Friday, May 17, 2024


One of more than 100 heart sculptures in San Francisco.
This one is in front of the Kaiser Medical Building in Mission Bay.

I thought I was done with cities when we returned from living in Tokyo and Paris after almost six years. I was tired of the crowds, of trying to fit into different cultures, and of the subtle differences in the taste of chicken and milk. Though I took language lessons, I needed more skills to feel literate. Living in another city was not on my list of places to buy a new home. Wind is my least favorite weather. I knew that San Francisco was windy most of the time.

Once we sold our house, we became vagabonds, testing different possibilities. First an extended stay hotel, then a rental in Aptos near the ocean. We moved from there to two different apartments in the same complex in San Francisco while Bill had successful radiation treatments. 

Each time we moved, we left with memories of the place we vacated. At our old home, we left frequent visits with friends, the garden and wildlife who shared our backyard, my studio and kitchen which were delights to work in and a lot of monthly expenses. At the extended-stay hotel, Bill found a place that he liked, a local sports bar that served his favorite rye Manhattan. In Aptos, we loved being near the ocean and discovering the friendly people and restaurants in town. I connected with a high school friend and a fellow writers' group member who lived in Aptos. 

We weren't done moving yet. We moved to the City, but after two months, we left our first apartment for another in the same complex. We missed the sun streaming through the south-facing windows of our first place but were glad to move away from the noise of the garbage trucks that clanged down the street almost every morning.

Once we moved to our second apartment on Long Bridge Street, we looked in earnest all over the Bay Area for a new home. One day while walking around our neighborhood, we noticed an open house sign in a condominium complex. We couldn't resist taking a look. We met a realtor who in the next couple of weeks guided us to possibilities around the City. We were hooked when we walked into a light-filled condo with a wonderful view of the skyline and still close to the ballparks.

The heart sculpture outside an apartment complex in Mission Bay

 While we are preparing to move to the condo, we think about what we will miss at this apartment: the corner coffee cafe and the friendly servers, the close walk to Gus's Community Market and to Chase Center when the Warriors are in town, the park that runs along Mission Creek, the hummingbirds who flutter at our eighth-floor windows, and the view of the tide ebbing and flowing along the creek, which runs into the Bay. 

I no longer feel that I am done with cities. I am enjoying the theater and museums, walks along the shoreline of the bay, and traveling by bus, streetcar, and BART to explore parts of the City where we have never been. I like the busyness of the streets, but also the ability to rise above the crowds in our quiet apartment where I can watch the seagulls gliding from one point to another. I'm still trying to get used to the wind. At the cafe at the end of the block, I listen to all the different languages that are spoken around us while a walk to the ballpark for a game is an easy way to enjoy being part of the excitement of a city.


Read one of Alice Munro's short stories.

One of my favorite writers passed away recently and she is worth remembering. Read one of her books.

Friday, May 10, 2024


When I was young and reading books such as Peter Pan and Treasure Island, my family traveled to San Francisco. As we walked down a street, a pirate turned the corner and brushed past us with his parrot on his shoulder. He had a pirate's hat and eye patch and jangled when he walked. I was enthralled and wondered if he came right out of the books I'd been reading.

I was reminded of the pirate the other day as I turned off Market Street and stepped down the stairs at Jessie Square to Yerba Buena Gardens. In front of me, a large grey pit bull paced rapidly over the stairs and into a flower bed. A long lead extended from his collar to a man dressed in a Union Army coat, with heavy black boots with metal-like shields going up his calves. The man had at least four knives (all plastic) stuck in scabbards on his right side and a shinier knife on his left. His large black hat with the Union insignia at the crown hid his face except for the grey beard that flowed down his front. He seemed to have dropped out of the sky into our century. The two of them cruised down the stairs past the Press Club towards the gardens across the street. I wondered if San Francisco doesn't have a portal to other times that occasionally opens to allow someone from another time to come through. And what would they think of us?

Living in a city is like that. You never know who will appear around a corner. People come to cities to seek anonymity so they can try on different parts of themselves. Others yearn to duplicate other times in history or to return to their own roots. When we lived in Paris, we rode the subway to the Garde du Nord. Out of the window, as the train slowed, I saw a group of men in a drum circle, but not the usual casual drum circle that we see in San Francisco. These men were the fiercest men I've ever seen. They wore the clothing of their home countries -- white robes and turbans. They seemed to have just ridden out of the desert in a cloud of sanddust, the drum beats compounding their intensity. They reminded me of the men at a Samurai parade in Japan who changed from the typical Japanese working man carefully dressed in coat and tie into powerful warriors as they posed in Samurai regalia. I could almost hear their rough growls, jangling body shields, and collective hard stomping of their boots as they approached a battlefield.

Friday, May 3, 2024


Friends kid Bill and me sometimes about the number of books we have, even after we took 40 boxes to the various library book sales last spring. We still have mounds of books, though we don't come close to the 6000 books that the journalist Robert Kagan claims to have, but books have gained ground on us again as we find enthralling first sentences in new books, take them home, and stack them on shelves ready to be opened. I value being able to read and ignore the minor controversy about Kindle vs real books. I read any surface -- cereal boxes, upside down papers on someone else's desk, on my iPad while traveling, and in my hands with the comfort of a paperback (I don't usually read hardcovers because they are too heavy in bed at night). I also limit myself to reading novels just before I go to sleep. I made that rule for myself because otherwise, I found I became thoroughly engrossed in a novel at the expense of doing anything else during the day.

Because of all the turbulence, cultural changes, and similarities to our present moments, I count my favorite era for novels between 1915 and the end of World War II. I've recently discovered a series of WW II mystery stories written by James R. Benn, a retired librarian. His character Billy Boyle is a detective in the U.S. Army, and he becomes part of the events leading up to the defeat of the Nazis. He travels from Africa to Italy to France to the Pacific and to Russia to solve crimes during a time when thousands/millions were being killed because of war. Benn has researched the conflicts and events of the war so that the reader has a window into the lives of people involved in the fighting. The female Russian fighters the Nazis called Night Witches become the center of one story because of their daring exploits and quiet approach to battlefields.

I also finished Rachel Maddow's Prequel, similar to her podcast Ultra, which explores the far-right isolationists and Nazi sympathizers in America and their attempts to keep the U.S. out of WW II.

Between these historically based novels and non-fiction, I've been reading Susan Orleans' group of essays, On Animals, which gives me a delightful look at human and other animal interactions. Orleans wrote one of my favorite books, The Library Book, about the development of the LA County Library.

Another recommendation, retired Oakland librarian Dorothy Lazard's book called What You Don't Know Will Make a Whole New World, starts with these lines:

"My family arrived in California the winter after the Summer of Love. Ours was not the journey or eager anticipation of the nineteenth-century gold miners who rushed to the Sierra or of the anxious desperation of the Dust Bowl refugees who came before us. We were reluctant migrants."

 I am looking forward to Britney Grimer's book Coming Home. In an interview recently, Grimer, the WNBA player imprisoned in Russia for 10 months, revealed that she had two books, the Bible and a Sudoku book, with her during her incarceration. She read the books but also used the margins to write a makeshift journal of her time behind bars. She noted that writing and reading helped her through each day of the horrible days. Her memoir is coming out soon.

If you've noticed how many times the words library and librarians appear in this post, please join me in support of your local library.

Friday, April 26, 2024


Cherry Blossom Season in the Bay Area

We can hear the crowds cheer, which makes us look up from our work to see the replay on the gigantic screen at one end of Oracle Park, two blocks away. We watch the seagulls sailing around like fireflies at night as the people exit and leave behind an enormous heap of discarded food for the seagulls to feast on. We can't see the actual game nor the score, but we get excited when we hear the recording of Tony Bennett singing, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," because we know then that the Giants won their game.

We walk often towards the ballpark to reach the N Judah line that runs on King Street. We frequent a grocery store, pharmacy, or post office nearby. Across from the Giants are brick buildings still showing old retail signs from long ago. One building has bas-relief sculptures attached to walls above the second floor. They remind me of the friezes in ancient Rome and Greece. I look closely at the figures and laugh. Each figure combines human forms with eagles, mermaids, or goats, but they all have catcher's mitts or baseball bats in their hands. Early Giants fans!

Gods and Goddesses of Baseball bas-relief sculptures by Alexei Kazantsev

Since our move to Mission Bay, sporting games have become our latest distraction. We live between the Giants ballpark and Chase Center, where the Warriors play. We've walked to several games at both sites. We cheer with the rest of the crowd as a ball flies into a basket from a great distance or sails through the air over the grandstands into McCovey Cove below.

Across from the ballpark, the newest SF park has opened with a Willie McCoy statue powering a homer toward the grandstands, reminding us of his achievements. The park winds around the Chase Center past Crane Cove, a tribute to the shipyards built after Mission Creek was filled in. The walkway connects one more part of the Bay Trail that continues its huge circle down around the edges of the Peninsula to the East Bay, where it separates to wander to Benicia as well as to cross over to Marin, finally to come back into the City across the Golden Gate Bridge.

We hear the bridge siren sounding again. We shuffle to the window because we know that one of the two drawbridges that connects Mission Bay to the rest of the City will rise soon. We look for a boat on the waterway. There are a dozen houseboats nestled together on our side of the creek. Almost all of them have a boat tied to their docks. They are the only boats that navigate the channel and need the bridges to rise. 

In earlier centuries, the creek was an active participant in the industrial side of San Francisco, and the bridges must have been much more active than they are today. Barges crept up and down the creek to lumberyards, shipyards, and manufacturing facilities, then back out under the bridges to the Bay. Now, the creek flows from the Bay just to Berry Street and to the train tracks that hold the trains coming from the south part of the Bay. Where the creek meets Berry Street, there is a water reclamation yard with effluent discharged from its pumps into the creek. On the city side of the creek, a park fills with walkers and runners, basketball and volleyball players. There is a storage shed filled with kayaks that can be taken out to McCovey Cove during ballgames. No need to raise the bridges for them as they slip beneath the steel bridge girders. The two bridges remind us of what Mission Bay used to be before the ballparks and UCSF arrived. We can see and hear all of the activity of this part of San Francisco from our windows. Looking out our windows, we continue to be surprised at how much we like the energy of a city.

Friday, April 19, 2024


CROW painted using acrylic paint

Last spring at our old house, a pair of doves built a nest in the same place as the year before right at the roofline on top of the gutters. Within an afternoon, the two birds laid down a few twigs and leaves -- not much of a nest by other birds' standards -- that had just enough shape to fit around the female. The waiting began.

We witnessed the female laying eggs. For a few days, the male and female alternated sitting on the nest. Like stepparents, we watched, drew, photographed, and waited.

One morning a crow landed on the roof. The female dove lifted off the nest to distract the crow, but the crow, menacing and cawing, swooped down on the nest, cracked open the eggs, and devoured them. Once again the doves didn't succeed; but year after year, they also didn't stop trying.

I think of the doves and how they and other birds struggle against huge odds to survive. Not only do they have natural predators, but so much of what human beings use and discard creates havoc in the world we share.

 An eco-printing which imprints the shapes of leaves onto paper or fabric

As I bag this week's collection of plastic bags, I cringe at my lackluster attempts to keep from polluting the environment. After all, I have marched on Earch Day in celebration of scientists and environmental movements that have made our planet a better place to live. I remember rivers that caught on fire from pollution but also I still see photos of beaches covered with plastic. At the march, I loved the clever signs people displayed on Earth Day: "I'm with PI," "Science is in our DNA," "Got Polio? No? Thank Science," "We are with HER (above a drawing of the Earth)."

I get overwhelmed with ideas on how to use or recycle every piece of paper, every piece of plastic. I try to do the best I can knowing there is still a lot more that I could do. I think many of us feel the way I do and want to be sure that we continue to lessen our environmental impact. I've never met an artist who doesn't pick up something and say, "I could use this somewhere someday." I make collages with scrap paper and other bits of ephemera. I often incorporate recycled materials in artwork, but I know that artists have contaminated our environment for a long time with toxic chemicals (think aerosol sprays and permanent non-refillable marking pens). A new generation of artists has become more aware of the footprint they leave as artists and choose to reuse and repurpose as much as possible.

Mixed Media piece using scrap paper,
corrugated cardboard, leftover Air-Dry Clay,
jewelry pieces

Until the 20th century, many artists -- perhaps our first scientists -- made their own materials using natural ingredients. Some, like milk and ochres, aren't toxic, but cadmium, arsenic, and lead, are not harmless. The lime green covers of books from the 19th century are now kept in special wraps in libraries because the green dye contains arsenic. I gave up oil paints a long time ago because of the solvents needed to clean brushes, hands, and canvases of spilled paint. Modern materials can also cause havoc. At the Art and Soul Art Retreat in Portland, each classroom and restroom had a dirty water bucket so that classes wouldn't overwhelm the hotel pipes with acrylic residue. Acrylic paint, an alternative to oils, is often formulated with small amounts of formaldehyde and ammonia. I can only use them in a well-ventilated room.

LIGHT, an Eco-print

With the advent of Earth Day in 1970, many people, including artists, became more aware of the need to be environmentally friendly in whatever work we do. We depend on the research of scientists and artists to develop better formulas for products that aren't as polluting as previous ones. Artists have returned to old ways of working such as experimenting with eco-printing, which uses the dyes that come from plants and fungi after soaking them in a vinegar and water bath. The results of the printing are a good reminder to tend to Mother Earth. As one Earth Day sign stated, "There is no Planet B."


Check out:


Friday, April 12, 2024


A while ago, I promised not to buy any more new art tools. That promise did make me stop and think when I was in an art store, but I didn't always succeed in getting out of the door without making a purchase. I already have a tray full of marking pens that I bought to determine which brand would be my favorite to use in my sketchbooks. Some, like Micron pens, are waterproof, while others, such as Staedtler and Pilot are not. Sometimes I like a pen that isn't waterproof because I like how it bleeds when it touches water. Sometimes waterproof pens are the right answer.

With a Staedtler pen

With a Micron pen

Eventually, the pens dry up and they become the next disposable waste product. That's why I am so intrigued with the refillable markers from Tom's Studio.

Tom has devised a refillable marking pen that can be taken apart to replace worn-out nibs and ink reservoirs. If you use Micron pens, they may be your favorite, but you know that they don't last long and are not refillable or recyclable. Tom's solution is elegant, with waterproof ink, and well worth the short time for delivery from England. All of the packaging is recyclable. If an item is fragile, Tom's Studio uses packing chips that can be dissolved in water. Clever.

I keep my dip pens in a cup at my drawing table to remind me to use them. The other day I reached over the cup for a spray bottle and stuck myself with the tips of the nibs. The nibs are sharp and sting. I moved them to another spot on my table, but I also turned to another ingenious tool from Japan, Hocoro's Sailing Compass dip pens. When we lived in Tokyo, we grew to appreciate the Japanese careful design of products and packaging that encourage the use of the product. 

Hocoro Sailing Compass pen set

The set from Hocoro comes with four different pen points. Three of the nibs have a flat edge of varying thicknesses and one has a bent tip that makes wonderful thick and thin lines. Each nib can be pulled out of the holder for cleaning and then turned around to be inserted back inside the holder out of sight. No more getting stuck accidentally by a very sharp pen point. Clever.

The nib fits right into the holder

Two tools that I use already:

The Japanese also make watercolors that are thick and creamy. Kuretake watercolors are sold in pans but they don't have the problems of other pan watercolors, which tend to get dry and become hard to mix to a good consistency. Kuretake paints somehow keep that creamy texture. Beautiful, dense colors too.

Viva towels are not a new tool for me. I learned about using them from Leslie Wilson, my watercolor instructor. I use the original Viva towel, not the ones with a pattern embossed into them. They provide me with a way to correct mistakes or to lift watercolor paint from areas that are not working well. And I always have places that are not working well. A really important tool for me. Mr. Clean sponge sheets work in the same way.

Practice painting of clouds

We have had a week or two of thunderheads in the sky. They gave me inspiration to practice painting clouds. I painted a lifeguard's station to start. The building was the center of the piece, but painting the clouds and varying the landscape was what I was practicing. I laid down a wash of cerulean blue in the sky area and then used a Viva towel to sponge up some of the blue paint that was still wet to the touch. That gave me some whiter areas. Then I reminded myself about negative painting and painted around the edges of the white areas using a mix of cerulean, violet, and Payne's grey. The clouds looked like the ones outside my window. I didn't have as much success with the landscape, but the towel gave me a chance to change mistakes in the sky and to keep practicing.


Check out Jet Pens for Hocoro pens: 

and Tom's Studio for his Lumos pens:

Friday, April 5, 2024


Yesterday a news article revealed that two Caltrain employees used $42,000 of taxpayers' money to construct a house inside the station where they worked. As I read the article, my questions spilled through a couple of options, "Are they taking advantage of the rest of us, or were they extremely dedicated to their jobs and routinely slept at the station anyway?" Both workers have been fired and charged with fraud. The money they spent didn't seep into my thoughts until I read a letter to the SF Chronicle. The writer posted the idea that the City ought to hire them and ask them, "How in the world did you build a living unit with a kitchen and bathroom for only $42,000? Maybe you could show the City how to repurpose all the empty office space in town into low- and middle-income housing." Now, why didn't I think of that?

I flew down to Upland recently. On the airplane seat pocket in front of me, I read the small sign: For Literature Only. I looked for some Shakespeare, but no luck. Instead, stuffed into the slim pocket were precise instructions in a dozen different languages to escape in an emergency. Between Sully's landing in the NYC river years ago and the door blowing off the latest Boeing model, I've decided to pay more attention to the instructions after all.

I bought my sister The Book Lover's Joke Book by Alex Johnson recently. My sister and I share a love of witty comments and puns. I am not so fond of the kind of comedy on shows such as SNL which seems to me to be trying too hard to be funny. I do like subtle humor and humor that makes me groan. My favorite joke is one for English teachers (and the only one I can remember):

What is another name for thesaurus?

I opened the joke book to page 57 and laughed out loud. Here is the first joke I read:

"An Oxford English Dictionary and a Roget's Thesaurus are put in the recycle bin by a school custodian. The thesaurus says to the dictionary, "I can see you're distressed by this." The dictionary replied, "You don't know the meaning of the word." The thesaurus said, "But I know what it is like." Pure groaner of a joke.

Johnson, the author-bibliophile, starts his first paragraph this way:

"When I asked the British Library if they'd like to publish a collection of book jokes, they actually suggested that I write a book on librarians. But I said no, because writing on paper is much easier!" Argggh, a jokester after my own heart.

The book is full of these kinds of good and the worst jokes you've ever heard about libraries and books. At the same time, the jokes give us a view of the construction of a book. Johnson has collected jokes about writers' first drafts, editing, proofreading, setting typefaces, and selecting the cover. Johnson even includes jokes he's unearthed from antiquity. I enjoy the ironies and subtle comparisons that leave me hanging in the air for a moment while I 'get' the joke. Johnson has given me a chance to laugh out loud at a time when we all need a good laugh to lift us up from the news of the day.


Alex Johnson, The Book Lover's Joke Book, is available at:

and yes, it is available at Amazon too, but the website donates to independent bookstores with each sale.

Check out three other books by Johnson:

Book Towns: Forty-Five Paradises of the Printed Word

Improbable Libraries: A Visual Journey to the World's Most Unusual Libraries

Rooms of Their Own: Where Writers Write


This week's weather view from our San Francisco apartment