Tuesday, March 30, 2010


I started writing this 15 years ago, when I first moved to California. It all started with a bumper sticker and an incident at the local Safeway.

“Mean People SUCK” was the bumper sticker. I saw it for the first time on a white ’87 VW Rabbit shortly after I moved to the Bay Area. I distinctly remember thinking, “well that’s a peculiar thing to say.” But a few days later, as fate would have it, I fell victim to the kind of people the ominous bumper sticker was trying to warn me about.

My roommate, Brett, and I had just signed a year-long lease on our new apartment in Mountain View. We went to the local Safeway (the equivalent of a Stop n Shop to you Easterners, or a Piggly Wiggly to you Southerners) to buy groceries for our cool new pad. For whatever reason, the store was fresh out of shopping carts. We had to hang out in the parking lot and wait for a shopper to load up her car before commandeering her cart. Once inside, we headed for the produce section and stocked up on fruits and vegetables. We then decided to divide and conquer and split what was left on the list. Because we only had one cart (and getting another was clearly not an option), we left our cart in the produce section and agreed to meet back in 10 minutes. I went left, Brett went right. 9 minutes later, I found my way back, masterfully juggling an armful of coffee cans, spices and canned goods. Brett was already there, juggling his own load, but with a peculiar, puzzled look on his face.

“Did you take the cart?” came out of his mouth at the same time as “where’s the cart?” came out of mine.


“I don’t know.”

Huh? But, we left it right here. Right HERE. Full of produce. In front of the towering pyramid of Fugi apples. Where the hell is it? We looked around thinking that surely we would find it one aisle over, or perhaps pushed over toward the wall by a shopper who needed to get by. But no. It was gone.

Vanished, without a trace. Except for one thing: the evidence.

Over by the broccoli, we spotted a bunch of produce - bagged produce, OUR produce - unceremoniously piled on top of a mountain of cucumbers.

“What the (expletive)?” said Brett.

“Who in the (expletive)?” said I.

We looked at each other, then over at our groceries, then back at each other, as if waiting for a perfectly reasonable explanation to pop up. And then it came to us. Someone had stolen our cart. And not just accidently taken it; but purposefully, calculatingly, and gallingly stolen it. Clearly unwilling to do the decent thing and wait by the door for a cart to become available like any other member of a civilized society would (or should) do, the culprit had made a conscious decision to take groceries out of a cart that was clearly still in use, and claim it as his or her own. An offense worthy of a public stoning? Of course not. An offense worthy of a verbal tongue lashing? Absolutely. But we never saw our cart again.

Half an hour later, as Brett and I were driving back to our apartment (still fuming), we stopped at a red light behind a car sporting a bumper sticker that I’d seen before - the same bumper sticker that, a few days before, hadn’t made much sense to me. That night, after all groceries had been put away and Brett and I were finally able to laugh about what had happened, I turned on my archaic Mac and began writing an article. An article that, until today, I’ve never made public. It was titled, simply, “Mean People Suck.”


I have 25 books on or under my bedside table. They are, in no particular order of literary preference (with the exception of the first three, which are, hands down, my favorite reads of all time): The Power of One; The Princess Bride; The Five People You Meet in Heaven; Dear John; The Devi Wears Prada; Tandia; Angela’s Ashes; Extreme Measures; Tsar; The Little Big Book for Moms; Blink; The World’s Great Letters; Snow Flower and the Secret Fan; Getting in the Gap: Making Conscious Contact with God Through Meditation; 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense; A Woman Alone; Raising a Daughter; Reading Rescue 1-2-3; The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands; The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society; Super Freakonomics; The Elegance of the Hedgehog; The Tipping Point; The Traveler; and My Friend Leonard.

The question of the day is, if I and everyone who knows me vanished into thin air, would any one random person be able to decipher who I was, what I believed in, and what made me tick based solely on the books found on my bedside table? I’d like to think so. I’d like to think that said random person would take one look at my stash of reading material and think to him or herself: “Now there went a Renaissance Woman; a lover of literature; a lover of life, a lover of love itself! A modern day Yoda she must’ve been.”

But in all reality, the only thing the books I have piled beside and under my bed probably say about me is that I love to read. Oh, and that I’m really bad about returning loaners. They can, however, be easily classified into the following categories:

1. My Deserted Island Books: The Power of One; The Princess Bride; and The Five People You Meet in Heaven. These are the books that, if I were to be stranded on a deserted island by myself and could only have three to read over and over again for all eternity (or until a random fishing boat passed by and rescued me) I would choose to have. They are, in fact, the only books I’ll go into any detail about in this entry.

I read The Power of One for the first time in 1993 and have re-read it more times in 17 years than any other book. The title, I’m sure, has turned off many a potential fan by sounding like a self-help or religious/spiritual book. It is neither. It is a fictional novel about a boy in South Africa who grows up to a welterweight boxing champion. I could not do it justice by describing it in a few short sentences so suffice it to say that it is, quite simply, masterful. Oh, and it has the best damn ending of any book I have ever read.

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure by William Goldman, is second on my list of favorite reads. Most people I know saw the movie and loved it (as did I), but have never read the book. Believe it or not, it’s even better. Cleverly written to sound like an abridged addition by Goldman of a book written by one S. Morgenstern (who doesn’t exist), The Princess Bride is pure, unadulterated, unpretentious and unapologetic literary entertainment at its finest. It’s about as modern day a classic as they come and I cannot wait to read it to my own kids.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven is an impossibly beautiful story about an 83 year old man who dies a sudden and gory death and goes on to the Great Beyond, not to meet his Maker, but to meet the five people who had (in some cases, previously unbeknownst to him) defined his life while he was still on Earth. The book is small, literally - about 4 X 6, and not long (less than 200 pages, which would be more like 120 in a normal-sized book), and can be easily read in an afternoon. An afternoon, a day, a week, a month, would be too short, however. Because the story is so compelling, so touching and so beautifully written that when you read the last page, you’ll find yourself starting over – because you can’t stand to have it end.

2. Airport Reads: Everyone knows what these are – the books you buy in the airport store when you realize you have 5 hours on a plane with absolutely nothing to read. Half the money you spend will be on trashy gossip mags (after all, you don’t know any of these people so you could give a rat’s ass about appearances), and the other half will be on a novel or autobiography that you know nothing about and probably would never otherwise buy. As a general rule, I don’t like autobiographies and cannot STAND silly romance novels by Barbara Bradford or Danielle Steele. I do, however, dig spy and crime novels. Although I usually finish these kinds of books during my long plane rides and leave them wherever I happen to have been travelling to, I do have a couple left on my bedside table (Extreme Measures and Tsar).

3. Loaners: As some of my friends know, I’m terrible about returning books that have been loaned (read: not given) to me – and certainly never in pristine condition (I’m a compulsive and admittedly, shameful, dog-earer). The one thing I will say is that, with very few exceptions (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – a book with a title so annoying and obnoxiously long that I gave up on it out of principle after a few short pages), I will read almost anything recommended to me by a friend. If they loved it, surely it’s worth exploring. And the beauty of loaners is that oftentimes, you’ll end up reading something you may otherwise never have picked up yourself. Examples of such books that are currently on my bedside (and have not yet been returned to their rightful owners) are Angela’s Ashes; Extreme Snow Flower and the Secret Fan; The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society; The Traveler; and My Friend Leonard. A couple of others (Blink and The Tipping Point are also loaners but will be classified separately).

4. “Things That Make You Go Hmmm” books: A few months ago, while my husband and I were staying overnight at our place in San Francisco, I picked up an old copy of Freakonmics that some guest had left behind at one point or another. By the time Jess woke up a couple of hours later, I’d read half the book. And boy, was I was hooked. I couldn’t put the damn thing down. Within an hour, I’d finished it and within another couple of hours, I was on my way to Barnes & Noble to buy the sequel, Super Freakonomics. These are the books I call “The Things That Make You Go Hmmmm” books. 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense, The Tipping Point and Blink, three of the 25 on my bedside table, are other examples of such books (the latter two being ones that were loaned to me by a friend that will likely never be returned). These are the books that you can find yourself commenting on out loud while reading (“Fascinating!”, “I had NO idea!!”) and can always count on as conversation starters at dinner parties (“Hey, did you KNOW that, statistically speaking, most drug dealers live with their mothers??”).

5. Chick Books: I’ve already stated that I hate cheesy romance novels. Cannot stand them. The chick books that I have on my bedside table are different (with arguably one exception: Dear John). The ones I have are more "Sex in the City” type novels (The Devil Wears Prada) than they are Danielle Steele type novels, and are books about women that most men I know would never be caught dead reading (A Woman Alone). Another one I’d add to this list, but no longer have because I loaned it to someone and never got back (payback’s a bitch) is Eat, Pray, Love. Yes, it’s cliché and yes, it was a bit on the obnoxious “Woman Power” side, but I dug it nonetheless.

6. How To’s/Enlightenment: As a general rule, I don’t usually read “how to” or self help books, and when I do, I usually stop reading them half way through (which may explain a lot, if I were self-enlightened enough to admit it). I do, however, have a few that have stayed on my bedside table (The Little Big Book for Moms; Getting in the Gap: Making Conscious Contact with God Through Meditation; Raising a Daughter; Reading Rescue 1-2-3; and The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands), not necessarily because I haven’t read them, but because they are important enough to keep within arm’s reach, just in case…

7. The Good Ol' Fashioned Stand By: The oldest book I have on my bedside table is The World’s Greatest Letters. It’s a first edition printing of a book published in 1940 and I found it several years ago at a garage sale. The hard back cover has faded, it has a distinctive musty smell to it, but despite its age, is unmarked and undog-eared (even the likes of this chronic dog-earer respected it enough to use a book mark). As the title suggests, the book is a collection of letters, some famous, some obscure, written by people ranging from Alexander the Great, to Lord Byron, Voltaire, and Leon Trotsky. Some of the letters are about wars and (then) current events, many are about love and undying devotion, and some are about seemingly nothing in particular. I have not read them all despite the fact that I’ve had the book next to my bed for several years. But I have read most. I keep it, not because it’s a thrilling, awesome read, but because, like The Power of One, The Princess Bride and The Five People You Meet in Heaven, it’s always there when nothing else will do.

The Reason

When I was eight years old, I got kicked out of ballet school. And not just kicked out of a class. Kicked out of the whole school. Expelled. Asked never to return. My parents were told that I was disruptive; incorrigible; unteachable. The fact that I may or may not have had talent was never (at least not to my knowledge) discussed. I was simply too much of a pain in the ass for the instructor to deal with. I don’t remember being particularly upset, much less humiliated, by my dismissal. In fact, I don’t think I really cared one way or the other. I was too busy scheming up ways to get myself kicked out of piano class, too. No, not really, but I do remember not particularly liking piano, either.

Almost 30 years later, I find myself with some mild regrets. There are three things I wish I had done:

One, I wish I’d spent a few years being a National Geographic photographer. I don’t particularly like sleeping outside (in fact, I hate it), nor do I relish the thought of traipsing through mosquito-infested jungles, but I do love photography and I do (mostly) love traveling. I’m a pretty good traveler and an okay photographer, but I’m not a wanderer and I definitely would not make a very good nomad. I do not need 5 star accommodations (as evidenced by the fact that my favorite place on Earth is a remote private island in Honduras (see right), half the size of a football field with a semi-decrepit house that runs on generators and requires you to fish for your own food if you want to eat ), and I’m quite comfortable in the Third World. But I don’t thrive in potentially dangerous situations and I could never, ever sit idly by while a poor little antelope baby was stalked by a hungry lion. I’d be the person breaking the silence of the African savannah yelling “Run!! For all that is sacred and holy in this world, run like the wind, little one!! RUUUUN!” I get the whole Circle of Life thing, but it’s not happening on my watch. So, strike that dream.

Two, I wish I’d been a professional ballerina. Without exception, every single time I see a ballet, I feel a cringe of regret for my actions all those years ago. Ballet, to me at least, is the most beautiful form of dance there is. I am in awe of the strength, grace and discipline that it so clearly requires. When I watch a ballet, I am quite literally, green with envy. Two years ago, I enrolled my then 6 year old daughter Vivian in ballet hoping that she would pick up where I left off. But alas, though she did not get herself unceremoniously kicked out like I did, it became clear after two years of lessons that it simply wasn’t going to be her calling in life, much like it clearly hadn’t been mine.

And three, I wish I’d been a writer. Not a novelist, mind you. I don’t have the imagination, fortitude or patience to write anything that would take valuable space on a bookstore shelf. But a writer of other sorts – commentaries, articles, short stories - Just a writer. I did a lot of writing in high school, college and in the years after I moved to California, but clearly, it never got me very far . I guess I always figured that it would only be worth doing, if I could do something with it. How wrong I was.

I’m never going to be a National Geographic photographer and I doubt very seriously you will see me (in this lifetime, at least) dancing at the San Francisco Opera House. But I don’t need to write The Great American Novel, nor do I need to be a syndicated columnist to do the something else I love. I just need to put pen to paper and simply… write.

Thanks for indulging me. And thanks for reading.