Back in the Saddle

Moonrise over Mendocino, California.
Moonrise over Mendocino

It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged — a LONG time. A bunch of seemingly important projects and commitments, during a particularly busy spring and summer, got the better of me… or the worse, depending on how you look at it. In retrospect I’m not sure how important all that stuff really was but… the cost is sunk.

So, I’m back in the blogging saddle. (Yee haw.)

This resurrection post features photos taken on a trip to one of my favorite California destinations: Mendocino County. I drove the 160-ish miles north last weekend to kick off what I’m calling my #BayAreaBucketList tour. I’m taking in new places and events that have always sounded amazing, as well as some old favorites like Mendocino.

I’ve got no plans to pull up stakes right now. I’m just making a conscious effort to better partake of the opportunities that exist around me in one of the biggest — and prettiest — U.S. states. We Californians often pay handsomely to live in the Golden State, so why not get our money’s worth? Or at least try to…

There’s no better time to visit Mendocino than around Labor Day – the unofficial start of the Bay Area summer.

Storm-ocalypse Now

Image of the Bay Area Storm, December 11, 2014.
Photo: Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle

The West Coast was hit by a winter storm this morning – the biggest in years: howling winds, flooded streets, downed trees and power outages. It was chaos in the Bay Area.

It’s not as if we weren’t warned. We’d been hearing about stormageddon for days – in plenty of time to fill sandbags, replace flashlight batteries, charge cell phones and stock up on food that doesn’t require cooking. Modern technology can help humans predict the weather with astonishing accuracy, yet when it comes to CONTROLLING nature’s wrath we’re no better off than the Donner party. That’s humbling, when you think about it.

Grand Teton National Park. Jackson, Wyoming.
Grand Teton National Park. Jackson, Wyoming.

I participated in two photo shoots for work this year – both of which were weather dependent. In September, I traveled to Jackson, Wyoming, where the goal was to capture mountains and fall foliage in the background of every shot. Photographers and production coordinators arrived two weeks in advance, scouting locations and tracking the progress of the Aspens’ changing colors.

Each golden leaf that fluttered to the ground sent a shiver down the scouts’ spines. But they couldn’t do a thing to stop them. Leaves gonna fall.

(Despite the angst, our shoot went great. The weather was exceptional and the photos are amazing, in case you were wondering.)

Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta 2014
Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

I also visited the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in October, when breezy conditions and thunderstorms often kept the balloons grounded. (Lightening and propane used in hot air balloon burners do not mix!) We didn’t get all the shots we wanted but again… what can you do? Visitors took plenty of photos anyway, and chatted with balloon pilots and their crews. Kids chased each other all over the place. Everyone ate too many corn dogs and breakfast burritos… and smiled the whole time.

So while battling the effects of today’s storm, I found myself astounded by the level of grumpiness, frustration and impatience I encountered. I watched otherwise rational-looking people in meltdown because their plans were being disrupted. By weather. How dare… IT? DAMN WEATHER!

My apartment and office buildings both lost power, so a neighbor and I met for breakfast at a local café that inexplicably had electricity and Wi-Fi. Unfortunately what it DIDN’T have was spare outlets for plugging in laptops. As a remote workplace, its utility was therefore limited. No wonder we could get a table!

A woman entered the café with her husband and young daughter. She circled the interior of the place five or six times, getting more worked up with each pass. “I need an outlet. I have so much work to do,” she exclaimed. Meanwhile hubby stood in line to place their order, with a list of his wife’s special dietary needs as long as his arm. The kid sat alone, looking forlorn.

Admittedly, I don’t know the woman’s story. Perhaps she’s a scientist, thiiiiis close to discovering a vaccine against Ebola. (If so, I apologize. Get her a power source, STAT.) More likely, though, she’s a harried working mom in need of a little perspective. Could she not have seen the storm as a happy circumstance, and enjoyed a leisurely few hours with her family before rejoining the rat race? Would that have been so crazy? So destructive to her career?

What are the odds that, when she finally did log on, she found her email inbox nearly empty because every other local colleague had been in the same boat?

At lunchtime, my office was up and running so I braved the elements, carrying with me a sack of Christmas cards to mail. Most shops and office buildings were still without power and remained closed. I crossed my fingers that I’d find a post office that was open for business on my way home.

Indeed I did, and the line was short! I basked in my good fortune, until a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge got in line behind me. He had stopped first at a different downtown post office that was closed. He was incensed because other businesses in the area had power, and were open. Why not the post office? I told him the street had NOT had power when I walked past a few hours earlier. He did not like this, and glared at me.

He griped and groused until someone suggested he go to the front of the line. Fine with me. Maybe the others had a touch of the holiday spirit, but I just wanted him to shut the hell up. No luck. He continued to complain from the front of the line. Finally, I could hold back no longer.

“Well, I’m just happy I found an open post office so that I don’t have to carry these cards around in the rain anymore.”

He launched into a lecture about his long history of working for government organizations, and his deep experience with customer service. It was simply inexcusable, he explained, that the manager of the other branch had not posted a note on the door listing alternative locations.

I considered reminding him that the manager had probably been busy and harried by stormageddon. I also thought about pointing out that OUR branch had been open for less than one hour. What would have been the point of sending cold, wet customers here when it might have been closed too? Can you imagine how berserk this guy would have gone, in that situation?

But trying to change Ebenezer’s outlook would have been like trying to stop the rain from falling. No point to it.

It’s still stormy outside, and I’m digging it. This is as close as San Francisco gets to wintry Christmas weather. My tree is lit, and the room is toasty. Cue the holiday DVD.

Nobody is gonna rain on MY parade.


Mountains and fall foliage around Jackson, Wyoming,

Rachel Canning Can’t Win For Losing

18-year-old Rachel Canning lost round one of her suit to force her parents to fund her education and living expenses on Tuesday, March 4 2014.
Photo: Reuters

Like most parents, mine had plenty of rules and expectations, but above all else insisted on academic performance. I don’t mean they set the bar at Harvard Medical School or a Rhodes Scholarship, but they expected maximum effort, perfect attendance and a respectful, cooperative attitude in the classroom. There was no sense in arguing, “My teacher has it in for me” when there was a problem; that protest was always shut down, before I had a chance to complete the sentence. In my family, an education was a gift that was not to be squandered. That said, it was not an inalienable right. My folks agreed to pay, so long as I kept up my end of the bargain – and so I did.

On Tuesday, an 18-year-old New Jersey high school senior lost round one in a lawsuit she’s waging against her parents, to force them to pay what remains of her private high school tuition, her living and transportation expenses “for the foreseeable future”, and her college expenses. (In case you are wondering, according to, one year at a private American university currently costs approximately $25,000.)

Rachel Canning arrived in court wearing khakis, a button-down shirt, a monogrammed school sweater and eyeliner reminiscent of Amy Winehouse. She also had a chip on her shoulder the size of The Preppy Handbook, which her lawyer had obviously read cover to cover before buying her that get up. Rachel contends that her parents kicked her to the curb and cut her off financially, because they didn’t like her boyfriend. Not true, the Cannings counter. They say Rachel left on her own accord, because she didn’t like house rules like curfews. Oh, and they “claim” she had been suspended from school.

I put the word claim in quotation marks there, because news reports present her suspension as an accusation — something that is being alleged. Seriously, how lazy is the American media? How hard is it to verify a school suspension?  What ever happened to old-fashioned gumshoe reporting?

Anyway, a judge denied Rachel’s request for high school tuition and current living expenses but the jury is still out (yep, that’s a pun) on other issues in the suit, including college costs. Regardless of the final outcome, in the age of social media she is screwed. For the rest of her life, a simple Google search will spotlight Rachel Canning’s narcissism, sense of entitlement and crummy judgment.

Even if she eventually wins her lawsuit, she’s already lost.

Where does a kid get the idea that her parents owe her an all-expenses-paid education?  Plus, transportation costs! Clearly, the Canning household had problems, but debate rages about whether blame belongs with America’s everybody-gets-a-trophy culture. Maybe, I’m just not sure.

This afternoon, I met up with a friend and former colleague whose daughter is considering applying to the high school I attended. I told my friend about the small classes, and the dedicated faculty that generally lives on campus. By graduation day, those teachers knew me inside and out. They had coached my sports teams, helped prep me for standardized tests, reviewed my college applications, and pumped up my confidence when I needed it (which was often).

Once I had a severe case of bronchitis, and a fever so high I could barely raise my head off the infirmary pillow. I lost count of how many faculty members stopped by. I was woozy, and would literally pass out during their visits. Later I’d wake up alone – but not. I knew someone who cared about me would be back to check on me soon.

I shared a story about my American History class, in which I often went head to head with my friend-and-nemesis Brad on political issues. (Believe it or not, I leaned pretty far right back then. My, how times have changed!) When it came time for a school tradition – debates between “management” and “workers” in the Pullman strike of 1894 – our teacher Mr. Army naturally assigned me to represent the oppressed working man, and cast Brad as a fat cat industrialist. He knew us both so well, and wanted to challenge us. Mr. Army had a pretty wicked sense of humor, come to think of it.

That was years ago, but I still remember large chunks of those debates as if they happened yesterday. I wonder if Big Man Baron Brad does too? He certainly has a lot to atone for, having been on the wrong side of history and all…

Bringing us back to the present day, I described to my friend the strong bond among alumni of our little school. A few of my classmates have succeeded in very public ways, and the rest of us couldn’t be more proud. One coaches a professional sports team, and when his games are nationally televised – especially during the playoffs – Facebook LIGHTS UP. Regardless of where we settled after college, allegiances to local sports tend to take a back seat when this guy and his team come to town.

My high school was expensive then, and the current tuition kind takes my breath away. While I didn’t have a full appreciation of the sacrifices my parents made to send to me there at the time, I was aware that I was lucky. No one ever had to warn me, “Don’t you dare blow this!”. I just intrinsically knew, and I suspect most of my classmates did too.

Maybe Rachel Canning will triumph in her lawsuit, and her parents will be forced to pony up five times the income of an American family living at the poverty line, to send her to the college of her choice. If that happens, I expect Rachel will gloat and feel vindicated in her sense of entitlement. She’ll probably get 15 more minutes of fame, as Today and Good Morning America woo her for exclusive interviews.

But, will she be GRATEFUL for her education? Or, grateful to her parents?

Somehow I doubt it, and I don’t think that’s winning. Do you?

Getting Busy

Multi tasking woman with eight arms, each doing a chore.My life is pretty busy at the moment. Don’t worry; I’ve not become one of those humble braggarts who respond to each “How are you?” with, “I’m soooooo slammed”. I am busy, though, as I’m sure you are. I’m also fortunate; I don’t have to work insanely long hours or weekends, or endure a brutal Bay Area daily commute. I can generally squeeze in a few early morning gym visits each week, and an occasional night photography class. I’m rarely forced to cancel weeknight plans because of a last-minute work conflict, and it’s been years since I pulled an all-nighter (on purpose, at least).

Even so, each evening I struggle to shake off the day and relax. I try to walk home at least one night per week — up and over some of San Francisco’s steepest hills — but once I cross my apartment’s threshold and kick off my shoes, I feel the inevitable pull of… multitasking. Preparing dinner (as Jerry Seinfeld says, take out is still effort), cleaning up afterwards, sorting through mail, and reading and answering emails – there’s not much time left for pleasure reading, or giving a movie my undivided attention. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to restart a DVRd episode of Frontline or Homeland halfway through, because I got so distracted by blogging/tidying/emailing.

Still image from German detective series, Marie's Mind For MurderThankfully, I recently abandoned my to-do list long enough to discover a German detective series, Marie’s Mind For Murder on PBS. Mariele Millowitsch stars as Cologne homicide inspector Marie Brand, a soft-spoken, gentle and sober alternative to Prime Suspect’s brilliant-but-self-destructive DCI Jane Tennison. When Marie is not solving brutal crimes, she’s tending to turtles in her husband’s reptile-specializing pet store, helping colleagues’ children with their math homework (she’s a numbers genius) or completing police paperwork using both hands simultaneously. Her partner, Inspector Jürgen Simmel, sneaks in friends to watch her fill out forms, double-time.

Committing to two hours of Marie and Jürgen each week is a departure for me because the series is subtitled, which makes multitasking impossible. To watch, I have to go all-in. I’ve loved getting completely lost in the smart plots revolving around decent characters (except for the murderers, of course) that are relatable, realistically sized and silicone-free. So far, all the violence has happened off camera – a most welcome change of pace.

Meanwhile the walls of my apartment are still standing. I haven’t been evicted or passed out from household dust inhalation. It’s a miracle.

I’m having so much fun, in fact, that I’ve branched out to The Returned, another riveting subtitled series (French, this time), broadcast on the Sundance Channel. It’s set in a small mountain community that is stunned when a group of residents — who have long been presumed dead — return, entirely un-aged and unaware of their seven-year absence. The episodes have languished on my DVR since last November. You guessed it; I put off watching, because of the subtitles.

Tonight I cooked and blogged, but also managed to carve out some single-focus me time with women’s Olympic figure skating. Yuna Kim just gave such an exquisite performance, I nearly broke down and cried. I’m glad I paused my typing and experienced it live (or, as close to live as prime time NBC coverage can get) rather than via DVR.

Living in the moment, one weeknight at a time. I could get used to this. At least, I am determined to try.