Coming Home

I missed April Fool’s Day, and I had a good gag to post, so I guess that means I’ll be blogging for at least another year. No! That’s not supposed to be a joke!

It shouldn’t be a problem because I’ve decided I really like this blogging experiment. It’s different than any writing I’ve done before. When I write an article, I try to follow rules like ‘remember the lead sentence of the paragraph is like the engine of a train and all the sentences (cars) that follow have to be going in the same direction,’ and I pepper it with citations for weight and credibility. In an article I would never have written “as catchy as a nosebleed” or used dialog to illustrate a point. I chop out every extraneous word. On the other hand, when I write in my journal I say whatever I want without checking facts or worrying about whose feelings I’m going to hurt. I write pages of stream-of-consciousness blather, punctuated occasionally with commas and periods. Nobody wants to read that, except maybe a shrink. Blogging lies somewhere between the two.

And I like that place. Blogging gives me an opportunity to try to make coherent sentences out of what emerges from my thoughts and reflections. I can explore whatever I want, newsworthy or not. Writing something down in this quasi-permanent (okay, so that’s debatable) and totally public format means taking care with what I say and making sure I have my facts straight – things I would do writing an article – but I still have the freedom to speak my mind and let my own voice come out. I can be irreverent. I can experience the pleasure of writing for its own sake. Naturally I want everyone to like what I write — but I realized somewhere after the tenth post that this is not possible. Or even desirable. And I let it go. Powerful stuff.

I came home yesterday after two weeks in the US. On the flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt, I sat next to a buxom Hungarian woman who was kind enough to share her philosophy of life with me.

“I figure there are idiots in America, idiots in Hungary. Good people in America, good people in Hungary. It’s the same. World is the same everywhere.”

“How’d you come to live in Oceanside?” I ask.

“My husband came home from work one day, said we could live in California, Australia, England, Switzerland, Germany, and I said, okay let’s go to California.”

On Lufthansa, drinks are free. I start with a Campari and soda, something I’ve always wanted to try. The bright red color, like grenadine syrup, intrigues me. My companion takes the better choice, red wine. Then we have more wine with dinner while discussing her career with J.C Penney’s and the Men’s Wearhouse, her move into wedding wear, and her brief stint at Lowe’s during which she gained the expertise and equipment to paint her entire condo. About five years ago her husband died, as did several relatives in Hungary. Now that she’s over the shock, she’s going back to Hungary to deal with all the paperwork. Her twin daughters went to UCSD and are software engineers, and they both have wonderful California boyfriends. Judging from her enthusiastic interaction with the toddler in the seat in front of us, she’s more than ready to become a grandma.

After dinner, she follows my lead as I indulge myself in a Bailey’s on ice. Things are improving, although there are still seven and a half hours to go to Frankfurt. There are no seat-back video monitors and the movie has not yet come on. She fills the time telling me how she got laid off from the Men’s Wearhouse.

“This girl came, to be my boss, she was very younger than me, 24,” she said. “I’m fine with that, no problem. Then she say she has new boyfriend. She’s all excited. He was forty-eight! Can you believe that? He has two children from previous marriage. I told her this is no good.”

“That’s 24 years’ difference!” I calculate quickly. “Not good at all.” Much mutual head-shaking.

“Then she starts to find ways I am not working well. Complains about me. I say, this is not Serbia! You cannot do this kind of thing in America! She has her boss call and tell me I am no longer employee. In America!”

“Idiots everywhere,” I say sympathetically. She agrees. “It’s like I say, idiots in America, idiots in Serbia, good people in America, good people in Serbia. Both.” We nod together, contemplating the global nature of human goodness and idiocy.

When we finally get to Frankfurt, we go our bleary-eyed separate ways, she on to Belgrade, me to Geneva. While waiting in an interminable line for security screening, I meet a Belgian who works for Roche in Basel, where I learn that one kilo of cellphone generates 15 kilos of waste, and one kilo of laptop computer generates 150 kilos of waste! I feel guilty for the cellphone I lost hiking in the Alps last fall. Maybe I should have gone back and searched for it.

Roche has drastically reduced the amount of waste in its manufacturing, he tells me. “Everyone thinks it will cost more, but it doesn’t.” I ask him what Roche is doing about the problem of pharmaceuticals in the water supply. People peeing out all those antibiotics and vitamins and medications that aren’t absorbed by their bodies. Hermaphroditic fish. Frogs with no legs.

He nods knowingly. “The real problem is animal antibiotics,” he says, neatly dodging the question. We contemplate fields full of cowshit running off into streams and rivers, the unabsorbed antibiotic load infiltrating into the world’s water supply, messing with our metabolisms. He admits he travels way too much by airplane, has a terrible carbon footprint. “My wife says she doesn’t know whether she should be unpacking or packing my suitcase.” I refrain from the obvious comeback that he should pack and unpack his own damn suitcase and cut the poor woman a break.

It’s good to be home, to catch the train to Morges, to walk in and find my house clean, fresh flowers on the coffee table, the lawn mowed, the daffodils in full bloom. They must have missed me! I dole out the Jelly Bellies and smile at the subtle details that tell me the house has been inhabited by males – streaks on the countertops, laundry piled up in the basement (although most of it is miraculously clean!), mail piled up near the front door waiting to be opened. A new range of men’s shampoo and shower gel has mysteriously taken up residence in our shower (my husband is a sucker for niche marketing). We’re out of ice cream, but there’s a good stash of beer in the basement.

After a long, deep sleep, punctuated once by a slightly panicked awakening in which I have no idea where I am, I’m up and over jet lag (without the aid of Jelly Bellies) and off for a morning run along the lake with a friend. Life is good!

Crowd Pleasing

On a ride into San Francisco one day my brother pulls out his smartphone, hooks it into a cradle on the dashboard. So let’s check out the traffic on Google maps! Up pops the live traffic situation — the freeway is green if it’s smooth sailing, yellow if it’s slow and – 10 points if you can guess the color – if it’s stop-and-go.

How do they figure that out? Does the satellite look down, count the number of cars or their speed, judge the traffic flow, and upload the color? No, Dave tells me, it’s a clever app that takes advantage of the fact that most Californians have two things in common: they have GPS-enabled smartphones and they’re obsessed with avoiding traffic jams. Here’s an explanation of how it works from an official Google blog back in August 2009:

When you choose to enable Google Maps with My Location, your phone sends anonymous bits of data back to Google describing how fast you’re moving. When we combine your speed with the speed of other phones on the road, across thousands of phones moving around a city at any given time, we can get a pretty good picture of live traffic conditions.

Continue reading

Aftershocks

The world feels so unstable. The earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan, the volcanoes coming to life in Hawaii. Here in Switzerland, someone I barely knew but had hoped to see again soon passed away in the night. How can that happen? Now I will never know her. All that she had not yet said, not yet done, not yet written, will never come to be.

My teenagers are moving into their own lives. I’m racked with doubt. Did I do what needed to be done? I’m standing at the side of the road, watching them head off, full of hope and trepidation. I want to go with them, patch up their problems, organize their backpacks, take inventory of the contents of their hearts. But I can’t. This is their road to take, not mine. Continue reading

Placebo

“They can conquer who believe they can…” – Virgil (70 BC – 19 BC)

I started to write a long complicated post about placebos yesterday, because 1) I was worrying that this blog was in need of some Legitimate Content, 2) I am really interested in the placebo effect and 3) my brother Dave chose it when I gave him a choice between placebos, a juicy local murder mystery and a post about attention span. (I’m not entirely sure he paid attention long enough to get past the first choice…) Continue reading