What kind of life?

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This weekend we attended a memorial service to celebrate the life of a young man who passed earlier this fall.  He was sitting on the balcony railing at his college, telling a friend on the phone how much he was enjoying himself, how happy and proud he felt to have reached this point in his life when he lost his balance and fell backward.  He only fell seven feet, but he suffered head trauma that left him comatose. Two days later he passed away.

The memorial was a sad occasion for all the reasons you’d expect. A life cut short. A family consumed by grief. Hundreds of people gathered to ponder the randomness of it all.  But what I so appreciated about the service, what I’ll think about frequently for days to come, is the way the young man’s family talked about how he lived his life. “He was never embarrassed,” his father said.  “When he got into trouble, it was because he refused to be anything other than true to himself.”  “He wasn’t afraid of anything,” his mother said. “His first word was ‘more.’ He always wanted more of everything.”

Near the end of the service, the minister read the last three stanzas of a Mary Oliver poem. The title is “When Death Comes,” but it’s actually a meditation on life. The whole poem, but especially the last three stanzas, beg us to consider how we spend the time we’re given.  It challenges us to think about what we do with our days, how we want to feel looking back on our lives when the clock finally runs out. There are questions I frequently ask myself. They are the questions that drive me, that push me forward, that inspire me.

I talk a lot on this blog about being awake and open-hearted and taking chances; about the importance of cherishing the people who mean something to us, and the value of staying connected. But what I don’t often say is that I know it’s not easy and I don’t always succeed. Walking the safer path requires less of us, and honestly, sometimes, for a while, it just feels better. The most startling remark the young man’s parents made was that in a way, they were happy their son passed when he did because he left this life on a high note. He had the privilege of living each day passionately and authentically. He never knew the feeling of being ground down. He never had to settle for a life carved by fear. Who knows. Maybe he never would have. But I think there’s a greater chance of that happening as we get older.

I’ve been accused, in the past, of being a dreamer and a romantic, of viewing the world through rose-colored glasses. My dad used to say that I was too impatient. But what I know is that I’ve learned my lesson. I’ve squandered my share of days and let years slip away because I was afraid to dream big and take a chance. I’m not advocating being reckless or irresponsible.  It’s just that I’ve come to believe that sometimes, when we tell ourselves we’re being pragmatic and realistic what we’re really doing is giving up, and that strikes me as the biggest tragedy of all.

The writer, Annie Dillard, is famous for saying, “How we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives.” I’d like to think that when my time is up, I’ll look back on everything I’ve done and be pleased. If I have regrets, I hope that it’s because I didn’t get to everything on my list rather than not having a list at all. That I will have lived what my friend, Laura, calls as a “memoir-worthy life.”  This doesn’t mean I’ll have jumped out of a plane, or climbed the highest mountain, or accumulated a house-ful of stuff.  What it does mean, is that like the young man whose memorial I attended, I lived fully and authentically. That I took all this world had to offer, and was always curious to know what waited for me around the bend.

I’m posting the entire poem but you can skip to the last three stanzas, which are in bold.

When Death Comes – A Poem by Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps his purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

~ Mary Oliver ~

Handmade: Lavender Sugar

Raw sugar from Enterprise Plantation, Jeanerette, LA

Raw sugar from Enterprise Plantation, Jeanerette, LA

I spent all of yesterday with my friend, Sarah. She’s in the Bay Area for a few days before she heads up to Seattle where she teaches.  Saturday in San Francisco means a trip to the Ferry Building farmer’s market so I met Sarah at the BART station and we walked over. It was a beautiful day–sunny, but with a chill in the air–and the market was bustling with post-holiday shoppers.

I didn’t go the market with the intention of buying anything. My only desire was to be with my friend–to hear how her life is unfolding, what she imagines for herself in the new year.  And Sarah, who lives in New York, was just as happy to surrender to whimsey. “All I want to do is sit in the sun,” she said, so we decided to wander around for a bit, then buy a cup of coffee for her and tea for me, and find a bench overlooking the bay.  But there was lavender for sale at the first stall we passed–bundles of pale dried stems wrapped in tissue paper, linen sacks of loose buds piled in a galvanized pail–and I couldn’t resist. So I bought a bundle. I would have been happy to bring it home to display just as it was, but I saw that the vendor was selling jars of lavender sugar too.  She asked if I’d like a sample, and of course I said yes.

I always appreciate the products of other peoples’ creativity, but rarely do I see a beautifully woven garment, or a hand carved wooden bowl, or a finely crafted leather good, and say to myself, “I can do that.”  I know better.  I know how many thousands of hours it takes to get good or even decent at something.  I know the commitment required to master ones craft. But when I tasted the lavender sugar, the thought that came to mind was, “I can make this.”  The question was, where could I get the sugar? Then I remembered the bags of raw sugar my friend Peter gave me on a recent visit to Louisiana. We were at his house for a photo shoot and after dinner, Peter gave each guest a paper bag filled with sugar from his family’s sugar mill.

What makes me so happy about my latest culinary project is that it combines so many good memories.  It takes me back to that day in Patouville when, in the company of good friends, I was lucky enough to get a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into making beautiful photographs. A long day of cooking and prepping, arranging and re-arranging to get the perfect shot before the sun slipped behind the cane fields. It reminds of my leisurely day with Sarah. A day spent wandering the city, and cooking together, and never running out of things to talk about. The perfect blend of two perfect days. I’m very grateful for these reminders of how sweet life can be.

My New Year’s Day Wish

Unknown On this first day of the New Year, I find myself thinking about my friends. Any of you who’ve followed the blog know that I’m blessed to have some really fine people in my life. Writing a post that catalogs a bunch of silly resolutions strikes me as frivolous and self-indulgent. So, instead, I’d like to dedicate this post to my friends. You are all so talented and creative, so interesting, and thoughtful, and kind. I am in awe of your minds, and am deeply moved by the generosity of your spirits. I have learned from you, and laughed with you, and carry you with me every day. You have enriched my life in more ways that I can count, and I have done my best to return the favor.

As we look ahead to 2015, a year that promises to be even more interesting, even more of an adventure than the year that just passed, I wish you good health, peace of mind, and fullness of heart.  Most of all, I hope that you continue to live big and dream bigger. Each of you, in your own way, has an eye for beauty, a voracious appetite for life, and I am inspired by your relentless pursuit of it. Continue to be bold and passionate and courageous. And wherever you are–San Francisco or Berkeley, Santa Fe or NYC, Nashville, New Orleans, or Flat Top Mountain, know that I wishing you all good things.

Thank you for everything.

Omakase

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live sea scallop

In the Baszile / Parker house, Fridays mean sushi. We usually order from the place around the corner and have it delivered. We call with such regularity, the owners recognize our voices. “Is this Parker on 6th Avenue?” they ask.  Once, after a long flight from the east coast, we called from the airport–while we waited for our bags in baggage claim. It was almost 10 o’clock–closing time–but the owners stayed open until we got there almost an hour later.

This past Friday, we interrupted our normal routine and went for sushi across the park at a place called Ebisu.  It’s a popular spot but they don’t take reservations, so if you want to sit at the bar you have to get there when they open at 5:00 p.m.  We arrived closer to 6:00, but still managed to beat the rush.  A short twenty-minute wait and we slid into three chairs at the bar then introduced ourselves to the chef.

If eating sushi could be compared to skiing, I’d be a solid advanced-intermediate. I’m quite comfortable on the blue runs and will try the occasional black diamond, but let’s not get crazy.  Rainbow, caterpillar or shrimp tempura rolls are my standard go-to choices. Add unagi negiri (eel) and a couple pieces of yellow tail or amberjack sashimi and I’m good to go.  But last Friday, I was with WP and Sweetpea who take sushi eating to a whole new level.

“Omakase” is a Japanese phrase which means “I’ll leave it to you,” and it’s what WP and Sweetpea said when our sushi chef asked what we’d like to order.  The chef smiled. “Ah, very good.”  He nodded in my direction as he gently pinched and squeezed a clump of rice into a tight rectangular dome. “And you?”  A chalkboard hung on the walk behind the sushi counter announcing the day’s specials.  The lobster roll and something called the “XXX Roll” had already caught my eye and I was salivating, imagining the flavors. “I’ll start with Amberjack and Yellowtail,” I said. I looked at WP and Sweetpea.  They glanced at each other and rolled their eyes.  WP leaned toward the chef and said something I couldn’t quite hear, but judging from the chef’s expression, it was probably something like, “She’s a lightweight.”

The chef nodded.  “I urge you to try the yellowtail. It’s very good. The amberjack . . .?” He made a face.  “But I will prepare the yellowtail my way.  You will be happy.”

WP and Sweetpea grinned.

A few minutes later, the chef laid three pieces of yellowtail sushi on the counter.  Each piece was topped with a tiny pile of what looked to be yellowtail tartar.  “No soy sauce,” said the chef.  “Eat it as it is.”

I put whole piece in my mouth . . .

I’ve had good sushi before.  All I can tell you is that after I ate that piece of yellowtail, everything changed.  To say that the flavor was delicate, to describe it as merely fresh doesn’t do the experience justice.  It was perfect. That’s all I can say. No soy sauce. No ginger. Just rice and fish.  “Okay,” I said. “Omakase.”

If you’ve ever ridden a mountain bike down a narrow trail or navigated the backwoods on one of those three-wheel ATVs, you know the sensation I’m trying to describe.  At some point you realize that the best thing you can do is relax your shoulders and not grip the handle bars too tightly.  That’s what I experienced for the next hour as I allowed the chef to prepare our meal:  Wafer-thin slices of mackerel, which has the reputation for tasting “fishy” but which, in our chef’s hands, was sweet and tasted only of the sea, served with the actual mackerel skeleton pulled into a bow-shape so that it looked like a small sailing ship. In the next course, the chef presented the same mackerel skeleton–deep fried to a delicate crispiness–which we somehow managed to break into pieces and eat without a single bone sticking in our throats.  Next came the live sea scallop pictured above, served on its own shell with a wedge of lemon and a mysterious hot and spicy dipping sauce. Delicious.  Then it was on to the blue fin tuna belly–rich and meaty–that looked like a small slab of raw Kobe beef. It was so buttery, I could hardly believe it was a fish at all.  Next came some kind of fish liver, cooked to the consistency of foie gras, followed by a hand roll of another kind of tuna (I think) gently tossed in some kind of mayo and served with rice, daikon sprouts and egg roe.  Three decadent courses in a row. A little challenging, but ultimately delicious.

Before I go on, I have to remind you that I began this post with the honest admission: I’m perfectly happy with my status as an advanced-intermediate skier. Only occasionally do I feel the need to challenge myself with black diamond runs and when I take the chance, the conditions have to be pretty perfect:  good visibility, powdery snow, just enough moguls to make it interesting but not so many that I blow out my knees.  If I ski a black diamond run, I prefer that it not be my last run of the day because if I wipe out, I don’t want to leave the slopes with that as my strongest memory.

So I have to wonder what I was thinking when I saw what the chef had prepared for our last course.  Let me digress.  The one thing I told the chef when I sat down at the bar was that I did not care for sea urchin.  Let me repeat that. To be precise, I said:  I DO NOT CARE FOR SEA URCHIN. NOT IN A HOUSE, NOT WITH A MOUSE, NOT IN A CAR, NOT IN A BAR.  I DO NOT LIKE  SEA URCHIN OR GREEN EGGS AND HAM.  I DO NOT LIKE IT SAM I AM!!!  I don’t like the way it looks; I don’t like the texture; I don’t like the way it feels in my mouth.

So I probably should have said something when I head the chef say, “For your last course, I will prepare sea urchin.”  But did I?  NO! because I was already on the ride.  My hands were strapped to the handle bars and there was no turning back. I’d said the magic word, “Omakase,” and I didn’t want insult the man.

You may recall a previous post from a couple summers ago about my frogging adventure in the Franklin Canal.  It was all fine and good until it was my turn to grab the frog and then I totally chickened out. I just couldn’t do it.  That was the memory that played through my mind when the chef laid the last course in front of me.  It was an oyster shell filled with a raw oyster, a generous dollop of glistening red egg roe, a tiny raw quail egg, Yes A RAW QUAIL EGG, and–if those three ingredients weren’t gooey and slippery enough–THREE slices of sea urchin.  I stared at my plate and tried to swallow as the last three courses rose up into my throat. I looked up to see WP and Sweetpea staring at me.

“You gotta do it,”  Sweetpea said with a shit-eating grin on her face.

“You can’t turn back now,” WP said, looking smug and satisfied.

“Eat it in one bite,” said the chef.  “But don’t just swallow.  You must chew.”

So I did.  I grabbed that fucking oyster shell, held it to my lips, and tried not to think about what would happen next.  I opened my mouth and felt the whole God-awful-slippery-slimy-stomach-turning-vomit-inducing combination slide onto my tongue. I chewed and felt the egg roe burst along my cheeks. A little bit of the raw oyster mixed with the quail egg, and all that mixed the sea urchin–and I kept chewing even though, honestly, I thought I was going to either vomit or pass out. Talk about a mouthful. I chewed and chewed and I chewed and tried not to think about how I’d feel later that night or the next morning.

And then I swallowed.

I had to sit there for a full minute before I could even take a sip of my tea.

But you know what?  I did it.  I looked at WP.  I looked at Sweetpea.  I drained my tea cup and looked over at the chef who was smiling.  “Very good.”

And you know what? In a strange, out-of-body-experience kind of way that I never want to repeat . . . it was.

Round Midnight

I’ve been working on a post about a wonderful meal I had at a new restaurant last weekend, but I’ve decided to write this post instead. It could be that I’ve decided I’m not good at writing about food. I’m not a food critic, and it’s hard to describe food in a way that will make you taste what I tasted. I didn’t take any pictures of the items I ordered, I don’t have much to work with. So you’ll just have to come out here and dine at State Bird Provisions.  I guarantee, it’ll be a meal you’ll remember for a long time. But maybe it’s also because summer is winding to a close, and it’s been a cloudy day here, and I’m sitting in my office surrounded by my favorite books,  feeling wistful and slightly dreamy that writing about music seems more appealing.  Earlier today I read a friend’s Facebook post about her adventures in Paris.  She moved earlier this summer and plans to stay for three years.  Lucky dog.  Anyway, thoughts of Paris were still on my mind when later, I came across one of my favorite CDs–the soundtrack to ‘Round Midnight’–tucked into my bookshelf.  The movie, the story of a young French man and a die-hard jazz fan who befriends American expat and jazz musician Dale Turner (played by Dexter Gordon) is  based on the true story of a friendship between a Frenchman, Francis Paudras, and American piano player, Bud Powell. It’s is one of my favorites. Filmed in black & white and shot on the narrow, cobblestone streets of Paris (well, probably a movie set created to look like the streets of Paris), it’s everything I love a movie to be: romantic, leisurely paced, and slightly tragic. I was in college the first time I saw ‘Round Midnight,’ and I remember leaving the theater and walking straight to the local music store to buy the CD.

My piano teacher, Tatiana, used to say that “music is the language of the gods,” and listening to the soundtrack just now, I have to agree.  Every song on the soundtrack fills me with an ache, a sense of melancholy and longing that I find simultaneously searing and delicious.  I’ve written other posts about how much jazz means to me, how it’s one of the few musical genres, maybe the only one, that penetrates my very being.  And I’m not the only one.  My youngest daughter, Sweet Pea, feels the same way.  Earlier this evening I picked her up from basketball practice and we tuned into the local jazz station on the ride home.  Art Pepper’s “When the Sun Comes Out” came on and Sweet Pea gasped and turned up the volume–just loud enough–and we drove the last few blocks in silence, both of us swept up in the music.  The song was still playing as we pulled into the driveway, and Sweet Pea, sweaty, tired and hungry, asked if we could sit for a few minutes while the song played.  “Can we just just close our eyes and listen?”  So, we did. We sat together in the dark and listened to the music.  When the song ended, she turned to me and said, simply, “Jazz.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I know.”

So, now I’m back upstairs. It’s dark outside and Autumn’s first breath of cold air is seeping through the shutters.  But that’s okay.  I have my books to keep me company,  I’m listening to ‘Round Midnight,’ and I have that good, tucked-in feeling.  Here’s Dexter Gordon playing an extended version of “Round Midnight.”  Lean back, close your eyes, and listen.

Fiction & Truth

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Occasionally, I read a story that causes something within me to shift.  The stories in Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, get me every time. The same with Jo Ann Beard’s “Cousins,” and Annie Proulx’s “Broke Back Mountain.” It doesn’t matter that I’ve read each of those stories a dozen times. By the time I finish the last paragraph I’m on the brink of tears if I haven’t stopped mid-sentence, somewhere along the way, to weep. It sounds melodramatic, I know, but I’m being honest.  I can’t seem to read these stories without feeling a clench in my chest, a tightening in my gut, a twist in my heart. What do they all have in common?  They’re all so true; at least to me. Each of them contains a moment or moments that I’ve lived, that I’ve endured, and the pain embodied in that recognition is both delicious and devastating. Connections made and lost. Wishing for what will never be. Accepting what is.

This morning I came across the story, “Italy” by Antonio Elefano, and I knew almost immediately, it was a story I had to add to the list.  If I needed further convincing, the last line pushed me over the edge. It’s like Emerson said:  “Fiction reveals the truth that reality obscures.”  Click the link and see for yourself.  Just remember, I warned you.

Richard Mayhew

I bought my first piece of fine art when I was a sophomore in college.  It was a framed pastel print of two young girls sitting together on a sidewalk, on what seemed to be, judging from their floral sun dresses and bare feet, and the hazy purpling background, a warm summer evening.  I’ve long forgotten the artist’s name, but I do recall that the print’s title was “Sisters,” and that it captured a moment of intimacy not too unlike those my sister and I had often shared. The print cost $125–a fortune to a struggling college kid like me–and I think the gallery owner let me pay in installments, which I paid off in just enough time to wrap, haul back to Los Angeles, and give to my mother as a Christmas gift. I was extremely proud of that purchase, and my mother must have understood that because while many far more valuable pieces hang on the walls at her house, the sisters print still hangs above her desk, in the room that used to be my bedroom, which is now her home office.

The funny thing is, I don’t like that print any more. In fact, on the rare occasions when I go home, I can barely look at it.  It’s too sentimental, too literal–which is my complaint about most of the pieces I bought in the early years of my budding career as a collector. Take the first William Tolliver painting I bought. I was in New Orleans, and passed by Bob Crutchfield’s Gallerie Royale on Royal Street in the French Quarter. My dad and I were walking back to our hotel after dinner and just happened to stroll past the gallery window. It was late, and the gallery was closed, but William Tolliver’s painting of a group of jazz musicians stopped me in my tracks.  The canvas was easily four feet square, with the silhouettes of tall, slender, Giacometti-like figures grouped together around a piano. The palette was a cool–various shades of blue from cornflower to ultramarine–with a dab of yellow and a flick of red that added heat and light. It was a stunning painting and I had to have it.  The next day, I went back to the gallery and bought it. I think it cost $1200 dollars but honestly, I can’t remember. For years, that painting hung in our home; first, on the wall in our downtown condo, then in the living room of our first Pasadena bungalow, then above the mantel in our ranch-turned-Spanish-style house in Palos Verdes. I loved that painting. But by the time we moved to San Francisco I’d grown tired of it. My complaint was the same:  it was too sentimental; too literal; too representational. The whole story was right there on the canvas; there was little if any room left for my imagination.

I guess it’s no surprise that over the years my taste in art has evolved.  I’m not the same person I was when I made those early purchases, so how could it not? Life’s challenges, its thrills and its sorrows, have tempered and tested me.  Where I once preferred figurative pieces, my eye is now soothed by abstraction. My mind craves peace and quiet. I feel more confident letting my imagination fill the blank spaces in the narrative. I’m more comfortable with complication and complexity.

Which explains why I love Richard Mayhew’s work; why I have since the first time I saw one of his paintings, a small landscape, hanging on the wall in a friend’s studio. “Looking at a painting by Richard Mayhew,” Mary Schmidt Campbell writes in the introduction to the Studio Museum in Harlem’s catalog of his work, “is like listening to a poem for the first time. The complete meaning is not immediately apparent but as the images flash and linger, as the rhythms run their course, a mood vibrates and a precise impression stays behind. A precise impression–that is the nature of the poetry of Mayhew’s abstractions.”

So true. . .

Last year, just about this time, one of Richard Mayhew’s paintings was included in the Kinsey Collection exhibit at the Museum of the African Diaspora here in San Francisco. ssred-bush MoAD had already featured Mayhew in a solo retrospective, but I missed it, so I was glad to finally have a chance to see one of his paintings in person. Better still, the day my friend, Claire, and I went to the museum to hear a lecture about the collection, Richard Mayhew was there!  He sstood in the gallery a few feet from his painting, surrounded by a small group of admirers.  We waited until they finished talking then approached, and asked if he’d sign a copy of his book.  He did, and when I told him how much I loved his work, he invited us to visit his studio, then wrote his phone number on the paper bag that contained my newly signed book. When I got home, I tore off the section of paper and tacked it on my bulletin board. I’ve been staring at it for almost a year. Then last week, something made me pick up the phone and dial.

It took about an hour and a half to drive from San Francisco down to Soquel, the town near Santa Cruz where Mayhew lives.  By the time I pulled into his driveway and parked, he’d come outside to greet me. For the next hour, we sat on his back deck overlooking the valley and the rolling hills on the other side. My vocabulary is limited when it comes to art. Aside from the one art history class I took in college, I’ve never studied painting or color theory.  Still, I wanted to understand how his  mind worked, what he saw and what inspired him. I was curious to know what he felt while he painted. Mayhew talked about shape, color, and form. How the trees that grew along the opposite ridge looked blue at a certain time of day. Richard_Mayhew_Spiritual_Retreat_1280_120   He talked about time, space, and illusion, and how it takes time for the mind to catch up with what the eye sees. He did a quick gesture with his hand to demonstrate.  He explained that even though there seem to be objects in his paintings, trees or rivers, his paintings are really about feeling and mood, then he pointed to the Japanese plum whose uppermost branches stretched above his roof and said that the tree’s deep purple leaves gave him a certain feeling. He said that every artists, whether a painter or a writer or a  musician, experiences what he described as “internal creativity,” a creativity that is spiritual. That’s why he paints landscapes, he said. Because they are based on a spiritual sensitivity.  And you now what? I understood exactly what he was talking about.

Richard Mayhew is actually two-thirds Native American only one-third African-American.  In fact, the correct Native American spelling of his name is “Mayhue.” But growing up, he felt that there was more of an African-American cultural presence so he identified as such. “Native Americans are invisible in this culture,” he said. But he still feels strongly connected to his Native American heritage, which is why he wears the necklace you see in the picture below. And his work, his interest in the harmony between nature and man, is a constant theme in his work. IMG_3214 Even now, it’s hard for me to articulate all the ideas we talked about.  The best way to describe our conversation is to say that it had a lot to do with what you can’t say, what you can only sense or feel in your gut.  I invite you to watch this video, which does a much better job of exploring Mayhew’s work than I can.

Do you notice, in the video, that there’s a moment (at 6:22) when Richard Mayhew points to a place on the canvas and sings a few bars of jazz improvisation as he describes his work?  He did that as he showed me a painting he was currently working on, and just like everything else we talked about, it made complete sense. Because it’s not just about painting; it’s about how painting is like music and writing, and what occurs when all those things intersect; what Mayhew described as “The Great Happening.”

There are so many reasons why I love Mayhew’s work.  I love the colors and the shapes and the way my mind feels like it’s expanding as my eye travels across the canvas.  I love the openness, the depth, and the stillness, and the sensation of falling into his mysterious landscapes the way I fall into beloved books. I love that his heritage informs his work, but that his paintings aren’t limited by race. But as I said, my vocabulary is limited. I barely have the words. I do know this:  I will never get tired of looking at Mayhew’s paintings. Each time I look, I’ll know I’ll see and feel something familiar–and that’s a great comfort–but I’ll also see and feel differently. Because I’ll be different. Older, wiser, and hopefully, richer in spirit.  Ever changing, always evolving, more connected.

To strive, to see, to find, and not to yield.

Exactly.

Trouble Coffee & Coconut Club

A few weeks ago, I heard a This American Life segment about a San Francisco coffee shop called Trouble Coffee.  It’s not unusual for San Francisco, with all of its creative people and innovators, to be featured in news stories, but what I loved in this case, what was so refreshing, was that this story wasn’t about someone who’d founded a hot new start-up or created a cool app. In fact, the opposite was true. This was a story about a place that was sort of off the beaten path, about a person who wasn’t particularly cutting edge. In fact, this seemed to be a story about a person who was barely holding on, but who’d found a way to secure a place for herself in spite of all the odds stacked against her.  I won’t rob you of the pleasure of hearing for yourself, so you can click here if you’re interested.  What I will say is that after hearing the story, I was, understandably, curious to see this place for myself.

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The first time I stopped by, last Sunday morning, the place was packed. The line was out the door, and people–mostly young parents with kids and a few surfer-types–were lounging all over the little parklet* out front. I was short on time so I didn’t stop, vowing instead to come back during the week when the place would surely be less crowded. Today was the day.

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Trouble Coffee isn’t big, which probably explains why the line was so long. There’s a narrow counter made of what looked like stained drift wood, and few seat seats in the window. Most of the space is taken up by the work area–the espresso machine, the racks packed with unsliced Pullman loaves, the small counter where they make the cinnamon toast, and the cold case where they keep the coconuts. That’s it.

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The weather these last couple days has been unseasonably warm.  Today’s high was ninety-one degrees–not exactly ideal conditions for a small latte and a slice of warm, buttery cinnamon toast, but that’s what the place is known for, so that’s what I ordered.  I don’t like coconut so that wasn’t an option.  I placed my order and watched the guy behind the counter drop an inch-thick slice of white bread into the toaster.  By the time he fixed my latte, the toast was ready. I’m a 1970s latch-key kid, and due mostly to my limited culinary skills, I’ve had a lot of experience with cinnamon toast.  I spent plenty of after-school hours snacking on cinnamon toast while watching “Simba The White Lion” and “Speed Racer.” Aside from being slightly singed, the cinnamon toast at Trouble Coffee looked, not surprisingly, pretty good: a generous slathering of butter and just enough cinnamon sugar sprinkled on top to form a nice crust.

“That’ll be seven dollars,” said the guy behind the counter.

Seven dollars. Really?

There’s no menu at Trouble Coffee, at least not that I saw, so I did a quick calculation in my head.  Any way I sliced it (no pun intended) that was either a cheap piece of toast and very expensive cup of coffee, or a cheap coffee and a very expensive piece of toast.  I handed the guy my money and took my snack outside.

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I bet you’re wondering if Julietta, the woman who owns Trouble Coffee was there today. She was.  When I walked up, she was sitting outside in the parklette, talking to a guy in jeans and a nicely-ironed checkered shirt. He looked like a reporter . . . or a hipster interested in helping her start a franchise.  At first I wasn’t sure if it was her.  In the This American Life piece, she says she wears the same outfit every day–sleeveless crop top and jeans–but today she’d ditched the jeans for a black miniskirt, which, given how hot it was, was a good fashion choice.  Her head was wrapped in a striped scarf and her arms and legs were covered with tattoos. She looked pretty friendly but I didn’t think it would be too cool if I tried to take her picture. Anyway, as I walked by I caught a bit of their conversation.  Yep–the same gravely voice from the radio.  By the time I got my coffee and my toast and found a seat, she’d issued some final instructions to the guy behind the counter and walked up the street.  It was about 5:30, so I guess she was going home. Either that, or she was going to buy more cups.

I don’t mean to sound Pollyanna, but one of the things I love most about San Francisco is the people. We really have all types, and you get the sense, walking about, that everyone has an interesting story. Will I visit Trouble Coffee again soon?  Probably not.  There’s a perfectly good coffee shop a couple blocks from my house and I’m not eager to pay $3.50 for a piece of cinnamon toast not matter how thick and buttery. If I have that strong a craving, I’ll make my own. But am I glad I stopped by?  You bet. I like knowing that not everything about San Francisco involves technology. It’s comforting to see that it’s still possible to be a regular joe; that a person can carve out a place for herself and find community, no matter how rocky the road has been.

* the parklet:  a move, in urban areas, to increase the number of pedestrian-friendly zones by allowing businesses to colonize parking spaces in front of their establishments and convert them into seating areas.  Click here for visuals.

 

Still Life

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My friend, Mary Jane, sent these flowers the other day as a thank you for talking to her book group.  They’ve been sitting on my living room table, filling the air with the faint fragrance of spring.  Earlier this afternoon, I passed through the living room and noticed that the blossoms had begun wilt, the stems to droop.  I’m not sure what compelled me, but I sat on the sofa and took a few minutes to ponder how quickly the last few weeks have come and gone.

This time last week my book party had just ended and I had a few precious hours left with some of my Louisiana pals.  We’d had an action-packed seven days–the party and brunch the next day, dinners here to welcome them to San Francisco and to celebrate my oldest’s birthday, walking tours, wine tasting and orchard exploring in Napa; we’d hunted for antiques in Petaluma, and even managed to squeeze in an afternoon visit to Muir Woods–all with hardly a moment’s rest.  I’d spent years dreaming of that special week, and I’d not been disappointed. Those seven days were everything I’d imagined, everything I’d hoped for. But all of a sudden, we were down the final hours. How had the time passed so quickly?  Happy as I was, it was hard not to feel a little weepy.

I’m embarrassed to admit that until last year when I attended an exhibition of Flemish paintings at the De Young Museum, I’d never paid much attention to still lifes. Landscapes, portraits and abstracts always commanded my attention.  But at the museum, I learned that the beauty of a still life comes not only in its celebration of life and the living, but also in its acknowledgement that time is passing. A vibrant bouquet usually includes a few dying petals; a bowl of ripe fruit is often positioned beside something browning or half-eaten.  A pocket watch, a skull, a candle burning are all reminders of life’s impermanence.

Juan Sanches Cotan's (Spain, 1560 - 1627) "Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber"

Juan Sanches Cotan’s (Spain, 1560 – 1627) “Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber”

Impermanence.  It’s a central tenet of Bhuddist teaching and yet, I don’t know that I’ll ever get used to the idea.  I find myself wishing things could always stay as they are; that a special moment will last forever; that the people I love and care for will always be with me; that life will stretch out endlessly. I’ve been more keenly aware of this desire and its folly since my dad died. How could someone with such a big personality, such a bold and imposing presence not endure? And yet . . .  My dad’s passing made me aware that I need to wring ever ounce of joy from this life while I have it to live, even if it’s accompanied, on occasion, by discomfort; that I’m a fool not love and feel as deeply as I can; that I’m wasting my time if I only exist around the edges and not try to fashion what my friend Laura calls, “a memoir-worthy life.” And while it’s true that I’ve been more aware of this need since 2011, the fact is, I’ve been in pursuit of a passionate life since I left Baszile Metals in 1999.  I spent too many years taking the safer path.  I wasted too much time muddling through, telling myself that my life would begin sometime in the future.  What was I waiting for?

Just today, I was in a store here in New York, and saw a card that said, “Your Life Begins at the End of Your Comfort Zone.”  Exactly.

Still life: Impermanence. Imperfection. Time’s passing.

Because it’s later than you think.