On Sept. 11

When I turned on NPR in the kitchen that morning, Robert Seagall’s voice was somber and uncertain. It lacked the confidence, I soon realized, that comes with knowing what you are going to say. He was reporting off the cuff, and I turned up the sound while my bagel toasted. He repeated the events: a plane hitting one of the World Trade Center towers in New York, then a second plane, hitting the second tower. I understood that these were grave events, but I remember thinking that I couldn’t understand what he meant, that a plane had crashed into the tower. I couldn’t conceive of it, and for the first time ever I thought that the radio wasn’t conveying what I needed to know. I turned on CNN, and watched, transfixed, as they replayed footage of the burning towers, of the planes hitting them.

At some point I knew I had to leave for work, craved, in fact, the analysis of my current events-obsessed colleagues at the business newspaper where I was as an editor. I felt the loss of information as soon as I turned off the TV. The disconnection made me uneasy. I hurried to the train. I remember studying each of the other passengers and wondering if they had heard the news yet. I remember wanting to tell them, the man reading yesterday’s news in the paper, the other 20-somethings looking dazed and still asleep in the rocking of the train. The cars seemed quieter than normal.

I did not feel scared until I exited Montgomery Station downtown and was immediately engulfed by throngs of workers walking the opposite way — into the station. Everyone was going home, and I was pushing through the crowds to get into the Financial District. We did not know yet what was happening, or why, and all those people were going home because it seemed safer. I felt that I was the only person walking against the tide, though surely I could not have been. I made it to my office and immediately my colleagues and I asked each other, “Did you see?” Some had managed to arrive without having heard news of the events. We began scrounging about the office for a radio. We were a small paper that, unlike many news organizations, did not have CNN going in the office. There wasn’t even a TV. I think eventually one of the editors went to Walgreens and bought a clock radio. We listened all day, heard the emotion in the newscaster’s voice when he announced that the first tower had fallen, then, later, the second.

When enough reporters and editors had arrived, we met in the conference room. Our editor began by saying if any of us felt uncomfortable being there and would rather go home, that we should go. That I should go home had not really occurred to me until then, and I felt a twinge of fear. No one left. It was decided that we’d drop what we’d been working on, and get to work finding out what businesses with offices in the towers had Bay Area ties. We were a local paper, looking for a local angle. Because this is what we did every day, every week, this is what we did that day. We paired up, with editors and researchers feeding leads and information to reporters who made the calls. I remember the adrenaline of it; frantically looking up companies on the web, struggling to figure out what businesses had been in which towers. A reporter might hear something from a contact – speculation that a particular Bay Area businessperson might have been on one of the planes, for example, and then the race was on to find out as much as we could about that person, their business, and what the loss of he or she might mean to the company. The adrenaline carried us through early afternoon; that and perhaps some fear – we as a country still believed there might be other hijacked planes out there and we had heard that at least one had been headed for San Francisco. All of those workers fleeing downtown that morning, that was what they had been avoiding. We in the newsroom had considered possible targets, read these rumors online. The Transamerica Pyramid was two blocks from our building, the Bank of America tower (the tallest tower in San Francisco), three. I imagined these scenarios, as well as the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge, that day and for many days and nights following.

By afternoon, the act of trying to spin this loss of life, destruction and fear into news stories began make me feel ill. One of the seasoned reporters noticed my discomfort and reminded me that it was our job to report the news, that people needed information, now more than ever. I understood that, and in some way felt proud of our obligation and yet — I had never felt so revolted by my profession. I suspected I was not cut out for the job, yet I continued to research, dig up phone numbers and plan additional coverage with the other editors.

By mid-afternoon I needed a break. I rode the elevator down to the lobby and walked out into a desolate city. The sun shone cruelly over everything. I walked around the Financial District for 20 or 30 minutes and in that time, I passed not a single person. Restaurants and stores were closed, office buildings locked. Many had makeshift signs in their windows that read “Closed for national tragedy.” The beauty of the day was at odds with events at hand, and with my emotions. I am not a religious person, but I wondered if God was cruel or whether he was mocking us with the sunshine and warmth, or whether, in his kindness, the weather was meant to soothe a grieving people. I remember thinking that the weather was beautiful in New York, too, according to the images I had seen, and that there must be some kind of solidarity in that. In retrospect my thinking about the events of that day was strange and disoriented, I suppose because the events themselves were so disorienting.

Not long after my afternoon walk, I decided to go home to Billy. We had spoken on the phone that morning. Unlike me, when Billy heard the news on the radio, he understood immediately the gravity of the situation, and pulled his car over to listen. His company had sent workers home right away and he’d been in our apartment watching news coverage all afternoon.

By the time I reached our apartment I felt truly ill, sickened by the horrifying deaths of all of those people, and by the daylong attempt to turn tragedy 3,000 miles away into local news.

My instinct was to hide in the apartment for the night, to try to push the news away with some kind of diversion, but our good friends invited us to their house for dinner. I remember thinking I didn’t want to go, that I couldn’t eat — but when I arrived I felt so grateful for the company and the shared discussion and the homemade meal. 

Events of the next weeks and months and years point to our collective jitters as a newspaper, as a city, as a country. Our office was evacuated for bomb scares several times in the weeks after Sept. 11, and we received mail containing fake anthrax powder in the newsroom. The cover of a special publication I had been working on about fast growing companies had to be scrapped because it (not so subtly) depicted a rocket taking off, complete with fireball to indicate speed and power. It was deemed insensitive. Always when I think back to that time, I remember the heart-quickening sound of the helicopters that flew so frequently overhead. There were war protests. I dreamt more than once that terrorists flew a plane into the Golden Gate Bridge, and that I climbed the hill near my apartment to watch it burn. One night I dreamt that I sold a photograph of the bridge engulfed in flames to the Associated Press, and I awoke feeling sick about it. On the way into work I encountered war protests that had turned into riots. One morning a protester flung a newspaper box across an intersection and it skidded to a stop at my feet.


N is for neighborhood.

We lived, in the mid-1970s, in a suburban development where the moms did not work and they hosted Tupperware parties and sleepovers instead. The houses, a repeating pattern of five different Colonial styles coated in aluminum siding and fake brick panels, were each allocated a fraction of an acre. Tiny lots and tiny yards, each family’s grassy lawn right up against the next. But I could walk a few houses down the street to visit my friends; we could ride our bikes over the uneven panels of the sidewalk; our neighbors knew us and we knew them. I remember our neighbors on one side well: an older couple whose kids were in college or about to be. They had a grandparental air; perhaps they found my grade-school girl antics a relief in their mostly empty nest. I remember marching up to their front door, alone, visiting whenever I felt the need. I was fed cookies and milk. The couple’s son sometimes walked me home from the bus stop, though it was only about a block from my house — there was an old-fashioned neighborliness about the place we lived. Our house had dark blue aluminum siding, wall-to-wall shag carpet and a brick fireplace. The kitchen was olive green and coated in linoleum. It was strangely comforting to know my way around friends’ homes, even if I hadn’t visited before, because they were in layout and décor very similar to mine.

In between my fourth and fifth grade school years, we moved. My parents had built a house with some inheritance they’d received, a modest Cape Cod on about two acres, some 20 minutes south of our previous home. It was a greater distance that it seemed. That short drive took us from suburban to rural, to “peace and quiet,” to open space. There were no sidewalks. Our new house was in a development with only two intersecting streets and few homes. Empty lots bordered ours on all sides. The land had once been a farm, probably tobacco, and had been carved into lots for people like my parents to invest in and build upon. There were few trees, and fewer children. I rode my bike up and down the middle of our street, back and forth, back and forth, and some days I didn’t see another soul. We grew berries and corn and peas on our new land, and I learned to dig potatoes and coax squash from Maryland clay. The fledgling community was surrounded by hilly pastures and fields of corn, soybeans, and tobacco, and occasionally a stray dog would appear. In the country, people dropped off what they no longer wanted. I came home from school one day and found an old racehorse grazing in our yard. I watched a bull trot down the street one morning while I ate breakfast. We were all displaced. Birds flew into our chimney, snakes slithered in the front door. My cat caught field mice and crickets in our basement. Our dog had a run-in with a skunk. We could hear gunfire in the spring and fall, and got to know when goose hunting season began. The Canada geese flew overhead year-round, and I found their constant barking companionable and soothing in the country silence. Rabbits nibbled on our lawn nightly.

We live on a 17 percent grade in San Francisco at the place where the fog turns to sun. The houses have been built at odd angles to accommodate the slope, and we are crammed onto this hill: wall meets wall, roof meets roof. I have met a few of our neighbors, but our relationships are guarded and suspicious. One blond woman three houses down looks me in the eye every time I say hello, but keeps her lips pursed. An older woman who lives two houses up the hill waves when she sees us and gave us a pot full of prickly succulents when our son was born, but she is not interested in conversation. The middle-aged couple who rent an apartment next door smoke so much pot we can sit on our front steps and get high on their second-hand smoke. Another neighbor meditates every morning while sitting on the wall between our houses, and I have to explain to my son why she won’t say hi. Here the land is too steep for a yard. We have a deck, and I grow flowers in pots and built-in beds. I find myself looking for my former neighbors, sometimes brought low with nostalgia for them. I watch city birds from our bay window, ravens and sparrows mostly, and wait for my once-a-year sighting of the fat raccoon who roves the neighborhood. When I notice mice darting into the bushes near the street, I stop to watch. I take the time to point out to my son the spiders in our flower beds, the hummingbirds whizzing by, a ladybug. We visit friends on weekends, city-dwelling friends who moved to the suburbs and now have grassy yards and pools, and deer that eat their landscaping; friends who know the neighbors from whom their kids beg for candy at Halloween. Our visits feel like vacation.


Joining Christine at 80,000 words and other bloggers in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. It’s called Alphabet: A History. (I’m doing the letters out of order.)

Some previous posts:

E is for everything, everything, everything

H is for Hokkaido

S is for snake

F is for Fort Wayne

On being realistic

I had to take my car into the shop the other morning and ended up riding the No. 1 bus downtown to work, instead of my usual, numbing underground train route. The crowded bus ride ( for without fail, the No. 1 bus is always crowded) over Nob Hill and through Chinatown brought me back to when I first moved to San Francisco 11 years ago. I used to live on the dodgy downward slope of Nob Hill, and I often rode that bus to work. Some days — sunny days — I walked, because I could not believe I lived in such a place. The Edwardian architecture, the glimpses of sparkling blue between the blocks, the squeals of the cable car and the calls of merchants in Chinatown selling their wares —  my living here felt impossible and dreamlike.

The other day, when I pushed my way into the packed aisle I remembered the smell of that bus, and I suppose it was the olfactory memory that made me pensive. It took me a few moments to identify the sharp tang of ginseng. When the smell became recognizable, I longed to write the sentence: The bus smelled of ginseng. And then I had an epiphany of sorts: I should be writing about San Francisco. Why am I not writing about San Francisco?

The novel/stories I have been writing for the past year take place in the Maryland/Washington DC area. They take place in two different time periods, neither of which is the present. Why am I making things so hard on myself? is what I thought as I clutched the handstrap and the bus lurched over Nob Hill to the financial district. We passed Grace Cathedral and its maze for walking meditation. We passed the dinginess of the Stockton Tunnel, and the fruit markets along the sidewalk on the edge of Chinatown, with their makeshift cardboard signs all in Chinese. I wanted to get out and look, and to write. (Alas, I had to get to work.)

Now of all times, I thought, when I am juggling work and being a parent and on any given day who knows what other obligations, I should be writing about this place, about the present, or at least a not-so-distant past that I have lived through and remember. I should not be writing about a place that’s a 6-hour plane ride away, that I don’t get to visit freely for research because whenever I am there I am also tending to a 2-year-old who does not have any interest in long car rides and visits to libraries. I should not be writing about a time period that requires a lot of research, research that my local public library cannot help me with, because its historical collection is focused on the West Coast, not the East. I should not be writing about a place that is so small and obscure that detailed research requires buying books that are out of print or are $45 and only come in hardback.

It’s almost as if I set out to make writing a book as hard as I possibly could.

It’s almost as if I’ve set myself up to fail, on purpose.

Why am I trying to prevent myself from writing a novel? is what I thought as I watched an elderly Chinese man struggle to the door of the bus with his cane, a ball of plastic bags in his free hand that would later be filled with fresh produce and perhaps steam buns or ginseng root. Next to him sat a well-dressed blonde, texting someone named Fletcher on her iPhone, and while thoughts about writing and self-defeatist behavior rushed about in my head I was conscious of an affection for these people on the bus, for these characters I know.

A few posts back, I mentioned an article in which an LA Times TV critic offers her 10-step guide to being a working mother and writing a novel. No. 10 on her list? Realistic expectations.

 10. Realistic expectations. I suppose there is someone out there who could write the Great American Novel while working full time and raising three kids, but I’m not her. My two books are Hollywood mysteries, which I didn’t have to research because I have written about the industry for years. I think they are very good books, well-written and fun to read, but they aren’t going to win a Pulitzer. That will have to wait until the kids head to college.

That is perhaps the scariest of McNamara’s suggestions. If you are a perfectionist, as many writers consider themselves to be, this is some hard advice to swallow. But there’s something to be said for being realistic, for making things easier on yourself. After all, writing a book is hard enough without putting unnecessary obstacles in your path.

Monday things: the L edition

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to post one of my “Friday things” posts, and so, this week, I give you: Monday things.

Monday thing #1: I’ve just spent far too long in the library. It’s a joy I’m rediscovering. I was raised going to the library often and carrying out giant stacks of books and records (yes, I’m that old). There’s something freeing about checking out books from the library. Experimentation feels more … possible. If you don’t like the book (or music, or movie) you can simply return it. When I buy books, I am more risk-averse. I tend to stick to things I’ve read reviews of; I seek out what I know. As I have written here before, my love affair with the library ended when I moved to San Francisco. Now, ten years later, with a toddler in the house whose interest in books is growing and changing daily, I have been visiting the library again on a regular basis. I’ve discovered the smaller, neighborhood libraries of San Francisco, which (depending on the neighborhood) tend to be relatively free of drunks, homeless people, loud teenagers, people eating lunch, desperate men hitting on young women in the stacks, and the other related reasons I stopped visiting the city’s main library. The neighborhood libraries seem to have a better selection of books. And by that I mean, fewer books seem to be lost or stolen. New(er) books can actually be found on the shelves. For example, today I came home with two recent story collections that I have been eager to read: Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned and Lauren Groff’s Delicate Edible Birds (LOVE that title).

Monday thing #2: L is for…. I don’t know what L is for. I am due for another Alphabet: A History post, but L … L is eluding me. L wants to be lilting and lovely, and yet I can’t figure out how it links to my life. It would be easy to get carried away, emotionally that is, by L. After all, L begins love. And loss. L is for late and last. I’ve been thinking of possibilities: latitude, perhaps? But then I think: I have never been to London, or Laramie, or Lahore. L might be a letter that’s hard to love. Consider: labor, leper, leeches, leftovers. Yes, I am aware that Monday thing #1 was all about my love affair with libraries. And, yes, I am aware that library starts with L. I guess the issue is this: I can’t quite seem to find an L thing to write about that moves me to write something that has a bit of wow factor, but isn’t too personal to share here. But I will, letter L, I will.

Monday thing #3: I am hard at work revising the short story I wrote during the month of April. The short story that may or may not be part of something longer. The story is full of firsts for me: my first time writing a child narrator, my first time writing a story that takes place some decades ago, my first time interspersing bits of a fictional journal in with the action of the story. It’s daunting. This morning I printed out my pages, read them carefully, and then covered them in red ink. Changes need to be made. A library makes an appearance in the story, and this morning I also spent some time researching card catalogs. It has been so long since I’ve used one, I’ve forgotten what the cards looked like. Updated library technology has hijacked my memory. In case that’s happened to you, too, you can view some old cards here and read about how such outdated modes of library research worked here. (Seriously, I need to stop dating myself here on the blog. Alas, it’s happened before.)

Rain, rain.

Someone has replaced San Francisco with Seattle.

It’s raining. In June. It never rains in June here. I’m all discombobulated. Those of you who live in places where it rains year round may find the idea of having months in which it does not rain odd or unsettling. I counted as just such a person for quite a few years after I moved to this city. In the summer months, when normally there is no rain, I used to dream of rain. I heard pattering on the roof, and drips from the gutters. I heard thunder. When I woke it was always the same: sunny, with a slight breeze, and no hint of sweltering summer heat whatsoever.

I suppose I have lived here long enough now (10 years!) that whatever attachment I had to the natural rhythms of my former homes, where in summer the heat and humidity reached levels that made it impossible to exert oneself and where I spent many hours inside air-conditioned malls, floating in bathwater-warm pools and eating popsicles, has been replaced with an attachment to the “seasons” of San Francisco.

When I first moved here I thought San Francisco had no seasons, except a rainy season and a non-rainy season. Salespeople in clothing stores, making conversation, said things like “Are you ready for summer?” and I would say, “Yes, definitely,” but I was thinking, What summer? It wasn’t as though my wardrobe changed in the summer, as it would have if I was living on the East Coast.  It doesn’t get hot here. It doesn’t get very cold, either, at least not below freezing, and so the heavy wool sweaters I used to stack in neat piles in the back of my closet — since I moved here I’ve had no use for them, either.

But San Francisco does indeed have seasons. I’m aware of the subtleties now. In summer we have fog in most of the city, and a cold damp that sometimes requires a winter coat. In the part of the city where the fog doesn’t penetrate, or where it burns off in the day, the sun is warm and spring-like, but rarely hot. In the fall, the temperatures warm and the sun is plentiful. Some trees lose their leaves, though without the fanfare of trees, in, say, New England. In winter, it rains, days-long downpours punctuated by clear, cool days. In spring, the sun takes over for the rain, until, finally, there is no more rain, at least until it’s winter again.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to be. This year the rain is unwilling to go away. Storms keep arriving from the Pacific, draping themselves along the West Coast all the way north to Seattle. Or perhaps I should say, from Seattle all the way south to San Francisco.

Another Sunday hodgepodge

It’s another Sunday, and so I thought, “how about another Sunday hodgepodge?

And then, because I have been up since 5 am taking care of a sick little boy, and am sick myself (again!) and my brain is not fully functioning, I thought, is hodgepodge really a word? Does anyone use it anymore? I had to reassure myself with a visit to Merriam-Webster’s website. I think more caffeine is in order.

But I digress. Here it is. The hodgepodge, I mean:

1. I’ve started keeping a journal. With a pen! And paper! I know, so 1999 1985, right? I’ve never been a consistent diarist, though I’ve always wanted to be. And yet, in my office I have an entire book shelf of notebooks full of my blathering and deep thoughts. Some years of my life are represented, some are not. Some of the notebooks are half-empty, or half-filled with to-do lists alongside pages of writing. Or drawings, alongside pages of to-do lists.  It’s been several years since I wrote in a notebook on a regular basis, and I decided to try it. My life these days is not measured in big events or dates so much as more insubstantial, quotidian sorts of things, and thus I’ve recently found myself unable to differentiate one week from the next, or even, sometimes, one day from the next. Journaling helps keep things in perspective. And, theoretically, it should help with my other writing. (Pathetic Sidenote: I apparently use a writing implement so infrequently in my daily life that writing a page with a pen is actually physically uncomfortable. And my handwriting has become a strange illegible scrawl in which vowels get squished and letters seem to get lost.)

2. I finally read Nami Mun’s excellent debut novel Miles From Nowhere. The spare prose and memoir-like quality of it blew me away.

3. I’ve been dealing with some writer’s block this week. I admit it, though I’m reluctant to. Writer’s block is an on-again, 0ff-again problem for me. Block is perhaps the wrong word for it; paralysis might be a better one. I have lots of things I want to say, and lots of ideas for novels, essays, memoirs and so on, but I keep sitting down in front of the computer and just, well, freezing. I read or heard somewhere that Joyce Carol Oates said that writer’s block is what happens when you’re not being honest with yourself in your writing. I’m paraphrasing, and probably poorly. (Does anyone know the source/actual quote? I can’t find it.) I sometimes think about that when I can’t write, though it doesn’t help much and just creates more anxiety about the writing process. I suspect that my writer’s block tends to come as a result of suddenly having time to write (hello, childcare!) after days of not. It’s a lot of pressure, kind of an “OK, go! You’ve got X hours to write and that’s it!” situation.

3. It’s been storming in the Bay Area for a week. We’ve had wind, lightning, thunder, hail, downpours, rainbows, flooding and even funnel clouds. This weekend was supposed to be a reprieve, but another Pacific storm is rolling in this afternoon. There’s a part of me that loves a bout of dreary weather; it’s a nice time to get cozy on the couch with a book or to write for hours in a coffee shop with foggy windows. But there’s another part of me, the one who has to take our white dog to the muddy park in a cold rain with a 25-pound 14-month-old strapped to my chest who wants to “hold” the umbrella, yeeeah. That part of me, not so much.

4. This month marks 10 years that I’ve been living in San Francisco. A decade! That’s the longest I’ve lived anywhere, ever. Probably there’s an entire post in me about that topic. Stay tuned.

A Sunday hodgepodge

1. I’m sitting in a café, waiting for my writing partner to show. It’s Sunday morning, a time which normally finds this café quiet, but it’s crowded and noisy. I’m trying not to pay attention to the two women next to me, who appear to be studying for a nursing exam. They’re loud. One woman keeps saying “shut your mouth!” in the way that people do when they mean “I don’t believe it!” There’s a group of older women kvetching about their husbands, and a couple of guys with cell phones talking about how much they liked Avatar, and how much it’s worth seeing again. Which I find interesting because absolutely no one I know who’s seen Avatar has said that they liked anything much beyond the special effects. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t comment.*

2. My thirteen-month-old son has learned to say “no.” This morning all of my conversations with him went like this:

Me: Do you want some breakfast?
Aaron: No.

Me: Do you want to take off your jacket?
Aaron: No.

Me: Do you want some milk?
Aaron: No.

Me: Hi!
Aaron: No.

And so on.

3. Last night I met a friend at a Czech restaurant and afterward I got a ride home from a very friendly Eritrean cab driver. He told me that he’d never seen snow until he came to the United States six years ago. He visited Lake Tahoe, and sent his family pictures of himself in the snow there. His family said “please, get out of that place” because they had never seen snow either, and they thought he would die in all that white. My cab driver also told me that he liked the Bay Area because it’s a place “where you can get anything that you desire,” which I suppose is true. If you have the money. He said this just after telling me that he hadn’t been back to Eritrea since he left six years ago, because he couldn’t afford buy the plane ticket. His family asks when he will come visit, and he says “maybe next year.”

4. Apropos of absolutely nothing… (that basically sums up this whole post, I think) I recently re-read a short story I wrote a few years ago. It’s a wacky piece; there’s a loud Danish guy, giggling Japanese teen girls, a supermarket checker in the rural Midwest, and monkeys. Yep, monkeys. It’s not a characteristic piece of writing for me, but I’m thinking of finishing/rewriting it nonetheless. One thing that will have to go: the footnotes. I think I was reading a lot of David Foster Wallace essays when I wrote the story. I’d like to say I’m not a footnoter, but look! there’s one right here in this blog post. I’d also like to say that monkeys and other such creatures don’t usually appear in my writing. But there was the time I did NaNoWriMo and a cat started talking about a third of the way into my novel…

5. Apparently my last post, G is for Geology, was my 500th post! Wow. I would have never guessed that when I started my pathetic little blog back in 2003 that I would write 500 posts. And that people would actually read them. So, if you’re reading this (hello?), thank you.

6. Also related to G for Geology….We had quite a few earthquakes in Northern California this week. I mean, apparently we did. I didn’t feel any of them.


*This brings up two pieces of potentially shocking information. One, I saw only two movies last year in actual movie theaters. It’s quite possible that I didn’t see more than about six movies all year long. I watched a couple on my iPhone on flights, and maybe got one or two DVDs from Netflix. I would like to say that not being able go to the movies/watch movies is one of the perils of having children, but alas, I suspect my pathetic movie track record in 2009 is part of a larger pattern of movie-related lethargy. Which brings us to number two: As revealed to my friend last night, I am probably one of very few people on earth who has never seen James Cameron’s movies. Terminator, Aliens, Titanic… I seemed to have missed those. Given my 2009 movie-attendance record, it’s likely that I’ll miss Avatar as well.

G is for geology.

In college I took a course called “Geology and the Environment.” The class was part of a brief flirtation I had with minoring in geology, a feat that seemed likely until I discovered that the requirements for a geology minor included courses in chemistry. Which as everyone knows is just math disguised by Bunsen burners. And, as you may remember, math and I don’t get along. I gave up the idea of minoring in geology, though I secretly coveted one of those bumper stickers that say “Geologists rock!”

I took what non-number-oriented courses were available, in which I learned names of various rocks and minerals and studied how plates shifted on the earth’s crust. I liked the classes, I think, more than the actual information. We packed into vans and drove around to various creekbeds and rock formations to look for evidence of the glaciers that had flattened the Midwestern landscape around us some millions of years ago.

If the field trips were better than sitting in a lecture hall, geology textbooks left something to be desired. With chapter titles such as “Lava: A Peek Inside Our Earth,” and “Water: Shaping Our Landscape,” I was often reduced to Nap: Head Down and Drooling in the Library.

My “Geology and the Environment” textbook included an entire chapter about California (California: Living With Geologic Forces), and we devoted several class periods to the state. Since I had lived my entire life on the East Coast, I knew only vaguely that California suffered from periodic earthquakes. I had seen footage of wildfires raging there on TV, but I had never really given the state’s dangers much thought. As I read my geology textbook, however, I understood this: California wasn’t a safe place to live. If the shifting tectonic plates didn’t get you, the mudslides would bury you alive. If your house wasn’t built on a seismic fault or cliff full of slippery shale that could shear off after a rainstorm, well, by god, the wildfires would sweep through and take everything you owned. I had seen the geologic forces, and I did not want to live with them.

“Why on earth would anyone choose to live in California?” I asked my mom the next time I called home.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe Californians wonder why anyone would want to live in Maryland,” which might have been her way of pointing out that I couldn’t possibly see into the mysterious minds of Californians, and since I’d only been there once, on a family vacation when I was seven, I probably shouldn’t be mouthing off on the topic.


When I declared to my mother that California was a dangerous and unlivable place, I did not foresee the following: Six years later, I would choose to live in California. The why had absolutely nothing to do with California and everything to do with the boyfriend (who later became the husband), who’d left the East Coast to take a new job in San Francisco.

It’s hard to imagine anyone more ill-prepared for a move to California than I was in the year 2000.  What I mean is: I did not know what I was getting into. I had long since forgotten (mostly) about the state’s geologic dangers and had, on one or two weekend visits, learned that California makes good wine, a discovery that I now see may have clouded my judgment. This is, I suspect, how many of California’s transplants end up here. A suspicious number of us have stories about being taken to Wine Country by “friends” on our first visits, and “falling in the love with the place.”

Despite the wine buzz, however, I couldn’t deny that no matter what the weather was on the East Coast when I left, the sun shone when I arrived in San Francisco. Palm trees swayed in the breeze. I got to eat myself into a sushi coma. Friends kept proffering bottles of Pinot Noir. What wasn’t to love?

Turns out, earthquakes, fires and landslides, for starters. But that’s just geology.


Joining Charlotte’s Web, Jade Park and The Contact Zone in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. It’s called Alphabet: A History.

Previous posts:

A is for Aaron

B is for Biddeford Pool

C is for crème brûlée

D is for dog bite

E is for everything, everything, everything

F is for Fort Wayne

Tuesday tidbits

1. Today is election day. It’s one of those quiet election days, in which we in San Francisco vote on whether to have money become available for this or that, and the candidates running for various offices are all running unopposed. When Aaron wakes up from his nap, I’ll walk him to my local polling station, which happens to be in someone’s garage. I’ve written about that here before. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to voting in a garage. I just picture somewhere more …civic.

2. I’ve been writing my “F is for …” post for the Alphabet: A History meme.

3. Yes, I should have been working on my NaNoWriMo novel instead.

4. It’s Day 3 of  NaNoWriMo, and I’ll admit it: I’m behind. Already. On the first day I cranked out 3,000 words only to reopen the document on Day 2 and cut most of it out. I wrote so quickly I didn’t realize I’d been blah-blah-ing backstory instead of creating in-scene action. This is not to say the cut material is useless – it informs what’s coming — but it certainly put me a bit behind in the word count. I don’t mind that so much, as I see this more as a writing exercise than anything else. I’m just trying to get in the habit of writing a lot. Every day.

5. My dog, in an apparent fit of jealousy, stole one of Aaron’s favorite stuffed toys while we were out this morning, then in an unprecedented act of vindictiveness, took it outside and rolled it around in the flower bed so it got nice and dirty. He then dropped it on the living room rug, leaving a vacuum cleaner-necessary sized pile of potting soil.

6. I’m now on Twitter. As far as I can tell, Twitter may be more distracting than the worst of all other Internet distractions and could quite possibly contribute to my never doing anything ever again. Other than that, it’s great.

There’s a pug in the produce aisle, and not nearly enough caffeine in my system.

Certain events should not be paired. For example: 1. Being awakened when there’s a 4 on the clock should not, under any circumstances, be combined with 2. Running out of coffee and having to substitute decaf just to make one measly cup.

Maybe I should rephrase that. Certain events should not take place, period. For example, 1) Being awakened when there’s a 4 on the clock, and 2) Running out of coffee.

This is, obviously, not how I wanted to begin my day. I’ve been tossing around writing ideas all weekend — big, book-length ideas.* Because Monday is one of the days I’ve got childcare, I was eager to get cracking on fleshing out one or both of my ideas today. Alas, certain environmental factors are not conducive to productivity. See also, sleep deprivation. See also, running out of coffee.

Anyway, despite my low levels of caffeine, I managed to leave the house, stagger through some semblance of a workout at the gym, and drive (accident and road rage free!) to the Safeway in the Castro. It should be noted that of late I have been spending more time in the Castro Safeway than seems remotely necessary or healthy. What can I say? I’m a poor grocery shopper/meal planner and everyone in my house is way too hungry. Alas,  the Castro Safeway. It is … other-worldly. It is San Francisco. Homeless people abound. Activists with clipboards assault all those who enter. (Please sign to help us legalize marijuana!”) Shoppers are always talking to themselves, and they are never speaking about groceries.  Signs proclaiming “no dogs allowed per San Francisco health code blah blah blah” are taped on all of the doors, yet someone is always walking his or her dog down the baking aisle or through the meat section.  This morning, a Jack Russell with an adorably scruffy beard was sniffing the cereals. On every visit, I encounter someone who has flagged down a Safeway employee and is dragging said employee all over the store. As in, the shopper has a list, and they are making the Safeway employee lead them directly to every item on the list and place said items in their cart for them. I have never seen so many lost shoppers in a grocery store before.

In the Castro Safeway I have seen a woman carefully select some bagels from the bins in the bakery section, place them in a bag, dump said bag out on the floor, and then return the bagels to the bins for some unsuspecting shopper to buy and eat. I have been approached in line by a teenager “trying to get back to Las Vegas” who begged me for a donation of $50. I have seen dogs in baby strollers. I have seen dogs in backpacks, purses, and shopping carts. This morning a man looking for cake flour (and led to it by a Safeway employee) kept repeating “you’d think that it would look like what it is!” until the Safeway employee had no choice to agree (though he was clearly humoring cake-flour guy and very confused) that indeed, cake flour does not look at all like what it is. This morning a woman knelt on the floor in front of the milk case, reading her grocery list, despite the line of people waiting to open the case and get out cartons of milk. They clustered around her, all of them afraid of interrupting her thoughts. When, finally, someone did, she simply got up and out of the way, no apology, no apparent surprise at holding up five people from their shopping. This morning someone got on the intercom and said, “Safeway employees, I need some productivity.”

I once ordered a coffee at the in-store Starbucks, only to have the cashier burst into tears and walk away.

This morning, my cashier, who as I was to discover was Norwegian, told me that he’s recently noticed an uptick in the number of former Catholic priests coming through his check-out line. (How does that come up? “Do you have a Safeway card? By the way, are you a former Catholic priest?”) And then he told me about how he once carried 60 packages of Peet’s Coffee home to Norway for his family, only to be held up in Helsinki by the authorities, who thought he was smuggling drugs. He kept describing how “they kept sniffing” the coffee, and finally I had to speak up — it should be noted that thus far, I had only nodded and smiled politely. I said, “you mean drug-sniffing dogs?” He did not mean drug-sniffing dogs, and I left the store imagining Finnish customs officers taking long, deep sniffs of the rich scent of Peet’s. I did not blame them.

*Frankly big book-length writing projects are not necessarily what I need to jump into right now, but here I am thinking about them anyway. I’m considering doing something for National Novel Writing Month, which starts in less than a week. I have no reason whatsoever not to do NaNoWriMo, though I keep providing myself with all sorts of excuses (I don’t have time! I might have another tendinitis flare-up in my arm! What about all my other half-written projects? etc.) But, hey, why not? I need a kick in the pants. Right! Right?