Sunday, October 13, 2019

The 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, a Deadline, and "Beach Blanket Babylon"

We heard it before we felt it: a low, otherworldly moan.

I looked around the fifth floor conference room, quickly searching the faces of the dozen or so people seated around the long table. I was looking for clues; their eyes told me they’d heard it too. But did the sound mean what we thought it meant?

It did.

Within two, maybe three seconds, the shaking began. In the two years I’d lived in California, I’d experienced two similar quivers — one of which awakened me in a Disneyland hotel room, of all places. While those earlier quakes had died down quickly, this one kept rolling and then suddenly gained great force, like a Tropical Depression that sprouted within seconds into a Category 5 hurricane.

I looked into the eyes of the others in the conference room again, and whereas before I’d seen alertness, I now saw alarm. We knew what to do. Get under the table. Move away from windows. Stand in the doorway. The shaking lasted about 15 minutes, it felt; but later, we learned it was only about 15 seconds.

It was 5:04 p.m. on Wednesday, October 17, 1989, and we’d just experienced what would come to be called the Loma Prieta earthquake, 6.9 magnitude on the Richter scale.

Image: San Francisco's Marina District Fire after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake
The Marina district after the 1989 earthquake. Credit: AP
Immediately after those soul-rattling 15 seconds, no one spoke. We just looked at each other, unsure what to say or do. There was no sense of panic. Nothing had fallen from the ceiling; the large plate-glass windows hadn’t cracked; we heard no cries for help. The only thing that had changed was that the overhead lights had gone out. At the moment, the lights were superfluous anyway, as golden sunlight streamed through the windows on what had been a spectacular ‘Indian summer’ San Francisco day.

“Is everyone OK?,” I asked.

“Yes,” someone said. Others nodded their heads in agreement.

Thank God, I thought, because I had a fast-approaching deadline to make.

The Judges Went Back to Judging

The conference room occupants were there because I’d asked them there. I was a features editor at Publish, a magazine focused on desktop publishing — the use of Macs and to a lesser degree PCs to create and publish printed materials. I was in charge of the magazine’s annual desktop publishing awards, and I’d spent months corralling this panel of desktop publishing experts to judge hundreds of entries in dozens of categories. I didn’t know what I’d do if we had to call it off. I panicked, not because of the earthquake, but because I didn’t want anything to prevent me from making my deadline.

“Does everyone want to continue?,” I asked, and then half-heartedly added, “It’s OK if you need to leave.”

No one wanted to leave, or at least, no one said they wanted to leave. After a few minutes, the judges went back to judging. I breathed a sigh of relief.

My Intuition Told Me: Try the Fax Machine

I don’t often trust my intuition, even though it has time and again served me well. This is probably because, like my late mother, I tend to overreact. I imagine the worst-possible scenario, and then, once it’s in my head, it’s all I can think about. But on this afternoon, I relied on my intuition.

I excused myself from the conference room, walked over to my desk, and picked up the phone. As expected, there was no dial tone. The telephone lines were down because the office phone system required power to work, and the power was out.

My next move was to the fax machine. Because it wasn’t part of the office telephone system, my intuition told me its phone line might still be operational. I picked up the receiver and heard a dial tone. I looked around, surprised no one else had thought to do this.

I dialed Nick’s office number multiple times but each time heard an “all circuits are busy” recording. Trying not to worry about him, but not succeeding, the next call I made was to my parents in North Carolina. My mother answered after the third ring.

“Mom, I can’t talk long,” I said. “And I don’t want you and Dad to worry, but we’ve had an earthquake.”

“Oh my God!,” my mother yelped.

“I’m OK, everything’s fine, but it felt like a strong one and the power’s out, and I didn’t want y’all to worry about me if you hear something on the news.”

“I just knew this would happen!,” she said. “I feel like you moved to the moon!”

Two of my co-workers must have overheard me on the fax machine phone, as they were now standing behind me, waiting to use it. “I’ve gotta go,” I said. “I’ll call you back soon. Again, please don’t worry about me, I’m fine.”

I returned to the conference room, where my judges continued to sift through the organized piles of entries. “If anyone needs to use the phone, the fax machine line is working,” I said. No one took me up on the offer.

The Bay Bridge Collapsed!

Minutes later, David, a young editorial assistant, popped his head into the conference room. In one ear, he had an earbud, attached to a portable AM/FM radio.

“The Bay Bridge collapsed!” he informed us.

At this news, two of my judges left to join the line now snaking around the fax machine phone. I asked the others if they wanted to keep working and, God love them, they said yes.

Eventually we could see black smoke billowing on the horizon — we later learned of major fires breaking out in the Marina district. And yet, the judges stayed amazingly focused. Whether it was out of denial or a sense of duty, or both, they worked until they finished. And it was just in time, as the fading sunlight had rendered the conference room too dim to do much of anything but fumble our way out.

A War Zone

I drove home that night through what looked like a war zone. Helicopters chopped the air overhead. Broken glass, everywhere. Traffic lights, not working. Buildings, dark. People ambled about zombie-like, not knowing where to go or what to do.

When I finally arrived at our Glen Park apartment, Nick was already home, having made the treacherous drive from his Santa Clara office some 40 miles south. It took him more than two hours to make what was typically a 45-minute drive.

Nick was relieved to see me but wondered why it had taken me so long to get home, given that my office was in the city? I explained the need to stay with the judges until they finished their work, so I could meet my deadline. “I was so worried about you!,” he said, relieved but also understandably miffed. He described his experience — most notably, witnessing the water slosh out of a fountain as the ground beneath it swayed from side to side.

Unexpected Free Time

In the following days, many people - including Nick and me - stayed home, as city inspectors wouldn’t allow anyone to enter public buildings until they’d been deemed safe. Thus, at a time when few people had laptops or cell phones, and when local phone service was spotty at best, many Bay Area residents were free to spend their days how they pleased. But it seemed no one knew what to do with their unexpected free time. We walked around our neighborhoods in a collective daze, clueless.

Speaking of being clueless. Nick and I had planned to spend the following weekend in Santa Cruz. Given the situation, we cancelled our plans. In our infinite wisdom, we decided that instead of going to Santa Cruz, we’d throw an earthquake survivors’ party for our friends. And where did we have the party? On a high floor in the Westin St. Francis hotel’s tower.

Not surprisingly, the hotel had had many cancellations and practically gave us a suite for pennies on the dollar. Several friends even showed up for our party, though everyone was glued to the walls, in case of aftershocks.

The Ground was Gaslighting Me

And there were aftershocks. Too many to count. The earthquake put everyone on edge and the frequent aftershocks kept us there. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t discern an aftershock from a bus rumbling by outside. Everything seemed to be rattling. Or was it? The ground was gaslighting me.

Early one morning, for instance, I went into the bathroom to pee. I heard, or thought I heard, a gentle tapping sound. I made myself as still and quiet as possible. Was I imagining that sound? What the hell was it? Then I realized: the two sliding glass shower doors were gently tapping together. It was another aftershock. Or was I walking in my sleep? Thirty years later, I’m still not sure.

My Own Private Earthquake

Earthquakes happen because stress builds up underground and must be released. After 10 days of aftershocks, I experienced my own earthquake.

Nick and I decided to watch the televised resumption of the World Series, in which the San Francisco Giants were playing the Oakland As at Candlestick Park. Game three of the series had to be called off on Oct. 17 because of the earthquake, which occurred about 30 minutes before the game.

Ten days later, the World Series was set to resume. Nick and I were at home watching the re-opening ceremonies as Val Diamond, the magnanimous star of the long-running SF musical extravaganza “Beach Blanket Babylon,” came out with other cast members to sing “San Francisco,” the city’s unofficial anthem and the show’s rousing climax. 

San Francisco personality, Val Diamond, of Beach Blanket Babylon
Val Diamond in "Beach Blanket Babylon" Credit: Via magazine

Diamond, as she did in the show known for its outrageous hats, wore an elaborate replica of the city’s skyline on her head. I was riveted as she sang:

San Francisco, open your Golden Gate
You let no stranger wait
Outside your door
San Francisco, here is your wandering one
Saying I’ll wander no more

Maybe it was the fabulous hat that did it. Most likely, it was my love of San Francisco and how this moment represented a perfect expression of my love. Whatever it was, in that moment I experienced my own private earthquake. I burst into tears. After ten days of buildup, the stress had been released, if only for the moment.

From Disaster, Renewal

In 1989, I learned about the upside of disaster: that it paved a path for renewal.

In the years after the Loma Prieta quake, San Francisco blossomed. Ugly freeway overpasses — most notably the one that marred the Embarcadero shoreline — were demolished because they’d become structurally unsound and too impractical to repair. With the overpasses gone, new developments materialized in their place.

The city planted elegant Canary Island palms along the Embarcadero. A new rail line transported passengers up and down the waterfront thoroughfare in vintage trolley cars the city acquired from around the world. The San Francisco Giants built a new ballpark at the foot of the renewed Embarcadero, and just south of it, an entirely new neighborhood (Mission Bay) eventually materialized. You might even indirectly credit the 1989 earthquake for the brand-new Chase Center — home of the Golden State Warriors.

Image result for vintage trolley cars sf embarcadero
The revitalized Embarcadero Credit: SFMTA

Nick and I were lucky. We were uninjured and there was no damage to our apartment, except for a minor crack in the outside hallway ceiling and an old paperback that fell off a high shelf and split into two. Others weren’t so lucky. The earthquake killed about 67 people (reports differ) and caused $6 billion in damages. Though the Bay Bridge didn’t collapse, a section of it did, killing several people. For years after, I could always tell where the collapse had occurred because as I drove over the rumble-strip replacement section, my car, if not my soul, rattled.

I Learned Something Else, Too

Seven years earlier, Adrienne Ivey, a colleague of mine at the Roanoke Rapids Daily Herald, had written a column about me when I was leaving the paper to take a job in Charleston. In it she wrote, and I paraphrase, that I was a delightful person and she’d enjoyed watching me develop into a good reporter and writer, but that I lacked survival skills.

She was half-joking and I didn’t take offense, because there was truth in what she wrote. But in experiencing my first major earthquake — and still meeting my deadline despite it — I knew Adrienne’s assessment of me was no longer accurate.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Two Bumbling Southerners with Big City Dreams

As many times as I’ve seen it, All About Eve never fails to take me back to my first trip with Edward, to New York City for New Year’s Eve, 1980-81.

At the time, we were in our early 20s, terribly naïve, and woefully underfunded. The weather was bitterly cold, windy, snowy off and on. And we had a fabulous time, especially laughing at each other’s social gaffes.

My faux pas occurred in the dressing room of a men’s store in the Village. I ‘d tried on a pair of jeans and, when the snooty young sales assistant asked me how they fit, I asked what I thought was a reasonable question.

“Will they draw up?”

He launched one overly plucked eyebrow into the air like a missile. “I’m sorry?”

Thinking he must have not heard me, I repeated my question, only louder. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Edward a few feet away, rearranging his mouth into a small ‘o’ in an effort not to laugh out loud.

“What are you trying to ask me?” the sales clerk demanded to know.

Finally, I realized the problem. This Yankee didn’t speak Southern. So I translated my original question into, “Will the jeans shrink when I wash them?” To compound my humiliation, the clerk sighed and pointed to a label on the outside of the jeans: “Pre-shrunk.”

In my peripheral vision, I could see Edward’s right hand race to make an emergency landing over his mouth, to stifle a guffaw. It was a struggle for me to politely hand the jeans back to the haughty clerk and walk calmly out of the store with Edward. Once outside, we hooted and howled, leaning against each other, barely able to walk.

Bergdorf’s Doesn’t Have a Roadkill Section

Edward’s turn came when he insisted on visiting the Bergdorf Goodman fur department.

The department, which at the time was the store’s largest, was as quiet as a church sanctuary. Not knowing what to do, I stood more or less still, watching Edward reverently inspect and finger the garments, as if he had done this before, which of course, he never had.

A young male sales clerk — practically the twin to the arched-eyebrow edition in the Village — approached me. I barely breathed, fearful of committing another faux pas.

“May I help you?” he wondered.

“No thank you,” I replied, mischievously adding that my companion could use some assistance. I pointed to Edward, who was out of hearing range. The all-black-wearing sales associate smiled wearily and aimed himself in the direction of the unsuspecting Edward. I followed, to eavesdrop upon the exchange.

“Good afternoon,” the sales clerk began. “Which type of fur are you interested in?”

The question took Edward by surprise. I could see the thought bubbles popping over his head. After a brief hesitation, he responded, in his best attempt at a refined accent, “Do you have anything in…varmint?”

I could not believe my ears. Nor, apparently, could the stunned sales clerk. He thought for a second. “Could you possibly mean marmot?”

Edward’s face paled. “I’m so sorry, yes, that’s what I meant. Marmot.”

The clerk happily flashed a condescending smile. “I’m afraid Bergdorf Goodman doesn’t carry marmot.”

“What were you thinking?,” I asked Edward once we’d escaped the fur salon. “Why did you ask for varmint? Did you expect Bergdorf’s fur department to have a roadkill section?”

“I couldn’t think!” Edward replied. “I was so…intimidated!”

Between us, the response became infamous. Over the years to come, when one of us would commit a gaffe, the other would sometimes say that “Bergdorf Goodman doesn’t carry varmint” or simply, “varmint.”

All About Eve and Big City Dreams

The next afternoon would be our last before heading back to North Carolina: Edward to Charlotte, me to Greensboro. A fresh snowfall slowed Manhattan traffic but not much else. I’d discovered in the newspaper that there was a Marilyn Monroe film festival happening at Carnegie Hall Cinema. The double feature that afternoon/early evening was All About Eve, in which Marilyn had a minor but memorable role as an ambitious starlet, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, one of her first big starring successes.

I’d never seen Eve but knew its stellar reputation, so I suggested to Edward that we go. Eagerly, he agreed.

On that late Sunday afternoon, as snow fell and the loud city grew quiet, we ventured into the faded elegance of the movie house tucked into a Carnegie Hall corner. The sold-out audience, primarily gay men, was enthusiastic and excited, almost as if Eve, released in 1950, were being screened for the first time. There was a collective excitement, a shared bond among strangers that was unlike anything I’d experienced in a movie theater.

During that screening, Edward and I both realized that, despite still being naïve North Carolinians, we were having, at last, a taste of our big city dreams.

The audience roared its approval at the film’s deliciously delivered lines, of which “Fasten your seat belts” is but one of many. We were to quote Eve to each other often in the future. We knew many lines by heart: “One good burp and you’ll be rid of that Miss Caswell.” “Neither your name nor your performance entered into the conversation.” “Enchanté to you, too!”

Or this exchange between Bette Davis and Thelma Ritter:

Thelma: “Voilà!”

Bette: “That French ventriloquist taught you a lot.”

Thelma: “It was nothing he didn’t know.”

Bette and Thelma laugh about 'that French ventriloquist'

We repeated that exchange so many times through the years, the shorthand became “voilà!” to which the other would unfailingly respond with some quip about “that French ventriloquist.”

That French Ventriloquist

Edward and I (and often Nick) took many trips together over the next 30+ years, including a tour of Italy and Switzerland that, at one point, required Edward to anxiously steer a stick-shift car over the Alps.

Two bumblers in Venice (1992)
Fast forward to Ft. Lauderdale, February 2016. It was the night before Edward and I were to begin an RSVP Caribbean cruise, which would become the last trip we'd take together.

I hadn’t seen him in at least six months, and the toll that the many years of debilitating pain and memory-impairing painkillers had taken on him had become for me suddenly, agonizingly apparent.

As we were getting into an Uber to go to dinner, Edward wondered aloud if he’d remembered to bring his hotel room key. He dug into his pants pockets, to no avail, and then dove into his omnipresent Prada bag, found the key, and said, with an attempt at humor, ‘Voilà!”

Instinctively, I responded: “That French ventriloquist taught you a lot.”

Edward stared blankly at me. He didn’t get the reference. “All About Eve?” I prompted.

“What about it?” he wondered.

I didn’t respond at first, as I wasn’t sure how. “It meant nothing,” I said, without making eye contact. Because the truth was, it had meant everything.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Edward Norman — The Unexpected Roommate with an Elizabeth Arden Fixation

Before I met Edward Norman, I resented the hell out of him.

It was February 1980. I was a college senior living in a compact campus apartment at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. The apartment had four bedrooms, each barely large enough to accommodate a narrow single bed, a small writing desk, an armoire, and if you didn’t exhale, a package of Chiclets. My three roommates and I, all gay men aged 20 to 21, shared one toilet and one shower. Somehow, it worked, mostly because the four of us got along.

But one bright February morning before class — a Tuesday, I believe — my roommate Tom gathered us to make an announcement: “My best friend Edward is moving in with us. You’ll love him. He’s just like me.”

When I recovered from the shock, I had questions. Why was Edward moving in with us?

Answer: Edward has just been offered a job in Charlotte as a stylist and educator for a major beauty school. He was starting work immediately and the commute from his parents’ home, 90 minutes each way, was impractical.

Next question: When was Edward moving in?

Answer: Tomorrow.

And then, I wondered: Where would Edward store his clothes?

The answer: On a shower rod.

In our apartment, there was an odd bathroom layout with a toilet closet, two sinks running along the narrow hallway, and then a shower with two curtains. The first played the traditional role of a shower curtain, keeping the water from spraying beyond the skinny shower stall. When you finished showering, you stepped out on a small tiled drying area — which had its own curtain. That curtain’s job was to prevent others in the apartment from witnessing (and in our apartment, commenting upon) your toweling-off style. Edward’s clothes, Tom explained, would be placed on the exterior shower rod.

The day Edward arrived, I was hospitable but not overly welcoming. Frankly, I wasn’t happy about a fifth addition to the cramped apartment, especially when I was told he would be moving in and not asked if he could.

The first thing I noticed about Edward was how many clothes he was lugging into the apartment. And what clothes they were: bold silk shirts, primary-color pants, and shoes, shoes, shoes.

My next impression of Edward was formed by the vast skin care collection he sprawled across the long bathroom countertop. Elizabeth Arden this, Jergens that. Under-eye creams. Face toners. Face moisturizers. Hair care products, most of which I’d never seen before. Concealers. Foundation. An eyebrow curler.

Over the next few days, Edward worked long hours and I barely saw him. But the clothes! There was no escaping them! I had to squeeze through them to take a shower and again to exit the shower.

My resentment grew.

That Sunday afternoon, the five of us were lounging around the living room. I was on one side of the room, Edward on another, closest to the front door. He wore his brown bathrobe, which perfectly matched the color of his hair, which was, of course, dyed. His face was green—a beauty mask of some kind.

I could hear that our hopelessly straight frat boy neighbors were holding a beer bash. We’d all kept our distance from them, not wanting to incite homophobic catcalls.

And then, a wicked idea popped into my head.

“Edward,” I said sweetly. “Would you mind getting the newspaper? It’s on the doorstep.”

Edward seemed surprised that I’d specifically asked him for this favor. He, too, couldn’t have helped hearing the rowdy frat boys looming just beyond the door. Perhaps he realized I was daring him. Or maybe he was just trying to make nice with his new roommate. Either way, he rose up, stepped outside, bent down, and picked up the Sunday Charlotte Observer.

It should be noted that our front door was all glass, like the kind of door you’d push past to enter a store.. I could see Edward in all his Sunday-is-my-spa-day glory, newspaper in hand.

I raced to the door and locked it.

My roommates hooted. There was Edward, all brown bathrobe and green face, tapping on the door, mouthing the words “Let me in.” Unable to contain my laughter, I shook my head, “no.” Around this time the frat boys became aware of him. The homophobic catcalls began.

I don’t recall how long I made him stand outside. Probably 15 seconds, but I’m sure to him it felt like 15 days. At last, I let him in.

Once inside, I expected Edward to be angry at me — who wouldn’t have been? To my astonishment, he laughed as heartily as the rest of us. He genuinely appeared to have enjoyed the joke I played on him.

My resentment toward him dissolved into admiration. I’ve always adored people who are the first to have a good laugh at themselves and their predicaments. To me, it’s the polar opposite of pretentiousness, which I loathe.

That Sunday night, after the lock-out prank, my close, unwavering friendship with Edward began in earnest and continued for 36 years, despite our geographical distances, until his death in October 2016.

On that Sunday night in February 1980, I stood at the shared sink, having just brushed my teeth. I couldn’t help but marvel at all of the skin care products running along the countertop when Edward approached. He carefully explained to me what the products were for and why, even though I was only 22, I should start using under-eye cream immediately. He illustrated the correct way to apply it—dotting under and around the eye with a pinkie, never rubbing.

“One day,” he said with a wry smile, “you’ll thank me for this.”

It didn't take long for Edward (left) to influence my fashion style. Here we are, preparing for New Year's Eve in Manhattan, circa 1980-81

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