The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

“Everything happens for a reason.” Corazon – My wife.

“Everything happens for a reason.” That’s been Cora’s mantra for the nearly 40 years that we’ve been married and I imagine goes back to the years that she spent in a convent. I’ve always taken it to be an insufficient bromide that marginalizes everything from my broken ankle that kept me from running for over a year to floods and famine.

“Everything happens for a reason,” she would offer and I would ask her to give me the reason. She often couldn’t and so I would call BS and declare a hollow victory.  Now I’m not so sure. I’m not calling BS on Cora this time. A recent string of events that seemed so random at the time seem to be uncannily tied together. Maybe things do happen for reasons that either manifest themselves or that we are simply left to ponder over in their mystery. 

The singular, jarring event was when I unexpectedly learned of the death six years ago of a young Korean woman who, many years ago and before meeting Cora, I had been deeply in love with (the story is told in a post bearing her name Nana). I was crushed and all the emotions that I felt when our relationship had suddenly ended 41 years ago came surging back.

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“Through an eye with teary edges,

My brain swears this can’t be real.

But my heart’s another story.  Yes my heart’s another story.”     – Another Story.  Song and lyrics Gabe Marshall and Bryon White

If there is an upside to writing it’s in the therapeutic value. 

I was originally intending to write a post about my maternal Italian grandmother, Nonna Maria. Sometimes circumstances lead you to a fork in the road and you find yourself compelled to veer from your intended route.

Maybe it was fate, or as Cora puts it the good Lord had a plan; or maybe it was just dumb luck. I guess I’ve told this story a hundred times if I’ve told it once. I was working in a retail hardware store at Fourth and Mission in Downtown San Francisco. Across Jessie Street, which was less street and more alley the company kept an office building/warehouse. The retail workers often went to the basement warehouse in that building but rarely to the third floor office. It was late 1979 and I’d had some sort of business in that third floor because I remember bounding down the stairs, throwing open the door and then slamming on the brakes to avoid knocking over the new hire. There was the awkward pause followed by that awkward little get past each other dance. You know the one where you try to get past each other and then end up sliding right back in front of each other? I remember exactly what she was wearing. Tight designer jeans, a purple sweater and impeccable makeup that complimented her clothes. I turned and watched briefly as she started up the stairs and promised myself that I would take her out. Cora was a head turner. Even after we were married and she was working as a bookkeeper for a dental office in the Mission District she would tell me about the men who turned to look at her, sometimes calling out to her. She was a head turner.

Before Cora there was Nana. She was my original and only other head turner. Any other women I dated, I did so after being acquainted for a while. Nana was originally from Pusan (now called Busan), South Korea. Busan is a port city in South Korea’s southeast corner.

I didn’t know any of this when she seated me in the little Japanese Restaurant located in San Francisco’s Richmond District where she worked as a server. What I did know was she was a head turner and she wasn’t sporting a ring, not even the strategic cheap one to keep creeps like me at bay. So that night I started conjuring up this grandiose plan to ask her out. I didn’t know how I was going to go about it but I was certain of one thing, any plan that could leak out of my little mind was hopelessly doomed because my own logic dictated that there was no chance and no reason for a girl that beautiful to consider giving me anything beyond what her job required; friendly service, my food and the check.

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Many of us likely have a place where their life’s history is stored, oftentimes without knowing that the historical treasure even exists – until it’s uncovered. It might be an old trunk, boxes in the attic or a pile of shoeboxes. Mine was a roll top desk. This is part one of the story that was revealed over the course of sorting through the contents of that desk. 

It’s gone now, that oak roll top desk. It was left to molder in that potter’s field for unwanted furniture – the county landfill. After 20 years it met an inglorious end; no ceremony, no final words. Well, maybe there were some last words but they were only testimony to the indignity that fine old piece endured throughout its lifetime. Words along the lines of, “Finally got rid of that big old bastard.”

For years it sat under the bedroom window, stacked with papers, books, business cards, clothes both clean and dirty and a collection of miscellaneous stuff and junk that I never bothered to file away or throw away. It was a hoarder’s paradise. The judge and jury of the domicile, my wife, sentenced it to exile and in the end there were no witnesses for the defense. Even I, the once proud owner turned my back and dropped a dime on it. The desk had worn out its welcome.

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The Urban Dictionary defines “word” as well said; deemed to be something influential or of great intellectual power. It’s slang. My dad was all about “word” and words. For dad words were “word.” Words were truth, were influential, were of great intellectual power. 

To dad, a man who shot at people in war, words were the ultimate power. To him they were more potent than the 30 caliber machine gun he wielded as a B-17 waist gunner. Ironically he would never have been behind that gun had a former Bavarian corporal not understood the potential of the word and brandished it to lead the world into a second global conflict.  

Dad finished high school in Utah and then found himself in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho working for FDR’s, CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) followed by odd jobs and then the Army-Air Corps in World War II. At some point in his young life and I couldn’t say when or where, dad discovered words. He read the classics and he read history and he read about politics and he read philosophy. 

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Classic dad in an easy chair. A book, a pipe, a bottle of Cognac. Taken at my uncle’s flat in Rome, Italy

And then he wrote. Continue reading

Chinatown. It’s a relatively poor district as San Francisco neighborhoods go. It’s crowded, one of the most densely populated urban districts in America, made even more so by the influx of tourists year round. It’s popularity as an attraction exceeds that of the Golden Gate Bridge yet it’s often more maligned than the bridge. It is the largest and the oldest of the Chinatown’s in North America.

My earliest, real vivid memory of Chinatown springs from a harebrained trip to see the Chinese New Year Parade that nearly resulted in a case of pneumonia. The parade takes place every February and since it’s based on the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year which fluctuates from year to year the date of the parade varies as well. It’s my belief and one shared by many locals that the parade date is deviously timed to coincide with a monsoonal rainstorm. That or the weather deities are just being obnoxious.

I was a boy, six or seven I guess, when mom and dad floated the notion of attending the Chinese New Year Parade and I say floated because it befits that night’s deluge. I’m surprised that dad didn’t just scuttle the whole idea when the weatherman called for a Biblical dousing. It went against dad’s grain to suffer the sort of foolishness that would have us standing in a downpour. A man who prided himself on his unflinching good judgement didn’t have enough sense to get in out of the rain.

PInk Dragon

Above and below: The colors of the Chinese New Year Parade. 

Painted lady 1

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They’re beautiful beasts, often unwanted, maligned, exterminated or sold to butchers across the border. They survive a harsh environment that shifts from a sheet of snow in the winter to blistering heat in the summer. It’s a rugged, rocky place of sagebrush, scraggly trees and scant, brackish water. To me they’d always been something of a myth of the high desert near Reno, Nevada. I’d heard about them as fabled creatures of Americana like Pecos Bill; storied tales of the American West. A few years ago on a trip to Reno I decided to bail on the casinos and find the American mustang.

Leaving California on Highway 80 eastbound you drop from the Sierra Nevada down to Reno and the western edge of the Great Basin, a rocky, arid mass that covers much of Oregon, almost all of Nevada and touches the states of Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. Its a coarse, hard and cruel land that embraces a unique harsh beauty.

It was the Great Basin that played a major role in the doom of the ill fated Donner Party. In 1846, this group of immigrants heading west made the tragic mistake of taking a new, untried and supposedly quicker route than the established Oregon Trail. It took them across the Great Basin and it was this vast ocean of sand, rock and sagebrush that swallowed up much of the Donner Party’s food, oxen, supplies and resolve. Anyone taking a drive across this arid land in the summer should take the time to imagine the same journey in covered wagons and having only scant knowledge of the route and no highway to follow.

Gnarled tree

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I really want to love hockey. On occasion I LIKE hockey; usually in the fall at the beginning of a long season or at the very end in the spring when the playoffs are in swing. In midwinter of this winter sport I just can’t get interested. My friend Scott absolutely loves the sport to which, by November, my response to his enthusiasm is along the lines of the ever dismissive, “whatever.” He responds with a similar comment when I watch basketball.

On those occasions when I have tickets to a San Jose Sharks game I get on the very verge of love. That’s because hockey is best appreciated when its live. Love hockey or hate it, when you’re at a game you’d have to be numb to deny the agility, grace, reflexes, athletic prowess and yes courage that these big men (and they are big) possess in order to play a game that is so astonishingly fast.

A few years back my son took me to a Sharks game and I brought my camera to try my hand and eye at sports photography. Continue reading

San Francisco and I. We’ve had this long term relationship and its, well, it’s conflicted. You could describe it as one of those love/hate things. There are those times when I pay a visit, maybe have a lunch or dinner date and flatter her for her beauty and charm. And then there are those other times when I don’t want to have anything to do with San Francisco; call her vile names, overbearing and pompous, phony, getting by on a worn out reputation of beauty and class. I tend to blame the bad times on San Francisco’s bad behavior, or what I consider bad behavior. Usually it’s a traffic jam. 

And then I go on a rant that usually goes something like, “Oh sure, you’ve got the nice bridges that everybody likes but you can’t be bothered to clean up your own poop. Try negotiating that minefield of yours you call Market Street. Oughta change the name to Crapper’s Way. And seriously can’t you take better care of your ride? I mean the cable cars are nice and quaint, even if it is hard to catch a ride especially in the summer when you cater to all your out of town admirers. But those busses; my old beater red truck is in better shape than your busses. And dude, you are seriously far too high maintenance.  What’s a guy gotta do to just to spend an afternoon? Win the lottery?”

“You don’t care what I think do you? If I decide to break it off you always have other admirers who go through hell, high water, a traffic jam on the Bay Bridge and a gauntlet of aggressive panhandlers just to have lunch at a sidewalk cafe and then take a stroll to one of your time honored bakeries for tiramisu and a cappuccino. Oh and you have those pretentious guys who take out a second on the house to have dinner at some celebrity chef’s joint. Okay I have to admit it. The food’s good. Like really good. Really, really good.”

“But you don’t care about my tirades because deep down you know me for what I am; a weak-kneed wimp who’s going to break down and shamelessly come back and then you’ve got your hooks in me again.”

That’s how it goes with me and San Francisco. What was it, a year ago when we got mired in a downtown traffic jam and it took an hour just to get on the bridge to get home? I told Cora in no uncertain terms, “We’re NEVER coming back to this dump.”

She just sat there patiently looking at the queue of cars, frozen as far as you could see and probably thought, “Yeah, right.” Because she knows that I’ll always waiver. She knows that for someone who generally hates cities I love The City.  The. City. That’s what we call it. Just check out the old school uniforms that the Warriors wear from the days when they played in San Francisco. Their logo was The City

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I’m the family morning person. When everyone else is just waking up, I’ve gone out for a run, I’ve showered and I’m sipping my morning coffee “Oh, you’re finally up.” It’s the same when we’re on vacation and it turns out to be a nice little symbiotic arrangement. Cora likes to sleep in and have a leisurely breakfast while I’m out running.  I get back just about when Cora is ready for the day’s activities so I just take a quick shower and usually blow off breakfast. Yeah I know, the most important meal….whatever.

I love the morning vacation runs. They’re a chance to get out while the air is cool and clean and before crowds clog the streets and paths and any sights I want to take in. There’s no pressure to crank out quick miles or cover a specific distance. These runs are minimal workout; veer off course when something looks intriguing around the bend or pause to take in something that’s pleasing.

In the late summer of 2014 we were staying at the Willard Hotel in Washington D.C., a historic nineteenth century hotel that’s located a short 1/2 mile from The White House and just under a mile from the National Mall, that long green park that houses America’s treasured monuments and flanked on each side by the stately Smithsonian Museums.

Six in the morning and I was out the door when my phone rang.  Really? It was my co-worker who was house sitting, calling to tell me that there’d been a significant earthquake in nearby Napa. There was no damage to the house and she was just calling to let me know before I heard about it on the news. Okay now I was awake for sure. Continue reading

Cover photo: Yellowstone River cuts through the Paradise Valley north of Gardiner Montana

“My God, this place is at the end of the world,” worried Cora. Cora doesn’t do dirt roads very well. It did seem like a long ride up the mountain from the main highway. It was unpaved and pocked with debris and holes but it wasn’t horrible. In comparison this road was much better than Highway 880 through Oakland which has worse stretches, deeper holes and the extra added excitement of big rigs hurtling past just an arm’s length away as drivers try to negotiate the narrow lanes at 65 miles – an – hour while texting and eating an Egg McMuffin. Oh and we shouldn’t forget the occasional freeway shooter.

We were headed for a cabin in the woods, my idea as part of our Yellowstone trip to both experience the solitude of Montana’s Big Sky Country and, since the place would have a fully equipped kitchen, save some money on meals. I’d shopped the Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO) website, pared the choices down to 5 cabins and asked Cora to narrow it down to 3. From there we chose a place advertised as “a secluded cabin by a creek, where you might see wildlife out your front door and be serenaded by howling wolves at night.” There would also be no phone, no TV and very little if any internet service. No internet? That sealed the deal. Where do I sign?

Every time I would take time off from work, my standard out of office Outlook message would include the cautionary alternative fact that I would “not have access to internet or phone service.” I could be headed for the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago and I would always claim the place has “no internet or phone service.” This time I would actually be telling the truth. I double and triple checked with Cora, who has become very connected to being connected. She grudgingly said she was okay with it. Continue reading

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