Feeding the hungry feels good

Food_Bank_Logo_ColorMy Weight Watchers leader, Martha, is this energetic powerhouse who organizes a big group every year to help out at the Alameda County Community Food Bank. She passed out grocery bags to those who wanted to donate food and even organized rides for those who couldn’t get there on their own.

I signed up, bought some groceries to donate, and got my husband to join me. I was worried that the stop-and-go traffic on the freeway was going to make us too late to participate, but we walked in only five minutes after we were supposed to start. We donned name tags, watched an introductory video, and got trained in less than twenty minutes.

Out on the warehouse floor were various stations. I took a spot at the apple conveyor belt, thinking of Lucille Ball at the chocolate factory. But that belt moved like molasses, and with six of us bagging apples, we spent a lot of time waiting for them to reach us. Eventually we got into a groove in which the folks at the top of the line used their arms to sweep more apples down our way, which was somewhat more efficient, if not ideal. After our break, I took a turn at the apple bin, loading bowlfuls onto the conveyor belt. That work was more constant, and I felt more useful. (I’m really not good at waiting.)


There was some good-natured camaraderie and discussions of what qualified an apple as bad. We weren’t allowed to wear headphones, but I didn’t need them to hear in my head the one 45 that I ever bought by the Osmonds—”One Bad Apple.” Which does make me wonder what I would have been humming if I had been at the kiwi station.

The group of about fifteen Weight Watchers gathered for a photo next to the food donations we’d brought. Along with a large student contingency from the American Indian High School and a few individual volunteers, the volunteers numbered around  60. At the end, a Food Bank staff member said we’d bagged 86,000 pounds of fruit, which would provide something like 26,000 meals. Or maybe it was 26,000 pounds, which would proved 86,000 meals. I mean in one scenario, a person is eating three and a half pounds of fruit, which seems like a lot to me. On the other hand, ten ounces of fruit all by itself isn’t really a meal. So I don’t know how they figure out the number of meals…

But the afternoon flew by, and nobody really had to work all that hard while we were there; yet we bagged enough apples and kiwis to fill several huge containers that would be distributed to hungry people on Monday. The staff there was friendly, helpful, and appreciative. And it was kind of fun too.

All in all, not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon.


Worst. Yard. Sale. Ever.


Okay, the forecast did mention a chance of rain for this morning, but it looked pretty clear when loaded the dolly with furniture and put it all out in the driveway. Maybe the fact that the dogs had managed to get their hair on every single one of my father-in-law’s blazers (that were being temporarily housed in the living room) should have been a sign that we shouldn’t have a yard sale today. But we had already posted it on Craig’s List and put up the signs.

Even with the caution tape wrapped around chairs that created purposeful boundaries and signage that clearly stated “No sales until 9:30,” early birds began at 8:00 pawing through the boxes of plates, cutlery, napkins, and general household doodads that had not even been pulled out for display yet. We don’t have the ideal set-up for a yard or garage sale because, well, we don’t actually have a yard or a garage. We have California-style drought-tolerant landscaping that beautifully accents our artisanal, irregularly shaped stones—no flat stretches for easy placement of armchairs, an ottoman, chests of drawers, dining room chairs, area rugs, and a microwave. Our small driveway and sidewalk were overflowing with filing cabinets, bookshelves, a 7′ x 8′ media center, a 36-inch screen TV, a desk, a coffee table, plus all the DVDs, figurines, and glassware that we displayed in all the nooks and crannies or any horizontal space.

The refreshing mist of 8:45 turned to a damp sprinkling around 9:00, but that didn’t deter professional bargain seekers from asking the prices of items as we tried to get everything out. Around 9:15 we decided that we might as well start taking their money since they were there and that damp sprinkling was beginning to feel more like actual precipitation.

I was impressed with the determination of those who bravely weathered the steady rain that was starting to fill up all the bowls and glasses. I tried toweling off the wooden coffee table, but it was pointless. My husband brought out the sun umbrella from the back yard to cover the rolling rack of clothing and hats. All the while, people asked how much for the knife, for the hat, for the bracelet? One man was very happy with his soup ladle purchase (25 cents) and helped me cover the armchairs and ottoman with a tarp before they became waterlogged. Our thoughtful next-door neighbor assessed the situation and offered us another tarp, which we gratefully accepted and used to cover some of the nice wood furniture.

One woman seemed perfectly willing to pay the price I set for her ($20 for five dining room chairs), but she only had $10, and her friend didn’t want to lend her the difference and kept trying to get me down to $10 for all five. Meanwhile, my shirt and jeans are soaked all the way to my skin. I finally resort to carrying an umbrella, just so I don’t have to keep wiping my glasses.

As the rain became a downpour, two guys pull up in a truck. Soggy discount? Sure. One of the guys lifts the huge armchair by himself, carries it over to his truck, and then comes back for the ottoman. I’m happy that we have two fewer pieces of furniture to haul back inside because we’re thinking this yard sale has to end now. But even as we’re retreating and prioritizing which items will get moved inside the house first, more people are showing up. Can we look under the tarps, they ask. I think the covering makes the items beneath more mysterious and therefore more desirable because before you know it, there are a few people actually beneath the tarps themselves to check out the items still displayed on the shelves within. Now those are determined shoppers.

All the items that were still sitting in cardboard boxes are collecting water, and the boxes are disintegrating beneath them as we quickly try to transport them to dry land. An errant box of kitty litter that got pushed aside during the back and forthing of the boxes has toppled on my husband’s foot, and his attempts to wipe it off his shoes apparently set off a chemical reaction that resulted in instant concrete boots.

And then on our picnic table in our back yard I find quite a few keyboards, a printer, and miscellaneous electrical paraphernalia that never even made it to the front yard in a box that’s quickly turning to brown mush. Of course the box used to be under the umbrella that normally shades the table, but that was the umbrella that had been moved to protect the dog hair–covered blazers.

I’m expecting lightning to strike the aforementioned picnic umbrella any moment because my husband has taken to holding it in place since it keeps falling over. My daughter and I get most things safely inside, change into dry clothing, and, figuring the yard sale is now a thing of the past, head to La Farine and Peet’s for morning buns and lattes. But my poor husband has been patiently waiting out the last guy that keeps picking over small items in the midst of what I would now call a storm. He asks how much for the hat, to which my husband responds “two dollars.” The guy mulls it over, then disappears, and returns. He negotiates it down to a dollar and then asks if my husband will accept a check. He’s going to write a check. For a dollar. In the pouring rain. My husband tells him, “Just take the hat.” And with that, our yard sale is over. And it’s not even 11:00.

I come inside to write. We eat lunch. The sun comes out. It’s a beautiful September afternoon, all washed clean from the only rain we’ve had in several weeks. The sign said we would be here until 3:30, which means there’s still an hour or so when people might actually show up and wonder where we are. So my husband and daughter go back out there and start pulling off tarps.

Not me. I’m going to keep writing…

A totally different reason to love public radio

Deb Frisch
My friend, Deb Frisch

Deb has been my writing buddy since I started writing seriously five years ago. She and I started several critique groups for children’s writers. Other people came and went, but she and I bonded. She even talked me into joining the Berkeley branch of the California Writers Club with her. We carpooled to meetings and continued to share our triumphs and defeats in our attempts to be published. She took over the club’s signature event, the Fifth Grade Story Contest, and I somehow got wrangled into becoming president.

This summer she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which is one of those diseases that progresses quickly. She wrote a humorous and poignant piece for Perspectives, public radio’s outlet for listeners’ stories. She knew that it had to be two minutes or less to make it on the air, so she practiced reading it aloud and editing it, but she was only able to get it down to two minutes and forty-four seconds. She was growing weaker by the day, and even speaking was taking a lot of energy. She thought about having her husband or one of her sons read it, but it’s a first-person piece that hinges on wearing a bra, which just wouldn’t work the same way with a male voice.KQED Perspectives

I went to her home during a break from her many out-of-town friends and family who had been bringing food, flowers, and conversation. She explained her dilemma, and I knew how I could help her.

I’m not a particularly poised public speaker. I have to lead meetings on a regular basis, but I’ve always had the tendency to rush my words, despite my coach on the first row who frequently gives me the signal to slow down. Who better than me to record a piece in under two minutes? My first try was still nineteen seconds long, but after I trimmed a few words and decided that I didn’t need to stop for breath, I got it to one minute, fifty-eight seconds.

I sent in the voice recording via my iPhone. I hadn’t even realized I could send a voice file via email, but it was easy! Then I called the person in charge and left a voice mail to let him know the situation—that it would be most appreciated if KQED could air it sooner rather than later, as Deb’s health was deteriorating daily and she so wanted to hear it on the air. I contacted Deb to let her know it had been submitted. It felt good that I had been able to do the one task she had requested of me.

Then I got the email explaining that Perspectives has a non-negotiable policy that all pieces must be recorded by the person who wrote them. I was crushed. What would I tell Deb? I knew she was unable to read it aloud at this point, and I felt that I’d let her down. I talked to mutual friends and one of them suggested I read the piece to our membership on Deb’s behalf. After all, who would appreciate it more than her fellow writers?

A few days later I received a phone call. When I first picked up and heard the person identify himself as someone from KQED, it briefly crossed my mind that public radio was now resorting to calling listeners to ask for funds—a sort of reverse pledge drive. It was after all, the season. That week I had heard on-the-air pleas from both of the public radio stations that I listen to. Maybe they’re getting desperate…

But it was Mark Trautwein, the editor of Perspectives. He had heard the message that I left on voice mail and decided that an email wasn’t good enough in this instance. He was sympathetic—he was currently a caretaker for a terminally ill friend. But he explained that the station couldn’t set that precedent—third parties had never been allowed to read on behalf of the authors. I told him I understood and had come up with an alternative. He commented that sometimes we don’t get the answer we were looking for but slide into something better instead. Wise words.

He didn’t have to call, but he did. And that made all the difference. I hadn’t quite gotten around to renewing my membership yet, but I definitely will now.

And Deb might not be able to hear her story on the air, but she will know that her writing community got to hear it.

Ah, the joys of dancing…

Robin & Hugh exchange rings

Some good friends got married recently and had their wedding at one of those almost-hidden, cute cafés in San Francisco, one that was not built for such an event but was charmingly coaxed into a cozy venue for such a joyous occasion. The ceremony was lovely and personal, the food and wine were tasty and fresh, and the wait staff polite and attentive. Just before we arrived, two waiters carrying champagne crashed into each other, sending many flutes to the brick path below, but they seemed to be handling the glass shard removal without fuss, and the party got started without any delay.

I have to say, though, as much as I love a heartfelt exchange of vows, my favorite part of a wedding is always the dancing. We managed concentric circles of the traditional horah while the band played “Hava Nagila” in the area next to the fireplace. And I knew it was a good sign when the d.j. started up his leg of the evening with Stevie Wonder. As he spun 45s round the turntable (yes, Virginia, there still are such antique forms of music), I continued to get down to Michael Jackson, Prince, the Beastie Boys, hits from three decades, and even a few I didn’t know at all but inspired hip swinging and booty shaking.

So, Robin and Hugh, Mazel tov on your wedding, and thanks for letting me dance my heart out (and my weight off)!

Another year, another Solano Stroll

BART car in SS parade

I love the Solano Stroll, the annual mile-long party on the second Sunday in September.

It all starts with the parade, which has all the usual suspects—a candidate running for a local office atop a fire engine, Boy Scouts, and a marching band—but the Stroll also has the Berkeley Juggling and Unicycling Cooperative, adorable children dancing in traditional Mexican flouncy skirts or sombreros, and about a dozen preschools represented by proud parents wearing matching T-shirts pushing strollers decorated with themes whose meanings sometimes elude me.bag at SS

For one day a year, the avenue that spans Albany and the north end of Berkeley is closed to traffic and hosts hundreds of booths. There are the commercial kind that sell knit animal hats, organic cotton tie-dye T-shirts, and enough earrings to fill the Greek Theater.

The food options include gourmet corn dogs, lamb burgers, tofu spring rolls, kettle corn, pad thai, and To-die-for brownies (I’m not commenting on them—that’s just their name).

Various school clubs are raising money for crew, soccer, cross country, and the Berkeley High Mountain Bike team. The Albany High School girls’ volleyball team was raising money by raffling off an iPad at $10 a ticket. My husband already has one, but he bought a raffle ticket anyway. Those girls know a soft sell when they see one…

Then there are booths that represent every religious, political, and government organization, not only in Albany and Berkeley, but from nearby Kensington, and El Cerrito too. They include the Gray Panthers, the Unitarian Church, the Burmese American Democratic Alliance, the Church on the Corner (and I’m not just explaining where it is—it’s called the Church on the Corner), the Buddhist Society, the Green Party, Alameda County Vector Control Services (I don’t even know what that is), the Farm Alliance (farms, in Berkeley?), the East Bay Atheists, and at least a dozen more. (I got a list of famous atheists that I’ll be sure to include in a future post.)

There are activists of all stripes (except Republican of course—after all, this Berkeley) including the ACLU and folks who want to save trees, There was one group listed on the program as Inactivists, which piqued my curiosity. I thought maybe they were people who protested all the activists, but it turns out the program listing misspelled its T-shirt at SSname. They call themselves Intactivists, and  they are against circumcision.

There are lots of clubs (chess, garden, camera, rotary, lacrosse); lots of schools from preschool up through all three high schools in the area, plus dance schools, drumming schools, and even a school to teach you how to fly; several kinds of demonstrations (instant heat packs for pain relief, acupressure, solar panels); lots of one-of-a-kind handcrafted gifts (little people made out of beads, soap sculpted to look like sushi, and pottery of every color and size).

Although I do my fair share of consumerism (I bought a straw hat and enjoyed some tater tots) and collect a few freebies (a granola bar, a sticker, and an “I Love Libraries” pin), my favorite activities involve entertainment.

I always make sure I get to the park outside of my favorite neighborhood Mexican restaurant, Talavera, in time to nab a seat for the spectacle that is Katie’s Dance Studio performances. They get through 17 numbers in one hour with a dizzying number of costume changes and an overwhelming amount of sequins and lycra. I think there were about 40 kids dancing, aged 4 to 19. And every single one of them wore ear-to-ear grins. Except for the tiny girl who tap danced and sang “Smile.” She was very serious.

The talent among musicians and singers does vary, but in general, performances are polished, and there are always a few gems. The Albany Jazz Band was impressive, and one of the vocalists singing with them this year was amazing. Catherine DeCuir has a beautiful, strong voice and a stage presence that makes it all look easy. And Rich Kalman really got the audience going with the Cab Calloway tune “Minnie the Moocher.”plate at SS

The Albany All-Stars sang a rousing version of “Jambalaya,” entertaining the patrons sitting on the front porch of the Pub.

And the four-piece band of Berkeley High students called One Track Mind featured the lovely voice of Zoe, some nice guitar work (from a boy who was able to see the strings despite the bangs that covered his eyes), and the musically ambidextrous Bella who jumped back and forth easily between her drum set and rhythm guitar, depending on what the song required. And they did a good job of pushing on through the quiet songs even while the taiko drummers were banging away at their finale just a block away. (At first I thought there was a minor earthquake.)

And I love the people watching. My favorite overheard quote of the day? “My family is Jewish, but sometimes I like to pretend I’m Catholic—I don’t know why.”

Despite a mild sunburn, the Stroll was once again a highlight of the year for me. Next time I’ll look harder for the sunscreen…

Sometimes you just need the photo…

screen shot of my iPhone while playing Enigma

One of the many games I play on my iPhone is enigma, in which I guess words until I get the right one. When I guess a word the enigma machine tells me how many letters I got correct so that I can whittle down the possible letters and thus figure out the word. For some reason my phone decided to take a picture of this particular word, and I only found it some time later when I was looking through my photos.

Do you think it was trying to tell me something?

A Word of Advice…

They say it’s not unwise to pause

When fury bares its eager claws

Though one is tempted to lash out

You will be glad you skipped that route

When your anger starts to seethe

Count to ten and slowly breathe

Think it through, plan what you’ll say

You’re sure to regret less this way