Thursday, November 15, 2018

Living with The 'New Normal' of Wildfire Smoke

On a clear day you can see...Wait, remind me what a clear day is?

View of Twin Peaks from Market and Noe on Nov. 15, 2018. AQI: 188.
The Camp Fire that has devastated large areas of Butte County, California, continues to pump dangerous smoke into the San Francisco Bay Area and much of Northern California—as deadly wildfires continue to blaze in Southern California.

"Over a decade or so, we're going to have more fire, more destructive fire, more billions that will have to be spent on it," California Governor Jerry Brown said back in August. "All that is the new normal that we will have to face."

Wildfires. The new normal. 

Now that this reality has sunk in and I can no longer at least halfway ignore it, I've upped my research efforts, looking for ways to deal with it. When faced with a problem, I tend to research the hell out of it.

Here are some things I've learned that, I hope, may help others living in the new normal of wildfires and smoke. 

The Best Air Purifiers for Home

The Wirecutter, a product review site that The New York Times acquired, recommends the Coway AP-1512HH, which sells for $225 on Amazon. After our friends Bob and Kurt recommended this model, we bought one, liked it, and just ordered two more. 

Consumer Reports didn't test the Coway for some reason. Their pick is the Blueair Blue Pure 211 (receiving a score of 89 out of 100), which sells for $250 on Amazon

Our friends Tempe and Jonathan recommended the Alen BreatheSmart brand, such as this model for larger rooms than the Coway and Blueair cover. It's $658 on Amazon

Seriously. You Should Be Wearing a Mask Outside

I'm surprised by how few people I see on the streets wearing protective face masks. Yes, they make you look dorky. Yes, they're uncomfortable. But at this point, who cares? Especially since the long-term consequences of breathing in wildfire pollution could be serious.

Wired has an eye-opening article on this topic. Among the points it makes: 

"Breathing will start to feel more difficult, and you might get light-headed. Children get hit harder, since they breathe faster than adults...even healthy adults just walking around will start feeling a sting in their eyeballs and at the back of their throats, chest tightness, and the need to cough...Symptoms like these will go away when air quality improves. But breathing in a lot of PM2.5’s can lead to serious long-term health problems."

Important aside: PM2.5 "fine particulates" consist of particles with diameters less than or equal to 2.5 microns in size. When there's a wildfire, the air is full of PM2.5-filled smoke. "PM2.5 is a...serious health concern, since smaller particles can travel more deeply into our lungs and cause more harmful effects," says the Spare the Air website.

Also, it's important not just to wear the mask but to wear it correctly. Here's one video that illustrates how to do it (you can skip the first 40 seconds or so of the 'blah blah blah').

And you should not wear a mask for more than a total of eight hours, SFGate reports.

The Best Mask to Wear

Recommended masks for wildfire smoke are those designated as N95 particulate respirators. This 3M mask ($14 for a box of 10 on Amazon) is what we've been wearing. It's slightly more comfortable than other masks because it has an escape valve for your exhalations, which helps keep the inside of the mask from getting too hot. 

The Best Apps to Track Air Quality Index

In times like this, we need data! I'm constantly checking the current Air Quality Index (AQI) using these apps: 

* The basic iPhone Weather app, which includes the current AQI for each city you track at the bottom of that city's weather data. If you have an Apple Watch, you can select 'AQI' as a complication for certain watch faces—which shows your current location's AQI on the watch.  

* The EPA's SmokeSense app, which is available on iPhones and Android phones for free. Along with your current location's AQI, it also shows all current wildfires on a map—which can look pretty scary. 

* The Fresh Air app is pretty good, too, but costs $1. Below, the reading the app just gave me on San Francisco's air quality—the worst I've seen thus far. 

The Easiest Way to Help Wildfire Victims

Of course, San Francisco Bay Area residents are far luckier than those on the front lines of the wildfires. People have lost homes, businesses, loved ones, and pets, and there's no immediate end in sight.

So what can you do to help? The easiest option is to send a text to 90999. In the message, just type the word REDCROSS to donate $10 to that organization. 

If you'd like to do more, or do something else, Fast Company recently published an article with lots of helpful resources.

How California Wildfire Victims Can Help Themselves

BetterHelp, which offers professional online counseling, is offering free counseling sessions via the internet for three months to anyone affected by the California wildfires. You can sign up online and learn more about how the service works

Living in the 'Smoke Belt'

The Wired article referenced above calls the West Coast and the Great Plains "the new Smoke Belt." 

Translation: If you haven't yet bought at least one air purifier and a box of N95 particulate respirator masks, do it. Now.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Why I Didn't Want to Visit My Mother

During a recent trip to my hometown of Greensboro, N.C., I considered not visiting my mother.

I hadn’t had a good visit with her in more than two years. Why should I expect something different this time? During those visits, ‘Moop’ (as we call her) had been dead asleep. Or if awake, she was ornery. On one occasion, she was downright mean. I’d pat her on the shoulder gently and tell her I loved her; she’d swat my hand away and scowl at me. Making matters worse, her caregiver said she’d been pleasant just before I arrived.

But I knew I couldn’t travel across the country and not at least check in on Moop. So I put on my yellow Piggly-Wiggly T-shirt—which has always elicited a smile from her in the past—and with trepidation, I went to the Arboretum, a memory-care facility where she lives, with husband Nick by my side for support.

Entering the communal area, I saw Emma, one of the caregivers who has tended my mother for years. It was 4:45 p.m., and most of the residents were seated in the dining area, about to have dinner.

“Jimmy!,” Emma called out to me. We walked over and exchanged hugs.

Beside Emma was my mother, her back to us, in her wheelchair. She turned around, as best she could, and smiled. “Heyyyyy,” she said.

“I brought you a happy meal,” I said, showing both Moop and Emma the cup of Coke and the paper bag containing the child-sized hamburger and fries. Emma wheeled Moop to the other side of the room, where we could visit with her away from the other residents, whose blank stares were focused on us.

“Oooh, she’s gonna like that,” Emma said in her thick Jamaican accent.

Emma put Moop’s hamburger on a plate and cut it into four pieces. She brought me a smaller cup to pour the Coke into, so it would be easier for Moop to hold.

Moop smiled and spoke gibberish, as she normally does. She emphasized some unintelligible words with raised eyebrows, a head nod, a smile. I nodded my head, too, to convey I understood her, though I had no idea what she was saying.

I patted her arm gently, noticing how thin and fragile my 99-year-old mother’s body had become. She held out her hand, all bones and deep purple veins. for me to take. When I did, she gave my hand a weak squeeze. I showed her my Piggly Wiggly T-shirt; she smiled.

Alternately, Moop drank from her small cup of Coke and brought a piece of hamburger to her mouth slowly. She chewed in silence for long stretches of time, or at least, it felt like long stretches of time. The world had slowed down; the minutes ticked by. I felt the deep fatigue of so many visits with so many people over the past week and a half.

Across the card table, Nick smiled and blew a subtle kiss to me from time to time, signaling his support.

Moop began to close her eyes as she slowly chewed a bit of hamburger. Was she going to fall asleep? Was she already asleep? At times it was hard to tell. I’d gently touch her shoulder and she’d open her eyes again. After awhile, she stopped smiling and gazed at me vacantly.

Nick and I had arrived nearly two hours earlier, and I was ready—though hesitant—to leave. It had been a good visit. Moop not only recognized me, she was pleasant, even a little affectionate, to me. But she appeared to be winding down, ready to resume what occupied most of her time now: sleep.

Emma and a colleague of hers I’d just met (and whose name I can’t recall) came over to check on us. I gave them a report of how the visit had gone, and that we were about to leave. I leaned over and kissed Moop’s forehead several times.

She perked up and looked directly into my eyes. And then she said something miraculous, something that all of us could clearly understand.

“I love you!”

I told Moop I loved her, too, and kissed her forehead again. Nick looked astonished. Emma put her hand over her heart. Her colleague’s eyes were wide.

“She hardly ever says complete sentences,” Emma remarked.

Suddenly, I didn’t want to leave. What if this would be my final opportunity to enjoy my mother’s company? Shouldn’t I try to stretch this moment for as long as possible?

But the moment had come and gone. It wasn’t long before Moop closed her eyes again. She’d finished her Coke. She’d eaten half her hamburger, which Emma said was more than usual. She’d munched two or three french fries. When Moop opened her eyes again, she looked at me blankly, then closed them.

It was time to go. To linger might be to make the winning gambler’s mistake of continuing to play as the dice grow cold.

I couldn’t bring myself to say goodbye to Moop. So I kissed her once more and simply said, “I’ll see you again.” She nodded but didn’t open her eyes. As Nick and I walked toward the car, I was already wondering how soon I could get back to see her.

Postscript: In recent weeks, several of my sisters have reported equally sweet visits with Moop.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Happy Mother's Day, and It's Off to the Hospital

Among their many, many chores, it seems that mothers are destined to take their kids to an emergency room at least once.

My mother certainly did. In her own words, here's a recounting of Ruth Martin's quick-get-a-doctor moments with my four sisters and me. (I'm quoting from my mother's chapter in a collective family history book published in 1992.)

Nancy (left) and Sandi (right)
"I loved raising my children, but each one of them gave me at least one frightening moment. Sandi once fell down while she was running with a Coke bottle and cut her wrist; we had to take her to the hospital. Another time, Sandi was riding a pony and it took off too fast...and she was smart enough to jump off the pony onto a grassy slope.

"Nancy swallowed a trunk key and we had to take her to the hospital and get her X-rayed. Nancy practically put me in the hospital, too. I got a ruptured disc from carrying her around when she was a chubby baby and had to stay flat on my back for six months.

"Mimi was bitten by a chipmunk and we had to take her to the hospital to get several rabies shots.

"Julia's moment came when she was rocking too hard in a little old woven chair on the screened-in porch. It fell over and she popped her head on the floor.


"And Jim stood up in his high chair one day and fell over, knocking his head on the floor; there went another trip to the hospital."

Me (with drool on my chin)

So, as you wish the woman who gave you birth a 'happy Mother's Day' this Sunday, you might also thank her for taking you to the hospital when you were a kid. I'll bet she'll know exactly what you mean.

My mother, Ruth, as a child

POSTSCRIPT: I did a multimedia version of this post using Adobe's fun new Voice iPad app. Here it is:

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

What We Can Learn From Leslie Jordan

Brace yourselves. I'm about to use a baseball metaphor.

Last Sunday night, we delighted in seeing character actor Leslie Jordan performing Show Pony, a one-man performance about his recent Hollywood adventures. When I wasn't laughing out loud at his breathlessly recounted stories, I couldn't help but admire what he has accomplished.

OK, now the baseball metaphor. As far as traditional Hollywood goes, Leslie Jordan had three 'strikes' against him—and still managed to hit a home run.

Arriving in Los Angeles in 1982 with "dreams as big as the California sky," Leslie's first potential strike was his height. At 4 feet 11 inches, he wasn't exactly of leading-man stature.

Then there was his deep Tennessee accent, which apparently hasn't diminished despite living in Los Angeles for over 30 years. Leslie has the kind of accent you could stick a spoon into and it would stand straight up.

The third potential strike? Leslie Jordan is "the gayest man I know," he says. In his book and stand-up show My Trip Down the Pink Carpet, he shares tales of Hollywood directors trying in vain to "butch" him up, such as the time he played an FBI agent in an early TV role.

When you put the pieces together, Leslie's chances of success seemed dim at best. In 1982, he was already 27, which is bordering on retirement age by Hollywood casting standards. He was diminutive, had a thick Southern accent, and was obviously gay. Was he out of his mind, thinking he could have a movie/TV career?

Absolutely. And being out of his mind clearly worked for him.

Leslie confesses on stage and in his book that when he arrived in Los Angeles, he struggled with religious shame and self-confidence, along with alcohol and drug abuse. Despite the internal struggles and the big odds against him, he worked hard, learned how to showcase and fine-tune his inimitable style, became sober, and eventually won an Emmy (for Will and Grace).

Not surprisingly, Leslie has become a hero to the gay community. I think his amazing life illustrates an important lesson for everyone: That our self-perceived limitations can actually be assets in disguise. All we have to do, as Leslie might say, is to learn how "to work it, y'all."
Left to right: Me, Bob Wheeler, Leslie Jordan, Kurt Kleespies, Nick Parham (March 2014)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Is San Francisco Really the 'New' New York?

San Francisco is undergoing a transformation. I've lived here since 1987, and I've never seen so many buildings under construction. It's as if every empty wedge of space, every former gas station lot is transforming into a mid-rise apartment or condo building with ground-floor retail space. Mid Market, a stretch of Market Street downtown, is finally gentrifying, with the likes of Twitter and other tech companies setting up camp there. Google, Genentech, Apple, LinkedIn, Facebook and other companies shuttle well-paid employees from their hipster, overly priced apartments in the Mission to their jobs down in Silicon Valley.

But trust me: San Francisco is not turning into the 'new' New York, a question posted by New York magazine's March 9th article, "Is San Francisco New York?" (with a gratuitous photo of nudies boarding a Google bus, natch.) And to that, I say 'thank God.'

Don't misunderstand. I love New York. It's the most dynamic, creative, culturally rich, diverse city in America. I feel a jolt of electricity in my veins from the moment I see the Manhattan skyline materialize in an airplane window to the moment that same skyline recedes through the airplane window of my homebound flight.

But in my humble opinion, San Francisco is not the 'new' New York and never will be. Here's why.

1. San Francisco gives me a wide-open feeling I don't get in New York. As I walk around San Francisco, I might gaze for miles away at distant hills, the sparkling blue bay, at other cities and towns across the water. I have a panoramic, almost cinematic view from so many hilltops, it feels like nothing could hold me down or contain me. I feel, for want of a better word, enlarged. When I walk down Manhattan streets, however, I feel dwarfed by the tall buildings, insignificant, contracted, even a bit claustrophobic. You look up, and you see just a sliver of the sky. In San Francisco, the sky is vast and virtually everywhere.

2. San Francisco establishments tend to be less 'exclusive' than New York establishments. In New York, the velvet rope at nightclubs is supposedly meant for crowd control, but really, it's more often than not used for crowd selection, a throwback to the old Studio 54 days. I'm not a nightclubber anymore, but the only time I've seen a velvet rope in San Francisco is at the Clift Hotel, which, not coincidentally, Ian Schrager took over in 2003. Schrager was also co-owner of Studio 54 back in the 1970s.

3. San Francisco is a more livable city. Though the constant fog of August makes me koo-koo, overall, the weather in San Francisco is like perpetual early spring. Compare that to the harsh winters and endlessly muggy summers of New York. Also, because San Francisco is less populous than Manhattan, it has a gentler vibe. Life is just easier here.

4. New York is more diversified in its people, but San Francisco is more diversified in its geography. No doubt, New York is America's most racially and culturally diverse city. San Francisco is fairly diverse, too, but we are in danger of losing some of that diversity, due to all the techies moving in. But there's another kind of diversity worth mentioning. In San Francisco, within 15-30 minutes, you can be walking among redwood trees. Lounging on a dramatically beautiful beach (but most likely not dipping a toe in the ice-cold ocean). Hiking among wildflowers on Mt. Tam.    Exploring Glen Canyon Park, an enormous canyon in the middle of the city. Watching the ships pass beneath the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin Headlands. You don't get that kind of diversity in New York.

5. San Francisco is still one of the country's most tolerant cities. I feel comfortable walking arm-in-arm with Nick through most of San Francisco. By comparison, on our many trips to New York over the years, I've rarely felt comfortable showing obvious signs of affection to my partner. On more than one occasion, young men driving around Manhattan at night looking for trouble have yelled "fag" or worse at us. If we were to answer back, would they jump out of their car and pick a fight? Do they have concealed weapons? I don't want to find out.

6. New Yorkers are better dressed than San Franciscans. In fact, just about any city's population is better dressed than San Francisco. There are exceptions, of course. But in San Francisco, it's common to see someone wear leather chaps to the Opera. Blue jeans and a T-shirt to a classy cabaret nightclub. A hoodie to an elegant restaurant. Or no clothes at all to a public park in the center of the city. It's a by-product of living in a casual, liberal city full of computer coders and tech workers. I don't love the clothing choices, but I love the environment in which people feel free to make those choices.

Ultimately, this is not so much about which city is better than the other. They both have a great deal to offer. It's more about the trend in journalism to say "X" is the new "Y," a la Orange is The New Black, to generate buzz and capture page views. The truth is, San Francisco is not the new New York. San Francisco is a one-of-a-kind place, and if it's the new anything, it's the new San Francisco, as a writer recently noted. I should mention that the writer's article appeared in, of course, The New York Times.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Why Do You Ask So Many Questions?

It was a Christmas Eve, and I was being cross-examined.

I was attending a holiday party at the home of Bob Wheeler and Kurt Kleespies, circa 2008. I was seated on the sofa next to Marie Alaimo, in her late 70s at the time, and she was full of questions for me: "Why do people like Facebook so much?" "What was the difference between Facebook and Twitter?" "When would someone use Facebook and not Twitter?"

Marie asked me how I came to be writing a book, what was it about, and my favorite question, "Who would want to read it?" She laughed, realizing the question didn't come out the way she had meant it.

I answered all of Marie's questions and half-jokingly asked one of my own: "Why do you ask so many questions?"

Marie answered that she had always been interested in what people were doing and what they thought or felt about what they were doing. I'd add that Marie's active mind kept her young and vital, connected to others and engaged in the world around her, especially as Parkinson's disease chipped away at her body and eventually made her home-bound. I suspect Marie was particularly curious about younger generations, as she had many friends who were decades her junior.

I had a 'Marie' moment myself not long ago. I was staying with my nephew, Stafford and his wife Deb near Greensboro, N.C. It was a snowy night, but we decided to brave the weather for a night out at a restaurant. On the way, I peppered Stafford with questions about his work while the kids, Ford and Victoria, fiddled with their Apple handheld devices. I could tell Ford was playing a game. I started questioning him about it, asking what the game was, why did he like it, how was it different from other games? Before long, I was playing the game too (despite the fact that I loathe computer games).

At some point during that car ride, I realized I was doing just what Marie would have done, had she been with us. And so I said a silent "thank you" to Marie, who had passed away two weeks earlier.

There are plenty of anti-aging products on the market, but Marie reminded me that one of the best ways to stay young is to never stop asking questions.

And if there is such a thing as Heaven, I bet Marie is there. And man, does she have a lot of questions to ask.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Surprising Connection Between a Tape Recording and an Indiegogo Campaign

This is the story of an elderly woman's decades-old tape recording and a young woman's Indiegogo campaign.

The story begins with Marie Alaimo, the elderly woman. At a Thanksgiving party about five years ago, Marie, a marvelous woman of Italian heritage and a life force if ever there were one, brought a tape recording of her singing opera. (She'd been asked to bring it.) The recording had been made decades ago. As Marie played the tape, I thought how rich and nuanced her voice was, how she could have been a professional singer.

Marie had, in fact, dreamed of becoming a professional opera singer. But in the end, she didn't pursue it, because her teacher told her she wasn't good enough.

The Thanksgiving party was held at the home of Bob Wheeler and Kurt Kleespies, and Marie was their good friend. (She called them her "kids.") Now let's fast-forward to 2013. Again, we're at Bob and Kurt's, this time for their annual Christmas Eve dinner. Sadly, Marie, in ill health, is unable to attend.

Bob and Kurt's friend Ricardo Pacheco arrives with a surprise guest, Ricardo's co-worker and a lovely young woman in her late 20s. Her name is Adina Dorband.

Adina Dorband
As the evening progresses, there's an announcement: Adina is here to serenade us. She is an aspiring opera singer who will be traveling to Paris in January to audition for a year-long residency program with the Paris Opera. Adina was running an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for her audition trip, and Ricardo had generously supported her by contributing to the campaign. In exchange, Adina, a soprano, delighted the gathering by singing Christmas songs.

Afterwards, I ask Adina if she is nervous about her upcoming audition. Stupid question, I thought to myself; who wouldn't be? Sure, she replies. But she says she feels something much stronger: the need to grab this opportunity now.

"I'm 28," Adina says. "It's now or never. Besides," she adds, in what has become my motto for life, "I'd rather face rejection than have regrets."

It is one of those cosmically profound moments in life, where one thing suddenly connects to another in ways you could never have anticipated, and all you can do is be awed by it. It was as if I could actually see the world turning, time passing, life coming full circle. The dreams of one woman passed silently along to another, each with no knowledge of the other.

Adina's Indiegogo campaign was a success, though I don't yet know the outcome of her audition. As for Marie, she had regrets, and who doesn't? But she lived a long rich life, adored by those of us in her 'true' family in San Francisco, until she passed away Jan. 15, 2014 at 85.

Say what you will about the evils of social media. But I can't help but wonder: What if there had been an Indiegogo when Marie was young? Would she have found the support and encouragement she needed to fulfill her dream?

Marie Alaimo

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Main Thing 'The Sound of Music Live' Lacked, Thankfully

Thursday night's broadcast of The Sound of Music Live lacked something. And it may not be what you think.

The great Rodgers & Hammerstein score wasn't lacking. Yes, the songs are kind of corny and schmaltzy, but they're also joyous, melodious and memorable. (I can't count how many times I've worked "to yeu and yeu and yeu" as an exit line.)

The staging, at least sometimes, didn't lack for economy. I loved how the von Trapps simply walked from their home into the Swastika-decorated concert hall.

The choreography lacked left something to be desired. The performers sometimes moved in circles, stalked each other, or marched up and down the big staircase for no other reason than the choreographer had probably seen one too many "walk and talk" scenes from The West Wing. But the choreography isn't the big thing the show lacked.

Was it Carrie Underwood as Maria that lacked? Yes and no. Of her acting, the charitable thing to say is she has room for improvement. I'd never heard her sing before, however, and now I can see why she won American Idol. Most importantly, Underwood didn't lack big cojones. She dared to take on the challenge of starring in a demanding live TV musical broadcast to millions. I would have cast someone else (Anne Hathaway?). But good for Carrie for stepping up to bat.

The program, at three hours, didn't lack for anticipation and suspense. I'm old enough to fondly remember when "event TV" wasn't simply a sports game, in which participants risk life and limb for our viewing pleasure, or an awards show, in which participants should risk life and limb when their acceptance speeches plod on. Think of the dramatic possibilities. Instead of a big hook creeping up from stage right to yank the talkative award winner off stage, perhaps an Uzi should slowly descend from the ceiling whenever an award recipient thanks her makeup man? Now that's what you call "must-see TV."

No, here's the main ingredient that The Sound of Music Live lacked: Edge. It was three hours free of snark, murder, mayhem and smutty jokes. You know, the type of stuff you see everywhere else on TV and the Internet (which was particularly snarky toward Underwood.)

Being edgy has its purpose when it's done effectively and for a reason. Example: The Blacklist is one of my favorite new programs (thanks Nick!). But does absolutely everything in pop culture today have to "have an edge" to get our attention? ("Um, yeah!," says Miley Cyrus's tongue.)

The only edge The Sound of Music Live had was in making the audience wonder if someone would flub a line or have their wimple set afire by a candle. Nasty Nazis aside, the show was proudly sentimental, a nice counter balance to everything else on nighttime TV.

A steady diet of such sugar as The Sound of Music Live would, of course, put the national glucose level at high risk. Still, I say let's have more "event TV" programs like it in the future. Who knows? Maybe not being edgy will become, well, edgy.

Monday, October 7, 2013

3 Sure-Fire Solutions to the Government Shutdown

The federal government is still partially shut down. Late last week, CNN reported that both the Democrats and Republicans said they're winning the stalemate, which means everyone else is losing. What can be done about it?

Easy. Send the citizens of Boston down to Washington. They'll whip Congress into shape.

Think about it. On a Monday, terrorists bombed the Boston Marathon. By the following Friday, the terrorists had been identified and a city-wide can of whoop-ass had been unleashed on them. So imagine what results we might achieve if we dispatched to Washington a group of 'don't-mess-with-us' Boston citizens and police officers?

If the people of Boston have better things to do, here's another solution to the stalemate: cut off Congress's liquor. Senators and house members are notorious for their love of adult beverages, and reportedly during the shutdown there's been a lot of "Bottoms up!" So let's hold their hootch hostage, and the government will be back up and running faster than John Boehner can kick back a shot of scotch. (The gossip is that Boehner loves his booze.)

Still not enough? Let's get technology and entertainment wizards involved. Project a lifelike hologram of Joan Crawford from Mildred Pierce, entering the House of Representatives and Senate chambers with padded shoulders and a pistol. "Congress, I'm seeing you for the first time, and you're cheap and horrible!," Joan would say. "Now get this country back to work before I kill you!"

Problem solved. Until the next government gridlock/stalemate/shutdown, which should happen in about, oh, 25 minutes.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Why Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine" Haunts Me

I'll never forget Blue Jasmine's final sceneno matter how hard I try.

Woody Allen's latest film is partly set in San Francisco. I've been an enthusiastic Allen admirer since Annie Hall, and I'd been anticipating for months the prospect of seeing what he would do with this city's beautiful scenery and quirky inhabitants.

Adding to my anticipation was the fact that Blue Jasmine is an updated retelling of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, in my opinion one of the 20th century's greatest plays and films. To top it all off, Allen's film stars Cate Blanchett, who will at a minimum receive a much-deserved Academy Award nomination for Blue Jasmine. She may even win the damned thing (though I wouldn't want to go up against Meryl Streep in the upcoming August: Osage County).

Blanchett as Jasmine plays a modern-day Blanche DuBois, a fallen woman (in the financial sense) forced out of her One Percent Manhattan life. With nowhere to go, Jasmine must move in with her lower-class sister in San Francisco's still-sketchy-in-places Mission neighborhood.

The storyline follows Jasmine as she attempts to rebuild her life. Psychologically, however, she's not up to the task. And the Jacqueline Susannesque quantities of Xanax and vodka she swallows aren't helping, either. Though Jasmine is pretentious and self-destructive, I came to care deeply for her. She is one of my favorite Allen heroines to date, and I rooted for her all the way.

Spoiler Alert! Don't Read The Following If You Haven't Seen the Movie

As Jasmine's situation becomes more claustrophobic, with doors and windows closing on her in every direction, I began to fear the worst outcome for her: death. I was wrong. It was worse than that.

Toward the very end, it's clear Jasmine can no longer remain in her sister's apartment, her last refuge. And so, in the final scene, we follow Jasmine as she leaves the apartment, wanders the streets, and eventually plants herself on a park bench. Her hair is stringy and wet, she wears no makeup, though she is wearing one of her last pieces of nice clothing, a Chanel suit jacket. Jasmine is talking to herself in such an unnerving way that a woman seated on the bench gets up and leaves. Cut to black. The end.

That's when the purpose of Blue Jasmine became all too clear. It's a case study of how someone becomes 'a crazy homeless person.' No one has Jasmine's back. She's completely alone, without means, and unable to care for herself. Allen's film suggests to me that any of us could end up like her, whether it's due to a loss of: money, physical health, mental health, family and friends, or youth. And this is why the movie's ending haunts me. The scene doesn't tap into the audience's fear of death, as many of Allen's movies do. It taps into our fear of a living death.

Allen offers some hope, however. Jasmine's downfall was, I think, largely because she wasn't fully present in her own life. She looked the other way at the inconvenient and unpleasant truths happening right in front of her. It's as if Allen is saying that if we're to avoid our own 'living death,' attention must be paid to what's going on both within and around us. Once we do, we have to take the appropriate actions—before it's too late.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

My Father and the Mystery of the Doomed Orange Tree

Dear Dad,

You'll remember this story well, but I feel the need to tell it again today.

At the Stuckey's in Danville, Va., I spotted the miniature orange tree that I knew I must have. It was maybe six inches tall and lived in a white cardboard box with cellophane windows. I marveled at its compactness. How could an orange tree be so tiny?, I wondered. The fact that I loved oranges, that they hinted of exotic lands, made this 10-year-old's boy desire even stronger.

I went searching for you, hoping to convince you that I couldn't possible continue existing without that mini orange tree. We were making our usual pit stop at the Stuckey's halfway between Greensboro, where we lived, and Roanoke, where you were from. During this period, I'd ride up to Roanoke frequently with you. Your father, Daddy Jimmy, had recently passed away, and you, being his only immediate survivor, would go up on weekends to settle his estate.

I went along for the ride for several reasons. First, it got me out of Greensboro. Second, I loved Roanoke, loved Daddy Jimmy's big old house there.

There were other reasons, too, Dad, that weren't evident to me then. I deeply missed my grandfather. He was a white-haired, classy, gentle man, and you named me after him, so there had always been a link. And the trips to Roanoke gave you and me quality time alone that never quite happened otherwise.

You worked six days a week, sometimes seven. On your days off, you often loved to fish. It was no secret to you that I loathed it. On the few fishing trips you'd convinced me to go on, I was alternately bored and appalled: bored by waiting endlessly for a fishing line to tighten, appalled at the can of squirming worms into which I was expected to stick my fingers and extract a sacrifice for the fish hook. You also loved to golf. Again, for me, golf = boredom. I'm sorry about that, Dad. But that's just who I was.

Back to Stuckey's. You came in to pay for the gas, and excitedly, I led you to the orange tree. "Isn't that neat?" I said. "Can I have it?" If memory serves, I believe the tree cost $5 or $10—an investment back in the late 1960s.

With your careful photographer's gaze, you studied the Bonzai-ish fruit tree in its box. "I'm sorry, son, but I think it'll just end up dying," you said. "It'll be a waste of money."

"No it won't!," I pleaded. "I'll take care of it. I'll water it!"

"I'm sorry," you repeated gently, and I knew that was that.

A few months later, on my birthday, I awakened and rushed downstairs to see what goodies awaited. There, in the center of the breakfast room table, was the miniature orange tree. You flashed me a sheepish grin. "Happy birthday," you said.

When did you buy it?, I wondered. I hadn't seen you do it during our subsequent Stuckey's stops in Danville, and there was no other Stuckey's close by. And I would've seen you try to sneak the tree into the car. And I'd gone with you on all your other Roanoke trips between the time I coveted the mini citrus tree and my birthday.

You remained mysterious about the orange tree's procurement, which of course drove me nuts. Ultimately, I decided that you drove by yourself to the Stuckey's in Danville, which is about a 45-50 minute ride, specifically to buy the tree. You took time out of your busy work life to buy your son what he wanted for his birthday. I think you did that as a way of saying 'thank you' for accompanying you on all those trips to Roanoke. I couldn't have known this then, but now I know how much you missed your father, and having me there probably gave you a lot of comfort.

And of course, Dad, you were right. I became the little orange tree's unintended executioner. It may have lasted two weeks before browning and collapsing into an exhausted heap. But you never said what many parents would have in that circumstance: "I told you so."

I've bought a few miniature orange trees over the years, perhaps in an effort to show you I could sustain them. Unfortunately, the outcome was always the same: death to the innocent orange tree.

Although my efforts at raising miniature fruit trees have been fruitless, Dad, there are some things I've managed to get right over the years. One of those is, along with my sisters, to take good care of the woman you adored, the woman you were married to for over 50 years, the woman who was never quite the same after you passed away.

You've been gone 20 years now, as of today, Dad. But you've never left me. Just this morning, you came to me in a dream. I was at your funeral, and some man I'd never seen before was giving the eulogy, and I was growing agitated because he clearly didn't know you. I wanted to stand up, move him aside, and talk about the man we were there to mourn.

When I rose to speak, you were suddenly seated beside me in the church pew. You touched my shoulder gently, smiled, and said, "Don't forget to tell them about the little orange tree."

"I will," I said. "And by the way, how did you get that? I've wondered all these years."

You smiled enigmatically and gently waved me toward the pulpit.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Confessions of a Southern-Fried Quasi Vegetarian

In the South, some restaurants still list french fries as a vegetable. This wonderfully creative view of vegetables should come in handy—as I flirt with vegetarianism.

I can imagine the raised-eyebrow reactions the above statement may cause among those who know me (or perhaps even those who read this blog). Yes, I am notorious for my adoration of fried chicken. Fried chicken is what I'd eat the night before my firing squad execution, along with garlic mashed potatoes (with gravy), baby lima beans (one should still have something green on the dinner plate), big buttermilk biscuits dripping with butter that I can use to sop up gravy, and banana pudding for dessert. In fact, I love chicken in almost all its cooked variations. A juicy filet mignon (cooked medium well)? Yes, please. Barbecue pork sandwiches in North Carolina? Nectar of the Gods. I even love the 'pulled pork' sandwiches, which are a reasonably close approximation to Southern barbecue, that are trendy now in San Francisco. Pot roast, coq au vin, and lamb chops, oh my!

Why, then, would I even consider becoming a vegetarian? Last May my overall cholesterol level spiked to 218. I suppose the fried chicken and hamburgers had finally caught up with me.

Since then, I've been modifying my diet and upping my exercise, and I've brought the overall level down to 169. But the other numbers (LDL, HDL, etc.) still aren't where they should be, and I don't want to go on statin drugs.

And so, in advance of my next cholesterol test in late July, I decided to take my efforts to a new level. Nearly every morning, I'm eating steel-cut oatmeal with flax seed and slivered almonds. I'm swallowing handfuls of supplements throughout the day: Metamucil capsules, CholestOff, niacin. I took garlic supplements for a while, until Nick turned to me one night and said, sweetly, that I smelled like a basket of ballpark garlic fries.

And now, the big step. Three days a week, sometimes four, I eat absolutely no chicken, pork, or red meat. (I will eat fish during those days.) The shocker? It's not as difficult as I thought, thanks to MorningStar Farms (I actually love their crispy Chik'n patties), Trader Joe's meatless meatballs, vegetarian lasagna from Whole Foods, tuna fish salads, meatless pizzas, and that classic quick lunch, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (with exotic 'jellies,' such as Pineapple and Mango preserves).

In a few weeks, when I get my next cholesterol check, I'll know if all this has paid off. Even if it doesn't, I've already learned something valuable. I'm not as wedded to my old Southern-by-way-of-San-Francisco diet as I assumed. This old dawg can learn new tricks—and perhaps even prefer them to the old ones. Who knows? I may take this vegetarian thing even further.

In any event, it's comforting to know that french fries are a vegetable.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Failure to Thrive? Not So Fast

This is a story I never thought I'd write: My mother is expected to be released from hospice care soon.

Since hospice began caring for her in early March, Ruth Martin has gained 10 pounds. Though she used to mostly stay in her room at Heritage Greens Arboretum, a memory-care facility in Greensboro, nowadays she is often found in the main 'recreation' room, participating in a game of ball bouncing or checking out the other residents.

Later this week, the oxygen tanks that have cluttered Ruth's room are to be taken away, as her oxygen levels have returned to normal.

Ruth's unexpected revival has astonished and delighted us all—certainly my sisters and I, but also her caregivers. Rarely have they seen someone her age (93), and in her prior condition, bounce back so dramatically.

This turn of events seemed unimaginable. In early 2013, a bad stomach virus, which my mother caught, had circulated through the Arboretum. Management had strongly advised family and other outsiders not to visit, fearful of spreading the virus even further. And so, for several weeks, my sisters (three of whom live nearby) were not able to visit Ruth.

By late February, my mother had grown extremely weak. She began refusing to eat and take her medications. She slept most of the time and when awake, spoke mostly gibberish. The memory-care facility administrator suggested it was time to bring in hospice care, which to me meant that my mother's clock was now ticking—loudly. Her official diagnosis? "Failure to thrive."

And so, on a Monday morning in late February, I decided to make a hasty trip to Greensboro. With Nick's help, I booked a flight at 11 a.m., cancelled my business appointments for the week, showered, packed, and made it onto the plane for its 1:30 p.m departure.

While in Greensboro, I was determined to get my mother to eat. I bought her favorite junk food: McDonald's french fries, doughnuts, Baby Ruth candy bars. She treated them all as if they were something vile. I bought baby food--anything I could think of she might be able to swallow. During my nearly week-long stay, she ate almost nothing, limiting her intake to cranberry juice and some Ensure drinks.
My mother, late February 2013
During the last hour of that visit with Ruth, I knew I had to somehow say goodbye. She dozed off and on as I paced around her small room, wondering what I could say that would have any meaning for her as well as for me. I decided to keep it simple.

"Thank you," I said, and kissed her on the forehead.

She woke up, looked me in the eye, smiled weakly. "Thank you," she replied.

With that, I walked out of my mother's room, convinced I'd just spent my last few minutes with her.
But in the weeks to come, an alternate scenario slowly unfolded. My sisters took turns visiting Ruth every day, reading to her, painting her fingernails, being by her side. The hospice staff visited several times a week. The Arboretum staff gave her extra care. Her doctor took her off several medications and gave her a drug whose side effect is known to increase appetite.

By mid May, the news was so encouraging, I returned to Greensboro. This time, my mother was alert, her blue eyes looking directly into mine in a way I hadn't seen in a while. She smiled and laughed. She let me feed her, but more importantly, she was now feeding herself.

She is still talking in gibberish, still confusing past with present. But she seems happy and content, and she has moments of clarity. The other day, when an unfamiliar Arboretum resident walked past, my mother said to my sister: "Who is that old lady?"

I attribute much of my mother's rebound to my sisters, and of course to Ruth herself—a tough country girl from North Carolina, through and through, whose mother lived to 100 and whose grandmother passed away peacefully at 95. One lesson to take away: Never, under any circumstances, underestimate a Southern woman.

On July 22, Ruth Martin will be 94 years old. I don't know how much time we have left with her. But since late February, every visit, every phone conversation with her has been what they call in New Orleans a lagniappe—a sweet, unexpected gift.

My mother, early July 2013. (Note the Piggly Wiggly T-shirt under her sweatshirt.)