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Signs Of Life

Columns by Pamela Majteles

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Originally published October 29, 2010

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay

If I were stranded on a desert island, and I could take only one thing, I know exactly what I’d bring.

It would be one of my friends. Not one particular friend, any of them. Whoever it was, she’d undoubtedly bring a bottle of sunscreen and extra water to share. Then she’d figure out how else to help.

If it were my friend Roxane, she’d probably bring along her extra deep Igloo ice chest. (It could come in handy for keeping things cold on a desert island.) Roxane has brought it before to keep my pasta salad cold for my daughter’s volleyball team at all-day tournaments.

Of course, if I were stranded on an island, my kids would be there too, because you never find yourself alone if you’re a mother. But it wouldn’t feel like I was in over my head, because this friend of mine would always be ready to lend a hand.

For instance, if Betty was there, and one of my kids needed to be somewhere (maybe the other side of the island), but I had to stay with the other kids, she’d offer to drive. Not only would Betty drive my daughter, as she does all the time, she would also treat her to dinner on the way home.

If I needed something that I didn’t have on hand, I could count on this friend of mine to come through with it. Chafing dish, kid’s ski clothes, latest parenting book, recipe for brisket. (Who knows what I might need on the island.) If she didn’t have it, she’d find someone who did.

If it were my friend Justine, she’d take it a step further. I wouldn’t even have to say what I needed, because she would just know, like when my son broke his foot and she brought over rolls and rolls of sticky plastic wrap to keep his cast dry in the bath.

Being stuck on a desert island wouldn’t deter me from looking for advice and recommendations on everything. Family travel tips for overseas? Chiropractor for a teenager? Hairdresser who cuts a great bob? Martial arts instructor? Hebrew tutor? Piano teacher? Andrea, Cathy, Elena, and Sheila – if any of these friends were along, they’d go out of their way to share everything they knew.

On that island, I’m sure there’d come a day when I was feeling a little under the weather, but life and its duties would still go on. If I had a friend along, I know I’d get through it just fine. If it were my friend Maria, she’d offer to bring over soup, as she has done before.

Some days, when I’ve got my head down, juggling all of life’s duties, it can feel as if I’m alone on an island. But then I hear from one of my friends, and I know I’m not alone anymore.

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Jan 14, 2011


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Originally published October 1, 2010

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay

I try to choose my words carefully, no matter what the occasion. Whether I’m responding to an Evite for a child’s birthday, ladies’ night-out or swanky soiree, I ponder what to write in the comment box that accompanies my reply.

I’d prefer to simply click “Yes ” and be done with it. But invited guests have the option of including a comment and, because everyone does it, you run the risk of appearing less than enthusiastic if you opt out. The lyrics “every party has a pooper” come to mind. (“And that’s why we invited you.”)

So I furrow my brow and consider what to write. Like everyone else, I read the comments of others, not just because I’m nosy, but I might pick up some ideas. For example, I could go over the top with good manners, like one guest who writes: “Thank you for the invitation. I’ll be there. Thank you again.”

Maybe I could even take it a step further by adding yet another “thank you”. Three of a kind beats two of a kind. But that seems a bit showy. I certainly want to be polite, but I’m more comfortable being understated. Perhaps I’ll go with a simple “Thanks” somewhere in my comment.

Many guests throw around the exclamation point, something else I can’t see myself doing. The comments vibrate with “I can hardly wait!” and “I’m so excited!” and “How fun!” Probably the last time I used exclamation points with such abandon was back in middle school, when signing friends’ yearbooks with messages like “Stay cute!” and “I’ll never forget you!” and “Don’t ever change!”

But I don’t think I can carry it off anymore. (The same is true with the Dorothy Hamill haircut I wore back then.) I’d like to convey enthusiasm, but I’d tone it down a bit. No attention grabbing punctuation. I could let my words do the talking, such as “It sounds like fun”. Period.

When you come right down to it, all the guests’ comments end up sounding pretty much the same, because there are only so many ways you can say, “Yep, I’m coming.” I have to resist my own impulse to try and come up with something original. At a minimum, I don’t want to write exactly what the other guy does.

So I review the comments carefully. I note a handful of “Looking forward to it”. I also see “It’s on my calendar” and “I’m planning on it”. And the perennial “I’ll be there with bells on!”

It looks like all the standards are taken already. When that happens, I resort to the common practice of Evite guests, which is to take what others have written and alter it ever so slightly, by changing the word order or punctuation.

I mull it a little more before finally deciding what to write. Perhaps not “I’ll be there with bells on!” But “I’ll be there with bells on.” Period.

And “Thanks”.

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Jan 14, 2011

Old Friends

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Originally published September 17, 2010

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay

Lately, I haven’t been treating my friends very well. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t taken the time to see them or even thought about them at all.

That’s something Fred and Ted, two of my oldest friends, would never do. They always put their friends first. I’ve watched them do it time and time again in Big Dog . . . Little Dog, a book I repeatedly read to my son when he was in preschool.

But my son has moved on to kindergarten, and his taste in reading has moved on too. He’s no longer interested in spending time with Fred and Ted or our other old buddies such as Carl, Bingo, Jack, Owen, George, Jeremy and Little Quack, all characters in books we used to enjoy. So we’re shutting them out.

It’s a rotten way to treat your friends. You’d think my son and I would know better considering all the lessons on friendship we’ve gotten from these books. But to be fair, we’ve never read about a situation quite like this – how to tell your friends you’ve outgrown them and you’re moving on. A little awkward, I’d say.

I’ve been trying to imagine how our old pal, Carl, would take it, if we said we were ready to move on. He wouldn’t get too worked up. Carl’s a Rottweiler with the attitude that life’s too short to worry about other people’s issues. (Every year for him is seven dog years, you know.) He does exactly what he wants all the time. If Carl wanted to still be friends, regardless of what we said, we’d still be friends. Pretty doggone simple.

Our old buddy, Bingo, would probably see it as a challenge, if we said we were looking for new friends. A little friendly competition, she’d say. When Bingo races cars, she does everything she can to win. She works harder than the other racers, who happen to be male, in order to get ahead. (Yep, typical.) I can’t see Bingo letting anyone edge her out.

I don’t think we’d run afoul of our duck pal, Little Quack, if we said it was time for us to go. In fact, he’d do everything he could to help, because no one’s as good a friend as Little Quack. He always treats others the right way. As far as friends go, Little Quack swims circles around everyone.

Boy, just thinking about all these guys makes me miss them. I can’t imagine better buddies. After spending so much time together over the years, I’ve come to really know them.

At the moment, I’m still getting to know our new friends. My son is into reading Greek myths right now. They’re the classic tales of gods, such as Zeus who tosses thunderbolts around when he gets mad, and goddesses like Athena who has been known to turn others into spiders when she’s crossed.

Truthfully, I’m finding it a little hard to warm up to this crowd. Also, I can’t help thinking when the time comes, they won’t make it as easy to say goodbye.

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Jan 14, 2011

Italian Flavor

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Originally published August 20, 2010

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay

Since returning with my family from Italy, I’ve been trying to capture the flavor of Italy at home. But I can’t quite grasp it.

It’s as tough as trying to grasp slices of eggplant off the grill, as they slip from my tongs, while I’m attempting to prepare a classic dish we enjoyed on our trip. In Italy, they call it “verdure alla griglia” which is essentially grilled vegetables.

Food not only sounds better in Italy, but it tastes better too. Of course, we’d eaten grilled vegetables before going to Italy. But the ones we ate there didn’t look or taste like what we’ve had before. Trying to duplicate this dish at home is proving to be a rather large challenge, sort of like trying to paint a copy of the Sistine ceiling on my kitchen ceiling.

According to my family, on my first attempt, I cut the eggplant too thick. “In Italy, it was sliced so thin, I could see the sunset on the Tiber shining through it,” my husband reminisces.

It’s a struggle trying to cut the eggplant just right. When I slice it too thinly, it crumples like a used tissue. Other times, I cut it unevenly around, so it’s thin on one side and thick on another, resembling a flat tire on a Vespa.

My family tells me that my plate just doesn’t look like an Italian one, even though I use exactly the same vegetables. “Remember how the colors of the eggplant, zucchini, pepper and onion, drizzled with olive oil, shimmered like Venetian glass,” sighs my daughter.

I try arranging the vegetables in different ways. Sometimes I create circular layers, reminiscent of the Roman Coliseum, or occasionally I separate by color. But in the end, it all runs together like two flavors of gelato on a hot summer day.

Most vexing of all, I can’t seem to achieve the taste my family remembers. There’s no doubt that the vegetables in Italy were seasoned simply with salt, pepper, and olive oil. So I ask myself, “Shouldn’t it be easy?” “Si” I reply in Italian.

But the answer is really “No”. “I think you need to use more olive oil,” my daughter critiques, “or maybe more salt.”

In my effort to achieve authentic Italian flavor, I’m considering all components. Maybe it’s a matter of sea salt versus kosher. Possibly I have to grind the pepper myself rather than using ground pepper from the supermarket. Perhaps I need to try one of the dozens of Italian olive oils available.

I’m not giving up, although I’m beginning to wonder if it’s even possible to duplicate. There’s an essence to the Italian life that’s hard to define. But I know it has something to do with Italy’s mesmerizing history and culture. And with eating grilled eggplant on the Tiber at sunset.

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Jan 14, 2011


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Originally published May 14, 2010

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay

Like all busy parents, I try hard to fit everything in each day.

So when my daughter’s teacher gives me five kids to drive on the school field trip, I gulp knowing my car can only fit four. “Oh no,” I respond, explaining my predicament.

The teacher has my number. She has seen my type before – someone who needs a little extra help with the math. “If we have two cars with seven seats each, one car with six seats and another car with four seats, how many seats do we have?” she quizzes me.

Rapidly running the numbers in my head, I come up with 24. Knowing that’s the same number of students we’re trying to transport, I’m certain I can figure this out. After a quick survey of the other parents driving, I find the one empty seat. Problem solved.

With growing kids, finding shoes that fit is another kind of problem. “My toes hurt,” complains my four-year-old son. I remove his shoes and try to put on a different pair. I push. I pull. I pant. Despite multiple attempts, none of his shoes seem to fit –it’s as if his feet have grown overnight. The only solution is to let his toes hang out. So even though it’s a crisp 50 degrees, I tell him what he is always dying to hear: “You can wear your sandals”.

Some days, it’s about fitting everything into the schedule, which is especially true after school when the commitments really stack up. On an average day, my schedule with three kids reads: 3:20 PM dentist appointment; 4:00 PM Hebrew school; 5:00 PM volleyball practice in Berkeley for one kid; 7:00 PM volleyball practice in Lafayette for another kid. Then I have to factor in pick-up times (the former are drop-off times), making dinner, homework help, and other daily chores.

Often, something unexpected comes along. “I have to bring homemade cookies to school tomorrow for a bake sale,” drops my daughter en route from the dentist appointment to volleyball practice. I furrow my brow, as I think about how to fit this into the schedule. I conclude that I can bake cookies some time between 9:00 PM volleyball pick-up and 5:30 AM wake-up the next morning when my alarm clock rings.

With all I attempt to fit in every day, I’m grateful when anyone tries to help. For instance, when I ask for a medium cup of coffee at Peet’s, I appreciate the barista’s question as she takes my commuter coffee cup: “Are you sure you don’t want a large coffee – I’m pretty sure it will fit in here?”

After staying up late to bake cookies the night before, I’m feeling tired. So I reply, “Yes, give me a large.”

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Jan 14, 2011


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Originally published April 30, 2010

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay

I admit it. I was scared. It was time to renew my driver’s license in person at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

It wasn’t the reputation of the DMV – long lines, endless waits, bureaucratic service – that had scared me but people’s reactions when I mentioned I was going there. “Oh no,” a friend responded, her eyes doubling in size, resembling the hubcaps on my SUV. Similar reactions from others had persuaded me that the actual experience might be even worse than the reputation.

“What a nightmare,” I muttered, as I pulled my SUV into the DMV parking lot on Claremont Avenue in Oakland, packed with so many cars that it brought to mind the number of Toyotas recalled recently. My eyes began flitting left and right in search of a place to park. To my amazement, I spotted an open parking space right in front.

Stepping out of the car, I glimpsed the long line of people snaking out the front door. “Horrible,” I groaned. I went to the end of line and strained my eyes to read the sign ahead. It indicated that anyone with an appointment should go to the window on the left. Following the recommendation on the DMV’s website, I had scheduled an appointment, so I headed to the other window. Surprisingly, no one was in line there.

Standing at the window, I looked warily at the woman working behind it. “Do you have an appointment?” she asked politely. I replied affirmatively and she quickly found me on a sheet of paper in her hand. She gave me a number and said, “It shouldn’t be too long.” Catching me off guard, she gave me a big smile.

Looking for an empty chair, I surveyed the overcrowded waiting area. “Awful,” I grumbled. But I spied an empty chair with a big man on one side and a woman with two young children on the other side. The chair was hardly visible between the bulk of the man and the children who were playing in front of it. I hiked over to the chair and started to sit down. Unexpectedly, the man slid his chair over to give me room, while the woman pulled her children out of the way and gave me a warm hello.

I began focusing on the numbers flashing on monitors. B051, F028, G011. The odd combination of letters and numbers didn’t suggest an obvious sequence, so I had no idea when my number would come up. “Oh boy,” I muttered. Unbelievably, my number started flashing on the screen.

Another friendly and efficient person was ready to help me. It took all of three minutes, and then she sent me to another line to get my picture taken. When I saw the five people in line ahead of me, I mumbled, “This should take awhile.” But in a matter of minutes, I was at the front of the line and ready to have my photo taken. As the woman operating the camera took the photo, she said “That’s a great picture”.

I was starting to really like this place.

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Jan 14, 2011

Small Talk

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Originally published March 19, 2010

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay

In parenting, no lesson is too small.

That’s why I’m coaching my son on how to make small talk. He wants to play with someone he hasn’t played with before at preschool, and he doesn’t know quite how to start.

“Mention the Batman book you got at the library,” I advise him. Engaging in small talk is the ideal way to break the ice when you’re trying to get to know someone. It’s exactly what I do when mingling at a cocktail party with people I don’t know. If there were a class for it, you’d call it Party Chatter 101.

The expression on my son’s face tells me he’s not impressed with my advice. He may have a point — some small talk might be, well, too small. He could use a little more juice to get things going.

I try again, “Ask him if he likes Batman.” This would be a woman’s approach at conversation. Either by nature or socialization, women know how to be engaging. By asking others’ for their opinions, you flatter them. As a social technique, you can’t beat it, particularly when you really listen to what a person has to say – something else women tend to do well.

But my son doesn’t appear to be listening, so I have my doubts about his success with this approach. It occurs to me I may be aiming too high, not focusing enough on my audience.

So I throw out, “What about asking – who’s your favorite superhero?” Here’s an example of an open-ended question, which I’ve heard experts tout as a surefire way to get any kid talking. Furthermore, in my experience, when the larger subject of superheroes comes up, little boys can really rev up. Just like the Batmobile.

However, if there’s a strong difference of opinion, I wonder if this surefire question could become incendiary. Can someone on Batman’s side of the aisle find common ground with Ironman’s side? One thing I know for sure – never ever mix politics with small talk.

I’m starting to think I could use a little help. (Maybe a superhero can rescue me.) But my son saves the day by coming up with his own answer. “I’m just going to ask him to play,” he says.

“You’re right,” I reply. “Don’t make a big deal out of it.”

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Jan 14, 2011

Bird Watching

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Originally published March 5, 2010

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay

Far out in the middle of Lake Merritt, I spot a Canvasback duck gliding through the water. A little closer to shore, I see a Lesser Scaup duck, an American Coot, and a Canada Goose. Even closer, on the walking path in front of me, I see a Big Straw Hat woman, a Cal Sweatshirt man and a Double Stroller mother.

Whenever I walk around Lake Merritt, I find myself cataloguing the variety of bird and human species that make up the rich habitat.

“Oh look,” I say to myself. “There’s a Peet’s Coffee Cup man holding hands with a Noah’s Bagels woman.”

It’s common to witness signs of love at the lake. I also see a Silver Hair Senior man shuffling arm in arm with a Silver Hair Senior woman. Out on the water, I spot a Mallard male duck with its showy green head and a Mallard female duck with its drab brown head swimming together on their own. (They say that Mallards mate for life.)

But at the lake, they don’t only come in twos. I watch as five Seriously Toned Young men run by laughing and jawing, followed by four Fancy Athletic Clothes women deep in conversation. And on the lake, a large group of Double Crested Cormorants and Herring Gulls are having a confab of their own, lined up on the log booms that float in the water.

Not everyone who comes to the lake is looking for company. Some are engaged in solitary pursuit. I notice a Huffing Puffing woman running by herself, passing a Tuned Out man wearing earphones attached to a MP3 player. On the shore, I see a lone Western Gull wrestling a clam shell to get at what’s inside. (The way he’s guarding the clam tells me he wants it all to himself.)

But those who appear to be having the most fun aren’t alone. I pass a Preening Proud father with a Teeny Tiny baby nestled in a chest pack. I go by a Pampering Proud woman holding the leash of an Itsy Bitsy dog wearing a hot pink coat. Overhead I hear the honking of Canada Geese as they fly together in formation, looking like a glider swooping through the sky.

For the most part, the bird and human species don’t mix. Perhaps it’s one of those unspoken social rules — everyone should stick with their own kind. But this is Oakland, so it doesn’t surprise me to find someone who challenges the social rules.

Near the Rotary Nature Center at the lake, I notice a Yellow Cardigan woman standing in front of a fence that protects birds that reside behind it. She seems to be conversing with the birds using a blend of human and bird sounds.

As I study her more closely, I’m struck by her long neck that arches like that of a Canada Goose and her nose that has a bit of a hooked tip like a Double Crested Cormorant. It occurs to me that I really need to revise the way I catalogued her. I’d say she’s more of a Yellow Double Crested Goose. Just another of the species you find at Lake Merritt.

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Jan 14, 2011


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Originally published January 22, 2010

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay

Yeah, I know what they say. When you have a problem, there are no easy answers, no cheap fixes and no magic solutions.

But that’s not what Robert says when I tell him about the crack on my living room wall. Robert works at Grand Lake Ace Hardware on Grand Avenue, where I always go to get problems off my chest.

I describe the crack to Robert: “It starts at the corner of the room, climbs up about nine inches and then drops precipitously, like those cliffs overlooking the ocean on Highway 1.”

Robert doesn’t appear too ruffled by what I’m telling him. Without hesitation, he leads me to the back of the store, where he hands me a jar of spackle and explains what to do: “Apply it with a putty knife, let it dry, and then you can paint it.” Well, that sounds easy. At $1.79 a jar, it’s also cheap.

It feels as if a huge boulder, like the sort that might fall off a cliff on Highway 1, has been lifted from my shoulders. I won’t need to call a contractor, who’d say he’ll try to come next Tuesday at 3:00, when he’ll actually come next Friday around 11:30 (when I’m not home). I also won’t get the contractor’s bill that’d make me wish I’d opted instead for oral surgery, at the same cost, which I’ve been putting off.

When you find someone who really listens, like Robert, it’s hard to let him go. It’s also hard to stop at just one problem. There’s more, I confess to Robert. “My son threw a football, which turned and twisted like a torpedo, before striking an electrical outlet plate and cracking it.” Robert doesn’t even raise an eyebrow as he directs me to the aisle where I can find a new plate. The cost is 39 cents.

I keep going: “There’s an unsightly scratch on the hardwood floor in my daughter’s room, caused by the metal feet on her bed frame which shift around.”

I give a big exhale as I finish. Robert tells me that I need cushioned rubber cups to put under the feet of the bed, so it doesn’t move. He points me to the rubber cups which cost $2.99 for four.

With all the great advice Robert has given me, I hesitate to bring up the scratch on the floor again. Even I know a problem like that will require redoing the entire floor; sanding and finishing by a professional at a hefty cost. But Robert is marching ahead. He goes to an area which stocks household cleaning products. He grabs a Zenith Tibet Almond Stick and tells me that it will hide any scratches and I won’t even know they’re there. Could this really be – a magic solution?

Don’t let anyone tell you there’s no such thing as an easy answer, a cheap fix, or even a magic solution. You can find them at the hardware store. Just ask Robert.

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Jan 14, 2011

Will Power

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Originally published January 8, 2010

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay

Starting the new year, I’m on a diet. My goal is to consume less online news.

It’s a test of my will power, because I have the bad habit of clicking on every news story that catches my eye while working on other things online. Opening up my home page recently, I noticed the news item “Bay Area highways second-worst in the nation.” No big surprise, but I really wanted to know – where do you find worse highways than here?

However, I have to learn to resist the temptation. I won’t quit reading the news, but I need to limit the times I indulge. No more all-day snacking.

Recently, I’ve really let myself go. It’s not enough to read “Obama hails big victory on health care.” I also have to click on “Health care bill’s winners and losers” which in turn leads me to “Side deals criticized.” I can’t stop at just one.

My lack of self-control can wreak havoc with my schedule. After I drop my son at preschool each day, I have only two and a half hours to write, run errands, fulfill school commitments, and so on. Recently, I lost 26 minutes as I read “Climate change advocates criticize Copenhagen outcome,” followed by “Rapid rate of species loss rising,” and finally “Scientists say earth on track for epic die-off.” I never made it to the grocery store that day.

I know I’m completely out of control when I take time to read stories with no redeeming value. It’s like eating junk food. Although I was able to restrain myself from reading “Tiger Woods hurt in car accident in front of Florida home” and “Tiger Woods cancels yet another meeting with state troopers,” I couldn’t resist reading “More women claim affairs with Tiger Woods.”

But I really have to watch out for certain hard news stories. When I’m in the middle of a something and I stumble upon “Obama to send more 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan,” it stops me in my tracks. It’s difficult to digest, and I suddenly lose my whole focus.

More importantly, a story like this deserves more than a fast read, wedged between other things. And, it won’t go away with one quick click, after I finish reading it.

So, instead of nibbling all day long, I’m trying to read the news just twice a day. I give it my full attention. Take time to chew it over.

Now if only there was a way to make bad news, such as the decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, more palatable. Then maybe I could get rid of this unpleasant taste in my mouth.

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Jan 14, 2011

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