Friday, May 18, 2018


Finding Faces in Unexpected Places

"I have three voice-activated devices in my apartment. I use them all the time. They're quick and convenient. Even the Robo-vac answers my calls."

The 20-something son of friends sat among a table full of skeptical elders as he explained why he liked using the devices he has spread around his apartment. I wanted to ask him about what he saw as the downside of these devices, but I thought of my father-in-law's frequent criticism of my generation's values while I was in my 20s. I kept my mouth shut. The son shared his interest in new ideas with confidence. He saw the positive attributes of the new products he was using.

I wish I had asked him about the downsides.

I recently listened to a young woman on the radio who advocated for artificial intelligence and the benefits we would receive. When asked about hacking, computer crashes, and other potential problems, she breezed through them, claiming that those types of problems would be solved. She offered the automatic pilot on planes as an example of how we depend on the safety of these digital means.

But I still thought of the various social media and their lack of understanding of the shortcomings of their products, our own high expectations of digital devices, and their often erratic behavior. Bill (husband) has new hearing aids that allow him to receive phone calls through the instruments, which is why he enthusiastically adopted the equipment. He hasn't solved one problem with them. Though he turns off the phone's volume on his phone while he is teaching, he forgets to do the same with the hearing aids. On numerous occasions, a phone call will ring loudly as he is in the middle of class and then he can't figure out how to turn off the audible ringing in his ears.

When the power went off in our house recently, the lack of connection canceled the printer and scanner link to my computer. I still haven't gotten the scanner back. The light in our pantry is set to come on when we walk in. It is programmed to stay on for several minutes and then go off. Since the power outage, it goes on and off at odd times of the day and may stay on unless we turn it off by hand.

We expect these devices to work continuously. We forget how to fix them between occurrences. We usually have to call for professional help. Before their installation, all we had to do was flip a switch on or off.

Our 89-year-old neighbor is still energetic and full of good humor. He grew up on a farm in the Midwest and learned how to fix things. Though he has digital devices such as TV and his phone, he uses them because he needs them, not because they are the latest gadgets. He doesn't have any interest in acquiring voice-activated ones, though I am sure he would if he found a good use for one.

Bill, our neighbor and the 20-something son of a friend represent three points on a spectrum:  Millennials with bright ideas, intensity and confidence, an early adopter to new ideas though sometimes flummoxed by digital behavior, and a Korean War vet, who has lived through the ups and downsides of life and has learned to make-do with what he has. All three exhibit similar values, kindness, enthusiasm for life and a caring nature, but all three live in different worlds.

Where do you fit on this spectrum?

Friday, May 11, 2018


all artwork by Theo Slavin

When I look back on my active motherhood years, I think of the expression, 
If you can't be a good example, be a terrible warning." 

Sometimes, I found motherhood filled with cringe-worthy actions on my part. I can think of 10 mistakes that I made while Theo was growing up that put me in the terrible warning category. (I'm sure he could make up his own list!)

The first on my list occurred when Theo was in college. I had been intent on cleaning out the detritus in our house and gave away several boxes of duplicate family photos to the reuse center in Oakland. I never gave the boxes another thought until one afternoon when I received a frantic call from Theo.

"Did you give away all my baby pictures?" he demanded. He told me he was standing in the gallery at California College of Art. On the wall in front of him, from ceiling to floor, was a collage of photos of Theo. An art student had made an assemblage out of all the photos I had given away. That doesn't seem so terrible until you put yourself in Theo's shoes. He walked into the gallery and saw his life all over the walls. How would he feel at that moment? Would he think, had I gotten rid of him on purpose? Did I not want to have his photos? What heart-wrenching thing had I done?

I told him quickly that all the photos were duplicates. That those same images were safely stored in numerous photo albums at home. I apologized profusely for not telling him that I had given away the duplicates.

That incident ranks right up there with leaving him abandoned on the subway platform in Paris, his shoe in my hand as I hurtled away inside the train. Theo, his friend and I had rushed to catch a train. The friend and I made it, but Theo stepped into the car as the door closed. In Paris, the doors do not reopen even if your foot is in the doorway. I grabbed him to try to get him in, but finally (this all took seconds) let him go, bringing only his shoe with me. Luckily, Theo knew his way around the Paris subways. But he didn't follow my explicit instructions about being lost from each other:  "Stay in one place, I will come back for you." (We had limited cellphones in those days.) Instead, he climbed up to the street with one sock foot, one shoe foot, and started walking home. Meanwhile, his friend and I got off at the next station and hopped back on the next train to try to find him at our starting point on the platform. We arrived, but Theo was nowhere to be found. Frantic, we gave up, rushed home and found Theo waiting for us.

Those first two on my list are my most memorable 'momming' moments along with catching his tiny fingers in a closet door when he was about two. As mothers, we bounce around from one fire to the next, trying to dampen the unexpected heat from our own actions, and hope no one is singed in the process. I am glad that my mistakes turned out to be relatively small in comparison to the person Theo turned out to be. My 29-year son is a kind, thoughtful and inquisitive person, just the kind of man you would like to have for a son.

Theo, fingers and toes intact, now rides BART and buses without a care.

Happy Mother's Day to all of you mothers who I know have your own list. 
May you have a good day full of joy and fun!

photo by Martha Slavin

Friday, May 4, 2018


We all have stacks, don't we?

I took a box to the shredder yesterday that was full of my 10 years-worth of daily journals. I stopped writing in them about four years ago and they have languished on a high closet shelf ever since. These journal entries contained the emotional garbage that I didn't want others to read. Three years ago, I attempted to shred them myself, but discovered that my shredder's mouth wasn't wide enough for the journal pages. I put them back on the shelf because I wasn't ready to let them go.

This last week I reached up to the journals once again. I discovered I had no interest in reading any of the entries. I realized I have become a different person than the woman captured on those pages. I spent an hour or so tearing off the covers, pulling apart the string bindings and dumping the remains in a box, which I took to the shredder. I felt no regret, no hesitation about handing the box over to the young man at the shredders. Those pages served me well long ago, but I no longer needed them.

That action doesn't mean that I don't have journals left. I have art journals full of sketches and practice paintings. I have writing journals scribbled with lists and half-started stories.  I still treasure these because inside them I've found little gems.

Onion study that has some problems
but parts have real promise

I picked up my first writing journal from 1987 with its lovely blue flowered cover and read my first words:

I have decided to write down my thoughts for a half hour each day.

What followed was a list of events from my life that filled several pages. The lists included everything from standing on the headwaters of the Mississippi to sitting in Helene Rubenstein's elegant living room overlooking Central Park in New York City. From those lists, I created pieces of my story.

I re-read some of the entries and found the writing somewhat awkward. I was glad that after all these years of writing, I can see improvement. I also found little gems that could be a new starting point for another piece.

                    My life has been a paper bag with a hole in it -- 
                    filled with memories
                    that randomly drop out behind me 
                    without my noticing them

                    They lived on the shrinking edge of money

                    He had fine lines that came out of the corners of his eyes
                    and traced in a circle up to his forehead
                    as if the synapses of his brain were visible.

In my art journals, I have many studies that will never be framed. Over each painting, I put a piece of paper with a small square cut out of the middle. I move the paper back and forth until I find something interesting, which is a good reminder that those practice pieces are just beginnings.

a study that never came together

but the geese were worth saving

What little gems do you have tucked away in your stacks?

Friday, April 27, 2018


A well-marked subway station in Tokyo

Buses are the hardest public transportation for me. I feel uncertainty as I sit at the bus stop waiting for the next bus to arrive. "Is it really going to come?" I think. At bus stops, unlike a subway, the signage is often meager or confusing so that I'm guessing that I've stepped on to the right bus. Once on board, I'm anxious I will miss my stop.

While we lived overseas, we didn't have a car. The snarls of traffic in big cities convinced us that a car was unnecessary. In both Tokyo and Paris, I explored by walking, but sometimes either the subway or buses provided the best solutions. I found good transit books at the local bookstores that helped me find my way. Eventually, I mastered the bus system in each city and used the buses with pleasure to get me places that were too far for walks.

My two favorite transit books. Both can be found at bookstores or online

Buses are also a good way to accidentally discover places that I wouldn't venture to on my own.  Several times in Tokyo, I got on a bus thinking it was the right bus only to discover that the bus ended its run before my destination. I would sit there as everyone else knowingly exited. The driver would look at me and wave me off too. Luckily I ended up someplace close to where I wanted to be so I wandered around the unexpected neighborhood until I got to where I was going. One time I was near Tsukiji, the renown fish market, when the bus came to the end of its route. If I hadn't gotten off at that point, I wouldn't have been able to watch two tree pruners working on an ancient tree. They both wore flexible tabi boots which allowed them to balance easily on the large limbs as they climbed the trees from a tripod ladder and trimmed the tree to look like a giant bonsai.

photo in Nara of a Japanese tree pruner taken by Jake Hobson, pruning consultant in England
a pine tree shaped by the large pieces of bamboo tied to the branches just like a bonsai

When we visited Hong Kong, Bill, Theo and I hopped on a bus heading back to the center of town, but we missed our stop (signage was in Kanji of course). We continued into the regular neighborhoods of the city that most tourists don't walk through. We got to see a slice of normal life in Hong Kong before we walked to the bus stop on the other side of the road to get us back to our original destination.

One day in Paris as Theo and I returned from his school near the Trocadero, a group of loud teenagers boarded the bus. Usually, Paris teenagers are quiet on buses, often hunched over school work. In front of us sat several older women who had no hesitation about scolding the teenagers to be quiet and to sit down. The kids responded by looking embarrassed and proceeded to the back of the bus quickly where they huddled together, voices lowered. I think of the incident and wonder if mothers in the U.S. would reprimand teenagers in the same way.

When we go to a city, I no longer have trepidation about boarding a bus. I just have to remember that a bus ride is no longer 25 cents.

Bike sharing in Amsterdam, a more and more common way to see a city

 To purchase a Tokyo Transit Book,  here is a link to the Foreign Buyers Club, a group that provides services to expats living in Tokyo
The book can also be purchased through AmazonJapan

For Le Petit Parisien:

Check out Jake Hobson's website about cloud pruning. and his site for purchasing nifty Japanese knives and tools.

Friday, April 20, 2018


photo by Caryn Lum

When I was growing up, the word "Lefty" often referred to someone with Communist leanings. The word for Left in Latin is Sinistra. Sinistra eventually took on meanings of evil and bad luck. In the Middle Ages, lefties fell under suspicion as possible witches. Left-handed people, generations before me, were often forced to learn to write with their right hand. Left-handed people were thought to  more likely develop schizophrenia or to live shorter lives. Both of those assumptions have been disproved.

The ratio of 90-10 of right to left-handedness has remained steady though for the last 5000 years.*Researchers at Northwestern University think that the ratio reflects our need for cooperation and competitiveness in society.  If you are a righty, you probably never question that the tool you pick up will work for you. That tool has been design for the majority to use. A ladle is a good example: try pouring water from a ladle with your left hand and you will see the difficulties faced by lefties. 

New research considers the benefits of being left-handed. Lefties develop deep cognitive abilities because we need to improvise every day to make a right-handed world work for us, which is one reason why so many creatives are left-handed.

a postcard I sent to a friend after the workshop

I thought about all of these things as I walked into another calligraphy workshop. Usually, in an art class, I am among other lefties. In calligraphy, I stand out. "Who's left-handed?" the instructor will often ask and then I hear a groan of sympathy from the other attendees as I raise my solitary left hand. Calligraphy is harder for lefties. Watch former President Obama sign legislation and you can understand. He writes with his hand above the line as many lefties do. I was lucky. When I learned to write, my teacher knew to turn my paper so that it slanted to the right instead of to the left as right-handers do. I can see what I am writing that way without placing my hand above the line.

In the workshop, Melissa Dinwiddie taught us Neuland (pronounced Noy-land) an alphabet designed by Rudolph Koch in the 1920s, which is still used widely today. (Check out Pinterest pages of Neuland). It's a forgiving alphabet because it has its own quirks that give the writer the ability to incorporate mistakes. It is also challenging to righties because they need to do what lefties often have to do: move the paper around as they write and to manuever the pen in awkward directions to form letters.

Melissa taught us more than the Neuland alphabet. And she let me figure out how to make the letters with my left hand. Often people will suggest to write from right to left or upside down. These techniques work, but need practice. I find it easier to stick with my normal way of writing. Melissa's business, Living a Creative Life, allows her to make a living from art by encouraging people to find their creative side. She inspired us to be playful and to ignore what she called the calligraphy police.

She left us two thoughtful posters that she gave permission to share:

Note the imperfection in this draft of her poster

Friday, April 13, 2018


photo by Bill Slavin

Three backhoes and a jackhammer snapped and snarled at the ground for the last week. Our neighbors at the top of the hill are taking apart their backyard. I opened our back door to sit in the backyard, which is usually a sanctuary of blooming plants, animals and birds, and stillness. Instead the cacophony washed over me. I almost retreated back inside, but the noise stopped. I could feel the profound silence. No birds called. They had fled and other animals were in hiding from the uproar, leaving me breathing in the quiet. I ate my lunch quickly before the ruckus began again and thought of several examples I had come across lately about the importance of silence.

One morning I tore off the calendar page and found the next quote-of-the-day by Bill Watterson, the artist who drew Calvin and Hobbes. (1)

I picked up the newspaper yesterday to see an article about a very brief film onYouTube called A New View of the Moon by Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh. (2) The film brought tears to my eyes as I watched people react to viewing the moon through a telescope that Overstreet set up on streets in Los Angeles.

Next, I bought a slim book by Pico Iyer, a prolific traveler and writer, who once cautioned that rising populations and the loss of sustainable employment and food would make us all someday live in places like the slums of India and Africa. He has wandered the world looking for answers to his deep questions. He wrote his new book The Art of Stillness (3) so a reader could consume it in one sitting. Iyer, the ultimate adventurer, invites us not to travel from one adventure to another but to seek quiet and stillness instead.

Typical Northern California Altocumulus clouds

Later I listened to Gavin Pretor-Pinney, the founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society,  who is traveling the country speaking about clouds. He wants people to look at the sky and be able to identify clouds. I know the difference between Cumulus, Cirrus, and Nimbus, but I was unfamiliar with a Mama (Mammatus) cloud. They can be found in the Midwest and feature pouch-like formations that look like udders. At their website, (4) you can become a member of the Society, receive their news and videos, and become a cloudspotter. You can even buy a blue baseball cap with a cloud on it. Can't you just see a field of blue caps looking at the sky?

All of these moments in the last month reminded me of being in Japan in August when crowds of people would stop their busy work schedules, set up blue tarps in the park, and spend the night moon-viewing. I am reminded of the large groups of people nationwide last summer who sought places to see the total eclipse. I am reminded of Bill setting up his camera to capture time-lapse photos of the stars last summer. I am reminded of the man from the Midwest who moved back from the West Coast because he wanted to see the Big Sky.

Cloudspotting, looking up at the night sky, and sitting in stillness: activities that illustrate that we all search for peace and understanding of our existence. We continue to ask why we are here. We look up at the sky in wonder. Fifty years ago, the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey led us on an adventure through the vastness of space, reaffirming our insignificant part in the universe and our push-pull relationship with technology. Recent photos of other solar systems dwarf our planet and ourselves even more. In the opposite directions, microscopes show us smaller and smaller parts of life.

So often with our mad-rush lives, we forget how to open ourselves up to quiet and peace and the creativity that follows those moments of stillness. We forget how to be part of the universe. The hints that nudged me in the last month pushed me to get outside in the still of the night and to look up. Bill Watterson said it right. Look at the stars each night and you may live differently. Come and join me, won't you?





Another Overstreet Gorosh view worth watching:

Friday, April 6, 2018


Several years ago, a month after one of his 100-mile cycle rides, my husband landed in the hospital after experiencing shortness of breath and chest pain. His surgeon inserted stents into the arteries of his chest. His experiences the first time became a good warning to several male friends who subsequently ended up in the same situation within the year. Luckily, Bill and his friends have all survived and are living vigorous lives.

 I wrote an essay about the day he was released. I was reminded of that essay as I drove to pick up Bill from the hospital after he completed a nuclear stress test after having chest pains again. This is the essay.


Bill was released from the hospital on Wednesday morning, feeling back to his old self. We drove from the Mt. Diablo Hospital in Concord past the town square and stopped at a Peet's on the corner. We sat in the sunshine with our cups of coffee on this beautiful day.

Neither of us had spent much time in Concord. We watched as the locals walked by. We knew they were locals because they stopped to chat with each other. We decided that Concord was a friendly town. We realized as we looked around the quiet plaza that the many restaurants showed Concord's ethnic diversity. There was a brewpub, three Italian restaurants, a Korean barbeque, two Japanese restaurants, a Mexican cafe, and a Thai restaurant. A group of wheelchair riders came by on their way to the plaza park. The only real noise came from the children on the play structure across the street from Peet's.

We sipped and talked and marveled that this day could have had a different outcome. According to the doctor, Bill was heading for a massive heart attack. If he hadn't listened to his body, he might not be relaxing on the plaza savoring a latte. We might not be feeling the breeze blowing just enough to keep the air cool. We might not be sitting so that the sun shone on our hands on the table.

We were hungry, but it was still too early for lunch. We walked across the square and then ended up in the park next to a table with a group of men lounging and joking in the sun. We basked in the sun right along with them, savoring the quiet and the springtime breezes. We finally stood and walked to one of the Italian restaurants with a patio with pots overflowing with springtime flowers. We relaxed and ate a slow lunch, reluctant to leave this beautiful day.


I publish this essay again as a warning to everyone to pay attention to subtle signals from your body.  These include shortness of breath (even walking downstairs), pain in chest and back that feels like a sore muscle, indigestion, nausea, and sweating. Don't wait till you have the sudden burst of pain that we normally associate with a heart attack. Give yourself the chance to continue to have beautiful days.