December 31, 2010

The Ride of Your Life

Filed under: Ann the Columnist:Essays — Ann @ 9:33 am

The media’s late-December offerings are bulging with how-to messages for 2011: How to have a better body, be a better person, live a better life. How to…be better. The assumption, I suppose, is that our 2010s have been frittered away in some nonstop competition to see how much we can eat, how little we can exercise, and how successfully we can ignore nonprofits by withholding our charitable contributions. In 2011, we’ll be better!

You can take all that advice if you like, but I have just four words to offer you which, depending upon on how you live your life in the present, may potentially change your life in the future. It starts with a story….

In 1986, I went on my first-ever backpacking trip, tagging along with a 27-year-old self-described Renaissance man and his best buddy. My comic adventures are set out in “The First 43 Miles are the Hardest,” which I sold to Sierra Life magazine and was published in their May/June 1987 issue. But there was a darker side to that trip which, until this moment, has never been revealed. (How’s that for a tease?)

At the time of the trip I was freshly hurting from the end of my 10-year marriage. I’d met “Stuart,” the backpacker, in a theatre production. I had a mad crush on him and when he nonchalantly asked if I wanted to accompany he and his friend “Richard,” I couldn’t decide whether to go until my girlfriend told me over the phone, “Are you nuts? The man of your dreams just asked you to be alone in the mountains with him for a whole week! You HAVE to go!” And so I went.

From the outset, things did not go well. I allowed Stuart to drive my little Capri up to the Copper Creek trailhead which was the access point to our Kings Canyon destination; Richard met us there. As set out in my story (subtitled, “What happens when a sheltered, middle-class, mildly neurotic 33-year-old embarks on her first backpacking trip”), there were bears, there was a forest fire and, on the last day, there was a terrifying 10-mile run down the mountain to escape the fire, resulting in patellar tendonitis in both my knees.

But more than that, there was me, having absolutely no control over my own life. Stuart and Richard had been hiking together for years. They had their own routines and preferences and whatever they said, went. Example: We hiked 5 to 7 miles daily and I, a high-energy person in the mornings, would have preferred to start those hikes right after breakfast so that we could stop and make camp by mid-afternoon. Instead, the two of them chose to hang around camp until almost noon, starting our daily hike so late in the day that more often than not we were making our dinner and pitching the tent in total blackness. Frequently while hiking they would decide to stop, shed all their clothes, and go swimming in an alpine lake. Lovely as that sounds, I hadn’t known them that long and wasn’t about to get nekkid with them, so all I could do was hope they’d hurry so we could get to our camping spot before midnight.

And then there came the day when Stuart told me he and Richard wanted to take a day hike that would of necessity exclude me because it was beyond my novice hiking ability. Did I mind staying by myself all day while they took off? Clearly, they were in charge of the expedition and I was subject to their every whim. I followed, I sat, I obeyed, I waited, I tagged along. For seven. long. days.

The last day of the trip, during that seemingly endless 10-mile run to the Copper Creek trailhead parking lot, all I could think about was my Capri. My car, my beautiful little maroon Capri with the tiny orange pinstriping, was waiting. And, crazy as it sounds, it became symbolic to me of my freedom. Because once I got behind the wheel, then I was in charge of my own expedition from that moment forward. I absolutely could not wait.

We arrived in the lot late afternoon, stashed our gear, and said our good-byes to Richard, who was going to follow us down the mountain in his little truck. By now there was a good deal of tension between Stuart and me. I didn’t even wait for a discussion as to which of us was going to drive home. I opened the passenger door for him, got in my Capri, and we took off. I was stopping for nothing and no one. It was my car. My life. My expedition. About halfway down the mountain, Stuart was looking at the view in the east and asked if I wanted to stop and take some photos. “No.” He looked at me curiously, because it wasn’t like me to be so brusque.

“No,” I repeated. “I’m going home.” I gripped the wheel more tightly, staring straight ahead, thinking You’re along for MY ride now, buddy.

And that is how I came to this moment, and my four words of advice. They mean, as much as possible in 2011, take control of your destiny. Don’t allow others to lead you down any path you don’t want to be on. Make your own journey and take charge of your own expedition in whatever way that may be meaningful to you. The four words are: Drive your own car. And don’t let anyone stop you until you’re home.

December 17, 2010

“It’s a cookbook!”

Filed under: Ann the Columnist:Essays,MiscellAnnia — Ann @ 12:02 pm

The American Woman's Cook Book

I’ve always loved books, so naturally it would follow that I’ve always loved cookbooks, starting with the 1939 hard-cover American Woman’s Cook Book which I grew up with and which still lives in my mom’s kitchen. (I just called her to talk about it and she said, “Ooh, I just opened to a great picture of shrimp cocktail!”) My grandmother gave it to my Mom and Dad when they were first married back in the 40s. I’d gaze at the front for long hours, dreaming of making those petits fours someday.

When I was a bright-eyed bride of 19, someone gave me the orange-bindered Betty Crocker’s Cookbook, which became my education into the world of kitchen wizardry. I still remember the deep sense of power that would wash over me as I’d flip through its pages — I could make Black Forest Cherry Cake! I could make Steak Diane! I grew up in a home where every night’s dinner was standard 1950s fare; my Mom is a whiz with these dishes and, hearty and good though they are, they aren’t exactly adventurous.

So when Betty Crocker came to live in my old-fashioned San Pablo kitchen — I had to get down on my hands and knees to ignite the pilot light whenever I used the oven — I was positively light-headed with possibility. (In retrospect, perhaps the light-headedness was from inhaling all that natural gas.) In that kitchen I turned out Stuffed Green Peppers and Chicken Breasts Tarragon and Classic Hollandaise Sauce. Chicken Tetrazzini became such a hit with friends and family that the page long ago fell out and I keep it in a folder marked “Favorites.”

Over the years I learned that everyone had his and her go-to kitchen tome. Some swore by Joy of Cooking. Some preferred a separate cookbook for each cuisine. But I stuck with Betty — in more ways than one. Whatever Betty Crocker didn’t offer up in the orange binder, my mom — also Betty — provided in terms of her own recipes. To this day I’ll still call her and ask things like, “Mom, what was the recipe you used for that killer gingerbread you used to make me on rainy days?” Pretty soon, a copy will arrive in the mail. God I love my Mom.

Today I turned to the Betty-binder once more. You see, a few weeks ago Neal started bringing home Safeway pound cakes to snack on. I tasted one and made a noise like “bleh” and “oof” blended together. I told him, “You, good husband, need to partake of a genuine, homemade pound cake and I, good-wife that I am, shall prepare same for your gustatory pleasure.” (Except I think I said, “This tastes like crap. I’m going to make one.”)

So today’s the day. I’ve got the cookbook, the flour, the sugar, the real vanilla extract, eggs, baking powder, shortening, salt, and will. As soon as the butter softens to room temperature (oh, we all remember the day we got too impatient and tried to make our cakes with butter that was still chunky, don’t we?), I’ll get out to that kitchen and make my man a pound cake. I’ll tell you one thing, he’ll never eat another Safeway version.

The funny thing is, when I opened Betty Crocker to that recipe this morning, I noted some oil or butter stains mid-page. Don’t all treasured cookbooks have those? Was it from the time I was making something for company and knocked over the canola? Did I accidentally set the frosting spoon there when I was excited about my cake?

Cookbooks are filled with much more than recipes; they are filled with stories. Today, I’m continuing the saga.

November 12, 2010

My Writer, My Mouthpiece

Filed under: Ann the Columnist:Essays — Ann @ 9:35 am

I have opinions. Probably this became apparent when I created a blog. But sometimes, for whatever reason, I’m not able to adequately express my opinions. Perhaps it is a topic about which I feel too passionate, or about which I’m not well-informed. All I know is that sometimes, all I can do is the written equivalent of sputtering.

That’s when other writers come in handy. Part of the great fun of being a reader is that, very often, you will encounter the perfect turn of phrase which tidily, eloquently and impressively sums up precisely how you feel on a topic. What usually happens is that the writers who are able to elicit from us that “Oh-my-god-that’s-exactly-how-I-feel!” reaction are the writers who become our favorites. I’ve found that Jon Carroll and Leonard Pitts, Jr. often access that place in me. Others have been Adair Lara, Ellen Goodman, and the late, great Molly Ivins.

Back in the 80s, before cutting-pasting and social networking made sharing so easy, I used to clip out this-is-how-I-feel columns and tuck them away into a manila folder marked “Good Stuff.” I think my fantasy was that someday I’d be in an argument with someone better equipped to verbally spar than I, and I’d whip out, say, a tart Miss Manners response and read it as my comeback. Take that!, I’d fantasize. Of course, it never happened, but good writers make me want to do that — borrow (but never plagiarize) their words in order to impress, inspire awe, or even to win a particular argument.

Which is why I got so excited this morning while reading Nancy Franklin’s November 15, 2010 New Yorker review of Sarah Palin’s upcoming TLC show. I have strong feelings about Palin which I’ve never been able to put into just the right words. Therefore, I’m seriously considering clipping the following excerpt and keeping it in my wallet. Ms. Franklin writes:

“When it comes to Palin specifically, there is the fundamental problem that some of us don’t want to see or hear any more of her than we have to. And there are those whose objections have a physiological basis as well as an ideological one: the pitch and timbre of her voice, the rhythms of her speech, her syntax, and the way she coats acid and incoherence with cheery musical inflections join together in a sickening synergy that distresses the listener, triggering a fight-or-flight reaction. When Palin talks, my whole being wails, like Nancy Kerrigan after Tonya Harding’s ex-husband kneecapped her: ‘Why? Why? Why?‘”

If anyone ever wants to know how Sarah Palin affects me, I will whip out Nancy Franklin’s words and reply, “What she said.” Franklin is my new mouthpiece.

Thank God and grace for giving us those whose ideas, words and interpretations make us nod, smile, and cut-and-paste. I realize my tastes lean left; others may become enthused by David Brooks and that’s okay, too. But if you’ve ever put something on Facebook with the Status Update, “This is a must read!” then you know how I feel. We owe it all to our writers, those wordsmiths who take our opinions, polish them, remove the rough edges and extraneous punctuation, and hold them up for the rest of the world to appreciate — or dispute. It’s sharing — and America — at its best.

September 8, 2010

Traveling Clothes

Filed under: Ann the Columnist:Essays — Ann @ 9:10 am

Recently on a hot summer afternoon I padded around barefoot in the backyard doing my chores, reveling in the warm pavement/cool grass contrast, and letting the hose water dribble on my toes when I filled Geronimo’s drinking dish. Later that night I was in the bathroom standing on one foot and then the other, using soap and a washcloth to render my feet sheet-worthy, and suddenly I was nine years old again, sitting in a tent at Hat Creek, taking my evening bath.

From the time I was very young, my parents took my brother and sister and me camping at Hat Creek, situated near Mt. Lassen. That was before Interstate 5 up to Redding was built, so traveling meant a long, hot dusty ride up Highway 99, the smell of alfalfa blowing in through the opened windows (out which, occasionally, my sister’s and my feet were sticking — this was before seat belts). The names of the towns charmed me, even as a child — Corning (Olive Town!), Richfield, Maxwell, Arbuckle — as did my parents’ vacation rituals, such as my Mom’s warning that “It’s going to be hot going up through that Valley!” and my Dad’s vacation morning, “Let’s get this show on the road!”

My Dad was responsible for fishing-related duties and packing the car, my Mom was responsible for cooking, cleaning up, and taking care of the three kids, which included our nightly “sponge baths” in the tent, usually by flashlight — the lantern turned off to maintain our modesty lest our silhouettes be broadcast against the canvas. It always felt so good to climb into my sleeping bag at night after a hard day’s play, the sweet smell of Ivory soap filling my flannel cocoon as I drifted off to sleep in my sleeping bag, the grown-ups’ voices outside at the camping table lulling me to dreamland.

But the memory which flashed back to me as I stood in my bathroom washing my feet was the concept of “traveling clothes.” My mother took pristine care of her kids, even while camping, making two hot meals a day on her Coleman stove (lunches were sandwiches and cream soda) and, as mentioned, seeing to our ongoing hygiene. And one of her cleanliness rituals was making sure that, tucked at the very bottom of the suitcase, was a fresh set of traveling clothes for her children.

The traveling clothes were the shorts and shirts we weren’t allowed to wear for all the weeks of camping, because on the last morning, after our final wash-up, on would go the clean socks and fresh shorts outfits, usually smelling of cool canvas from being at the bottom of the stack. And getting into these outfits would be the last thing we did before clambering into the Mercury to make the long sad trip from the mountains down to the flat, treeless East Bay. I guess my Mom’s thinking was that when we stopped at gas stations or rest stops (I don’t recall ever eating at restaurants), her children were going to be scrubbed and well-dressed. When I think about the effort she put in to making that happen, my heart does something funny inside my chest.

I loved childhood camping with my parents more than any other thing. So, many decades later, I was shocked to overhear my mother say that she never enjoyed those trips — too much work. Well, yeah! Of course, why didn’t I think of that? We were all playing and “vacating” while Mom was doing the same work she did back home, except without hot and cold running water, bathtubs, refrigeration or a washing machine. But not once, not ever, did I hear her complain about it at the time.

I don’t know if our everlasting gratitude could ever make it up to her. It sounds a lot more romantic to say, “My Dad taught me how to catch and clean a trout” than it does to say, “My Mom taught me how to give myself a sponge bath in a pitch dark tent in the middle of the wilderness.” But to me, the latter is no less a skill.

These are some of the things I think about, when I’m in the bathroom, washing my feet.

August 27, 2010

Sit. Think. Discover.

Filed under: Ann the Columnist:Essays — Ann @ 11:00 am

I’m worried for us. This morning I was thinking about the many distractions which surround us on a moment-to-moment basis — no longer does television alone vie for our time and attention, we have available to us a variety of screens and gadgets. You know them; I need not name them.

And I began to wonder how many inventions and discoveries have been made across the ages by people who were…merely sitting. Thinking, pondering, reflecting. Have you heard of the German chemist Friedrich von Stradonitz? Apparently he was daydreaming about a snake forming a circle, and that led to “his solution of the closed chemical structure of cyclic compounds, such as benzene.” This story, by the way, hails from a Wikipedia entry on the concept of serendipity.

Another well-known story is that of Archimedes getting into his bathtub and noticing that the water level rose; by contemplating this he suddenly understood that “the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the part of his body he had submerged. This meant that the volume of irregular objects could be calculated with precision, a previously intractable problem” [Wikipedia]. I don’t know how many of these stories are apocryphal but the question is still valid: Are we not doing enough sitting, thinking, staring, daydreaming? What do we know today because someone was perched on a hillside, looking up at the stars, noticing?

I’m no technophobe; I’m not suggesting a bonfire of iPhones — I just think it would behoove us to set aside a bit more porch-sitting, navel-contemplating time. Otherwise, I worry that our attention spans will narrow so perilously that we will become a culture without great thinkers, inventors, composers. And perhaps I’m worried for nothing; it could be that because these communications devices are relatively new and novel, we are like a child on Christmas Day, wild-eyed and grabbing for our toys and unwilling to put them down even to eat Aunt Edna’s turkey frittata brunch. Perhaps eventually we’ll get bored, discard our devices, and wander outside again, looking up and around us. There’s so much yet to discover — if only about ourselves. The inspiring poet Mary Oliver understood the importance of connecting to soul through the universe, and I’ll close with her perfect commentary, entitled “Sleeping in the Forest.” It makes me think that, when we are ready to put down our gadgets and walk outside, we will be welcomed back. At least, that is my great hope.

“I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,
nothing between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths
among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
breathing around me, the insects,
and the birds who do their work in the darkness.
All night I rose and fell, as if in water,
grappling with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.”

July 29, 2010

They Walk Among Us: Beware the Binaries

Filed under: Ann the Columnist:Essays — Ann @ 12:35 pm

I am insatiably curious about human nature and human nurture. My idea of a good time is noticing how people act and react, choose and decline, give and receive. It’s a good pastime for one who has chosen psychology as her field of study.

And it’s also convenient for one who’s employed by a psychologist. I can bring to him my questions about my planet-mates’ behaviors; he’s exceedingly educated and experienced and, in the year I’ve been there, I’ve learned quite a bit. Which brings me to my reason for writing.

Today he and I were discussing the possibility of ‘private parking’ signs for the office lot, and I told him my experience of living so close to the Sonoma Plaza that on holiday or event weekends, some people park in our private driveway, or block it. I launched my favorite question: “Why would someone do that?”

His explanation may seem obvious to some, but for me it opened up an entirely new way of understanding. He explained that there move among us “binary thinkers,” whose sole consideration when it comes to decision-making is “Does this serve my needs?” And if the answer is yes — no matter what the consequences or how it might hurt other people — the binary thinker will choose that self-serving action. Because I and most everyone know are sensitive to the cultural and legal restraints which order our behavior, I am now fascinated by the Binaries, and intend to watch for signs that I am in their presence.

As we finished our conversation, I asked the doctor, “Now, how common is this type of thinking? Because, maybe it’s just me, but it feels rather–” he interrupted me with a smile and asked, “Rampant?” I was quick to reply, “No. But common.” He said it’s primarily the reasoning of narcissists and other self-absorbed individuals. So I guess much depends on how common narcissism is in 2010 America — or at least in my little corner of it.

Thankfully, my day-to-day experience still confirms that most people are thoughtful, giving and kind. And I love to study them as well. When my husband, Neal, was going through the worst of his illness, one of my friends kept supplying us with rolls of quarters to do our laundry. If I hadn’t been so caught up in gratitude and could have put on my psych-student’s hat in that moment, I would have grilled her: What made you think of such a perfect way to help out someone in need? How did you get to be so heart-brilliant?

Answers to these and many other questions about who we are await me in the psychology courses I’ll be starting next month. And, who knows, with enough education and training, I may even come to fully understand the Binaries. And how to keep them from parking in my driveway.

July 26, 2010

Words and Pictures

Filed under: Ann the Columnist:Essays — Ann @ 12:14 pm

Since I was a very young girl, my primary creative outlet has been with words. I had friends who could draw fabulous horses and cats; some who were talented in stitchery; still others who were the mini Paula Deens of the Easy-Bake Oven world. But I relied on my journals and poetry to express myself and into which I could pour my imagination and my artist’s soul.

That’s why it surprised me when, after my parents gave me my first-ever digital camera for my birthday last October, I found myself using it as a creative tool. I know how to reach out to people through my words; it had never occurred to me that I could speak to others through images.

I’m very much the beginner. I’ve not studied photography, nor am I familiar with the specifics of color, composition, et al. I may pursue those finer points as time and opportunity allow. But when I shared my spider-web photo on Facebook this morning, and a friend encouraged me to post it on my website, I realized that, perfect photos or not, I could use this blog to speak to readers not only through verbal observations, but through visual observations as well.

Therefore, I present here my very first photo gallery. I wouldn’t exactly call it Fine Art — but I can promise you it was Fun Art.

Spun Silk

Desert Shades

Psychedelic Bloom

Stark Beauty

Crossed by Light

Mirror Image

July 9, 2010

Why You Need to Watch “Firefly” and “Serenity”

Filed under: Ann the Columnist:Essays — Ann @ 10:10 am

Well, not all of you. If your bookshelves are chunked full of science fiction novels; if you know who Joss Whedon is; if you were hooked on “Buffy;” if you’ve ever been thought “weird” and deemed it a compliment; if you love(d) westerns and/or Roddenberry; if you’ve ever gotten chills (or cried) upon encountering a perfectly-written line of dialog….you may be the target audient. But, truly, the last criterion is the most important: I didn’t read a science fiction book until age 35, yet I’m a rabid devotee of the cancelled TV series Firefly and its follow-up film, Serenity.

Descriptives of series and film include intelligent, clever, quirky, witty, creative, unusual, interesting, challenging, exciting — and did I mention intelligent? Joss Whedon is a writer/director who does not talk down to his audience. He even gives us some new vocabulary (“shiny” for “cool,” “okay, “fine”) and Chinese profanity, and trusts that we will intuit the meaning contextually. He also incorporates themes of belief, love, honor, loyalty, and all those other high-falutin’ but essential values in a unique way that almost plays as afterthought, until you realize they’re the messages we’ve been delivered all along.

Bear with me while I provide the necessary background, courtesy of Wikipedia:

“…is set in the year 2517…and follows the adventures of the renegade crew of Serenity, a ‘Firefly-class’ spaceship. The ensemble cast portrays the nine characters who live on Serenity. The show explores the lives of people who fought on the losing side of a civil war who now make a living on the outskirts of the society, as part of the pioneer culture that exists on the fringes of their star system [and] two surviving superpowers, the United States and China, fused to form [one] government…the Alliance.”

But in 2002, Firefly was cancelled after only 11 of 14 episodes were aired. Whedon then wrote a script for a 2005 film-sequel, Serenity. He credits the loyal fan base for getting the movie made.

“…Earth’s resources have been depleted and humanity has moved to another star system. The inner planets are controlled by the totalitarian Alliance while a frontier justice holds sway farther out. A young girl questions the Alliance’s practices. She is River, a psychic who is being mentally and physically conditioned by the Alliance. She is rescued by her brother, Simon. An Alliance agent, the Operative, is assigned to track down River before she can reveal government secrets. River and Simon become passengers on the Firefly-class transport ship Serenity…”

So, why do you need to see this?

First, the characters:

Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), scruffily handsome and brooding. There’s a “Casablanca” Rick-ness to Mal: he doesn’t believe in anything except himself. Or does he? He’s an agitated maverick and we sense a deep longing. His speech is Old West slang with a soupcon of colorful Chinese. He’s a jerk; is he also a hero?

Zoe (Gina Torres), Mal’s second-in-command. Fierce, loyal, no-nonsense, tough and toned and ten types of strong. Hotly in love with her husband:

Wash (Alan Tudyk), the ship’s pilot. He’s the comic relief and he’s amazingly good at it.

Inara (Morena Baccarin), a “Companion,” which is the courtesan of the future. She is our hooker with the heart of gold, yet to describe her in those terms is to degrade something lovely: she raises prostitution to the level of art; she walks, talks, and lives quiet elegance. She makes women want to be her friend; she makes men just want.

Jayne (Adam Baldwin), the tough guy. Strong, sneering, snotty, untrustworthy, armed and dangerous — the guy you want with you on a dangerous mission — but keep him in your sights just the same. Dumb as donuts.

Kaylee (Jewel Staite), Firefly’s adorable, beguiling, sweet-souled mechanic. She lovingly tends to her ship and longs to lovingly tend to one of its passengers.

Simon (Sean Maher), a passenger. A brilliant doctor. He has one purpose: to save his genius-telepathic sister from the Alliance, who seek her because she knows the Terrible Secret which, if got out, could destroy Alliance credibility and severely undermine its power. Finding out what this Secret is drives much of the plot of the Serenity film.

River (Summer Glau), the sister. When you watch Serenity for the fourth time — and you just might — spend a lot of time watching how she moves. Graceful and smooth, she’s a ballet and, we discover, a potentially lethal one.

Shepherd Book: “Shepherd” is a title, a minister. Wikipedia says “Book represents Mal’s guide, conscience, and lost spirituality, while his hidden backstory was to have been gradually revealed, had the series continued.” You see, he, too, has secrets, which lend him an aura of mystery which enhances his pious wisdom. Played to holy perfection by Ron Glass (Sgt. Harris in “Barney Miller”).

Oh yes, and there are Bad Guys. Really, truly, horrifying Bad Guys called Reavers whose methods and madness will shock you. Whedon is no fool; he doesn’t show the Reavers doing what we are told they are capable of; with Hitchcockian wisdom, he gives us just a glimpse and lets our wicked imaginations do the rest. Then there’s The Operative, icy and malevolent (played by the inimitable Chiwetel Ejiofor, currently co-starring in Angelina Jolie’s “Salt”). The Alliance sends him after River and because we know he’s driven and unstoppable — a compassionless madman with a mission — we fear for her.

My husband Neal and I Netflixed Firefly because we’d told a bunch of friends we’d just finished watching all seven seasons of “Deep Space Nine,” loved the show, and were hankering for some more well-written, exciting, mind-messing entertainment. Everyone told us: Watch all 14 episodes of Firefly, then rent the movie Serenity. And we did. And now you must, too.

If you do, and if you watch and listen carefully, you will be richly rewarded. Both move at a fast pace; trust the writers and the director to take you where you need to go. Know that you aren’t just investing time in entertainment; you are becoming part of a world which you will never forget. I envy you your first encounter with it. Netflix awaits.

February 6, 2010

The Silent Treatment

Filed under: Ann the Columnist:Essays — Ann @ 8:22 am

In the 1980s I was working at a small law firm; the other assistant and I sat at desks just a few feet away from each other in an area adjacent to reception. In other words, we were pretty much in each others’ faces. Mostly, this worked out well because she and I got along really well. In fact, I adored her. But one day I did something to annoy her. I don’t remember what it was; she probably doesn’t either. However — perhaps because we were both young and not yet fully versed in the art of effective communication — instead of telling me about it, she simply stopped talking to me.

There we were, eight hours a day, five days a week, in a tiny space and, except for absolutely essential utterances like, “Are you using the printer?” she said not a word to me — nor did she look at me, smile at me, or even say “bless you” when I sneezed. It drove me crazy. That’s the idea of the Silent Treatment — to drive its victims nuts. The one who stops talking has all the power over the one who is not talked to.

You’ll be going about your business and suddenly you notice that the atmosphere has grown chilly. At first you think it’s your imagination, but as time goes on you know it’s not. If you’re feeling gutsy, you may ask, “Are you okay?” or “Did I do something to annoy you?” The Silent One does not like these sorts of questions because to open up is to lose that power. So be careful about inquiry — the resulting angry outburst may make you long for a return to The Silent Treatment (which may be intentional manipulation by the perpetrator, who may purposely make your efforts to break the silence more wretched than the silence itself; therefore the perpetrator maintains control).

This leaves you to contemplate what you’ve done “wrong.” It’s a long process: first you have to think back to the last time the person spoke to you. “Hmmmm….I know things were okay yesterday at noon because I told that joke and the Silent One laughed at it. Okay, now, what could I have done between noon yesterday and now?”

So, in your tortured mind, you recount hour by hour….did I forget to say “thank you”? Did I say something in a teasing manner and accidentally offend? Did I insult a relative? And so on.

Zipping around the Internet yields some interesting comments on TST. A blogger named Ken Savage [] writes: “Probably at one time or another you have been either on the giving or receiving end of a silent treatment, otherwise known as the cold shoulder. What you probably didn’t realize is that the silent treatment is a form of ostracism. When someone is ostracized it affects the part of their brain called the anterior cingulate cortex. Do you know what the anterior cingulate cortex does? The anterior cingulate cortex is the part of the brain that detects pain. When you give someone the silent treatment you are causing that person physical pain. Simply by ignoring someone else’s existence you can inflict pain on them.”

I haven’t checked Mr. Savage’s credentials (this is a blog post, not an academic research paper), but his hypothesis sounds exactly right to me. In days gone by, ostracism from one’s community was one of the worst forms of punishment. And remember, when the friar tells Romeo of the prince having decreed banishment, Romeo responds that he’d rather be dead than banished. To be declared invisible can literally be a fate worse than death.

In fact, at we learn from Professor Linda Roberts of the University of Wisconsin that “…verbal withdrawal can be just as destructive to a relationship as actual violence. Psychological abuse is abuse.”

Karen Stephenson, writing for suite101, cites Kip Williams, Ph.D. on the effects of being ignored: “…[T]here are detrimental effects to physical health as well as the mental health. Those who have been ill-treated on a repeated basis report a sense of not belonging, loss of control, low self esteem and unworthiness. They also have increased stress levels, headaches and depression.”

And my power theory is confirmed: “Abusers will often withhold conversation and acknowledgment of their spouses’ existence to gain control.”

As in my example with the co-worker, TST isn’t inflicted exclusively by spouses. Parents, siblings and friends have been known to turn a cold shoulder as well.

If you ever give The Silent Treatment — stop it. And if you are the one who is made to feel nonexistent then, at a minimum, recognize that it’s not your fault. Most important, if this is happening in your own home — where you are supposed to feel safe and loved and supported — then you may have some difficult decisions to make.

Because no one deserves The Silent Treatment. Do you hear me? You, yes, you — I’m talking to you. There are too many warm shoulders in the world for you to settle for a cold one. Declare your visibility.

October 17, 2009

“Hundreds Dead in Huge Quake” – Memories of the Loma Prieta Earthquake on the 20th Anniversary

Filed under: Ann the Columnist:Essays — Ann @ 5:43 pm

Tuesday, October 17, 1989, was a stunningly gorgeous autumn day in the San Francisco Bay Area. Blue skies, mild temperatures, and not a breath of wind. Sitting at my desk in a Kensington law office and typing Wills and Trusts all day, I watched the clock creep ever closer to 4:30 p.m., when I would be set free from estate-planning. I told my co-worker, “Neal and I are going to have a great evening!” I don’t think my now-husband Neal and I had any specific plans – other than to follow the score of the unprecedented SF Giants vs. Oakland Athletics World Series — but we’d only been boyfriend-girlfriend about a year at that point, and newly-bonded couples can make any night great.

At 4:30 I got in my truck and made the quick trip to Neal’s and my funky Berkeley apartment. Located in a lock-your-doors neighborhood a few blocks west of Martin Luther King Jr. Way, it was a two-storey wood-frame structure. I liked to say it had “character,” carefully omitting what it lacked. Neal’s and my apartment was on the ground floor; the stairs to the second floor were tacked to the outside of the building – whenever anyone went up, the entire staircase rattled and shook our apartment. It was a noise we got used to.

Once home, I got ready to go pick up Neal, who was working downtown at Berkeley Sauna. At 5:04 p.m. I was in our tiny bathroom, brushing my teeth, when I heard someone pounding up the staircase. The apartment shook. But something was different. A very big person was going up the staircase. A monster. What?! Oh my God – it’s an earthquake!

They say the shaking lasted just 15 seconds. In that time, I carefully made my way from bathroom to living room to front door by holding on to each door frame along the way, because walking was difficult. My goal – contrary to all expert advice – was to get the hell out of that building. I did not want to be inside when floor two became floor one.

Outside, people were streaming out of homes. Several blocks over, in downtown Berkeley, I saw columns of black smoke reaching skyward. My sole focus was getting to Neal. I parked and went into the Sauna; he and his co-workers were fine, if unnerved. An out-of-town customer asked him, “So does this happen often around here?” I was to discover in the days to come that there was a curious levity among the survivors – no doubt a manifestation of the great relief that, though bad, it hadn’t been worse.

Still, we emerged from that 15 seconds as changed people amidst an altered landscape. The smoke I had seen was coming from a nearby automotive shop which had erupted into flames during the shaking. At the Sauna, one of the massage therapists, a serene, centered, and gorgeous African-American woman, told me she guessed she’d go get on BART and head home to Oakland and, though I didn’t say anything, I was both horrified at and in awe of this woman who, after the biggest quake of our lifetimes, was voluntarily going down into the bowels of the earth in the face of certain aftershocks. She was unfazed; silently, I swore never to ride BART again. (I did, however, several weeks later. After the freeway collapses, BART became the best transportation option.)

Back at the apartment, Neal and I started assessing damage. Embarrassingly, our worst “damage” was that our cable went out. We still had phone service and shortly after we returned I got a call from my then-16-year-old son, Wayne, who was living with friends in Vallejo. He was alone in the house when the shaking began; it was the first time I’d heard him sounding scared and vulnerable since he’d taken a header off his bike as a preteen and had ended up in the ER. After mutual assurances that we were all okay and checking with other family members and friends around the Bay (every post-quake phone call ended in “I love you!”), I hung up and went outside again.

Our young neighbor, Kirsten, lived in the corner apartment and was freaking out. She was 20; I was 36 – her terror gave me purpose because I could at least play the Poised Adult and calm her down. She still had cable and we gathered in her doorway – no one wanted to be inside a building – to watch in silent disbelief as the first images of the Cypress freeway and Bay Bridge collapse were televised. As we stood there, an aftershock hit – strong, but not damage-inducing.

While I comforted Kirsten, Neal turned off the gas to both our apartment building and to the house belonging to two women next door – only to turn it back on again when PG&E started warning that gas shouldn’t be turned off unless we actually smelled it.

I will never forget the urgent, uncomfortable feeling which was almost a craving – a desire to Do Something. To make things better. As the evening progressed we kept updated as to the Cypress, the Bay Bridge collapse, the Marina fires, and the twin horrors in Santa Cruz and Watsonville. My dear friend Bonita was living in Santa Cruz at the time – I don’t even remember how or when I found out that she was okay. We also followed news of the aborted World Series game – later I heard the difficult story of how a former boss who’d been at Candlestick that day had to make his way home without bridge access. What would have been a 1/2 hour trip expanded into four, five, six hours. As awful as it sounded, it paled in comparison to the story I read of a woman who walked home, barefoot, from the Financial District to Marin County. There were many such stories.

Friends who still had power kept checking in – this predated Internet access and cell phone usage so we were all relying on Ma Bell. Later in the evening, Neal’s buddy John called us and made me smile when he signed off by urging Neal to “keep Ann safely underneath you.” That night I slept – not very soundly – wearing my jeans and boots. I was terrified of aftershocks. In the morning, Neal and I decided to walk around Berkeley because, again – there was a constant sense of needing and wanting to move. A chronic nervous tension prevailed – within self, within cities, all over the Bay Area.

Passing a news stand, we saw the paper which the San Francisco Chronicle managed to eke out, despite that there was no power at their Fifth and Mission offices and they had to print off-site. The top of the paper, in all-capitals, read “EXRA EXTRA EXTRA,” and the headline was grim: “HUNDREDS DEAD IN HUGE QUAKE.”

We bought the paper and it’s currently stashed in a box in our closet. This morning I discovered that the entire 16-page edition of that Chronicle can now be purchased on eBay for $4.99. Since “only” 67 people died in the Loma Prieta quake, the headline is right up there with “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

Slowly, routine found its way back to our lives. I stopped sleeping in my clothes. The World Series went forward and nobody cared. In the days following Loma Prieta, many of us wanted to classify it as the “Big One” that we’d been awaiting for decades, wanting to believe that, finally, it was over, and we could relax. But experts almost immediately dispelled us of that notion, reminding us that it was only a taste. The legendary Herb Caen perfectly captured their prediction by calling Loma Prieta “The Pretty Big One.”

I’d hate to see bigger. On October 27, 1989, the Chronicle ran this headline: “WE ARE THE NEW SURVIVORS,” which underscores the truth that San Francisco Bay Area residents – echoing the spirit of the Wild West – are a sturdy lot. We know our future may hold another day of rising smoke and falling bridges. And we know that, meanwhile, life goes on.

Dedicated to the 67 men, women and children who lost their lives in the Loma Prieta Earthquake. May their memories be for a blessing.

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