Archive for October, 2006

preschoolers are blithe

R: I miss you, Claire.

C: I know.

R: I love you!

C: I know!

R: Would you like a present from Boston?

C: Yes! I would like a kangaroo!

R: They don’t have kangaroos in Boston!

C: Then I would like a cat.

R: I’ll get you one if I can find one.

C: Okay! Byee!

beantown junket, part 1

I finished Brenda Maddox’s biography of Rosalind Franklin on the plane, having devoured it over a couple of days. One caveat: I would have liked more explanation of how x-ray crystallographic photographs relate to the structure of crystals themselves. I’ve read Watson on this but I still gaze baffled upon Franklin’s beautiful pictures, unable to visualize the way the light bounces off molecules to make the images on the film. I guess this is why I am not a physical chemist.

I’m going to assume that my readers, all five of you, are familiar with the bones of the controversy: that Crick, Watson and Wilkins based their Nobel-prize-winning discovery of the helical structure of DNA on Franklin’s matchless experimental work, with very little in the way of attribution. While Maddox is fastidious about establishing who saw what when, she rejects the boring doomed-victim myth of Franklin as “the Sylvia Plath of molecular biology.” As a result everyone comes off far better than you might expect, including Wilkins, who was awful but going through a very bad patch, and Watson, a vile man yet appreciative of Franklin’s work and later her friend and defender.

(I do like Crick’s lofty dismissal of The Double Helix as “Jim’s novel.” I hadn’t heard that before and it is wonderfully apt, especially when you consider that earlier drafts were titled Honest Jim – as in Lucky Jim – and the equally ironic Base Pairs.)

Maddox’s great achievement, though, is to lift Franklin out of the mire of that now thoroughly-picked-over dogfight and to celebrate her marvellous science. Franklin comes off best of all. Before she ever tackled DNA, she established that the crystalline structure of different types of coal was what determined whether they would become graphitic when heated. After she escaped from King’s and Wilkins’ baleful presence she demonstrated the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), another helical molecule with an RNA spiral around a hollow inner core. At Birkbeck she nurtured a group of madly gifted younger scientists, one of whom, Aaron Klug, went on to win a Nobel of his own.

Without overdoing it, I think, Maddox connects Franklin’s prickly, stubborn intelligence with the extraordinary quality of her painstaking experimental approach. DNA (like Franklin) could be difficult to work with, requiring large reserves of patience, physical intuition and a deft touch. Maddox also shows that Franklin’s personality was many-faceted (yes, like a crystal, sigh.) For everyone who remembers the brusque, intimidating dark lady haunting the corridors at King’s, there are five people who recall the intrepid traveller and mountain climber, the fluent intellectual in Paris or the merry spinster aunt who brought wonderful gifts and instigated endless games.

I put the book down feeling that I knew Franklin and her work a little better and liking her very much indeed. The tragedy of her life is not that she missed out on the Nobel Prize but that she died at 37. To cancer I say: bah.

three graphic novels and two pyramids

Have I mentioned that I am the San Francisco Public Library’s helpless fangirl? I moved my whole Amazon wishlist over there about six months ago, read everything on it, now routinely borrow whatever is well-reviewed in Bookslut and Defective Yeti and other blogs of wit and discrimination and enjoy myself beyond the singing of it. The intersection of public libraries with the Internet, like effective contraception and antibiotics, make now the best of all times for a bookish woman to be alive and raising her iron-willed little girls.

La Perdida is the story of a Mexican American woman from Chicago who spends a year in Mexico City. The book’s greatest achievement, I think, is its evocation of place. There’s a lovely panel where the protagonist is looking up into the minimally-rendered leaves and flowers of jacaranda trees; you can almost feel the dappled sunlight on your face. There’s some terrific character work, too – in particular one argument where both parties are making excellent points about colonialism and the privileged distance of the expatriate. As Michael Frayn puts it: “In a good play, everyone is right.” The denouement felt a bit – not exactly forced, to me, but telegraphed and not entirely satisfying. Didn’t stop me devouring the whole thing in a day.

I expected to like Epileptic more than I did. Its reputation precedes it and my sister has epilepsy, although hers is nothing like as severe as that of David B’s brother. I don’t think the problem is in the book – the drawings are brilliant and beautiful and the writing is subtle – but in the anxieties I brought to it as a reader. The mother haring off down dead-end after dead-end in search of a cure for her incurable son, the fever-dream pictures that reminded me of how epileptics describe their aura, the repetition without resolution – practically everything in the book was calculated to upset me. It’s a work of genius, but a depressing one.

Pyongyang is another masterpiece and it may be even darker than Epileptic. How could it not be? It’s about the worst place on earth. Yet I found Guy Delisle’s memoir of his two months in North Korea the least self-conscious and the most effective of these books. Delisle’s sketch of that foul regime is at once spare and unsparing; the calm accumulation of precise detail adds up to an implacable condemnation of the Kims and their puppets. For all its clean lines and quiet voice, Pyongyang is righteously angry, exposing the cynical economic complicity of the West (and the Middle East, for that matter) in the soul-annihilating cruelty of the state.

North Korea is the USA’s shadow self. It is utterly isolated where the USA is rampantly global; hypocritically communist where the USA is hypocritically capitalist; starving where the USA is obese; totalitarian where the USA encourages lively debate and independent thinking; sabre-rattling where the USA is a meek diplomat and stalwart supporter of the United Nations. Okay, maybe my dichotomy got a little decalibrated there at the end. I will leave you with the nightmare image of the Ryugyong Hotel, the world’s seventh largest building, an empty shell without power or windows and perhaps especially disturbing to San Franciscans as a Dantean alternate-universe doppelganger of our beloved Transamerica.

ryugyong hotel

Ryugyong Hotel

Originally uploaded by Maттнijs.

transamerica pyramid

Transamerica Pyramid

Originally uploaded by Rob Lee.

in which salome and rachel go to heaven

One of the things Salome and I have in common is that when we were children, we dreamed and prayed and yearned for any walk in the park to end with us meeting someone who bred beautiful horses, who gave us a ride and offered to let us compete on their best stallion.

We took the husbands and kids to Golden Gate Park today. Salome said there was a dressage show and I wanted to go looking for it. I’ve been missing horses more and more, the reins in your ring fingers, the sway of your hip when you pick up the canter lead.

“I saw three people riding Arabs on the trail,” I said to Salome. “They broke into a canter and it broke my heart.”

“I know! Doesn’t it make you ache?”

So we found the arena. No dressage show, just one trailer and five Morgan mares tied to the fence and forty pounds of carrots. The horses made my eyes glad, so I went over to sit down.

“Hello!” said the woman in charge.

“I’m just admiring,” I said.

“Admire and give carrots!” she said. “I did a pony party, and I posted to Craigslist that people could come and give carrots to the horses until four.”

We gave carrots and got talking. Her name is Joan Zeleny and she breeds Morgans. Her stallion can jump four-foot coops for eight hours at a time, and she’d love someone to take him eventing. I said that Salome had come second in her last ride at Woodside, and that my one-and-only three day was on a half-Morgan mare.

“Do you want to take the kids for a ride?” she asked. We did. We walked around the arena with Claire and Milo on the front of the saddle.

“Do you want to take a couple of the mares out for half an hour?” she asked. I think we embarrassed her with our gratitude. “It’s nice to see them with people who can ride,” she said gruffly.

We left the kids with their fathers and rode into the woods like overgrown twelve-year-olds whose childhood dreams have come true. Our mares, Jasmine and Rosie, stepped out, goggled at everything they saw and responded to the lightest aids.

On the way, we passed the three riders on their Arab horses; and my broken heart was healed.

See, this is why you should always always wear riding boots, wherever you are going, whatever you think you are going to do.

driving into architecture

So we move out of our dot-com slum in the barrio and into this much nicer neighbourhood, and then a bullet falls through the kitchen skylight and onto my shoulder, and then the entire block and their dog get into a fight.

So! Last night when Julia was swarming over me and swearing never to sleep again, we heard shouts in the street. Jeremy and I went to the bay window in our bedroom, which is like a box seat onto the opera that is Eugenia Avenue. A woman clattered up the hill on high heels. A man yelled after her: “Puta!” He seemed disconsolate.

He got into his black truck and sped up the street, right through the intersection and straight into the kitty-corner house.

It happened so fast it was kind of hard to believe. I was saying “Oh no, oh no” and dialing 911 from our bedroom phone. “Is anyone hurt?” said the dispatcher. “I don’t know, the driver maybe, he must have been drunk.” “I’ll send the police.”

Gilbert drove up and parked the Prius where the black truck had been. That family has some devastating parking karma.

Jeremy picked up some more details from the crowd that was still gathered when he took Miz Jules out for her evening constitutional. Apparently the driver was ok (drunk people tend to bounce). The house was basically ok too, just a ding in the stairs. All hail redwood construction. The truck, not so much, and Jeremy reported that the cabin reeked of alcohol.

Mum, Dad: it really is a much nicer neighbourhood. I think I tell these stories because it’s kinda surprising when this stuff happens in Bernal, whereas in the Mission you’d hear street fights with or without fireworks-or-gunfire, and you’d just sort of shrug and get on with whatever you were doing.

parents for (or ambivalent with respect to) public schools!

Saturday morning after a cursory breakfast at the Dog, I dragged Quinn, Danny, Ada and Claire along to a seminar on choosing an elementary school in San Francisco. The high point was the parent panel, which included our old neighbour Eos from Alabama Street (thrilled with the immersion program at Marshall, which is one of the schools on my list) and a nerdcore superstar called, I am not making this up, Adam Studly.

Adam Studly is a doctor (of course he is.) In fact, he’s on the faculty at UCSF; his area of expertise is in measuring health care services, so he turned his geektastic superpowers onto the elementary school problem. If he hadn’t already had me at “I am Adam Studly,” his casual dismissal of test scores – “they mean nothing” – would have won my undying love. He pointed out that your choice of a school eventually boils down to three considerations: the physical plant, “enrichments” and how well it fits into your life. This makes me feel much better about enrolling the girls at one of the raffish local Spanish immersion schools.

In fact the whole experience made me feel better about San Francisco public schools. I like the hackish kinds of parents who seem to populate Parents for Public Schools and the PTAs of the small but ambitious neighbourhood schools that are called the “diamonds in the rough”; not only do I like these parents, but I can see making smalltalk with them at the field trips.

Oh, and Adam Studly has built a spreadsheet that helps you calculate your chances of getting accepted into a given school (of course he has.)

Childcare was provided, and was a success. Ada and Claire had to be dragged away by force. Danny seemed pretty engaged with the seminar, but Quinn had an attack of post-scholastic stress disorder. “Schools are prisons, you know.”

“My idea of talking to the principal,” she explained, “would be using krav maga to rip his head off, then telling the seven-year-olds ‘Run for it! I have made you free!'”

Not an idle threat, by the way; Quinn really is learning krav maga (of course she is.)

girl-shannon is away for the weekend

Cian: Look Daddy, I have a piece of toilet paper. It’s for mummy.

Bryan: Oh really? What are you going to do with that piece of toilet paper for mummy?

Cian: Oh, I’m just going to remember her with it.

her is happy

We call Julia “the baby”, as in the phrases: “Poor the baby!” and “I love you, the baby.”

Claire still says “yester-today” and “Lookit!”

Ada still says “her” for “she”. Thus:

C: Lookit the baby!

A: Her is happy!

This morning Claire brought pen and paper to where I was lolling in bed.

C: This is a cat. These are whiskers. It’s a happy, scared cat.

R: Can you write cat next to it?

C: Yes. C A T. That’s for Janny. She’s my grandma. I have two grandmas.

R: She’ll love that.

C: It’s Janny’s picture. Here is a different cat. It’s called a goose.

R: I see. A goose is a kind of cat?

C: It’s a different cat. This is a mama goose. It’s far away.

R: Okay.

C: I want another different cat, it’s called a dog. D O G. Can you draw me a dog?

R: You draw it. I like your drawings.

C: I want you to draw it.

R: Okay, you draw what you want it to look like, and I can draw that.

C: Okay! This is its fluffily fur.

R: Fluffily fur?

C: No, fluffily fur! This is a spot on its bottom. This is another spot on its bottom. This is a spot on its left ear.

R: Is that another spot on its left ear?

C (kindly): Nooo. That’s an arrow pointing to the spot.

“i have to go blog that, right now”

Ada: I love you, Claire.

Claire: I love you too, Ada.

Jeremy: Get a room!

pony tales

On Sunday the whole of Cortland was closed off for a block party.

“It’s the biggest party I have EVER NEVER SEEN!” said Claire.

Yellow balloons, sausage onna bun, a petting zoo with bunnies and pigs, pony rides. Pony rides! When Salome took Milo down off Pixie, he burst into inconsolable tears.

“That’s right Milo,” said Salome. “Horses make you happy and sad.”

“She told the groom all about selling Noah,” said Jack. “She was all ‘I had a horse. I had to sell him.’ She’ll tell that story to anyone who likes horses. She’ll tell it to someone with a horse tattoo. She’s like a recovering alcoholic.”

“Sort of,” I said. “Only us horse people? We never recover.”

I’d been joking that every time I encourage Ada’s love of horses, Gilbert kills a kitten, and Gilbert had acknowledged that this was so; so when I found Gilbert supervising Ada’s pony ride I cleared my throat very loudly.

“Goodbye Ada!” he said as she rode away.

I said: “Goodbye kittens!”

jeremy’s spoken-word blog post

“What I keep in my pants, by Julia, a baby.

“A soy bean!”

friday the 13th: pony ride

Q: Your daughter looks very happy to be on a pony.

R: Yeah, my daughter looks happy. Your daughter looks completely intent on absorbing every nanosecond of the experience for later recall. Believe me, I know.

Q: I hate you.

R: She’s got it baaaad.

Q: If the first garage virus wipes out all the horses, you’ll know it was me.

R: Damn, and it would be so easy. You wouldn’t even need a virus, just an antibiotic-resistant strain of strangles… wait, what the hell am I saying?

Q: It’s so easy to socially-engineer you people. “So, tell me about infectious diseases of the horse!” “Well, I’m glad you asked!”

R: I hate you.

sometimes the funniest people are also the happiest

C: Hey man, catch this!

Milo: Da?

Salome: “Hey man, catch this!”? Where does that come from? Did it come from school?

C: No! It came from me! It’s my joke!

my parenting can’t keep up with her kidding

R: Yay! You’re going to the potty like a big girl! You’ve got potty power!

C (witheringly): I haven’t got potty power.

R: Oh really? What have you got, then?

C: I’ve got the Potty Power DVD.

julia speaks!

“HAI!” means Hi! It’s so clear it’s actually kind of uncanny.

“Da! Da! Da!” means That! That! That! and not Daddy, as you might think. Which said, sometimes That! does actually refer to Jeremy.

“Mammammammamma!” means How could this happen to me, an innocent baby?

Remember how she was born with her fist raised? She’s become very insistent upon her rights. If Claire gets a sip of ginger beer, Julia also gets a sip of ginger beer. Failure to comply will result in consequences! Baby power!

Other cool Julia facts: her favourite thing is to hug. Sometimes if she’s with Blanca she’ll twist around and hug me or Jeremy, then twist around and hug Blanca. This game could go on for an hour and she would be perfectly happy.

When she has hauled herself up into a standing position at the coffee table or TV cabinet and is standing there playing thoughtfully with a video cable or phone, she will emit a piercing whistle of pure joie de vivre.

You know how when you’ve just fallen in love and it makes the whole geopolitical situation seem more hopeful and colours prettier, and you think about that person and even the memory of the scent of their skin hits your heart like a shot of brandy? Julia is like that.

what if we told them it was marinated seitan?

A good weekend is not a weekend in which nothing bad happens. Tragedies large and small may be unfolding; in fact, they almost certainly are. The world is scary, as Claire has pointed out, all the times. The powerful are cruel and unaccountable, and the disempowered are not necessarily people you’d want to hang out with either. A good weekend is an act of will. It’s flipping the bird to the Blue Angels when it sounds like they’re about to land on your skylights.

On Friday Claire’s ear got the all-clear, and the girls and I had lunch at Citizen Cake, and bought a brand new mattress at 75% off from a discount store. Claire behaved brilliantly through all of this, but when I took her to Holly Park and then the grocery store, she melted down three times in quick succession.

Weirdly and unnervingly, a random elderly passer-by tried to circumvent Claire’s tantrum by poking her jovially in the leg. Claire, who has a very healthy sense of her own personal space, aimed a warning shot at the woman’s sensitive parts.

“Well! That was aggressive,” said the woman disapprovingly.

As Jeremy put it: “There’s nothing as infuriating as the kindness of strangers.”

Saturday morning the three-year-olds and various hangers-on met up at the Randall, which Claire likes to call the Tarantula Museum. We got to pet a rat and a tortoise and a king snake.

“I think I want a snake,” said Quinn.

Saturday night Teacher Dan took the kidlets, and J and I met Ian and Kat for a very good meal at Incanto (grilled pear salad, pork shoulder with brussels sprouts, bay leaf rice pudding.)

I tottered home high-heeled and drunk and was extremely hung over this morning, but a trip down to Pacifica for a beach brunch with the one-year-olds and various hangers-on proved an effective tonic. We talked about fibroids – “You should have kept it, and told her that it was her twin!” – and placentas – “I would totally have eaten it. I’ve been in California too long.” “BYO at Chez Panisse?” “Well, Cafe Gratitude wouldn’t want it.” “What if we told them it was marinated seitan?”

I’m not feeling very empowered right now. I need to find a cure for various diseases including cancer and broker a Mideast peace accord and do something about North Korea and try to get the Republican pedophiles and war profiteers out of Congress and Senate, and I can’t really do any of that; but by God I can enjoy San Francisco and my godless liberal friends. And I do.

true romance

R: …so they changed the law, and now I can apply for British citizenship.

Grant: Yay! Then you can marry me and solve my visa problem!

R: I’ve dreamed of this moment for so long.

a day in the life

Julia wakes. Julia grins. Julia is showered in kisses. Julia chuckles.

She holds a caregiver’s hands in her own small fat fists! She walks the length of the hallway, shrieking for joy!

Julia’s hair is white. Her eyes are robin’s-egg blue and silver. Her skin is pink and gold. She has no neck. Her beauty is awesome.

Julia eats. She eats yogurt and cereal and bananas and broccoli and yams and carrots and yellow squash and bagels and rice and edamame and avocado!

Whatever that is that you are eating, Julia would like some please!


Julia laughs and wiggles and laughs and wiggles and laughs! Suddenly and abruptly Julia cries!

Julia falls asleep!