Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Just Another Small Town

My suitcase is still in the car. And the cooler is on the kitchen floor still full of apples, peanut butter, and old yogurt, Greek. At the bottom of the stairway rises Mt. Laundry, five days of dirty clothes,  We have no milk no bread no nothing in the refrigerator. There is a stack of mail to deal with and the stack is marked urgent. I lost my hairbrush somewhere between Clinton and San Francisco, so my hair hasn't been brushed since Kentucky. 

It is clear, on this first morning back in San Francisco, I need to take the bull by the horns.  I step over the cooler and unopened mail and one sock and Christmas to-do lists and head down the hill to Pink Pearl, an all-purpose hair salon on Geary Avenue.  Time to get my fingers and toes in shape for Christmas.  Maybe a little hair color, too.
Hair Babylon, San Francisco

Things can change a lot in six months. The shop seems all new. Lisa and Karen are still there, though, and they look at the condition of my feet and say something in Vietnamese, I know it is complimentary.  Then, working as a team they paint my nails a tasteful cream and go all out with Holly Jolly Red for my toes.  The result is spectacular.  But my hair.  Where is Kim?  In fact, where is the cut and color section of Pink Pearl?  It has gone away.

Lisa balances the nail dryer on my lap and tilts the toe dryer on the end of the spa-chair. As I struggle to keep everything aligned I gaze out the window of Pink Pearl and follow the traffic. Priests from Holy Virgin, the Russian Orthodox Church nearby, make a slow parade down the sidewalk, their long beards and robes blowing and filling like black sails. A storm is brewing. But I am lost in thought, knowing something has to be done to my hair at this very moment.  It is an urgency understood by all women.

I walk out of Pink Pearl in my flip-flops. The temperature is hovering around 50, damp and cold in a San Francisco way. In the distance, black clouds continue to build over the Marin Headlands and Golden Gate Bridge.  Maybe if I swing by Walgreens and buy some hair color? With boxes in the floor and Christmas cards to write and the car still not fully unloaded, that idea is not appealing. As I am walking home and studying on this, I almost run into a small, beautiful Vietnamese woman in front of the UPS Store.

"LEES!" she says. It is Kim.  Yes, KIM!!  She is beaming, and explains that she is working at a new place further up Geary.  She will do my hair right now, before her 2:30 appointment.  Kim shoves me into her car, throwing bags and packages into the back seat, and we drive a couple of blocks to the new shop.  We find a parking place right in front, another Christmas miracle.

Inside Hair Babylon, it is clear that Kim, too, is just moving in. She seems to be working out of her bag. She opens this drawer and that, looking for the plastic cape and gloves and....a hairbrush.  She starts to brush my hair and frowns.  I explain that my hair has not been brushed since Kentucky.  She has to hunt for the style book, with its shiny blunt-cut hair samples in a hundred different colors. The shop is empty except for a barber far in the back whose wing actually faces 22nd Avenue. He is snipping and speaking Cantonese.  

The sky is dark and the rain has begun. Kim pulls a plastic bag from her gigantic purse and it is filled with packages of hair color, maybe 20 half-used tubes.  Everything but 7A,  the color I need to make my hair and the day itself just a little brighter.

"Just one minute Lees," she says.  I need to run to Citi-Hair and get 7A.  She is at the door in a flash, then turns and says, "Don't leave!!"  

Thirty minutes later I am eating Jolly Ranchers from a bowl on the front desk, and fiddling with my phone, hoping somebody has sent me a text or an email.There is no one in the shop, but the door is wide open, facing the traffic on Geary. I return to the swivel-chair and study the tinsel draped across heating pipes on the ceiling of Hair Babylon. There is a little Christmas tree on Kim's counter in front of me. It's raining in torrents now, red and green lights across the street are just a blur.

Kim Nguyen
Thirty minutes later Kim reappears, soaking wet.  She holds up a brand new tube of 7A.  She is smiling. I am perplexed.

"I had to go to Citi-Hair, like I said."

"Kim, where IS Citi-Hair??" I ask.

"Across the bridge in Mill Valley.  No big deal, not that long if I don't have to wait at the toll gate."

So, after driving to Mill Valley for 7A, Kim is making my blah color just a little bit more glossy, and covering every trace of gray.  The rain has dialed up to a 10.  You can't see the Dim Sum place across the street, and Wells Fargo Bank is fully lost in the downpour.   Kim offers to take me to my car, since my hair, at this moment, looks spectacular.

I look at her for a minute before I reply.  
"I walked, Kim," I say.  "My husband will come and get me."  I am now tapping in Ira's number, which goes directly to voicemail. I look in the mirror at both of us, knowing what will come next.

"Lees, I'll drive you home."   

Merry Christmas Kim. Merry Christmas, San Francisco, just another small town.  Merry Christmas Margaret and Irvin in Clinton.  And to anyone here or there who has quietly gone the extra mile today.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

In Stride

All blissed out
at the station...
I shoved us onto the train to Venice as the doors were closing. I'd checked the correct platform, car, and seats (it says right here...) but maybe not well enough.  So we had to throw some money at the problem and switch trains in Bologna.

Finding our B and B in Dorsoduro, the backbone of Venice, wasn't too much trouble, maybe a little. There are no cars in Venice and you take cheap vaporettos (us) or expensive gondolas (not us) to the nearest stop, then wind through narrow passageways between buildings.

Accessible, along with jazz and post-its, is an American invention. There are no wheelchair ramps in Venice, no free wc's, very few buildings with lifts. Venetians must have great cardiovascular systems, with an enormous number of stairs from the station intoVenezia, stairs over each of the 400-plus canals and Grand Stairs over the Grand Canal.

All this means you can't really take anything in stride, but still, it's Venice.

Ca'Santo Spirito locked out.
When we arrived at Ca'Santo Spirito, our little family-run hotel behind the church of Santa Maria della Salute, the doors were locked, no sign of life. Entry took a while but it was no-drama compared to The Uffizi: A German couple with a local phone helped us learn that our key was taped behind the mailbox.

Our room was only three floors up. The stairs were narrow and wooden but--most important--the keys worked and we had a view.

We hit the waterways and earth canals of Venezia as soon as we could throw our bags in the door. A little later than we'd planned, just when the light was perfect, breathtaking, beyond compare.

Sta. Maria della Salute

Monday, September 15, 2014


Just one more night in Firenze.  After two weeks in our little apartment with no view (which we've loved) there's only one keen disappointment:  We haven't had an exterior clothesline.  Almost everyone in Florence has one, but we're had to make do with hanging our (you name it) from lamps, curtain rods, and window sills.  Just one more reason to appreciate the Emma House, where we can always get online.

Street shot in Cinque Terre Friday

Friday, September 12, 2014

Cinque Terre

By the end of the day, we'd walked and climbed almost seven miles.

Cinque Terre (Five Lands) is a string of villages on the Mediterranean side of Italy, a couple of hours northwest of Florence.   These settlements date from 800 AD, early middle ages, and they're connected by high stone paths.

Groves of olive trees border these paths; crops and vineyards line the terraced hillsides above the paths.

We bussed to Manarola from Florence. Then uphill steps from Manarola to Corniglia, and a seafood lunch in Corniglia.

The big push was long, winding hike from Corniglia to Vernazza...where most of these photos were taken.  Then one train stop to Monteresso, a short boat ride to get us back to Riomaggiore, and back to Firenze.

Looking back on Corniglia from the trail.


Vernazza, the end of the longest hike.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


It started with the tickets.  No, let's back up.  It started with the early morning thunderstorm, the kind that makes you want to lie in bed and listen to rain on the third story roof. Then the alarm going off, okay, okay. No coffee, just hopping puddles.

And then finally at the Uffizi one snafu after another.  Our early tickets weren't tickets, but vouchers for tickets.  So I go get in line 3, to change our vouchers for tickets.  Meanwhile Ira stayed in the entry line since this is what we got up early for.

Let me just say that a few things were stacked against us from the getgo.

Like you can't exchange vouchers for tickets until 10 minutes before ticket time.

But the exchange line opened late. And the entry line opened, well, on time.

So somehow in this age of enhanced security Irie got into the Uffizi without a ticket.

I realized this when he saw me looking for him, opened the NO EXIT door and shouted, "Lizoid!"

As the guard was pulling him away from the door he mouthed, "I got in!!"
So don't even ask about the 45 galleries, Botticelli's Birth of Venus, or the Medici Family's personal bling.  Just know that ultimately I got in.  And yes, Ira did get out.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

We can walk the walk, but can we...

Our waiter confesses that he can't stand the way Americans pronounce gnocchi, that little dumpling pasta covered with cheese.  So he instructs me.  Here goes:

Nokey.  Rhymes with okey dokey
Nochi. With a nice "ch" in the middle.
Ok, one last time:
nyo - che!
Got it!!
Now can I have some?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Big Dawg

Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo hung out in Florence, but really,
the Big Dawg was Brunelleschi.

The massive Duomo in the center of the city sat without a dome (or shall we say duome) for 150 years until Fillipo figured out how to engineer it in the early 1400s.

So now, thanks to Brunelleschi, The Duomo has a lid on top, and it roughly measures the size

Like they say, it's hard to miss it.

Brunelleschi constructed the dome like two eggshells, one nesting inside the other.  Then he capped it with a lantern.

You can wind upward between the shells to the lantern any day you feel like getting up early, standing in line, and climbing 431 steps.

Orthopedic footwear not pictured.

And here is the biggest thing:

Ok, yeah, we took a selfie at the top.
 Everybody did.
At the end of THAT day you can consume all the bread, red wine, and pasta that you could possibly want.

View from the lantern early this morning.   Really.  Wow.

Saturday, September 6, 2014


Our apartment in Florence is rustico, primitivo, and fantastico.
About 50  meters from the Arno River, it's on an alleyway just large enough for foot traffic.

Our alleyway.  Usually there's hanging laundry.
It's on the third floor with no lift, so we're mainly eating salad, since arugula and radicchio are easy to carry up sixty steps.

There is no view, no dishwasher, no television.

This is exactly what we had in mind.

The landlady's grandmother once lived here. Now she is away, having left behind her lamps and electrical appliances, her old walnut dresser, her chipped dishes, her little drawings, and her extra hot chili peppers on a string.

Oh, and yes, her clothespins for hanging things out the window to dry.

Seriously, it is charming.

Salad, bread, wine. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Should we try to use this?
Today we walk-ran down the Arno at 8am, circled the historic center, and found cheap coffee.

The tourists weren't out so that gave us space to walk briskly on the narrow ledges that pass for sidewalks.

We're in training to climb to the lantern of the Duomo, which will be another day's story. Or not.

The Arno at the end of our alley.

Then we came home, put on respectful clothes, and spent a couple of hours at The Church of Sacre Coeur.  Everybody and his brother is buried here including Dante and Michelangelo.  Best part, the amazing Giotto frescoes and the abstract patterns in the marble.

Peaceful to just sit, wrapped in history and beauty, and to think of my sons during this first week in September.

Floor at Sacre Coeur.  In my heart I'm painting.

Friday, September 5, 2014


Yep, Venice is just out there floating on the Adriatic Sea.

I was expecting a few canals, then a big land mass, a "joke's over" kind of place.  But the big  (and little) waterways just go on and on.  No cars are allowed in Venezia, and the footpaths here and there are referred to as "earth canals," a term that suggests that ours, in fact, might NOT be the only reality.

Using our day pass we rode the vaporettos up and down the grand canal and out to Murano after dark, which is a whole-nother story. Besides the gondoliers in their edgy black and white t-shirts, we were crowded by a lot of buff men in racing shorts out polling down the canal for exercise.  And, yes, we were impressed.

The Venetian homes, of course, sit right in the water.  No one seems concerned about ants, termites, mold, mildew, or a little dampness in the basement.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Essential Earl

It was on one of our family vacations that Earl Warren Jr., or Butch, removed a piece of bubble gum from his mouth and flipped it, with incredible accuracy, into the frizzy gray hair of a woman standing nearby.

Frances, his mom, made a leap for the gum and retrieved it without the woman’s ever realizing what had happened.  This was the Butch of my early childhood…sassy, irreverent, and always good for a laugh. 

The Jewells and the Warrens lived just one house apart, vacationed together for years, and “put their suppers together” during every season of my childhood.  Because our mothers were best friends, Butch was always part of the picture and was, I suppose, my first real friend even though we were six years apart in age. 

My earliest memory of Butch is simply that he was nice to me.  When I was in grade school I was allowed to walk through the back yards and up Beeler Hill to see Frances, who usually had a chocolate pie in the oven.  After my piece of pie I’d go upstairs and watch Butch working on an old television that needed fixing or taking apart a radio he’d gotten from Billy Gene Kelly’s shop—I can still see those little glass tubes in his hands.  Other days Earl might be on the back porch playing with his juke box or on the front porch practicing Dixieland jazz on his trombone.  We lived in a town with one stoplight and two major cross streets, but as young observers of Earl’s world my brother and I discovered that there was much to see.  We marveled at his creativity, his endless catalogue of interests, and his ability to get by with almost anything.

One time my dad and Butch rigged up a private telephone line between our two houses.  For telephones they used the old wooden box phones with hand cranks for ringers.   On summer nights Butch and Phil and I climbed to our garage roof and looked for the Big Dipper.   When I phoned my brother to tell him that Butch was gone, there was a long pause and Phil—who knew this was coming—said, “He was such a big influence on my life.”  Indeed my brother, who is now an astrophysicist, says his first love of photography, science, and astronomy came from Butch.  The one and only time I will ever see Halley’s Comet was in the Warren back yard, looking through a telescope set up by Earl Warren, Jr.

On one of our multi-family vacations to Natchez Trace Earl took Phil, then 12 or 13 years old, out in a boat to fish for bass.

Here’s Phil’s version of it:
We had been out in the boat, and I got my line tangled up and had it running out way behind the boat. We pulled into the dock while I was still trying to get untangled and I started to reel in. Something really heavy was on the end of the line like I was snagged on a log, and I was heaving the line in like a deep sea fisherman.  About that time a humongous fish flopped up out toward the end of the dock and Earl yelled, "Holy Cow, you've got a big one out there!"  He ran to the end of the dock with the net and dipped it up.  The story didn't end there--when we pulled the big one in, it had a little bass inside its mouth--you can see it in my other hand in the photo."

Phil had the six-pound bass mounted and it's on his wall at home to this day.

Earl helped shape my life also, but it was first through his sense of humor.  Because we were both at Clinton’s First Methodist Church every time the doors opened, many of our shared experiences were church-related.  One Christmas during the “March to the Manger,” a processional in which offering envelopes were deposited in the manger, Butch and I queued up beside our parents.  Testing my Earl-humor, I turned to him and said, “Throw your money on the baby.”  He looked at me and replied, “You’re going to fit right in.”  Indeed the Jewell kids spent a fair amount of time trying to walk and talk just like our up-the-hill neighbor.

Earl always knew how to seize the moment.  When I was in high school, my then-boyfriend David Sensing would sit across the street from our house at night and whistle “The Sweetheart Tree,” a song that was popular at the time.  I would sit in my upstairs window, soaking it all up and feeling very romantic.  The first night that Earl figured out what was going on he appeared on his own front porch, trombone in hand, and loudly played, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”

It’s almost impossible to pin down the style of Earl’s humor, but it was fueled by the most ordinary events.  His photography was the same. I think one of his favorite photographs was the little Amish girl, taken at a flea market Clinton. “Have you ever seen such a sad little girl?” he said.  He could put a frame around life’s ironies better than anyone I have ever known.  A five minute conversation with someone in a gas station would make a twenty-minute story for Earl.   And that story would be funny and it would make you think about the larger world.

Butch started smoking again not long before his death, and he discussed this with typical irony.  “If I had seen the caliber of people in the smoking area,” he said,”I wouldn’t have started smoking again.” 

As my brother and I tried to define the void we’d feel without Earl in our lives, Phil put it well:   “It was like we had our own private Hunter S. Thompson.”

There were times when, just for a while, we needed Earl to think inside the box.  Earl could be cocky and difficult and he paid a price for that.   Just about everybody who’s been in Earl’s inner circle has had to give themselves some space from him for a while…but never permanently, he didn’t want that.

Most aspects of the Essential Earl never changed.  There was, however, one big shift.  The balky, backtalking teenager that I first remember became, in later life, a champion of his parents’ values. A recurring theme in our phone conversations was how lucky we both were to have been brought up on Beeler Hill by parents who could laugh at everything, wanted us to see the best in everyone, and above all had no time for meanness or racial intolerance.   

The last conversations we had were good.  He said, “That’s something people don’t do enough…say I love you.”  And he loved his daughters above all.  

He talked about how together Lydia was, how he and Amanda were having such good talks and figuring out “what to do with all his stuff,” and he quoted passages from the book of photographs he and Margaret had just completed. Finally he read me Margaret’s dedication (to herself) and got a big laugh out of that.

Then I told him I was not ready to let him go, and he said, “I’m not ready to let me go either.”

Monday, September 16, 2013

Where it all began

Most architectural styles evolve, but the height, the light, and the extraordinary stained glass that we now call "Gothic" began with Abbot Suger and the church of St. Denis.  In a northern suburb of Paris, it is now surrounded by a working-class Muslim neighborhood.

Saturday, September 14, 2013


Past the Pompidou, and between metro Les Halles and Etienne Marcel, is a historic market street with the unpronouncable name of  rue Montorgueil.  It's the street made famous in Monet's celebratory scene of a zillion waving red flags.  It rained buckets all afternoon and we took shelter in a restaurant called Marie Stuart.  We drank ice cold rosé by the bottle and then ordered singles.  Under the circumstances it seemed appropriate.   Best of all were the glass-topped passageways that led in and out of the neighborhood.

Friday, September 13, 2013


Today I walked the labyrinth at Chartres.  It's good practice for life, just putting one foot in front of the other again and again.  After a while you let go, the breathing gets slow and deep. And the world steps back.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

le rue Mouffetard

A long walk to le Mouffetard.  An even longer lunch.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Comfort Food

If you know what's happening in the lives of my kids you'll understand that this has been a crazy, heartbreaking trip in every way.  But it was best for all that I didn't go home.  It rained all day, and tonight, some comfort food.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Hunters and Gatherers

It's been said that women of a certain age,  in prehistoric societies, were invaluable because of their skill as hunter-gatherers.  Now we turn our talents toward flea market shopping.
The Paris Flea Market, Porte Dr Clignoncourt.