I found the letter as I was cleaning out my desk upstairs – the one where unfinished business had collected over several previous employments.
Some years back, shortly after the dot-com bust, I was working for a small non- profit organization loosely affiliated with the Department of Commerce. We were struggling to increase international business in Silicon Valley. It was then that I met Corinne Gilb.
Corinne was a tall, stately lady, with a crown of smooth brown hair shading into steel-gray, level gray eyes, and a smoothly modulated voice brimming with confidence. She and I connected because I was studying Mandarin Chinese, and she had been a delegate to several conferences in mainland China related to the automotive business. I was fascinated because she had actually been to places I had only dreamed of going, and had acquired expertise in areas which I had always thought closed to women. Corinne seemed to me to be the first real grown-up I had encountered.
Corinne invited me to come to her house for tea. Hers was an elegant house sheltered within the twisted cul-de-sacs of Atherton, shielded from any vagrant noise by tall walls and taller trees. The large rooms were lined with bookshelves that stretched floor to ceiling, crammed with books related to Corinne’s many areas of interest. I saw copies of some of the same Chinese texts I had been studying, next to bound journals in Chinese. “Yes,” Corinne said, “I taught myself to read Mandarin so I could keep up with what was happening in China. “ I was in awe.
A tea service had been set up noiselessly in the front room by an invisible servant. We drank tea from dainty porcelain cups. She talked about what she had learned as a delegate to the Chinese conferences, at a technical level I only half understood. She listened patiently to my half-formed ideas; she may have been flattered by my evident admiration.
After we finished tea, she showed me to the door. She said “I enjoyed this meeting. Maybe you and I and our husbands could meet for lunch sometime. I would like to meet your husband…”
I was abashed. My husband did not begrudge the time I spent exploring Chinese culture and international business, but he did not share these interests. I could only imagine Corinne’s husband – what would the four of us find to talk about?
“Give me a call when you have a good time,” said Corinne. I gave her my thanks and left. I did not mention her invitation to my husband, nor did I call Corinne. She sent a note, and then a Christmas card. She had been in ill health, but still wanted to have lunch. My not having called became an obstacle to my calling – the budding friendship withered because I was afraid to expose how little I really knew – as if Corinne had not already guessed that. Then I got a notice that her husband had died. I was young, I didn’t know very many people who had died. I didn’t know what to say. So I said nothing.
Some months later, I got another letter from Corinne. It was a typed letter, a form letter. It said goodbye. She had been diagnosed much too late with metastasized breast cancer. In the letter she wrote of being near death, but still participating in conferences, overseeing the publication of books, writing reviews, and presiding over her family. Scrawled in a shaky hand at the bottom of the letter was a note: “So sorry we never had that lunch.”
So am I, Corinne.
“Child-proof” – Ha! (LATC October)
It happened just like they warn in the Emergency Care manuals
We had been having houseguests with small children all summer. We had childproofed the main rooms with all the breakable gewgaws put away. We had taken the cleaning supplies out of the children’s bathroom. We had the toys in an easily accessible closet and we locked the door to the attic.
But we had not hosted a two-year-old in years.
It started just like they warned it would. “Where’s Joshua?” “I thought he was with you!”
Then the search began. Not in the kitchen. Not upstairs. Not next door at Grandma’s. Not visible walking up or down the street. Finally his dad found him –in the master bathroom. It had never occurred to me to make this part of the house off limits, because no other visiting child had ever ventured into this part of the house without escort.
There were about a dozen bright red ibuprofen pills scattered, some smushed, on the floor.
Never underestimate the tenacity of a 2-year-old.
It had been a new box of ibuprojen, flaps still glued. It was shut away in a drawer.
Joshua had opened the drawer and found the box.
Joshua had ripped the box open.
Inside was a “child-proof” bottle, the kind where you have to press on the sides at the same time as you turn the lid. No problem for Joshua: he bit down on the lid with his gleaming white baby teeth and turned. No more lid.
The contents were kept fresh by a vacuum -glued foil-lined seal. Many is the time I have sworn at these seals as I tried to pry them off with fingernails, toenail clippers, or scissors. Again, no problem for Joshua. Joshua gnawed through the seal like a roof rat gnawing through an orange.
Then, fortunately, he spilled half of the pills on the floor. His dad found him as he was trying to replace them in the bottle.
He told us he had not eaten any of the pills.
Maybe he was a little scared because he had spilled and smashed some, and made a mess. Maybe he knew he was in trouble, and told us he had not eaten any so that the trouble would be less.
We all watched him like a hawk for signs of drowsiness, stomach pain, nausea…. nothing. Two-year-olds are tough.
There had been other close calls for toddlers in my experience. Once my little brother fell out of the car as it was going around a corner – he just opened the door and “Poof!” he was gone. (This was before the days of child safety seats.) Once my grandson slipped out of his flotation jacket in the swimming pool and was two feet down before I grabbed him. But these were accident of poor design, not carelessness or lack of oversight. This time I felt responsible – I should have been more vigilant.
For the rest of the visit, “Where’s Joshua?” became my mantra. Even with my elevated level of surveillance, it was amazing how quickly the two-year-old could be gone. Once he got as far as the end of the street, down by the un-fenced creek. “Where were you going?” “I was just walking.”
Happily, Joshua survived the visit. His curiosity is no longer my immediate problem. But his visit left me with a lot less complacency about the safety of my home and the adequacy of my imagination in recognizing hazards. The next time I have miniature guests, I’ll invest in padlocks.
If the guest is Joshua, he will probably find the bolt cutters in the garage.
Traveling with a woman friend, she will offer the window seat.
She will refuse the airline snack, but offer to give you hers.
If you do not eat your airline snack after all, she will take it in case of future need.
She will offer to watch your carry-on bags while you go to the rest room.
She will offer to refill your water bottle if she is going to refill hers.
If she is driving, and she takes a wrong turn out of the airport, she will blame herself.
If she is the shotgun rider, she will apologize for not paying attention to the signs.
If her memory of the route disagrees with the GPS, she will go along with the GPS – up to a point.
If she is one of three passengers in the back seat, she will offer to sit in the middle.
Though she has never met you before, she may tell you all about the latest activities, vagaries, and eccentricities of her father, her late husband, her late husband’s first wife, her second husband’s ex-wife, her son, his wife, her son’s wife’s first husband, and her stepson’s mother-in-law.
She will show you pictures of her grandchildren.
She will solicit reading suggestions for her book group.
If you are going for a walk she will remind you to put on sunscreen.
She will offer to loan you sunscreen.
If she is a houseguest, she will offer to help peel vegetables, set the table, or entertain any small children underfoot.
If she is the hostess and there are small children underfoot, she will be the one to eat at the children’s table in the kitchen.
* * *
I had written the above about halfway through a week at a women’s camp in the Rockies, mostly with women of about my own age. The women in the group were largely teachers or former teachers. They were mostly white. They had gone to Girl Scout camps. They knew all the camp songs.
Then I had an opportunity to spend some time with a couple of women a generation younger. I realized that the above list of “typical women’s behaviors” is perhaps not typical at all, except when applied to women of a certain age and up-bringing.
The youngest woman in the group had no first or second husband, no children or grandchildren, no smartphone filled with pictures to show, had never been to camp. She didn’t belong to a book group. She didn’t know the words to “She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain” or “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” or “Kumbaya”. She was at the camp with her mother. In two months she planned to begin a tour of duty with the Air Force. She will probably go to Afghanistan.
I’ll bet she won’t volunteer for the middle of the back seat in the jet.
…Everyone’s entitled to be wild/ be a child/be a goof/ raise the roof/Once a year – lyric from The Pajama Game
On the last Sunday in June, it seemed as though everyone had taken this old Broadway patter song to heart. It was Gay Pride Day in San Francisco, and 1.5 million people were celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision earlier the same week invalidating the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8. Eighty unisex couples had married on the previous day at San Francisco City Hall; the party on Sunday was, in the words of a Mercury-News reporter “like the biggest, happiest wedding reception you could imagine.”
My husband and I had ridden BART up to the City to attend a San Francisco Symphony program, and were swept up in the festivities as we made our way from the Civic Center BART station to Davies Hall. All around us were men and women wearing rainbow colored tutus, fanny wraps, neon lace stockings, and costumes creatively cut out to show off tattoos in peculiar places. We saw a man on stilts clad head to toe in purple feathers, another person of indeterminate sex clad from top-knot to platform shoes in silver glitter, and T-shirts emblazoned with rainbows and mottos ranging (among the printable) from “Some Chicks Marry Chicks – Get Over It” to “Christ is Coming – Look Busy.”
As we threaded our way through the crowd, a conservatively dressed middle-aged fellow with a well-trimmed beard spoke me. “Are you two a couple?” he asked, gazing from me to my husband, both in our Sunday Symphony best.
“Yes, we are.”
He broke into a huge smile. “It’s so great to have people like you here in support! This is such a great day! I never thought I would see this day!” I didn’t tell him we were there for the symphony, but agreed with him and wished him a wonderful afternoon. “It will be!” he replied, as the crowd separated us.
The symphony performance was terrific – a first-time performance of a concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story”, led with gusto by Bernstein’s friend and protégé, Michael Tilson Thomas. The lead singer, a minor TV star named Cheyenne Jackson, has an amazing vocal range and great ability to sell a song. He was also listed in the Pride Guide as one of the Celebrity Grand Marshalls of the Gay Pride Parade.
At the intermission we wandered out to the balcony from which we could see a corner of the celebration still going on at UN Plaza. Traffic was at a standstill on Van Ness Avenue, and people in costumes, carrying balloons, flourishing signs, and holding hands were crossing below, waving up at the balcony-viewers. We waved back.
After the concert we made our way through the packed throng to the BART station. We passed a group of people dancing and shouting along with a rap group on one of the side stages. We passed another side stage where a cheerleading squad was performing acrobatic flips and pyramids. We saw black guys in blonde wigs and high heels. We saw white guys with buzz cuts and bright new Intel@Pride T-shirts.
The BART station was solid people, a big friendly mob – no pushing, no elbows, just laughter at our common sardine-hood. We inched our way to the turnstiles where a guard was assisting people with Clipper cards – we made it through. I have never seen BART so crowded, but a young couple in cut-away jeans and pink tank tops jumped up and offered us their seats.
It was a party. It was raucous and joyful and raunchy and sweet. There are different opinions about the Supreme Court decision and about what marriage means, but it is hard to resist something that made1.5 million people so plainly, euphorically, unreservedly happy.
As I was doing my summer closet cleaning, a box fell off the topshelf and spilled its contents on the floor of the closet. I thought “Aha! Something I haven’t opened for at least a year – probably should be thrown out right away!” I stooped to pick up the spill. It was my collection of greeting cards received over… how many years?
The first I picked up was a handmade card with a picture of a girl drawn by a very young person. Inside was a greeting from the family which had just purchased the house across the street from us, introducing themselves and their three daughters and saying that they were “looking forward to being our neighbors for many years.” They were wonderful neighbors for almost five years; they moved last week.
The second was a birthday card featuring a couple of martini glasses with sparkly olives on the cover. It was from my cousin and her husband. They did meet in a bar, but he helped her to beat her alcoholism after they married, and she has been sober for decades. Odd to see her name on a liquor-flavored card!
The third I picked up was a form card from a group with which I had participated in a long-term health study after my bout with cancer. It included a recipe for a healthy protein-rich, minimal sugar birthday cake which I had always meant to try.
The fourth was a snarky birthday card from my brother and his wife. Judging from the price of the card listed on the back, this was sent very early in their marriage. Before their marriage, he usually forgot my birthday entirely. Under his wife’s influence, the cards have become less snarky over the years.
The fifth was a custom card generated on a computer. It was from my mother, who had been the first in our family to become computer literate, and for years had created all her birthday cards and Christmas cards on her beloved Mac.
The sixth was simply a piece of blue paper folded over. On it is written in an unfamiliar hand “Happy Birthday Mom” and the names of my two sons. There is a splatter of what looks like pine sap on the upper corner. I remember how my kids conspired to surprise me with flowers on my birthday that year. My husband and I had gone camping in the remote Anderson Valley. The kids managed to find a part-time florist in Booneville who made a bouquet of garden flowers with an impromptu card and delivered them to our tent site in her pickup truck.
I guess I won’t be able to throw this box out right away after all.
If you have been to the Mt. Hamilton observatory, you have driven through Joseph D. Grant County Park. It is a beautiful drive in spring. The road meanders upward between hills coated with the electric green of new grass, highlighted by swathes of day-glo yellow mustard as if God had taken a magic marker to the landscape. Higher up the roadside cut is spangled with glowing orange California poppies set off by patches of purple lupine and yellow sheep’s tail.
The park brochure tells you that Joseph Grant was the son and heir of Adam Grant, for whom Grant Avenue in San Francisco is named. The senior Grant was a co-founder of Murphy, Grant & Co., a drygoods store which rivaled Levi Strauss in selling overalls to miners during the Gold Rush. The San Francisco store burned in a spectacular fire in 1875, but most of the inventory was saved and the demand for Nonpareil Overalls remained.
Joseph was a mover and a shaker. He managed the family business, started the Columbia Steam Company, was President of the California –Oakland Power company, and and was a life trustee of Stanford University. When Herbert Hoover was defeated by FDR, he came to stay at Grant’s ranch for three weeks to lick his wounds.
The brochure doesn’t say much about Mrs. Edith Grant, or about the three Grant children. But if you are lucky you might find a park ranger who would guide you around the ranch house and tell you about how daughters Edith and Josephine did not get along and would engage in rolling-around-on-the-floor fistfights at the mansion, sometimes during social events. And how sometimes they would join forces and invite some of the ranch hands to join them on rides into town (San Jose) for supplies, throwing empty liquor bottles out of the limousine in both directions to mark their trail. He might tell you about the nightly drunken parties Josephine would hold in one of the older side-buildings, and about how Joseph burned the building down to stop the parties.
He might tell you about how daughter Edith used to shoot at people who trespassed on family property–including the mailman. It was said that she also shot her own horses if they came in range of the front porch.
He might tell you about how son Douglas, a business disappointment but adept at golf and drinking, died in a house fire lit by one of his neglected cigarettes. And about how Josephine, when she took over the ranch, burned all the family letters and documents.
There is a novel to be written here, don’t you agree?
That evening I asked how her day was going. She moaned. “I’ve been trying to make that appointment with the DMV, and it won’t let me do it. It says I have to call an 800 number, and I tried it, but I was on hold for over 15 minutes and gave up.”
“Poor Mom,” I thought condescendingly. “Just can’t cope anymore with computers.” So I went over to set things straight.
I filled out the online form: First Name, Last Name, Address, Drivers License #, etc. Submitted. Red print fills the screen. “Your license number and name do not match our records. Please check spelling and number and try again. If you need assistance, please dial 1-800-etc.”
I checked. First Name on Mom’s driver’s license lists both her first and maiden names. OK, so I type both names in at the First Name prompt, checked spelling carefully, checked that I had zero’s instead of O’s where needed, submitted. Red print fills the screen.
My condescension has evaporated. Mom is not the issue.
So I dial the 1-800 number and choose the “Make an Appointment” option from the recorded menu. A voice-recognition recording requests Name, Address, Phone number, address, etc. After providing data scrupulously for five minutes, I am told by the recorded voice, “Our service is not available at this time. Please try again later. “ Click.
I redial and choose a different option from the recorded menu, “Talk to a technician.” I am told via recording that the wait time will be between “1…hour and …1… hour and… 17… minutes.” I choose the option to have a call back rather than sitting on hold. I “will not lose my place in the queue.”
Mom and I sit around chatting and taking care of some paper work. Each time the phone rings we pounce on it – it is a friend calling about bridge. It is my brother calling to check in. Finally about an hour and 5 minutes from start we get a call. It is a recorded message. “This is the DMV callback system. If you are … [my mother’s name] please press 1. If you need time to get [my mother’s name] to the phone, please press 2.” I press 1.
The recording responds “The response you have given is not valid. If you are [my mother’s name] please press 1. If you need time to get [my mother’s name] to the phone, please press 2.” I press 1 again, firmly. No good. What is with my Mom’s phone? After the fourth round the recording says “You have exceeded the maximum amount of time allowed to respond. Good-bye.” Click.
The next day Mom gets on the phone again, hangs on hold for awhile, and gets to a real person, who sets her up with a preliminary appointment the next day for a provisional license and a later driving test. Our appointment at the DMV involves minimal waiting and friendly, efficient clerks. Let’s hear it for people!
This bright sunny morning was almost too nice to spend inside, even if “inside” is the Palacio Real, home to the monarchs of Spain beginning in the 18th century. We took our time along the way, stopping into a beautiful local market to admire the produce and incidentals on offer.
At the palace we waited about 10 minutes for entry while being entertained by a guy making giant bubbles and an accordionist playing, inexplicably, “Michele” and “Theme from The Godfather” instead of “Lady of Spain.”
The palace makes Versailles look tawdry. I never imagined so much gold-and-silver-embroidered silk and velvet existed in the world. The extravagance is excused nowadays because the rooms are opened to the public in general for viewing and are otherwise used only for state occasions; the current king prefers to live in more comfort and less pomp in a smaller palace in the suburbs. But still, the amount of wretched excess is a little stomach-turning after viewing the homeless living in cardboard boxes in the arcades of the closed shops in the Plaza Mayor.
The state rooms are, of course, all tapestry, chandeliers, and mirrors, with frescos on the ceilings painted by Tintoretto and Velasquez and other lesser lights. We also got a glimpse of some of the rooms which had been used as private living quarters by various monarchs; these had been decorated to match then-current tastes and ranged from a faux-Tyrolean-beer-hall decor for a billiard room through an all-Chinese porcelain and stucco and tile sitting room to an Empire/Egyptian room with sphinx holding up the table.
A visit to the Royal Armory Museum at the close revealed that the excess had been going on for at least 500 years – a wealth of gilded and engraved armor, including lots of matching miniature armor for the princelings to play in, and elaborate headpieces and breast-plates and rump-covers for the horses, all gilded, lavishly engraved or sculpted, and provided with satin covers and embroidered saddles to finish the look. (None of the kings ever actually fought in these things, although they may have jousted once in a while.)
After leaving the Palacio we took refuge in Taberna de Alabardero, an al fresco stree-tside cafe recommended by Lonely Planet AND Rick Steves, overlooking the palace and gardens. The prices were high and the service slow, but the people-watching was prime.
We finished off the afternoon with a stroll in the Royal Gardens and the Campo del Moro, then caught the Metro back to the hotel. For the evening we enjoyed a gala dinner at nearby Tres Encinas, a rather upscale (for us) seafood restaurant nearby. I seized the opportunity to wear my one “nice” outfit, just so I can say the suitcase space wasn’t wasted.
Our maitre’d was unabashedly charmed by Winifred’s Peruvian-accented Spanish, and monitored our table closely as we divided a wonderful salad of grilled vegetables and prawns (with heads and legs still attached to show how fresh they were) followed by a sole in the same state for the same reason but expertly divided and de-boned, followed by a dessert of chocolate brownie plus trimmings, and a couple of complimentary cuplets of cherry liqueur as a gift of the host. We were very glad we had dressed for the occasion!
The Thyssen-Bornemizso museum is the last of Madrid’s”Big 3″ and perhaps the most cosmopolitan/ecumenical, as it spans from early medieval art through the impressionsts all the way to Roy Lichtenstein and Marc Rothko. In addition to the core collections, this museum had the most intriguing special exhibitions of the Big 3. On the day of our visit we happened on a special exhibit devoted to the influence of open-air painting on the Impressionists. We took this in first, then approached the regular collection already half-dazzled.
The regular collection is now actually TWO collections, that of the Baron and his family which had been a-building for two generations, and that of late-comer Baroness Carmen Tyssen-Bornemizso (a former Miss Spain, and well-qualified judging by the full-length portrait which hangs in the entry gallery). So one is forced to zig and zag from the Middle Ages to the Barbizon school with the Baron, then leap to an unusual collection of American painters from Winslow Homer to Roy Lichtenstein with Carmen, then back to the Renaissance again with Carmen, then back to the Impressionists with the family collection. One wonders why the two collections could not simply be integrated along chronological lines; probably feminism has something to do with it.
A nice small special exhibit of paintings showing women going about daily life rounded off over seven hours at the T-B. There was one more exhibit of modern art entitled “Hyperrealismo” but we ran out of brain cells.
We went back to El Retiro to stop and smell the roses one last time. On this warm sunny Sunday it seemed all Madrid was celebrating La Dia de la Madre in the park: picnicking, strolling with the obligatory gift rose in hand, rowing in the rectangular Estanque. On the way back to the Metro we discovered a street of bookstalls like those along the Seine selling used books of all sorts. I barely resisted “Matilda”, one of my favorites from Roald Dahl. Perhaps in the park we discovered the real elusive center of Madrid.