Window Shopping Other Lives

For me, shopping is like meditation. I prefer to do it alone. If someone is next to me, I want them to be quiet, not asking me if I’m visualizing the tropical beach or if I really need that Hawaiian shirt. The only person I can shop with successfully is my sister. Cut from the same fabric, we are able to go with the flow compatibly, wherever the shopping zone might be. The right combination of closeness when we need it or distance when we need the quiet space to contemplate.

What is it we are contemplating? Like meditation, shopping is a temporary escape from a life where I’ve always worked hard and had a lot of responsibilities. I feel the need to say that, because I know shopping sounds so frivolous compared to activities such as finding a cure for cancer or ladling soup in the ghetto kitchen. Like meditation, if undertaken for short, focused periods, it can enhance our lives. It’s a creative way to contemplate all the pieces of my life, how they might better fit together or come alive with something new … or should I throw them all away and start over? It’s a way to imagine myself in a whole new life even, at least for a couple of hours.

window shoppingInstead of a down-to-earth, work-at-home beach bum who wears jeans most of the time, I can be a business woman, but hipper; a bohemian poet; a punk rock rebel; a tasteful sex bomb; or a sleek athlete. I try these possible lives on in my mind, not in the dressing room, where my dream would be instantly and cruelly shattered. No, no dressing rooms with their three-dimensional mirrors and light blasted directly from the sun. The point of contemplative window shopping is to imagine possibilities and weave their spirit back into my own life. Maybe instead of dressing like a rock star, I just need to listen to music more often or take guitar lessons?

This type of meditative shopping doesn’t have to be just for clothes either. It works with home décor, books, cosmetics, gifts, and many other items. (Maybe that red vase would zap up the beige living room? Maybe I should move to a tropical tree house on the beach?) And it doesn’t have to be just for women.

While most men do not seem to like shopping for clothes or gift items, I’ve seen them disappear for hours in hardware, gizmo-tech, and auto supply stores. They may go in for a computer cable or transmission fluid, but I’m sure it crosses their minds while trolling the aisles of gadgets that the new $5,000 home theater system would fit in the family room, or that the Italian leather key ring would look good dangling from a Ferrari ignition. Maybe they would look good cruising the Amalfi coast? With a hot Italian, of course.

Oh, the possibilities for all of us as we browse the Other Lives selections. We may come home with a small item or two, but that is not the main reason for the shopping trip. Money cannot buy what we bring home: a new way of looking at our lives, some vision that beckons us forward and yet still casts an appreciative glow on what we already have.Shopping at Bloomies

If we’re lucky enough to have a good relationship, we can keep it that way by never shopping together. Unless it’s an emergency, like the couch exploded or you ran out of beer. Even then, it’s better if just one goes. Almost every time I am out shopping – happily alone – I overhear an unhappy couple who have ignored this guideline. The man, often older and newly retired with nothing better to do than bug his wife, is reminding her that she already has three sweaters in that color. Or that she is not the expert on couch construction she thinks she is. I want to pat her on the shoulder and say, “Next time, leave him at home on the remains of the couch.” Or sometimes I see a cute young guy sitting patiently on a couch outside a dressing room. “Hi,” I want to say, “did you know there’s a great hardware store next door? It has everything you can imagine – and more.”

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The Royal Gloom and Bloom

June Gloom we call it along the coast – the marine layer that hangs over us, dulling scenery and spirits for almost all of this month’s 30 days. Even worse, it drags directly behind May Gray, thus insuring a double dose of semi-drizzle and we are not sure if spring is really happening. It’s also hard to know what to wear during this gray and gloomy time. The sky is overcast and the air makes us shiver, so we put on a jacket and a scarf and then when we drive a mile inland, we roast. Away from the coast, people are lightheartedly skipping around in sandals and shorts or sundresses.

It is Spring, of course, but evolving slowly, not at all like springs in colder climates where there is snow and then bright pokes of green and sudden riots of color. When my family moved here from Montreal, gardens were thriving and it was warm and sunny back home. In our new home, my sister and I could hardly wait to run down to the beach. We froze. It was May. There was no golden sun in our California at all.

But now that I’ve lived through many such Mays, I’ve realized that there is a purple lining in our silver skies as our coastal spring unfolds, a royal glow as purple blooms everywhere. Jacaranda trees arching over the sidewalks. Agapanthus, lantana, princess flowers poking out from gardens. Morning glories climbing fences. Sea lavender standing guard over the ocean. Sage, daisies and mountain lilacs cloaking the hillsides.Jacaranda and agapanthus

The Jacaranda tree is May/June’s crowning glory and San Diego’s official urban tree. It’s a sub-tropical tree native to South America and was imported to San Diego and Los Angeles in the early 1900s by Kate Sessions, a California horticulturalist and landscape architect, also known as the mother of Balboa Park. The jacaranda also blooms in the fall, but not with the same periwinkle blue-purple brilliance that it does in the spring. The branches bend and bow over our sidewalks, dropping little trumpet-shaped blossoms. I’ll take walking on this magical purple carpet any day over a red carpet. And just as the purple jacaranda canopy fades, it’s July and the blue of the sky takes over.

Another purple flower that blooms here in May and June is the agapanthus. They seem to appear suddenly out of nowhere, big, round, purple balls poking scepter-like toward us from front lawns. (There are white agapanthus too, but they are outnumbered by the purple ones.) The agapanthus are originally from South Africa and are also known as lily of the Nile. They grow around the world, even in gray England, where they are called the African lily and mentioned in a Harry Potter book. It’s possible to see a royal connection, resembling as they do staffs of pharaohs and monarchs. They point the way to victory – the clearing of our skies.Morning glory

In Southern California, and especially San Diego, we have one of the best climates in the world. It’s usually never too hot or too cold, so you’d think we wouldn’t complain about the weather. But of course we do, especially by the ocean during spring when we crave some tantalizing, tangible evidence that summer is around the corner. When will this gloom and doom lift? Until it does, it helps to know that the hazy gray sky has a touch of royalty, in the richest sense of the word.

Beam Us Up

My dad used to tell us that we’d be able to teletransport ourselves one day. I’m not sure where he got the idea, but he was an electrical engineer and interested in electric charges, currents and potential. This was a good 10 years before Star Trek’s Captain Kirk ordered Scotty, the chief engineer, to “beam us up.”

Unfortunately, my dad didn’t live long enough to see much of the show. He died of a heart attack at age 52 a year after it aired in the late sixties, and two months before the first heart transplant. My own heart aches even more now, 40 years later, fully comprehending just how young he was, and how much he missed.

But I do remember he enjoyed Star Trek and Scotty, being Scottish himself. My mother was in love with Captain Kirk, William Shatner, and never tired of telling us that he went to her high school in Montreal.

Dad was a shy man, a homebody, and he loved nothing better than tinkering, working with electronics and wood. He was a neat freak, liked everything in its place and neighbors used to kid that all his screws were never loose, but immaculately lined up and labeled in little jars in our garage.Dad

So it’s remarkable – a testament to his quiet courage – that he uprooted us all from French Canada and beamed us out to the Beach Boys and surfers of Manhattan Beach. Not happy with his work in colder climes, he sought more in the Golden State. And he blossomed in the sun, becoming a professional tinkerer, researcher and inventor for a big electronics company.

During those years, as I developed an interest in journalism, he suggested I become a technical writer. “Oh no, boring!” I said. I could barely stand his algebra lectures, which I needed to keep my B grades in math classes. So I ignored his advice and earned a degree in journalism.

My first writing jobs, after my dad died, were in advertising copywriting and newspaper journalism. I loved the work, but struggled on slave wages as a single mother to keep afloat. My first newspaper job was as a feature writer for the community newspaper in Palos Verdes, a wealthy area. Here I was living on a paltry salary covering social events, interviewing women at tea parties in pearls and cashmere sweaters, who were usually raising money for poor people.

After several job changes and layoffs, I met an editor who worked for Epson, the printer company. They were looking for writers and loved journalists because we could write so clearly. So I went over and met the boss and was hired. The next thing I knew I was sitting in a cubicle with a computer and a printer – and with no idea how to turn them on, let alone use them, or write about them. Now where was dad when I needed him?

The work was not as exciting as journalism, but I quadrupled my salary overnight! And all these odd engineers seemed somehow familiar. I felt transported back to the times when dad took me with him to monitor radar stations and I examined the knobs and dials (he was finishing college and we lived on a converted air force base outside Montreal, a division of McGill University). Or to the times I sat beside him while he tapped out the Morse Code on his ham radio to someone in Alaska. Wow! Alaska!Dad and Me

Since my dad’s death, I’ve only dreamt of him once. He and I were walking on a beach, arms around each other, and we came to a dark forest. “I have to go another way,” he said “and you have to go into the forest alone, but you’ll be fine.” And he was mostly right.

Sometimes I wish he could beam himself into our present. So much has happened in his electronic world! From vacuum tubes to tiny, tiny chips. From neighborhood party lines to worldwide messages. My sister and I talk about this often. She has worked successfully with computers too, as a network analyst and web designer. We’d love to see his big hazel eyes when we beamed him an email or text message or floated his photo on a screen halfway around the world. “Beam us up,” he’d say.

Splish Splash

splish splash
I was taking a bath
long about a Saturday night

Rub dub
 Just relaxin in the tub
 Thinkin everything was alright

Bobby Darin

When trying or learning something new, is it better to dive in or to wade in gradually? Or to do something in between, say quickly jump off the side ladder into the middle of the pool? I think all can work. It depends on who we are, where we are and what we’re doing on any given day.

For example, I admire the person who created this makeshift bumper sticker – “Learning Stick.” He or she seems to be saying, “I’m in the middle of the road here, in the middle of learning. I’m taking chances but I’m giving you a warning, creating a safe zone, hopefully one without your middle finger.”Stick Shift

I learned to drive a stick shift in an in-between way too. Back in the early 70s, I fell in love with the sporty new Mercury Capri when I needed a new car. It only came with a manual transmission – and I didn’t know how to drive one. I bought the car anyway and had a girlfriend drive it home. She stayed the night and the next morning, a Saturday, we got up at 5 a.m. for my stick shift driving lesson. Fortunately my friend had a calm nature and a good sense of humor and it was dark and quiet except for my little car’s screeching brakes and howling gears.

On Sunday morning I got up early by myself for my first solo stick shift drive, lurching around the neighborhood. I dreaded Monday morning and my 10-mile drive to work. It was awful. I lurched and stalled my whole way there and then spent the work day dreading my return trip home. It was just as awful – lots of traffic, honking, grinding of teeth and gears and cursing. Each day got better, however, and finally the stick shift became second nature and for many years I loved it and went on to own more sports cars with manual transmissions.

Yes, this middle ground works for me. It usually includes a helping hand, literally or figurative. For example, learning to swim. My parents jumped off a dock and encouraged me to paddle in clear lake water between them. Then my grandfather held me up on my back in the Atlantic waters off Cape Cod. “The salt water keeps you floating” he said, gently removing his hand, and before I knew it, I was swimming on my own. These helping hands can take many forms – friends, family, teachers, counselors, books, classes, groups.

Of course, what lurks on the unknown road or in the deep, dark waters is fear. Anything new worth doing is scary.” Many books have been written to help us with this, including the classic “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway,” by Susan Jeffers. If we want to get anywhere new, challenge ourselves, we have to acknowledge our fear and figure out a way to deal with it while still moving forward.splish splash

For some of us, or for certain goals, this means taking tiny steps into the shallow waters until we are afloat. For others, it means plunging right in and hoping the water does not knock us out. For me, it’s often a combination of these – thinking for awhile and grappling with fear until it seems silly to sit in the toddler pool and better to get it the hell over with and jump in over my head. And hope there is a party goin on …

I was splishin and a splashin
rollin and a strollin
movin and a groovin
realin with the feelin

Splishin and a splashin
on a Saturday night

Fear of Going Mad While Flying

“I feel like shrieking,” I said to the woman next to me on the airplane. She was squirming even more than I was, squished in between me at the window and her husband on the aisle. “But, don’t worry, I won’t.”

We were three hours into our 5½-hour flight, which was an hour late taking off. We sat at the gate and then on the rainy runway at JFK Airport behind dozens of other jets before we were cleared for takeoff. The pilot kept saying, “Another 20 minutes, another 20 minutes …” while cell phones came out and people made calls to change their pick-up times.

crowdsShe and I had exhausted almost all activities: reading, napping, checking phones and computers, looking out the window, watching a movie (she with headphones, me without, but I was desperate), getting up and bumping down the aisle to the teeny bathroom, drinking, eating.

Eating used to take more time on these flights. Now that many airlines no longer serve free meals, at least in less than first class, there is not the fun of opening the little packages and trying to figure out what the globs are and gobbling them anyway. On my flight going east a few days earlier, I didn’t catch the flight attendant in time to order anything. (It takes them forever to get down the aisle, but if you look away for a few seconds, they are gone.) And my two connecting flights were so close together I didn’t have time to pick up anything at the airport, like a $10 granola bar.

This time, I was smarter and quicker in the airplane and I scored a $10 turkey sandwich with potato chips. I hadn’t eaten in about 12 hours and it was one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever tasted in my life. I tried not to wolf it down, instead savoring every bite for the taste … and the filling of time.

The woman next to me whipped out something from her tote that looked and smelled delicious and I wondered where she got it, but I kept quiet, licking the salt and potato chip crumbs from the bag. Sometimes I prefer not to talk to my seatmates. Suffering in silence beats an onslaught of personal drama or incompatible political or religious philosophies. It’s the luck of the draw – or the airline’s software program.

I once sat next to The Bug Man, as his hat said. I asked what he did, thinking he might be an exterminator. Turns out he was an entomologist (bug scientist) and a well-known bug wrangler who works in Hollywood overseeing movies with bugs and insects (such as “Arachnophobia”). He was interesting and single! (But with rooms full of bugs at home, he said, not appealing to me, a bug phobe.) Later, I saw him interviewed on television and wondered why he didn’t fly first class.

Joking with the woman next to me broke the silence and we soon were off and running (mentally, not physically), sharing our love of yoga and how much we were looking forward to getting back to it. She had been away for five weeks, visiting her son in Spain and her daughter in New York. We discussed our work, children, cats. It was a pleasant conversation and before I knew it, the San Diego skyline appeared underneath us and we were swooping in for a landing.flying object

I’ve always loved flying, especially the take-offs and landings. I’ve never had a fear of flying, but now I’m starting to dread it. In the past, I’ve flown to Australia and Europe with less discomfort and inconvenience than I’ve endured recently on shorter trips. These have included cancelled flights, delayed flights, arbitrarily reassigned seats and airport connections and lost luggage. And it gets worse each year as the airlines think of new ways to torture us.

If the airlines are cutting back to be competitive, why aren’t they offering better service, not worse? Fewer flights perhaps, but at least on time and maybe a little meal?

I cannot image a restaurant or store doing business this way and keeping customers. “You have a reservation for 7? Too bad. We won’t be serving dinner until 8:30. You wanted the booth by the window? Too bad. All we have left is the table by the back wall. You want to leave? Too bad. We locked the door and you can’t leave until we say so.”

How many of us would come back? If we want to travel quickly, do we have a choice? Would a covered wagon be better? I’m beginning to think so. There might by dysentery and wild Indians, but at least we could lie down and get comfortable for awhile, gnaw on buffalo jerky.