of those who were unjustly slain.

Mississippi

Headwaters of the Mississippi River

It was a perfect short stay with one exception. We wanted to get our picture taken with Senator Al Franken at his Duluth office. I was even willing to pose next to a cardboard cutout but instead we pressed on. A few hours from Duluth, we crossed a small river with small boats parked along the banks. It was the headwater of the Mississippi. We took pictures just as a rain storm started. Onward to Grand Forks, North Dakota.

 

 

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ON THE ROAD WITH BILL AND JIM, Part 1

For the next three weeks, we have a “Guest Blogger,” my spouse, Bill Popik. He and Jim Martin–our friend, photography guru and sometime-photo trip guide—have embarked on a cross-country trip to photograph parts of the northern United States. This is Bill’s first installment.

Niagara Falls

Horseshoe Falls

Saturday morning we shot Niagara Falls. Despite both the American and Canadian sides Niagara’s two towns being  gaudy tourist traps, the beauty of the Falls didn’t disappoint. With the constantly changing light patterns caused by the rising sun and the shifting mists due to the falls’ self-generated winds, we took lots of pictures.

After that we headed west on Canadian roads, bound for Detroit. Much of that city is either abandoned or razed. This is exactly what we came for. We wanted to see a heavily hit rust belt city. The choice was either Detroit or Flint. The decision was made by the fact that Jim found a photo tour in which we could shoot inside abandoned buildings.

Our tour began early Sunday morning. Our guide, Jessie, was an aircraft mechanic who lost his job years ago and went in a few new directions. He is incredibly optimistic about Detroit, believing that the city has already hit the bottom and is rebounding; to him, there are a myriad of possibilities and a limitless upside. He has an entrepreneurial spirit and is making a living inside the worlds of photography and real estate. Real estate is incredibly cheap in Detroit, especially if you’re interested in buying a vacant lot or an abandoned house. Jessie has done both.

Our photo tour showed some of the darker side of Detroit. We photographed three abandoned buildings. Though they look like they had been abandoned 50 years ago, each was shuttered around 2010, leaving them vulnerable to the “scrapers” who are primarily interested in stealing and selling anything of value, primarily metal. Copper is referred to a “Detroit gold.”

We photographed :

1: A school that was once in a middle class neighborhood (attended by Lily Tomlin!). When it was closed, the intent of the board of education was to keep the school in operable condition. However, once the scrapers took over, the school was unusable within a year.

Abandoned school

Former classroom

2.: A church, originally Catholic and later Baptist. Notice that the harp of the grand piano has been removed for scrap

Church interior

Interior of abandoned church.

3: The Fisher Body plant of General Motors. This six story, 300,000 square foot building is now owned by the City of Detroit, and can be bought for $500,000. The work of graffiti artists is everywhere.

Closed factory

Fisher Body Plant, Detroit 2017

Next we head north to the “UP,” the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Once there, we’ll turn west toward Duluth.

Text and photos by William C. Popik, M.D.

 

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LEMON TREE, JONATHAN SWAN & DEATH OF READING

SHE LIVES!

Lemon Tree
Of all the blogs I’ve written, I get the most questions about the fate of the Meyer Lemon tree I decided to kill last year. Though I had planned to do away with it, what with all its health problems, I pruned it down to nothing and it surprised me by reviving, sprouting healthy-colored leaves and thus giving itself another chance. I am happy to inform you interested readers that I smuggled the little tree into California and it is now planted in a sunny spot by our front steps. I hope this will be a happy ending to our troubled relationship.

Jonathan Swan
I cannot seem to tear myself away from political news. It’s fascinating, even when the news is depressing. Recently I have become aware of an occasional “talking head” on the news named Jonathan Swan, national political reporter for Axios. Swan is thoughtful guy of considered opinions but what I like most is that he can’t seem to stifle his infectious giggle at the absurdity of our national politics. It’s refreshing.

The Death of Reading
Lately I haven’t been reading as many books as I used to. In addition, my attention span seems to have packed its bags and headed for unknown destinations. I am not alone. Last week, Philip Yancey wrote that “The death of reading is threatening the soul” in The Washington Post. It is well worth reading. My favorite part:

“When I read an online article from the Atlantic or the New Yorker, after a few paragraphs I glance over at the slide bar to judge the article’s length. My mind strays….and I glance at the bottom of the screen and scan the teasers for more engaging tidbits: 30 Amish Facts That’ll Make your Skin Crawl, Top 10 Celebrity Wardrobe Malfunctions..A dozen or more clicks later I have lost interest in the original article.

Have a good week.

 

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ROMANCE AND MY GARDEN

Joe Pye is always late to the party.

Joe Pye is the tall, handsome one in the back.

I tend to romanticize my garden during the winter. In February, looking out my window at the snow, icicles and gray, leafless trees, I dream of my Marion garden with its beautiful Dogwood, Peonies and faithful perennials. I picture myself in attractive garden apparel, basket in one hand and shears in the other, tripping along the walkways snipping day lilies that have passed their prime, occasionally interrupted by oohs and ahs from passersby.

That was then; this is now. It’s hot. It’s sticky. There are ticks carrying dangerous diseases. I have to dress in Hazmat attire just to pull up weeds. It gets worse. Despite all my precautions, one morning last week I found a tick nestled behind my left ear. Luckily, it was a Wood Tick, not a carrier of Lyme Disease, Babesiosis and worse. But forget about day lilies; it’s the weeding that never ends. Thanks to the humidity and frequent rainstorms, weeds run rampant in ways that prized blooms never will. I was once told that painting the Golden Gate Bridges is an endless job: start at one end, paint to the other, and by the time that’s done it’s time to circle back to the start and begin again. It’s the same with weeds. Two weeks ago the vegetable garden looked great when I had finished weeding. Today I went outside to see how the zucchini was coming along and could barely find it among all the weeds.

There’s more. It’s late July now and the flowers that have started blooming are the ones that herald the approaching winter. My favorite is Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum). I don’t know who Joe was but I was drawn to his tall, dark and handsome lavender blossoms when we first moved to New England. Eventually I noticed that Joe Pye makes his appearance as summer is waning. I guess the garden is a metaphor for life: beauty is transient, it pays to be persistent, and sometimes the ones we like best–like Joe–arrive late to the party.

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L. Thon C’est Bon!

Our friends, Larry and Joy Thon

Larry and Joy Thon

Our friend Larry Thon died last week. He was killed when a tree fell on him during a severe storm while he was sleeping in his bed. Larry always said that he hoped to die by going to sleep one night and not waking up in the morning. He got his wish, though in an unexpected way and entirely too soon. It is ironic that Larry, a Marine, Vietnam War veteran and cross-country cyclist who came through so many dangerous situations unscathed, was taken out by a Beech tree.

Bill and I met Joy and Larry Thon on a National Geographic journey to the Galapagos Islands. We connected early in the two-week trip and quickly became friends. One of my sweetest memories of that time was Larry and Joy helping me snorkel. While I know how to snorkel, in the past decade I have become afraid of water–but what would a trip to the Galapagos be without exploring underwater? When they discovered my fear, Larry gave me his right arm and Joy her left, and by hanging on between the two of them, I felt completely safe snorkeling and had a great undersea adventure.

There were other travels together: Egypt, Jordan, Patagonia, Peru, Argentina, the Chilean wine country, Cornwall, Normandy and more. Larry planned many of those trips in every detail, including reservations at the best restaurants in each area. He was very clear on what he did and didn’t like. He liked visiting battlefields; he didn’t enjoy yarn stores. (Nobody’s perfect.) He liked to keep moving. He was a good traveler—no whining allowed. And Joy is the perfect name for Larry’s wonderful wife. We had a lot of happy times together.

One of Larry’s favorite stories involved a trip to France in his twenties. He passed a small grocery store with a poster advertising a certain canned fish: “Le Thon, C’est Bon!” The proprietors were puzzled by the young man posing for a photo in their store until he pulled out his passport and showed them that his name in French was, indeed, “Larry Tuna.”

Bon Voyage, dear friend.

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A PERFECT DAY, PART II

A Summer Dinner

Clams with Linguica

In September 2015, I wrote here about “A Perfect Day.” The conclusion was that a perfect day would include remembering to appreciate life’s special moments. Today was one of those days full of happiness. My niece Angela and her boyfriend Nick are spending a long weekend with us. The weather is beautiful; digging for quahogs at low tide was fun and the subsequent dinner of Clams with Linguica we all prepared together was fantastic.

My plan for today’s blog was to write about this, another perfect day. Then life intervened. I got one of those phone messages no one wants: “Alexis and Bill, please call me” from a friend who, along with her husband, has been a traveling companion on many adventures in foreign lands. Her news was terrible. Two nights ago her husband was killed in a horrific storm when a large tree fell on the room in which he was sleeping. She was in another part of their small cottage and was unharmed.

I rejoined the family for dinner and we talked about our friend, his life and death, and what his wife must be going through. Then we got a second “Please call me message,” this time from one of my sisters. She passed along the news that our sister-in-law had been seriously injured in a biking accident. We have subsequently learned that she will be okay but will need surgery and time to return to her normal self. The perfect day turned out to be not perfect at all. On the other hand, it was real life. And as before, it was a reminder to appreciate what we have.

Photo by William C. Popik, M.D. (who else?)

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GARDENING IN A SPACE SUIT

Deer tick

This is how tiny deer ticks are.  This is also not my fingernail.

My favorite summer pastime is gardening. After the long New England winter, those little buds that peep out of their greenery in June are like old friends I have missed more than I can say. As in all good stories, however, there is a snake in the garden—well, not really a snake—a tick in the garden (and on hiking trails, in the lawn, in your pet’s hair and on the thousands of resident deer).

In 2017, after a mild winter, ticks are even more abundant and now are carrying far more dangerous illnesses than Lyme Disease. A few years ago, Babesiosis, a tick-borne disease caused by parasites that infect red blood cells, appeared on the south coast of Massachusetts. Babesia infection, even worse than Lyme, can range in severity from asymptomatic to life-threatening. This year an even more serious infection, called Powassan is spreading. According to the CDC, symptoms include fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion, seizures and memory loss. Long-term neurological damage may also occur.

I am taking the Internet experts’ advice and spraying my clothes (long-sleeved shirt, long pants, neck scarf) with Permethrin, wearing socks pulled up over the bottoms of my pant legs, finishing it off with gloves and a hat. I feel ridiculous, not to mention overheated, in my tick-proof outfit. However, there’s always something more extreme. In this case it’s Tick Shield, a get-up designed by two upstate New York dentists whose entire family contracted tick-borne illnesses. It features long sleeves and a hood, with ribbed elastic around the wrists and ankles. Made from a tightly woven, lightweight poplin, it is pale gray with a fluorescent orange band on one leg as a caution mark for joggers. Yes, it does get hot, but we are told that it is tolerable “if other clothing is not worn underneath it.” I can imagine how that would go over in Marion, Massachusetts.

This apparel dilemma reminds me of my parents’ discussion in the 1950’s during the bomb shelter fad. My father tried to convince my mother that our front yard was the only reasonable place to build one. I remember her declaring that she’d rather die in a nuclear war than have a bomb shelter in our front yard. I was thrilled at her bravery and conviction! In a tribute to Mom, I’m sticking with the only slightly miserable anti-tick get-up I’ve assembled and am passing on the space suit in the hopes that the ticks will move on to easier targets.

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CAN YOU GO HOME AGAIN?

I can't go home again.

Not again!

Can a person really “go home again” and what does that mean? Thomas Wolfe’s most famous book title says we can’t. I’m not sure.

This week Bill and I went home again to the San Francisco Bay Area where he was born and where I lived since leaving Stockton to attend the University of California at Berkeley. We haven’t abandoned New England, where I have left a sizable portion of my heart, but it is time to have a California outpost near both our families and our old friends.

After more than 20 years away, California still feels like home in a deep sense that is hard to explain. Despite the physical changes here—all kinds of new construction that make lots of areas unrecognizable—I am always confident that I won’t lose my way. Never mind that this is a foolish illusion; it’s a sense of having belonged in a place for a very long time. When we first moved to Connecticut, I got lost all the time. There were no geographical landmarks to show me the way—no San Francisco Bay, no Golden Gate, no East Bay hills. I remember pulling over to the side of the road somewhere outside of Simsbury to steady my heart rate and remind myself that there was no chance of getting lost in a sketchy neighborhood. The only danger was from a falling branch or a wandering bear. All I could see on all sides were trees. I’d never seen so many trees. It was impossible to see any landmarks at all—until some of the trees eventually became landmarks.

There are changes, though, and they make me wonder where “home” really is. The traffic is awful. The summer is foggy. There is a lot of ambient noise. Just when I think I’m going to hop on the next plane, though, a complete stranger in a checkout line turns to me and discusses the details of her divorce, or the party she’s attending later on, or difficulties with her teenage daughter. This never happens in New England. I’ve gotten used to keeping my mouth shut. But here, I get right back into it and commiserate or even give her advice, pat her on the back and go on my merry way. It’s like being home again.

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