Monday, March 30, 2009

Churchill Survives 4.3 Earthquake That Rattles Lamp (and Writer)

Winston Churchill (who recently relocated from Florida to California) now joins the old Seth Thomas family clock as an earthquake veteran.

It was 10:40 a.m. as the lamp on my desk started to rattle and dance. When you are in Florida you say to yourself: Oh, I didn't know the Space Shuttle was landing today. When you are in California you say to yourself: I wonder if that was an earthquake? And then: HEY! I WONDER IF THAT WAS JUST AN EARTHQUAKE?

When I rode my bike over to the parents' house they were watching the news and said: We just had an earthquake! I knew that. I just haven't been back in California long enough to be blasé about it.

Lucky for me, it was just a 4.3 magnitude on the Richter Scale and it was centered in Morgan Hill about 20 miles away.

I was thankful I had secured the 170-year-old family clock on my mantel with very strong sticky strips. It made it through the quake just fine. It is a veteran of the 1989 Loma Prieta quake (7.9 magnitude) in which it flew across a room and (fortunately) landed on its back, cracking the case but leaving the center glass panel intact.

My Royal Doultan Winston Churchill mug made it through okay too, but I must remember to sticky strip him down as well. Don't want Winston coming through the London Blitz only to be smashed into smithereens in a California quake.

It all brings to mind the quake we felt one morning in our apartment when I was a graduate student at UCLA. It was 6:45 a.m. and my roommate and I were in our pajamas and bathrobes reading the paper when the lamp over the table began swinging back and forth over our heads. We ran to the front door, flung it open and stood in the doorway (the door jambs are supposed to project you). The Air France pilot who lived in the next apartment and seemed to come and go at all sorts of odd hours, suddenly flung his door open too and stood there, in full uniform, eyeing us approvingly. He tipped his uniform hat as a good Frenchman should. We dashed back into the apartment, the risk seeming to be less inside than out. The lamp over the kitchen table gradually stopped swinging. Don't know if the Air France pilot ever did likewise.

(For more on the Morgan Hill quake of 3/29/09 go to the USGS site at

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Always Brush Your Teeth; Always Invest Wisely; Always Have a Long Talk With Your Children; And Other Silly Advice

The Chapman family back when the world was young and no one was worried about estate planning. Faye and Ashley, Kimberly at left, and Robin, before she discovered the Neiman Marcus shoe department.

That big organization, AARP, sponsored a program on Public Television last year about facing end-of-life decisions. A friend and neighbor urged me to watch it, knowing I had parents in their late eighties, and I told my sister about it as well. In our two separate cities, we watched it with, at first, amazement and then, with some hilarity.


Because the program had all sorts of sensible advice such as: "Sit down and talk with your children about your preferences for nursing care." And: "Be sure and give more than one child in the family your Power of Attorney, your Living Will and your Power of Attorney for Health Care." This was great advice, like; "Always brush your teeth," and; "Please adjust your dress before leaving."

Trouble is, my sister and I have learned that not all people are sensible, especially when faced with end-of-life decisions. What do you do if your parents don't really think they are ever going to get sick and die?

Aye, there's the rub.

My father, the engineer, was the family's sensible planner. He invested wisely. He created a family trust to avoid probate for his heirs. But he missed out on some important aspects of estate planning: he didn't discuss with my sister and me his philosophy of investment. He didn't even tell us where he invested, and with whom. He didn't write down the names of his various banks, and, because he wanted to make sure each account was FDIC insured, there are at least half-a-dozen of those. He didn't teach anyone in the family, including our mother, how to manage the estate in case he were incapacitated prior to his death.

And now, that's exactly what we face. The worst case scenario. Dad is incapacitated. Mom, with no knowledge or experience in investing or accounting, is in charge of the finances and determined to stay in charge in spite of her lack of skill. My sister and I have had to become forensic accountants (well not quite, because no one is dead, but you get my drift) to find the money needed to care for our father who is permanently incapacitated and needs 24-hour-a-day care.

I suppose it is not as bad as if he didn't have any money at all. But it is almost as bad. In times like these, stocks in an investment account can become worthless in just a few months if not managed properly. My father's haven't been managed at all for almost a decade. My sister and I just learned about an investment account that, God forbid, actually contains some high tech stocks. I dread looking into this.

I wish AARP would have a program about these end of life issues. About how to sit down and discuss important things with parents who don't believe they will ever get sick and will never die.

I wouldn't laugh quite so hard at such a program as I did at the AARP program I did see. "Always brush your teeth" is great advice. But if fear of the dentist prevents you from keeping your regular appointments, you'll lose your teeth anyway, no matter how much you brush.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

On the Death of "Print" Journalism

The work of an unpaid student intern, at the beginning of her journalism career, at the Los Angeles Times.

We had a big story in Northern California over the weekend that had all the drama, pathos, loss, and sorrow that makes a story a fascination. It cried out for good reporting. Five Oakland policemen were shot and four were killed when a parolee, afraid of returning to jail, ran amuk with a handgun and an assault weapon.

On-the-scene reporting of crime is the forte of television journalism. Unfortunately, this happened on a Saturday, a day when HUT levels (Home Using Television) are low, ad revenue also low, and stations understaff newsrooms. .

So you reach for the newspaper, hoping to find the story behind the story: who was the killer and what had been his life? Who were the officers and what was the record of each? Who were their families? What was the initial incident about? When the SWAT team went in, why did it go in as it did?

I opened my San Jose Mercury News on the Sunday morning almost 20 hours after the shootings and found the answer to none of these questions. Four officers were dead (give their names), suspect also dead (give his name), end of story. Print journalism isn't what it used to be, and what's more, maybe it never was

The San Franciso Chronicle had a much more in-depth report in its Sunday paper and it should have, being 45 miles closer to the scene (though one might argue that 45 miles is nothing today). Its follow-up reporting has been excellent. But the Chronicle, still owned by the family of legendary Californian, William Randolph Hearst, has been hemmoraging money (losses of $300M between 2000 and 2006, at least $1M a week lost this year) and may not survive. Unions at the paper recently agreed to some concessions, and that may help. But the Hearsts say they don't know how much longer they can continue to lose $1M a week and still publish a newspaper.

You can Google the newspaper business and read the long list of papers in America that have folded this year (the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ended its long run last week). What we'll miss are the background stories, the back stories, the talented "story telling" of veteran reporters that give us the "why" we so rarely learn from a television report.

Will all information gathering and dispersal now move to the Internet? I guess the answer is that "experts" believe it will. And that's okay if we can find Internet sites that check their facts--as established newspapers have been careful to do--and have talented storytellers on call, as good newspapers have always been able to hire. A business such as journalism has to adapt--as it continually has since Benjamin Franklin used to haul his own printing press around to make sure his own views were circulated wherever he went, France included.

My career in journalism began when I worked as an unpaid intern at the Los Angeles Times. All of my by-lines were on stories no one else at the paper wanted to cover. But it was good training for me. As a journalist who knows the limits of television (time limits being among the most critical), one of the things I continually seek in print reporting is depth and background I can't find and don't find on television. So it has been distressing to see newspapers, in response to the competiton from television and the Internet, attempting to be more like these new technologies instead of less like them. I have long thought that newspapers needed to find a unique position--fill the void of longer, deeper stories instead of giving us lighter more shallow coverage. We're already getting that elsewhere. Do they think we're fooled when they try to make a newspaper more "graphic" and thus more like a television story?

Newspapers have been slow to adapt. Unions on newspapers have been slow to make concessions that might have made adaptation and innovation possible. Joint publication with other organs--say a New York Times/San Francisco Chronicle, that had local stories by the Chron and the national pages of the Times--hasn't even been considered that I know of. Innovation on delivery (you print it, you put it on a truck, you throw it on a porch--come on!) hasn't been attempted, that I know of. Businesses in America that don't innovate cannot survive. And print journalism, as much as it is desperately needed, has continued to be one step behind the curve, just when it needed to be otherwise.

I want my morning paper. I want print journalism to survive, in some form, so that I might find and read information I need and can trust to be true. I confess, I like to read! I like to read long, interesting stories! Newspapers operated in old-fashioned, old-union ways won't make it. And I want them to make it because, it is true, as Thomas Jefferson said, that: "The light which has been shed on mankind by the art of printing has eminently changed the condition of the world." Somehow, the same just cannot be said for a Twitter or a Tweet.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

The Great Jell-o Caper

It's not for nothing my grandfather called me Sparky. I had this idea this weekend involving Jell-o.

You see, my friend Leslie's husband Mike has had surgery on an unspeakable part of his body that makes digesting food somewhat challenging at present. He's just home after two long weeks in the hospital. I thought it would be fun to make him a really fancy dish of Jell-o to help him laugh through the pain of the bland diet he is forced to consume for the next few weeks.

I asked my mother if she had any Jell-o. I don't even know where you buy the stuff. Haven't made it since I was in Girl Scouts. Mom says, oh sure I think there is some up in the cupboard.

Some? How about a dozen boxes, all purchased in about 1964. There must have been a big sale on Jell-o that year. Anyway, we read the directions and I unearthed a spectacular copper Jell-o mold from the bowels (oops shouldn't use that word after my friend's husband's surgery) ... er, from the depths of Mother's kitchen. I removed the two bugs that had died in it long ago, washed it, made the Jell-o and managed to get it into the fridge without spilling too much of it on the floor of my parents' house.

Dad, meanwhile, had been having a few difficult days. His caregivers on the weekend may have confused his medicine, or perhaps he's just having a little trouble with his diet, but he's had a few nights of--sorry to have to mention this--throwing up. Last night I gave him a Pepcid after dinner and hoped that would do the trick.

I was worried about him, so I called this morning at 7:30 a.m. to see if Dad had had a good night. My mother said he'd had a little trouble with his stomach, but then said she had something difficult to tell me. Oh no, you say to yourself. When anything is difficult to tell and your parents are in their late eighties, you expect the worst.

"The caregiver on duty during the night was worried about your father's upset stomach. So she served him some of your Jell-o."

The laugh was supposed to be for Leslie's husband, but it turned out to be on me. My fancy gelatin dessert--destroyed before it every saw the light of day, just as Mrs. Jordan's aspic had been in Dinner at Eight. Well heck, if Dad needed my Jell-o, it was okay with me. Hard to believe I'll be making Jell-o for the second time in one week after a thirty year hiatus. But there is--and I can say this with absolute certainty--a lot more Jell-o where that came from.

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Little Boy Lost: The Ghost of Best Friend Keith

My best friend Keith, at left, my sister Kim, Robin, and my sister's best friend Gene, on a birthday outing to the Fleischacker Zoo in San Francisco. They sure dressed us up in those days!

I've wanted to write about my childhood friend Keith for a long time and this week, writing about my father's remote controlled model airplane, the Sparky-K, I came across a picture of the two of us, long long ago, with my Dad. Keith was my best friend growing up and his bittersweet story has haunted my life.

Keith lived just up the street and he and I were close in age, so it was probably inevitable that we would be friends. Or, it may have been that I always felt Keith somehow needed my protection: odd for a girl to say about a boy, but I was boisterous where he was shy and we became inseparable.

His father was a big bear of a man--dashing, handsome, a man who loved to laugh and who was born with oodles of élan. He had been a fighter pilot during World War II and he was, when we were children, an airline pilot--quite a glamorous job in those days. He had the improbable name of Exline Brown, but everyone called him "Brownie." He adored me and treated me as if I were Keith's sister, the little girl he'd always wanted. Where my parents were cool and distant, Brownie was warm and affectionate. He thought up tasks for us to do and he called me Towhead.

Brownie had a Chevrolet station wagon that was two-tone red and white and he had a fishing boat he had painted red and white to match. Once, he had Keith and I help him clean his garage (it was the immaculate garage of a meticulous flier) and I remember he pointed to a bucket and asked me to take it out of the garage so he could sweep. I reached down to pick it up. It weighed more than I did! He gave me a wink. It was a bucket full of fishing weights and when I found I couldn't budge it he reached down and picked it up with one hand. No wonder we adored him.

The elephants get the most ink in this shot on the same birthday outing to the zoo: Robin at left, sister Kimberly, Keith, and friend Gene, clowning it up.

Keith was adopted. It wasn't a secret. I think Keith told me himself. His mother Alma was thin and fragile and Keith had no brothers or sisters. I remember his mother Elma as ethereal--almost the opposite of Brownie. Where he exuded happiness and good health, she looked liked porcelain--as if you could see the light through her skin and hair. She dressed beautifully every day and wore a neatly-ironed apron when she came to the door to call Keith in from play. She was very nice and loved Keith dearly, but there was a shadow over her that even a child could see. We were told she had asthma and she was often ill.

The year I was six, Elma's health deteriorated. Keith's father was often away with his airline job and Keith spent most of his time at our house with me. His mother's asthma had gotten worse, they said, and she was often bedridden. Doctors came and went. My mother asked Keith to eat dinner with us some evenings and that was pretty unusual.

One morning, the phone rang before school, also unusual. When my mother put down the telephone she looked worried. Keith and I always met on the corner to walk to school together. She took me aside.

"Keith's mother has died," she said. "Brownie called to say he would tell Keith when he gets home from school today. Please don't say anything to him. His father wants his mother to be gone before he breaks the news to Keith." Keith's mother had had lung cancer, not asthma, and though I didn't understand then what "gone" meant, I do now.

It was an awful day. For a child to keep such a dark secret from a best friend was awful. I said very little. My mother even came to school at lunchtime to see me and make sure everything was okay. It was okay. I hadn't said anything. But it was a terrible day.

And then it became a terrible year. Because Brownie was gone so much, he hired a series of housekeepers to care for Keith. And Keith was miserable and absolutely awful to all of them. He cried often and shouted at the housekeepers that he hated them--of course he hated them, they were not his mother--and he stomped his feet a lot and begged his father to come home. I did what I could to comfort him, but there wasn't much I could do. Imagine what his father must have gone through. He had lost his wife and had to work to support his son. Flying had been his life. And now it was keeping him away from the son who needed him.

After a year, Keith had what sounded like good news. His father was going to get married again and he, Keith, was going to have a new, older sister. Brownie had known the widow of a pilot friend for many years and I'm sure he felt that marrying her was a solution to the seemingly impossible problems he faced with Keith.

Keith was intrigued. He loved the idea of a new mother and a new sister. I remember Brownie and his bride going to the Caribbean on their honeymoon. They brought Keith and me back some some maracas.

But the honeymoon was a short one with Keith and his new stepmother. He wasn't used to having a sibling, favored by the new mother figure, and he wasn't used to sharing his father with this stranger. He made life difficult for himself and his family with his misery and grief.

Unfortuantely, just that year, my own mother's health took us to Phoenix for one winter school term. Keith, who had been forced to adjust to death, the absence of his father, and the addition of two strangers in his home, had now lost his best friend. In desperation, his father bought the family a new home and it became another agonizing adjustment for Keith.

So when we returned to Los Altos nine months later, Keith was no longer a neighbor. I wanted to go over and see him at his new house, but we had a family vacation planned and Mom and Dad said we could go over and see Keith when we got home.

We went on vacation. Then, at my grandmother's house in Spokane, my parents received a special delivery letter: Keith had drowned in a swimming pool accident. I remember my mother telling me and I remember how unreal it seemed. I hadn't seen Keith in ten months and I was never to see him again. There were no goodbyes. It was an impossible concept for a nine-year-old child. Keith had vanished from my life.

The funeral was over when we got home, but Brownie called and asked if I would come over with my Mom to see him. I knew Brownie loved me and I wanted to see him too. I thought perhaps he could explain this sad thing to me--I expected a lot from adults back then. The Browns new house wasn't far away but instead of letting me ride my bike, my mother put me in the car and we drove to see Brownie.

It was a pretty house and Keith's stepmother answered the door and asked us in. She served us lemonade and cookies. The house was dark. It was a sunny summer day, but all the blinds were closed and the dark room made me shiver. And then, I heard a sound I shall never forget. I heard Brownie sobbing in the next room. Big, hearty, handsome Brownie was crying. We sat and sat, but he was unable to come out and see me. Finally we went away. Brownie had not been able to leave his room.

I hadn't thought about Keith in many years when I came home one year to Los Altos during a difficult time in my own life. I was all grown up and I was getting a divorce and I was hurting. In my family, if you are hurting, you are expected to hide it. I kept it in.

One day, I reached for a book on a bookshelf in the house my parents had owned since I was a child and as I opened the book, a letter fell out and drifted to the floor at my feet. I picked it up. It was a letter from Keith that he had written to me during the nine months my family and I were in Phoenix, the year of so many sad changes for this young boy.

"Dear Robin:

We miss you. My Dad says to say "hi" to all you girls. I hope you will come home soon.

Your friend,

How that letter got into that book and how I happened to select that book at that very time in my life is a mystery. It was as if Keith reached out to me to remind me that I had once given him my unconditional love, and that he had returned it and that it had never really gone away. Perhaps that kind of love doesn't disappear and is only transmuted.

I've thought for many years that young Keith's life had become too painful for him to endure and that his death at the age of eleven was a release for him. The letter that fell at my feet that day touched me, because it suddenly made it clear to me that my own pain was not as his had been. Mine was endurable and I would recover.

You never lose a friend like Keith. Perhaps I had only been able to help him a tiny bit long ago, but that tiny bit of love had connected us. And perhaps, just when I was in need, he had reached out to me as a way of saying thanks.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Our Own Battery-Powered Sky King: Flying the Skies With Dad

Robin and Dad at the flying club on the one and only day she flew in his plane.

Airplanes have always enchanted my father and have thus been part of the life of my family since my sister and I were children. He was eight when Lindberg flew the Atlantic and he even got to see the Spirit of St. Lewis when it came to Birmingham later in 1927. My Dad learned to fly when he was in college, spent his war years building runways for airplanes (and asking pilots if he could go up with them "for a spin"), and then began his working life as an aeronautical engineer.

There was a 1950s TV show called Sky King, in which a rancher flew his own plane and kept the bad guys on the run from the air, and I'll always think of Dad as our own Sky King.

Mom wouldn't let him fly when we were young. For whatever reason, which we won't analyze today, she believes gratification should be postponed indefinitely.To his question of "why?" she told my Dad that she didn't want him to auger in and force her to raise "these two girls" alone. She made him promise not to fly until we were grown. Fair enough. But statistics show he was much more likely to die in a car accident on the ground.

Dad, Robin, the Sparky-K and Robin's childhood friend Keith. One day, when I can, I'll tell you more about Keith, who died when I was nine.

Anyway, while we were kids, Dad flew model planes, long before there were model plane clubs that made flying these toys a social event. You could say he was ahead of the curve. Or you could say he was a man who marched to his own drummer. Or you could just say he was a nerdy engineer who liked planes and, deprived of the chance to fly real ones, flew toy ones instead.

The Sparky-K posing under our clothesline.

The first one I remember was one he built himself that had a little gasoline engine. He called it the Sparky-K. Sparky was the nickname my grandfather gave me for reasons that I assume are obvious to my acquaintances and K was for my sister Kimberly. Until it was damaged in a slight landing mishap in a field adjacent to Stanford University--Sully Sullenberger wasn't available to glide her in--she was Dad's favorite toy plane for Saturday afternoon-after-the-chores fun.

You could have knocked us all over when my father, who has a very long memory, joined a flying club after he retired. At the age of sixty-nine he started flying real planes again. I guess my mother figured if he augured in at that point she would be left well-fixed indeed and, what the heck, it would get the old guy out of the house.

He and his flying club friends never went anywhere in particular when they took off from Moffet Field in Mountain View, California. Mostly they would just fly to another Bay Area airport, have lunch, and fly home. Once, when there was a whale stuck in the Sacramento River, he and a friend flew to Sacramento, rented a car and drove to the river to see if they could spot this Wrong-Way-Corrigan mammal-of-the-sea. It was all just fun for Dad. His hearing wasn't good, but he and his flying pals wore special headphones with microphones that amplified each other's speech and the voices of the air traffic controllers, so it was still possible for him to fly safely, even with his handicap.

I'm always up for an adventure. So one summer day in the 1980s when I was in Los Altos on a visit, I asked Dad if he and his friend Ollie would fly me to Carmel, where some friends of mine were staying. Dad checked with Mom and the trip was set. This was a rare time when my Dad's flying club plane was actually going to be used for transportation.

His aircraft, his checklist. Prepping for flight on that fateful day.

We got into the plane on a sunny morning and my Dad took the old battery out of his headset and put in a new one, just to be safe. He tucked the old one in his back pocket, ran through the check list, and off we went.

I must say I wouldn't recommend flying when the pilot is someone you know and love. For the first time in my life in a plane, I was scared to death. Dad seemed very fidgety, too, and when we flew over the Coast Range and then, briefly, the Pacific Ocean, I was sure I was going to have a heart attack. He kept squirming in his seat--not comforting, I must say.

Finally we approached the Monteray-Salinas airport and I heaved a sigh of relief. And then the pilot, my father, said a bad word . My father never says a bad word. This is not done in my family. This particular day, the bad word was damn! and since it was said as we made our final approach to the airport I put my two little hands together and told God I was very sorry for all the bad things I had done in my life and hoped he would, nevertheless, let me in to heaven when this plane crashed and we all died.

But we landed safely.

"Dad," I said as we disembarked. "I think it might be best in the future not to say "damn" on final approach and scare your passengers to death." He laughed and laughed. It turns out a funny thing had happened.

When he put the old battery from his headset in his back pocket he didn't think a thing about it. But as we flew over the Coast Range and the air grew a little bumpy, his old battery began making contact with his keys and all during the rest of the flight he had been getting repeated little shocks to his rear end. I guess as we were on final approach he got a big shock, not a flying kind of shock, just a battery-in-the-bottom kind.

It was funny. But, from that day foward Sky King flew without me. The crash of the Sparky-K was still a fairly recent memory, after all. I much more enjoyed admiring his flying prowess from afar. Very far afar.

When he turned eighty and could no longer hear at all, he quit flying. But he did not really quit flying. He went back to flying model planes and it was just a few years ago that my sister took some pictures of him at our old junior high, flying a remote-controlled plane someone had given him. You just can't keep a good aviator down. Just make sure to keep the 9 volt Energizer out of the pocket of his pants.

He's not flying anymore, but as recently as 2004 he was out launching his planes in the summer sunshine.

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Saturday, March 7, 2009

Sunshine State vs. Sunshine State: California and Florida go to the Mat

A number of you have written to ask me about the differences between living in sunny Florida, on the East Coast, and sunny California in the West. Except for the fact that both states produce oranges, they are quite dissimilar both as states of mind and as states of the union. Herewith, some of the differences I have noticed in the month I have been back in California.

In California all a pedestrian has to do is put one toe into a road and he immediately has the right-of-way. Consequently, if you are killed crossing the street in California, you die knowing the driver who killed you is bound to collect a point or two on his license for smashing into you. In Florida, anyone out walking is assumed to be doing something illegal and is immediately arrested.

In Florida, al fresco dining is only possible between April 1 and April 2 because the rest of the year the weather is too hot and humid to spend out of doors.

In Florida, the richer you are the larger your vehicle, so that the richest people in the state all drive cars the size of Winnebagos. These can frequently been seen idling in front of restaurants with al fresco dining, where the exhaust fumes are considered to be part of the out-of-doors ambiance. In California, the richer you are, the smaller your car, so that the wealthiest entrepreneus in Silicon Valley--those who are old enough to drive--all drive cars the size of Swatch watches and are frequently mistaken for pedestrians in crosswalks and immediately given the right-of-way.

In California it is forbidden to ride a bike without donning a complete Tour de France outfit and joining other similarly attired persons for a ride in a large group necessitating the rerouting of traffic. In Florida, since no one would be caught dead riding a bicycle, the word "bike" is taken to mean that thing those people bring down on a trailer from New Jersey and ride around on in Daytona Beach while guzzling beer and wearing odd bits of leather clothing and funny-looking helmets.

These people are laughing because they've concealed from their jealous friends up North the size of the average Florida cockroach, known in polite circles as a palmetto bug.

In Florida all the bugs are the size of the cockroach that ate Tommy Lee Jones in the movie Men in Black and vast quantities of pesticides flow freely into the water table. This pollution causes irreversible brain damage to Florida residents and explains why Floridians allow developers to run the state. In California, the last known bugs left the state with Richard Nixon and were used in the White House.

Actors and Artists
In Florida, actors on their way up move to California and actors on their way down do the weather on local television. In California, actors on their way up do infomercials and actors on their way down run for office.

In Florida, there are only forty channels on cable TV and these include abundant entertainment programs, always in English and Spanish. News and information programs are outlawed as subversive. In California, there are five hundred cable channels, all showing informercials 24-hours a day in Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, and Hindi. There are no English language programs, as there are no longer any English-speaking people in California.

In California, a bowl of citrus is enjoyed at a health food store. In Florida, a Citrus Bowl is used as an excuse to eat nachos and drink beer. All the citrus grown in Florida is turned into juice so it can be mixed with tequila and consumed as a "Sunrise."

Confronting Homelessness
In California the rights of all homeless people to be homeless are respected. In Florida a homeless person is immediately given a no-interest mortgage and moved into a condo in Boca.

Native Species
In Florida, there are more alligators than people. In California, there are more alligator handbags than people.

Healthy Living
In California, people work hard at healthy eating and generally lose a pound each year for every year they are over thirty. As a consequence, there are an enormous number of old people in California, though this is not generally known because they have become so thin they are only visible for a few minutes each day, when they are digesting their bean sprouts. In Florida, since you cannot be admitted to Disney World unless you are at least two hundred pounds overweight, everyone eats and drinks lavishly and looks forward to the day when they can buy a Power Chair from the Scooter Store and visit Epcot.

These are all the contrasts I can think of this week: but we may want to make this an on-going series.Uh oh, looks like I may have offended the animal rights people again. They've sent a gator after me.

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

"Artistic Luxury" at S.F. Museum

A necklace of green glass frogs and jewels by early twentieth century designer René Lalique.

The artistic opulence of turn-of-the-twentieth century luxury is celebrated in a new exhibit at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, and if you love beautiful things it is the show for you. The exhibit is titled: Artistic Luxury: Fabergé, Tiffany, Lalique and runs through May 31 in the City By the Bay.

The museum offers free admission on the first Tuesday of each month, so I chose a Tuesday to head up to San Francisco from my home on the peninsula just 46 miles away. San Francisco is almost always colder, foggier and windier than the Santa Clara Valley so, since it was pouring sheets of rain in Los Altos, I expected the worst in the City. Well, anyway, I told myself. The museum is, after all, indoors.

But as I cruised along the most beautiful highway in the U.S., Interstate 280, up against the foothills of the Coast Range, the sheets of rain let up at about San Mateo and it was clear sailing into San Francisco. The Legion of Honor museum is located in a corner of the City where I haven't often traveled. It is just on the edge of the old Presidio, on a hill overlooking the Bay. You have to be careful or you'll end up going over Golden Gate Bridge if you miss your turn. New-old-comer that I am I almost did just that, but at the last minute took the last exit and found myself at Fort Point, just about where Kim Novak was rescued by Jimmy Stewart when she jumped into the Bay in Vertigo. Like a good tourist I got out and took a picture, and you just can't take a bad picture from that location.

There it was, posing for me at the edge of the Presidio.

From there, all I had to do was wind my way through the Presidio to the edge of Lincoln Park and that wasn't difficult. I parked at the foot of the hill and walked the quarter mile up to the museum. It was good exercise after sitting in the car for fifty minutes and when you get to the top the view is worth the walk.

Even on a grey day the Legion of Honor was blooming with color.

There were so many beautiful objects in the show--jewelry, hair combs, vases, lamps, brooches, stomachers (that's a bibelot dripping in diamonds you wear over the front of your dress), Fabergé eggs, and Tiffany lamps, it was almost more than you could take in. Many of the Fabergé items, all covered in gems and gold from cigarette cases to eggs to jewelry to tea sets, had been designed for the ill-fated Romanaov family, the last of the Tsars. Looking at all that luxury and knowing how it was bought while their subjects suffered in poverty was a little sad. Many of the items were confiscated by the Soviets after they executed Tsar Nicolas, Tsarina Alexandria (the granddaughter of Queen Victoria) and their entire family. But they certainly enjoyed their exquisite jewels while they reigned.

Fabergé necklace of Siberian amethysts.

The Tiffany and Lalique objects had a somewhat more cheerful history, purchased in the West for the wealthy sons and daughters of successful capitalists, God-bless-'em, in Europe and America.

I was familiar with the designs of Louis Comfort Tiffany because Winter Park, Florida where I lived for twenty years, is home to the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art with the largest collection of Tiffany objects in the world. The Morse recently re-designed its jewelry exhibit and as my friend and museum executive Catherine Hinman told me, "We don't have anything in there that we would loan." So, if you enjoy the San Francisco show you have another treat on your hands the next time you visit Central Florida. (See more on their web site at

A Louis Comfort Tiffany brooch in the San Franciso exhibit.

But the Getty family loaned the Legion of Honor show several important Tiffany lamps and Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Albert of Monaco also sent over a few priceless knickknacks from their own collections. And, oh yes, Joan and Melissa Rivers sent over a few things. But they didn't say which ones, so one could only speculate.

At right: one of Fabergé's rare be-jeweled Easter eggs.This one was given by Tsar Nicholas II to the Tsarina in 1907.

Since it was free day the show was very crowded, especially crowded with French-speaking people who didn't budge so others could see around them. I stayed as long as my brain would allow me to download all this beauty and then I walked to the coat check for my umbrella (not allowed inside the show.) Adjacent to the coat check was a little cabinet with beautiful jewelry from Greece and Rome, circa 200-500 BC. Each of the pieces could easily compare with the lovely jewels of the Belle Epoch exhibit down the hall. Just goes to show you--people have been enjoying beautiful things since the dawn of time.

Outside, the rain had started again, and the mist made the city look like the land of Sam Spade and the Maltese Falcon. I stopped to take a picture of the Bay, with Alcatraz cold and lonely in the distance.

And then I did what any good tourist would do: I headed over to Fisherman's Wharf to buy a couple of Dungeness crabs and some sourdough bread for dinner. The sun came out again and the sad fate of the Romanovs faded from my mind. The real jewel of this adventure had been San Francisco herself.

They were awfully good, and since they are only found on the West coast, I at least know they were caught somewhere not farther away than say, Alaska.

Is it the prettiest bridge in the world? It certainly can be found on a lot of charm bracelets.

All of the photos of the "Artistic Luxury" exhibit are the property of the Cleveland Museum of Art in conjunction with the Legion of Honor in San Francisco and Yale University Press. They are used here under the Fair Use provisions of the law, in this news article only, and should not be reproduced for commercial use.

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Monday, March 2, 2009

World War II Dad: Remembering the Best of Times and Forgetting the Worst

Beards? No shirts? After almost five years of war, the battle-hardened Americans had dispensed with many of the formalities. My father is at right on Ie Shima near Okinawa, 1945.

For my father, with his sad disease of lost and confused memory, his participation in World War II is the one constant in his conversations these days. He told me recently that he's sorry he hasn't been able to get to know my sister better but that being away at war all that time must be why he hasn't seen her since she was born. The war was over sixty four years ago, and my sister wasn't born until he returned from overseas, and he sees her frequently. But this is less and less clear in his mind.

He talks almost exclusively about the first two years of World War II, during which he served as a unit commander and aviation officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Just a few months after Pearl Harbor, he was sent aboard a converted ocean liner to Ascension Island, where he and his men had orders to build what became Wideawake Field. It was used by 25 thousand planes ferrying supplies, troops, and munitions into the CBI theater. And, it was about the safest place a young officer could be in those first bloody years of World War II. It was isolated and exotic and quite an adventure for the kid from Birmingham and perhaps that's why he talks about it all the time today.

Consequently, I was very interested when I came across an album of photos that had apparently been kept by my mother's mother, my Grandmother Latta. It includes photos of my Dad during the second phase of the war for him, on a little island called Ie Shima, a place he served that he almost never talks about. There, on Ie Shima, he was in harm's way during the part of the war (he told me once long ago) that he didn't think he would survive.

Captain Chapman showing off the swell accommodations he had on Ie Shima.

The island is one of the Japanese islands in the Ryukyus chain, the best-known of which is Okinawa. Fighting on Okinawa in the early months of 1945 was so terrible that the Pentagon told the President he could expect at least a million casualties in the invasion of Japan, that was expected to come next. While U.S. troops mopped up on Okinawa, on April 16, 1945, U.S. Marines and the U.S. Army Infantry swept onto Ie Shima where there was an airfield that had to be neutralized and could be reused in the days ahead. The fighting was bloody there too.

The uniforms were old and worn. Captain Chapman with his men on Ie Shima. He returned from Ie with a Bronze Star. Today he doesn't remember anything about receiving this award for valor.

Dad once said Ie Shima was secure when he arrived. But I've looked at his Army records now and the history of the war and have learned that Dad arrived on Ie Shima on April 22, 1945 and that the last assault on U.S. troops on Ie took place during the night of April 22-23. While he and the Corps of Engineers were rebuilding the airstrip on Ie there were daily assaults by Japanese planes. "We just kept on working. We had to. We were on a deadline," he once said to me with a shrug. "I felt kind of sorry for those Japanese pilots. They flew over and dropped bombs on us, but every piece of artillery on the island opened up on them. They almost never got away."

My Dad's friend, Capt. Ray Kidd, was killed as the result of just such an assault. It was just two weeks before the war ended.

And there were thousands of bodies--both Japanese and American--that had to be buried in those early days on the island. Being on Ie Shima was not the fascinating, exotic, assignment that being on Ascension Island had been. Being on Ie Shima was really being in the war. Maybe your mind would want to forget it too.

The company commanders during the good years on Ascension Island. Captain Ray Kidd is at far left. 2nd Lt. Ashley Chapman is second from right.

Dad has always said that journalist Ernie Pyle was killed on Ie just one day before he landed there. The record shows that Pyle was actually killed on 18 April, four days before my Dad got there. But Pyle's death was devastating to American soldiers and they were probably still talking about it when my Dad and his unit landed. Pyle was a journalist who traveled with soldiers and wrote about their lives back home and the daily grind of their lives in wartime. In fact, his death on Ie calls to mind the closing scene of The Story of G.I. Joe, a movie based on Pyle's dispatches. As their officer lies dead after a battle, his men, one by one, file by him. One soldier takes off his helmet and says: "I sure am sorry, sir." That's the way American soldiers felt about Pyle's death on Ie.

My sister and I wonder why my father's memory record is stuck on the months he spent on Ascension Island. But, maybe that was the last period in his young life of absolute optimism, before he knew about the really bad things that can happen. Maybe that was the end of the innocence for William Ashley Chapman, the much beloved son of Roy and Mary, who made it safely home from war and still, deep inside the recesses of his brain may wonder why.

My sister Kimberly was born after my father returned from World War II. She laughs at this picture, taken in Palo Alto, California, because the cars look so old. But we always remind her that they didn't manufacture automobiles during the war so she really isn't of Model T vintage.

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