Unexpected but welcome benefits of walking

I’d vowed to myself that I would be better about either going to the gym or walking more on my week off work, and I stayed faithful to that promise from Saturday through Wednesday.

On Thursday, my Garmin fitness tracker was nagging at me that I hadn’t fulfilled my contractual obligation to reach 10,000 steps. (Okay, maybe it’s not exactly contractual…) Having no car to drive to a regional park or similar destination–my Honda was in the shop–I decided to explore my neighborhood and maybe a little beyond.

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon. I headed west on Solano Avenue, where I have walked hundreds of times, and then hung a right at the Ohlone Greenway under the BART track. Many people were strolling, riding bikes, jogging, pushing strollers, and taking their dogs out for walks. People were politely using the correct sides of the clearly marked path, distinguished by universally accepted symbols for pedestrians versus cyclists. One gentleman was actually managing to read as he kept up a fairly brisk pace. Occasionally the train whooshed noisily above, but otherwise it was a fairly peaceful park experience.

I had my earphones in, catching up on my podcasts, and just kept walking.

Albany loop
This is actually an artist’s rendition of the Albany Loop before it was completed. Alas, I took no photo as I passed it.

I saw the huge calypso-blue letters that make up the Albany Loop, a public art installation at the corner of San Gabriel and Portland Avenues that lets you know you’re not in Berkeley anymore.

I walked past the fitness gizmos that promote outdoor exercise. Nobody was utilizing them, but they made me feel healthier just by being in their presence.

I passed both Albany Middle School with its colorful tiles and Albany High School (Go, Cougars!), though because it’s early August, both campuses were quieter than they would have been a month from now.

I discovered a dog park that I never knew was part of Memorial Park. It was just a small fenced enclosure, but the seven or eight dogs frolicking there didn’t seem put off by the size or lack of aesthetics.

Behind the Albany Little League snack shack I happened upon a sweet little public garden that was home to a variety of herbs and vegetables. Apparently it’s been there for six years!

And parents and babysitters were out with their little ones, enjoying the playground’s slides and swings.

So not only did I surpass my fitness goal of 10,000 steps, I experienced a few thriving micro-communities just blocks from my home. It was only later that I remembered reading that exercising out in nature–even suburban nature–is an important element of staying healthy. I think that strolling by a garden, a dog park, and playground structures probably benefits my mental health more than my physical health because all of it made me smile and feel lucky to live where I do, mere steps away from so much life.


Victorian Ladies send a timeless message

Is Jack the Ripper at it again? That is the question that the trio dubbed the Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective sets out to answer. The similarities between London’s most famous serial killer and the Battersea Butcher are striking terror in the hearts of young actresses, who are getting picked off at an alarming rate in London’s Battersea district.

The only advice from the men in the play, all portrayed by Alan Coyne, is to warn women to stay in their homes, rather than risk becoming the next victim. However, former stage actress, Lovejoy Fortescue, a fiercely independent and enterprising soul (played by the incomparable Stacy Ross), is set on discovering the murderer’s identity. She offers to help the local constable but is turned down, so she repeats the offer to the local group of men who have been deputized to aid in local police matters but is turned away again because, of course, they consider women incapable of detective work. Armed with intellect and persistence but lacking in income, Miss Fortescue is dependent on her sister, Valeria Hunter (played deftly by Jan Zvaifler), and therefore must persuade her to finance her detective work.

Enter a young and beautiful American actress, Katie Smalls (played charmingly by Chelsea Bearce), who is one of Valeria’s boarders. Katie is also intent on bringing down the Battersea Butcher and brings her own skill-set to the Victorian Ladies Detective Collective. (Wait till you see what she can do with a fan!)

Stacy Ross, Jan Zvaifler, and Chelsea Bearce (photo courtesy of Central Works website)

Local playwright Patricia Milton sets the play in Victorian England, but if you removed the period costumes and accents, it could be Hollywood, circa 2017.  The sad truth is that in many ways, women’s status in society since the Victorian era has not progressed all that much. Although the premise of the play is a murder mystery, the theme is much grander–women, faced with sexual discrimination,  sexual harassment, and misogyny need to trust and protect each other if we hope to approach equality and disrupt the business-as-usual patriarchy.

Despite the serious subject and the grisly deaths happening offstage, humor permeates the play, so the audience gets plenty of chances to laugh. The result? A wonderful balance of a whodunit, a charming period piece, a consciousness-raising experience, and a greatly entertaining evening of theater!

Central Works has extended the run of The Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective to June 9, so there are still plenty of opportunities to catch Patricia Milton’s delightful play. But don’t wait until the last minute to purchase tickets; the intimate venue of the Berkeley City Club means that space is limited.

Connie’s Photo Park–A fun detour

In Madrid, New Mexico, along what’s called the Turquoise Trail, we happened upon Connie’s Photo Park. No attendant approached us, and there was no gate or admission fee. A slot with a sign suggesting a donation sat quietly off to one side.

My husband, Dave, and I were the only two visitors while we were there. Paintings were varied but several were vaguely reminiscent of the old West.









Some had a cut-out for one face and some for two. Clearly somebody had a good time creating all these characters. I wish I knew more of the story behind the paintings.

In the back was a big empty bathtub on what looked like an old set for a western.    I got Dave to get in the tub for a photo.

No, it was not exactly a day in a museum, but we had a blast.

Meow Wolf–a Santa Fe gem

Meow Wolf is difficult to describe.

The building itself used to house a bowling alley, but with aid from George R.R. Martin (yes, that George R.R. Martin), it now has only faint vestiges of that era.

It is at its heart an artists’ collective.  The art even spills out into the parking lot, where huge sculptures of a robot, a spider, and a wolf loom over cars and picnic tables.




Its website has this under “About us”:

Meow Wolf is a Santa Fe, New Mexico based arts and entertainment group that established in 2008 as an art collective.

The company is composed of nearly 200 artists across all disciplines including architecture, sculpture, painting, photography and video production, virtual and augmented reality, software and hardware development, music and audio engineering, narrative writing, costuming and performance, and more. Basically everything.

Snaggy, the Meow Wolf mascot

The centerpiece of Meow Wolf is The House of Eternal Return, a 20,000 square foot art exhibit that has secret passages and a mystery involving the Selig family. The person who took our tickets explained that about 30 percent of the experience could be enhanced with 3D glasses, which he handed us. After listening to a man on a video warn us not to gossip once we were inside, we entered, knowing almost nothing about what we were going to see but excited in our anticipation to discover what lay ahead.

Here’s the website’s attempt to describe it:

House of Eternal Return is a unique art experience featuring an astonishing new form of non-linear storytelling that unfolds through exploration, discovery and 21st century interactivity.

The first structure you see is a Victorian house with several rooms, ostensibly belonging to the Selig family. There are many references and clues surrounding their disappearance, including audio recordings and papers. Family photos hang in some rooms, and bedrooms are decorated in such a way to make it clear which family member lived in each one.

The kitchen seemed quite ordinary until I saw someone emerge from the refrigerator, bathed in brilliant white light, looking equally surprised to have found herself in a kitchen. The family room at first appears like any family room across America, but if you stay long enough you’re bound to glimpse someone crawl through the fireplace and disappear.

At one point, I put my hand against the outline of a hand on the wall, and a door opened into a futuristic travel agency, where one could choose from among several different vacation destinations. And the names were already somewhat familiar to me because I had read a brochure that had been left out on a coffee table in the family room that advertised the various trips available.

And there was this space pod filled with child’s furniture that defied gravity, a dinosaur skeleton whose ribs were musical, a little chapel with an amazing ongoing light show, a video arcade where you needed no quarters, and staircases that took you to other equally interesting spaces. Stepping into a commercial-sized freezer led me to a small dark room that is mirrored and equipped with four distinct lightscapes to experience.

Everything is self-led, but there are employees in white lab coats who wander through, in case of emergency, I suppose, or to ensure that people are behaving themselves. Some of it is painted in fluorescent colors and indeed looks even better through the 3D glasses.

My favorite room was a kitchen and dining area painted in black and white.

Because we were there on a Thursday morning, we were surrounded by tourists, families, and middle-aged folks like ourselves and older. I imagine that in the evening, visitors might include more young people, locals, and more than a few individuals taking recreational drugs.

One of the offerings in the learning center

In addition to the House of Eternal Returns is the David Loughridge Learning Center, a maker/art space dedicated to all kinds of creativity. There are jumbo foam blocks, a mural created by a group of middle-school teen girls, boxes of art supplies, and a large papier-mache rendition of Meow Wolf’s mascot, Snaggy. Classes, workshops, and various gatherings convene here.

Meow Wolf hosts musical entertainment as well.


The  funky cafe/bar offers snacks and beverages, and there’s a super-cool gift shop.

I’m not sure this long-winded account truly captures Meow Wolf, but I hope it provides a taste of this unique place. If you ever go to Santa Fe, it is well worth spending half a day at Meow Wolf. In fact, I think it’s a perfectly good destination all by itself.

Marvelous Marga!

I have always loved Marga Gomez. I remember seeing her at a comedy club in Emeryville that is no longer there and at The Marsh when it was just a nook carved out of a little cafe in the Mission. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every solo show she’s done in the Bay Area, and I even watched Sphere, a science fiction movie (not my thing) because she had a small role in it. I also spotted her at a Poets & Writers conference, where I was brave enough to pass her a note during a presentation. And when I was protesting some underhanded activities by Berkeley’s former library director, Marga was doing her bit to entertain the small but loyal group of librarian supporters. I may have also caught sight of her at the dog park once.

So I guess you could call me a devoted fan.

Marga’s current show, Latin Standards, is poignant, funny, and insightful. If you’re already a fan, you’ll recognize the hysterical rendition of her primping mother and loving portrayal of her charming showman dad. But this show plunges more deeply into her father’s career and how this background directly shaped Marga, despite his plan that she should become a doctor.

She is the kind of performer who connects with her audience and is sensitive to mood of the crowd, who was loving her the night I saw the show. Despite her plea for folks to turn off their phones, which she explained were distracting, one cell phone ringtone blasted mercilessly from a purse a few seats to my left. I was furious on Marga’s behalf. Luckily, the guilty party was able to silence it swiftly.

I saw her on a sad day in history–Brett Kavanaugh had just been confirmed. This was not lost on Marga, who proclaimed that she was performing the show that made it the greatest night of her life–on the worst day of her life. And it being Berkeley, nobody wondered what she was referring to.

I urge you to go whether you’re already familiar with Marga’s work or not. She puts her whole heart into every word. And since she claims this is her final one-woman show, you don’t have much longer to be able to see one of the finest solo performers around.

Latin Standards is playing through November 17 at The Marsh in Berkeley. Don’t miss it!

Remembering Letha

Letha was my student.

She was feisty, curious, and funny. She always wore a cap over her shaved head and usually wore a hefty belt and an oversized t-shirt. She rode her bike everywhere, and everyone in the probation department building knew her. If you glimpsed her riding her bike from a distance, you’d think it was a 7th-grade boy rather than a middle-aged woman. She was always on the lookout for free snacks.

The name Tanya was tattooed on her chest. It had nothing to do with me–it’s also the name of her ex–but we both thought it was funny that my name lived permanently on her body.

When Letha first enrolled as my student, I asked where she lived. She declared, “Here!” And she did spend a lot of time in or just outside the building. Although she didn’t have a street address, she had a home that she referred to with a certain pride. Letha had a secret arrangement with the manager of some storage units who pretended not to see that she had taken up occupancy in the unit that was created for storage rather than living. Letha had furnished it like a tiny apartment. She’d even found a free couch that became her living room. With a fiercely independent spirit–and a bit of a temper–I’m sure Letha was happier living there than she would have been having to adhere to someone else’s rules in a shelter. Sleeping in a storage unit had its advantages: since the grounds were locked overnight, she was safely off the streets by closing time and could sleep soundly without worrying who might find her.

Letha called many women in the probation department building “auntie” even if they were younger than her. I suppose it was a term of affection for all of the women who supported her: her probation officer, her case manager, her therapist, and probably others I didn’t even know about.

I don’t think Letha planned necessarily to graduate from high school, but she definitely wanted to learn. She took her studies seriously when she came to class and did her best to concentrate even when her meds made her sleepy or she’d lost her glasses. I taught Letha the difference between short and long vowel sounds, and she genuinely seemed delighted to discover new words.

The last time I saw her, we were working on subtraction. She said she wanted to be able to know whether she was getting the correct change when she bought something, and I helped her figure out how much money she’d have left if she bought a replacement phone. She also wanted to go on a vacation and figured she had enough cash to enjoy a weekend away, but she was conflicted. I don’t know exactly what the issue was, but I think someone was trying to talk her out of it. She said she knew she had problems she had to deal with, but she just wanted to get away from them for a while. I told her it sounded like she needed to take a mental holiday, and she grasped onto that quickly. “Yeah, that’s what I need–a mental holiday!”

On a recent Monday night Letha was found in a parking lot bleeding and unconscious, and although someone  found her and rushed her to the hospital, she didn’t make it. I don’t know if she ever came to after they found her. I hope she wasn’t in pain for long. And I hope that if she was conscious at any point in the hospital, that some human being–a nurse, an EMT, a doctor–held her hand and spoke kindly to her in her last moments, since none of her aunties could be there to comfort her.

The person who beat Letha surrendered herself to the authorities, but I don’t know what specifically caused her death. Maybe it was a misunderstanding or a fight that got out of hand. It doesn’t really matter any more because she is gone, and nothing is going to bring her back.

A few months ago, Letha celebrated her birthday with us. The women in the front office bought her breakfast, one of her aunties made her a birthday cake, and I wrote up on the dry-erase board in big letters “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, LETHA!” She loved the food and all the attention. I’m so glad that she knew, at least on that day, that lots of people loved her.

I’m going to miss her.

My first Five Keys graduation!

Sherri (right) was Shanon’s in-custody teacher

I’ve only been teaching at Five Keys since October of 2017, so this May was my first opportunity to take part in the end-of-year festivities. I’ve been to many graduations, mostly my former second- and third-graders, so I generally watched from the audience side of the auditorium.

But this time, my graduating students were adults, and I was up on the stage of the Solano Community College Theater handing out diplomas. All graduations have common elements: the director/principal/head/president greets and presents the graduating class, proud family members cheer as their loved ones cross the stage, and either a guest or a faculty member utters wise words to live by and wishes the graduates bright futures.

Jorge & me

Two distinguishing characteristics of a Five Keys version of this ceremony are (1) most of those accepting their high school diplomas received at least part of their education while incarcerated, and (2) the age range of the graduates may be anywhere from 19 to 90, which means some of those in caps and gowns had children and even grandchildren celebrating this milestone with them.

But what stood out for me were the students’ speeches. They were so grateful to everyone who had supported them, even if some didn’t have any friends or family members there to watch them get their diplomas. They related some of the difficulties they’d encountered along the way–and to be sure, some of them have surmounted huge obstacles–but the tears that day were all about happiness, and most of the speeches focused on the future. Some wanted to go to college, some wanted to start their own businesses, and some just wanted to find a job that would keep them out of the criminal justice system.

Only two of the fourteen grads who walked the stage that day had been my students, but I felt a swell of pride not only for Jorge and Shanon, but also on behalf of all those graduating. And I enjoyed being  part of this wonderful community that included my fellow educators, Jorge’s smiling auntie who carried a big bouquet of balloons, and the deputy sheriff who cut and served cake to her former inmates.

Even after I climbed into my car afterwards, I was giddy with positive energy. Although I suppose it could have been a sugar rush from the cake…