Category Archives: University of California, Berkeley

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.

 

 

 

No More Sweethearts?

The demise of the ever-popular Sweethearts, Valentine’s Day heart-shaped candy that featured messages like “BE MINE” and “TRUE LOVE,” has surprised almost everyone.

The company that has been selling them to the public since 1902, Necco, went out of business last year.  As a result, the perennial conversation hearts are no longer rolling off conveyor belts.

According to The Wall Street Journal, some fans of the candy hearts have resorted to the black market to buy up the last few batches they could get their hands on.  Even some teenagers are reportedly bummed to see them go.

Please don’t count me among these fans.  I always found Necco hearts sickeningly sweet and almost chalky whenever I bit into one.  Instead, I’ve unashamedly preferred candy hearts made of chocolate.  Any kind of chocolate.

But the news about Necco hearts has reminded me of a treasured family story.  Growing up in a modest home in East Cleveland, my husband Herb exhibited his smarts very early in life. The smarts that later propelled him from East Cleveland to a scholarship at Harvard College, a Ph.D. at Berkeley, and the life of a math professor at several leading universities.

Herb would tell me that when he was a little boy, he liked being pulled around in his red-painted wooden wagon by a neighborhood kid who was happy to do it in return for Necco wafers. Doling out the pastel-colored wafers like shiny pennies, Herb happily rode around the neighborhood in his wagon as it was pulled by the other kid.

If your first reaction is dismay that a young boy may have exploited his neighbor by giving him candy wafers in return for a cool ride in his wooden wagon, please step back for a moment.  The situation was really a win-win for both boys, probably an agreement reached at arms’ length.  Herb got his joyful wagon ride while his neighbor got a joyful bunch of candy wafers in return.

When Necco’s financial troubles led it to close its factory last summer, another candy company bought Sweehearts, Necco wafers, and some other brands.  The new company, Spangler, couldn’t ramp up production of the hearts in time for this Valentine’s Day, but it may produce them next year.

I can wait.  But if you want to tell me that I “LOOK GOOD” and that you “LOVE ME,” please don’t wait for production of Sweethearts to begin again.  Just go ahead and tell me.  Those messages are still as welcome as ever.

 

 

 

Of Mice and Chocolate (with apologies to John Steinbeck)

Have you ever struggled with your weight?  If you have, here’s another question:  How’s your sense of smell?

Get ready for some startling news.  A study by researchers at UC Berkeley recently found that one’s sense of smell can influence an important decision by the brain:  whether to burn fat or to store it.

In other words, just smelling food could cause you to gain weight.

But hold on.  The researchers didn’t study humans.  They studied mice.

The researchers, Andrew Dillin and Celine Riera, studied three groups of mice.  They categorized the mice as “normal” mice, “super-smellers,” and those without any sense of smell.  Dillin and Riera found a direct correlation between the ability to smell and how much weight the mice gained from a high-fat diet.

Each mouse ate the same amount of food, but the super-smellers gained the most weight.

The normal mice gained some weight, too.  But the mice who couldn’t smell anything gained very little.

The study, published in the journal Cell Metabolism in July 2017 was reported in the San Francisco Chronicle.  It concluded that outside influences, like smell, can affect the brain’s functions that relate to appetite and metabolism.

According to the researchers, extrapolating their results to humans is possible.  People who are obese could have their sense of smell wiped out or temporarily reduced to help them control cravings and burn calories and fat faster.  But Dillin and Riera warned about risks.

People who lose their sense of smell “can get depressed” because they lose the pleasure of eating, Riera said.  Even the mice who lost their sense of smell had a stress response that could lead to a heart attack.  So eliminating a human’s sense of smell would be a radical step, said Dillin.  But for those who are considering surgery to deal with obesity, it might be an option.

Here comes another mighty mouse study to save the day.  Maybe it offers an even better way to deal with being overweight.

This study, published in the journal Cell Reports in September 2017, also focused on creating more effective treatments for obesity and diabetes.  A team of researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found a way to convert bad white fact into good brown fat—in mice.

Researcher Irfan J. Lodhi noted that by targeting a protein in white fat, we can convert bad fat into a type of fat (beige fat) that fights obesity.  Beige fat (yes, beige fat) was discovered in adult humans in 2015.  It functions more like brown fat, which burns calories, and can therefore protect against obesity.

When Lodhi’s team blocked a protein called PexRAP, the mice were able to convert white fat into beige fat.  If this protein could be blocked safely in white fat cells in humans, people might have an easier time losing weight.

Just when we learned about these new efforts to fight obesity, the high-fat world came out with some news of its own.  A Swiss chocolate manufacturer, Barry Callebaut, unveiled a new kind of chocolate it calls “ruby chocolate.”  The company said its new product offers “a totally new taste experience…a tension between berry-fruitiness and luscious smoothness.”

The “ruby bean,” grown in countries like Ecuador, Brazil, and Ivory Coast, apparently comes from the same species of cacao plant found in other chocolates.  But the Swiss company claims that ruby chocolate has a special mix of compounds that lend it a distinctive pink hue and fruity taste.

A company officer told The New York Times that “hedonistic indulgence” is a consumer need and that ruby chocolate addresses that need, more than any other kind of chocolate, because it’s so flavorful and exciting.

So let’s sum up:  Medical researchers are exploring whether the scent of chocolate or any other high-fat food might cause weight-gain (at least for those of us who are “super-smellers”), and whether high-fat food like chocolate could possibly lead to white fat cells “going beige.”

In light of these efforts by medical researchers, shouldn’t we ask ourselves this question:  Do we really need another kind of chocolate?

Declare Your Independence: Those High Heels Are Killers

I’ve long maintained that high heels are killers.  I never used that term literally, of course.  I merely viewed high-heeled shoes as distinctly uncomfortable and an outrageous concession to the dictates of fashion that can lead to both pain and permanent damage to a woman’s body.

A few years ago, however, high heels proved to be actual killers.  The Associated Press reported that two women, ages 18 and 23, were killed in Riverside, California, as they struggled in high heels to get away from a train.  With their car stuck on the tracks, the women attempted to flee as the train approached.  A police spokesman later said, “It appears they were in high heels and [had] a hard time getting away quickly.”

Like those young women, I was sucked into wearing high heels when I was a teenager.  It was de rigueur for girls at my high school to seek out the trendy shoe stores on State Street in downtown Chicago and purchase whichever high-heeled offerings our wallets could afford.  On my first visit, I was entranced by the three-inch-heeled numbers that pushed my toes into a too-narrow space and revealed them in what I thought was a highly provocative position.  If feet can have cleavage, those shoes gave me cleavage.

Never mind that my feet were encased in a vise-like grip.  Never mind that I walked unsteadily on the stilts beneath my soles.  And never mind that my whole body was pitched forward in an ungainly manner as I propelled myself around the store.  I liked the way my legs looked in those shoes, and I had just enough baby-sitting money to pay for them.  Now I could stride with pride to the next Sweet Sixteen luncheon on my calendar, wearing footwear like all the other girls’.

That luncheon revealed what an unwise purchase I’d made.  When the event was over, I found myself stranded in a distant location with no ride home, and I started walking to the nearest bus stop.  After a few steps, it was clear that my shoes were killers.  I could barely put one foot in front of the other, and the pain became so great that I removed my shoes and walked in stocking feet the rest of the way.

After that painful lesson, I abandoned three-inch high-heeled shoes and resorted to wearing lower ones.   Sure, I couldn’t flaunt my shapely legs quite as effectively, but I managed to secure male attention nevertheless.

Instead of conforming to the modern-day equivalent of Chinese foot-binding, I successfully and happily fended off the back pain, foot pain, bunions, and corns that my fashion-victim sisters suffer in spades.

The recent trend toward higher and higher heels is disturbing.  I’m baffled by women, especially young women, who buy into the mindset that they must follow the dictates of fashion and the need to look “sexy” by wearing extremely high heels.

When I watch TV, I see too many women wearing stilettos that force them into the ungainly walk I briefly sported so long ago.  I can’t help noticing the women on late-night TV shows who are otherwise smartly attired and often very smart (in the other sense of the word), yet wear ridiculously high heels that force them to greet their hosts with that same ungainly walk.  Some appear on the verge of toppling over.  And at a recent Oscar awards telecast, women tottered to the stage in ultra-high heels, often accompanied by escorts who kindly held onto them to prevent their embarrassing descent into the orchestra pit.

The women who, like me, have adopted lower-heeled shoes strike me as much smarter and much less likely to fall on their attractive (and sometimes surgically-enhanced) faces.

Here’s another example.  When I sat on the stage of Zellerbach Hall at the Berkeley commencement for math students a few years ago, I was astonished that many if not most of the women graduates hobbled across the stage to receive their diplomas in three- and four-inch-high sandals.  I was terrified that these super-smart math students would trip and fall before they could grasp the document their mighty brain-power had earned.  (Fortunately, none of them tripped, but I could nevertheless imagine the foot-pain that accompanied the joy of receiving their degrees.)

Foot-care professionals soundly support my view.   According to the American Podiatric Medical Association, a heel that’s more than 2 or 3 inches makes comfort just about impossible.  Why?  Because a 3-inch heel creates seven times more stress than a 1-inch heel.

The San Francisco Chronicle recently questioned Dr. Amol Saxena, a podiatrist and foot and ankle surgeon who practices in Palo Alto (and assists Nike’s running team).  He explained that after 1.5 inches, the pressure increases on the ball of the foot and can lead to “ball-of-the-foot numbness.”  (Yikes!)  He doesn’t endorse 3-inch heels and points out that celebrities wear them for only a short time (for example, on the red carpet), not all day.  To ensure a truly comfortable shoe, he adds, don’t go above a 1.5 inch heel.  If you insist on wearing higher heels, limit how much time you spend in them.

Some encouraging changes may be afoot.  The latest catalog from Nordstrom, one of America’s major shoe-sellers, features a large number of lower-heeled styles along with higher-heeled numbers.  Because Nordstrom is a bellwether in the fashion world, its choices can influence shoe-seekers.  Or is Nordstrom reflecting what its shoppers have already told the stores’ decision-makers?  The almighty power of the purse—how shoppers are choosing to spend their money–probably plays a big role here.

Beyond the issue of comfort, let’s remember that high heels present a far more urgent problem.  As the deaths in Riverside demonstrate, women who wear high heels can be putting their lives at risk.  When women need to flee a dangerous situation, it’s pretty obvious that high heels can handicap their ability to escape.

How many other needless deaths have resulted from hobbled feet?

The Fourth of July is fast approaching.  As we celebrate the holiday this year, I urge the women of America to declare their independence from high-heeled shoes.

If you’re currently wearing painful footwear, bravely throw those shoes away, or at the very least, toss them into the back of your closet.   Shod yourself instead in shoes that allow you to walk—and if need be, run—in comfort.

Your wretched appendages, yearning to be free, will be forever grateful.

 

[Earlier versions of this commentary appeared on Susan Just Writes and the San Francisco Chronicle.]