Lois has already sent her second blog post, and I’m still trying to understand what exactly a “blog” is. I’ve heard that it’s a contraction of the words “blab” and “log” but I may be wrong about that. We’ve traveled to the birthplace of the Renaissance. There was no blogging in the Renaissance. Still, I promised myself I’d do this, and I’m guessing that when teaching begins in early February, my opportunities to blog off will diminish.
Disclaimer: the first sentence of what follows is terribly misleading. This blog-post is not about Italy. Also, as my students would say….. it’s sort of wordy.
It’s Sunday, January 22, and I’m sitting in our apartment in Florence, Italy listening to the bells of Ognissanti, a lesser known church in our neighborhood in Florence whose walls are, nonetheless decorated by Botticelli paintings and a famous fresco of the Last Supper by Ghirlandaio. I’m thinking about the last few weeks leading to the flight that brought us here…..and the generosity of friends and family. The morning after Christmas we were wrestling our tree to the ground, removing all the ornaments, and stripping the rest of the house of its ornaments and furnishings — with a very generous portion of help from our children and our dear friend Carla in order to help us begin a year-long adventure that would leave a large hole in each of their hearts.
On December 31, we left our house in Forestville in the hands of our new friends Heather and Rob and their irresistible son Jensen and became vagabonds, making our home in four different places before leaving for Florence on the 18th of January. When we had first announced our potential three-week period of homelessness, we were overwhelmed with incredibly generous offers from friends — from Shaun and John, from Shelley and from Larry and Diane (aka Madame Zinfandel). Some of these were offers to have us share their homes with them for three weeks. Not wanting to impose or to expose others to our dirty laundry (literally and figuratively), we settled on two very generous offers, the first of which came from our choir friend Denise and her husband Michael who proposed a gig housesitting two very substantial lap-cats for a week in Denise’s and Michael’s beautiful home in Two Acre Wood, a co-housing community near downtown Sebastopol — the first stop in our world tour. We’ve co-owned property for years with our friends Robin and Bill, but this still hadn’t prepared us adequately for experiencing Denise and Michael’s approach to co-housing. As though giving us free reign over their home were not generous enough, it was soon clear that any number of folks in the neighborhood were also beneficiaries of their generosity. Although I’m from the 60’s, I never did quite get used to the fact that that at any given moment naked strangers would appear unannounced in and around Denise’s hot tub in the back yard. Passers-by would enter the front door at will (knocking was optional) and come in to use Denise’s internet or borrow the keys to Michael’s truck. The thought did cross my mind that I should be making some effort to protect their possessions, but I think I might have had a pre-revolutionary definition of that word.
The next leg of our trip brought us to the southern fringes of Sebastopol, a home in the country next to our good friends Mike and Pat, who were so touched by the prospect of our homelessness that they generously offered us the use of their neighbors’ home. Actually it was a second home, owned by a pair of doctors from San Francisco who found it too cold in the winter, and had extended a standing offer to Mike and Pat to use the home as necessary when family and friends came to visit around the holidays. And so we came to “depend on the kindness of strangers,” Doctors Moyra Moi and Clare Siu. Apparently their home in South Sebastopol has an insulation system that actually prevents warm air from entering the home, because when we entered the house it was 10 degrees colder inside than outside, but Mike fired up his little tractor and hauled a load of wood to the house, which kept us fairly toasty. Currently in retirement from the non-profit world, Mike is an entrepreneur, inventor, naturalist, frisbee golfer, bartender, Red Sox fan, singer/songwriter, chicken rancher and shepherd. Pat, his wife and sometime accomplice in these endeavors, described for us all, with more enthusiasm and detail than I deemed appropriate, the process of castrating a sheep. Mike’s newest venture is the creation of a four-hole golf course in his back yard. He was mowing the “green” while explaining the challenges of the first hole to us. The first hole was a tin can buried in a tiny clearing of weeds flanked by a dense thicket of poison oak and blackberry bushes. In order to guide the ball into the clearing, the golfer would have to hit the thing over a 60-foot oak with enough backspin to hit the postage-stamp-sized green without allowing the ball to roll into the forest of thorns. Mike told us that he’d hadn’t yet found any of the golf balls that he’d hit toward that hole, but remained hopeful. He thought the rigors of the course would be likely to attract the biggest names in the golfing world and he’s beginning to devise some marketing strategies. The course, by the way, doubles as a frisbee golf course and a baseball diamond, on which Mike’s grandson Morris nearly tore our heads off with a whiffleball, and where we were treated to a guest celebrity appearance by Mike and Pat’s daughter Chivas Regal, roller derby queen.
Mike and Pat had us over for dinner two or three times; the precise number escapes me because alcohol was involved. I do remember at least the early stages of one post-dinner limoncello drink-off, in which we were comparing the merits of Lois’ and Mike’s excellent home-made concoctions. We talked a lot about travel. Mike and Pat have been everywhere; Pat has even been to New Jersey, and she spontaneously breaks out into exotic tongues and accents with ease. After the third shot of limoncello the rest of us had funny accents as well. Singing was also involved. Mike and, as I discovered later, his son Joe are terrific songwriters. Both of them treated us to original works, one of which was apparently composed on the spot. Until I heard Joe’s piece I hadn’t realized the great potential that exists for a new genre of music combining post modernism with country-western.
Our good friend Glenn invited us to meet him at Harbin Hot Springs where he offered to treat Lois and me to a “Watsu.” To my surprise it did not turn out to be a sushi roll, but rather a blissful hour of weightless floating in a heart-shaped pool of 98-degree water as Glenn massaged and relaxed every muscle in two bodies that had locked up from moving virtually every one of our possessions out of our house a week earlier. Glenn said he just wanted to give us a glimpse of what he did in his professional life and to explain why his license plate reads, IWATSUU. I’ve read the Daodejing, and tried Transcendental Meditation, gestalt therapy, philosophy, vegetarianism and even Holy Communion, but this was the first time I’ve had anything approaching a mystical experience. It is, as the sannyasi say, “ineffable, unnameable, beyond all reason or explanation, and like totally groovy.” After returning from our travels, my retirement plan is to create a new aquatic religious cult called the Watsubaptists with Glenn as high priest.
From Harbin we drove over the hill to Fallon, Nevada, home of a famous U.S. naval station, placed there, as best I can figure, in the event that Antarctica and the north polar ice caps both melt into the sea. We had a lovely visit with Lois’ spry 87-year old father who was about to head off to Oregon to visit his brother, a mere side-trip after having hauled a house trailer from Nevada to Alaska to Missouri and back again with his kid (83 year old) brother-in-law the year before. After sharing puns and goodbyes-for-the-year over plates of chow mein and some sort of fish I was reluctant to ask Lois’ dad to identify, we headed up for a couple of days to tidy up our digs in Tahoe before returning to our new hood in South Sebastopol.
The Saturday morning before our departure to Italy was devoted to a meeting at the college in which we oriented all the students who were about to embark on the trip to Florence. As I looked out at the (very) young faces in the auditorium, I was struck by how much and how quickly they would all change. After a lunch with my fellow instructors and the study abroad staff, we drove to the home of one of our favorite couples, John and Shaun, who, with the aid of our friend Carla, were generously hosting a traditional West Sonoma County celebration to wish us “buonviaggio” and and to congratulate me on my impending retirement. The food was abundant and tasty, and given that this was a West County shindig, vegetarian dishes and wine were permitted….. as was singing, including an original song composed by our beloved Carla and sung along with her sweet daughter Ali, (home from Smith for semester break) and the irrepressible and golden throated Shelley Berman whose vocal chords have been honed by years of heckling the players of visiting ballclubs at the Oakland Coliseum. All of this was followed by guitar wizardry by my son-in-law Arif, sweet songs by our good friend Clay, words of congratulation/encouragement, hula dancing of course, and an attempt by Lois and me to sing a song of farewell, proving that amnesia follows close on the heals of retirement. Revelers were particularly entertained by John and Shaun’s gumby faucet that could be bent and twisted into overhand knots whilst still delivering water for a banquet serving 60. In a feeble attempt to thank the two for their amazing generosity, I made an attempt to fix the faucet, urged on by Lois who is apparently tremendously and unjustifiably proud of my plumbing prowess (and who believes that a kitchen faucet should probably not double as a yoga practitioner). I was able effectively to dismantle the contraption, but alas…. all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not put Humpty together again. Apparently, Shaun and John, there is just no way to thank you adequately.
The following days were so filled with last minute preparations that we abandoned our promises to get together with other cherished friends to say goodbye, and at this point I’m afraid that this blog is the best I can do. Mi dispiace.
On the day of our departure, having abandoned, stowed and surrendered the keys to our vehicles, we were driven down to that venerable West County center of a.m. cuisine, “Hole in the Wall” where we dined on loxalicious, biscuits and gravy, omelettes and Dutch Baby (no Scandinavians were consumed), and talked about rain, Italia, Rhode Island reds, and…. in order to create the proper mood for departure…. terrifying experiences in airplanes. It was time to leave our beloved Sonoma County. Mike and Pat drove us to the airport shuttle bus. Mike left us with some words that seemed to capture what all of our friends and loved ones have been feeling. “We’re absolutely pissed at you for leaving us, and we hope you have the most wonderful time.” Such amazing generosity. Thank you….thank you all.