Category Archives: sunshine

Lipstick, Then and Now

Let’s talk about lipstick.

Lipstick?

I know what you’re thinking.  Lipstick is not the weightiest topic I could be writing about.  But it’s a pretty good reflection of how our lives have changed since March.

A few years ago, I wrote about something I called “The Lip-Kick Effect.”  At the time, we were working our way out of a financial recession, and many Americans still felt stuck in neutral or worse.  I wondered:  How do we cope?  By buying more…lipstick?

The improbable answer was “Yes.”  Researchers had concluded that the more insecure the economy, the more women tended to spend on beauty products, especially lipstick.  They dubbed this phenomenon the “lipstick effect.”

(I preferred to call it the “lip-kick effect.”  When one of my daughters was quite small, she pronounced “lipstick” as “lip-kick,” and her mispronunciation struck me as an even better moniker for the “lipstick effect.”)

Five separate studies confirmed this hypothesis.  They found that during recessions over the previous 20 years, women had reallocated their spending, deciding to spend their money on beauty products instead of other items.

Why did women confronted with economic hardship seek out new beauty products?  The researchers came up with a host of reasons.  Most significant: a desire to attract men, especially men with money.

Another reason?  Wearing lipstick could boost a woman’s morale.

In that blissful time BC (before Covid-19), I cheerfully admitted that I was a (credit-)card-carrying member of the latter group.  Like many women, I got a kick out of wearing lipstick.  I added that “while uncertainty reigns, we women get our kicks where we can.”

Believing that a brand-new lipstick could be a mood-changer, I bought into the notion that lipstick could make women feel better.  And lipstick was a pretty cheap thrill.  For just a few dollars, I could head to my local drugstore and choose from scores of glittering options.

That was then.  This is now.  A very different now.

In 2020, lipstick has become expendable.  If you’re still staying-at-home, sheltering-in-place, or whatever you choose to call it, most makeup has become expendable.

By April, I had pretty much given up wearing lipstick.  When I wrote about wearing scarves as face-coverings, I added:  “One more thing I must remember before I wrap myself in one of my scarves:  Forget about lipstick.  Absolutely no one is going to see my lips, and any lip color would probably rub off on my scarf.”  [https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2020/04/06/join-the-ranks-of-the-scarf-wearers/]

The same goes, of course, for masks.

A former believer in the lip-kick effect, I now gaze at my collection of colorful lipsticks and immediately dismiss the idea of applying one to my lips.  I’m not alone.  When many of us decided to adopt masks and other face-coverings, sales of lip products fell.  As a market research analyst noted, “Nobody wants lipstick smudges inside their masks” (quoted in The Washington Post on June 15th).  Today, as cases of coronavirus spike in many parts of the country, there’s an increasing urgency to wearing masks, even legal requirements to do so.

I wear a mask or scarf whenever I leave home.  Now, viewing my wide array of all sorts of makeup, I primarily focus on sunscreen and other products that protect my skin when I take my daily stroll.

Instead of lipstick, I’ll apply a lip balm like Burt’s Bees moisturizing lip balm.  For the tiniest bit of color, I might add “lip shimmer.”  But neither of these has the look or feel of a true lipstick.  The kind I used to view as a morale-booster.

For a boost in morale, I now rely on sunshine and the endorphins produced by my brisk walking style.

Wearing lipstick right now?  Forgeddaboutit.….

Now let’s think about lipstick in a new light.  When a vaccine is proven to be safe and effective, and a vanishing pandemic no longer dictates the wearing of face-coverings like masks, will women return to adding color to our lips?  Will we enthusiastically rush to retail establishments that offer an array of enticing new lipsticks?

The answer, for now, is unclear.  Many women, adopting the almost universally accepted cultural norm that lipstick will make them more attractive to others, may happily put their dollars down to buy those bright tubes of color again.  Some women may continue to view wearing lipstick as a morale-booster.  But others, after some contemplation, may decide that buying lipstick and other types of makeup isn’t where we should direct our hard-earned cash.

Maybe at least some of our dollars are more usefully directed elsewhere:  To help our neediest fellow citizens; to bolster causes that promote long-sought equity; to support efforts to combat climate change and polluting our planet; to assist medical research that will cure diseases of every stripe.

The future of lipstick?  Who the heck knows?

“Who was that masked man?”

If you ever watched “The Lone Ranger,” a TV series that appeared from 1949 to 1957, you probably remember the question that ended every episode:  “Who was that masked man?”  The Lone Ranger, a Texas Ranger turned vigilante who became a pop-culture hero fighting for truth and justice, wore a mask to obscure his identity.

The question seems more appropriate today than ever before.  With most of us donning masks—or another sort of face-covering—it’s impossible to see the entire face of anyone you encounter in the outside world.  We simply have to trust that we won’t run into any evildoers lurking near us wherever we go.  So far I haven’t felt that I needed someone like the L.R. to come to my rescue.

There’s another concern, however.  When I take my daily neighborhood stroll, I find it troubling that, although most of us are now required to wear masks in public, many people I encounter are walking or jogging sans mask.  The most annoying are the joggers, who don’t seem to care that they are exhaling a whole load of droplets every time they breathe, and heck, their droplets just might be contaminated with Covid-19.

In addition to wearing a mask, walkers need to keep at least 6 feet away from each other, and according to an expert quoted in The Washington Post a few days ago, joggers need to run at least 10 feet away from everyone else.  Although some of the people I encounter try to observe those distances, many don’t.

As I walk, I often mutter into my mask (usually a colorful scarf covering my nose and mouth), trying to restrain my irritation with those violating the current guidelines. [Please see my blog post, “Join the ranks of the scarf-wearers,” at https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2020/04/06/join-the-ranks-of-the-scarf-wearers/.%5D

My mask has actually turned out to be a great way to muffle what I’m not merely thinking but actually saying.  (Sotto voce, of course.)  A favorite:  “Jerk.”  Or worse.  And lately I’ve been borrowing the title of a hilarious children’s book, “The Stupids Die.”

When we were raising our two daughters in the 1980s, we enthusiastically read countless books to them.  Among our favorites were those written and illustrated by James Marshall.  Marshall is probably best known for his delightful series featuring two anthropomorphized hippos called George and Martha.  The series includes five books published between 1972 and 1988.

George and Martha were “best friends,” and one of the things we loved about them was that they were non-gender-specific friends.  So although Martha would sometimes be drawn wearing a hair bow or a colorful skirt, and George sometimes sported a casual fedora, both Martha and George liked to do the same things and go to the same places.  And no matter what transpired, they were always “best friends.”

But James Marshall didn’t confine his talents to the George and Martha series.  As an illustrator, he collaborated with the writer Harry Allard, who wrote a series of four books featuring a family called The Stupids.  Marshall’s colorful illustrations for these books, published between 1977 and 1989, are knee-slappingly hilarious.

The Stupids are colossally stupid, so much so that in “The Stupids Die,” the Stupids leap to the conclusion that they’re dead when a power outage makes their lights go out, turning their home totally dark.  The truth is revealed at the end, and the reader is left laughing at how astoundingly foolish The Stupids are.

The series had its critics, who griped that the stories promoted low self-esteem and negative behavior.  But most kids loved the stories, and copies are still selling to grown-up fans on Amazon.com.

As I witness the choice made by some walkers and joggers on my route–the choice not to keep the prescribed distance or to wear a mask to protect themselves and others from the potentially virus-saturated droplets in their exhalations– “The Stupids Die” keeps reverberating in my head.

Wearing my own mask has the unexpected benefit of allowing me to say whatever I want as I pass these non-mask-wearing and non-distance-keeping people, who are endangering their own lives as well as mine. So in addition to muttering “Jerk” and other expletives, I frequently mutter “The Stupids Die.”

If anyone should hear me, I can promptly explain that I’m simply recalling the title of a favorite children’s book.  And if they want to interpret those words as words that apply to them, I hope they will do just that.

I’m well aware that most victims of Covid-19 are very smart people who contracted the disease through no fault of their own.  I do NOT include them among “the Stupids.”  And I strongly condemn the violent assaults that have recently erupted, where mask-wearers have attacked those who weren’t wearing masks.

But I do judge harshly those in my own surroundings who don’t appear to care about others, and I declare the following:

To everyone walking and jogging, enjoying the fresh air and sunshine that surround us this May, please remember to wear a mask.  Please remember to stay the correct distance away from me.

And for your own sake, please remember that “The Stupids Die.”

 

 

 

 

Join the ranks of the scarf-wearers

I’ve been wearing scarves all my life.  In a dusty photo album filled with black-and-white snapshots, there I am at age 8, all dressed up in my winter best, going somewhere on a cold Thanksgiving Day wearing a silk scarf that wasn’t nearly warm enough.  (Please see “Coal: A Personal History,” published in this blog on January 24, 2020.)

My mother probably set the tone for my sister and me.  We adopted what we viewed as the fashionable wearing of head scarves followed by such notables as Queen Elizabeth II (who wears her Liberty silk scarves to this day, especially during her jaunts in chilly Scotland) and the very stylish Audrey Hepburn. (Please see “Audrey Hepburn and Me,” published in this blog on August 14, 2013.)

The result:  A vast collection of scarves of every description, from humble cotton squares that look like a tablecloth in an Italian restaurant (note: these were made in France!), to lovely hand-painted silk in charming pastel colors, to Hermès lookalikes purchased from vendors in New York City’s Chinatown before the authorities cracked down on illicit counterfeit-selling.

And I wear them.  Especially since I moved to breezy San Francisco, where I never leave my home without a light jacket (or cardigan sweater), a scarf in a handy pocket (and women’s clothes should all have pockets; please see “Pockets!”, published in this blog on January 25, 2018), and a sunhat to protect my skin from the California sun (even when it’s hiding behind a cloud or two).  The only exceptions:  When there’s a torrential downpour or when we’re having unusually hot weather and only the sunhat is a must.

Now I learn that my huge array of scarves may, if used properly, protect me and others from the current scourge of COVID-19.  The State of California Department of Public Health has issued guidelines stating that wearing face coverings, including scarves, may help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.  The CDC and Bay Area public health officials have given similar advice.

Following this guidance, I began wearing scarves as face coverings several days ago, and I can now pick and choose among those I like best, so long as they are substantial enough to do the job.

Of course, I don’t want to scare anyone. After all, a black scarf worn on one’s face can be intimidating.  I certainly don’t want to enter a corner grocery store looking like a miscreant about to pull a hold-up.  So I’m opting for bright colors and cheerful designs.

We’re instructed to wash one’s scarf in hot water after each wearing.  So silk is pretty much out.  Instead I’m inclined to wear cotton or cotton blends, large enough and foldable enough to cover my nose and mouth.

So before I take off for my daily stroll, my search for just the right scarf has propelled me to select one among a wide range of choices.  Shall I choose the black-and-white cotton checkered number?  How about the Vera design featuring bright green peas emerging from their pods on a bright white background?  Or shall I select one of the scarves I bought at the Museo del Prado in Madrid in 1993, eschewing the tempting jewelry reproductions offered in the gift shop in favor of the less expensive and far more practical scarves with an admittedly unique design? (I bought two, each in a different color-combination.)

I’ve worn all of these already,  and tomorrow I’ll begin dipping into my collection to find still others.

I have to confess that I’m not particularly adept at tying my scarves as tightly as I probably should.  But whenever I encounter another pedestrian on my route (and there aren’t many), we steer clear of each other, and I use my (gloved) hand to press the scarf very close to my face.  That should do it, protection-wise.

One more thing I must remember before I wrap myself in one of my scarves:  Forget about lipstick.  Absolutely no one is going to see my lips, and any lip color would probably rub off on my scarf.  Forgeddaboutit.

Please note:  By writing about my scarf-wearing, I do not mean to trivialize the seriousness of the current crisis.  I’m simply hopeful that wearing these bright scarves–and telling you about them–will help to soften the blow the virus has already dealt so many of us.

Please join me as a scarf-wearer and, with luck, we’ll all stay safe and well   Fingers crossed!

 

 

Return to Xanadu, or Have you found your “Rosebud”?

“Rosebud”… every film buff knows the reference. In the monumental 1941 film, Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane repeats the word on his deathbed, recalling the beloved sled so cruelly snatched from him during his impoverished youth.  He was still obsessed with its loss, a loss that may have represented the loss of his mother’s love.

I hope you’ve never lost your “Rosebud.”  But it you have, you might look for it at Hearst Castle.

Hearst Castle?  It’s the fabulous estate built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst on the central coast of California.  Most filmgoers acknowledge that it was Orson Welles’s inspiration for Charles Foster Kane’s mansion, “Xanadu.”

Today Hearst Castle is a National Historic Landmark (as well as a California Historical Landmark), and this year it’s turning 100 years old.  When I learned of this milestone, I couldn’t help recalling my two visits to that extraordinary place.

It wasn’t always called “Hearst Castle.”  Hearst inherited the original estate at San Simeon from his father (along with even more land and $11 million) when his mother died in 1919.  Together with his architect, the pioneering Julia Morgan, they greatly enhanced it during a span of over twenty years.

Hearst himself later called it “The Ranch.” After he separated from his wife in 1925, he and his mistress, Hollywood film star Marion Davies, spent time at his mansion entertaining prominent guests from the worlds of politics, literature, and film.  In addition to the mansion itself, Hearst acquired an enormous amount of priceless artwork and furnishings on an epic scale.

I first heard about Hearst’s mansion in the early 1970s when my soon-to-be husband (I’ll call him Marv) proposed that we drive up the coast from Los Angeles, where we’d met a few months earlier, to San Francisco and back.  Marv said we could stop at “San Simeon,” and our stop there turned out to be a shimmering highlight of one of the most memorable trips of my life.  Maybe that’s why I remember it so well.

We set out from LA on a beautiful sunny morning in mid-March.  Driving north on Highway 1, we visited Danish-themed Solvang and beautiful Morro Bay en route to San Simeon.

When we arrived, we walked up to a fairly small entrance and joined a few other tourists on a tour of the mansion, where we learned a lot about Hearst and his mansion’s history.  I knew something about Hearst from his role in U.S. history, especially his “yellow” journalistic efforts to embroil the U.S. in the Spanish-American War in 1898.  But before we visited San Simeon, I knew very little about his personal life.

When the tour ended, we were able to explore the outdoor areas by ourselves.  My photo album includes scenes of the two of us at “Hearst Mansion.”  Unaccompanied and unbothered by any staff or other tourists, we roamed around, taking photos of each other, choosing backdrops like the gorgeous Neptune Pool and some of the exquisite outdoor statuary.

Just after leaving the Hearst Mansion, we drove through Big Sur and relished a memorable lunch at Nepenthe.  This charming restaurant, which first opened in 1949, features an outdoor terrace offering a panoramic view of the south coast of Big Sur.  The breathtaking view is still worth a stop.

The rest of our trip included equally memorable stops in Carmel and Monterey, as well as a celebration of my birthday in San Francisco.  Visiting a couple of wineries in Napa, seeing friends in Berkeley (where Marv had spent five happy years as a grad student), and a trip down the coast to return to LA (via Andersen’s Pea Soup just off Highway 1 in Buellton) completed our remarkable trip.

But most unforgettable was our joyful decision to marry each other in a few short weeks.

Fast forward about 35 years.  I returned to Xanadu…er, Hearst Castle, during a road trip with my daughter in 2008.  This visit was very different.  First, we had to enter through a sterile structure, the visitor center, which didn’t exist at the time of my earlier trip.  In this dreary “holding pen,” we waited with a large crowd of other tourists until we were herded onto a bus, herded through the castle, and herded back onto a bus.

This new approach struck me as far too regimented.  Although my daughter was delighted to see the castle and learn about its history during our tour, we had very little chance to roam around the grounds by ourselves when the tour ended.

With the castle’s 100th anniversary coming up, some positive changes are arriving on the scene.  For example, the slate of tours has expanded to include tours with exciting new themes.  Even better:  Most tours now allow visitors free-roaming once their guided tour is over. This appears to be much like the roaming I remember from my first trip.  Visitors can admire the grounds, including the Neptune Pool (recently renovated for $10 million), for as long as they wish.  So it now promises to be a far better experience for visitors than the one I found wanting in 2008.

 

In my mind, Hearst Castle is inescapably linked with the movie Citizen Kane.  That classic film looms especially large because it turned out to play an important role in my own life.

Marv and I had met on the campus of UCLA, where we were both working, and we had rented apartments in the same building on the fringes of the campus.  Our lives, not surprisingly, often centered around UCLA.

One of our most remarkable dates involved a showing of Orson Welles’s film in a classroom building on the campus.

Sometime after we decided to get married, Marv asked me whether I wanted to see Citizen Kane.  I immediately jumped at the chance to see a film I’d only heard about but never saw, even on late-night TV.

Marv grinned and said something like, “I think you’ll like it,” adding, “There’s a surprise in it for you.”  That clearly piqued my interest, and I couldn’t wait to see it.

We took our seats in a bare-bones classroom and began to watch the film.  It was fascinating from the start, beginning with the announcement of Kane’s death on the “March of the News” (patterned after the “News of the World,” a newsreel shown in movie theaters in the 1940s). The story then flashed back to Kane’s involvement in politics, the purchase of his first newspaper (soon followed by other papers), and his marriage to his first wife.

I was totally caught up in the storyline.  Then came the surprise.  A character named Susan Alexander suddenly appeared on the screen.

My birth name is not Susan Alexander.  But I was never very fond of the last name (my father’s) I was given at birth, and I was planning to change it to Marv’s last name when we married.  Now here was a character with the name I hoped to have.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t a totally positive character, and as the story moved on, she became less and less so.  Abused by Kane, by the end of the movie she had become a pathetic alcoholic, engendering sympathy rather than antipathy.

I would have been happier to see a more positive figure with my future name on the screen.  But what’s astonishing is how the character’s name has lodged in filmgoers’ minds.

During the decades since I married Marv and assumed her name, I’ve encountered countless people who, upon meeting me, mention Citizen Kane.  I immediately know that these people (sadly, a dwindling number) have seen the film and vividly recall the name of Kane’s aspiring-soprano second wife, who was actually patterned after the wife of another tycoon, Samuel Insull.

I’ve always been happy that I took Marv’s last name and became Susan Alexander (even when I’ve been confused with other women who share my name).  And I’ve never regretted being associated with a truly great film like Citizen Kane.

 

Do you have a “Rosebud”?  I didn’t have a favorite toy that I lost during my childhood, so I’ve never obsessed over something the way Charles Foster Kane obsessed over his sled.

But if you have a “Rosebud,” I hope that you’re luckier than he was, and that someday you, unlike Kane, succeed at tracking it down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Felt the Earth Move Under My Feet

I was lying in bed, actually.  It was 6 a.m. on February 9, 1971, and I was fast asleep when I awoke to feel my bed gently rocking.  I didn’t know a thing about earthquakes, but it seemed pretty clear that that was exactly what was happening.

The recent earthquake in Ridgecrest, California, has opened up a cache of my memories of that quake.

I was a happy transplant from Chicago (where, in February, it was almost certainly bitter cold) to sunny Los Angeles, where I’d begun a job six months earlier in a do-good law office at UCLA Law School.

Just before beginning work in September, I hunted for an apartment near the UCLA campus and wound up renting a furnished apartment in a Southern California-style apartment just across Gayley Avenue from the campus.  I wanted a (cheaper) studio apartment, the kind I’d just left in Chicago, but the building manager told me the last studio had been rented moments before.  I decided to take a hit budget-wise and stretch my finances, renting a one-bedroom apartment instead.

I loved living at this apartment on Kelton Avenue, a short walk from the campus.  Strolling down the path that led to the law school building, I often passed a young man who began to look familiar.  He was handsome, resembling a good-looking lawyer I’d known in Chicago, and he always looked deep in thought, sometimes puffing on a pipe as he walked.  One Saturday, I spied the same fellow approaching the small outdoor pool on the ground floor of our building, plunging in, but leaving fairly soon instead of chatting with any of the other residents.

There was also a dark green Nash Rambler parked in our building’s small outdoor lot.  This car was located directly below my apartment’s terrace.  (Another story for another day.)  It had a Berkeley car dealer’s name surrounding Michigan license plates, but it also had a parking sticker from UCLA.  Interesting!

I later realized who this intriguing fellow was (I’ll call him Marv) when we were introduced at an outdoor reception sponsored by the UCLA Chancellor in October.  (Everything in LA seemed to take place outdoors.)  I was perusing the cookies on the “cookie table” when a charming woman approached me.  “Are you here because you want to be, or would you like to meet some other people?” she asked.

I jumped at the chance to meet others and happily followed her to a group of men standing nearby.  She introduced me to her husband, a UCLA math professor, who asked me what I was doing there.  When I explained that I was a lawyer working at the law school, he asked where I’d gone to law school.  I had to admit that I’d gone to Harvard, and he immediately turned to one of the young men in the group and said “Marv went to Harvard, too.”

I took a good look at Marv, one of several young men standing beside the professor, and he was the handsome fellow I’d seen around my building and on the path between our building and the campus.

Marv called me the next day, and we began dating.  It turned out that he was the person who’d rented the last studio apartment in my apartment building, and it was his Nash Rambler that I’d spied in the parking lot.

By February we were still dating and inching toward a more serious arrangement.

As I lay in my bed that shaky morning of February 9th, I suddenly heard someone banging on my door.  It was Marv, who had run out of his apartment down the hall and come to rescue me.

I hurried to get dressed and left the apartment post-haste with Marv, who drove off to a coffee shop then located at the intersection of Wilshire and Westwood Boulevards.  As we ordered breakfast, I glanced out of a big plate-glass window and stared at a high-rise building looming just across the intersection. I quickly realized that I was terrified, afraid that the building might come crashing down, killing both of us and everyone else in the coffee shop.

Marv tried to reassure me.  He’d lived through earthquakes during his five years as a grad student in Berkeley, and he didn’t think a disaster of that kind was likely.  He’d simply wanted to leave our apartments on the off chance that our small building might have been damaged.  (I later learned that it did suffer some minor damage.)

We left the coffee shop and began driving around Westwood, noticing some shattered windows in a supermarket on Westwood Boulevard but not much else.  It turned out that we’d lived through a pretty significant quake, measuring about 6.9.  It became known as the Sylmar Quake because its epicenter was about 21 miles north of LA in the town of Sylmar.

The Sylmar Quake caused a lot of damage near its epicenter, but we’d been largely spared in Westwood and most of LA itself.  The worst physical damage I observed at UCLA was at the law library, where a great many books had spilled off their shelves onto the floor.

But the quake had a powerful impact on me nevertheless.  Most devastating was uneasiness caused by the countless aftershocks that followed the quake itself.  Recently, residents of Ridgecrest have reported a similar experience.

I felt the earth move under my feet.  It was a rocking motion like that you might feel on a ship at sea.  For weeks I continued to feel the earth move, creating a shaky feeling I couldn’t escape.

When Marv proposed marriage a short time later (still another story for still another day), marrying him meant leaving LA and moving to Ann Arbor, where he was on the faculty at the University of Michigan.  (His stay at UCLA was for a one-year project only.)

Overall, I had loved the blissful months I’d spent in LA., but I was almost happy about leaving.  I adored Marv and wanted to be with him, so that made the move an obvious choice.  Plus, a move to leafy-green Ann Arbor sounded like a good way to escape the undulating earth under my feet.

Events during the next few months helped to persuade me.  Concerts at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus made me feel uneasy.  So did seeing “Company” with George Chakiris and “Knickerbocker Holiday” with Burt Lancaster at theaters in downtown LA.  If we were seated in the balcony, I wondered whether it would suddenly collapse.  If we were seated on the ground floor, I wondered whether the balcony was going to crash down on top of us.

These unsettling feelings would soon be a part of my past.  I married Marv in May, and by the end of July we were driving to Michigan.  But our arrival at Ann Arbor was sadly disheartening.  I didn’t encounter a leafy-green setting, just a somewhat desolate campus whose abundance of elm trees had all vanished (thanks to Dutch Elm disease), and a town more focused on Saturday-afternoon football games than the heady academic atmosphere I expected.

We needed to find a place to live, and in the midst of hurried apartment-hunting, we pulled in somewhere to escape the heat and humidity of August in Ann Arbor.  Inside a sterile Dog ‘n’ Suds, I sobbed, pouring out my disappointment in our new home.

Having stability underfoot just wasn’t worth it. 

Marv agreed.  We resolved to find another location that would suit both of us.  In California, if that was possible.  Another college town if need be.  Four years later, after a one-year-respite in La Jolla, we finally departed Ann Arbor and set up home elsewhere.

Now, back in California, on my own after Marv’s death, I’ve lived with the prospect of another major earthquake ever since I moved to San Francisco.  So far I’ve managed to elude another quake, but that could change at any time, and all of us who have made our homes here know it.

I could live through another Sylmar Quake.  Or not live through it at all.

In the meantime, I relish my return to sun-drenched California, and I try to squeeze out every drop of happiness I can, each and every shiny and non-shaky day.

 

 

 

Sunscreen–and a father who cared

August is on its last legs, but the sun’s rays are still potent. Potent enough to require that we use sunscreen. Especially those of us whose skin is most vulnerable to those rays.

I’ve been vulnerable to the harsh effects of the sun since birth.  And I now apply sunscreen religiously to my face, hands, and arms whenever I expect to encounter sunlight.

When I was younger, sunscreen wasn’t really around.  Fortunately for my skin, I spent most of my childhood and youth in cold-weather climates where the sun was absent much of the year.  Chicago and Boston, even St. Louis, had long winters featuring gray skies instead of sunshine.

I encountered the sun mostly during summers and a seven-month stay in Los Angeles.  But my sun exposure was limited.  It was only when I was about 28 and about to embark on a trip to Mexico that I first heard of “sunblock.”  Friends advised me to seek it out at the only location where it was known to be available, a small pharmacy in downtown Chicago.   I hastened to make my way there and buy a tube of the pasty white stuff, and once I hit the Mexican sun, I applied it to my skin, sparing myself a wretched sunburn.

The pasty white stuff was a powerful reminder of my father.  Before he died when I was 12, Daddy would cover my skin with something he called zinc oxide.

Daddy was a pharmacist by training, earning a degree in pharmacy from the University of Illinois at the age of 21.  One of my favorite family photos shows Daddy in a chemistry lab at the university, learning what he needed to know to earn that degree.  His first choice was to become a doctor, but because his own father had died during Daddy’s infancy, there was no way he could afford medical school.  An irascible uncle was a pharmacist and somehow pushed Daddy into pharmacy as a less expensive route to helping people via medicine.

Daddy spent years bouncing between pharmacy and retailing, and sometimes he did both.  I treasure a photo of him as a young man standing in front of the drug store he owned on the South Side of Chicago.  When I was growing up, he sometimes worked at a pharmacy and sometimes in other retailing enterprises, but he never abandoned his knowledge of pharmaceuticals.  While working as a pharmacist, he would often bring home new drugs he believed would cure our problems.  One time I especially recall:  Because as a young child I suffered from allergies, Daddy was excited when a brand-new drug came along to help me deal with them, and he brought a bottle of it home for me.

As for preventing sunburn, Daddy would many times take a tube of zinc oxide and apply it to my skin.

One summer or two, I didn’t totally escape a couple of bad sunburns. Daddy must have been distracted just then, and I foolishly exposed my skin to the sun.  He later applied a greasy ointment called butesin picrate to soothe my burn. But I distinctly remember that he used his knowledge of chemistry to get out that tube of zinc oxide whenever he could.

After my pivotal trip to Mexico, sunblocks became much more available.  (I also acquired a number of sunhats to shield my face from the sun.)  But looking back, I wonder about the composition of some of the sunblocks I applied to my skin for decades.  Exactly what was I adding to my chemical burden?

In 2013, the FDA banned the use of the word “sunblock,” stating that it could mislead consumers into thinking that a product was more effective than it really was.  So sunblocks have become sunscreens, but some are more powerful than others.

A compelling reason to use powerful sunscreens?  The ozone layer that protected us in the past has undergone damage in recent years, and there’s scientific concern that more of the sun’s dangerous rays can penetrate that layer, leading to increased damage to our skin.

In recent years, I’ve paid a lot of attention to what’s in the sunscreens I choose.  Some of the chemicals in available sunscreens are now condemned by groups like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) as either ineffective or hazardous to your health. (Please check EWG’s 2018 Sunscreen Guide for well-researched and detailed information regarding sunscreens.)

Let’s note, too, that the state of Hawaii has banned the future use of sunscreens that include one of these chemicals, oxybenzone, because it washes off swimmers’ skin into ocean waters and has been shown to be harmful to coral reefs.  If it’s harming coral, what is it doing to us?

Because I now make the very deliberate choice to avoid using sunscreens harboring suspect chemicals, I use only those sunscreens whose active ingredients include—guess what– zinc oxide.   Sometimes another safe ingredient, titanium dioxide, is added.  The science behind these two mineral (rather than chemical) ingredients?   Both have inorganic particulates that reflect, scatter, and absorb damaging UVA and UVB rays.

Daddy, I think you’d be happy to know that science has acknowledged what you knew all those years ago.  Pasty white zinc oxide still stands tall as one of the very best barriers to repel the sun’s damaging rays.

In a lifetime filled with many setbacks, both physical and professional, my father always took joy in his family.  He showered us with his love, demonstrating that he cared for us in innumerable ways.

Every time I apply a sunscreen based on zinc oxide, I think of you, Daddy.  With love, with respect for your vast knowledge, and with gratitude that you cared so much for us and did everything you could to help us live a healthier life.

 

You CAN Go Home Again

Yes.  You can go home again.  I just did it.

After spending many (too many?) decades of my life in the Chicago area, I departed for San Francisco in 2005.  Forgive the cliché, but I’ve never looked back.

I had lots of good reasons to leave Chicago, and lots of good reasons to head for the West Coast.  At one time or another, I’d spent some of the happiest years of my life in California, and I looked forward to many more happy years in the Bay Area.

Thankfully, those happy years have become a reality, and returning to Chicago was never on my agenda.

Yes, I’d left behind some great friends and some family, too, and I did miss seeing them.  But I didn’t miss anything else in Chicago.

So why did I turn up there for a weekend in May?

Easy answer:  My older daughter (I’ll call her Mary) decided to celebrate her May birthday by taking her kids to Chicago to show them where she’d grown up.  She wanted to escort them to all of the places that had been important to her:  where we lived; where she went to school (from nursery school and elementary school to junior high and high school); where she spent countless hours at our lakefront park, our beach, our library, and all the rest.

And she asked me to tag along.

Of course I said “yes”!

After telling the kids story after story about these places since they were toddlers, we finally had a chance to show them what they’re really like.

So here’s how we spent the two full days we were there:

First day:  We explored the sites near our former home in a leafy suburb on the North Shore.  We first drove to the block where we lived; then to the elementary school two blocks away; to the even closer nursery school (like the one where I set a murder  in my fictional mystery, Jealous Mistress); and the small suburban downtown.  We frequently emerged from our rental car to get a close-up look.  Some things had changed; many had not.

We proceeded up the North Shore to look at New Trier High School, Mary’s alma mater.  Then we spent the afternoon at the Chicago Botanic Garden (actually located in Glencoe), a fabulous garden filled with astounding plants, a charming waterfall, three islands featuring Japanese gardens, and a remarkable sculpture of Carl Linnaeus.  Mary and I fondly recalled how much she, her father, her sister, and I had relished our countless visits there.

The first day included mouth-watering meals at favorite spots like Walker Brothers pancake house (it’s called Palmer Brothers in Jealous Mistress), where we devoured its revered apple pancakes, and Lou Malnati’s, where we eagerly consumed some of the deep-dish pizza Chicago has made famous.

Second day:  We drove into the city and parked at Navy Pier, planning to hit some of the city’s highlights.  Navy Pier, renovated in the ‘90s as a playground for Chicagoans, was a great place to start.  We braved the hot sun and waited in line to board the Centennial Wheel, a recently redesigned Ferris wheel that now sports large enclosed gondola cars with huge windows providing magnificent city views.  We even bought copies of the corny tourist-rooking photo taken of us just before we boarded.  After lunch at a casual spot on the pier, we hopped on a shuttle bus to Michigan Avenue.  It dropped us off close to our destination:  the Michigan Avenue Bridge over the Chicago River, where we’d take the renowned 90-minute architectural boat tour.

We indulged in treats at the Ghirardelli Square outpost in the Wrigley Building as we gazed at the historic Tribune Tower. Then we boarded the “First Lady” cruise to see the notable architecture along the Chicago River.  We were lucky to have a remarkably knowledgeable tour guide associated with the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

We marveled at the great architecture and the many stories about the tall buildings sited along the riverfront.  But there was one enormous blot on the riverscape:  a sleek 92-story building, so shiny it reflects the Chicago skyline on its stunning glass façade.  Unfortunately, the outward appearance of this otherwise beautiful building is sullied by the enormous name erected at the very top in enormous capital letters:  T—-P.

This building looms so large, and in such a prominent location along the river (on the former site of the Chicago Sun-Times plaza, where my high school choir once sang Christmas carols), that the name at the top infuriated me.  Weren’t the residents of Chicago, who voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in 2016 (she won over 83% of the votes in Chicago, while her opponent squeaked out 12%), appalled that they must confront this name on a regular basis?  Although a few mild protests have been mounted, the name remains.  But take heart.  The Chicago Tribune reported on May 30 that the real-estate firm advertising space in the building has chosen to downplay the name: Its brand-new brochure doesn’t even mention it.  Others avoiding any connection with the name include the building’s architects, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who refer to it by its address, not its name, on the firm’s website.

Still, if I lived in Chicago, I’d go further than that.  I’d organize an effort to remove that name from everyone’s sight.  I really would.

When we left the boat, we speedily walked south on Michigan Avenue, headed for Millennium Park and our dinner reservation at Gage, a gastropub directly across from the park.  After a great meal celebrating Mary’s birthday, complete with cake and candles, we made a bee-line for the park and its now-famous “Bean.”  After a good look around the park, we made our way back to Navy Pier to collect our car and drive back to our hotel.

Before heading to O’Hare for our return home, we managed to squeeze in encounters with several wonderful old friends and a few family members, along with a sentimental return to a favorite Evanston restaurant, Olive Mountain.

Did I forget to mention that we hit extraordinarily beautiful weather?  Sunshine and temperatures in the 70s reminded us of Bay Area weather, not the kind of weather we’d managed to survive in Chicago year after year.  We made sure to let the kids know that this weather was not typical for Chicago!

In short, you can go home again.  Not to make it your home again.  But to spend a delightful weekend visiting old haunts and new attractions.  Sharing the experience with good friends and loved ones makes it even better.

 

 

 

Exploring the Universe with Two Young Muggles

Last week, I happily accompanied two young Muggles as we explored the universe together.

The universe?  Universal Studios in Hollywood, California, plus a few other nearby spots.

The young Muggles?  My astonishing granddaughters, both great fans of the series of Harry Potter (HP) books written by J.K. Rowling and the films based on them.  Eleven-year-old Beth has read all of the books at least twice, and nine-year-old Shannon has seen most of the movies.  Four of us grown-up Muggles came along, all conversant with HP except for me. (I’ve seen only the first film.)  According to Rowling, Muggles are people who lack any magical ability and aren’t born in a magical family.  I.e., people like us.

For me, our trip down the coast of California was an exhilarating escape from the concerns assaulting me at home:  dental issues, efforts to get my third novel published, and—of course—the current political scene.  We landed at the very edge of the continent, staying at a newly renovated hotel on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, where we literally faced the ocean and walked alongside it every day.

Bookending our fun-filled encounter with Universal Studios were visits to two great art museums.  Coming from San Francisco, a city inhabited by our own array of wonderful art museums and galleries, we didn’t expect to be exceedingly impressed by the museums offered in L.A.  But we were.

On Presidents’ Day, we headed to LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where a long, long entry line stretched as far as Wilshire Boulevard.  Because of atypically overcast skies on a school/work holiday?  Not entirely.  Admission was free that day (thanks, Target), so lots of folks showed up in search of fee-less exposure to outstanding works of art.

We viewed a lot of excellent art, but when our feet began to ache, we piled back into our rented minivan and went a little way down the road (Fairfax Avenue) to the Original Farmers’ Market.  Sampling food and drink in a farmers’ market dating back to 1934 was great fun.  We also took a quick look at The Grove, an upscale mall adjacent to the F.M., buying a book at Barnes and Noble before heading back to Santa Monica for the evening.

The next day was devoted to Universal Studios, where our first destination was The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  Here I would at last explore the universe with two young Muggles.  We walked through other Universal attractions, but they didn’t tempt us…not just yet.  The lure of Harry Potter and friends took precedence.

We’d been advised that a must for first-timers was a ride called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, so we decided to do that first.  As we approached the ride, we saw Muggles like us everywhere, including swarms of young people garbed in Hogwarts robes and other gear (all for sale at the shops, of course).  As we waited in line for the ride, we entered a castle (constructed to look like Hogwarts), where we were greeted by colorful talking portraits of HP characters hanging on the walls.

Warnings about the ride were ubiquitous.  It would be jarring, unsuitable for those prone to dizziness or motion sickness, and so forth and so on, ad nauseum.  As someone who’s worked as a lawyer, I knew precisely why these warnings were posted.  Universal Studios was trying to avoid any and all legal liability for complaints from ride-goers.

I decided to ignore the warnings and hopped on a fast-moving chair built for 3 people.  I was bumped around a bit against the chair’s hard surfaces, and I closed my eyes during some of the most startling 3-D effects, but I emerged from the ride in one piece and none the worse for wear.  Nine-year-old Shannon, however, was sobbing when we all left the ride together.  Even sitting next to her super-comforting dad hadn’t shielded her from the scariest special effects.

After the ride, we strolled around The Wizarding World, sampling sickeningly sweet Butterbeer, listening to the Frog Choir, and checking out the merchandise at shops like Gladrags Wizardwear and Ollivanders.  Olllivanders featured magic wands by “Makers of Fine Wands since 382 B.C.”  (Prices began at $40 for something that was essentially a wooden stick.)

Overall, we had a splendid time with HP and friends.  But now it was finally time to explore things non-HP.  Our first priority was the Studio Tour.  We piled into trams that set out on a tour of the four-acre backlot of the world’s largest working studio, where movies and TV shows are still filmed every day.  We got a chance to view the Bates Motel (including a live actor portraying creepy Norman Bates), a pretty realistic earthquake, a virtual flood, a plane-crash scene from The War of the Worlds, and two things I could have done without.  One featured King Kong in 3-D (the new Kong movie being heavily promoted at Universal); the other offered 3-D scenes from The Fast and the Furious films—not my cup of tea.  But overall it was a great tour for movie buffs like us.

After the tour, we headed for the fictional town of Springfield, home of the Simpsons family, stars of The Simpsons TV comedy program as well as their own film.  Soon we were surrounded by many of the hilarious Simpsons locations, including the Kwik-E-Mart, Moe’s Tavern, the Duff Brewery Beer Garden, and a sandwich shop featuring the Krusty Burger and the Sideshow Bob Footlong.  Characters like Krusty the Clown, Sideshow Bob, and the Simpsons themselves wandered all around Springfield, providing great fodder for photos.  For anyone who’s ever watched and laughed at The Simpsons, this part of Universal is tons of fun.

The Simpsons ride was terrific, too.  Once again, lots of warnings, lots of getting bumped around, and lots of 3-D effects, but it was worth it.  Maybe because I’ve always liked The Simpsons, even though I’ve hardly watched the TV show in years.

Other notable characters and rides at Universal include the Minions (from the Despicable Me films), Transformers, Jurassic Park, and Shrek.  Some of us sought out a couple of these, but I was happy to take a break, sit on a nearby bench, munch on popcorn, and sip a vanilla milkshake.

When the 6 p.m. closing time loomed, we had to take off.  Once more, we piled into the minivan and headed for an evening together in Santa Monica.  This time we all took in the Lego Batman movie.  I think I missed seeing some of it because, after a long day of exploring the universe, I fell asleep.

On the last day of our trip, we drove to the Getty Center, the lavish art museum located on a hill in Brentwood very close to the place where I got married decades ago.  Thanks to J. Paul Getty, who not only made a fortune in the oil industry but also liked to collect art, the Center features a large permanent collection as well as impressive changing exhibitions.

The six of us wandered through the museum’s five separate buildings, admiring the fabulous art as well as the stunning architecture.  We also lingered outside, relishing the gorgeous views and the brilliant sunshine that had been largely absent since our arrival in LA.  A bite to eat in the crowded café, a short trip to the museum store, and we six Muggles of various ages were off to Santa Monica one last time before driving home to San Francisco.

By the way, at the museum store you can buy a magnet featuring J. Paul Getty’s recipe for success:  “1. Rise early.  2. Work hard.  3. Strike oil.”  It certainly worked for him!

 

It’s Gonna Be a Bright, Bright, Bright, Sunshiny Day

Summer has arrived, and with it, lots and lots of sunshine. Americans love sunshine and flock to it whenever we can.
But sunshine isn’t an unmitigated benefit. Dangers lurk in those rays. Most of us know by now that harmful UV (ultraviolet) light can be toxic, and we use sunscreen (more or less religiously) to deter the most harmful effects. The CDC (the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends avoiding prolonged exposure to the sun and wearing sunscreen with a minimum of 15 SPF.
So what else is new? Well, a raft of recent studies has in fact produced some brand-new information about sunshine.
First, researchers at Harvard have turned up startling evidence that may explain why some people don’t restrict their time in the sun even though they’re aware of the dangers. It seems that basking in those UV rays can be addictive. According to a new study from Harvard Medical School, investigators at Mass General Hospital have found that chronic UV exposure raises “circulating levels of beta-endorphin” in mice, and that mice who become accustomed to those levels exhibit “withdrawal symptoms” when the beta-endorphin activity is blocked.
What is beta-endorphin? Most of us have heard of endorphins, powerful neurotransmitters that originate in the human body, controlling emotions and often blocking pain. A “beta-endorphin” is one kind of endorphin, considered to be not only stronger than morphine as a pain-blocker but also producing feelings of pleasure. Beta-endorphin is much like an opioid, a/k/a an opiate, a drug used by the medical profession to treat pain. Opioids/opiates impact the brain, leading to feelings of intense pleasure, and addiction—both physical and mental—can develop very quickly.
According to lead researcher David E. Fisher, the Wigglesworth Professor and Chair of Dermatology at HMS and Mass General, the Harvard study found that UV radiation produced “opiate-like effects, including addictive behavior.” The study, reported in the June 19 issue of Cell, may explain what Fisher calls “the ‘sun-seeking’ behavior that may underlie the relentless rise in most forms of skin cancer.”
The study uncovered mounting evidence of addictive behavior among humans as well as mice. Several studies have noted addiction-like behavior in people using indoor tanning facilities. Other studies found that an “opioid blocker” produced withdrawal-like symptoms in these frequent tanners.
Let’s look at what the Harvard researchers did. For six weeks, they delivered a daily dose of UV light—equal to the exposure of fair-skinned humans to 20 or 30 minutes of midday Florida sun—on the shaved backs of a group of mice. Within a week, levels of beta-endorphin in their blood rose significantly. The levels remained elevated during the study period, gradually returning to normal only after UV exposure ended. When the researchers administered naloxone, an “opioid blocker” known to block opioid-pathway activity, the mice had such classic symptoms of opioid withdrawal as trembling, shaking, and teeth-chattering.
Fisher concluded that humans might react the same way, noting that “a natural mechanism reinforcing UV-seeking behavior may have developed during mammalian evolution.” Why? Probably because we synthesize vitamin D (increasingly viewed as an essential nutrient) from the UV light in sunshine. Low blood levels of vitamin D can lead to a host of ailments. But sun-seeking behavior, Fisher warned, carries with it “the carcinogenic risk of UV light.” Other sources of vitamin D, like cheap oral supplements, more safely and accurately maintain healthy vitamin D levels.
Fisher concluded that because persistent UV- seeking appears to be addictive, reducing skin-cancer risks may require “actively confronting” hazardous behavior like indoor tanning. Although both the CDC and the FDA have indicted indoor tanning as highly dangerous, Fisher fears the “passive risk-messages” we’re using aren’t good enough. In other words, we need to use much scarier warnings to let addicted sun-lovers know how destructive their behavior is.
At the same time, there’s new information that not enough sun exposure can also be risky. The July issue of the Journal of Internal Medicine reported on a study conducted in Sweden suggesting that the CDC guidelines may be too restrictive in regions with limited sunshine. The Swedes tracked sun exposure in 30,000 light-skinned Swedish women ages 25 to 64 from 1990 to 1992, gathering a wealth of information, including time spent sunbathing and the use of tanning beds. When national statistics were later reviewed in 2011, it appeared that women who got the most sun had the greatest risk of developing skin cancer. No big surprise there. But it was surprising that women who avoided the sun were twice as likely to die from any cause, including skin cancer. The risk of dying from all causes was twice as great among the sun-avoiders and 40 percent higher in those with moderate sun exposure. The study didn’t include information on blood levels of vitamin D or the use of vitamin D supplements, but its results may actually support the Harvard conclusions. If exposure to sunshine leads to better health overall, maybe that’s because sunshine leads to higher vitamin D levels. If so, our focus should probably shift to ensuring that everyone gets enough vitamin D, regardless of sun exposure.
Finally, if you’re a confirmed sun-lover, you might want to know about another study, this one conducted at Northwestern Medical School. Researchers found that people who are exposed to even moderately bright morning light have a significantly lower body mass index (BMI, based on height and weight) than those who had their first exposure later in the day. According to lead author Kathryn Reid, the earlier the light exposure, the lower one’s BMI. Senior author Phyllis Zee, director of the school’s Sleep and Circadian Rhythms Research Program, noted that light is the “most potent agent to synchronize your internal body clock,” regulating circadian rhythms, which in turn “regulate energy balance.” In short, if you want to lower your BMI, you might want to get outside between 8 a.m. and noon (20 to 30 minutes should do it).
Summing up, “I can see clearly now….”
For people like me (a redhead with extremely light skin), the less sun exposure the better. Although I love being outside on a sunny day, I use lots of sunscreen and stay in the shade as much I can. I make up the vitamin D deficit by taking an inexpensive supplement every morning.
For everyone else, the studies pretty much reinforce what we already knew. They suggest keeping your sun exposure within bounds. Some time in the sun is fine, so long as you use some sunscreen. Avoid overdoing your exposure via indoor tanning, and otherwise avoid addictive sun-seeking behavior. But one way or another, don’t forget to get some vitamin D.