Sunday, May 06, 2007

Pet Turtles Run Amok on Westside

This was front page news in the Santa Cruz Sentinel (not dead yet) yesterday. Don't you just love it?

No, we're not talking about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It's the pet goldfish story, updated. Apparently the little pet turtles get dumped in local streams and find their way into coastal parks where they breed like crazy and edge out the native species. "They compete for food with the native Western pond turtles and eat the eggs of red-legged and tree frogs," a park ranger told the paper. That doesn't surprise me, but I am a little appalled by the idea that children bored with their aquatic pets are pouring out their aquariums into Santa Cruz creeks. Officials were alerted to the problem when they discovered that raccoons were eating the little fellows; eight empty shells were found in one day. So maybe the balance of nature is taking over. Now if we could do something about the raccoons. I frequently see them sticking their heads out of the sewer at the end of my block.

This reminds of the urban legend of pet alligators in the sewers of New York City. Thomas Pynchon wrote about them in his crazy novel, V. And Radiohead has a song about them called "Fog." Then there are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, unholy offspring of cute little pets dowsed with toxic chemicals, who also also grew up in Manhattan's sewers. They were recently resurrected for a new series of animated films; they were the Clearly this modern age is not treating its wildlife well.

I spent the last two days in the Bay Area. First I met Helen at her hotel on the edge of the Tenderloin in San Francisco and we drove around the Inner Sunset district looking at housing, checking out the neighborhood as a possible place for her to live if she relocates from London any time soon. Helen, a friend from the 1960s, was my hostess over Christmas and in February on my way to and from Asia. After a good lunch at Park Chow on 9th, where it was cold enough on the roof for portable heaters, we drove over to Noe Valley where the atmosphere is nice but the houses probably more expensive. Helen has a three-storey Edwardian row house in Highgate that needs extensive rehabilitation, but she thinks its sale will give her enough to buy something in San Francisco, if she decides to live there instead of Oakland or even in Southern California where her two grown children live.

Leaving Helen to find where Subud meets in that part of the City, I headed over the Bay Bridge for Berkeley and a visit with Gerry, a good friend since we met in Latin class at Pasadena City College in the late 1950s. I was a little nervous about the traffic, because a few days before an oil tanker had caught fire in the McArthur maze of freeway overpasses in Oakland and one of them collapsed, snarling traffic throughout the Bay Area. But the route north on 80 to Berkeley was clear and it only took me 40 minutes from the City. Gerry lives in a three-story World War One-era apartment building behind Alta Bates Hospital. He used to live in the slightly more trendy Elmwood district until he got it into his head to move back to New England where he'd grown up. But a winter and summer, with its snow and bugs, helped cure him of this mistaken notion, and now he's comfortably resettled in this college town. We took long walks, in the afternoon and the following morning, despite the occasional drops of rain, and had a good evening meal at a Vietnamese restaurant near the campus, and breakfast at the Rockridge Cafe.

Gerry will be 70 in October and I will turn 68 in July, so our conversation frequently turned to the trials and tribulations of aging. No one warned us it would be like this, the heart and urinary problems, forgetfulness, the difficulties of bending over and picking up things or tying shoes, wrinkled and sagging skin, and missing teeth (this morning the good Dr. Dari put a crown on one of my few remaining molars). Like me, Gerry lives alone. Married several times, he never got around to producing any progeny, and so he has nightmares about the hell of drooling in a wheel chair in a nursing home, that saddest of demises. We agreed to each shoot the other if it came to that.

And so I wonder: What will I do for the rest of my life?

This is not a question that comes to mind for most people my age, comfortably esconced in the bosom of a family, with a wife, kids and grandkiddies to share joys and sorrows. Doesn't it say somewhere in the wedding vows, "till death do us part"? Page Smith, the noted U.S. historian and professor emeritus at UC Santa Cruz, retired to raise chickens in Bonny Doon north of here, and he and his wife managed to expire of old age within months of each other. Isn't that romantic? My ex said she wanted to "be there" for me when I died, while kicking me out of the house, but since we haven't been in close touch for years I doubt that will happen. My friend Peter died surrounded by his wife, friends, children, grandchildren, and dog, but that kind of farewell does not seem to be in the cards for me. I've always liked the example of elephants who leave the herd and wander off to a remote place when it comes time to go.

In America and the West we teach our children to be independent and self-sufficient. Getting them out of the nest and on their own is first priority. Most never come back. The parents make handy bankers, doling out loans, and later on become a cheap and reliable source for babysitting. When I moved across the country from my parents, they never called me, thinking I suppose that they didn't want to interfere in my life, while I tried to call them dutifully at least once a month to maintain the increasingly tenuous connection. When I was a teenager, my mother's father lived with us, and I found him to be a tedious old man who obviously disapproved of my adolescent habits. When he lost the use of his bowels and was moved into a rest home, I vowed never to grow old. A lot of good that did me.

And now I'm on the verge of elderly (when does it begin anyway, at 65, 70, 80?) and I can't make up my mind about what to do next. I seem to be happiest when I'm traveling, and so I think it would be a good idea to return to Southeast Asia where I could travel to my heart's content, to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, maybe even China or Australia. But this requires me to give up my home in Santa Cruz since I can't afford to live overseas and pay rent here as well. And what if it turns out I decide I don't want to spend the rest of my life in Asia, cared for by a rice farmer's daughter half my age? Can I return to California like Gerry did when he decided his move to New Hampshire was a mistake? Or like our other friend Jim, who moved with his wife to Vermont two years ago and has been terribly unhappy ever since. They return to California this month. Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can't Go Home Again about just this dilemma. But was he right?

And while I ponder my fate, real problems are taking place in the world, like the war in Iraq, Bush's veto of the war funding bill, the opening this weekend of "Spider-Man 3," global warming, and turtles running amok on the Westside of Santa Cruz. Where are my priorities anyway?

Tomorrow I drive down to New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur for five days of meditation, prayer and relaxation, a gift from the pilgrims I guided through India. Maybe I'll figure it all out there while starring out at the Pacific Ocean two miles down the hill.

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