Saturday, March 11, 2017

Portola Love

A few nights ago, I woke around 2am for no particular reason. I didn't turn to a book to read myself back to sleep. Rather, I lay in my bed with Reggie the cat tucked into my armpit and enjoyed the quiet of my neighborhood. I live in a dense city, 7 miles by 7 miles horseshoed by saltwater. Lots of people live in this thumbnail of land. But, as I lay the other night in my big bed in my sweet house in my quiet neighborhood, I heard a familiar open space sound. The coyotes began to yip and squeal. I've found the wild here.

This district of the city is far to the southeastern edge, and therefore, experiences some of the best weather. In the summertime, when I drive from my house to work on the western edge of the city, I leave a blue and bright sky in the morning, roll over a few hills, then dive into the persistent gray. In the afternoons, I return to the sun.

Because of the good weather, this district used to be where nursery families raised plants and especially flowers for the downtown florists. Old dilapidated greenhouses lean against each other down the hill from me. The glass walls have mostly caved in, though a few roses still reach up through their frames. Blackberry vines climb over and around the old steam furnace and storerooms. Four peach trees mark the edges of the fenced off property, and this summer, they were loaded with fruit that no one could access except the birds and raccoons. This 2 1/2 acre parcel is the last remaining agriculturally zoned property in the city, and its future is up in the air. One group trying to purchase it aims to maximize on its zoning and turn it into an instructional urban farm.

My neighbors are among the best I've ever had. A neighborhood cop lives on the north side of me in the house in which he grew up and raised his own children. He's crawled up on my roof to check for leaks and his son has helped carry furniture upstairs. We've walked our dogs together in our nearby park. On the south side of me, an older woman, also a gardener, frequently sits on her back deck in the afternoon sun, enjoying a beer. When I can, I sit on my back deck too, and we talk about gardens and life over our shared fence while we both look out over our yards. Last week, just after I arrived home one day, a neighbor from across the street whom I had not yet met rang my doorbell. She came over to tell me that I had left the garage door open the other day, and she had watched to make sure no one snooped in my garage until she got so anxious she came over and figured out how to close it from the inside, running out without tripping its sensor.

My house is at the top of one of the hills in the district. From the top of my backyard, I can look straight out to an unencumbered view of downtown and the Bay Bridge. A few blocks away sprawls McLaren Park, a rangy, shaggy-haired park criss-crossed with trails. On weekends, families hold barbecues in the picnic areas, and corners of the otherwise peaceful park bump with music and spicy meats on the grill, so many flavors of sound and scent. In the park, the poppies are beginning to bloom already, and more wildflower waves are on their way. Dribbling now from a spigot, but until a couple decades ago—according to my neighbor—trickling right out from the side of the hill, a natural spring feeds what becomes Yosemite Creek.

Last year, the city officially designated my neighborhood San Francisco's Garden District. This neighborhood of agricultural history, neighbors that talk to each other and watch out for each other, coyotes, and real back yards is unique in this city. The Garden District isn't just the identity of Portola's past. Portola, like every good gardener, plants with anticipation of the seasons ahead. The Portola District blossoms and will fruit, again and again.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Horse Heart

Yesterday, I read the prayers of the faithful in a funeral. Mostly, I looked at the prayer as I read, but occasionally I looked up at the pews. The church was full of people who loved my friend: fellow faculty members who had appreciated her charm and humor, neighbors who couldn't help but be sucked into her warmth, students who she had protected, loved, and teased.

Of course, the room was also full of her family. One daughter gave a eulogy so wonderful and rich with my friend's essence, I marveled at her composure. Her daughter told us that her mother knew all the life stories of the employees and regular customers at the McDonalds where my friend stopped for her ridiculously large daily Diet Coke. She reminded us of my friend's deep and abiding fandom for the Cleveland Browns. She wasn't from Cleveland or even Ohio, but she was always on the side of the underdog. The Browns's one win this year was the day she was discharged from the hospital.

She was tiny and mighty with love. Life, as we know, is no competition, but if it were, she'd win in the hugeness of heart award. I already miss her.

Another friend, X, who similarly embraces the world with an octopus love, gave me a copy of this poem in the autumn because she knew it was a poem written for me. I have it on my bulletin board in my office at work.

A big horse heart, we can't set a better goal for ourselves.


"How to Triumph Like A Girl"
Ada Limon
Bright, Dead Things

I like the lady horses best,
how they make it all look easy,
like running 40 miles per hour
is as fun as taking a nap, or grass.
I like their lady horse swagger,
after winning. Ears up, girls, ears up!
But mainly, let's be honest, I like
that they're ladies. As if this big
dangerous animal is also a part of me,
that somewhere inside the delicate
skin of my body, there pumps
an 8-pound female horse heart,
giant with power, heavy with blood.
Don't you want to believe it?
Don't you want to lift my shirt and see
the huge beating genius machine
that thinks, no, it knows,
it's going to come in first.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Cutting Down

I cut down a tree this weekend. I still have a few more to go.

This one, the first tree to go in my yard, was slow. I cut off all the branches I could to reduce the weight. Using bungee cords, I put some pressure on the tree in the direction I wanted it to fall. I cut a notch out of the falling side. With a band saw, I cut and cut, then came the sharp crack and swoosh of the remaining leaves as the tree fell.

Cutting down trees, even to give me more sun and space, makes me a little melancholy. It's a life and a home and a silhouette that will never be again. To counter this twinge, I use as much as I can from the trees I cut. In previous yards, the small branches served as pea sticks for bush beans and flowers that needed support, and the trunks served as firewood. The felled trees supported and warmed. In this yard, I'm saving the long, elegantly shaped trunks with a few branches on them. I'll use them to build trellises for runner beans and sweet peas. This weekend, I spent a lot of time looking at the first trunk I cut, examining how layers of papery bark fit against each other, how the tree's grain twisted gently through its years of growth. All of this carbon coming together in this particular shape, all this energy, it really is a miracle. This trunk will be in my yard for years to come, just in a different function, supporting a different beauty.

In my world, a tree is never simply a tree.

My friend is dying. In the fall of 2015, when what I had previously understood of stability slipped from my feet, in that very same week, she received her diagnosis. We worked together every day through the school year last year, laughing, crying a little in the beginning, but laughing a hell of a lot more, all the way into the summer. She taught me the practical bits of librarianship, the cataloging, the book sources. We decided together the experience we wanted our students to have when they entered the space, and we made big changes to what had previously existed. The library is a happy place we crafted for ourselves and our students. With the joy in work she shared with me and that we kindled together, I know I can continue to make big, positive changes in the library and the school.

This summer, her sickness worsened, and by November this year, she could no longer continue working and had to leave our daily laughter.

She's a physically small person, and each time I see her, she's smaller. Her spirit and humor are as big as ever though, and when I visit her we talk and laugh until she runs out of breath for words. "What's the scoop? What's the news? What's the juice?" she asks when I arrive. So I tell her what's happening with me and we gossip about work, but we also inevitably end up talking about her death, too.

She is looking at her life now, examining how it has turned and branched, her role as mother, wife, sister and daughter, businesswoman, and eventual high school librarian. She's reflective. She's reading a lot. A few weeks ago, when I visited her, she gave me the latest book she had loved reading, Neil Gaiman's Ocean at the End of the Lane, a book about the wonder of childhood, nostalgia, mystery, and celebration of the unknown. I loved reading it, too.

She is teaching me to die gracefully and appreciatively.

She says she hasn't lit the world on fire. I don't agree. I tell her that her daughters are building mighty flames, and dammit, I am, in my own way, too. She held the match for me.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Statistics

I've been doing some research lately, of the online dating sort here in San Francisco. I've collected the following findings*:

  • 88.3% of straight men in their 40s who list themselves as eligible on dating apps include the phrase "I'm looking for my partner in crime" in their profiles. 11% of this group abbreviate the phrase to PiC.
  • 76.7% of men ages 37 to 55 include a picture of themselves doing one of the following activities: jumping out of a plane, skiing difficult moguls in expensive gear, climbing a sheer cliff, charging a giant barrel on a surfboard, or flying over a ridge on a mountain bike. 48.9% of this group include pictures of themselves doing more than one of the activities listed above.** 
  • 93.2% of men from ages 37 to 74 are looking for a woman "preferably in her mid-20s."
  • 37.8% of men over the age of 60 list themselves as being in their low 40s, but in their profile reveal their actual age, along with the following (or similar) statement: "I've listed myself as 42 because that's how I feel, and my friends say I look and act young."
  • The word "adventure" appears at least three times in 73.2% of listed profiles.
  • The older a man is, the higher the chance he will include a picture of himself sitting on a parked motorcycle. 
  • In the profiles of men in their 40s who say they like to read, 85.3% mention the Oxford comma. Only 23.0% of this group use a comma anywhere in their profile.
  • 65.1% state they prefer "meeting in person" to "endless messaging." 52.8% of this group flake out on the dates they arrange with potential connections.
  • When meeting or talking on the phone with a potential connection for the first time, 38.9% will spend the entire time talking, never asking the potential connection a single question.

*These numbers, though exaggerated, aren't as far off as you may think.

**I apparently live in a city full of adrenaline junkies. That's fine. I appreciate adrenaline. I also, however, enjoy reading, cooking, and conversation, among many other non-adrenaline producing activities. The junkies I've been out with appear to struggle unless they are getting their fix.

This sounds miserable, I know. But it isn't. I've actually been (mostly) having fun. People are fascinating, and since I have no deadlines, a date that doesn't go anywhere is not a failure. Instead, I've discovered great bars and restaurants, and I've grown confident in my straightforward exit strategy: "Thank you. I've had a nice time, but I know we're not a connection."

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Meadow Rx

At the home on the edge of the Southern California canyon where I lived for a while, I had a meadow. It was small, it took a while to grow in, but it was a great pleasure to watch fill in and change, catching light and breeze. Here, at my new home on the slope by the bay with skyscrapers and the Bay Bridge rising to the north, I need another meadow. I need a place that adds to the peaceful beauty of my yard, a place where Indy can sit in the sun, that needs little water, that moves with the frequent singing wind, and in which I can tuck bulbs that will poke their petals up like surprise satin gifts throughout the year. Lawn? No way—this is so much better, and I don't need to mow it.

Over my winter break, I've been working on making this happen whenever it isn't raining, but it's been raining a lot so my progress was slower than I liked. I pulled out two banks of rosemary because no one needs that much rosemary. The previous owner, probably in an effort to make the yard look tidy quickly, laid solid white plastic sheeting—not landscape cloth—under a deep layer of mulch. While no weeds can grow up through the plastic sheeting, no water can run through it either, and I want my soil to absorb as much water as possible into the underground aquifer, rather than lose the rain as it runs off into the bay. So, I've pulled lots of plastic sheeting out in preparation for planting. In the corner of my yard, under the robust manzanita tree, probably the selection Dr. Hurd (tall for a manzanita and covered right now with plentiful white flowers), I have worked to install the small meadow.

Unlike the very drought tolerant Carex praegracilis I planted as the backbone of the meadow in the dry Southern California yard, I've planted Carex pansa and lots of it; it is more appropriate for my current damper climate. Right now it looks like bad hair plugs, but it will grow in.

I bought the Carex pansa plugs at Bay Natives nursery, a nursery on the far eastern edge of the city, tucked up against the lapping waters of the San Francisco Bay. There, loose chickens and roosters strut and play soccer with snails, landscape-clearing goats talk happily to each other in the pen near the fruit and vegetable plants, James Taylor blasts over the speakers, and feathers are everywhere, settling over the large propagation area and flitting between the gravel stones in the parking lot. (As a side note, I really, really don't like James Taylor. I had a roommate who would play him every time she was depressed which was often during that period of her life, so in my brain, his music means deep sorrow. I try to avoid it whenever possible. But I won't hold James Taylor against Bay Natives. The nursery offers so much that brings me joy that it easily wipes out the residual gray attached to him.)

Tucked among the Carex plugs, I planted narcissus, ipheon, alliums—all necessarily gopher resistant—some California native bulbs and perennials, as well as lots of poppies. This meadow of mine will probably be too colorful its first spring. But, after having been hungry for my own soil again for so long, I want all the flowers. I may have to edit over time, but this will at least let me know what works well here.

Some people need live music fixes, frequent hits of adrenaline, or a tri-weekly doses of SoulCycle to feel human. Those are pleasant experiences for me, but not necessities. As for me, I'm a dirt junkie.

Friday, December 23, 2016

My Name Is John Hannibal Smith

I'm the captain of a ship I never imagined, a ship of books, informational and media literacy, of studying students and students just finding a place where they can be comfortable. My crew is motley: a just-graduated-from-college alumni volunteer; a young, energetic science teacher with a deep love for sloths; a very tall, shy but funny football coach and social science teacher; a wise mother of four who teaches social science and coaches softball; me. Do you see a trend? Nary a one of us is a librarian. And, our library rocks.

A couple weeks ago, I took the group out to happy hour to celebrate Christmas. The shy football coach relaxed, his shoulders shaking with laughter. The science teacher told funny stories that made her eyes water with giggles, and the alumni volunteer supplied us with entertaining facts about teachers who taught her. The mom of four peppered the evening with her easy, gentle laugh. It was good.

We like each other, not just because we have a good time together at happy hour, but also because we each provide something vital to the team. The volunteer is an organizational genius; the mom brilliant in student relationships; the sloth lover the best, most dedicated tutor for struggling students I've seen. The football coach cares deeply about research and databases and gives smart advice about subscription purchases. Not one of us imagined being where we are, but each of us gives wholeheartedly to the team's success.

Our employer wanted each of us as part of the community, but didn't know where else to put us, so we ended up together. I joke with my group that we're a family of orphans. The coach said no, we're the A Team and he's clearly Bosco (the Mr. T character) and I'm Hannibal. Whatever metaphor you chose, it works. I didn't come up with this plan, but I love how it has come together.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

It's Okay

Last night, before meeting up with the good man I have been seeing, I parked my car at a fancy lot downtown. The valet took my key, and trying to determine how deep in the lot he should park my car, he asked how late I'd be. I did a little math. A quick drink, the movie, probably some food afterwards. "10:30, or maybe a little later," I told him.

I ran into the good man on the way to the bar, we kissed, and walked in together. Within 45 minutes, he had broken up with me in a good and honorable way. I didn't cry in front of him, nor did I cry in front of the valet who asked why I was back so early.

"I thought it was going to be a late night, but I was just broken up with instead."

"Seriously?" He scowled at the concrete beneath his feet. "You deserve better."

I didn't cry until I was almost to my friend's house, where I had headed straight from the parking garage. When I got there she held me. But it was just tears of sorrow, not those of fear, feelings of betrayal, hopelessness, or worry.

A year and a month ago, my tears were very different. This morning, even though I am sad, I'm also deeply happy. My community here in San Francisco is a messy bouquet of delightful people, and I value each of these relationships. These local friendships, the friendships I have with my other scattered people, and the love I have from my family were great buoys to me in the struggle. However, I am also proud of myself. In this year, I eschewed anger. I embraced a new reality, a new career, a new city, and a reimagined financial future; I bought a house, and though wiser than before, have kept my heart open. I've done this pretty cheerfully, too.

The loss of all I appreciated in the good man makes me sad, but if he doesn't appreciate me as a good woman, then that parking lot valet is right.