Month: January 2014

I Wear Goggles at Night

Well, technically not at night. But it is dark. And cold. And in the company of prehistoric creatures that could mistake me for their favorite kibble. And I’ll freely concede that the whole thing is objectively unreasonable bordering on oddball, for a whole slew of reasons. It’s also perhaps the thing that most feeds my soul, makes me feel alive, and helps me deal with life’s trickier pieces.

At least a couple of mornings each week, including this morning, I wade into San Francisco Bay with a neighborhood swim buddy or two, ideally before the sun has come up (hence the “at night” part). The Bay isn’t too bad in the Summer and Fall, inching up above 60 degrees. But this time of year it can dip to 48 or lower. That’s a bit chilly, particularly if the air temp is hovering in the same vicinity, and since it’s dark, the sun isn’t out. One of my swim buddies understandably refuses to swim when the conditions sink below the “Smith Line” — the air and water temps combined must exceed 100 degrees. (“Smith” is not his real last name; here again I’m protecting the innocent.) This morning we were 1 degree over the Smith Line.

As you might imagine, there really is a whole process that has to be developed around this, in order to justify doing it repeatedly, and on purpose.

I grew up far from the ocean, near freshwater lakes. People that grow up far from the ocean and near freshwater lakes, in my experience, have a healthy (albeit uninformed) fear of what might be lurking in the ocean. In Northern California, that means sharks, particularly Great Whites. When I moved to San Francisco in 1999, I assuaged my lake-lubber fears by seeking out a shark expert/chairman of aquatic biology at the California Academy of Sciences. He assured me that (a) there had never been a reported shark attack in the Bay, (b) any sharks in the Bay either have zero interest in me or are sick (and would therefore also have zero interest in me), and (c) territorial sea lions and broken beer bottle shards pose a far greater risk to me than any sharks in the Bay. As it turns out, he was mistaken on (b), as the San Francisco Chronicle would later report, but he couldn’t have known that 15 years ago, and I’m past the point now of worrying about sharks in the Bay anyhow. Anybody who recreates on a regular basis in the sea has long-since learned to suppress the “Jaws” poster image with themselves bobbing at the top of said poster. (Damnit, I need to push that back down again now. Suppress. Suppress.)

So the shark thing is handled. That leaves the cold and the dark. The cold: Many Bay swimmers far more courageous than I wear only a swim cap, goggles and a Speedo. Now that is crazy. Crazy in a good way, but still crazy. I get decked out in a wetsuit (not particularly thick), and this time of year a wool-lined neoprene cap, a silicone cap over that, and neoprene booties. Getting all this stuff on takes awhile, and even fully geared-up, the water still smashes my feet with a hammer and freezes my teeth. But only for a few minutes before the numbness kicks in. And you really do get used to flirting with the hypothermia line where simple math gets a bit funky and the euphoria starts to get a little too euphoric. So the cold thing is handled.

As for the dark? This took some getting used to, and it wasn’t my idea. “Smith” and another neighborhood buddy suckered me into the pre-dawn swims about a year ago. We met at the water’s edge in the pitch black. I thought they were joking when they jumped in, little lights blinking on their caps. My jaw dropped, but the lights began to fade in the distance, so I reluctantly slithered in and just swam toward the lights for half an hour, looking like a water polo player with my head popped up and constantly gasping for air, half-panicked.

But I was hooked. I soon ordered up my own blinking light (see the video above from this morning) and happily joined the ranks of the “night swimmers” out there. Rapid temperature changes bring foggy swims where fixed buoys sneak up on you (looking at a quick glance very much like the aforementioned territorial sea lions). High tide brings hidden chunks of telephone pole that hurt when your hand smacks them mid-stroke. And curious seals pop up next to you to give your adrenals a quick squeeze from time-to-time. A couple of my toes even at this moment, 90 minutes after getting out of the Bay, have absolutely no feeling.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I feel like I earn the spectacular sunrise casting Coit Tower in silhouette, sneaking a brief glimpse of it each time I take a breath to one side or the other. I appreciate each stroke and pull through heavy water so much more than if I were in a heated pool, eyes blankly fixed on a black line painted on the bottom. I’m a fan of suffering. Suffering, I think, reminds us how great it feels not to suffer.

And that brings us back full circle to Grandma’s Lemonade. I’ve come to realize that there are two kinds of “lemons”– Those that just appear on your doorstep unexpectedly, unwelcome, to be dealt with right now; and those that you grow yourself, deliberately, as a tool to see what you’re truly made of. Seems to me that it’s a helluva lot easier to be in the habit of “making lemonade out of lemons” if you put yourself in that second type of position often, on purpose, by choice. Strangely, these dark and frigid swims I think help me manage the tricky stuff that inevitably pops up — career setbacks, relationship struggles, sickness, all manner of disappointments, and truly tragic events like my grandmother’s recent passing.

So while I don’t necessarily advocate jumping into 48-degree water in near darkness somewhere in the middle of the food chain, I do advocate suffering on purpose. Growing your own lemons. I really think it helps.

There’s a Drought On

We got ourselves a bit of a drought problem here in California. The Governor has declared a “State of Emergency,” which generally means it’s time to get serious. A friend of mine who writes about such things reminded me yesterday that we endured a similarly serious drought in the 1970s, principally by adopting a whole slew of water-conserving behaviors. My friend posed the question, “Why did we ever stop doing those things?” It’s a good question. Perhaps one reason is that we’ve become numb to all the dire warnings, resolved to a fate of extreme weather, flooded cities, and the host of other climate change calamities that seem unavoidable.

In case you were bracing yourselves for a righteous sermon on living the eco-friendly life, you can relax, I’m gonna save that for another day (if in fact there is another day — just kidding, or maybe I’m not, who the hell knows). Instead, I’m going to dole out a little of Grandma’s Lemonade, which my youngest son Everett mixed up unknowingly (or maybe not so unknowingly) on the way to the school bus stop this morning. Let me set the scene by admitting that I overslept big time today. On Wednesdays, my wife goes for an early morning run with a buddy of hers. She typically gets the dog and boys up and out in the mornings. So Wednesdays mean that I’m on duty. But I neglected to set my alarm last night, possibly due to the distraction of my evening Dexter binge–now going on for several weeks. I can’t be stopped. Instead of a sweet little Fitbit buzzing my wrist like a wasp just before it stings, I woke up to Hilary, just back from her run: “Keir, it’s 7:20!”

I refuse to panic and for some reason fancy myself the type that likes to run into burning buildings. Or in this case, jam a fairly hellacious morning to-do list into the 23 minutes before the school bus picks up my boys 3 blocks away. My older Son Max thrives on emergency situations, real or imagined. That and some rough licks on a bare back by our over zealous pup created the perfect recipe for Max to bound out of his bed like a plebe in boot camp. Everett required a more deft touch, sort of how people used to roll a reluctant car down the street, get some momentum, then pop the clutch. Do people still do this? Seems dangerous (another burning building, hmm). The boys’ other grandma (my wife’s mom, “Mima”) might be pleased to learn that the croissant/cinnamon bun Armenian roll called a “Choerag” but pronounced “chiddegg” (more in later blogs on my abnormal fascination with Armenian names that likely slides me up pretty far along on the Autism spectrum–more, too, on my theory of said spectrum, but here’s a teaser: I think we’re all somewhere on that spectrum only it’s more like a MacPaint color wheel)…anyhow, Mima, it turns out that two pushes of the TOAST button on apparently nuclear toaster oven will actually thaw out 2 rock-solid Choerags and two equally frozen sausage links. The perfect on-the-go, young artery-clogging breakfast that can be “et” (I prefer this past tense to “ate,” in a nod to my humble Upstate New York roots) neatly while on a full sprint to the bus stop.

Back to Grandma’s Lemonade. Ev was clutching his recently-frozen Choerag, speed-walking to the bus stop with me and our dog Wailea with about 90 seconds to spare. Wailea of course chose this moment to enjoy her morning movement. This is generally not a quick affair, made increasingly delicate of late due to the unpleasant marriage between big dog and tiny purple poop bags made for a Toy Poodle. It’s like a grown up game of “Operation,” only making a fat-fingered mistake here has far more dire consequences than a buzzing sound and an illuminated red nose light. This is the laser-focused, emergency room triage state of mind I’m in when Ev makes up a quick batch of Grandma’s Lemonade for me. First, remarking with genuine scientific wonder at Wailea’s creation, he says “Woah, it’s steaming!!” I offer (identifying one of those “teaching moments” good parents are told to seize, fragile bag of hot poop be damned), “Well, our body temperature is almost 100 degrees, and it’s colder outside right now.” Then Everett responds, “Oh, is that because of the drought?” I belly-laugh, and take another sip of that sweet and tart juice. “No, buddy, our bodies are always that warm, it’s not because of the drought or global warming or anything like that.” (By now you may be picking up on why I started today’s blog as I did.) Poop emergency averted but bus stop emergency still en fuego, Ev then sees some neighborhood friends dash onto a city bus decked out in their school uniforms. He asks, “Why do they take a city bus to school?” I resist the impulse in my rushed state to make a snarky comment about the whole private school thing and I don’t have it in me to laud my neighbor’s eco-friendliness in my current state. Ev saves me, answering his own question with, “Oh I know why, they probably just want to avoid all the yelling.” I laugh again, reminded of the Lord of the Flies environment that our kids suffer (or stir up, depending upon whom you ask) twice each school day. Then finally, Ev tops off my glass with one final observation, “I hate Wednesdays. On Wednesdays, Alex (not his real name) says, ‘Ooh look at that squishy thing!’ and pinches my butt.” By this point I am smiling widely, chuckling, and frankly happy to be alive and to be this boy’s father (student?).

So random, so delightful, and what a wonderful gift childhood is–and parenthood, vicariously–to be able to recognize and celebrate a steaming pile of poop, a Muni bus ride, and a pinched butt. All in one of those time-compressed, eyes-on-the-prize, no-time-to-smell-the-roses (or drink the lemonade) moments we encounter every day.

And by the way, in case you’re wondering, my perfect record of missing the school bus not once over the past 8 years? Intact. (But you will have to overlook the slightly-burnt Choerag in this morning’s bus stop blog photo).


Grandma’s Lemonade


Here goes nothin’.

Life is complicated, frequently frustrating, clearly meaningful albeit only in fleeting glimpses — a beautiful mess.  Looking in the mirror, I am a 45 year-old “grown up” in a 22-year relationship with a very understanding woman, raising two appropriately frustrating and fascinating boys and now a loyal black dog, and navigating an atypical career that has run from a reasonably stable law practice to a decidedly unstable series of entrepreneurial ventures.  I feel like I have learned some things along the way.  I don’t claim to have all the answers, or even any of the answers.  Except that I think there are two exceptionally important truths:  First, every day you wake up is a good day.  There are ancient cultures, the elders of which would purposefully envision awful deaths for themselves as they drifted off to sleep each night.  That way, when they woke up the next morning (much to their surprise), they would experience true joy simply to be alive for another day.  Hard to achieve, but definitely something I suspect is worth shooting for.

The second “truth” relates to the end: death.  I think the best end game, at least for me, would be lying on my death bed with both of my boys (hopefully grown men by then) grasping my hands and genuinely feeling that I had taught them how to be good men.  (I would write “good people,” but I think men and women are different, and without being chauvinistic or sexist, I sincerely hope I am teaching my boys how to be “good men.”)  I experienced this second “truth” very recently by having the good fortune to be with my 90 year-old grandmother on her last day on Earth, at her bedside keeping vigil with just about her entire family.  That day inspired me at my most basic human level, grabbed me by the heart and head, re-focused my attention on examining the big questions in life.  I think I have a handle on the everyday goal when I wake up each morning, and I feel confident about the finish line at my last breath.  The in-between, navigating the day-to-day, the hour-by-hour and minute-by-minute?  Therein lies the mystery.  I think we all have only the slightest grasp on how best to parent, be a husband or wife, be a supportive son or daughter or brother or sister, cultivate deep friendships, build a meaningful career, keep our minds trained on what is important rather than suffer the constant distraction of things that are probably not all that important.  My grasp on these things is as weak as anyone’s, but I have resolved to take a good hard look at this stuff.

And that’s why I’m writing.  Every day.  I’m committed to writing with as much authenticity and transparency as I can muster, by the way.  This will not be easy, but I think this is the only way to go. That does mean, however, that I will undoubtedly (and unintentionally) hurt feelings along the way, for which I apologize in advance.  And it also means that I will be embarrassing myself at every opportunity, most likely.  I have no idea where this will lead, but I think it will be an interesting ride.  My gut tells me that memorializing the daily ups and downs in an honest way will be therapeutic, perhaps helping me to see beyond the throw of my own headlights, or at least to be more comfortable with what those headlights illuminate.  Maybe reading this blog will also somehow help others, if only a little bit, by restoring some big-picture perspective, allowing for a deep breath (breathing is good) or a knowing snicker (laughing is good).  Nothing about this first blog entry is laugh-out-loud funny, I suppose.  But stay with me, because I don’t think life is manageable without a hefty dose of humor, nor do I think there is such a thing as too much laughter.  (I aim to test that latter theory.)

Interestingly enough, on this “laughing is good” point, when my grandmother drew her final breath, the last sound she heard was a cacophony of peeling laughter from 15 or so of her family, crammed into the confines of her modest hospital room, giggling uncontrollably as we tried to sort out the sleeping arrangements for the evening — no small task in our haze of tapped-out-emotions and sleep deprivation.  One uncle who shall remain nameless would very likely have woken up the next morning in the middle of the freezing hospital parking lot, wheeled outside under cover of darkness, the victim of a poorly-conceived practical joke.  (Seemed like a good idea at the time.)  While we were all doubled over with hysterical laughter envisioning this ridiculous scenario, Grandma exhaled and quietly left us.  We think she chose that moment on purpose, taking comfort in our laughter as an indication that we would all be OK without her.  And perhaps nudging us to recognize that same simple comfort.  Smart lady.  Smart lady whose life-lessons will help me (and this blog) stay on track, I think.  And that is why I’ve decided to start this new writing foray with the eulogy I wrote a few days ago for my grandmother (and which my mother courageously managed to read aloud at the funeral).  I’m going to be writing about the mundane, for sure, but hopefully with an eye on sharing Grandma’s Lemonade, too.  And this is how The Lemonade Chronicles begin….


There are two things that come to mind when I think about Grandma and what was so special about her. The first, everyone here today could probably say this aloud before I do: Her unwavering optimism and absolute refusal to look on the dark side. Nothing but bright side for her. Find the good in people, keep plugging away, be good, stay positive. That’s an amazing gift.

As a child and even as a young man, I misinterpreted that gift as her being naive or even as showing weakness in the face of serious, real-life issues. As I built my own life, grew older, brought my own children into this big world, coached a few hundred kids on Little League baseball teams and YMCA basketball teams, and taught some kids in college classes, I’ve always stressed that life is about never giving up, never quitting, and always being positive. Life is too damn short to take the opposite approach. Anyone can seize on disappointment and bitterness. It’s much harder, much more courageous, to make lemonade from lemons.

Something suddenly dawned on me while spending that final day with Grandma, seeing many of you holding her hand, whispering in her ears, stroking her forehead, your bodies sometimes draped across hers. I suddenly realized that, all along, Grandma made the best “lemonade”. I suddenly realized that she taught my mom the recipe, and my mom taught me the recipe. I thought I made up the recipe myself, that I had somehow done this on my own. But I was wrong. That’s Grandma’s Lemonade. So first, Grandma, thank you for the lemonade. I’m going to pass that recipe around until I can pass no longer. I hope my kids will do the same. And I hope all of you will do the same. It’s the most delicious lemonade imaginable.

The second special thing to me about Grandma was how much unbridled joy she experienced in the lives of her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on. She was “my grandma” as if I was her only grandchild. I bet my sister and brother and all of my cousins feel the exact same way. I bet Grandma’s children — my aunts and uncle — are nodding their heads right now, because they feel the exact same way. What a gift to be able to make someone feel as if they are special in a singular way, that they are her “favorite,” that they are the only one. I suspect we have a whole room full of favorites right here. And you know what, you were her favorite. We were all her favorite.

We feel this way because she knew how to connect with each of us and stay connected with us in such a genuine, authentic way. Without any bullshit. (Turns out bullshit isn’t part of Grandma’s Lemonade recipe, by the way.) When I was a child, Grandma was always…just…there. Connected with me at such a basic, root level that is hard to describe, but we’ve all felt it as a child in her arms. I grew older, into a young man, with grand aspirations, big plans, and the laughable idea that I was making my way alone, on my own. Law school, practicing law in big cities, trying cases with juries and all that stuff. Around that time of my life, although we saw each other infrequently, she once so gracefully re-connected with me, even though what I was doing probably seemed so distant to her from her simple and humble beginnings. (Turns out, by the way, that humble beginnings are part of the recipe for Grandma’s Lemonade.) Immediately but almost imperceptibly sizing me up now that I was no longer a child she could cradle in her arms, she said to me, “Do you ever say to the people you’re examining on the witness stand, ‘Did there ever come a time…?’” Big smile on her face, but genuinely interested. Through both of us laughing, she explained that in all the lawyer shows she’d seen on TV, the lawyers always began their questioning with, “Did there ever come a time?” followed by some sort of question.

I can picture her now giving me this explanation, head cocked to the side, face perpetually tanned, skin wrinkled the way it’s supposed to be if you live life the way it is supposed to be lived, that twangy, country delivery that was hers alone. With that simple question, she expressed her very real, steadfast, not-going-to-go-away-ever-I-mean-ever, interest in my life. Absolute joy in my life and what I was doing. Over the years, whenever we would see each other, she or I would begin our salutations with, “Grandma, did there ever come a time…” or “Keir, did there ever come a time…” Big smiles, immediate re-connection, a virtual touching together of foreheads, grandmother-to-grandson, regardless of how much time and distance had separated us. I would be willing to bet that Grandma had some sort of inside joke or special password like that with everyone in this room.

The last time I saw her she was just a few hours from breathing her last breath. There was no final opportunity for us to do our touching-foreheads together moment of saying “Did there ever come a time?” to each other. Ironically enough, that little inside joke of ours that seemed so trivial and light, that giggly little question posed dozens of times over the course of 20 years or so, that common thread of ours, it does have an answer. Indeed there does come a time. It turns out that there does come a time, for all of us. So while we’re here, before our time has come and gone, please pass that impossibly delicious Grandma’s Lemonade. She made enough for all of us.