Grandma Gertie always said there's not a savory dish that can't be made tastier by just a touch of tarragon.

Tsunami and Me

Tsunami and Me
too big to escape now....

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Bowled Over

Last night at the Hollywood Bowl an assortment of musicians and vocalists paid tribute to the 100th birthday of Frank Sinatra. Our attending AAUW group consisted of two carloads of women of a certain age...accompanied by a couple of nieces of one of the members. As we wandered around the Bowl's museum before the concert, one of the teens asked, "What exactly did Frank Sinatra sing? Would I ever have heard any of the songs?"

I was a child in the early '40s, too young to be one of the bobbysoxers who swooned at the crooner's appearances. Nonetheless, the question gave me pause...and throughout the evening I reflected on the fleetingness of fame.

Even as a teen I knew about the performers my grandparents and parents idolized...from Rudy Vallee to Billie Holiday. In junior high, we learned to dance in our PE classes to the swing music of Glenn Miller, even though he'd been more of an icon of our parents than ourselves. By high school we were into Patti Page, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Tony Bennett, but we still swayed to the music of Sinatra when we felt particularly romantic.

The summer I got married, 1955, my husband and I listened to the Hi Lo's, The Four Freshmen and June Christy...but we still loved Sinatra, even when Elvis Presley entered the pop music picture. By the sixties and the British Invasion, I was teaching high school journalism. My students divided their loyalties between the Beach Boys and the Beatles.They alluded to the songs of balladeers and crooners as "wrinkle music." Nonetheless I took one of them to a Sinatra concert in Long Beach, a fundraiser for the Police Officers Association Widows and Orphans Fund...and fifty years later she wrote to me that she never forgot that special event.

So last night, at the tribute, I expected to be blown away, even though other than the Count Basie Orchestra and Seth McFarland I didn't recognize the names of the performers:

Kurt Elling, special guest
José James , special guest
Seu Jorge, special guest
Seth MacFarlane, special guest
John Pizzarelli, special guest
Luciana Souza, special guest
Christian McBride, musical director
Carmen Bradford, special guest

They all were good...but for me the rich baritone of Family Guy creator McFarland was the event's surprise sleeper. Others in my group were familiar with the Scottish man from Connecticut's vocal abilities...he'd studied with Sinatra's vocal coaches...but my only prior exposure to his singing had been an uncomfortable few moments at the 2013 Academy Awards when he sang "We Saw Your Boobs," paying homage to female nominees.

Last night he captured the true Sinatra flavor, the swinging hipness that epitomized the Chairman of the Board,,,the others not so much, though I needed reminding that Sinatra indeed could swing a mean bossa nova.

Sinatra's history at the Bowl, for those who may question if they've ever heard of him, or if they'd recognize one of his songs, is provided on the Bowl's website:

Sinatra made his Hollywood Bowl debut in 1943. Last night's tribute was a sellout for the Bowl. Old Blue Eyes still packs them in.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Late Bloomer: Three Days, Three Gifts

Carnations Thursday,  Sunflowers Friday
Thursday afternoon, as I sat by the pool of my apartment complex, I heard murmurs, "Flowers, somebody's getting flowers," from the BBQ pit behind me. I craned my head around to the left to see who was bringing posies to a lucky someone, just as a bouquet appeared over my right shoulder. One of the people at my table had been practicing "Besame Mucho" on his guitar, and the others began to laugh. "A romantic song and a romantic gesture." It was. It's been many years since a gentleman gave me flowers. I'd invited a friend who to dinner that night and to watch a video. He'd meant to show up at my doorstep with the flowers. Instead, he spotted me on the patio and knew there was no way he could ease his way past me on the way to his building with the flowers without me spying him.

Friday afternoon when I arrived at my apartment door, I found another bouquet fastened to my doorknob. Just that morning I'd given a copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Young at Heart to a resident in my building. She'd read my story, "The Bet," about how I met my late husband. Then a few hours later, as she left her physical therapist's office, she spotted a flower vender hawking freshly cut sunflowers and decided she had to get some for me. My story, that relates the role sunflowers played in the early days of my relationship with Ken Wilson, is pasted below.

This morning I met with one of the Los Angeles County Peace Corps recruiters, who is recruiting her own mother and her mother's close friend, a professor at East Los Angeles College. The women wanted to talk with someone who had served as an older Volunteer. Since I was 50 when I joined back in 1987, Tiffany Tai thought of me, so we rendezvoused at a nearby Spires. Tiffany brought me dragon fruit and Dr. Shirley Huang Batman brought me a handmade pinwheel pen, with a butterfly jewel from Lukang, Changwa, Taiwan.

I never tire of learning...and today I have learned about both a fruit and a town previously unknown to me. Here's some facts about each:

Quick facts about Lugang:

  • It's one of Taiwan's oldest towns,
  • Lukang means "Deer Harbor",
  • it was central Taiwan's most populous city until the 20th century,
  • Lukang's port used to bustle with immigrants and trading junks from mainland China (during the Qing Dynasty),
  • the town is well known for having the most gorgeous temples on the island, curiously curved streets and fine traditional handicrafts.
Quick facts about Dragon Fruit:
  • Pitahaya has edible miniscule black seeds, similar to a kiwi's.
  • The skin is NOT edible.
  • Indigenous to Central America, it is also grown and exported from several Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand and Vietnam. 
  •  While it may seem a little strange at first, it's easy to get to the fruit. Simply slice lengthwise and either scoop out the flesh, or quarter it and peel back the leathery skin.
  • Dragon fruit provides health benefits, from a strengthened immune system and faster healing of bruises and wounds to fewer respiratory problems.

The Bet

(from Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for the Young at Heart)
Why not go out on a limb? Isn’t that where the fruit is?
~Frank Scully

At 62 I didn’t expect to find love. But on New Year’s Eve, l998, when online dating still was considered more risky than routine, I resolved to try Long divorced and just returned from a decade overseas with Peace Corps, I worked in Little Rock, far from my California origins. Dateless for eons, I pictured casual Saturday outings to view Renoirs at the Arts Center or to share fried chicken and a hike at Pinnacle Mountain State Park. Love was for others. I’d settle for companionship.
So masquerading as “Dumpling,” I posted my online bio and personal preferences, and prepared to review my matches. My inbox promptly began to fill with a list of potential dates’ screen names and the distance they lived from my Arkansas home. To learn more, I’d have to click on the profile. Sometimes I sighed at the quirkiness of the computer matchmaker. One match, Bettor, I left unopened…the man lived over 2,000 miles away. Not a good bet for Saturdays in the park.
Those nearby didn’t always prove to be good bets, either. A Kentucky widower wrote that if I helped him raise his four teenage sons he’d provide me with a new washing machine. I passed. A Wichita Falls adventurer invited me on a rafting excursion on the notoriously challenging Cossatot River. We’d have to wait, though, until he convinced his wife that he deserved a weekend away. I declined. An Oklahoman declared he loved my moniker, Dumpling. He bet that I was one enticing fat mama. I didn’t respond.
I finally agreed to meet one local widower for supper at Cajun’s Wharf. The riverside setting, though, reminded him of the seafood dishes his late wife had prepared. Soon he was sobbing into his devilled crab as he recounted her technique with halibut, trout and flounder. By the time he began to wail about her bouillabaisse, I’d finished with my barbecued shrimp…and our date.
Then one day at work my admin assistant, Bev, asked how worked. I pulled up my list, which for months had been headed by Bettor’s unopened profile.
I ran my cursor over his name. “I’ve never written this guy because he’s too far away,” I explained. “And with a name like Bettor, I suspect he’s a gambler. But let’s peek.” 
I clicked on his profile and quickly scanned it. Hmmm. Like me, he appreciated jazz, art, books, dogs, cooking, and travel. What’s more…he sounded sane.
I glanced up at Bev. “I’ve been to the ends of the earth with Peace Corps, so what’s two thousand miles?” I pounded out a quick paragraph introducing myself.
Bev eyed me. “What if he turns out to be The One?”
The next morning I had a response in my inbox.
“My name’s Ken and I think I’m in love,” I read. “I value a coherent message. Bettor is my Nissan’s vanity plate, which amuses friends here in Reno. I deal poker at Circus Circus, but don’t gamble myself, as my three boys will attest.” He added a link to his domain page, dubbed Sunflower.
I hesitated before clicking on it. I didn’t want any kinky surprises. So I was delighted to find that he’d filled his webpage with photos of his three grown sons and assorted grandkids.
 “You and your sons each are more handsome than the others,” I wrote back.
We corresponded with caution, gradually building trust, and then shared our private e-mail addresses. Eventually we traded phone numbers. Friends warned about ax murderers, but I believed in Ken’s sincerity. “I don’t even own a tiny hatchet,” he’d assured me.
Sunday mornings, home from his graveyard shift, Ken would phone. He e-mailed jokes to start my day, and sent gifts, a wooden car, a casino chip, framed photos. Then one day I opened a small box to find a ring with a diamond sunflower. It had belonged to his mother, he wrote.
In turn, I mailed cards with sunflower motifs and a motion-activated potted sunflower that played “You Are My Sunshine,” the only song he claimed he knew the words to, aside from the theme from “Paladin.” We debated how and where we could meet in person, beginning to realize we were falling in love. “I’ve never had a doubt,” Ken swore.
I decided to attend my high school reunion in California and then visit my father’s widow in Napa. Ken drove from Reno to her place to meet me, and we toured the nearby wineries. When we paused for supper that first evening, the waiters all buzzed around after we described our long Internet romance. They produced a bottle of Chardonnay on the house, gazing at us with sappy smiles. We billed and cooed like aging lovebirds.
Weeks later I flew back to Reno for his son’s annual mystery party. I sported a feather boa and toted a stuffed wirehaired terrier, and Ken looked dapper in his rented tuxedo, as we impersonated detectives Nick and Nora Charles from the “Thin Man” movies.
I returned for the holidays, suitcase stuffed with Christmas gifts and decorations, and Ken provided a little tree. His son joined us for Christmas dinner and presented us with a mouse pad that featured us in our “Thin Man” costumes.
On New Year’s Eve afternoon Ken taught me some poker basics so that I could accompany him to work that night. Because of the Y2K fright, though, the card room crowd was sparser than anticipated so he got a phone call from the manager offering him the night off. We rushed out to rent videos, grabbed a bottle of champagne and ordered a pizza.
At midnight we toasted the millennium and made a joint resolution to marry. On July 1, 2000, we wed at his son’s home in Reno. sent us a gift of a Waterford crystal photo frame. It holds a picture of us cutting our cake and sits today on the top shelf of a china cabinet in the living room.
Together Ken and I cruised the Mediterranean, the Baltic, and the Alaska Inner Passage. We hoisted steins in Munich at Oktoberfest. We searched for Nessie in Inverness, and pub-crawled in Dublin. We gardened, played a running gin game, watched “Jeopardy,” and spoiled our two dogs and three cats. I never quite mastered Texas Hold ‘Em. For nine years Ken e-mailed me those daily jokes. We survived surgeries, spats, falls and fractures. We wandered those art galleries and picnicked on fried chicken, just as I had envisioned. I confess that Ken sauntered, rather than hiked.
After a lingering illness, my sweet Bettor died last spring. But opening his profile proved to be my best bet ever. He indeed turned out to be The One, my sunshine, my love. He’s left me with a myriad of precious memories.
You can bet that I adore technology. Who knew that it would lead me to companionship…and to love?


Friday, July 3, 2015

Still Connecting at the Cobblestone: Uncle Jam, Alive and Well

Ubiquitous Pinocchio
The new issue of Uncle Jam now is online here:

This particular issue contains my two of my stories:
 "Revisiting Lisa See," and "March Madness: An Italian Getaway."

I began to write for this arts magazine back in the late '70s, not long after finishing my MSW program at UCLA. I've written in a previous issue how I became involved with the publication and the role it's played in my life.
First Venetian gondola ride for me

Lisa See, San Pedro, May 2015

Connecting at the Cobblestone

“There was a definite process by which one made people into friends, and it involved talking to them and listening to them for hours at a time.” –Rebecca West

I’d never felt so totally alone. I wasn’t stranded at one of the Poles, nor on a Pacific atoll. No, I lived in a densely populated area, Los Angeles County. Still I felt like the Ancient Mariner surrounded by plenty of water, but with nary a drop to drink. People crowded my life. People everywhere, but nary an ear to listen…nor a heart to open.

My husband rarely had a minute to spare. He worked a 10-hour, four-day week. We had different days off. He devoted his spare time to 12-step work with recovering patients at the hospital where he’d found sobriety. I’d always be welcome to accompany him, but I’d wearied of hearing about sad struggles, no matter how courageous they might be.

I heard enough harrowing tales at work. After earning an MSW at UCLA, I was employed as a psychiatric social worker at Los Angeles County’s residential center for abused and neglected children who awaited placement. Because of our mutual concerns about the children’s welfare, my colleagues and I mostly exchanged practical suggestions and words of encouragement. Our clients’ issues were so critical that taking time to discuss the new Indiana Jones flick or the latest Eagles recording would have seemed frivolous.

Beyond greeting neighbors in the lobby of our condominium, I didn’t socialize with others in the building. Most were elderly retirees living on limited incomes, who mainly seemed concerned with condo rules and regulations.

Even my son, who’d always been good for a chat about Shakespeare or a meteor shower, was a college junior, working nights as a copy boy at the local daily. Where we’d once chuckled together at the televised antics of Mary Richards or Mary Hartman, we now dropped hurried notes for one another on the kitchen counter.

One afternoon when I stopped by for a bouquet at my favorite florist, I picked up a copy of Uncle Jam. A sprightly tabloid, the free paper carried articles about authors and artists, travel and the environment, all illustrated with wildly innovative drawings, many by its publisher, graphic artist Phil Yeh, who owned the Cobblestone Gallery.

I hadn’t seen this paper before, but when I’d finished reading it I wondered if the publisher would be interested in anything I could contribute. A writer since childhood and a former journalism teacher, I hadn’t been writing lately. Maybe if I started to write again, I’d feel less alone. I stopped by the Cobblestone Gallery to inquire. I might as well have been Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. That’s how much my world changed.

“What would you like to write about?” Phil asked.

“Health, psychology, social issues, travel, literature?”

“Great,” he said. “You’ll be our social welfare editor.” Phil assigned titles to anyone willing to help with the paper. One fellow who’d ducked in from an adjacent bus stop to escape a rainstorm became the letters editor.

Uncle Jam didn’t have deadlines or assigned word lengths, or even regular publication dates. Instead, it appeared at irregular intervals. “We publish whenever we have enough people in one room to do it,” Phil claimed.

“Why are you hanging out with those guys?” my son asked. “They’re closer to my age than to yours.”

Two decades difference might have seemed an insurmountable divide to my son at that time, since he hadn’t yet inched very far into his twenties. But in my forties I no longer considered age as a determinant in making friends. I needed some, and age didn’t matter one whit.

One such new friend was a musician, Chris Statler, who’d been writing movie reviews. He and I teamed to cover a Grand Prix wet T-shirt contest on the Queen Mary. We wrote about what it’s like to float in a sensory deprivation tank, and why listening to the Beatles tribute band, Rain, differed from hearing the Fab Four themselves.

I sought new adventures, to ensure I’d have something to write about before the next issue went to press, whenever that might be. I enrolled in a series of aerobic dancing classes, and ventured forth on a Phillip Marlowe tour of downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica, sponsored by a San Fernando Valley mystery bookstore. I wrote about both.

I interviewed the late Aldous Huxley's spouse, Laura, about her Project Caress. I attended novelist Carolyn See's literary conferences at Loyola Marymount where I interviewed such writers as Herbert Gold, A. Scott Berg and Alice Adams. I wrote about New Year's Eve in Times Square, seeing in the '80s. I covered my first trip to England, where I encountered the ghost of Dr. Samuel Johnson.

And I started to hang out with Julie Ahlers, the paper’s ad manager. We bonded nearly instantly. I hadn’t had such a close girlfriend since high school. Julie and I would phone one another daily or meet for a glass of wine at the Paradise Cafe. We had so much to confide. We would sit and stare at one another, breathing heavily, until one or the other said, “OK, you go first!”

Julie’s confidences involved adventures selling advertisements, tangled romantic attachments, and family problems typical of a young woman seeking independence. Mine centered on my growing awareness that my marriage was on the verge of collapse.

Eventually I did divorce, but my Cobblestone friends helped me through the transition, with open ears, open arms and open hearts. We created, and we chattered. We waited until midnight at the gallery for a truck to deliver the latest issue, and then headed for Mom’s to celebrate with a glass or wine or a cup of coffee. We’d stage afterhours parties in the back of the gallery, where noted Conan the Barbarian cartoonist Alfredo Alcala would do pencil drawings of all the girls on paper plates. Greeting card artist Flavia, would drop in from time to time, and we’d volunteer suggestions for cards we’d like her to attempt.

But we also worked…and worked into the midnight hours, as well. I remember waiting with Janet Valentine for Greg Rickman’s voluminous latest installment on his series of interviews with Philip K. Dick. Rickman would rush in the door at 9:30 the night before the paper was due to go to print. Janet Valentine and I would hunch over the copy, editing until the wee small hours.

In 1987 I joined the Peace Corps and was gone for a decade. Most of the Cobblestone gang eventually drifted away from Long Beach, but still kept in intermittent touch. Each time I visit Southern California, for instance, I get together with Chris at a used book store he’s managed for decades. We talk about the old days and what we’re writing now.

Several years ago I had to go to Virginia for a conference. Julie, who lived not far from Williamsburg, drove over to meet me for dinner, and we revisited “you go first.” Julie, married and then divorced, children grown, was about to remarry. I’d remarried and then became a widow. Through all the changes we remain connected by heartstrings. Even now I carry a plastic unicorn key ring she gave me for my birthday in l987, right before I went overseas with the Peace Corps.

Not long ago, Phil resurrected Uncle Jam as a glossy full-color quarterly. I rejoined the crowd, contributing such pieces as how I prepared to attend the University of Cambridge International Summer School, my conversation with Peter S. Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn, and, for a celebratory 100th issue, why I love to sip cider in Somerset.

Thirty plus years down the line, we’re all reconnected on Facebook. Recently Phil posted a message on my wall to let me know that the next Uncle Jam would be devoted to the new science fiction subgenre, steampunk. Would I write about its roots in Victorian literature? Sure. So I revisited H. G. Wells, full steam ahead. Maybe Chris would be interested in collaborating again soon. Everything old is new again.

Just as that Ancient Mariner found “goodly company” with a wedding guest, I found it with the Cobblestone crowd. It’s still Wonderland. We create, chatter and…connect. We’re forever friends.