Thursday, April 30, 2009

Vanity Served On a Plate

This Mercedes owner appears to already have the whole kit.

I doubt if Californians are any more vain than people in other states, but I certainly see a lot more vanity plates here than I did in Florida, and they do provide entertainment on the road.

Today, at the Safeway, I saw this plate: "DHHH888," and I had to think a minute before I deciphered the word "Date." Is the car owned by someone who runs a dating service, I wonder, or just someone who wants a "DHHH888"?

Nearby, at the Walgreen's, there was one of the tiny new Smart Cars, with a plate that read "MBZLite." I'm thinking it is one of the Smart Cars with the Mercedes Benz 3-cyl, 0.7 litre, 61 HP engine (some have engines by Mitsubishi). Facing it in the lot was another Smart Car with a plate that read "MRS♥Mr," a sentiment general enough to survive as long as there is one Mr. or another around. It is certainly safer than the sentiment expressed on a plate I saw earlier in the week, which read: "Pam♥Jim." That's not as permanent as a tattoo, but it does make one ponder the additional challenge in case of a breakup.

Who do you suppose owns this car? A plastic surgeon? A man with commitment phobia? The truth may be more mundane: that 4Runner doesn't need 'em in the winter in Tahoe.

Then there was the plate on the back of a Chrysler Crossfire that read "Seyaaaa," something that has a new meaning the owner didn't anticipate now that Chrysler is going into bankruptcy. See Ya, Crossfire.

When this Ms. sells her Honda FIT, she'll have to get a new plate.

Earlier, I saw a creative plate on the vehicle of what must have been an intellectual couple who excelled in French class, while the rest of us struggled along with our conjugations. Their plate read: "Huix 2," pronounced, if one were in Provence, for example, "We Two." Merci to huix.

There is always a cynic in the crowd.

The plate that read "Gdgt Gal" made me think the car was owned by a repair woman until I saw the surfboard carrier on the car's roof. And I've already mentioned in a previous blog the truck I saw with the plate that read "Moo Haul." And that's no load of fertilizer.

On a Mini Cooper I saw the plate "MyGoK♥." On a Cadillac I was greeted with "Kauai Hi." On a classic Mercedes SL (beautifully maintained ones are pretty common out here) there was the plate that read "BudZSL". I could only say, well good for you, Bud!

My favorite of the week comes from a neighbor with a BMW who parks out back in an open carport. I don't know the owner, but I think he must be a comrade under the skin: a former or current television reporter. Why? His plate reads:"Back2Yu."

Send Robin your favorite vanity plates and if you can, attach a picture. We will try to make this a regular feature. Please photo-shop out the registration on the tag before you send.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

The Father and Child Reunion

My Dad with his first born child, Kimberly, who is also my beloved big sister. My father was never especially charming with grown up people, but he adored children

My father kept saying he remembered picking up my sister Kimberly from her crib when she was a new baby, and then, poof, she vanished from his life. But only the memory had vanished because, with dementia of the Alzheimer's type, the patient's brain cannot seem to retain its memory of the recent past.

The truth is that both my sister and I have traveled from our homes in Colorado and Florida to Dad’s home in California half-a-dozen times (each) over the last year and as a consequence, Dad has seen a lot of both of us. But now I’ve moved back to California and Dad sees me every day, he's grown confused about my sister. Where is she?

Why is one of his children in his home without the other? His mind has gone far back into the past and, some of the time, he believes he's only recently out of the Army and World War II. So he asks all kinds of questions about Kimberly--questions that would seem odd if you didn’t know about the effects of Alzheimer’s disease on the memory.

“Is she young?” He asked me one day. “She must be young.” I didn’t say anything. My sister is now a grandmother.

“Who is her father?” he asked on another occasion. Now that's a conversation stopper. I pointed at him (because he is now profoundly deaf) and mouthed the words: “You are her father. She is my sister so you are her father.” He nodded sadly. “Of course she is my daughter, of course. But why haven’t I seen her?”

And then her story became intertwined with the paranoia that is also a part of dementia of the Alzheimer’s type. For a while, my father believed my sister’s husband, Dan (whom he sometimes also thought was her father) was holding her prisoner and keeping her from coming out to see us. Sometimes, he thought her husband was in a conspiracy of “the enlisted men against the officers” and he had a whole weird plot line to go along with that, involving his duties during World War II. Many days he wanted to have a serious talk with me about all of this and often I tried to get him onto another subject.

Once I pretended to call my sister’s husband on the phone to find out if he was angry at Dad and then, discovering in my faux phone call he was not, informed Dad of this. That did calm him for a while.

It is difficult to know what to do. At my Alzheimer's support group the facilitator has told us that we must not feel guilty about “creative storytelling.” This is a challenge in a moral family. Lie to your father? Have my mother lie to her husband? Have the caregiver lie?

But my father's world is not the world it once was and is not, in fact, the real world in which the rest of us are living. Our job is to make him happy and comfortable while we have him with us. Lying to him as little as possible is desirable. Creative storytelling is often necessary. One must adjust one's outlook to help a loved one with dementia.

There's good news in all of this. My sister had a visit scheduled for this Saturday. She was here just two months ago but my father does not remember this. I picked her up at the San Jose Airport and we were both wondering what would happen. He’d never spent so much time talking about how he didn’t know her as he had in recent months. What would he say? How would he react?

We walked in the door. Dad looked up and focused his old, weary eyes. They opened wider for a second and he cried out with joy when he saw her.

“Kimberly!” He bellowed to his eldest child, and the two of them smiled the biggest smiles I'd seen from each in as many years.

Then he started to sing what has become his favorite song: “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here.” The recent past may have disappeared, but he knows and loves his eldest daughter. That is something his disease has not been able to take away.

Kim and Dad again in Palo Alto, and below, Kim and Dad, Christmas 2008.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Grandmother Mary and Inherited Diseases

My Grandmother, Mary McHutchison Wilson Chapman, in Palo Alto, California shortly after the birth of my sister.

When I was in my teens my father's mother, my grandmother Chapman, came to live with us. She had been widowed for many years, was in her seventies, and was now unstable on her feet. She'd had several falls. My father decided it was best to bring her to California from Alabama.

At some point she was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, but there wasn't much treatment for it in those days. One thing I remember so clearly was how her walking deteriorated as the months went on. She would try to walk and it would look as if her foot was stuck to the ground. She did a sort of hesitation step to get it going. Later, dementia was added to her ailments and when she was unable to walk at all my Dad found a nursing home for her where she was able to get quality care for the last months of her life.

But that walk. I have remembered it all my life.

And then, in the last few months here in California I have seen it again. In my father. He doesn't have Parkinson's disease. He's been diagnosed with dementia. Why is he losing his ability to walk and doing that strange hesitation step his mother had done forty years ago?

I asked his gerontologist why his dementia would affect his walking. I mentioned that strange hesitation step his mother had done that he was doing now. Nothing. No response. Go away, don't bother me.

And then, when we took Dad to a second doctor about another issue, the new doctor mentioned three words and shook his head. I had to ask him to repeat himself so I could write it down. "What did you say?" I asked. "Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus," he said, and added; "but I'm just speculating."

So I looked this disease up on the Internet. Memory loss is one of the symptoms, and difficulty in walking is another. The Web site eMedicine Health says another is: "Difficulty taking the first step, as if the feet are stuck to the floor." That describes his walking problems exactly. And the Web site mentions that this disease is often misdiagnosed as Parkinson's disease and/or as Alzheimer's disease.

We don't have all the tests back yet, so we can't say for sure that my father has the same disease his mother faced at the end of her life. NPH wasn't identified until 1965, so it would have taken an extraordinary physician to recognize it in my grandmother at about that same time. Still, if NPH is the diagnosis for my father, many of my questions about his own symptoms will have been answered. We will also be able to make better decisions about his medications and his treatment options.

One thing it has taught me: don't be ashamed to ask your physician questions and don't be afraid to ask another doctor those same questions if you aren't getting any answers.

Both my sister and I need to know if this disease is in our family DNA. If I start acting confused (more so than usual, that is) my family is definitely authorized to send me in for a spinal tap.

My big sister with Grandmother Chapman in Palo Alto.

The one thing I cannot answer is the larger question: why is my father being forced to suffer this after a life of service to others? That is a question that has no answer. So I'm stuck with the practical things I can solve and do: where to send his prescriptions, what kind of nursing care will he hate the least, and whether he should be buried in his favorite hat. He has said several times to bury him in his red hat from Ascension Island (he was stationed there in World War II). I want to do as he asks. But I've been thinking I might want that red hat near me, after he is gone.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Second Opinions: Seeking the Help of Another Doctor When Caring for the Elderly

My Dad looking happy recently as he posed for pictures with his long-time friend and barber, Al Galedrige. The men in the shop now help lift my father into the barber chair.

When you are ill, you need a determined advocate to help you through our health care system. You have to be your own GP and seek out answers to your own questions from the specialists your "primary care physcician" refers you to. But when you are ill, you are least able to do this. It is the job of your loved ones to do it for you. This week, I feel I let my father down.

I wasn't there to help him when I should have been.

Six or eight years ago he started to have "spells" where he wasn't sure what had just happened to him. He had all kinds of tests and our mother said the doctors "couldn't find anything." Nevertheless, he was put on a strong dose of an anti-seizure medication. I wondered why. So did his sister, my Aunt Helen, who laughed and said: "If they couldn't find anything wrong: why is he on anti-seizure medication?" I should have gotten on a plane and taken Dad to a new doctor and sought an answer to that question.

When my Mom stopped her after-dinner walks with my father and starting walking by herself, I asked her why. "Oh he isn't walking well anymore. He has osteoperosis you know." I said to myself: osteoperosis doesn't keep a person from walking. What's wrong with him? I should have gotten on a plane and taken Dad to a new doctor and sought an answer to that question.

When he started showing signs of dementia, my sister mentioned it to me. "But he writes such great letters to me," I said, busy with my own problems and happy to be in denial. "Yes but there is something wrong with him," said my sister. It wasn't until later that I learned my mother was writing the letters and my father was copying them out for me. Why didn't I get on a plane and come out to California and take my father to a new doctor? What was my mother trying to hide by writing his letters for him? I should have found out.

When I finally did come out to California to try to solve some of these problems I repeatedly asked his doctor, a gerontologist, these questions. If he has dementia: why is it impacting his walking? When I noticed the strangeness of his gait, I mentioned to his doctor that his mother, my grandmother, had done that same, odd, hesitation step in the last years of her life. She too had been diagnosed with Parksinson's disease and she too had developed dementia. I asked about the anti-seizure medication. To all of these questions, I received, over and over again, patronizing answers from my father's doctor. And he never really answered any of them! He knew better than I and he wasn't interested in any observations I had to share or questions I wanted answered.

When finally, this same physician refused to address a particularly annoying cyst on my father's hand ("He'll need a hand surgeon and it just isn't worth it. Leave it alone."), I made an appointment with my mother's internist to look at the cyst, knowing the internist was in a large group and could refer us to a doctor who could remove it. First of all, I learned the cyst can be removed by a dermatologist, so out went that proviso. I also addressed my unanswered questions to this new physician and much to my astonishment he told me that my father's cluster of symptoms indicated a specific disease, which affects the brain and which, if addressed early on, can be treated. "I'm just speculating," said the new doctor. "But I want to send him to a neurologist." When I told him that my grandmother had had similar symptoms forty years earlier, he nodded his head. "We think it can be hereditary," said he.

Now my father is almost ninety and the chances that he can be treated are slim. I've read about the disease on the Internet and treatment involves complex surgery, which he might not survive. I'm saddened and sickened that it took so long for me to seek answers to the nagging questions I had since his first "incident" of confusion and since the onset of his walking problems. Where was I and why wasn't I serving as his advocate?

The only thing I can do now, other than kick myself around the block, is to apply this lesson to the life that remains to my father and to the lives of my other loved ones and to myself. Don't be intimidated by a doctor who patronizes you. If you aren't getting answers to your questions, find another doctor who will answer them for you. Doctor shopping is perfectly okay. It is your life and the lives of your loved ones at stake and you can be as obnoxious as you want in your search for truth.

In fact you should be. Any doctor who doesn't help you in your search, should be fired, which is just what each of us is still able to do in this great land of ours. One thing there is not in America: there is not a shortage of good doctors.

I'm still angry at myself. But the new information I have, has at least given me a reason to renew my efforts to help my father. He can't do it. So my sister and I must do the best we can to help him in the years ahead..

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Monday, April 20, 2009

The Artichoke Center of the World

California Highway #1 used to go directly through the heart of Castroville, but there is now a bypass and Castroville's famous sign is seen only by drivers who turn off the main highway to drive through its dusty streets.

If you've ever ordered artichoke a la Bernaise at your favorite restaurant or tossed a few artichoke hearts into your salad, chances are very good that the unique vegetable you are adding to your diet came from Castroville, California, a humble little town in the Salinas Valley.

In fact, 85% of all the artichokes sold in the United States come from Castroville and from the fields in the ten surrounding miles. Castroville, which has long had a sign over its main street claiming to be "The Artichoke Center of the World" is not just shoveling hay. The sign states a simple fact.

This is the time of year for fresh artichokes. In town, you can find them for a dollar each, and that sounds like a pretty good price until you drive over into the Salinas valley and find fresh artichokes--ten for a dollar. They grow like grass here in the cool sunny weather just north of Monterey.

A field near Castroville.

On a recent drive I left posh Silicon Valley, where I saw a license plate that read "MY BEMR" and drove south to Gilroy. At Gilroy--home of the Garlic Festival--I turned west on highway 152, a cool, winding road through vineyards and fields. On route, as I wound into the country, I got behind a truck with the license plate "MOO HAUL." Different world: different vanity plates.

A vineyard near Gilroy.

Pansies growing on a floriculture farm on California Highway 152.

It is hot and dry on the Gilroy side of the hills. But when you reach the top of the Santa Cruz range at Mt. Madonna (elevation 1309 ft) you begin to come down on the ocean side, where the weather is cooler and the crops can soak up more moisture from the ocean breezes. You might turn off at Mt. Madonna Park, a 3000 acre reserve of redwood trees, hiking trails and campsites. I think I went to Girl Scout Camp there one year and managed to have a serious encounter with poison oak, so, I zipped by and on down to Watsonville. Watsonville is the Strawberry Center of the World, so things are quiet there right now. The berries ripen later in the season.

And on to Castroville. In Castroville, the workers come from all over the world. Historically, many come from south of the border, and in town many of the signs reflect the primary language of the working population.

A sign in a Castroville window.

By the way, the city wasn't named for Fidel of Cuba, but for Spanish settler Juan Bautista Castro. Did he grow artichokes in the sandy soil? We don't know. But if you come for the Artichoke Festivale (May 16-17 2009) you might want to stay in Castroville's (one) famous motel:

But, we were having a hot spell and the ambient temperature indicated on the gauge of my Swedish car read 91F degrees. So I headed for nearby Pacific Grove, just a few miles down the road. There, as I turned off the highway, I noticed the temperature had dropped to 73F and I stopped for a stroll along the sand. Even though it was Sunday there were very few people at the beach.

The ocean waves in Monterey Bay near Pacific Grove, California.

I did see a few odd things. One couple faced the cliffs instead of the sea and seemed oblivious to the beauty of the ocean.

And I found a dog chasing a Frisbee, wearing a life vest! He was moving a lot so I didn't get a great picture of him.

When I asked his owner why the dog was wearing the life vest he said: "Why not?" Well, okay, on a boat maybe, but at the beach? It seemed like a sissy kind of thing for a dog to do.

After a stop for lunch I headed back over the mountains and home, stopping, of course, for some artichokes at ten for a dollar. Castroville may be a humble town, in the rural Salinas Valley, but it is surrounded by beauty (if you'll only turn around and look for it) and it produces a royal crop for us all to enjoy.

A Field of Dreams in the Salinas Valley.

For more on the Castroville Artichoke Festival go to

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Wonderful Day Trips From San Francisco: Historic Half Moon Bay

You can see how the bay got its name in this photo taken from the ridge. Photo by Michael Wong from the Half Moon Bay Chamber of Commerce.

It is only six miles over the Santa Cruz Mountains from San Mateo, California to Half Moon Bay. From ritzy, suburban Silicon Valley, Highway 92 takes you through the redwoods and softly you move into rural California. It is the California of flower growers and cattle ranches, of hills and valleys and old-fashioned houses and barns. As you roll down the steep grade of the mountains, you find yourself in the little town of Half Moon Bay, the oldest town in San Mateo County. You are only about thirty minutes from the land of Whole Foods Markets and Google, but you are a world away. It makes a great day trip for anyone visiting the San Francisco Bay area.

Because of its relative isolation--tucked between the rocky Pacific Coast, 23 miles south of San Francisco on California Highway 1, and adjacent to the rugged Coast Range--Half Moon Bay has not been turned into a town of condos and beach clubs. It remains an old-fashioned beach town, surrounded by sea and agriculture.

One of the sights on Half Moon Bay's main business street. It is just one of many historic buildings in the city.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to confess I have been coming to Half Moon Bay all my life. On summer Saturdays, when my father had finished his chores, we packed a picnic and took our huge Chevrolet over the mountains to the beach. On a hot summer day in the Santa Clara Valley, the idea of a dip in the ocean was refreshing. But Half Moon Bay has a water temperature that averages 52F degrees: freezing is a better word for a Pacific Ocean dip than refreshing! Still, we would build a fire, cavort in the surf, and eat our picnic supper as the sun went down over the Pacific. The park was free, the view was free and everything about a day like that one was a blessing for a child.

Pacific Ocean temperatures are such that a wise child visiting Half Moon Bay always brings a sweater to wear over her bathing suit. That's me, wondering how to incorporate sea kelp into my costume.

Returning to California this year and exploring Half Moon Bay has been a revelation. It takes no time at all to get there. Its just seventeen miles on Interstate 280 from my house in Los Altos to the Highway 92 turnoff. And it is just six miles over the mountains to the beach. And the beach isn't crowded! For most of my life, I thought this little beach town was far, far, away, and learning its proximity, and seeing how little Half Moon Bay has changed has been a delight. My sister and I loved it when we were kids and I'm going to take her back there when she comes to visit me.

Bathing beauties posing early enough in the day to not be wearing their sweaters. Me at left and my long-legged sister at right.

The coast highway, called the Cabrillo Highway or Highway 1, and Highway 92 over the mountains both follow original Indian trails that were discovered by the Spanish when they arrived in California. The Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola arrived on the coast of Northern California in 1776 and founded Mission Dolores in what would become San Francisco. The coast south of the the mission was used to graze cattle and to raise food for the padres.

First the Spanish and then the Mexican government deeded land in northern California to loyal citizens as land grants, thus the land surrounding the little bay was first owned by the wealthy dons. Their laborers from Spain, Mexico and Chile settled in the town above the bay and it was dubbed Spanishtown. But after California became a state in 1850, people from all over the world discovered the California coast. Fishermen, farmers, fruit growers, horticulturalists shopkeepers all came to the regions and in 1874 this influx of newcomers changed the name of the town to Half Moon Bay. I've always thought it was an extraordinarily beautiful name.

A Half Moon Bay cottage, just a few blocks from the beach.

The average price of a house in Half Moon Bay is $700,000, which is an awful lot of money but is about half the average price of a home in Palo Alto, California or Los Altos. And most of the beach homes are modest. There are no high rises as you find on the Florida coast. Whatever legislation it took to accomplish this: somebody did something very right.

Another Half Moon Bay cottage, simple and small.

Agriculture remains the primary driver of the local economy. "Floriculture" or flower growing accounts for most of it, with vegetable crops, livestock, fruit and nuts coming along behind for a total annual gross value of $172 million.

One of the nicest ways to end a day trip to Half Moon Bay is to stop at one of the many farms on Highway 92 as you head back to the Bay Area and buy a bunch of locally grown flowers or plants. On my recent trip I found orchids for $10. Or you could buy a dozen, fresh cut roses for $5. There are artichokes for sale now, and soon there will be fresh strawberries.

This little day trip is a long way in spirit from Fisherman's Wharf and the Alcatraz tour and Ghirardelli Square, but it just a short trip by car and well worth the visit. For me, it will always be a town of happy memories, of the days when my father was young and happy. And though he is ill now and old, Half Moon Bay has remained the same. I like going there now to remember and to make new memories for the years ahead.

That's my handsome father with my sister and me. I've learned so late that his good looks are the least important thing about him.

(All of the above photos are from our family album or were taken by me in Half Moon Bay, except the first photo in this article which comes courtesy of the Half Moon Bay Chamber of Commerce.)

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Origins of a Shirt Made Famous by John Wayne

A friend of mine had an extra role in a movie recently and when he sent me a photo of himself on the movie set, I noticed he was wearing what I identified as a "John Wayne shirt." I didn't know, until my friend responded with surprise, that this is exactly what film costume departments call the cowboy shirt with the placket front and the double row of buttons.

We associate it with Wayne because he liked it and wore it often in his movies. Remember the first time we see him as the Ringo Kid in the classic movie Stagecoach? He's hitching a ride in the desert because his horse has gone lame and when we see him he twirls his shotgun, smiles, and walks right into our hearts. If you looked away from his face for a moment, you might have noticed he was wearing what became his trademark shirt.

John Wayne as the Ringo Kid in the movie Stagecoach.

It is so different from the shirts we wear today, that I wondered about its origins. It turns out that the shirt was worn by men in cowboy movies because cowboys really did wear it in western life. But its origins actually go back to the middle of the 19th century and to firefighters on both sides of the Atlantic.

It is important to understand that until the 19th century, all clothing was made by hand. Then, in 1856, Isaac Singer began mass producing the Singer Sewing Machine and it became possible to produce all kinds of clothing, including men's shirts, in factories. The factory-made shirt came along just in time for its use in the uniforms of the Civil War.

The placket front, double-row-of-buttons shirt had been worn first by firemen. They needed a uniform that looked good, but they also needed one they could work in, a shirt that held together during the strenuous work of driving big teams of horses and when fighting fires. Currier and Ives showed New York firefighters in the shirt--in red flannel--in their 1858 series on the American fireman.

Currier and Ives print, one of a series on the life of the American fireman.

British firefighters in the 19th century also wore the placket front shirt (or blouse as it is called in uniform parlance--and that word can also mean jacket) for their duties.

An 1890 photo of firemen in London.

During the U.S. Civil War, both sides suddenly had a need for millions of mass produced uniforms. Units on both sides wore the placket front shirt. As in the case of firemen, soldiers needed uniforms that looked good to the folks back home and kept morale high in the ranks. The placket front shirt with its double row of buttons looked very spiffy indeed. But it was also very practical for a soldier. It allowed a man to put his tobacco pouch, his girlfriend's picture, a letter from home, or his lunch right inside the front of his shirt, giving him easy access to these items while leaving his hands free for his knapsack and his weapon. The placket with its double row of buttons gave the shirt more strength and the ability to take more "pull" (for climbing, raising one's arms for shooting, and for holding the reins of horses) without tearing or popping a button. What the men of the Civil War called a fireman's shirt was great-looking and practical.

When the war was over, the boys took those shirts home, and their return home coincided with the biggest westward movement in our history. So, a lot of those shirts went West, and since they were made of fine gabardine wool (the Union made everything out of wool, even the soldiers' underwear, hence the name "Union suit") they lasted forever. The men of the West had little need for formal wear, so the shirt was worn more out West than it was in the East and the fireman's shirt gradually became the mark of a cowboy. Once again, the shirt looked good, wore well, was comfortable and had room for the chaw and Ma's letters.

Some units in the U.S. Cavalry also wore the shirt in the decades after the Civil War. George Armstrong Custer wore one into battle the day he died, according to the National Park Service on its Web site about the Little Bighorn Battlefield:

"Custer, as he appeared at the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, was described by the last white people to see him alive ... He wore buckskin breeches and had his buckskin coat strapped to his saddle. His shirt was a version of a "fireman's shirt" made of lightweight wool and trimmed on the collar and cuffs with white tape."

General George Armstrong Custer poses with his catch on a successful buffalo hunt in the West. The fireman's shirt he's wearing appears to be buckskin. The photo is from the National Archives.

Half a century later, when John Wayne starred in his movies about the U.S. Cavalry, he too wore the fireman's shirt.

Wayne in his trademark shirt. Here it is a feature of his cavalry uniform.

Wayne probably saw the shirt first when he was working at Republic Studios doing Westerns in the 1930s. In those days, the wranglers and stuntmen were real cowboys and wore what was in the closet. The Civil War was only seventy years in the past, and their fathers and uncles had worn those shirts. Wayne spent almost a decade making programmers at Republic before he became a star and during that time he perfected his acting, his walk, the kind of kerchiefs he liked (you'll see the same kind in all of his pictures after 1939, often with blue and red in them) and, it appears, he also formed an opinion about the shirt he liked best. He wore the fireman's shirt a lot. It looked good on a man with a broad chest and it certainly looked good on Wayne.

And thus it was transformed from a fireman's shirt into a John Wayne shirt. Anonymous firemen may have worn it first: but John Wayne wore it best.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Beautiful Objects of a Doomed Empire: The Story of Faberge's Eggs

The San Francisco exhibit called "Artistic Luxury," at the Palace of the Legion of Honor (done in conjunction with the Cleveland Museum of Art), included objets d'art from Fabergé, Tiffany and Lalique, and raised a number of questions in my mind about Fabergé's eggs. There were just two or three Fabergé eggs in the exhibit and I remembered that Malcolm Forbes had collected them. The eggs were nearly all created for the Romanovs, the last of the Tsars. What else made them so special? How many eggs were there? What happened to them during and after the Russian revelolution? Where is each one of them today?

I found the answers to those questions in a wonderful book by Tony Faber called Fabergé's Eggs; The Extraordinary Story of the Masterpieces That Outlived an Empire. If tales of international mystery, murder, revolution, and gorgeous jewels interest you, you'll very much enjoy this book.

The "Rose Trellis Egg," from 1907, contained a "surprise" inside of a diamond chain and a miniature of the Tsar's son Alexis. The "surprise" is missing from the egg and its whereabouts are not known.

The decorated Easter eggs we exchange each spring have their origins in early Christian tradition. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, which split from the Roman Catholic Church some time after the fall of Rome, Easter gradually became a more important holiday than Christmas. And by the time of the Romanov tsars, Easter greetings were exhanged among Christians as part of the tradition. "Christ is risen," said the first person to a loved one, and the answer came back: "He is risen indeed." In Russia people exchanged these greetings all day Easter Sunday and often all during the following week.

Russians had been exchanging eggs at Easter for centuries: the egg was a pagan symbol of spring and was transformed into a Christian symbol of renewal and the Resurrection. The Russian Tsars and the Russian upper classes gave jeweled eggs to one another--as pins, as charms for charm bracelets, watch fobs and as jeweled pieces for necklaces. But it wasn't until 1885, that Tsar Alexander III had jeweler Carl Fabergé design a large jeweled egg for his wife, Tsarina Marie Fedorovna. That gift began a tradition and spread the fame of Carl Fabergé throughout Europe. (Today, in fact, Buckingham Palace has one of the best collections of Fabergé jewels and objets in the world.) From 1885 until 1918, jeweler Fabergé created one jeweled royal egg each year. Each one was a gift from the Tsar to his wife and each one contained a "surprise" inside. The tradition ended only with the murders of Tsar Nicholas and his family.

Fabergé was considered an enemy of the people by the communists, presumably for producing objects of luxury while the Russian people starved, and he fled to Switzerland. Most of his famous treasures remained behind him in Russia. A few were smuggled out by members of the royal family and some were later sold in Paris. A few others remained behind in the Russian armory. Some disappeared forever.

Two Americans were instrumental in the preservation of many of the eggs. The first was Armand Hammer, of Occidental Petroleum. He spent a great deal of his time in Russia after the revolution, and his relationship with the Soviets remains murky to this day. Whatever the relationship, he was allowed to purchase some of the eggs and sell them in the United State. The second American is Malcolm Forbes. He turned the phrase "Capitalist Tool" from a curse into a popular slogan for his magazine. It was Forbes who personally ensured the eggs had a lasting place in history, by paying huge prices for them when they came up for auction, putting together the best collection of them since the time of the Romanovs.

The Tsars exchanged these treasures at a critical time in Russian history, ignoring the desperation of the people they ruled. It was this kind of arrogance that led directly to the revolution. Thus, the Romanovs paid a terrible price for their bad governance and extravagance. All the people of Russia paid a price as well, as citizens of the Soviet Union--as it became--were then forced to spend six decades living under the terror of the Soviet dictators. Luxuries like jeweled eggs had no place in that new order.

But it all adds to the tale. How jeweled Easter eggs were involved in a revolution. And how they traveled an amazing journey from the Tsars to the hands of collectors in the century that followed.

Fabergé's Eggs; The Extraordinary Story of the Masterpieces That Outlived an Empire
by Tony Faber
Random House, New York, NY

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Rock on Navy Seals!

Maersk-Alabama Capt. Richard Phillips, right, stands alongside Lt. Cmdr. David Fowler, executive officer of USS Bainbridge (DDG 96) after being rescued by U.S Naval Forces.

Maersk-Alabama Capt. Richard Phillips, right, stands alongside Cmdr. Frank Castellano, commanding officer of USS Bainbridge (DDG 96) after being rescued by U.S Naval Forces off the coast of Somalia. Phillips was held hostage by Somali pirates for four days. (Official U.S. Navy photos.)

Thank your neighborhood Navy SEALS (we think that is whom to thank: there is no officials comfirmation of this) for the rescue of American Capt. Phillips from the hands of those khat-chewing Somali brigands. Nobody injured but the bad guys.

'Bout time, I should say, but better late than never. Hope we try the only living pirate in some place that doesn't have jails as nice as ours. And Mon Dieu, No French cuisine.

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Pirates of the Indian Ocean: Timely Article in Vanity Fair

Since newspapers are either dying (The San Francisco Chronicle) or incredibly slanted (The New York Times and now a rival slant from Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal), and, since no one on television is doing any known form of journalism, (Rachel Maddow? Arrogant, poorly-informed young person of indeterminate gender: Keith Olbermann? Former sportsperson seriously stuck on his own opinions: Lou Dobbs? Mr. Xenophobic-Man-of-the-People. I could go on but why suffer further?) I've been consistently impressed with the high level of reportage in the monthly magazine,Vanity Fair. At least here, one can find well-written, in-depth stories from around the world.

And talk about timely: the April issue features a fascinating and (curiously enough) funny story called "The Pirate Latitudes" in which writer William Langewiesche tells the story of the fancy (is there any other kind?) French cruise ship Le Ponant and its seven days in the hands of Somali pirates a year ago.

The adventure ended well for the French, who now claim to have freed the captives with a commando raid (un peu exaggeration), but who really paid a multi-million dollar ransom (those French!). Following the hostage exchange, a chic Frenchwoman military helicopter pilot sat down to a nice dejuné and then got up in time to scramble her chopper and blow up the pirates' truck on Somali soil, capturing a few of the bad guys for trial in France. (Voilà! Imbeciles!)

With the pirate drama playing out this weekend off the Horn of Africa, with an America captain as hostage, the Vanity Fair article makes informative reading. The khat-chewing pirates (khat is a vegetable form of speed) appear to have their own code of honor, though it is clear throughout the story that one wrong move can turn any modern pirate drama toward serious danger.

Instead, in the case of the Ponant, the handsome and incredibly well-dressed (but of course!) French captain, Patrick Marchesseau, kept his head and helped lead his crew (there were no passengers on board) safely through their seven-day ordeal. The funny part, catalogued by writer Langewiesche, is that the crew kept up its morale by carefully maintaining Gallic culinary standards, eating appropriate sauces and complimentary wine pairings with each languid meal, as the gun-toting pirates looked on. To quote Langewiesche:

"On the first night out, a Sunday, they enjoyed an exquisite dinner of freshly caught bonito. We know about the food because Marchesseau later published a book in France recounting the ship's ordeal, and, as a Frenchman writing for the French, he kept he readers closely informed on matters of cuisine." [For example on the night before the pirates overtook the ship] "Out in the Ponant's aft, open-air restaurant, they had a light salad accompanied by delicately grilled meats, subtly spiced with herbs from Provence." [And later] "The lunch was a delightful meal of salad, potatoes and grilled meats accompanied by a light wine ... "

One question the article does not answer is one that has puzzled me for some time: what criminal organization is behind the pirates? They must have funding and organization: Somalis who don't have enough to eat, and can't afford shoes, don't just suddenly obtain fully-equipped Zodiac speed boats and expensive automatic weapons. Multi-million dollars ransoms can't all be paid in cash, can they be? Someone somewhere must have a bank account full of these illegally-gotten gains and some criminal organization involved must be known to some law enforcement person somewhere in the world.

In the case of the Ponant, the French were thrilled because they captured some of the pirates and took them to France for trial. Quelle punishment! If I lived in a war-torn, poverty-stricken country with no government, even France--even a French jail--would look good to me, so I can't imagine that this form of punishment will act as much of a deterrent. (Please, monsieur, arrest me and take me to Pairee!)

Finding the source of the criminal organization(s) behind the piracy would be a good start at ending this troublesome, highly dangerous, very expensive form of international extortion.

Zero tolerance, and sharpshooters with sniper rifles are my next recommendations. Insurance companies who are paying out these ransoms should be prevented from doing so under international law, and the law should be enforced. (I know, I know, the U.N. isn't exactly capable of this, but someone must be. Anyone?) The only thing less of a deterrent than trials in Paris and French jails serving pomme de terre soufflé would be trials in the United States with jails serving Big Macs and pepperoni pies from Pizza Hut. And I guess, under the current administration, Guantanamo Bay is out, drat it all. Otherwise I'd say put 'em there and then abandon the place and let Castro invade it. There's a deterrant I'd like to see.

FYI: the May issues of Vanity Fair is already out (with a barely clad, Annie Leibovitz-photographed Gisele Bundchen on the cover (good issue, ridiculous cover) so you may have to find the April issue with the pirate story, at your local library.

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Los Altos Newspaper Salutes A Sixty-Three Year Tonsorial Friendship

My father began having his hair cut by Al Galedrige in Palo Alto, California in 1946. Conveniently for both, both men moved to Los Altos in 1950 and as of 2009 they are still customer and barber and still long-time friends.

The Los Altos Town Crier ran my story on this friendship in its April 8, 2009 edition. And why not? Its a relationship that has outlasted many marriages!

I've listed the link to the article below and you can click to the Town Crier Web Site to read it. Be sure and come back here to enjoy the rest of the photos (below) that didn't make it into the paper.

The Link is:

Ashley Chapman in the Los Altos Town Crier

Here's Al in his World War II uniform, just a few years before he and my father met at the barber shop.

Al's ship, on which the teenage sailor survived the battle for Iwo Jima, though the ship was badly damaged.

Dad on Ie Shima, where he was awarded a Bronze Star. (But that was before I knew him.)

And here's Dad (also before we met) in about 1948, standing on the lot he and Mom bought on Echo Drive (then called Clark Avenue) in Los Altos. Al the barber bought his own lot in Los Altos at about the same time.

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