Zhadi's Den

Random essays on wine, writing, moving to San Francisco, surfing, cats (exotic and otherwise) and zombies...depending on my mood.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Conjugal Visit

Amur leopards: Aijka, the mom, with her son, Sergei on one side, while Gigant, the proud father, keeps an eye -- and a paw -- on his family.

(photo by Nancy Vandermey, our website genius and photographer at EFBC)

Sharks and zombies

I try to please my readership... For those of you who haven't seen Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE, you really should...the only movie that features a fight between flesh eating zombie and man eating shark!

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Sharks and Surfing - CAUTION: GORY PHOTOS!

I was walking my dog Boska on the beach yesterday late afternoon, and came across what I first thought was a large dog sleeping on the beach. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a large dead seal with substantial chunks missing in places and what definitely looked like bite wounds on the parts that were left.

(To the right and the left is what it looks like when a shark attacks. The lucky man on the left survived.)

Aside from the fact that it was grimly fascinating (I had to discourage Boska from closer examination), the discovery brought home a reality that I'd acknowledged in a half-assed, theoretical kind of way: there really are sharks out there. Big ones.

I learned to surf at Pacific Beach in San Diego (an adventure detailed in a previous blog), and while I was afraid of many things (waves over two feet high and surfboards, including my own, topping the list), sharks were never really a consideration. Sure, they were out there. In 2003, there were at least three Great Whites spotted swimming off of San Onofre Beach, a popular surfing spot south of San Clemente. The local surfers didn't seem too fazed by the sightings or ensuing warnings. Hey, if they weren't worried, why should I care? From all reports, these sharks had staked the waters of San Onofre as their home turf. Pacific Beach was at least 60 or so miles south.

When I moved up to San Francisco, I took my surfboards with me. I now live off of Ocean Beach, a popular spot for surfing, so I figured that once I could afford a heavier wetsuit (the water is COLD up here!), I'd start by practicing my skills in the white water before paddling out beyond the break. I was excited at the thought of surfing new territory. I talked to local surfers, watched them out in the water, and checked into wetsuit prices.

My enthusiasm was somewhat diminished by signs posted along the beach that sited rough surf and very heavy undertows, as well as "People have drowned while attempting to swim and wade here." Hmm.

I also was somewhat deterred by the fact that I didn't have a surfing buddy. Gayle wanted to learn, but I had doubts as to whether I was good enough to teach her, let alone keep either of us safe in what sounded like dangerous conditions. Sure, I can swim and I have enough smarts to paddle parallel to the beach if caught in an undertow, but I'd also always been in the water with people much more experienced, in much kinder conditions. I didn't feel prepared to take responsibility for someone else's safety.

And finally, Ocean Beach was close to the Red Triangle. To quote a PBS website:

"Lying between San Francisco and Monterey, the Red Triangle includes beaches where elephant seals go to molt, and offshore sites where great whites feed on unwary prey. When not prowling the Red Triangle, great white sharks search the kelp forest for sea lions, or roam the open ocean. Their migration is predictable. Each year they turn up at the same place at the same time, occasionally crossing paths with humans who still swim and surf in these dangerous waters."

If anyone has seen the PBS special on Great Whites (some up to 30 feet in length) that actually launch themselves out of the water when hitting their prey, you'll understand why being anywhere near the Red Triangle would make a person stop and think before wading out to sea. Still, the concept of shark attack never seemed the least bit possible to me until Boska and I found that dead seal.

I decided to do some online research about shark sightings in California waters and all I can say is, yup, there are a lot of 'em out there. One of the accounts reads as follows:

Ocean Beach — On May 1, 2005, Sven Vahsen and Tobias Golling were surfing Ocean Beach near Noriega Street, San Francisco. It was about 8:15 AM and they had been in the water for 90 minutes. The sky was clear and the water glassy with the faces of breaking waves ranging from 1– 9 feet. The depth of the water was about 9 feet with visibility limited to only a few feet. Vahsen recalled; “My friend and I were sitting on our surfboards waiting for waves. We were sitting in a location where the 2 meter and larger waves would break. I think we can infer from this that there must have been sandbanks about 2-3 meters under the water to cause the breaking waves, with deeper water in between. My legs were hanging in the water. We were quite far out for surfing, perhaps 150 meters. A third friend and two other surfers were in the same area, but closer to the beach. I suddenly noticed a shark fin outside of where I was sitting, about 15 meters away from me. The shark was moving very slowly, if at all, towards the north. It did not appear interested in us. I was looking for incoming waves when I spotted the fin. It submerged after a few seconds, and I did not see it again. I consulted with my two friends and one of them had also seen the fin briefly. We decided to paddle in. We paddled towards the beach calmly, and rode the next suitable waves towards the shore. We warned another surfer who did not seem very concerned. Once I described the fin he seemed to believe perhaps it really was a shark, but he stayed out in the water. The fin was triangular in shape, almost black in color, and about 1.5 feet tall. It was only slightly asymmetrical in shape. I noticed that the fin had some 'structure' on the trailing edge of the fin. It looked like there were streaks, almost like the hairs on a paint brush. That end of the fin looked soft. After browsing pictures of shark fins on the web, I think we saw a great white shark.” White Sharks are known to frequent this area. Caution should be exercised when utilizing this location for your ocean water activities. Please report any shark sighting, encounter or attack to the Shark Research Committee.

I live seven blocks from the stretch of beach in question.

I then looked at shark attack statistics and discovered that 38 percent of shark attack victims on the Pacific Coast are surfers. Divers are the unlucky popular target of choice at 46 percent, while swimmers (11 percent) and kayakers (a measly 5 percent) seem relatively safe. The majority of shark attacks were done by Great Whites, the same species made infamous in JAWS.

For those interested in learning how to minimize the risks of being shark bait, check out this website for the Florida Museum of Natural History My favorite bit of advice? Never harass a shark if you see one. The fact that it needs to be said proves that there really is a reason for the yearly Darwin Awards...

From a San Diego Union-Tribune article from August, 2003

San Diego Lifeguard Lt. Brant Bass said the white shark sightings at San Onofre have piqued the public's interest and many are asking if local waters are safe.

"We tell them that sharks are out there and there are no guarantees," Bass said, adding that humans have an edge.

"The statistics are in our favor," he said.

My boards are back in San Diego, after a recent road trip to visit friends and family, housed quite happily with my buddy and surf guru, James. I'm looking forward to the next trip down and some serious surf time in familiar territory.

Will I surf up here? Probably. Until then, I'm happy to keep those statistics in our favor.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Bloggers Block

Now this is frustrating...I have a few extra minutes at work to blog, but my brain is experience blog block! So I'm asking for suggestions/requests from my readership - what would YOU like to read about? Cats, big or small? Writing? Surfing? Wine? Zombies, perhaps? Or the trials and tribulations of living in San Francisco? Talk to me, folks! All suggestions will be seriously considered.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

A Night in the Slammer

About a year ago, I spent the night in L.A. County Jail. It was a once (I hope) in a lifetime experience (not in a good way) and the impact, including the emotional aftershocks, changed the course of my life, was part of a wake-up call that ended up with me moving to San Francisco, and hey, it's about wine too!

I got through the night by treating it as research for writing; I planned on writing everything down as soon as I got out. It took me four months after the fact before I could stand to revisit L.A. County, even on paper. Once I started to write about it, though, the words poured out in what any therapist would no doubt call a cathartic process or something even fancier in psyche speak. This is the short version.

“I want to die! Je-sus, just strike me down now!”
I jerked awake after an hour or so of tossing and turning on the concrete floor of Holding Cell C in the Los Angeles County Jail, thanks to anguished yells coming from the next room.

“I’m shit! Just lemme di-i-e!”

The man’s voice rose to a mournful howl that echoed through the cement and safety glass walls, then faded off into a bout of drunken weeping. Oh well, no great loss. Try sleeping on cold concrete with nothing but two thin hand towels for padding and one draped across your shoulders for warmth and you’ll see what I mean.

I lay on the floor, eyes burning from exhaustion, and thought, “What the fuck am I doing here?”

A few hours earlier that evening, I’d been having dinner with a friend. We’d shared a bottle of wine with dinner, sat for several hours over coffee and dessert and then headed to our respective home around midnight. I’d been up since six that morning, was getting cramps and was anxious to get home so when the car next to me was driving just the wrong speed in order for me to change lanes, I sped up to 80 mph for a few brief seconds to go around it. Big mistake.

. WHOOP! WHOOP! Red and blue lights flashed behind me.

Oh shit. I’d passed a CHP trap car.

He tailed me over to the side of the freeway and a disembodied voice ordered “exit on Glendale Blvd.,.”

I parked on the side of a median (with an embankment), my stomach sinking into my feet as I faced the prospect of what would no doubt be a hefty fine for speeding. I found my driver’s license and registration, rolled down the window and waited.

A flashlight beam shone through the driver’s side window. “Now why would you speed past me like that?” The CHP’s (we’ll just call him Officer Z) tone was disbelief, accompanied by a disappointed little shake of his head as if I’d somehow let him down.

“I didn’t notice that you were a cop,” I answered honestly, if perhaps not wisely.

“Have you had anything to drink this evening?

I didn’t think anything of it. “Yeah, wine with dinner a few hours ago.”

Little did I know that my honesty was also the death knell of my unblemished record as a law abiding citizen.

Within 10 minutes I’d completed a battery of roadside sobriety tests at 12:30am in high heeled wedge sandals on a gravelly embankment. The only test that gave me any trouble was standing on my right leg, lifting my left knee at a right angle with the ground and holding it for 10 seconds. May I just repeat three-inch wedge heels? I was fine once he let me take my shoes off, holding it well past the count of 10.

Officer Z, however, wasn’t convinced of my sobriety (considering the money involved in a successful DUI conviction, I’m not surprised) and pulled out the breathalyzer. He didn’t
like the way I blew the first time and told me to do it again and blow more air into the mouthpiece. I blew again and he liked the results. “0.12. You’re over the limit. You’re going go have to come with me to the station."

With that, Officer Z very politely asked me turn around so he could handcuff my hands behind my back.

This was insane. I wasn’t a party animal, I was a wine enthusiast. I didn’t drink to get drunk, hated the feeling, in fact. I drank for the taste and experience of wine, the sort of person who yes, swirls the glass and sniffs the bouquet. The kind of gal who quietly makes fun of people whose idea of a really good wine is Beringer White Zinfandel. While the latter might make me a snob, it didn’t make me an alcoholic

After a female officer arrived to search me (complete with rubber gloves in case I was hiding drug paraphernalia) and a tow truck pulled up to haul my beloved Saturn off to a police impound yard, Officer Z took me to the CHP station, a non-descript building tucked away on a side street, made conspicuous only by the number of black and white squad cars in the parking lot. Inside, Officer Z uncuffed me so I could use the bathroom.

I took care of business and found out that because I had been out of Officer’s Z’s sight, I had to wait an additional 15 minutes to take the second breath test. Why? I might have drunk some water in the bathroom and it would change the results. 15 minutes later it was determined that I was still over the limit and would now be visiting the lovely Los Angeles County Jail for the rest of the night. Back on went the handcuffs for another trip in the squad car.

By this time I was worried about what my husband might be thinking, if he woke and discovered that I wasn’t home yet. No phone call until I was processed into L.A. County.


From an underground parking lot in downtown we entered a sterile room with a long table on one side and a row of ugly plastic chairs lined up opposite the table. There were three countered windows with uniformed staff behind glass, a gap underneath to pass things back and forth,, like the set up at gas stations to protect the cashiers from an armed hold-up. The floor was battered linoleum, the walls gray or green cement and it was all bleakly lit with florescent track lighting. I sat on one of the chairs, hands still uncomfortably cuffed behind my back. As much fun as I’ve had with handcuffs on previous occasions, strike all future cop fantasies from my sexual to-do list.

I waited while Officer Z filled out a small novel’s worth of paperwork. More officers came in with their own prisoners, including two tough as nails women, a shaven head gang-banger with blood on his face, wearing jeans so baggy they practically screamed “Pants me!” and a scruffy older man that probably sent the breathalyzer reading off the charts with beer fumes alone.
None of it seemed real.

Officer Z finally called me over and removed the handcuffs. His pile of paperwork included a list of all of my personal possessions, all of which had to be removed and put into small plastic bags. The only thing I was allowed to keep was my wedding ring only because I couldn’t get it off my finger. I signed my name next to the list and Officer Z took the sheaf of papers up to one of the windows and handed them over, along with the bags. I watched as my wallet and jewelry vanished into the bowels of L.A. County and wondered if everything would be there when they were returned to me.

I had to put my hands behind my back for one last walk through the parking lot to another door, down a hallway to a large room with a long counter separating the Sheriff Deputies’ work station from a walkway with different colored stripes running the length of it, each one branching off into a different doorway or lettered window. . Three or four Sheriff’s Deputies, male and female, lounged behind the counter. Night shift at L.A. County.

On the other side of the walkway were a bunch of benches and chairs behind a steel railway and beyond that, a medic’s station. An ominous looking chair with straps like something from some dominatrix’ living room sat by itself off in one corner

Can’t say my parting from Officer Z was such sweet sorrow. I spoke briefly to a female deputy, who was friendly enough. I was a far cry from the usual guests at L.A. County and I’m sure by that time I was looking as lost as I’d started to feel. I asked her how long I’d be in and if I could make a phone call. She told me that there were phones in the holding cell and to tell whoever was picking me up that I should be out by 7:00 AM at the latest. I thought I’d be fingerprinted and photographed, but instead I was told to follow the (green) line into Room C.

I had visions of a jail cell with a cot, a sink and a bucket (okay, maybe I’d seen too many Caged Heat type movies over the years), so I was taken aback when I followed the green painted line through a doorway into a room with no bars and no doors. It was about 10 by 20 feet, had two small toilet cubicles partitioned off with cement walls about four feet high against the back wall. Four rows of thin metal benches no more than a foot in width ran the length of the room. All four walls were cement about four feet high. then glass up to the ceiling. There were three other women already there, two of them the tough looking customers that had been brought in while Officer Z was filling out paperwork. I briefly wondered how they’d gotten there ahead of me, but my attention was distracted by the phones hanging on the walls. I grabbed the nearest one, barely pausing to read the instructions before dialing home.

The phone rang several times before our answering machine picked up. I heard the sound of my voice. “We can’t come to the phone right now, but please leave your name—”

“Hello.” A mechanical voice cut in, overlapping with my voice message. “This is a call from a California Correctional Facility. You have a collect phone call from—” The robotic voice paused politely, waiting for me to state my name.

“Dana.” I said confidently, sure that my husband would pick up. But my own recorded voice continued, “—and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”


I slammed the receiver down in frustration. We didn’t have a phone in the bedroom and Brian was a very sound sleeper. I decided to wait a few minutes and try again. I sat down on one of the cold metal benches and glanced over at the other three women, who were all looking at me. I gave a little wave, too tired and depressed to wonder if I was about to have the crap beaten out of me. But they were more curious than hostile.

One of them, a plump black woman, said, “What are you in for?”

I have to say those were five words I never expected to hear in serious conversation.

One of the other women nodded wisely. “Yeah, I’ve got two of those. Is this your first time?”

I nodded.

“Thought so.”

I wondered what gave away the fact that I wasn’t a hardened felon. Maybe it was the pink sweater.

“You’ll be out of here in the morning,” said a skinny blonde.

God, I hoped so.

The three of them started talking amongst themselves and I got the sense that they’d all done jail time before. I tried the phone again, willing Brian to answer the phone, but no luck. My own voice picked up and when I left my name, it was definitely more plaintive this time around.
By this time I had to pee again so I investigated one of the cubicles. It was spattered with urine and vomit. My stomach did a nasty flip flop and I backed out quickly and went to the one on the other side. It was relatively clean, nothing nasty lurking in the corners, so I did my business as well as I could given that the top half of me was clearly visible through the cell windows. I tried to ignore the insistent cramps that had started to build in intensity and prayed that my period would hold off until I was safely at home.

My three cellmates were all lying down on the benches. They all had small white towels that they were using as makeshift pillows. I wondered where they’d gotten them. One of the women was snoring.

I decided to follow their example and stretched out on what was apparently one of Torquemada’s helpers. You could lie on your back with your legs hanging off either side, feet on the floor. You could either hang your arms down as well or fold them across your chest like a vampire in a coffin. There wasn’t room for any other options. Either way, you would experience a gradual and increasingly annoying awareness of the ever so slight raise in the center of the bench. Or you could try lying on your side just so, knowing that any false move would throw off your balance and land you on the concrete. Sitting on them was equally uncomfortable, at least to anyone with a butt larger than that of a skinny five year old. I finally gave up and went back to one of the phones. Five or six fruitless attempts later, I stalked over to the bench nearest the doorway and stared at the wall.

Ick. There was something smeared all over the concrete that looked suspiciously like baby shit. I didn’t think it was; there wasn’t any odor, but I couldn’t imagine what else it could be. I leaned my head into my hands, massaging away the beginnings of a headache. I was dehydrated as well and knew that a migraine was in my future if I didn’t get some water. Since there weren’t any handy water fountains or vending machines around, I drank some out of the sink in the bathroom, using my hand as a cup. I tried not to think about what might be swimming around in the plumbing system.

A female SD (Sheriff Deputy) came into the room carrying a pile of clothes, baggy pants with elasticized waists and shapeless short-sleeved, v-necked tops made out of some cotton/poly mix. Christ, was I gonna have to change into prison blues? Nope, the SD didn’t even glance at me as she handed out a pair of the world’s ugliest pajamas to each of the other women, along with a large plastic bag for their street clothes. They weren’t allowed to wear the shirt out over the pants, but had to tuck into the waistband. My fashion sense was outraged.

The three women followed the SD out of the room, hands behind their backs. I was left alone to my own devices. I was so tired. All I could think of was my bed, down comforter and pillows.
The three towels were lying abandoned on the floor. A far cry from down and flannel, but what the hell. Spreading two towels down on the concrete, I curled up on my side and draped the remaining towel over my shoulders. My back muscles screamed in protest as the cold seeped through the thin terrycloth and my mind kept spinning in circles, wondering what to tell my mom.

From my vantage point on the floor I could see a wall clock out in the hallway. 2:45. Brian must be thinking I was dead by now. I went back to the phone banks and tried again, Brian picked up immediately. Turns out he’d woken up, realized four cats were in bed next to him instead of me and checked the phone messages. There were nine of them, all with that nasty mechanical correctional facility message and me giving my name, each increasingly pathetic until by the last one I was practically crying. Hearing his voice perked me up enough to say, “Hi, honey. I’m in the slammer.”

A brief silence on the other end. “What happened?”

I told him. I’d been dreading this moment, wondering how I’d deal with his disappointment. But there was only relief that I was okay and that no one was hurt. He told me loved me and that he’d be waiting outside the Big House for me at 6:30.

“Ah, Johnny, you’re swell! I love ya, ya big palooka!” I hung up, relieved to find my sense of humor still functional, even in jail.

Now that one worry had been taken off my shoulders, I lay back down on the ground, huddled under my towel and eventually managed to fall into an uneasy doze. Normally one must try and sleep on a crowded Greyhound bus full of teething babies to get that quality of sleep. Then the drunken howling began and that ended Dana in Slumberland.

“Won’t you just kill me, Jeeee-sus!”

I lay there with my eyes still closed and listened to the voices from the next room.

“Yo, Jack, help me get this guy in the chair. “

The chair? What, the comfy chair? The electric chair?

A chuckle, followed by, ‘Yeah, that oughta cool him down. You hold him, I’ll get the straps.”

Jeez, they were talking about the S&M chair. The resulting howls and swearing from the drunken nutcase being strapped down made me think of the days when the public used to tour the prisons and asylums to see the crazy folk. This guy was one hell of a greeting for incoming prisoners. The fact that the deputies were laughing at him made it even more sick and bizarre. I wanted my husband. I wanted my mom. I wanted my cats. I wanted out.

Mr. Just Kill Me Jesus’s howls faded to intermittent muttering and crying, eventually becoming pretty impressive snores. But no sooner had I drifted off again when I was called out to be fingerprinted and photographed. I stumbled to my feet, my muscles and joints locked up from the concrete and cold.

The fingerprinting process was computerized. No more messy ink to deal with. The SD just pressed my fingers against a little screen, which transmitted the prints into the computer It was a persnickety machine, though, and refused to read my right index finger three times. I wondered if that would help me evade capture if I ever had to go on the lam.

When they took my photo (one shot head on, the other profile), I kept hearing Holly Hunter’s character from Raising Arizona in my head. “Turn to the right.” I didn’t want to think of what these pictures would look like after nearly 20 hours without sleep, hair unbrushed, the remnants of the previous day’s makeup still clinging to my face. I’d have killed for a toothbrush.

I was told to go back in the holding cell until it was time to process me out. 3:50. I tried sleeping again, but couldn’t manage it. My brain was wide awake. I wondered how much this was going to cost me in fines when all was said and done, not to mention what it would do to my car insurance. Being fingerprinted and having my mugshot taken was like being slapped in the face with reality. I wanted to slap back.

The rest of the time in the holding cell faded into a numb blur of watching the foot traffic past the doorway down the hallway. As it grew later, the traffic increased, a parade of men in either blue or orange pushing carts, some filled with laundry, others with food. One of the men stopped by my cell and started to hand me a boxed juice (or juice flavored beverage), but was told “Not her” by one of the SDs. “No soup for you!” Fine. I sat on the bench, staring out into the hallway like a dog waiting anxiously for its walk..

At 6:00 I was told to go to Window A, where I filled out some paperwork. The man behind the window was one of the only friendly people working at L.A. County. The guy at the Medic’s station, my next stop to make sure that I didn’t have any medical issues, was nice enough too.
“You ready to get out of here?” he said with a smile.
“Do I need to answer that?”
He shook his head and wished me luck.
I sat in the waiting area and cooled my heels for another half hour or so as prison traffic increased. A male SD told me that they should finish processing me in a few minutes, then left as the morning shift came on duty. The men seemed more interested in playing with the S&M chair than doing any paperwork. One of them asked me if I wanted to ‘test it out.’ I politely declined. Either the chair was a new addition or the novelty of it hadn’t worn off yet. It was very Reno 911, except without the charm.
I was getting increasingly antsy. I still had some hopes of getting out in time to make it into work, but it was increasingly hard to be patient. What was the hold up here?
Another woman in street clothes was brought out, a thin blonde in her ‘40s with a cut on her forehead. I watched as they fingerprinted her. She was loud and irascible and I wondered if she was drunk. She wasn’t, as I found out when she sat down next to me. Jade (not her real name, but close enough for government work) was just naturally obstreperous and had, in fact, been brought into L.A. County on her second DUI around 6:00PM last night. She’d been driving home after lunch with a friend, had been involved in a hit and run (she was the hittee, not the runner), but because of her previous DUI, had been tested and was .01 over the legal limit. What a pisser.
Finally after another endless half hour of waiting, Jade and I were told to go with a pair of female SDs. One walked in front of us, the other guarding the rear. We had to walk with our hands behind our backs again and it just felt plain silly, like a kid’s game. We walked up a ramp, hugging the right side of the wall, past an open door.
“Ooh, donuts!” SD#1 in the rear vanished into the room as, oblivious, SD#2 in front kept walking.
We reached a turn in the ramp and she stopped, perplexed. “Now where did she go?”
SD#1 reappeared, shoving the last of a donut into her mouth.
The two SDs were very good cop/bad cop as they studied our paperwork on the way up the ramp. “What were the two of you thinking, driving drunk?” said one. “Don’t you know there’s kids playing out there?” I refrained from pointing out the improbability of running over frolicking children while driving on I-5 at midnight.
“What did you blow?” asked the other, and “Oh, that’s over the limit, Dana,” when I told her. “You need to be more careful.”
“I thought waiting three hours before driving was being careful,” I snapped, tired of the lecture. Rationally I knew that these people had no way of differentiating between me and the average drunk on the road, but it still pissed me off because part of me felt that they should just know better, that I was one of the good guys and didn’t deserve to be in this situation.
Nothing else was said, but the L.A. County Sheriff’s Dept. could and would hold you longer if you pissed them off and I wonder if that’s why I ended up sitting in a cell with a rotating number of 10 to 40 women at any given time for another 8 hours instead of being released immediately, which, as I found out later, was supposed to be the case.
When we reached the top of the ramp, Jade and I handed our paperwork to a woman at a table. We were each given numbers and I felt a huge weight off my shoulders; I couldn’t wait for this nightmare to be over with. It was about 7:30 and I could just make it to work on time if it didn’t take very long to get my belongings and just took a quick rinse when I got home. Just enough hot water to wash the stink of L.A. County off of me.
“Go into the room on your left.”
I did so, followed by Jade, expecting to get my wallet back and be on my merry little way. Instead we found ourselves in a small concrete cell with about 20 other women, most of them tough looking customers in baggy prison blues. Some of them had clear plastic bags filled with toiletries and food. There were benches along the walls and a single toilet partially hidden from view by a low concrete wall. The smell was not pretty.
Most of the women were African American or Latina, maybe 80 percent or more. This was true throughout the day as the room’s population continually dwindled and then replenished as women were released and more brought in to wait. There were two other whitebread types in there besides me and Jade. One of them, a strawberry blonde in her 20s, sat with her feet up on the bench, arms wrapped protectively around her knees. Her expression was definitely ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ I could relate.
I sat next to a very large black woman, who smiled at me before continuing her conversation with a dainty featured Latino girl leaning against the wall. “You just believe in God and He’ll take care of you, you know that.”
The Latino girl nodded. “I just keep telling myself that God’ll come through and it’ll be okay. I just gotta have faith.”
“You know I’ll be praying for you, babydoll.”
The door opened and we all looked up expectantly. A bored looking female SD called out numbers and handed out bags of clothes to the corresponding inmates. Several others, already in their street clothes, were told to line up at the door. “You will step outside and hug the yellow line. If you look back or speak, you will be put back in this room.” Jade and I were not called.
A half hour passed. Jade asked the room at large how long people had been waiting. The strawberry blonde looked up wearily and replied, “Two hours.”
My heart sank. Two hours? I’d never make it to work on time. And what about my husband, sitting out there and waiting for me? “Can they make you wait longer than that?” I asked.
The woman next to me laughed. “This is your first time, ain’t it?”
I nodded.
“Honey, they can make you wait long as they want. You just make sure you don’t piss ‘em off none ‘cause they’ll add an extra hour or so just to show you who’s boss. And it ain’t you!”
Shit. I may have very well bought myself an extra hour’s time (yeah, I was already thinking like a hardened criminal) with my backtalk to the SD in the hall.
The strawberry blonde smiled at me sympathetically. I went over and introduced myself. We exchanged DUI war stories. Tina was also in for a DUI, although she’d been on pain killers for an injury when she was pulled over, not alcohol. She’d had two children with her at the time so she’d also been up for child endangerment. Her lawyer had plea-bargained and gotten that particular charge dismissed, but she’d gotten hit with all the other maximum penalties for first-time offenders: $1300 fine, mandatory DUI classes, which cost another $600 dollars, community service at Caltrans, and two additional days of jail time. “I could have done one day at the morgue and another in a private jail if I’d paid another $200,” she told me. “But I waited too long and ended up having to come back here.”
I thought I was going to throw up as I listened to the possible worse case scenario that waited for me. My husband and I had just paid off our car and were looking forward to an extra $350 a month. This was the only point during my entire stay in jail where I came close to tears as I realized how well and truly I may have just fucked up.
Tina saw my face, reached out a hand and squeezed my arm. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you.”
I took a deep breath. “It’s okay. I’d rather know the worst sooner instead of later.”
Tina and I talked about our lives and discovered that we were both writers and were looking at this experience as great fodder for material. “I’ve just been listening to everything talking,” she said in a low voice. “It’s just crazy.” She nodded toward the petite Latino girl on the opposite side of the room. “She was with a friend during a drive-by shooting. Her friend did the shooting. She,” meaning the girl in the room, “just found out that she got life with no parole even though she didn’t pull the trigger.”
I looked at the girl in question. She couldn’t be more than 20. “Why is she in the release tank?”
Tina shrugged. “Being processed.”
Okay. Making this young girl, who hadn’t even committed the crime in question, wait in a room where everyone else was getting handed their street clothes and on their way out the door…well, dude, this is pretty fucked up right here.
“And she has a little boy. The judge wouldn’t even let her hold him after she was sentenced.”
I had no words for that.
An emaciated, nearly toothless woman -- she could have been anywhere from 40 to 70 years old – started rocking back and forth on the bench near us. “I swear this time, Jesus, I’m not gonna go back to it. Fuck no, I’m gonna use the power of the Lord and stay the fuck off that demon drug.”
“Oh my god,” whispered Tina as we both tried not to laugh. “This is just so fucking unreal.”
“Fuck yeah, I’m gonna spend my time in rehab praying to you, Lord, and fuck me if I let it take me again!”
“Just keeping thinking ‘magazine article,’” I said.
Every time the door opened I figured it had to be my turn. But after awhile women that were brought in an hour or so after me were handed their bags of possessions and released into the world while I waited, along with Jade and Tina. One of the women that joined the ranks of the waiting was a troublemaker, loud and bossy. She started telling other women what to do if she didn’t like their conversation or thought they were moving around too much.
. The smell from the toilet cubicle only got worse and, just to top things off, my period officially started, along with increased cramps and nausea. I was starving, thirsty and increasingly paranoid about my job. What if, in all the worry over me, Brian had forgotten to call my temp job and tell them I wouldn’t be there? And what about Brian? The thought of him waiting outside hour after hour was killing me. If I could have just talked to him for 30 seconds, told him the situation, I would have been able to wait my turn somewhat patiently. As it was, my anger and frustration increased to a borderline psychotic panic attack until I was pacing back and forth like a caged cat. The other women stayed out of my way. Even the mouthy bitch didn’t say anything. Good thing ‘cause I’m sure I would have gotten a few more days jail time if I’d punched her.

About 1:30, they brought us lunch, the first food or drink I’d been offered since I’d gotten there 12 hours earlier. Two slices of bread, a package each of jelly and peanut butter, and two boxes of fruit flavored beverage (no real fruit product included). When I opened the package of peanut butter and dubiously spread a little on a slice of bread, I realized what had been smeared on the walls of Holding Cell C. I nibbled a corner, but one taste of the sickly sweet spread combined with the now gut-wrenching cramps killed my appetite. I sipped a little fruit flavored beverage (this would be some sort of red fruit), which increased rather than quenched my thirst.
Poor Tina was going crazy. She’d already spent 10 hours over her required 48 and wanted to get home to her husband and children. She hadn’t even been given her clothes yet, but was still wearing the prison blues.
Jade was also getting antsier by the minute. She wanted to talk to the next SD that opened the door, but everyone told her that this would be a very bad idea and most likely keep us all in there for another hour. When 3:00 rolled around, however, I didn’t say a word when the door opened and she approached the SD handing out more bags of clothes. “Excuse me, but we’ve been in here since 8:00 this morning. Is there something wrong?”
Miracle of miracles, the woman asked for our numbers, shut the door for a moment, then reappeared and told us to line up. Jade gave me a triumphant look. “See?” I looked back at Tina, still sitting on the bench in prison clothes. “Good luck,” I mouthed, and practically ran out the door, my guilt at abandoning her to her fate overcome by the relief of finally getting out .
We lined up against the wall, ignoring the catcalls and sexually explicit comments from the male prisoners still waiting their turn. The satisfaction of telling the assholes to go fuck themselves was not worth another minute in that cell.
Down the hall to yet another room, this one the final processing before getting our belongings back. A brief wait, more paperwork, then through a revolving door into a hallway with another revolving door at the opposite end. The last batch of women to be released before us were lined up there, grumbling restlessly. A voice over a loudspeaker told them that if they weren’t quiet, they’d wait even longer. It seemed like a case of power tripping; because the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department could, they did. Assholes.
Jade and I stood at the back of the line. I distracted myself from yet another unexpected delay by picking the prostitutes out of the bunch based on their street clothes.
A half hour later, we were let out of the hallway and into a little room with a window where we were given our wallets and jewelry back. We had to go another window to get the contents of our wallets, including a copy of the citation. We were told to go to another door and, big surprise, wait.
Looking through my belongings, I discovered that I hadn’t been given anything indicating where I was supposed to pick up my car. Officer Z had assured me that this information would be with my things when I was released so I went back to the window where I’d retrieved the contents of my wallet and asked the woman working there what I should do. “Go ask the information Deputy over there,” she said, pointing to yet another window, where a young, mustached SD sat reading a Sports Illustrated.

"Excuse me,” I said very politely. “But I was told you could answer a question—“

‘No questions,” he barked, not looking up from his Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.

“But the woman over there said—“

“I don’t care what she said, no questions. And if you want to get out of here, I suggest you line up at that door like you were told.”


I walked very calmly over to the door, joining Jade, who was missing $30 from her wallet. A buzzer went off and the door clicked open. As we walked out the door, I said as loudly as I could, “I just met the biggest asshole I’ve ever come across in my life.” And I did not get dragged inside and tossed back into a cell, probably because the little weasel was too lazy to move his ass.

The door slammed shut behind us, leaving us on an open air staircase. We followed the stairs up to the top and came out on (? ) Street, outside L.A. County Jail. The sun was blinding and I flashed on a moment in the movie, PAPILLON, where Steve McQueen comes outside after two years of solitary confinement. I had to smile at the comparison: one measly night in prisoncompared to two years spent in one cell. Hey, I’m a drama queen.

People were gathered around the stairs, waiting for loved ones to emerge. Brian wasn’t there, so Jade and I parted ways, she to find a cab and me to call home. I found a payphone around the corner, thrilled with the fact that I had the choice to put money in the slot and make a phone call. That was the worst thing about the experience, the lack of choices. That someone orsomething else had the power to tell me what I could and could not do. For a control freak like me, it was hell.

Brian was waiting for my call. I don’t know who was more relieved to hear the other’s voice. We agreed that he’d pick me up at a little coffee shop down the street as soon as he could get there. Hanging up, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the metal phone. I looked tired and shell-shocked, but not nearly as horrible as I felt. Nothing a two hour scalding hot showerwouldn’t cure.

I hung up the phone and stood and stood there. Children, what have we learned from our experience?

One: laws aren’t necessarily ethical or fair and the punishment does not always fit the crime.

Two: I realize that jail isn’t supposed to be fun (they want to discourage people from repeat visits, after all) and that law enforcement officials have to deal with the dregs of society on a daily basis and this has got to make them cynical as hell. But the fact that all of the emphasis was on punishment – and arbitrary punishment at that – and none on rehabilitation was a huge epiphany.

Which brings me to number three: the people who enforce the law aren’t all good people. This realization made me sad because I used to hold police officers up there with firefighters as heroes, the people you went to when you were in trouble. I left L.A. County Jail with a distrust for law enforcement that I knew I’d carry for a long time.

And number four? I prefer hookers and crack whores to L.A. County Sheriff’s Deputies.

I walked across the street, bought myself a mocha and sat down to wait for Brian to pick me up, a free woman once more,

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Riverside County Seeks Winery Grape Quota

My sister sent me an article (see below) in today's L.A. Times about a new measure that would require Temecula wineries to use a minimum of 75 percent grapes from the Temecula Valley.

On one hand, the measure could potentially put several vineyards out of business because they started importing the majority of their grapes from Northern and Central California after Temcula vineyards were hit by a lethal grapevine disease a few years back.

On the other hand, it could lead to a change in zoning laws, which would limit commercial development in the Temucula Valley. I'm personally sickened after years of watching open land being gutted and turned into characterless housing developments by evil land developers, so it would be nice if Temecula could, like Napa, retain its rural charm while keeping its economy healthy.

Opinions, anyone?

By Susannah Rosenblatt, Times Staff Writer

Napa Valley's grapes may be coveted by wine lovers across the nation, but at Temecula wineries they could be practically verboten, if Riverside County supervisors have their way.Supervisors on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to a measure that would require Temecula Valley vintners to use locally grown grapes in the wine they produce or sell, requiring at least 75% of their grapes to be from Riverside County vineyards.

The action comes at the request of many local wineries, who lobbied for the quota to protect Temecula's grape growers and to ensure that the grapevine-covered hills of southwest Riverside County are not bulldozed for homes."We're kind of at that critical juncture where, if we lose too much more vineyard, we're not going to have enough vineyards to supply winery needs," said Joe Hart, owner of Hart Winery.

Temecula, a park-filled city off Interstate 15 near the San Diego County border, is known for its wine industry, hot air balloon rides and a resort casino operated by the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians — plus its torrid growth. Temecula's population has increased by more than a third in five years, from 57,700 to 80,000, according to census figures.Supervisor Jeff Stone, who represents Temecula, said the wineries are vital to Temecula's economy, which would be decimated if fields of Chardonnay vines were ripped out to make way for "5-acre ranchettes."

"Inch by inch, if you start letting development creep into the wine country, it's my opinion we're going to be taking away the long-term prosperity of the wine country as we know it today," Stone said.

The measure approved by supervisors, which must be aired in public hearings before a final vote, would clamp down on some local wine sellers who import the bulk of their grapes from outside the region, and small tasting rooms that market themselves as wineries without growing grapes.Wine giant Callaway stands to lose the most, because the company uses only a small percentage of Temecula-grown fruit. With about 100,000 visitors to its tasting room sampling from 200,000 cases of wine sold annually, Callaway is a major attraction on the Temecula wine tour. The company, owned by Allied Domecq Wines USA, stopped leasing Temecula vineyards several years ago after Pierce's disease ravaged its grape crop; it now imports most of its grapes from Northern and Central California.

The tighter rules demanding the use of local grapes "would effectively shut down our business," Callaway counsel Ken Minami told supervisors.

Many local growers say they fear that the use of imported grapes could spell doom for the Temecula Valley, which has emerged as one of Southern California's premier winemaking regions.

"We have something that we've worked hard to build up," said Phil Baily, owner of the 30-acre Baily Vineyard & Winery and president of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Assn. "We want our wineries, as they do now, to sell Temecula wine from Temecula grapes."

Temecula vintner Art Nelson doesn't buy the local pride argument, however. "People come to Temecula to have a good time. Whether they drink Temecula wine, Napa wine, Paso Robles wine, I don't know that they really care," Nelson told the board.

The restrictions passed by the supervisors are patterned after a similar measure that Napa County officials adopted in 1990, although Temecula's roughly two dozen wineries on 2,000 acres don't quite compare in scale with Napa Valley's 45,000 acres."Do they even have enough fruit grown in Temecula anymore to provide 75% for their wineries?" asked Becky Peterson, industry and member relations director for Napa Valley Vintners.

The Riverside County measure, which was unanimously approved, applies to a designated citrus and vineyard zone in Temecula which requires wineries to have at least 10 acres of land, three-quarters of which must be in grapevines.Along with public hearings, the zoning change would require an environmental review before it could be adopted. The review process is expected to take at least six months.

Monday, June 13, 2005

What I learned from Sound of Music

When we were young, my sister and I loved the movie, SOUND OF MUSIC. True, we loved it for reasons other than the filmmakers probably intended (did they really mean to include that whole Captain Von Trapp as sexy sadist subtext? Or Maria's overnight transformation from gawkish klutz to graceful sophisticate just by virtue of getting laid? I don't THINK so...), but love it we did. We had substantial portions of the dialogue memorized and could sing Maria's wedding song in three-part harmony (it involved some switching back and forth with only two of us, but it can be done).

One of the lines that stuck with me through the years (along with 'Do you mean to tell me that my children were running about Salzburg dressed up in nothing but some old drapes?!') was Reverend Mother's words to Maria after telling her to get herself from the nunnery: "Whenever God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window." Religious implications aside (I was raised to be devoutly open-minded), I always liked the thought that if I lost an opportunity that somewhere along the line another one would open up.

As I got older and wiser (oh, let's just use the 'm' word), more mature, I realized that it wasn't always about missing the boat or making the wrong choice. Sometimes it was realizing that certain things had run their course (relationships, jobs, even dreams) and that nothing new could come into my life if I didn't accept this and do something about it. It's a time in a person's life where they draw The Fool from the tarot deck. Leap of faith time, folks.

I've been trying to earn money as a writer for many years now. I'd had scripts optioned (on spec), even had one low budget horror film produced, but didn't make a dime from it. I always seem to get so far in my writing career and then things just slam to a halt. Over the last couple of years, no matter how many creative irons I'd throw in the fire, nothing was really happening. Somewhere along the line, things were in a logjam. Stagnation. Something needed to be done to get rid of the blockage, both creatively and on a more personal level. But I was afraid to leave Los Angeles because everybody knows that you can't be a real screenwriter if you don't live within spitting distance of Hollywood. Besides, while I wasn't exactly happy, I wasn't unhappy. Change was too scary to contemplate.

Last April, I got a DUI and spent the night in L.A. County Jail (you'll be reading about the experience in my next post). It was the worst experience of my life, but it did what I was not willing or able to do - it shook me out of my complacency and forced to me to re-evaluate my life. I was wide awake for the first time in several years...and saw that changes had to be made. I had definitely drawn The Tower card from the deck this time around. The result? End of my marriage and my life in Los Angeles.

10 months later I was preparing to move to San Francisco. I didn't have a job waiting for me, so while I packed, I'd checked Craigslist every day for employment possibilities. On a whim, I checked out the Gigs/writing section and found a posting advertising for a screenwriter to rewrite a script, preferably someone with a horror background. I answered the ad, talked to Josh, an aspiring first time director/producer, sent him writing samples and got the gig.

Now the original script was problematic. Josh had basically decided he wanted to make a movie, but had never written a screenplay before. He had some ideas of what he wanted, but no real idea how to meld them together into a cohesive story or write realistic dialogue. What Josh did have, however, was A: the ability to sit down and pound out a first draft, and B: the common sense and willingness to pay someone to rewrite it. He even had a contract drawn up, insuring me of prompt payment and himself of a finished draft by a certain date.

It wasn't a lot of money for the amount of work. By industry standards, it was chump change. But for an 18 year old shooting his first movie, it was substantial. And for someone used to doing up to five drafts on spec for established producers and directors, both the pay and Josh's professionalism and courtesy were greatly appreciated.

I read the script and wrote notes while I was packing for the move. We met in person on one of my trips up to San Francisco, getting together at Francis Ford Coppola's wine bar/restaurant, Cafe Niebaum, where Josh bought me a very good glass of Cabernet sauvignon (he had a Coke) and we hammered out plot points. Two thirds of the existing plot points were thrown out, characters ruthlessly discarded, and the emphasis changed from psychological thriller to straight out horror. We had no trouble seeing eye to eye (Josh loved my ideas and was open to just about everything I suggested - a writer's absolute dream) and quickly came up with what we both agreed was the best direction for the story.

After the initial meeting and notes exchange, I did the rewrites without any feedback from Josh. I was certain I'd have no trouble making the deadline of May 1st. I didn't count on the stress of the move, the job search, trying to unpack and settle in, the homesickness and depression. I'd try to write, but could barely do a line of dialogue without thinking of all the other things I had to get done. It didn't help that I knew I'd be getting money when the script was finished; if anything, that added more tension and gave my screaming case of writer's block a little something extra.

I'm not sure what finally kickstarted me, but about five days before the deadline, suddenly things began to work. The plot elements came together, scary things were happening, and I got to kill my first character. Whoo hoo! And best of all, I came up with the closing line of dialogue for the entire script before I even got to the final scene. I didn't have to flounder along, trying to figure out the best way to end the story. I knew where I wanted to end up, so it was now just a matter of herding the characters to that point. And by crikey, they cooperated! Working on the script switched from being a source of stress and angst, to something I looked forward to doing. It was...fun. Which is supposed to be why we write. Right?

Josh loved the finished script, now named REVENANT. And more importantly, I love it. This was the first time I'd worked without writing partner in years, without that safety net of someone else's creativity to catch me if I faltered. Josh and I are sharing writing credit. True, probably 95 percent of the completed script is my writing, but I wouldn't have come up with any of it without Josh's original screenplay and ideas as a starting point. It was a true collaborative effort, yet one that did wonders for my confidence as a solo writer.

REVENANT is currently in production here in Northern California. Josh already has two small distributors interested in the finished product and wants me to write a synopsis for the marketing package. Who knows what could happen? He could be the next hot young director and I might end up writing another movie for him. Maybe even for Writer's Guild pay. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, I don't believe I would have found, let alone climbed through this particular open window if those other doors hadn't finally shut behind me.

Thank you, Reverend Mother.

Now about Captain Von Trapp and his whistle...

Jaguar Babies!

I just found out that Annie, one of the jaguars at EFBC, had babies two weeks ago. When I started volunteering at the cathouse, Annie was four months old. She and her brothers, Doc & Cisco, were all about as big as medium-sized dogs, full of mischief. We called them 'the blockheads' because when they got excited (which was pretty much all the time), they'd run back and forth, colliding headfirst with a clonking noise that sounded like two concrete blocks hitting each other.

The smallest in the litter, Annie was definitely the boss of the trio; she used to sit on Doc while they were playing in their pond, requiring the keepers to intercede before Annie drowned her sibling. She had to be separated from her brothers when Cisco ate one of their toys (a tire) and had to have an operation to remove rubber from his innards. Annie played too rough to stay during Cisco's recovery period, so she was moved to her own enclosure in a different part of the compound.

After an initial rough readjustment phase, Annie settled quite happily into her life as a single female until...Nacon, a handsome young male jaguar from Mexico, came to EFBC looking for a hot mama to call his own. Obviously the married life agrees with them...and so far the word is that cubs and mama are doing fine!

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Did you know...

...that if you type in hahoo.com instead of yahoo.com that it'll get you in trouble if you're working someplace where they monitor that sort of thing? That is, if the server will even let you on the site. I accidently hit the 'h' instead of the 'y' while checking my Yahoo mail here at my temp job (I'm currently temping at Providian in downtown San Francisco), and promptly got the message: Forbidden Access. This Site is marked as Sex.

Not marked as having sexual content, mind you. Oh no, this site is marked AS Sex.

For some reason, I'm still incredibly amused by this and had to share...

Anyway, watch your hahoo if you're working in corporate America!

Monday, June 06, 2005

Twilight Tour at EFBC!!

It's time for the second Twilight Tour of 2005 at EFBC/FCC (otherwise known as the Cathouse), Saturday, June 18th. If you haven't already checked out the website, please take a look! There are pictures from past Twilight Tours, as well as a comprehensive description of the events. And for you Northern Californians, this is an event definitely worth the travel time if you're a big cat lover!

On Learning to Surf

(This is an essay I wrote shortly after learning to surf a few years back - I know it's not a new and original post, but I'm in the middle of rewrites and figured it was better than nothing!)

Death is not the only circumstance that can make one a widow. Ask any wife or girlfriend whose significant other turns from an attentive companion to a couch potato with a beer can super-glued to one hand during football season. For Brian, discovering surfing was like finding religion; all other considerations became secondary.

Brian would return from surfing with a giddy enthusiasm I hadn't seen in years. I had to buy him a waterproof watch so he wouldn't lose track of time while in the water. It worked. Most of the time. I'd watch Brian and Jim, Brian's surf 'guru', out in the water. Sometimes they'd catch the waves and navigate them with an easy grace that seemed effortless. Other times they'd wipe out and vanish beneath a wall of water, boards shooting up from the white foam and slamming back down, sometimes on top of the rider, who would appear a few seconds later. I soon realized that I could either resign myself to being a surf widow at the tender young age of 40 or join them. Several things, however, stood between a surfboard and me.

First was a long-standing fear of swimming in the ocean. Since I'm a Southern California native, I'm expected to be a water baby, but the first time I encountered a wave bigger than me when I was about two or three, I screamed bloody murder and ran for the high ground towards safety, my mom and the picnic basket. Subsequent forays into the ocean brought jellyfish, riptides and shark sightings. Then JAWS was released. Wading ankle deep while walking along the shore and collecting shells became my idea of swimming in salt water.

"What about sharks?" I'd whimper when Brian urged me to join him.

"They're all migrating down south in the Atlantic and eating the Florida surfers." Perhaps not the most scientifically sound argument, but I had to admit there weren't many reported shark attacks in our neck of the woods.

The second obstacle was all I'd heard about attitude from local surfers at various breaks -- quaintly referred to as 'stink eye' -- that can escalate into fist fights, broken boards and slashed tires. "What if I accidentally get in someone's way and he gets pissed off?" was my argument. Brian pointed out that we'd be surfing with Jim at his home break.

"Besides," he added, "I seriously doubt some kid is gonna yell 'stupid kook, you dinged my board!' and punch you out." Okay, so the idea of a 40-year old woman getting into a pissing contest with some kid in his twenties was kind of ludicrous.

"What about the whole beach/youth culture?" In other words, everyone will look good in a wetsuit but me.

He shrugged. "We work in Hollywood. You're the one that always says ageism is a bunch of crap." D'oh! But I had one more procrastinating card to play.

"What if I get hit with a surfboard? What if I get hurt?"

"Hon," Brian said gently, "It might happen. But it's worth it."

And so it was that I found myself uncomfortably wriggling my body into a borrowed wetsuit (I felt like a neoprene sausage) and rubbing wax on 20 pounds of 9 foot 6 inch longboard named Betsy. The wax was for traction, the wetsuit belonged to a neighbor and Betsy was Guru Jim's, the board he used to teach kooks (beginners) the art of surfing.

I felt like such a fake as we went down the stairs, passing sun-bleached, well-muscled surfers who'd finished for the day, their boards tucked easily under one arm. At least they weren't unfriendly. But then we were with a local. This was Jim's home break.

Once on the sand, I put Betsy's leash on, nine feet of rubber cording attached to the back of the board, which fastens around one ankle with a thick band of Velcro. This way, if -- okay, when -- I lost control of the board, I wouldn't have to chase it into shore or worry about it rocketing into shore and slamming into another surfer or innocent bystander wading in the water.

It was time to go in the water. Jim told me that the first thing he did when his feet got wet was offer up a little invocation to Huna, god of the ocean. "Huna, please do not let me be eaten by any of your sea creatures or drown." Succinct and to the point.

My feet hit the water, I shut my eyes and started a heartfelt prayer which covered every possible angle I could come up with as far as ways I could be injured or killed while surfing. "Huna, please don't let me be eaten, stung, cut or bitten by any of your creatures or drown or be hit with someone else's surfboard or hit someone else or get sand in my wetsuit..."

You known when you're on the beach and looking out at the ocean and those gentle four-foot swells curling in and washing to shore? They don't look very big, do they? Try standing under one as it lifts three feet above your head as you're waist deep in the water and you realize, too late, that you are standing exactly where it's gonna break. The world becomes a spin cycle of white foam and murky water and for a terrifying instant, up and down have no meaning. When the pressure finally relents and you pop back to the surface, there might be another wave waiting to repeat the experience or worse, your board snapping back on the leash right into your head.

Experienced surfers paddle out beyond the break, bob around like seals and wait for good waves. They catch them right before they break and basically propel their boards down the face of the wave. If you feel like you're falling headfirst down a flight of stairs, it means you've done it right. Time it wrong and you either miss your ride or end up in spin cycle for a few minutes. Beginners start out inside the break and catch the whitewater, which can either be great or for shit depending on the conditions. That was just fine with this kook; the thought of being pounded while navigating the waves out beyond the break, not to mention the possibility of getting in the way of other surfers or meeting the front end of a thruster with my head terrified me.
Betsy was steady and forgiving as I flung myself awkwardly on top of her for the first time and paddled feebly in front of a moderate sized wave. "Dig harder!" was Jim's advice. I did, but not hard enough. I felt the wave's momentum lift the board and pass under me. "Try again," said Jim. One does not argue with one's guru. I tried again, paddling fiercely ahead of another white-foamed wave.

This time I was rewarded with a sudden surge of energy and the sensation of flying towards the shore, what I'd imagine a magic carpet ride would feel like. It was scary as well as exhilarating. The power of that wave felt like being hooked up to a rocket with no landing gear. Betsy took me true and steady into the shallows, coming to a gentle halt as her skeg burrowed into the sand. I rolled off to the side like a lazy seal, grinning from ear to ear as both Jim and Brian gave me a thumbs up to acknowledge my first wave. Didn't matter that I'd ridden it in on my stomach. Didn't matter that I couldn't lift my arms the next day. With that first wave, I was hooked. I bought a secondhand 8-foot surfboard and began hitting the waves with the boys on a regular basis.

I caught more rides on my stomach, soon graduating to hands and knees. Soon I could balance on my knees while riding the whitewater into shore. But I desperately wanted to catch a ride standing, something that seemed to come naturally to everyone but me.

I told myself to be patient. After all, I wasn't a teenager who'd spent his or her life riding skateboards. I watched enviously as better surfers (i.e. everyone else in the water) sprang to their feet and made spectacular turns across the face of the waves. I made the transition from knees, to one knee and one foot. I practiced pop ups (lying flat on your stomach as if you've just collapsed while doing push ups and then popping up to your feet in a low crouch) at home. Brian and I watched surf movies: Point Break, Big Wednesday, In God's Hands, Blood Surf. I perused surf magazines for some insight. I learned many things, including how to out-surf a mutant crocodile (Blood Surf) and how to date a professional surfer (Surfing Girl, the Tiger Beat of surf magazines), but the final step continued to elude me.

I quickly learned to duck and cover when surfacing after a wipeout so that I wouldn't take hit to the head or face. It didn't always work. So far I've been bonked on the top of the head and taken a brisk smack to the cheekbone by the front of my board when I lost control of her in some particularly juicy whitewater. My resulting shiner was impressive (see the picture in a previous post). Jim said these incidents were payment towards my first year's 'dues' as a surfer.

I quickly got into the spirit of things and tore a muscle in my calf the next day when jumping onto my board without stretching out enough beforehand. I quickly followed that up by badly pulling one of my intercostal muscles. At this rate, I'd have my dues paid in no time, plus a down payment on someone else's too. But I didn't care. My muscles were becoming toned again, my waist and thighs had been excavated out of the layer of fat I'd worn for three years and donning my wetsuit was no longer a five-minute session of grunting and swearing.

When I finally stood up on my board, it was nothing spectacular. I didn't suddenly start carving my way across the face or dip my hand into the water while riding a tube like a character in Blue Crush (and doesn't that sound like a sports drink, folks?). It lasted maybe 10 seconds and I rode straight into shore like the kook that I was. But in those 10 seconds, I felt like I'd conquered the world.

Since then I've had days when I've managed to stand after catching unbroken waves. It takes me a while to scramble to my feet (more of a slither up than a pop up) and I still ride them straight in, but I'm learning. I've been out in the ocean for evening glass and watched the sun go down, the color of the water turning to pewter around and over me. I've been in the ocean a few hundred yards from a pod of dolphins.

I've also had days where I can't seem to stay on my board even on my stomach. I've had Greg Brady wipeouts (where your board flies up into the air and you vanish out of sight under the water for at least 10 seconds) in two feet of water. I even experienced my first case of surf rage when some jerk, with no regard for anyone else's right of way in the cramped line-up at Venice Beach, nearly plowed down Brian. "Dude, you dinged my husband!"

I'm sure there are young surfers wondering what the hell people like me are doing out in their waves, trying to learn something they consider the province of the young and hard bodied. Well, guess what? Now that I've discovered this fountain of youth, I'm not about to give it up. Learn to share. When you're my age and dealing with the arrogance of youth, you'll be glad you did.

Okay, back to present day now.

Since moving to San Francisco, I've only been surfing twice, both times back in San Diego. I have the best of intentions of surfing at the beach near my house (Ocean Beach, to be specific), but haven't had the budget to buy a thicker wetsuit, something that every Northern California surfer that I've talked to, assures me I need before going into the water here.

I've also been told that yeah, there are 18 foot Great Whites off the shore here...and while I know the odds of getting attacked by a shark are about the same as getting hit by lightning, the thought of encountering a shark twice the size of my nine foot surfboard is enough to give a gal pause...

But I'll let you know when I try it.

Enter your email address below to subscribe to Zhadi's Den!

powered by Bloglet