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Signs Of Life

Columns by Pamela Majteles

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Life’s a Beach

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Originally published June 26, 2009

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay

Beach books and summer go together like a bucket and shovel.

Now is the time to dig into a good beach book. I’m talking about a book that is entertaining, but effortless to read, with nothing challenging or edifying. That’s what summer is all about– slacking off and taking it easy.

To go along with the beach books, I’ve come up with the idea of beach hair. If I can relax my reading standards in the summer, surely I can relax my grooming standards too. I’m ready to forgo all the time, effort and hair products that it takes to make my curly hair look presentable. I can let go and, at the same time, just let my hair go. All summer long, I’ll sport a messy windblown look, as if I spent the day at the beach. When an occasion calls for something more, I can stick a flower in my hair like an island native.

While I’m at it, I’ll make beach food, whether I’m headed to the beach or not. I see beach food as a simpler, less fussy approach to feeding my family. When you’re eating at the beach, you’re not particularly concerned about eating all the right food groups. It’s a matter of choosing food that’s easily consumed while sitting in the Indian position on a towel in the sand; food should not be too drippy or temperature-sensitive. For dinners at home this summer, I imagine serving turkey sandwiches with a bag of chips and a fruit roll-up.

I’ll take a similar approach to keeping the house tidy this summer, which I’ll call beach housekeeping. Normally, I’m preoccupied with keeping my house clean and making sure everything is put away. With three kids, it’s an all-consuming effort. But, this summer, I’ll look at everyday at home like a day at the beach. I won’t be bothered by the bundles of stuff left scattered around by everyone or the sand that seems to be everywhere. I’ll just kick back, relax, and sip a cool drink, preferably with an umbrella in it.

To hang onto this beach frame-of-mind all summer, I’ve come up with other ideas. I can wear coconut-smelling sunblock 24/7. (I’ll be sure to reapply it every two hours.) And, instead of putting on my regular old clothes when I get up each morning, I’ll dress in terry cover-ups and flip-flops, no matter where I’m going or what I’m doing.

If I do it right, the summer will feel like one long song by The Beach Boys. I’m thinking “Little Surfer Girl”, “Surf’s Up” and “Surfin USA”. Maybe even a little “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow”.

At this time of year, surfers are ideal role models, because they like to hang loose — their only concern is the next big wave. I have to assume that surfers really believe life is a beach. I believe it, too. At least during the summer.

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Originally published June 12, 2009

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay

“Faster, faster, faster!”

My son’s voice rings out, as he furiously pedals his tricycle, attempting to propel himself faster with every turn of the wheels.

“Slow down!” I respond, doubting my words will have any effect.

No matter how often I invoke these words, they never seem to work. If I’m not yelling the words at my 4-year-old, they’re running through my head in response to how fast time seems to move. For instance, it’s now June, the end of the school year, and I can’t figure out how it came so quickly.

But it isn’t just the school year that zipped by in a flash. I scratch my head wondering how my son is already 4-years-old, when only yesterday he was a baby. It’s also hard to believe that my husband and I have been together for over 25 years. And, traveling faster than the speed of light, I’ve now reached middle-age.

I say again, “Slow down!”

Not only is time moving fast, it moves faster and faster every day. At some point, as I’ve grown older, time started speeding up. It often feels like I’m driving down one of those steep streets in the Oakland hills without any brakes.

“Slow down!” I repeat.

Clearly, what I’m saying isn’t working, so maybe I’m not saying it right. Perhaps I need to work on my delivery, consider other ways of expressing it, such as chanting the words, more like a mantra. In yoga, a mantra is an energy-based sound that produces an actual physical vibration — maybe I just need to get more physical.

“Slow down!” I try again, shaking my arms vigorously around.

Perhaps I need to be peppier. Think cheerleader. I can call out the words with a few jumps and kicks, and a big smile on my face. Or maybe it’s a matter of being more authoritative, and I just need to demand that time does what I say. If these approaches don’t do the trick, I can do a trick. Like a magician, I’ll invoke the magic words while waving my wand.

“Abracadabra. Slow down!”

For the moment, I’m not seeing any results. All I can see is my son pedaling frantically down the street, racing away from me. Just like time.

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All Thumbs

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Originally published May 29, 2009

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay

If human beings were meant to text or twitter, our thumbs would be much smaller. Using only thumbs, while trying to type on a cell phone, is just one of the many challenges with texting.

I only started texting recently and, as a beginner, I’m struggling. While many people now have advanced to “tweeting”, I’m still fumbling with simple texting. Maybe the biggest challenge for me is the texting language. When I get a message from my daughter, I have to read it multiple times before I grasp the meaning, as a result of the abbreviations common in texting.

“gr8 day, 1 some, g2g” texted my daughter recently from a volleyball tournament.

To translate, she was saying, “It was a great day. We won some games. I’ve got to go.”

It reminds me of those tricky personalized license plates on cars that completely distract me while I’m driving. Instead of focusing on what’s important when I’m behind the wheel, such as the teenage driver speeding ahead to cut me off, I’m lost in thought trying to decipher the personalized plate on a car I passed a mile back.

Basically, learning texting language is like learning any foreign language. But, if I’m going to take the time to learn another language, I’d really prefer something other than texting. At least with other languages, such as Spanish, there’s the payoff of the pleasing, melodic sound that comes when you’re finally able to speak it. There’s absolutely nothing melodic in texting language. Instead of “como esta” rolling off your tongue, it’s “hru” (how are you).

There’s also a social rhythm to texting that I haven’t mastered. I’ve found that people expect a certain amount of back and forth in texting that reminds me of warming up on the tennis court with the other guy before playing the game. But, as far as I’m concerned, I’ve come to play and, if it’s done right, I serve all aces and the game is over.

An entirely different challenge is presented by my new cell phone with its texting keyboard. My cell phone moves in two different directions: up and down as a phone or side to side as a texting keyboard. I’ve decided it would be ideal for a person who’s a great multitasker or an Olympic bi-athlete. I’m neither, and I regularly get tripped up moving between making phone calls and texting, like a bi-athlete who falls over her skis while reaching for her rifle.

It may surprise some people to know that many of my peers don’t text or twitter because they view it as a pastime of younger generations with no importance or usefulness to them. To me, it’s very important, because I want to be able to speak a language that my children speak. I see it as another way to communicate with my kids which is sometimes the biggest challenge of all.

So, when my daughter is far away from home and she texts “g2g”, I can reply “bbs”. Be back soon.

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Originally published May 15, 2009

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay

It feels like we’re all just spinning our wheels. There seem to be no easy answers to the tough problems facing us in many areas such as the economy, environment and world affairs.

It’s enough to make your head spin. At least that happens to me, and then I’ve really got to unwind. So, I head over to Montclair village to see the collection of pinwheels planted in front of Montclair Estates on Mountain Boulevard.

I can blow off any problems when standing before this quirky garden. In a 3-by-5 foot plot of dirt in the sidewalk, there are approximately 30 pinwheels catching the breeze and the attention of people passing by. Clustered together in this small space, the pinwheels appear to be bursting out of the ground and elbowing for position.

Like contestants in a beauty pageant, they’re competing on looks. Many of the pinwheels are the traditional dime-store variety with shiny blades and plastic stems filled with pea-sized candy. Some are more homespun, such as the pinwheel with a number 2 pencil as its stem and plain white copy paper for blades. Reigning over all of them is a 4-foot tall pinwheel with two old vinyl records spinning around. Who’s the winner? It’s hard to say.

Other questions spin through my mind: Did these pinwheels sprout from the ground? Do they require much watering? Are they there for the picking?

Niels Dahl-Jensen, one of the proprietors of Montclair Estates, has all the answers. The pinwheel garden, as he calls it, came about by accident. Before there was a pinwheel garden, there was a crack in the sidewalk in front of his store that regularly caused people to have accidents when they tripped over it.

While waiting for the city to fix the sidewalk, Dahl-Jensen set out a construction cone with two pinwheels to try and draw people’s attention to the crack, so they could avoid it. After the city repaired it, Dahl-Jensen didn’t know what to do with the pinwheels. “It seemed kind of sad to toss them,” he said.

So, he decided to stick the two pinwheels in the soil in front of the store. Shortly thereafter, someone stole the pinwheels which led Dahl-Jensen to post a photo of the thief in action, caught on the store’s security cameras, in his front window. Motivated by remorse or perhaps red-handed guilt, this same person returned with two other pinwheels to replace the ones he’d taken. Dahl-Jensen responded by putting up a sign that read, “Pinwheel Garden – Please feel free to plant one . . . but please don’t steal one”. Since then, people have followed his instructions to the letter, leaving pinwheels but never taking them.

On a windy day recently, the pinwheels really put on a show. Twirling and whirling, they were like street performers going all out for the audience. The children in the audience couldn’t resist joining in, spinning on their heels with excitement.

As I watched the pinwheels turning around and around, moving to the beat of the wind, it was hard to believe they could ever stop spinning. But, then the wind died down, and everything was calm.

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Three-Card Monte

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Originally published May 1, 2009

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay

I’m not the perfect mother. If I were perfect, I would hand my clothes over to my teenage daughter whenever she asks to borrow them. But I don’t. Instead I make up fibs, hoping to dissuade her.

“You don’t want to wear my green sweater. It’s really itchy.”

Previously, anything of mine that my daughter wanted, I gladly gave to her. If she desired my last sip of water, I gave it to her, even when I was thirsty. All those times she forgot her umbrella in the drenching rain, I relinquished mine, allowing myself to get wet. Whenever my daughter needed anything in the middle of the night, I was there for her, at the expense of my sleep.

Without any qualms, I’ve given everything I have to her. Until now.

These days, she’s a teenager who wants to borrow my clothes. She’s constantly asking for a scarf, jacket, shirt or sweater of mine. Instead of giving it to her, I waffle: “I think my sweater might be dirty.” Or I hedge: “If my sweater is clean, possibly you could wear it.” Or I just lie: “It’s really itchy.”

These responses come automatically, with no thought or effort, taking me by surprise. I’m discovering a skill that I never knew I had. Perhaps there’s a future for me, setting up a table on the street for a fast game of three-card Monte with people passing by.

I’d really like to respond by shrieking, “No, you can’t have my clothes because they’re mine!” (And I’d stomp my foot at the same time.)

Being a mother, I selflessly give to my kids all the time – it comes with the job and I do it without a second thought. But, every once and awhile, a request comes along that’s just too much.

If I was being honest, I’d tell my daughter, “It will be a snowy day in Oakland before I give my favorite sweater to you.” However, I’m unable to say it, because when I’m not being a selfless mother, I feel like a guilty mother – that comes with the job too.

Until I’m ready to tell it like it is, I’m keeping up the act. So when my daughter asks to wear my peach t-shirt, the one with the perfect fit, I dodge: “I’m not sure where it is.” Or I evade: “I’m unclear which peach shirt you mean.” I even try to distract: “I can’t believe what happened on American Idol last night.”

So far, my behavior hasn’t deterred my daughter from asking. She keeps trying. (I have to believe she’d lose everything at three-card Monte.)

But it could be she knows more than I do. Consider her life time of experience. She has every reason to believe I’d give her the shirt off my back.

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Originally published April 3, 2009

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay

For my recent wedding anniversary, I didn’t want much. I was hoping for a night out with my husband, as well as something really big that glitters.

I got what I wanted when my husband took me to Oakland’s Paramount Theater to see a classic movie. Nothing glitters quite like the Paramount with its opulent art deco styling. Before stepping foot in the theater, you’re treated to a brilliant display of marquee lights, flashing like a showy diamond necklace.

In the theater lobby, there’s plenty more bling. It’s hard not to gape at the gold Egyptian-style figures that line two sides of the lobby’s upper walls. Layers of gold bands decorate the luminous black stone on the lower walls. The elaborate gold railings of two curving staircases rise to the mezzanine, resembling a tiara.

Even the more mundane things sparkle at the Paramount. The bottles of water for sale shimmered under the lobby lights; the packages of popcorn glistened in plastic wrap; and I was struck by the sheen of the crisp white shirts worn by theater employees serving refreshments.

The crowd also sparkled with excitement. I would venture to guess that most people who attend the showing of a classic movie have seen it at least once before. So it’s like anticipating the arrival of an old friend.

But this isn’t just any old friend, when you’re talking about “Casablanca”, “The Philadelphia Story”, or “The Gay Divorcee”, the recent films at the Paramount. Each one of these movies is a real jewel. (Nothing like that old friend from college who left dirty socks lying around the dorm room that the two of you shared.)

Before the movie, an organist plays to entertain the audience, taking a page from movie houses of yesterday. Dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns, the Paramount staff entertains the crowd with games and prizes. Wearing my old jeans, I couldn’t help feeling like I had crashed someone else’s party.

As I sat, waiting for the movie to begin, I reveled in the excess of the theater’s auditorium. On the lavish gold walls and ceiling are images from the Bible and mythology. Extravagant ornamentation is everywhere to be seen.

But the real gem that night was the movie. As the faces of Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart in “The Philadelphia Story” filled the screen at the Paramount, I couldn’t imagine anything more dazzling. It was like the diamond in the tiara.

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Originally published March 13, 2009

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay

Some of what I’ve learned as a parent reminds me of the algebra I learned as a kid. I don’t think I’ll have much use for it in the future.

First, there’s my extensive knowledge of trucks. I’ve read every picture book about trucks ever written, because of my 3-year-old son’s passion for trucks. It’s not the light fare you might think. Many books go to great pains to detail the types, parts and operation of trucks. Now I can effortlessly explain the different equipment on a fire engine or the workings of a piston engine, all at the drop of a gasket.

I’ve also read stories about ducks that drive trucks and cats that drive trucks, not to mention a spotted salamander that drives one too. Whenever a truck drives by me these days, I always look twice.

What I haven’t picked up from books, I’ve learned from my preschooler who is an unerring teacher. When I wrongly name a truck on the road, he corrects me. “That’s a digger, not a scooper.”

I’ve also learned a thing or two about digging in the sport of volleyball, given my teenage daughter plays in a volleyball league. Digging refers to the technique of passing the ball with your forearms. To do it right, you must contact the ball in the middle of your body, keeping your hips below the ball.

Digging can be harder than it sounds, considering your opponents aren’t all that concerned with hitting the ball to you in just the right spot. Some times, it requires some pretty fancy footwork, which replays later in your head while you sleep, sort of like when you try swing dancing for the first time. Although I’m not the one playing volleyball, I wake up some mornings feeling as if I danced the night away.

At night, the facts of famous people’s lives also dance around my head, especially when I’m having trouble sleeping. I blame my ten-year-old daughter who has a keen interest in biographies of people from the past. Whenever she’s caught up in someone’s life, she feels compelled to share it. “Did you know George Washington Carver invented over 300 things made from peanuts?”

I’m not sure what to do with all this miscellaneous knowledge that comes to me through my kids. There are moments I think I could put it to good use. Maybe I could actually fix someone’s truck or someone’s volleyball game. Then I consider the fact that there’s probably a lot I don’t know and, instead of helping, I could end up making a mess of things.

Yep, there are real pitfalls to thinking you know more than you do. I learned that in a book I read about a duck that drives a truck.

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Originally published February 27, 2009

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay

If we don’t get enough rain this winter, I see buckets of trouble ahead. The severe water restrictions we might be facing could require a real hands-on approach to conserving water.

For instance, we may need to have a bucket in hand before heading to the shower, so we can save the excess water that would otherwise go down the drain. I know some people who are already doing it. They use the leftovers for watering houseplants and even outdoor plants if there hasn’t been rain recently.

I foresee some problem with buckets in the bathrooms at my house. It’s a square footage problem in the shower that my daughters share. With so many different bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and fruity-smelling body wash littering the floor of the shower, there’s not a square inch left for your foot, let alone a bucket.

I can envision greater success keeping a bucket in the kitchen, as some people are doing to save leftover water from cooking, or from washing pots and dishes by hand. It makes perfect sense, for example, to save the water used for boiling pasta to water the garden. Considering pasta is pretty much the nightly special at my house, I can see the water really piling up. (Probably I could keep my garden watered, as well as the gardens of all my neighbors up and down the street.)

But the challenge of having a bucket for water in the kitchen will be identifying it in the line-up of buckets, bags and containers already there for other kinds of conservation. In my kitchen, there’s a bucket for composting food waste and a bucket for dirty dishtowels and cloth napkins to be washed later. There are containers for recycling newspapers, magazines, cardboard, paper, metal cans, and plastic. There is a bag for old batteries and old fluorescent bulbs to dispose of them properly. These days, I find discarding things in the right receptacle in the kitchen requires as much concentration as slicing a little lemon with a big knife while trying to avoid my fingers.

Water conservation experts are also recommending we leave buckets or barrels at the bottom of downspouts around our house to collect water when it does rain. This is a good idea, unless you happen to have a 3-year-old running around as I do. Leaving a bucket of water in the backyard for your preschooler to find is like taking off for the weekend and leaving the keys to your Mazerati lying around for your 17-year-old son to find. You can bet there won’t be gas left in the car or water left in the bucket.

For the time being, I prefer not to think about buckets. Right now, my family and I are focusing on using the least amount of water we can: limiting time in showers, running only full laundry and dishwasher loads, and looking into low-flow faucet aerators for the whole house.

And we’re desperately hoping for more rain. Buckets and buckets of rain.

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White Elephant

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Originally published February 13, 2009

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay

As I eyed the eager crowd around me, waiting to get into the preview of the Oakland Museum’s White Elephant Sale, I was having misgivings. My earlier reluctance at coming was flashing in front of me, sort of like an elephant charging at me.

Looking at those people to my left and right, I considered my situation. When it came to rummage sales, I was a novice. But, here I was, standing in line at what has been called the Bay Area’s biggest and best rummage sale. This crowd looked experienced, and I had a feeling they would run right over me.

They certainly wore the shoes for it. I saw people in stripy athletic shoes, well-worn hiking boots and those types of shoes designed for comfort where the proportions always seem slightly off.

The crowd also dressed for the occasion. Everyone here could chant the Bay Area mantra for all seasons: wear layers. They appeared perfectly comfortable standing outside on a cold Sunday morning in the Fruitvale district of Oakland. I could imagine them whipping off a sweater or two, as soon as things started heating up inside the warehouse, where the sale was being held.

By every indication, this crowd would move fast when the circumstances called for it. Despite the early hour, they were energetic, even boisterous. I predicted they would be off and running the moment the doors opened. I watched as a group of people handed off steaming cups of coffee to each other in line, without dropping or spilling, like a smoothly executed baton pass.

I decided it was in my best interest to study the warehouse map of the sale while I waited. If I did some quick cramming, it might give me a leg up. (At the very least, I hoped it would take my mind off how cold I was feeling in the two skimpy layers I wore.) I focused on areas of interest: “Hardware”, “household” and “garden” in the northeast corner. “Books”, “music” and “photography” on the west side, before “electrical” and just past “bric-a-brac”. “Furniture” right smack in the middle.

As I was closing my eyes, trying to memorize locations, I felt a sudden surge of excitement from the crowd. It was followed by the vibration of shuffling feet. I heard a jubilant cry as we started moving toward the open doors.

Once inside the warehouse, everyone shot out in different directions. I watched as a couple rushed to a far wall layered with paintings for sale. Others hurried to tables crammed with toys and games. In front of cases glistening with jewelry, silver and porcelain, people crowded around to get a better look.

I tried wading in cautiously but, before I knew it, I was carried off by a wave of people. I saw a sea of items come rushing at me: Dining tables, linens, arm chairs, desks, books, records, cameras, suitcases, exercise equipment, high chairs. I tried changing direction but still more things kept coming: Coffeemakers, toasters, blenders, margarita mixers, clocks, padded hangers, Easter baskets.

I needed to stop and catch my breath. Appearing like life rafts before me, I saw rows of couches lined up for sale on the warehouse floor. I sank down into one of them, hoping to stem the tide.

Looking around me, I could see the sale was in full swing. Triumphant buyers walked by balancing benches, lamps and end tables. Volunteer workers busily wrapped garden spades, baking racks, and drawer pulls for purchase. The cloth shopping bags that many people carried were beginning to bulge.

Feeling somewhat revived, I got to my feet. I wanted to make sure I did a complete loop of the warehouse, so I saw everything. I worked my way around until I was back at the front where I’d started. Having achieved enough for one day, I headed for the door.

As I was walking out, one of the volunteers called to me, “Don’t forget, the sale takes place all over again the first weekend in March.”

“I’ll be ready,” I replied.

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Originally published January 16, 2009

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay

I don’t have enough fingers to count all of the reasons I like living here in the Bay Area. The fact that we don’t need mittens, at this time of year, is one of the reasons.

If we had to wear mittens or gloves, along with an extra layer of clothing, as people do in colder climates, I think it would add an extra layer of complexity to life. Certainly, it would be even harder to get kids out the door in the morning.

One of my goals during the week is to get my three kids up and out of the house, so they make it to school on time. I wish I could say accomplishing this goal is a breeze. But it’s not. It’s like weathering a snowstorm in Maine.

In fact, getting my teenage daughter out of bed each morning reminds me of digging out after a snowstorm. Every morning, I find her buried under a mound of blankets. I search for an arm or leg that I can grab to wrest her from the avalanche of covers. Just when I think I have her, her body shifts eluding my grasp.

After I succeed in uncovering her, the hard work really begins. Being a teenager, she is as difficult to wake as a hibernating bear in winter. I poke and prod her. I push and pull her. I turn and tousle her. I work up a real sweat trying to get her going in the morning.

By comparison, I have no problem getting my preschooler out of bed, because he’s always up with the dawn’s early light. The difficulty is moving him along in a timely fashion, because children his age are never in a hurry. As I wash and dress him, we inch our way along as if driving behind a snow plow on a single-lane road. When I think we might be picking up speed, he becomes distracted, causing us to grind to a halt.

I know we’ve turned the corner when my son is finally sitting down for breakfast, but there are still roadblocks. As a three-year-old, his interest in eating comes and goes, like the morning frost. He ignores the toast and cereal that I put before him. I up the ante with waffles and syrup, which he still ignores. On the mornings he eats very little, I like to believe he has some food hidden away to eat later, the same as a squirrel in the winter.

In contrast to my other children, my fourth-grader makes the morning routine look easy. She flies out of bed as if she knows just where she’s going, the way a bird does when heading south for the winter. She showers, dresses and eats a full breakfast, all with the greatest of ease. She is my little ray of sunshine, warming me on the coldest of days.

But, at the crucial moment, she freezes up. We’re at the door, it’s time to go, when she remembers what she forgot: Her homework, book report, art assignment or guitar. She takes one more trip upstairs, sometimes two. Watching her, my other two children are reminded of what they forgot.

Most days, I find myself alone at the door waiting to go. As I finger the house keys in my hand, I think how lucky it is we don’t have to remember to wear mittens or gloves, not to mention hats, scarves and boots, as people do in cold climates. We’d never get out the door in the morning.

As the clock ticks away while I wait, I don’t get irritated or anxious. I stay calm using an old visualization technique. I imagine myself some place I’d really like to be: I’m lying on the beach, under the warm sun, running my fingers through the sand.

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