Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Great (Kosher) Outdoors

The past few weeks, my attention has been focused on the birds and the bees....and the water and the trees and the rocks and the desert and the forest. Yes, I've not forgotten that I'm an "environmentalist," out to "save the world" with the glow of organic produce in my cheeks and fashionable fair-trade hemp underwear covering my caboose.

These past few weeks I've been in touch with the natural world in a variety of ways. Last week, I enjoyed the company of some of the wonderful individuals at San Francisco Baykeeper, while we went out on the ocean checking for pollution, Danger Bay style. These guys do lots of excellent work in a watershed serving 10 million people and a whackload more aquatic, bird, plant and mammal life. And the sue the crap out of polluters - the american justice system at its finest.

It's funny - when you live the heart of the city, you almost forget that you are surrounded by water. And so yesterday, I took an easy bike ride through Golden Gate Park and ended up at Ocean Beach. Now I've not been at the ocean some time, and after struggling with my bike up a sandy embankment, I was faced with a breathtaking scene of white waves cresting long along a limitless, sandy shore. Shoes kicked off, I meandered down, lay my bike in the sand, and soaked my toes in the crisp surf of the ocean, letting myself wander back and forth according to the tide. Although I know this sounds like hippy-dippy silliness, you do get a sort of a primal pull to the water and to the earth when you step on the sand and into the ocean. It will knock you over if you aren't careful and will entice you deeper, only to surprise you with generous waves, one on top of the other, that confidently soak your pants (not that this happened to me. No, I was much too careful to come giggle and sopping wet out of the ocean).

I know I am one of many who recognizes the connection you get when facing the magnificence of nature. This week, I was introduced to an incredible organization based in Berkeley called Wilderness Torah. A little background: I'm one of those Jews who say I'm culturally Jewish (ie I'm kind of "meh" on the whole god thing but I love me a pile of steaming, golden crispy latkes and regularly kvetch about everything I can. Oy, the skirts girls wear these days!). Although I've been involved in Jewish organizations, and I do love that musty, old-person smell of the synagogue, I've never felt very connected to the spirituality of my religion. Wilderness Torah is working to connect Jews with the very present - but seemingly forgotten - connection to the natural world our religion has. It does this through educational programs with children and youth as well as providing pretty neat-o ways of celebrating holidays in places like the Red Wood forest or the Joshua Tree desert. I love this. I've always felt that the environmental aspect of Judaism has been largely ignored but is ever-present in the scriptures and I'm so pleased that this organization exists. I hope to volunteer with them, learn more, and who knows - maybe I'll find myself a nice vegan-socialist-fair-trade Jewish lawyer to marry.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Gaining and losing a home

Last week I celebrated American Thanksgiving (look closely - this turkey already has cooking utensils with it. How convenient!). This is a holiday that celebrates appreciation and thanks, and the historical trade in which indigenous people in what is now the U.S. showed settlers how to fish and hunt and in return were given the gift of whisky and syphilis.

But for most Americans, this holiday is about family (be it good friends, neighbours, family members) and home. I was fortunate enough to spend my thanksgiving with extended family near Sacramento.

I was worried a little bit because my expectation of this holiday was that I was going to eat until I could no longer move, and then pass out, pants undone and drooling in front of some American football (if the food didn't make me pass out, the football would). But then I was told that the people hosting tended to be "healthy" people, and I feared we would be given sprouted mung beans and a slice of apple for dessert. Not that these things aren't good, but really, I'm living in the fattest nation in the world, and I feel I should do my part to pack on as much poundage as possible while I'm here.

I needn't have worried. The overloaded table groaned with appetizers, rich bowls of potatoes, yams, gravy, beans, warm baskets of bread, a huge, tender turkey, cheesecake, fruit, pie, and fruit custard cake. It also happened that the host grew his own grapes and was an amateur wine maker. So, only to be polite, I threw back several glasses of very good wine. I recognized then and there that Thanksgiving could become one of my favorite holidays.

However, thanksgiving is also the day before the most horrific day in the United States - Black Friday, a massive consumer holiday where people push, shove, and pepper-spray each other to get the "best deals" so they can carp to their neighbours on how much money they saved. The irony of this being that in fact, they did not save money - they spent it. If you save $100 off a $400 his and hers matching chamber pots, you've still spent $300. On matching chamber pots.
This year especially, this massive consumeristic holiday is particularly disturbing. As a Canadian, I read about people losing their homes and their savings but it was never that tangible and being in San Francisco, I hadn't really thought too much about it. But over the few days I stayed with my relatives, they listed off five or six families who have had to move into apartments or friends' and families' homes because they lost their own in the recession. And the saddest part of this is that this group included a young family, a grandmother, and a couple in which one worked as a successful architect, and some of these folks had been in their homes for decades. It doesn't seem to matter who you are - one wrong turn and, because of a recession caused largely by corporate greed and irresponsible government, anyone could have ended up without a home, not just those who made poor financial decisions around new mortgages.

In an age in which people are not only losing their homes, but it is happening enough that almost everyone knows of several people who are desperately looking for a place to live, I find Black Friday not only troubling in of itself, but an affront to all the people who are now suffering through bankruptcy, homelessness, and shame.

But hey, at least we all have the God-given freedom to purchase as many Star Trek Pizza Cutters as we can get for 75% off at Wal Mart.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Tonight I had dinner with a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

And she ate all the fried artichokes we ordered.

Last week, I chatted over tea with John Perkins, author of, among others, the best-selling Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. A few weeks ago, I shared a car ride with Vicki Robbin who, way ahead of her time, wrote Your Money or Your Life which questioned the assumption that one can actually choose a simpler life of almost complete happiness by rejecting the idea of insatiable wealth (what, you mean happiness doesn't come from having so much money that you can shower in Patron tequila every day, Festoon your pet ferret with diamonds and eat only endangered Siberian tigers because you can?).

In exchange for all of these experts sharing their well-conceived ideas andgroundbreaking concepts with me, I have, in return, and in their presence, babbled, rambled, got a bit drunk, possibly drooled, and giggled like a 13 year old girl in the presence of Justin Bieber. I think it was a fair exchange.

Holy eff - how did I end up here? In the past month, I've experienced several brain melts from incredible information and conversations with people eons more magnificently brilliant than me. My mind has blown more times than a mountaintop mine in West Virginia. I'd like to think that all the intelligence has in some form rubbed off on me, and I think it has. I feel thoughts are gelling in my head and ideas of what I want to do in the future are coming together (though it could be the pot. I've not even smoked it once you arrive in San Francisco, you become a pothead by default. Walking along the street you are automatically high. Even dogs get stoned when they go on a walk).

I've come to the conclusion that San Francisco is a magical place, more magical than unicorns and marshmallow trees and rainbow-laden three-tailed puppy dogs. Ergo, I expect all of you to come visit me and bask in the waves of progressive thought. Or at least eat Chinese food and smoke pot until you can no longer walk.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

We the people

Okay, so I lied. I was going to tell you about my new apartment, how on my first night in my bright red room (complete with a peace sign tapestry and a Frida Kahlo beaded curtain), I was serenaded at 2 in the morning by my downstairs neighbours wailing the Credence Clearwater Revival Woodstock hippie classic song "Who'll stop the rain," and that I've got huge pair of fishnet-clad plastic legs kicking out of the window across from my room.

But something else happened - I went to Oakland for the General Strike, a part of the Occupy Oakland movement. Oakland is across the Bay from San Francisco, and in parts, is rather downtrodden and economically depressed. However, it is also an incredible intersection of all types of diversity. It has also become a central focus in the Occupy movement due to, among other things, the police assault on a peaceful protester who also happens to be an Iraq war vet. Last week, the organizers of the movement called for a general strike, encouraging everyone to stay home from work and school and join them at the site in solidarity.

Now I've been thinking a lot about the Occupy movements and am increasingly fascinated and excited by what is happening. People are self-organizing with relatively little hierarchy and direction, ensuring everyone is fed (mostly) ensuring everyone is safe (though I understand in Ottawa there have been very scary claims of sexual assault). The movements are finding creative ways around barriers set in their midst (such as at Wall Street, where they've developed an extremely clever human microphone system after a noise volume regulation was issued) and providing spaces where people can learn, discuss, meditate and share. When I found out about the General Strike, I felt it was an opportunity to finally get involved. And so I packed myself on to the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, "I'm joining a credit union" sign in hand, and headed east.

Chanting reached my ears as I got off the train, and I emerged into the sunlight amongst young folks, old folks, people of a vast diversity of race, religion, gender, sexuality and socio-economic status. The energy in the area swept me up immediately in an embrace of solidarity. Now I'm not really the kind to get sucked in emotionally but seeing so many people out to really change the status quo brought tears to my eyes more than once.

I wasn't able to stay the whole day but watched with wonder as the movement shut down the ports and with anger as they had to face an ugly clash with police (which the media singularly focused on, rather than the thousands of people who took to the streets). I was inspired by the folks who, facing foreclosure on their homes, went into the a bank branch with furniture and set up a living room in which they sat, refusing to leave and saying to the bank that since they had taken their homes, they had no where else to go.

There is such power in this movement, my friends, such overwhelming, positive energy. I am starting to think that we are at a turning point. People are frustrated that the lie of "work hard and you'll succeed" that they were sold is clearly not coming to fruition. People are ashamed that they can't provide for their families and tired of sitting back as their communities fall apart. These occupy movements, along with the Arab spring and the riots in Europe, are, I hope, heralding in a new paradigm that is more equitable and fosters cooperation and community decision-making.

They don't have all the answers bundled in neat little talking points, and they don't need to. If governments around the world can't figure out how the solve the problems, why the hell should the people have it all figured out. What they have figured out is that our society is failing and things have got to change.

I recognize that this posting is not really as humourous as the others, and I promise I'll return to my silly self in the next posting. But in the meantime, Iencourage all of you to do one thing to help move forward this extremely exciting societal change. Join a credit union and then explain to your big bank why you are breaking up with them, write a letter to the media about what's happening, bring the Occupy movements in your area warm drinks and food, talk to your friends and colleagues about it, participate yourself. This is the people's movement. Let's all be a part of it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Last week, in mid sentence with my boss, the earth a-grumbled and shook. Less a terrifying tremor and more a gentle nudge, but a genuine, 100% Californian Earthquake. Especially ironic is that it happened the same day as the Great California ShakeOut earthquake drill, in which everyone who signs up is supposed to all jump under their desks, pop themselves in a doorway, duct-tape themselves to the floor, or whatever it is one does during an earthquake. I of course, in my vast earthquake experience, knew exactly what to do: I kept talking and felt the building shake but didn't mentally register it until my boss said "that was an earthquake." I think it's a defensive mechanism, like the time in the middle of the night that I had a rat run between my feet, felt the fur, and told myself it was the cat. But we didn't have a cat. I'm comforted that, in a state of emergency, my mind will clearly and forcefully evade reality and I'll enter danger in a state of complete blissful unawareness. It may limit my survival chances, but at least I'll be happy.

Speaking of survival, I started biking to work last week. Now, I've commuted for some time and consider myself relatively hardcore. But let me tell you: Rather than feeling (and looking) like this on the road I more felt and looked like this (complete with that abject look of terror at seeing the next five blocks of hill) whilst struggling up on my lowest gear. Most of my bike-based encounters with San Francisco have gone something like this:
Me (to myself): "Oh, this hill doesn't look so bad"
five minutes later
Me: "Okay! Made it up the first two."
five seconds later, upon seeing the next hill
Me: "holy mother of blessed #&@*@)!"
approximately 15 minutes later, while cars, people walking, dogs, squirrels, and old folk with walkers, all of whom race by me while I go slower than the speed of retreating glaciers impacted by climate change.
Me: "ouchouchouchouchouchouch!" Then there's usually some self-pity, almost crying, almost throwing up, and utter despair. But when I do make it, oy, what views! I'll get pictures up eventually but the vistas are simply spectacular.

While it is difficult, it's not as bad as it seems. I bought an incredible bike map with great, more flat routes on it, and the left wing commie pinkos in the city have made it surprisingly bike-friendly. So much so that the cab drivers, rather than deliberately cutting you off (as they do in Ontario), actually give you plenty of space, as do the other drivers. No one honks at each other (for the most part) and people are really patient. I think there are two reasons for this: 1) everyone is stoned, as per west coast tradition and 2) everyone is incredulous that people bike here, and hold respect for those making it up the hills by bike. Or maybe they just think cyclists have completely lost their marbles and so give them plenty of space to avoid any psychotic incidents from people happily torturing themselves on two wheels.

But I'll continue to grind along, anticipating breathtaking climbs and even more breathtaking vistas, and appreciating the strength in my body that allows me to push so hard. And also, once in a while, taking the bus.

Next time...a new abode, a new adventure.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Of progress, connectivity and drug deals

One of the things I've been lacking of late is the motivation to go to lectures and presentations. In my first year in Ottawa, I did this quite a bit and was always touched/angered/saddened/inspired in some way at the end. In my second week in San Francisco, I got an ultra-immersion in mind-expanding lectures, and has helped me realize what I can access in this amazing town.

The first event I attended was at Stanford (oooh, fancy!), with an incredible organization called World Pulse. World Pulse is a global media voice for women - they produce a magazine featuring the stories of women around the world. But perhaps most incredible is the online platform they offer for women to globally connect with each other, pulling themselves out of isolation and supporting each other. One particularly resounding story was told by one of the guests at the lecture, one of their "citizen journalists" from Uganda. All her brothers have died of AIDS and her mother was a widow. When the last brother died, the village elders planned to come round (as per tradition) and take her land, as a woman is not allowed to keep property. Despairing, the citizen journalist posted on World Pulse that this was happening and received a flood of emails of support from women all around the world, some of whom offered to come down and sit in front of the house in protest. She told her mother, who stood up to the elders, and said "I am not giving up my land and I have 100 friends from around the world who will come here and support me." The elders reluctantly backed off and she got to keep her house. This incredible evening was topped off by a meal at Calafia , a restaurant founded by the original chef who ran the kitchens at Google, and who now serves awesome mostly local and organic food.

The next day, I went to a conference of the Bioneers. What the F is a bioneer, you may ask (I sure did)? The Bioneers are "inspiring a shift to live on earth in ways that honor the web of life, each other, and future generations." What makes these guys different from most other world-saving groups is that they have managed to connect with folks all over the world and are taking a really multi-disciplined approach to social and environmental change. The conference featured interactive workshops, an indigenous rights and learning track, sessions on everything from young farmers to race in the environmental movement (a panel entirely of women of colour), current campaigns, the potential of mushrooms to save the world, and the BEST plenary speakers I've ever seen at any one event. This included the incredible, funny, super smart and seminal thinker and activist Gloria Steinem who broke (and continues to break) gender barriers and was one of the first women to talk about race in feminism. The other thing that was so neat was how many times the "occupy Wall Street" movement came up. Almost everyone in the conference mentioned it and cheered them on - there's a real feeling of energy that things may indeed be changing. This optimism and spirit was enthralling and for me, was absolutely contagious.

It got me thinking a lot about connectivity, both in terms of the fact that social movements are really understanding that every issue is connected and none can be addressed in isolation, but also, that internet and technology could really be a force for massive change (and not just porn).

Now, you may be saying, who cares about all this "inspiration" crap - tell me about the drug deals! Okay, okay. I may or may not have put that in the headline to attract attention, but it does feed in. During my search for housing, I've started to look at Residential Hotels, places where you can pay weekly or monthly. They usually (but not always) consist of a room, a kitchen and common space shared by the whole building and bathrooms and showers shared by your floor (a lot like university residence without the large amount of drinking and throwing up everywhere...most of the time). In visiting these places, I stopped at one in the Tenderloin which turned out not to be a residential hotel, but the kind woman said a) don't live in this area, but if you really want to, b) there is a place a few doors up which you can check out. So, I marched out, backpack on, smile on my face, and within about 30 seconds (this was around noon on a Monday), the following happened:
1) a dude walked by and said "Damn girl! What you been eating to look like that?"
2) about five seconds later, another dude pulled out a little bag of something and gave it to some other dude in exchange for cash. Drug deal!
Now, not that it's not convenient to have both potential dates with guys on the street and easy access to drugs, but something about that experience made me decide to keep walking. Maybe it was also the fact that a few nights before, in the same area, I walked by a guy squatting on the ground, smoking a cigarette, and wearing no pants. Seriously. I mean, I'm down with no pants dance parties (as some of you may know from a recent Ottawa event), but this was something else entirely.

Long (long, long) story short, I'm still looking for housing. I've seen places but so far haven't been offered anything (even the house that smelled like pot, had stained carpets and life-sized cutouts of Star Trek characters). So I continue to live in the hostel, where the people are mostly friendly and the location is convenient.

In the next episode: I got a bike! Ouch, my legs! Seriously!

Friday, October 21, 2011

As the dust settles

I ended my five year tenancy in Ottawa with a hurricane of activity facilitated by incredible friends who helped me move, stored my stuff and cleaned my apartment with gusto because I, once again, ran out of time. From there, had the longest rideshare of my life with a blazing conservative (not a problem) who got all is information from talk radio (a problem) and used expressions like "yippy skippy" (huh?), bragged about his IQ, and peppered his stories (and oh, there were many) with sound effects.

Arriving in my lil' hometown of Toronto, I got a big fat hug (both figuratively and literally) from family and friends before heading to the airport. Nervous about the border crossing (do I look like a terrorist? Should I avoid making bomb jokes?), I got all my documents in order and instead of having a grilling by the customs guy, instead got great tourist tips and a ringing endorsement that I should visit Seattle while I'm out west. Had great service from Air Canada (whoa) and arrived early in San Francisco.

I checked into my motel in the Tenderloin, a depressed area of town which, while relatively safe, is pretty heartbreaking to see. But the people in this neighbourhood, while not always in the best state, usually are pretty friendly, so I had lots of great chats on my way to get an awesome veggie vietnamese sandwich (and oh, the food here! This will be a reemerging theme in the blog).

I found out a place to live I had thought was pretty lined up had been taken, and this was my first indication that finding a roof over my head might be more difficult than I had originally thought (this will also be a reoccuring theme).

Two nights later, I checked into the hostel where I remain, sleeping in a room with three others. My studio in Ottawa is positively spacious compared to this.