Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Letter to Richard Branson: 236th Richest Person in the World

Dear Mr. Branson:

I understand you are that talented English chap who made a pot of money in the record business and then started that posh airline with the naughty name. When I was working for a company that had a rather lovely travel budget, I was fortunate enough to travel on your carrier across the pond, and what with the manicure, the massage and that “raid the larder” feature (though I did hate the word “lard” in larder---maybe "pantry" might translate better?) the time just flew by, as it were. I especially liked the part where you called First Class “Upper Class.” Really good show.

So, since you seem to be a man of inventive travel sensibilities (didn’t you fly around the world in a balloon like your countryman Phileas Fogg?) I was wondering if you would be willing to come over here to the Colonies and see what you could do about the abysmal system we laughingly call our airlines. President Obama is all about change, after all, and any change in this department would have to be for the good. I know he’d take your trunk call, especially if you had the operator tell him it was Sir Richard on the wire.

This airline travel thing has been on my mind lately after a recent transcontinental flight. You see, I was moving from Florida to California (don’t ask!) and though my furniture was safely packed in cotton wool and traveling comfortably across country in an air-conditioned lorry, I was unable to get the removers to remove me in the same cozy fashion. Thus it was I was forced to travel across these United States by air.

I had a rental car to drop off (my own car decided to drive across country without me, more about that in future blogs) and I had three suitcases and a handbag. I know three suitcases is a lot, but I was moving, you see. My flight was conveniently set for 0600, and since it was the only non-stop flight from Orlando to San Francisco, and since it was winter and I didn’t fancy ending up in the Hudson River or the Rio Grande or whatever, I figured my safest bet was a non-stopper. A flight departing at 0600, requires a passenger to be at the airport at the convenient hour of 0400. So I was up at 0300 and naturally in the best of moods as I started out with me, my three suitcases and my handbag. Also, it was raining.

Dropping off the car at Hertz was a snap. They have the car rental thing down. But that is where the trouble began. I had to get my bags (me included) from the car drop-off, to the Hertz bus. It was only about 500 feet, but we don’t have porters in America, so I had a bit of a schlepp.

Then, the Hertz bus was unable, for security reasons, to disembark its passengers at the curbside check-in location. It was instead required to take us to a location deep within the bowels of the airport adjacent to baggage pickup. Unfortunately this is the place you pick up your baggage when you arrive in Orlando and are on your way out of the airport, so though it is a great airport egress I was still about a mile from any place remotely resembling a check-in counter.

Just then, a sky cap appeared. These are foreign people who come to the U.S. wear a uniform and volunteer to move your bags a few feet at the airport and thus make about $100,000 a year tax free, all in cash. Mine was from Latin America. He got me as far as the check-in line ($7.00) and then disappeared with a cheery “adios.”

I had already done the dutiful thing and printed out my ticket in advance. My printer being packed and safely in the lorry, I had to do this at the library on my last day in Orlando, ($.10) but I had hoped this would help me avoid standing in the check-in line. It did, in a way, because just as the alleged sky cap departed, a huge fat lady wearing an airline uniform told me all I had to do was use the Self Check-in Kiosk. I did not have any hands free to do this, but I piled everything around me as the fat lady took my passport (she wanted to make sure that I was really a Lutheran and not a terrorist) and I did all the real work of an airline employee by checking myself in at the Self Check-In Kiosk.

That having been accomplished I put my bags up on the thing there so she could put them on the baggage belt. “Oh no,” she said through the donut she was eating to avoid dropping any of that avoir du poids she was carrying around, “Just take your bags over there.” Over there was another 300 feet away and I still had those three bags and my handbag. “You’ve got to be kidding,” I said, and the big group of wealthy tourists from Japan and China who were clogging the area around the Self Check-In Kiosks broke into hearty laughter.

The only way to transport my bags that far, was one bag at a time. Doing so, I risked being arrested as a deadly criminal, because I was “leaving my bags unattended” but risk it I did. Everyone stared at me and poked each other and said Look at how hard that funny lady is working at 0400 and they went back to trying to work the Self Check-In Kiosk. Oh yes and the fat lady at the counter didn't return my passport so I had to go back for that too.

Gee, this is kind of a long letter, and I haven’t even told you the part about how I got frisked and patted down and practically stripped searched by the TSA officers because I have Stryker Trident bilateral hip replacements, but I’ve flown enough this year that I’m getting used to that. Besides, after the ignominy of the check-in process it was kind of like getting a nice big hug.

Finally, it was 0500 and as I put my clothes back on after the security check I carried only my purse and one small carry-on bag. Did you know the coffee shops at the airport don’t open until 0600? No matter. They are all self-serve too, so they might as well never open as far as I’m concerned. If there is one time it would be useful to sit at a table or a counter and be waited on it would be when one was at an airport and one were carrying children, laptops, trunkis, hats, coats, purses, reading material and presents for people at one’s final destination.

I think you get my drift. Sir Richard, if you would come over here and take on the job of Airline Czar (Sound too Russian? We can’t name you Airline King, because George Washington said we couldn’t, but we could call you Airline Prime Minister, or how about Lord of the Air? That has a certain ring to it.) and since we’re throwing a lot of trillions into stimulating the economy and overhauling our infrastructure, I’m sure there would be at least a trillion or two in it for you.

I personally don’t plan on flying anywhere ever again, my experience with the fat lady at the Self Check-In Kiosk still haunting my dreams. But for all those other nice people who travel: couldn’t you do just this one little thing? After all, we gave you the American beauty Jenny Jerome, who married Sir Randolph Churchill who produced the great Winston who saved you all from speaking German. I really do think you owe us at least something for that one.

Yours sincerely,
Robin Chapman, a weary traveler

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

You Are Now Leaving the State of Florida

As if to punish me, Florida has been beautiful the past few days as I've been cleaning my house and preparing to leave this place that has been my home for twenty years. When I arrived, I came to work for WESH TV in Orlando and it was October. I remember saying to our sports anchor, "Gee, this is a warm day, isn't it?" And he looked at me and smiled and said, "Wait 'til you've been here in August."

I had come to Florida after covering the White House (George H.W. Bush) for Group W and I had been wearing my hair a little longer than I am now. A few days after I arrived I had to go get my Florida driver's license and the picture they took shows my hair curling in the Florida humidity.

The funny thing is: they kept using that same picture for 20 years, and as the years went by and I grew older the picture looked better and better to me. Then, just a few weeks ago, I got a notice that my license was expiring and this time they would need a new photo to meet the new federal national security guidelines.

So, now that I am leaving Florida I finally have a new driver's license photo. It looks a little bit more like a mug shot and, sad to say, I look a little bit more like a grown-up lady. Time ... you thief.

I'll be leaving on a jet plane in just a few hours. And I see that sign in my head that says "You Are Now Leaving the State of Florida." California here I come. And, as it turns out, it is right back where I started from.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

OMG! The Movers Came a Day Early!

Dateline: Baldwin Park, Florida It sure is a good thing your correspondent is organized for this move. I was running a few errands this morning when my cell phone rang about 11:30 a.m. It was the moving company, saying that Mark, my driver, was wondering if he couldn't come about 1:30 p.m. and load up, hmmmm?

Holy Cow, says I. Sure 'nuf. Come on down. I guess I'm ready as I'll ever be. Almost.

For some reason, I spent an hour or so this morning making sure everything would be ready when the movers came, as scheduled, Tuesday, January 27. That was a piece of luck.

So, I raced home, after I took the call and taped up the last few boxes, tossed my bedding in a box, packed the printer for transport and put my computer on the kitchen counter where it won't be in the way of the moving guys. I don't know if this moving this has really sunk in yet. I'm feeling awfully light of heart ... more as this wild day rolls on.

3:00 p.m. It looks to me as if they are about half way through which means they could have my things packed in the truck by about 4:30. Zoom! Mark the driver works with his wife Buffy (who is sticking those number things on the furniture) and they live in Tampa. Buffy was a nurse but, she said, she didn't like being apart from Mark so much, so they now work as a team. Mark's father, 78, is doing a lot of the loading. None of these people is what you might call lithe: so I'm just hoping we don't have any heart attacks today, knock wood. Fortunately we have a perfect day: about 70 degrees (F) and low humidity. Typical Florida winter weather.

4:03 p.m. This is a little like sausage being made: you hadn't ought to watch it. Sweaty hands on that linen chair. Aaaarg. The little cabinet with the leaded glass--ouch, they just jostled it as it went down the ramp. But you have to watch, for security reasons ... and you can't help yourself!

4:38 p.m. You always hear wonderful things from workmen on days like this. The company sent out three cardboard wardrobes boxes, each one 18" wide and about three feet high for my clothes. "Those wardrobes are much too small to contain my clothes," I told Mark the Driver. "Yeah. All the companies are going to that size," he said. So if you go to a smaller size, you will have to use more of them, won't you? Hello! Another fine day for thoughtful remarks from people whom the British call "removers." (Do "removers" ever return things? Gee I hope so.)

I'm reminded of a visit my family and I made to the home of a retired General who was my father's commanding officer during World War II. I was working in Washington D.C. and General Clark and his wife had retired to the charming neighborhood of Spring Valley. When my parents came to visit me, The Clarks invited us over for coffee.

Their home was filled with beautiful things, the kinds of things the wife of a military officer collects over thirty years of travel around the world.

"What lovely things you have," I told Mrs. Clark.

"Oh my dear," she laughed. "Every single thing in this house has been broken at least once during a move and glued back together. So don't look too closely at anything." And then she paused, and gave me a gentle smile.

"But it is lovely in a way, because it reminds me of all my travels with my husband. And I wouldn't have traded my life with him for anything."

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Your Brain on Alzheimer's: The Chance for a Do-Over?

My father and his sister, my Aunt Helen, in the backyard of their home in Alabama, about 1925.

One of the interesting things about the Alzheimer's type dementia my father has, is that the range of his faculties are impacted in different ways. I think I've mentioned before that his vocabulary is undiminished and words and phrases like "formidable" and "halcyon" and "field expedient" (a military term) trip off his tongue as they always have and are used correctly and in context. He can still write a short, intelligent letter.

His reading comprehension, on the other hand, has gradually faded so that this man who used to enjoy the convoluted sentences of Ludwig von Mises, William Shirer, and William F. Buckley, among many others, now finds it difficult to focus on any kind of reading. He likes for me to take him to the library so he can find a book to read, but when we check one out for him, he doesn't read it. The idea of reading enjoyment is there, but the ability is going.

His personality is different too. He was quiet and reticent before, except with children, and with the onset of his disease he is far more social than I have ever known him to be. When I take him for coffee, he chats with people at nearby tables, especially the young. More than once when we've gone out for a walk he has suggested we knock on the doors of our neighbors to see if they'd like to come over and chat. Usually these people are at work, or at school, or out doing the many things people do in California, so I discourage him; but, the impulse intrigues me.

My father grew up in a small suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, called Homewood, where his father served as president of the city commission and a number of his relatives lived on nearby streets. He's told me more about his life there in the last year, than I ever knew before: for example, how he used to run through the backyards of his neighbors to get to his great aunt's house. She supplied the baked goods for the social hour at the First Presbyterian Church and she would always save him a piece of cake. One of his close friends growing up was George McHuchison, a cousin several times removed, who also lived nearby. There were lots of aunts and uncles within walking distance.

I've speculated that this new social impulse is a regression to the life he lived as a child. Unexpressed during his adult years with my more constrained mother, his love of social contact has reasserted itself with the onset of his disease.

My friend Anne, a social worker who facilitates Alzheimer support groups for families of dementia patients, says she thinks the meaning of the changes I see is more complex. Her theory is that Alzheimer's patients somehow know, deep inside their subconscious, that they have a chance to do a few things over: express love to someone that they couldn't express before, act out anger and frustration they've stored up for a lifetime, and share both criticism and praise they've always had to censor.

I don't know if Anne's theory is true or not. We do have an aunt in my family who was always a contentious person and who, when she contracted Alzheimer's disease, grew quiet and serene. Did she always want to be that way?

My father now has frightening incidents of agitation and anger. Has he been storing these up for a lifetime? When he isn't agitated, he is extremely loving to me, something I have missed from him all my life. He's told me I'm beautiful and smart and that he knows I can succeed at anything I try. He tells me he needs me. When I'm not there, he repeatedly asks my mother when I'm coming to visit, and when I am there he always asks to go with me when he sees I'm headed out the door.

What a strange mixed-blessing is this disease. Such a trial for all of us who love Dad, with soup├žon of joy thrown in to make us able to bear it.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Techno Tangle: Where Will It Go?

Here at my house, we live, as best as we are able, in the 21st century. It is a constant struggle to stay current. I could work a full-time job to pay for my life, and still need a part-time job to pay for the technology I would like to have to keep up with the newest and latest. Each new piece of technology has a new set of protocols and, though I don't do this, I could probably take a class at least twice a month to expand my knowledge of all the uses of each piece of technology I own. Mark you: I'm not a technophobe. I love the Internet, blogging, Google, high speed connections, email and digital cameras and I can't go anywhere without my cell phone and my bluetooth. I don't even have a land line telephone anymore.

My parents, in California, still have the same telephone number they had when I was born. And a telephone that really dials.

And that's the spread in the world today isn't it? Agrarian life, Industrial Age and Technology Age coexisting, with some discomfort.

I had some of my taped reports from my television career put on DVDs recently so I could edit and embed them in my blog. Turns out I could play them on my computer, but my Windows Vista Movie Maker program doesn't recognize the format, so I'll need to take them in again and have them re-formatted so I can use them. The technology guy at Office Depot, who recently helped me diagnose the sound problem with my laptop said he used to enjoy reading for pleasure but now has only time enough to read up on all the latest changes to and challenges surrounding software so he can do well at his job.

Will this continue indefinitely, I asked him? Will consumers continue for the next century to be one step behind the changes in technology and constantly running to keep up? What do people on limited incomes do?

Many of the changes are fascinating, I grant you, but some of the changes--in my opinion--make the latest iteration of hardware and software not nearly as useful to me as the last one, or the last one two iterations ago. The book drafts I saved on floppy disks do me zero good anymore. When I went to the Los Altos, California public library to check out a movie on video for my parents (who do have a VCR player I bought them twenty years ago) I discovered all of the movies there were now in DVD format and I went home empty-handed.

Quite a few very intelligent people I know over forty years of age have made a conscious decision to put a hold on their technology learning curve. They don't check their email frequently or they have a mate, partner, or offspring who checks it for them (which, to me, defeats the purpose of it altogether). They don't follow my blog or others like it because they're reading the long weekly articles from the Sunday New York Times , and the New Yorker. They know the hours of their life are limited and they budget them as best they can. I hate it when I hear this from them, but I do understand it.

If I use Map Quest to find a friend's house, I'm asked whey I don't have a GPS. If I have a blog I'm asked why I don't have a podcast and if I have a podcast why I don't have a web cast. If I have a cell phone that stores my entire telephone directory I'm asked why I don't have a Smart Phone or a Blackberry. If I listen to NPR on a radio, I'm asked why I haven't programmed an Ipod with all my favorite tunes. I mean to! I want to! But sometimes I decide I just won't.

Then there is the route of my elderly parents who live in a mid-20th century world with considerable contentment. No cable TV. No DVD player. No clothes drier. No microwave. No computer. No wireless router. No digital camera. No email. No Internet banking. So, none of these devices they don't have, need updating.

In their world, one buys a toaster, repairs it when broken, and keeps it for a lifetime. Nothing is thrown away that might be mulched, recycled, re-heated, donated to kindergarten art classes, or returned for a deposit. There is a newspaper in the morning for learning about the events of the day before and for which there is time taken for discussion and reflection. There is no learning curve on anything except the latest changes in the IRS code. There is--or has been for many years--hard work, time for reading, and long nights of restful sleep. There is also a lot of junk lying around that you can't throw away because it "might be useful one day."

Both ways have their down sides. I toss out coffee-makers that are two years old because I've found a smaller more efficient model. Less clutter at my house. More junk in a landfill. Yet, I feel my intelligent parents have missed a great deal--though my father is now beyond learning, through no fault of his own.

And what of the rest of us? There are times when I think I'd like to have a chip implanted into my brain that will keep me constantly current, with international satellites beaming down the latest directions and FedEx delivering the new devices. Talk about universal health care--I need a universal technology subsidy!

But then I think, gee, money and time are so limited. Become a robo-tecno? Or just go ahead and have a face lift? Oh what a wonderful world.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Images of Inauguration Day

He was so excited: both he and the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court garbled the oath of office for the 44th president. But, it was all legal and oh-so-human. Haven't each of us had a dream like that? (Robin's update of 1/22/09: Chief Justice John Roberts re-administered the constitutionally mandated oath of office to our 44th president on 1/21/09 in the White House Map Room, just to be certain it was all legal.) His rhetoric did not soar. But he had a lot of really tough acts to follow: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan ...

Michelle Obama wore a dress and coat from Cuban-American designer Isabel Toledo. When she got out of the limo during the Inaugural Parade, the coat flapped in the cold and the new First Lady had to keep grabbing at it to pull it around her. Prediction: she'll learn what other women in the public eye have had to learn--practicality must be part of style. A coat for this event needed to close and/or needed to be weighted, a technique used by the late Princess of Wales.

Best hat at any inauguration ever. And what an inspiration to have Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul, sing "My Country Tis of Thee." It was a real wow.

Cold, sunny, windy weather whips the American flag flying from a home down the street from my own here in Central Florida on this Inauguration Day. How lucky we all are to live in such a country. Congratulations to our 44th president, Barack Obama, and all our prayers for his success at the awesome job he faces.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Goodbye to All that Great Handbag Material Lurking in Florida

When I bought my Queen Anne cottage-style house in Winter Park in 1997, an elderly neighbor knocked on my door and gave me this picture, taken 60 years earlier, of a very large alligator visiting the driveway of the house I had just purchased, a uniquely Florida-style house warming gift.

One of the most interesting of the exotic creatures that populate Florida, at least for this departing Westerner, has always been the alligator mississippiensis, the American alligator. When I first moved here and discovered they lurked in every lake and stream, it was culture shock of the first order. I had just come here from Washington D.C., remember, where the creepiest creatures generally haunted the halls of Congress.

In Florida, I would be sitting at my computer in the newsroom of NBC's WESH-TV, writing up a report on the latest governor's race or what-have-you and I'd hear the assignment editor yell to the pack of photographers slouching around the water cooler; "There's a gator under a Cadillac at Holler Chevrolet. Would one you dedicated young filmmakers get your butt out there? Now!"

The alligator exists only in two places in the world: the southern America states, and China, and the Chinese ones are much smaller. When the Spaniards arrived on Florida shores and saw these ancient monsters, they had only one, much smaller reference point. They called them el lagarto, "the lizard," and the Anglos gradually turned that into alligator, the name that stuck.

Their numbers were reduced by hunters until the 1970s when they became protected by federal statute. Nowadays when you call the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and ask them just how many gators there are in the state they always say, "Oh a million, million-and-a-half, something like that." The point being that there are so bloody many of them and they lurk in so many places--from golf course water hazards to backyard ponds--nobody really has any way of counting them all. We can say there are an average of 17,000 nuisance complaints about them in Florida each year, and about 6000 of them have to be removed or destroyed. There is now a legal hunt for alligators each year, but it destroys only about 100 of them.

Which means, at their astounding rate of reproduction, and with their continued protection by the federal government, alligators may soon outnumber humans in Florida. There have been 357 documented alligator attacks on humans in this state since 1947 and something like 20 people have died. In 2006, three women were killed by alligators in as many months.

I have a proposal to solve this problem that would benefit everybody. My proposal is a greatly increased hunting season. Alligator "harvesters" should be allowed to take, oh, say, half a million of them every year until it begins to look like there is a shortage, whatever the heck that means.

These harvestees could then fulfill their destinies: as beautiful handbags and shoes. With the increase in supply will come a decrease in price for the consumer, something I can really get behind. Besides, alligator is a natural fiber; totally organic; and it eats my fellow man when provoked. Excuse me, I have to go and make more room in my closet.

An old timer? Not if I can help it!

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Friday, January 16, 2009

On Moving and Distruption and Disassociation

Robin's office. Her computer will be the last item packed. That brightly-colored thing at left is the door to a yurt from Kyrgyzstan, just something collected along the way.

I'm in the final two weeks of packing up my house in Central Florida for my move at the end of January to California. I was weaned in television newsrooms, where one concentrates on writing and fact checking while people yell information across the room, telephones jangle constantly, people sail paper airplanes at one another, cigarettes set wastepaper baskets on fire (well, they used to) and editors erupt in expletives and shake their fists at departing reporters and photographers. So I can always write amidst chaos.

Living amidst moving chaos is another thing entirely. The last big move I made rattled me more than I realized. Driving one evening for the umpteenth time to my new place, I had what I believe is known as a disassociative episode: I looked up after driving on the freeway and not only didn't know where I was, I didn't remember how I got there.

I hadn't realized this disassociative phase was setting in again until this week. On Tuesday I ran my long list of errands, made a long list of calls and then got into my gym clothes for a workout. It wasn't until I stepped from my car in the parking lot of the YMCA and looked down at my feet that I realized I was still wearing my slippers.

Yesterday, I talked with a friend and we ran through the latest movies we might go to this weekend and didn't come up with one that both of us would like to see. Then I mentioned that I had seen the film BRIDESHEAD REVISITED advertised recently and I would look on the Internet and see when that was opening here. When I surfed the movie locations on the 'net last night, a light gradually dawned. I'd already seen BRIDESHEAD REVISITED. It came out last summer. I didn't like it very much. You would think I might have remembered that!

This wouldn't be a good time for anyone to tell me anything that they really needed for me to retain--anything that doesn't involve moving, that is. I'm writing down long "to do" lists and carefully checking everything off. I'm really on schedule on this move and, until this week, thought I was really on top of everything. But now I'm afraid I might show up at the airport on my last day in Florida in my pajamas. I sure hope those airport security guys have a sense of humor.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Tribute to Fabian and Other Cats We've Known

Fabian, dozing on a sunny porch, cozy under his owner's chair.

My friend Lisa, whom I've known since kindergarten, just said goodbye to her cat Fabian, a gentleman cat of approximately twenty years. A few months before he left this mortal coil, she wrote this tribute to her friend:

Fabian blunders through the house. He has been with us since we lived in Petaluma, California, wandering in, a young stud. My husband Peter says Fabian first emerged from behind the ivy while he was mowing the lawn. Then he jumped Peter’s leg. Finally, he walked through the back door one fine summer afternoon, never to return to whatever car he lived under.

The merger was rocky. His predecessor, Shadow (Miss), was perfectly behaved. Fabian was not. He was a standout punk. Part Siamese, he had the personality of Papelbon
(Robin's note: for the uninitiated, this refers to a rough-and-tumble American baseball player.) and grew into adulthood without a care in the world until we turned him into an indoor cat. This insult to his freedom, caused by the ultimate cat fight and a huge vet bill, sent us all over the edge. Peter’s temper was taxed to the extreme, and mine wasn’t far behind. We argued over whether to send him to the mountaintops west of town. In the end, we had him altered and trained him to walk on a leash.

All for the best, we can say now, more than fifteen years later, when, in my sleep, I hear Fabian growl for a midnight supper. The intervening years have been brisk: two moves, one in 1993, the other in 2006, gave him a taste for travel in the car. His vistas in Concord, California included the backyard, well-populated with squirrels and sparrows, an occasional opossum, and neighborhood cats. Once, the miserable pitbull next door broke through the fence, looking bewildered and lost in our foreign land. Fabian saw it all.

Now he doesn’t see anything. The years, however mild, have taken their toll. But for almost two decades his sight was sharpened by the prospect of chickenless drumsticks in the garbage and scraps left in the sink. Fabian’s appetite was relentless. He occasionally teetered on the brink of fat. We were forced to control his instinct to gorge, taking up food, feeding him only twice daily, not heeding his plaintive Siamese cries.

As he grew older, his appetite diminished, but not by much. He still eats plates full of food, but over a course of time extending beyond ten seconds. Now his appetite serves his continued survival in the wake of blindness, kidney failure, and, most recently, an abscessed tooth.

Despite his decline, Fabian remains all Fabian.

Lisa Arnold, October 2008.

And, he remained her friend til the end.

Cats make good friends for busy people as I learned when I sheltered two cats named Abby and Fluff for twenty years. One winter, I decided to drive across the United States, from Washington D.C. to San Francisco and to take my cats with me on the ride.

That's me at the Onio state line in a picture I took myself using the timer on my camera and setting the camera on my car.

America is a big country and we drove thousands of miles together, those cats and me, and it certainly was a lively trip. I put each of them in a cat box, a traveling contraption that kept them from getting under my feet while I drove. Abby the younger cat, spent the entire trip gnawing on one small airhole in her box, working to make it large enough so she could make her escape. Fluff took another route of protest: each day she waited until we had been driving for about an hour until she broke that cardinal rule of life: she shat where she lived. The scent filled the car until I stopped, cleaned her box, and popped her back in. Then she would sleep while Abby gnawed.

Another state line: I think this is West Virginia.

Somewhere, just outside of Sacramento, California, Abby made her break. Squeezing through the enlarged hole she jumped onto my shoulders and then into the space around my feet. I was driving an Audi with standard transmission so it was important not to get my clutch foot and my gas pedal foot entangled with cat. I stopped several times to shove Abby back in her box, but she didn't stay in there very long. With just 90 miles to go until I reached Los Altos, California, I managed to keep from having an accident, but only just barely.

The notorious Abby and her escape route. She did not agree that the box was "just like home!"

When I got to my parents' house I took that one picture of Abby in her box and then let both cats out. For some reason they both jumped onto the gate near my parents' back door and from there up onto the roof of their house, something I had never seen either of them do before.

Don't fence me in, I think they were saying. Along with Lisa's Fabian they marched to their own drummers. We fed them, but we never really owned them at all.

"Hey Abby, let's check out the roof of this ranch-style house."

My Dad and my cat Fluff, early morning, Los Altos, California, after Fluff finally came down from the roof.

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Friday, January 9, 2009

A Birthday Tribute to Elvis Presley

January 8 marked the birthday of Elvis Presley and in his honor Turner Classic Movies presented a full day of his films. What an incredible talent he was.

The peak of his fame came in the 1950s, long before I was a teenager and by the time I reached the age of listening to rock 'n roll he was definitely passe among the "hip" on the West Coast of America, where I grew up. As a young person, I got the idea that he was a strange, weird hick, as if four lads from working class Liverpool--aka the Beatles--were not!

A few years ago I saw a documentary on PBS made up of still photographs that had been taken by a friend of his during the first few years of his fame. (I've Googled it but still can't figure out which documentary I saw--there are so many about Elvis.) It showed what a perfectionist he was about his music, how hard he worked at his craft, and, I thought, how amazingly talented he was. I was really impressed and began to re-examine my view of him as a country bumpkin who got really fat, wore icky-looking Superman outfits, and died from taking drugs and eating fried peanut butter sandwiches.

What I found was just what others found long before me: he had one of those talents bestowed on him by the gods. It was a unique and compelling gift. Watching his films, on the anniversary of his birth, was not only a revelation, it was really fun. I watched them as I worked out at the gym, and continued watching them as I packed my boxes for my move back to California.

I realize that as classic films his movies have flaws: the stories are silly, his acting is wooden, the director seems required to show us Elvis' entire body in every shot, and the scripts don't give even a good actor much to work with. But the minute he clicks into a song--and there is one just about every five or ten minutes--he comes to life. His films give us something that will never go away as long as movies survive: a documentary record of him in his absolute prime. And there is another thing about Elvis Presley movies: when he's on the screen, you cannot take your eyes of him.

I have always loved his "Jailhouse Rock" number from his 1957 movie of the same name. It is one of the best song and dance numbers in any movie, ever. Yesterday I saw another one: Elvis doing a tango with Laurel Goodwin in the film GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! to an Elvis song I don't think I'd ever heard before: "The Walls Have Ears." When Elvis made this film, he was 27 years old, tall and pencil thin. His tango is stupendous and he is obviously having lots of fun doing it. He also sings "Return to Sender" in GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! one of his biggest hits.

In ROUSTABOUT (1964) he stars with Barbara Stanwyck. By the time she made this film Stanwyck's years as a romantic lead were two decades behind her. But, she was a savvy film veteran and in playing the older woman who hires Presley for her carnival, she shows just how smart she was. She knew a star when she saw one. And she could read his box office receipts. No fool she.

The best number in ROUSTABOUT is Presley singing another song I had never heard him sing, the quirky and funny Leiber and Stoller number, "Little Egypt," a hit for the Coasters in 1961. (Leiber and Stoller are the prolific songwriting team featured in the Broadway review "Smokey Joe's Cafe," during which you sit there shaking your head for two hours at the hit songs that keep on comin' as you say to yourself, "I can't believe they wrote that too?" The only trouble with "Smokey Joe's Cafe" is that the stars who recorded these tunes--Ben E. King, Elvis, the Drifters, the Clovers--aren't there in the theater to sing them and nobody compares with them.) Lieber and Stoller wrote about two dozen hits for Elvis including "Hound Dog," "Loving You," "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care," and "Jailhouse Rock." "Little Egypt" is really well done in "Roustabout:" it keeps exactly to the Coasters' version and is backed up by a very good chorus of dancers doing something wildly Egyptian. Very good and funny.

Turner Classic Movies ended the day with a showing of ELVIS ON TOUR (1972). It was hard to watch so I lowered the sound and began to make dinner. He was bloated from drugs and in his sequined period. But at the end of the film, he dashes off stage and into his waiting limo and after several shots of screaming fans the annoucer recites that famous line: "Elvis has left the building." I'm glad I kept that movie on: I never knew the source of that crazy line before.

So this is the long way 'round of saying I've belatedly become a fan. And I wish he had lived to see his 74th birthday on January 8, 2009. I think somebody ought to put away those really awful concert videos of him from the 1970s when he was the bloated, perspiring sequined parody of himself, and, instead, sit down with some of the thirty films he made between 1956 and 1969. You'll be very entertained and impressed. I'm probably the last person in America--make that the world--to figure this out. I sure wish Elvis hadn't left the building so young.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Another 2755 Miles to Go (And Back Again) Before I Sleep

My Florida living room. That thing over on the left is a gorgeous hunt board that I use to hide my flat screen T.V. Don't know how I'll get all this stuff packed up and moved into my new place all the way across the country, but I can't really say this ranks as one of the great problems of the world, eh?

Los Altos, California Leaving the Republic of California this morning and headed back to Central Florida for the final round of packing and movers before I take possession of my new digs February 1. I hate to admit this, but the winter weather in Florida is nicer than it has been in California and I am looking forward to getting back (at least temporarily) to the 78 degree (F) Florida days. But I won't miss the Florida summer, which is hot and steamy.

I have no idea how this move is going to work out. Living near your fragile parents after not living near them most of your adult life has the potential for many perils and many potential joys. My sister and I are trying to remind ourselves that, together, we have a job to do--keeping our parents safe and financially sound for the years that remain and we can do that much better at close range than we can from half a continent, or in my case an entire continent, away. Almost everybody has to go through this, so we are not alone.

What I will miss: the unpretentiousness of Florida; the seductive winter days; the incredibly beautiful wildlife, from manatees to tropical and sub tropical birds; no state income tax (very nice these days, and so rare!); my friends of two decades. What I look forward to: the intellectual life of the San Francisco Bay Area and all the things to see and do; lovely, cool/warm/dry summers; evening fires in the fireplace almost all year; superb shopping; my old school chums from grade school, high school, and college; the sunshine in my father's face when he sees me walk through the door.

My biggest challenge? How to get my 8' 1" hunt board into my new place with its 8' ceilings. Hmm, I can think that out on my five hour flight back to Florida. And, if that is my biggest problem right now, I'm a pretty lucky girl. Stay tuned, as we say in television. More adventures to follow.

Robin's note: 1/7/2009 Got home and measured the hunt board again and it is exactly 8' high. So I'll need to shave just a little off the top to fit the 8' cabinet into a room with an 8' ceiling!

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Monday, January 5, 2009

Rambling the California Ranchos

Los Altos, California Everbody goes back to school and work today as the Christmas Holidays 2008 come to an end. There were more cars on the road, and moms and dads walking children to school as I pedaled the old Raleigh bicycle (with the picnic basket on the back) to the Los Altos Bakery and Cafe for my morning (free and wireless) connection to the Internet.

The view from the top of the Rancho San Antonio Nature Preserve in the San Francisco Bay Area.

One of my high school friends welcomed me back to California on Saturday night with a dinner and a couple of presents: two books on local history. One, called Santa Clara County Ranchos is especially fascinating. In it, author Clyde Arbuckle researched the history of the Spanish and Mexican Land Grant ranchos in this part of the San Francisco Bay Area, from their initial grant to their eventual patents from the U.S. government, and describes a few of the shennanigans in between.

The land was astonisingly rich and mild for these early settlers, some from Spain, some from Mexico and, beginning in the early 19th century, some Americans from the East who managed to struggle out here and find this paradise. Game was so rich, one local man, known as Mountain Charley, made his fortune hunting deer and hiking it down from the Santa Cruz Mountains to San Francisco where it sold for high prices to the gold miners who flooded in after 1849. The land was also heavily populated by the ferocious Grizzly bear, and almost all the early settlers had run-ins with them at one time or another. Mountain Charley lost an eye in an encounter with a Grizzly and had facial scars so disfiguring he wore his hat low on his head the rest of his life so as not to scare people. The Grizzly bear is on the California flag, though it lost its battle with civilation in California by the 20th century.

The two main ranchos that made up my hometown of Los Altos ("the heights") were the Rancho La Purisima Concepcion ("the immaculate conception") and Rancho San Antonio. The Rancho San Antonio of 4440 acres was originally granted to Juan Prado Mesa in 1839. He was the officer who fought and killed one of the few hostile California Indians, Yoscolo, who liked to raid mission storerooms. It explains to me why the main road into Los Altos from El Camino Real ("the king's highway) is called San Antonio Road. It was probably the original dirt track from the main road or camino into Senor Mesa's rancho.

The Rancho La Purisima was actually granted by California's Mexican governor to two California Indians: Jose Ramon and Jose Gorgonio, in 1840. It is nice to know at least some of the California natives were rewarded for their kindness to the padres of the California missions. Legend has it that a California Indian named Truckee helped the early pioneers find the route over the Sierra Nevada Mountains into California. A river and a town are now named after him. All of California's native population was wiped out by the diseases brought to the state by the Europeans. The two Indians who owned Rancho La Purisima "sold" it ten years later, but did live on it for the rest of their lives. They were the first residents of Los Altos, and some mighty fine real estate they enjoyed during their lifetimes.

Now the parking lot of the Los Altos Bakery and Cafe where I sit is filled with luxury cars: Mercedes, Range Rovers, and BMWs and it seems that it must have been long ago and far away when the hills above me were filled with Grizzlies and two kindly Indians owned the land where multi-million dollar houses now stand. But the past is not completely forgotten. Part of Rancho San Antonio is now a spectacular nature preserve in Los Altos Hills.

And the little shopping center where I write today has a name that at least conjurs up our history.

It is called The Rancho.

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Sunday, January 4, 2009

Circling Back Towards Home

This vintage postcard is a great help in visualizing the topography and geography of the San Francisco Bay Area. At center left is the city of San Francisco (aka "The City" to locals). Look south from San Francisco and you can see San Mateo, Belmont, Palo Alto and Mountain View. My hometown of Los Altos lies between Palo Alto, home of Stanford University, and Mountain View, home of Google. Between the Pacific and the Bay you can see the mountains of the Coast Range, sheltering the Santa Clara Valley from the wind and cool of the Pacific Ocean. San Francisco, near the mouth of the Bay, can be very cold in the summer, but down the sunny peninsula where I grew up and to which I return, it is always mild and pleasant. Well, nearly always.

Los Altos, California The fog and clouds rolled back out into the Pacific, leaving my hometown in California’s Santa Clara Valley, at the edge of San Francisco Bay, sunny, clear and cold. The thermometer didn’t rise above 48 degrees (F) yesterday and the low last night was 27 degrees. That's a might nippy for someone who has spent the last twenty years in Florida.

But I keep looking up Echo Drive—my hometown street—at the foothills of the Coast Range. These are the hills between the San Francisco peninsula and the Pacific Ocean. Nothing unusual about them, except that they look so beautiful to me after the flat, sandy topography of Florida.

My father has been mostly fun to be with on this visit, though he is often very confused. I think any break in the routine of a dementia patient is cause for confusion. When my sister is here and I am not, my father can’t figure out why we are not here together and forgets my name. When I’m here and my sister is not, the same thing happens. He has asked me my sister’s name several times this week, her age, where she lives, what she looks like, what she is doing with herself, and most surprisingly, who her mother is!

I know he knows these things, but I patiently answer each time. I show him pictures of her and of the two of them together just a few weeks ago, and he is temporarily satisfied. Until he starts asking me again a few hours later. In between, I take him for ice cream and for pancakes, his two favorite things to eat in the world, and that makes him happy. It is always rewarding to be with him, except when he is agitated, and that hasn’t happened so far on this visit. When he woke up this morning and saw me walking into breakfast he said, “Oh Robin, I’m so happy to see you. Please don’t ever leave me.” Do you wonder I decided to move back here—in spite of everything?

I’ve been working hard at avoiding conflict with my mother. Everyone in our family has done that all of our lives, so it isn’t a new task. I realized it so clearly one day when I was reading playwright Moss Hart’s wonderful autobiography, Act One. In it he wrote about his own mother and said he believed each family tends to revolve around its most dysfunctional member. I hadn’t thought about it before, but it is one of those statements that is so true, it seems to open up the heavens for a moment and gives you what I believe is known as an epiphany. Voila, as the French say. Eureka—as we say in California (it’s the California state motto).

In order to help me, I’ve been reading Christine Ann Lawson’s book, Understanding the Borderline Mother and it has been especially helpful. I’ve been trying to follow her advice: a) don’t enable her but don’t try to control her—let your mother control herself and you control yourself; b) avoid getting drawn into discussions of controversial subjects, since these discussions will go nowhere that is positive; c) do no harm; d) disengage and leave the scene when you see the onset of troubling or abusive behavior.

This is all very good advice. The difficulty comes when someone as close to you as your mother presses old and wounded buttons: bad habits click in. I am not worthy, you say to yourself, and you are a child again. As Lawson puts it: “Degradation by someone who claims to love you is qualitatively different than degradation by a stranger.” Keep a safe emotional and physical distance from a person with Borderline Personality Disorder, she tells her readers. Hard to do for a houseguest, but I’m hoping it won’t be quite so hard when I am living a bike ride away.

And I’ve found a lovely place to live (with a fireplace that I could make good use of at this very moment) in a neighborhood less than a mile from my parents’ house. I’ve always liked this neighborhood: it is one of the older parts of town and is filled with small, sunny, adobe cottages and now, some duplexes and condominiums. On warm summer days when I was a child, I used to cut through this neighborhood on my way to the library, walking streets named Gabilan and Tyndall and Lassen, imagining myself living in a little bungalow there. Odd, isn’t it, how the circle goes ‘round?

Perhaps the mountains of the Coast Range, visible out my window today, are a symbol of the mountains I have to climb as I face this challenging time in my own and my parents’ lives. Children helping parents who don’t want to need you. Families are challenging enough and mine seems more challenging than most. Then, uprooting and moving across America: no easy task. But perhaps the mountains that so intrigue me now are also a symbol of the opportunities ahead—opportunities to reach the places I used to dream about so long ago in childhood on those warm summer days.

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Friday, January 2, 2009

Coast to Coast with Chai, Vanity Fair, and Trunki

Los Altos, California The bank of clouds drifted over the Coast Range from Half Moon Bay this morning into Los Altos Hills and a little bit of rain drizzled onto the streets of my hometown, Los Altos, California. This is the kind of day Californians sit home with a warm cup of Chai, whatever the heck that is. I think I'm going to have to try it, though, if I'm going to get my California visa renewed.

Looking at places to live here is interesting, to say the least. Everything is 2X as expensive as Central Florida and half the size. But I got an immediate example of how small a town Los Altos is when I went to look at a pretty little duplex and discovered the owner is a doctor who used to be our next door neighbor. I babysat for his daughters when I was in high school. I like his little place and may rent it since the bungalow I wanted to rent has already been snapped up.

This is my seventh Orlando-San Francisco round trip this year. Flying is so un-fun I've developed some strategies for surviving. I've discovered that Vanity Fair has some of the most interesting articles going these days--kind of an intellectual version of People--and it takes about five hours to read it cover-to-cover, just the time it takes to fly across the country.

So I got myself a copy yesterday morning and buried myself in it as we were waiting to board. Inside I found an excellent article about William and Pat Buckley (we lost him in 2008, just ten months after his wife); a funny piece by the beautiful and witty Maureen Dowd about the beautiful and witty Tina Fey (who looks leggy and gorgeous on the cover, I must say, in a photo by Annie Liebowitz); and a fascinating article about the con man who called himself Clark Rockefeller but was actually a middle class kid from--get this--Germany. (He's now also a murder suspect as well as in trouble for parental kidnapping). In fact there were so many good articles in this issue of Vanity Fair I almost didn't look up and thus just about missed seeing my first Trunki.

Always interested in new trends in handbags and luggage, I noticed a little boy in the security line with a small plastic suitcase-type thing with four wheels and a strap. He pulled it along behind him and when he reached the x-ray machines his parents opened it up and pulled out his backpack! It doubles as a suitcase and as a toy you can sit on and push-and-ride. What a cool thing! After I spotted my first Trunki (there is a umlaut-type thing over the "u" and the "n," to represent the handle of a suitcase I think, but I can't make that on my computer) I saw two more and then sat next to a child with another one. One family let me photograph theirs and told me you could find them at One of the most interesting things about traveling is spotting things like this. I'm now very pro-Trunki.

So I leave you now and the Internet cafe (actually called the Los Altos Bakery Cafe--they are nice and the Internet is free here, so I'll give them a plug) where I go On Line in my hometown, and off I go to look at more ridiculously expensive places to live. But I am light of heart. Somebody out there has a warm cup of Chai waiting for me, I just know it, and one day somebody is going to get me my very own, adult-sized, Trunki.

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