The Tardy Times

  Margo, at right, watches as boatmates touch a friendly gray whale.


 Baja's whale-watching is miraculous,
 but the birdsong came home with her

THE BIG QUESTION was, “How close do you want to get to the whales?”  We were in little boats called pangas in Magdelena Bay, on the Pacific Coast of Baja, Mexico. The whales – mothers and babies – were near enough that when they blew,  seawater and whale snot drenched us.  
  The mother whales were about twice the size of our pangas, and if they'd wanted to, they could have come up underneath us and tossed us into the drink. But a few of  them approached the pangas and nuzzled the sides of the boats.
   We touched them, scratched their faces, splashed water on them.  It was so different from whale-watching in Northern California, where we see something that might be the back of a whale  surfacing about a half-mile away, and get all excited.

THIS WAS the whale-watching, kayaking and bird-watching adventure I postponed last year when Lynn had his stroke.  Lynn's health has been stable enough that I was able to get away in early March for the week-long trip.
  The wait was worth it. The trip's main purpose was whale-watching, and that part of it was astounding.
  But both coasts of central Baja are just thick with birds – hundreds of cormorants, egrets, sandpipers and pelicans. And then there were the birds I'd never seen before, or seen only very rarely – boobies, ospreys, oystercatchers, a peregrine falcon, huge white pelicans, green herons, night herons.
   Anyway, the whales were a once-in-a-lifetime thrill, but what stayed with me back home on Hampshire Street were the birds, and particularly their songs. In Baja, the birds were pretty much around us all the time, laying down the soundtrack. In San Francisco, I suddenly became aware of birdsong in the background. Sometimes you have to listen hard, but it's there.
   I'll be bicycling down Valencia Street and stop for a red light, and the birds' volume seems almost deafening. We're all aware of their song in the early morning before the city wakes up and in the evening when the city noises quiet down. But even under the traffic's background hum, the birdsong is there, sort of an underlayment that I hadn't tuned in to before. It's something! And for me, it's something new and interesting to learn about.
   I'm trying to learn to identify the different birdcalls: the finches, the sparrows, the swallows, the mockingbirds, the scrub jays. The flock of movie-star parrots from Telegraph Hill came by one day. It felt like they flew over our house squawking just because I was finally tuned in to bird sounds.

    Katherine Lieban, Carol Lieban and Margo pause for refreshment.
Y OTHER big adventure was a 750-mile bike trip around California to celebrate (if that's the right word) turning 50. My friend Katherine Lieban also turned 50 this year. We had envisioned riding across the country, which would have taken about three months. But reality edged its way into our plans, and we scaled back to a two-week ride. So in late June, with Katherine's sister Carol, we cycled northward on a route near the coast as far as Mendocino City.
  We doubled back through the wine and apple country to San Francisco. After a night at home, we pedaled south on the coast highway as far as San Luis Obispo. Then we took the train back home. I was as worn out (and happy) as you'd expect a 50-year-old person of average athletic abilities to feel.

IN OTHER NEWS: My work is going well. I'm in my second year as a handyperson. I still miss my friends at the Chronicle, and the feeling of working as part of a team. But my work now is challenging and enjoyable. My learning curve is still pretty steep, which is a nice way to say that I make mistakes on almost every job.
  More of my jobs these days are repairs that I've done before, so the learning curve is less steep than it was when I started my little business. I know now about the two or three main things that go wrong with halogen light fixtures, doorbells, light switches and double-sash windows. So I feel more competent most days than I did a year ago.
    I'm also doing more small construction projects. And I'm usually pretty happy with how they come out. I've yet to feel like a project has turned out perfectly, but I guess that's because I'm a handyperson, not a cabinetmaker or a master carpenter.
   As it's been from the beginning, most of my carpentry has to do with making better use of the small storage spaces most San Franciscans have: garages, shelves, attics and closets. Our storage spaces are so limited compared with the volume of our stuff.

I'M STILL quilting a bit. My main project this year was a baby quilt for Lynn's first great-grandchild, Elliott (Jenna Ludlow's daughter).
 I was able to include some fabrics from Lynn's mother's collection, which I inherited when she died. So the baby's quilt contains fabrics picked out by her great-great grandmother.

        Editor's note: Margo pieced this quilt as a reminder of Lynn's stroke.
         The scrambled  letters  spell "STOKE," the word he scratched out with          his left hand while his right side was paralyzed. Mementoes worked into          the quilt: The first crossword that Lynn worked while  recovering. One of          the answers was "stoke." A copy of the CAT scan is next to the "S."  One          fabric suggests  Hawai'i, another the surf ("stoked").

MY BOOK GROUP spent the year on Tolstoy's “War and Peace”  (earlier, "Ulysses" and "Don Quixote"), and maybe we're ready for some light reading.

TORAH STUDY continues. This year my group has focused on bits of the Midrash Rabba, in Hebrew. Rabbi Larry Kushner leads us word for word through relatively short passages, parsing the Hebrew and bringing the ancient texts into our world. To support that study, I'm continuing to study Hebrew, haltingly, but as well as I can while trying to balance the rest of my life.
    One of the favorite parts of my week is Saturday morning, when I take my hot new bike (weighs just ounces, seems to fly down the street by itself, bought for the 50th birthday trip) on a 45-minute ride across town to Temple Emanu-El. After an hour of Torah study, I ride back, so by noon on Shabbat, I've had a good physical workout and some spiritual sustenance as well. Three others in the Torah study group cycle from other parts of town, and we joke about our carbon-neutral Torah study. A bit of Tikun Olam.
      At my own synagogue, Or Shalom, we hired a new rabbi this year, Katie Mizrahi (at right), and it's been interesting and very, very good to have a spiritual leader at the schul.
    She's young, dynamic and learned and has a warmth that projects out to every seat in the synagogue. She drums along with some of the prayers, so that helps us out in the choir. The choir has started trying to help lead the singing at the Bar and Bat Mitzvahs this year, so I'm going to more Saturday services than I used to. I'm loving being a part of those joyful occasions.

STAYING in shape is getting to be more of a challenge. I still play pick-up basketball, although it's less of a family activity now that Lynn doesn't play. I worry about injury, and stretch like crazy before I play. I've been very lucky so far (knocking on wood endlessly). I aim for once a week, but it's not quite that often.
   I take my bike out for errands at least a few times a week, hoping that counts as exercise. My 20-year-old beater bike has a basket on the back and panniers on the sides, so I can actually carry quite a bit. San Francisco's city bike plan has developed a lot over the past few years, so I can ride safely just about anywhere I want to go in bike lanes or on bike routes (again, knocking on wood like crazy).
    I can't help but compare it to 25 years ago, when there really was no safe place for bikes on the streets. I marvel on every outing, sometimes feeling like a crone saying to the young hip cyclists: “You just can't imagine how it was back in the Dark Ages. No one ever even heard of a bike lane. And the storm drains were configured so as to eat your tires, just because no one had thought of turning them sideways so bike tires wouldn't go through the grates. Such progress in just 25 years!”
    Actually, there's still a lot to be done to make the streets safe for bikes. But it is amazing how much has changed.

KENNY continues to be a joy. She's a senior in high school now, and we're in the process of looking at colleges, and realizing how under-educated we are about all the possibilities out there. We know about California's colleges and universities, but we have no clue about the broader world of possibilities, in other states or other countries. So much to learn, and we're just starting.
    Wishing for good health and happiness for all our friends and family.                                    

- Margo and Berta: "Christmas in London," plus comments from our London correspondent, Berta Freistadt.

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