Friday, June 14, 2024


Day one of the first heat wave:

I used to love the first day of an early heat wave in the East Bay with still enough moisture in the air to be manageable unlike summertime when the temperature stays above 100 degrees for days and sucks the moisture out of the air and energy out of my body. During the first day of the first heat wave, I got on my gardening clothes and my clogs and relished digging in the garden when it was 90 degrees. I liked the heat on my back and the sweat that came as I worked to pull out dead plants and replace them with new ones. That first day brought the knowledge that California's rainy season was over. When I finished, I liked to stand in the shade admiring my work as a slight breeze wafted across the yard.

Day two of a heat wave:

Enough of the heat. I pulled the shades and windows closed till late afternoon. I stayed inside in darkened rooms hoping that the heat would cool down at sunset as it often does in California. I was in an endurance race with heat that drained me, and I dreamt of sitting in a metal tub of cold water like my sister and I used to do as children.

I don't miss gardening (except when I step into a friend's lushly planted garden by the Carquinis Straits) or when I walk through the plant selection in a gardening store. (What am I doing in a gardening store when we have no place to plant a plant?)  I don't miss the upkeep of a big house. Our apartment with two bedrooms, two baths, kitchen and living room is just the right size for now (but without a room for a studio or a balcony for outside sitting). 

Our new place will have sunny windows that will give us a place for a plant or two. I carried two indoor plants from our old house throughout our moves this year. One, an Areca Palm, has been with us for almost 30 years and is a survivor. I had to place it outside our old house because our cats loved to chew on its leaves. The plant stayed under an overhang, facing east, all year long through freezing cold and heat waves. It has adapted well to indoor life in San Francisco throwing out new shoots and flower buds. If you look closely at the palm, you will also see the remains of a bird's nest tucked into the middle of the stalks of the plant. A finch attempted a nest there for several years. All that is left is the carefully constructed nest. I've thought of re-potting the plant but decided against it. It is doing fine without my meddling.

We are coming up to a year of being vagabonds. We sold our house last June, wandered to the beach for a while, considered Minnesota and Colorado, moved to San Francisco, bought a condo, traveled to Portland, and discovered a city that might be a better place for us or maybe even Seattle, which made us think over our San Francisco decision for a minute.

We are glad we have had the time to consider and discover where and what we want at this point in our lives. We are staying right here in the Bay Area. If I'm repeating some themes in my posts lately, it is because we continue to rethink our priorities, interests, and assumptions each week, each day. Just like during the days of the heat wave, our minds are contemplating the good and bad of each decision. A couple of friends suggested that we have carried our home on our backs like snails and turtles and that we will make a home wherever we decide to stay.

Friday, June 7, 2024


a page from an incomplete book about language by Martha Slavin.
Printing techniques include letterpress and wood stamps

Learning a new language feels like illiteracy.
Some people have an ear for language
while others flounder & rail
grasping a few words here and there.
Nothing makes sense
but facial expressions & hand gestures.
Even these can mean something
entirely different in different cultures.

When we were living overseas, I sometimes cringed when I saw the invasion of the worst of American culture, instead of its best. McDonalds, KFC, and rock and roll were everywhere while supplanting the goods and culture of the local society. In return, Western culture, especially the art world, has absorbed Eastern influences like yoga, martial arts, and sushi. One artistic endeavor, woodblock printing on cheap paper, helped to create the Impressionist movement when the woodblock prints arrived in Europe as wrapping paper for goods shipped from Japan in the 1800s. The use of black outlines, strong colors, asymmetrical compositions, and exaggerated facial expressions in these Japanese prints appear in the works of one of my favorite artists, Toulouse-Lautrec, who like Degas, Van Gogh, and Manet incorporated the design principles discovered on these humble prints.

At the Circus, Fernando, the Rider by Toulouse-Lautrec

The word "print" can be confusing. Most of us think of a print as a copy of another piece of art. Printers can make copies of an oil painting, which is then called a print of the original and costs less than the original would. Printmakers work in printing media such as woodblock, lithography, silk screens, or etchings to create original art. The difference from a painting is that they can make more than one copy of their work. Each one is numbered so you will know what order the print was produced. The artist can make multiple versions, changing colors, papers, and reworking parts of the design. Each print is an original work of art.

Parrot  by Martha Slavin
printed with green ink on yellow paper

Two versions of the
same linoleum block print,
printed using different papers and ink

A long-time friend and I went to the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco recently to see a collection of Japanese woodblock prints. The exhibit showcases works on paper starting with prints featuring actors, sumo wrestlers, prostitutes, and landscapes created by well-known Japanese artists such as Utamaro, Hokusai, and Hiroshige. We walked into a room that displayed an original print of The Great Wave Off of Kanagawa, an image almost as famous as the painting of the Mona Lisa, both of which have been used on coffee mugs, calendars, and book bags to the point of being trite. Both still have the power in person to attract viewers to study them in their original form.

The Great Wave Off of Kanagawa by Hokusai

The Great Wave represents the changing world in Japan at the end of the Meiji period in the 1800s. The print shows Mt. Fuji in the distance and the waves coming in as if to engulf the sacred mountain. When Japan opened up to the rest of the world during this time, the culture of Japan was immediately affected. Woodblock prints showed people in Western clothing and using Western implements. Later Japanese printmakers would use their prints as tools of propaganda to show Japanese dominance over other Asian countries during the first half of the 20th century.

The exhibit at the Legion culminates with modern woodblock prints by Masami Teraoka, now a U.S. citizen, with references to the historical prints with a sly twist. McDonald's Hamburgers Invading Japan is one of a series of prints about the cultural changes that have occurred there. I had to laugh when I found the partly eaten hamburger hidden at the feet of the woman in a kimono and geta. Teraoka expressed my feelings exactly about how easily cultures change when countries and people can access other cultures so easily. We lose something unique in the process, but we can also gain new insight into our cultural heritage.

McDonald's Hamburgers Invading Japan
by Masami Teraoka

History of the Ukiyo-e woodblock prints:,kacho%2Dga%2C%20and%20landscape.

Check out Masami Teraoka here:


Sign on a wall in a kindergarten: 

Lose without blaming.

Friday, May 31, 2024


Theo and his baseball team attend a game at Tokyo Dome

As soon as we moved into our rental in San Francisco, Bill became more and more thrilled with living in a city. We'd lived in other big cities, New York, Tokyo, and Paris at various times in our lives. Still, I didn't understand what Bill's best reason for moving to a bustling place was until he said, "I've had a dream since boyhood of being able to walk to a ballpark to see a pro baseball game." We have Oracle Park just a couple of blocks away and an easy walk for us. We used to share Oakland A's season tickets with a good friend and spent many an afternoon in the hot sun watching good, young players. The A's are known for trading their best players and we would watch the World Series on TV partly to pick out the former A's on the Series teams.

As a kid, baseball was my favorite sport to play. My sister and I would hit and throw balls back and forth under the maples in our backyard. I played pick-up games after school and headed toward the school's diamond at recess. I remember the first time I really connected with a ball. I was so surprised that I stood mesmerized as I watched the ball sail into the air out to right field before teammates shouted at me to move toward first base.

I lost interest in playing as a teenager, but Bill persisted through college and shortly after graduating. Rarely, I would get out on a field with friends, stand up to bat, and surprise myself with a hit. Mostly, though I watched. I watched the World Series every year no matter which teams were playing, I watched Bill play in college, and I watched our son Theo being coached by Bill in both Danville and Tokyo. One of the best games for the three of us was a parent vs players game in Tokyo. The kids, some who had never played baseball before the season started, rallied to challenge the parents to a thrilling game.

Bill learning to bunt

Sports have a way of drawing people together, even when they root for opposing teams. They all stand during the seventh inning to sing, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." The fans delight in good plays and favorite players. As I sit in our apartment writing Postcards with the windows open, I can hear the crowd cheering.  I look out the window and see the action replayed on the big screen and hope the Giants are winning again. As a young player, Bill learned to support his teammates, calling out to them when they made a good play. Neither of us likes to hear the strident USA chant that sometimes reverberates at sporting events, but we can ignore that when a ball sails with force out over the bleachers, above the excited crowds as they watch it fly past the brick walls around the outfield to land in the Bay beyond the stadium when maybe it is scooped up by one of the kayakers or boaters who circle the stadium and yearn to catch a home run ball.

A day game at Oracle Park


Stephen Hawking said it best:

 "We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe and for that I am extremely grateful." 

Mostly May

Wednesday, May 22, 2024


Adding flourishes to a letter  by M. Slavin

When I returned to lettering by hand, I first took a class from Yukimi Annand, a well-known calligrapher and teacher. We played with various tools: twigs, cola pens, (pens whose nibs are made from bent pieces of a soda can), bamboo, sponges, and balsa wood, anything we could dip into ink to make a mark. This abstract mark-making creates a totally different way of using letterforms from the traditional calligraphy that we find on certificates and diplomas. The lettering on certificates and diplomas has been drawn either with a pointed pen with its flexibility to create thick and thin lines or a broad-edged pen that needs to be turned to make thick and thin lines. Traditional calligraphy often requires years of study to learn the exact point to flare or turn a pen to make a letter correctly. In contrast, Yukimi's class let us experiment with letterforms in different ways.

Mark-making using letters to form shapes

While trying to find alphabets that I liked and could learn to do, I noticed that, much like other areas of creativity, calligraphers look for inspiration from each other and from trying new lettering styles. Pinterest is filled with modern calligraphy with its style of ignoring the baseline to write a word. Blackboard writing with chalk became visible at every restaurant for a while.

Chalkboard writing poster  by M. Slavin

For the last couple of years, I saw a renewed interest in styles from the 1920s. The Neuland alphabet and Ben Shahn alphabets came from that period and are popular with letterers and calligraphers along with monoline lettering. As a left-handed person, I was attracted to these three for their ease of use as a lefty. They don't require the extreme hand manipulations of pointed pens or broad-edged pens that I needed to do to make the lettering beautiful. If you watch the TV series Gentleman from Moscow, you will that the background of the title is done in a Futuristic style similar to the artwork of Kandinsky, with a font that would have been selected by someone from those long ago times. 

Neuland alphabet & a MacIntosh alphabet version using different pencil weights

Hermann Kilian's Built-up Capitals has appeared in workshops all over the country and online recently. In many of his designs, the words are drawn to touch each other with no separation between a line of words. The lettering becomes a design element so that the viewer has to stop to figure out what is said on the page. Each letter is a simple monoline with slight thickening at the tails and curves of the letters.

Here are some of my sketches using the Built-Up Capitals and Monkey Cap alphabet:

Based on Hermann Kilian's alphabet
Based on Monkey Caps alphabet

Another version of Monkey Caps Alphabet
Which do you like best?

In contrast, designing illuminated letters similar to what Medieval monks produced has become a popular workshop course. The monks incorporated flowers, leaves, animals, and man-made objects such as ships and buildings into the small square that surrounded a letter. Albert Mirbasoo, a calligrapher who creates works for the City of Los Angeles, incorporates these kinds of images into the certificates for note-worthy people in LA. Learning to create the flourishes that enhance a letter is another creative opportunity for a calligrapher to customize their work.

Certificate award drawn
by Albert Mirbasoo
 for the city of Los Angeles

Check out these two websites for inspiration: 

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

Friday, March 29, 2024


My small studio  Photos by Bill Slavin

The wind has been whistling around our building this past week. There are no trees tall enough to reach the eighth floor to shield us from the howling. The wind can be just as strong on the sidewalk and I have to catch myself from being knocked over when I stop at a corner,  I don't hear the wind like we do from our apartment. Weather is different up high. We cannot see rain slashing down from the sky when we've had rain. We can only tell that it is raining by looking at a dark building across the way to see the lines of rain or by watching the puddle splashes on the rooftops or the street. We can't tell whether it is hot or cold at ground level from our view. We check the weather report and find the temperature is almost always a moderate 50 to 60 degrees. Our concrete building holds the cold so we prepare for chilly weather below. Most of the time we are glad for the extra scarf or jacket, but sometimes we are fooled and find the warm sun outside the building's door. Since we've been in San Francisco, seasons have whispered by with little change in the landscape. Most of the street trees are perennials, and there are few flower beds to give away spring's secret arrival. It is different living up high.

Photo by Bill Slavin

We look down on roadways, see the streetcars turn at the next corner, and look towards the Giants ballpark in the distance whose lights flash on during the night even when it isn't baseball season. We hear music from a nearby outdoor hotel bar and sirens racing down the street. We can watch the full moon rise above the clouds at the horizon, something we couldn't see when we lived in Danville. The moon there would only appear above the hills and treetops. During rainy weather, we have gasped at the half-circle rainbows that appeared as the clouds drifted away.

Photo by Bill Slavin

When a fire alarm sounded in the building next to us, we realized that if we had to evacuate the building, we would have a long, slow trek down eight flights of stairs. Something we hadn't considered until the sirens called next door.

After a year spent selling our house and moving five times, we've purchased a condo in a nearby neighborhood in San Francisco. Our condo is on the fourth floor and a little easier to exit in an emergency. The stairs right next to us lead down to the second floor's broad expanse of common area and then another flight of stairs to ground level -- the kind of safe exits we didn't have to consider in a two-story home. 

The view from our window will be different from where we are now. We will miss the seagulls, the small park, and the channel that separates Mission Bay from the rest of the city.  We will have on one side a full view of the city's skyscrapers, and down below us, a quiet tree-lined street tucked close to the Bay Bridge. Instead of rooftops and the East Bay hills that we can see now, we will have a closer view to the left and right of us of other apartments and their residents than we have had in any other place we have lived. We have always liked to live without pulling window coverings down wherever we have been. With our coming move, we will need to adjust our ideas about privacy. 

Living up high in the City is different.

Photo by Bill Slavin

As the writer of this blog, I am lucky to have a creative partner who provides wonderful photos sometimes. Thank you, Bill.