Juicy Tomatoes

Thursday, June 05, 2008


Tahoe was its usually lovely self. Die-hard snow streaked the mountains and daffodils shot up in front yards. The Sierra was on pause between ski weather and summer. There were no lines. No waiting. The pizza maker was overjoyed to see two customers. During mid-season all is calm. You can walk the dog along that shiny sapphire lake and barely see a boater.

How, then, could it be that at the same time in China people were desperately clawing through crushed houses and office buildings to find their babies and grandfathers? And how could it be that in Burma, homeless children were starving because one government feared losing its stranglehold on power if it allowed other governments to donate food.

On the west side of Tahoe on a balmy morning a man in shorts shoveled the last patch of snow from his garden into a wheelbarrow.
A few people took the sun outside a coffee house to read newspapers and check their email. Back home the Bay Area was dealing with record scorching temperatures. In the mountains it was 30 degrees cooler than San Francisco. We wondered how our new tomato plants were surviving.

Tomato worry seemed so trivial. As trivial as the price of gas and the drop in your home equity compared to a place where gardens, roads and houses were lost in minutes. Where normal was gone forever.

What happened to the Chinese and the Burmese were a cyclone and an earthquake, within nine days of each other. There’s no way to rationalize when and where a natural disaster strikes. The same thing could happen in this paradise. Lake Tahoe is not exempt from seismic activity; its famous beauty was created by fault shifts and landslides.

What can you do, but be grateful you’re here and not there – under water in Burma and under rubble in China. But that seems not good enough. You can promise to send a check to a relief organization. You can vow to check your earthquake supply barrel as soon as you get home and buy one of those special wrenches to turn off a gas line.

“Why are we spared” you ask and then hope you haven’t tempted the calamity forces to look your way.

By last Sunday a kindergarten class in China had been buried for 100 hours.

Havoc is happenstance. The world spins like a roulette wheel. Who knows where the ball will hit to decide who gets lucky. The day Katrina swamped New Orleans and forced people to hang onto rooftops and huddle on bridges, people in Rangoon certainly enjoyed their placid sea. People in Chengdu tended their vegetable gardens.

On the way home from Tahoe we pulled into Davis at a drive-through burger place, one where they offer whole lettuce leaves and sautéed onions on their cheeseburgers and allow you to feel less guilty for eating fast food.

On the edge of the parking lot a man in a ball cap and glasses held a sign that said he was jobless, homeless and hungry. A man having his own personal earthquake.
We could see him in our rear view mirror as we ate.

“Have any cash left,” asked my husband. “I was thinking the same thing,” I said and handed the man a $10 bill on my way to the restroom. Going back to the car I overheard him at the front of the line say “yes, please” to onions.

You do what you can to appease the gods.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


People have been asking me, “How do you like being retired?”
They’re just being friendly, not accusing. So, why is my first reaction …. “You talking to me?” like the belligerent Robert DeNiro character in “Taxi Driver.”

“Hey, Susan, how’s retirement” yells my friend George from across the street when I’m walking my dog in downtown Sebastopol.
And I’m slightly embarrassed, like he’s asked how’s the new prosthesis working out.

Retired. Me?
I rush to qualify: “Well, of course I haven’t exactly retired, you know,” I sputter. “I quit my newspaper job. But I’m not retired-retired.”
I mean, of course, I’m not playing golf, although nothing against those who do.

How’s it feel to be a lady of leisure, they ask. What leisure? Do not think of me as sitting around. I still wake up in the morning and make lists. I still carry my appointment book. I still have to make money.

Keeping busy, they say.
Filling your time? Do I look like I need time-filling?

I know why I’m so sensitive. It is because my generation basically recoils from the word retired. It makes you sound like what your father did when he quit working at his manufacturing plant and moved to a condo in Florida and tussled with all the other former executives over supervising the landscaping and swimming pool maintenance.

Retired is something you thought you wouldn’t be for a long time. But then you were surprised at turning gray. And turning 50. And 60. And have someone call you grandmother.

But retired sounds so final. Like you’re finished. Done. Wrapped up. Certainly, different.

Sara Davidson worries that retirement is “a precursor to boredom and death.”

What do you say when you no longer do what you did? Who are you when you longer are who you were?

The transition from being on the clock to off does not happen automatically.
It reminds me of the romantic get-away my husband and I planned one week summers ago. We put kids on various planes, found a house sitter to take care of the vegetable garden and feed the cat and rushed to Mexico for one week’s precious vacation . We fought for the first two days.

Baby Boomers, it is reported, have no intention of fully retiring. More than three-quarters of them plan to work long past the age their parents
got the gold watch. Part of this, I know, is because of the money.

The ads ask: can you afford retirement.
Are you kidding, I answer.

But I think we fear relinquishing the identity which comes with work.
Retirement is what normally happens at the end of your career. I still have a career. I just don’t do it for so much an hour certain days a week in an office. I am a stay-at-home writer. And I may eventually get involved in some good work. And take another French class. And do more yoga.

I bet as more Boomers advance into this period we will start to see a new competitive sport develop. Extreme retiring, we’ll call it. . I retired and became a masters swimmer. I retired and became a medical missionary. I took up the cello. I adopt feral cats.
Perfect Boomer business opportunity: Retirement boot camp.

Some of my friends compliment me on my new relatively relaxed life.
I’m more attentive says my friend Alison as we linger over lunch. “This is normally the time you’d be tapping your watch and saying ‘I have to get back to the office.’”
She tells me I look rested, even younger.

But as we start to leave the restaurant, she can’t resist, saying loudly,
“Wait. Now that you’re retired don’t you want to wrap up the bread in a napkin to take home.”

susan swartz

Friday, April 25, 2008


When I read about Spain’s new defense minister being seven months pregnant I started thinking what if all the leaders in the world were with child.

If all the world leaders were pregnant, what a summit meeting we might have. A regular hormonal convergence, heavy on the oxytocin, that hormone of love and bonding that comes on strong in pregnancy. Turns women into nesters.
That’s what the world needs now. More nesters at the top.

I watched Carme Chacon, the first woman to head the armed forces in Spain, her stylish white maternity top fluttering over her third trimester belly, inspecting the troops and wondered what it would be like if all the people in power were pregnant.
I think priorities would be different if those in charge had their own vested interest growing under their blouse to remind them what they’re doing to the world.
To begin with, they’d all have one major thing in common. Pregnant women, no matter where they come from, speak the same language. They pray for the same outcome. They don’t need an ingenuine lecture on family values. Their hearts and minds and aching backs all are pointed to the future.

They get very emotional over anything dealing with children. Pack the UN with pregnant leaders and show them photos of desperate toddlers scrambling for bits of rice on a dirt floor and I bet they’d come up with a way to fix world hunger.
A group of leaders, soon to produce the next generation, would not take kindly to a trumped-up war. No more mothers throwing themselves on small coffins. No more little kids caught in a firefight. Take half that military budget and shift it into health and education.

Full of hopes and dreams, they would certainly demand to know what’s wrong in a world that causes some babies to grow up to hate and kill and wrap themselves in explosives.
Were they to hear of one nation committing genocide on another maybe they would march in like mother bears and make them stop. No matter whose trade agreement it threatened.

I know. We have no proof that if women ran the world we’d not still be dealing with hunger and a poisoned environment and one senseless war after another. But with men in charge it’s pretty clear that’s what we’re getting.
If pregnant women ruled we would be baby-proofing the planet. Fixing the blackened skies and fouled rivers. The world would pay attention to a bunch of riled-up mothers saying, “Clean up this mess before I count to 10.”

Among the pregnant and powerful, negotiations would be serene and calm. No red-faced screaming, no grand-standing, no macho boasting. No late night deal-making over cigars and whiskey. Pregnant women require more sleep and maybe some ice cream to get through the day. They try to avoid stress and conflict. At the same time they are good at sticking to business and could march through an agenda as fast as they could paper over a wall with birds and butterflies.

If pregnant women ran the world there would be safer toys, better child care, mandatory paternity leave and more bathrooms. If pregnant women were in charge there’d be fewer guns lying around.

And why not? Pregnant women believe in miracles.
As for the prospect of someone waking them at 3 in the morning with a crisis?
Not a big deal.

susan swartz


Friday, April 18, 2008


Being a dog owner I say I have an excuse to collect plastic bags. Mostly I get them from the two newspapers delivered to our house, which continue to come wrapped in plastic long after the rainy season.

Like many responsible people I’ve tried to wean our household of plastic dependency, although I’m still not convinced that cloth veggie bags do as good as job keeping the broccoli crisp. Yet, I’ve seen the pictures of floating plastic sludge in the Pacific said to be twice the size of Texas, and know I’m partially to blame.

I do like the idea of toting my own reusable go-to-market shopping bag. Makes me think I’m in Europe with the little Old World string bag just the right size for a baguette, some cheese and a bottle of wine.

And we have no lack of reusable enviro-friendly shopping bags. We have shopping bags made from canvas, oil cloth, straw, burlap and what claims to be heavy duty recycled plastic with assorted store logos. In all colors, enough to go with every outfit.

But I forget to take them with me. I walk right out the door to go to the store and leave them behind. Or discover they’re in the other car. And then I’m at the store apologizing to the grocery clerk for being neglectful and spending another buck or two on one of the store’s own reusable bags that match the same ones I have at home. Or, even worse, guiltily accepting more plastic bags.

I think I’m typically American. Many people I know are bad about the bags. It takes a long time to change habits, to go from knowing to doing. And that is why they’re getting tough with us. In San Francisco there’s a ban on stores using plastic bag. Soon it may come to our part of the Bay Area, or the state will decide that if you use, you lose and make it a law that customers have to pay up to 25 cents to get a plastic bag they don’t want and know they shouldn’t have.

Why is this so difficult? We don’t leave home without our car keys and wallet. We don’t get as far beyond the front sidewalk without our cell phone and sunglasses. So why do we forget the bag?

Where I live you now can recycle plastic bags. You can take all those bags, even ones from the cleaners and gather them into big bag, tie them up and pop them into the blue recycle bin.

That eases some guilt, but I’m not sure it solves the plastic problem. The recycling people say that the bags go off to a recycling manufacturer to turn into decking and carpets. I know that repurposing can work. I have a very cute clutch bag made out of old beer can flip tops. But giving us an easy way to dispose of plastic will not end our plastic dependency.

So to celebrate Earth Day I resolve to tote that bag. Hang them by the front door, keep them in the car.

And then I have to switch from newspaper bags to biodegradable doggy-do bags. If we’re going green, the dog’s going too.

Susan Swartz

Monday, April 14, 2008


My husband’s Uncle Gordie turned 100 this month. You might have seen news of his birthday celebration on TV. He was the guy from Richmond California hitting the century mark by driving 105 Miles an hour in a Lexus sedan and 130.4 miles an hour in a high speed boat on the San Joaquin River Delta.

Gordie made the perfect media star. We like seeing an old guy doing something wild that makes the rest of us whoop and holler. It makes everyone 99 years old and under feel that maybe they, too, will never be over the hill. Gives you hope. All that inspiring feel good stuff.

Reporters ate it up. There was white haired grinning Gordon Miller breaking the Guinness World Records for the fastest 100 year old man. On that day’s news cycle he was the perfect antidote to sour reports about the economy, the war and the latest political sex scandal.

Gordie warmed to the cameras and microphones. When asked how he felt to be turning 100 that day, he said, “not much different than yesterday.”

Maybe it’s those healthy ions that come from being on the water all the time that’s kept him going. He’s been hooked on boats since he was a young man and he and his wife Margaret have always found a way to live on the waterfront.

Twenty years ago they sold their house on the Richmond side of San Francisco Bay where they’d raised two sons and moved to a retirement community. Worst decision of their lives, Margaret, said. They hated it. Too quiet and too far from salt water. They made their way back to the bay and moved into a condo.

Reporters always like to ask old people how they managed to live so long and so well, especially ones who look good when the cameras zoom in. “He sure doesn’t look 100,” said the CNN anchor.
There are many ways to choose to live when you’re young but when you get old, there’s not a lot of alternatives and most don’t seem very attractive.

Gordie makes living 100 years look like something you might want to do if you got the chance. He’s charming and mobile, has a lot of family and friends. He’s a little hard of hearing and doesn’t jump on and off slippery decks as ably as he used to. But he has a lot of moxie, a lifetime of bar toasts and enough boating buddies to go sailing at least once a week.

Gordie credits Margaret for keeping him going. She makes sure they eat well and take vitamins. Margaret says another secret to Gordie’s longevity is that the man is almost always happy.
I asked Gordie about that and he said that when he was a kid he saw a sign that said “keep smiling.’ And so I did,” he said.

Is it that simple? You find someone to love who makes you take your vitamins. Then you pursue a passion that keeps you wanting to get up every day and put on your windbreaker and tennis shoes. Then you just keep smiling into the sun and the wind.

Susan Swartz

Saturday, April 05, 2008


For a while I was saying I got my split lip from being in a bar fight defending Hillary’s honor. Actually it had nothing to do with that. I fell at a friend’s house in Phoenix, but there was a political connection in that during the visit we watched an Obama-Clinton debate where I was sorely outnumbered. The best part was that the Obama supporters included a Republican and an Independent.

But there has been a lot of bloodying in this campaign and it’s starting to create some ugly scarring. Especially if you’re a concerned Democrat. As the two candidates have proven to be on the same side of many issues, they and the media have done everything possible to turn them into rivals. And we’ve wandered into the muck.

The muck is what we were supposed to avoid. The muck is what we need to get past.
One of my daughters has been an active Hillary Clinton supporter from the beginning. She wears the buttons and puts the stickers in her windows and calls foreign states, like Texas, on behalf of her candidate. She spent 45 minutes on the telephone with a man in a border town one Sunday. He told her, to “Please tell Miss Hillary” for him that he thinks the wall going up along the Texas-Mexico border is a bad idea and that the government would be better off spending the money to help war veterans.

As things got contentious between the candidates my daughter emailed the Clinton campaign headquarters of her worries. She said, “Don’t get personal. Don’t get dirty. Get out of the muck.”
But Hillary ignores her.

My daughter’s becoming disenchanted, like a lot of Democrats. Not just with Hillary but with politics and the muck.
How many more bloodied lips can we afford? We need to get over Clinton’s embellished sniper story on Bosnia. And get past Obama’s being AWOL at his early morning committee meetings.
It’s exhausting. And demeaning. And if this keeps up we’ll end up handing over the whole bloodied mess to McCain.

So, here’s my idea. Dump the muck. Right now.
Clinton and Obama start campaigning from here on out as if each one were indeed the Democratic presidential candidate. Challenge the establishment. Challenge McCain. Pledge to each other - you take the high road and I will, too.

Stop campaigning against each other like Rocky rivals and start running against McCain. That’s what we’re trying to figure out. Who would be the best to take on McCain. So show us. Tell us what you’d do about the war and jobs and housing and health care. We need a leader not a street fighter.

If this were to happen the media would have nothing to report but what Obama and Clinton each believe they can do for America. Then let the best campaigner win come August. And the other one will continue as a dignified proud statesman or woman. Or maybe even a vice presidential candidate.

And we’d all feel cleaner. And we’d d all be winners. Well, some of us anyway.

Susan Swartz

Thursday, March 27, 2008


When people would ask “Are you STILL writing for the newspaper?” I’d feel like I had to come up with some explanation like, “Yessss…..Maybe I’m just not very imaginative.” After all, it is a mark of adventure and risk taking to bounce around, be flexible, try something new.

But why not stay with something you’ve loved since high school, majored in, in college and has been the only work you’ve ever been paid for except that summer in Cape Cod cleaning motels.

I’ve always been proud to say I write for a newspaper. People usually react. They know what reporters do and they have opinions. There were times when some considered it an-almost glamorous profession. But along the way writing for a newspaper got thrown into a greater slushpile of THE MEDIA. People talk about THE MEDIA and look at you like you are personally responsible for the paparazzi climbing all over Angelina and Brad and TV cameras staying too long on grieving war mothers.

It’s so hard to please the reading, viewing, listening public. But it’s sure fun to try.

Being a journalist gets you into peoples lives and homes that doesn’t happen in a lot of professions. Being a newspaper reporter allows you to know a little about a lot of subjects. It gives you maybe some fleeting celebrity, a little bit of status, although that’s declining too. People know that the news biz is struggling now and they all have an opinion on that, too.

But they care and they pay attention. Were a newspaper to close up shop I believe there would be far more people mourning it than celebrating. But maybe that’s because I believe most people recognize that they must know what’s happening in the world or downtown even if they don’t like it.

Newspapers also keep the written word alive. Even if it they appear on a website instead of a piece of newsprint, there will be words put together by people who know the craft. People who can spell and write full sentences.

I was never a fan of the politics of the late William S. Buckley but I sure admired the way he could wrap his words around his ideas. I gave a silent “good for you” when it was reported he died at his desk.

Daniel Schorr, the NPR sage, is 91 and continues to get multiple papers every day so he can add his perspective and analysis to the news. Helen Thomas continues as the queen of the White House press corps. I take heart that news people never fade away. They keep reporting and commentating and asking nosy questions.

I left my newspaper, the Santa Rosa (Ca.) Press Democrat because we have a decent union retirement and I want to do more things on my own time. You know. Like write opinions and interview people and tell stories. Same old. Same old. What else would I do?

Susan Swartz