An earthquake of years

IMG_6576by cheri sabraw

In my walk around a little beach community where we have a tiny house, I am amused by all of those old folks feeding birds.

Some of those old folks, in their retirement, have taken up bird-house building. Three-story English cottages, Berkeley bungalows, and modern metal Deco homes–sure to entice the most discriminating of birds–dangle from eaves in front of breakfast nooks.

Oh those poor souls, I muse. Souls without active lives anymore. Souls who can’t wait to awake at 5:00 am to retrieve their morning Tribune, pour their cup of Folgers, and watch the birds chittering and tittering, from cottage to bungalow to Deco.

In that same beach town, on my usual walk with my dog tugging at her leash, her keen peripheral vision scanning from left to right for a pretzel or chip crumb, I crinkle my eyes, hidden under enormous sunglasses, and secretly smile at the collection of windmills, tchotchkys, and feel-good signs in these old folks’ gardens.

Welcome to Gramma’s Garden, Life’s a Beach, Relax!

Good God, I thought. Is this what it is like to get old? 

Last night, the San Francisco Bay Area experienced a serious 6.0 earthquake. Although not  on my fault line–the one that our home sits directly upon–the Hayward Fault line of the mighty San Andreas Fault, the temblor rattled every dish and glass in the house, awaking me from a deep sleep at 3:20 am. The dog barked.

I jumped out of bed with a start since my husband was not home.

I ran down the stairs and outside to our patio to make sure that my decorative glass hummingbird feeders had not fallen off their hooks.

Luckily the fresh bird-seed I had just purchased to fill my little nuthatch, junco, and finch feeder had not tipped off the counter, sending 20 pounds of cracked sunflower seeds onto the floor of my kitchen.

As I trundled back up the stairs in the dead of night, I glanced out our front door to see that the Welcome sign was still vertical.

All is well, dear.




Posted in Life, Writing and Teaching | Tagged , , , | 20 Comments


by cheri sabraw

Oh Swallowtail!

Oh Swallowtail!



Did the cotton candy clouds drop you from butterfly heaven?

Did the cotton candy clouds drop you from butterfly heaven?


Posted in My photography | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

In Your Own Backyard



by cheri sabraw

Most of us  have read Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist, the prototypical tale of a traveler’s search for meaning, who  discovers what he had been looking for in his own backyard. He accomplished this revelation by the hard work of wrestling with himself.

This journey–that of searching for meaning–is not one every person is prepared to embark upon. Those who go through life living theirs largely unexamined do so for a number of reasons: the Self’s protection, stubbornness, genetics, and laziness.

Great novelists and playwrights have told the stories of heart-breaking, agonizing, yet stimulating searches for meaning. In Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter,  a young woman pays a life-time penance for her adulterous indiscretion, a sentence exacted by community members  who shun her and her illegitimate daughter Pearl, for whom she paid “a great price.” Through solitude and aloneness (she lives at the edge of town) and charity (she sews and embroiders for community members), she grows stronger and the reader senses that by the novel’s conclusion, the woman’s suffering has contributed to her depth of character.

And then there is Willy Loman, Arthur Miller’s tragic figure in Death of A Salesman. To search for meaning and examine his life would not be possible for him. Wholly unenlightened–a big-talking adulterer, selfish father, and braggadocio, Willy Loman is the conductor of his own family’s train-wreck. We find ourselves intellectually unsurprised by his suicide, brought on by the little bubbles of profound regret and anger trying to work their way to his consciousness, but that are unable to break the surface. He dies unenlightened.

I’d like to think that as death approaches, all of us ask the big questions about our lives, about those whom we have touched and not touched, about our deepest relationships, about what mark we had hoped to stamp upon our loved ones, our friends, our associates.

Strangely, many people go to their graves having done zero introspection, more concerned about the placement of their bedpan than the quality of their legacy.

Then again, how does the outsider, the family member, or the caring observer know whether or not someone is self-reflective?

We are all travelers.

We are all on a journey. It’s just that some journeys labor to go forward despite the tonnage of past generations, shackles that some people stubbornly refuse to uncouple from their present lives.

In what type of conversation with yourself and with others do you engage?

If such conversation explores your motivations, shortcomings, and deepest fears, then you are on your way to enlightenment, no matter what your age may be.



Posted in Education, Life, People | Tagged , , , , | 58 Comments

Queen Joan


by cheri blockIMG_1837


Yesterday, handmaiden that I am, I paid a short visit to Queen Joan and concluded on my way back to my humble quarters that there are some people in the world who are so special that when in their presence, you are sure the world has a soul.

Queen Joan is one of those unique people.

When I entered her chamber, she sat on her throne–a throne that befits her limitations. Her walker and wheelchair rounded out her furnishings, along with a stiff kitchen-table chair for me, her loyal servant.

The Court Trainer had just left with strict instructions concerning the Queen’s diet. No more Oreo cookies! No more Sees candies! The Queen is putting on weight! Because she has no balance and no active life, no hearing and clearly no discipline, it must be her attendants that need culinary restraint!!

Joan is no stranger to court trainers, servants, and of course, the court doctors.

Her ebullient smile and soft eyes belie the circumstances that under her reign have provided a steady stream of work for the entire court medical staff: her audiologist, her pain specialist, her rheumatologist, her radiologist, oncologist, hematologist, gastro-enterologist, urologist, and dermatologist. As one of her heroes, Sir Mel Brooks, aptly stated, ” It’s good to be the Queen.”

My! I rheumanated, as I sneaked into the kitchen,  worried that the Court Trainer might return to  the Queen’s Chamber at any time. My! I rheumanated, shall I provide the Queen with a small sweet, sure to inject her pensive demeanor with a delirium of crunchy, chocolaty, and nutty delight?

Her bib in place, she opened with color like a kaleidoscope.

While she was relishing her treat, she looked over at me–her trusty attendant and inquired, “Who gave me this drumstick?”

“I did,  your highness.”



Posted in People, Writing and Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , | 28 Comments

The Annex

by cheri sabraw


This weathered structure  sits like an old, wrinkled Indian storyteller, waiting for a little one to beg for a tale about “the way it used to be.”

Once Tom and Kate Palache’s cook’s cabin, it has rested way too comfortably on our land for ten years. Although we do not know its exact age, we have learned that in 1923 the Palaches journeyed from San Francisco to buy acreage from A.A. Moore, who owned most of the property in the vicinity. Historians have told us that the house, in which the Palaches slept while staying on this property, appears on a land grant map in 1877.

Tom was an insurance agent. Kate was a medical doctor. They lived in San Francisco on Ellis Street. Tom was an amateur photographer: we found his camera and many boxes of lantern plates taken before the turn of the 20th century. We even have a slide of U.C. Berkeley in 1898 and the San Francisco Bay before the Bay Bridge was built. A framed stock certificate with Thomas Hood Palache’s name and his purchase of one share  sits above our library door. One intriguing side note we learned some years ago was that Tom Palache was William Keith‘s insurance agent. When Keith lost many of his paintings in the San Francisco 1906 earthquake, Palache was more than helpful.

Tom and Kate were childless. When unable to spend time on the TK Rancho, they sold the property to Kate’s niece, Margaret. She and her husband Ed lived in the Palache’s original home which was 50 feet from the cook’s cabin– until Margaret died in 1982. Ed wanted out of the dark house, made so by the enormous canopy of non-native trees the Palaches had planted. After selling some of his property to us, he moved across the creek and onto a treeless, hot spot where he plunked  a mobile home down that he called The Establishment.  Ed died in 1993, a year before we finished building our house.

Ed called the Palache’s cook’s  little cabin The Annex.

The Annex is about 215 square feet with a bedroom, a sitting room, and a bathroom. Our son Ben was forced to inhabit the Annex while we were living in a fifth-wheel trailer, building the house. A junior in high school, he was a good sport; that is, until a big black spider bit him on the chest and left a welt the size of a dried apricot. Things really soured when he brought his gorgeous Junior Prom date, Laurie, up the road for pictures, and as he was pinning on the rosebud corsage,  she burst out laughing. Those days in the early part of the 1990’s seem long ago.

I’ve always thought the Annex would be a perfect place for me to write without the distractions of a Labrador Retriever whose nervous system is calibrated to my every movement.

So, today, I decided to clean it up. The process, I think, will be glacial.

I’m impressed with before and after pictures, so today, I catalogued the before.


This is the back of the Annex. We found a number of treasures though that little door on the lower right. I might add that mice, rats, and squirrels have also appreciated the darkness of the Annex’s underbelly.

You can see the overgrowth of Vinca, the thick pile of oak and walnut leaves, and dirt that has solidified into a cement.

You can see the overgrowth of Vinca, the thick pile of oak and walnut leaves, and the dirt that has solidified into a cement.

To walk down to the front door is a hazard. The rock walls that the Palaches built all over the property in the 1920’s are now camouflaged , buried under adobe dirt and sycamore, oak, walnut, pine, and mulberry leaves. I know there is a “secret sidewalk” somewhere near the Annex that provided hard footing for the cook to deliver the meals to the Palache’s house, so today, like an archeologist, I intend to locate it and resurrect it to its former function.

With my rake in hand, a leaf blower, a shovel, gloves, and a long gizmo to trim the branches, I began my labor.

My project for today: to clean around all of the bricks and rocks.

My project for today: to clean around all of the bricks and rocks.

The Annex has potential!

The Annex has potential!


As you can see for yourself, if you don’t stay on top of the land, it will stay on top of you.

Posted in Life, People | Tagged , , , , | 16 Comments

The Door

Tby cheri sabraw

Most of us take doors for granted, like we do our feet and teeth.

Only when a door is unhinged does the privacy it creates become appreciated.

Surely, the door is a fine literary symbol used in contrast to the window.  Kafka opened doors and then closed (and sometimes slammed) them in the faces of his frustrated protagonists. Standing at their windows, shut out from the status quo of society and its bureaucracy, his characters viewed their world and its misery through their own ocular windows and the ostracism was complete.

Think of all the doors you have opened and then closed in your lifetime. Some you have left open; some you have shut with authority; others you have carefully secured in the early dawn before you left.

A door offers a tantalizing but fierce choice–to engage, go out, go in, and do. As the Doors’ lyrics remind us, Light my Fire.

I tend to notice how people present the front doors to their homes. I think (and perhaps this is the downfall of the English major) that a door indicates more than its functional use.

Does it need to be refinished? Do cobwebs settle on the top of it? Is an old-soul plant resting at its base? Is a chubby Buddha sunken into silver river rocks there by its side to remind all who enter to be at peace? A front door says a great deal about the person behind the entry.

I will admit that I have been a door-slammer. As a willful child, I took great satisfaction in throttling up my dramatic show of anger with a piercing scream of defiance in the family room and then running at full tilt down our long hallway, unmuffled,  finally reaching my bedroom. There the crescendo would build to a cracking climax–that of the solid-core door being slammed against its jambs with the wind-up of a skilled pitcher, say like Juan Marichal. The walls would reverberate, only to followed by the ominous click of my father’s footsteps coming down the hall at lightening speed and with authority.

In my marriage, I have thrown a few doors hard against their bearings and then dissolved onto my bed in a temper-tantrum of tears.

Too, I have opened many doors to complete bliss–seeing a grandchild for the first time in the hospital nursery, entering our hotel room on my wedding night, or stepping into a cozy beach house, escaping from a turbulent rain.

And then there were those doors whose knobs I hesitated to turn–the door to my parents’ bedroom, wherein lay my father, moments away from death, nineteen years ago this Thursday; the door to my classroom, N-9, a chamber where magic and fire, tears and laughter reigned for so many years, and the last glance into my house on San Martin Street, where we raised our children during their teenage years and where we were young, vigorous, and anticipatory.

The door is a paradox: it shuts us in and protects while it opens to possibility and beckons; it reminds us of finality while at the same time, suggests that we consider whim.





Posted in Education, Life, On fiction, Writing and Teaching | Tagged , , | 31 Comments

How to remember vocabulary for the rest of your life

The French Canadian coast of Clare in Nova Scotia. 2009, photo by cbs

The French Canadian coast of Clare in Nova Scotia. 2009

by cheri sabraw

Have you ever discovered that you have been using a vocabulary word incorrectly? For example, do you think the word non-plused means unimpressed? Or what about the word diffident? Do you think it means aloof?

Non-plused does not mean unimpressed; rather, it means “to render utterly perplexed; to puzzle completely.” *

Diffident does not mean aloof; rather it means, “lacking confidence in one’s own ability…timid, shy.”

Part of the problem is the remembering. When did you learn the meaning of a word? In what context? Most importantly, how did you encode the word into your memory? The way you remember new vocabulary is the key to a lifetime of accurate word recognition.

If there is one thing I know it is this: every student I have ever taught throughout the course of forty years knows what the word ubiquitous means. They all remember. When they hear the word ubiquitous, they think of me, of their junior year in high school, of that Bic pen with the u-shaped eraser, held by hands of stick figures drawn on a globe– all in a picture I drew on my well-worn chalk board. They will remember that ubiquitous means seemingly everywhere at the same time, as Bic pens are.

Deauville and Trouville, France, 2010. photo by cbs

Deauville and Trouville, France, 2010.

When they hear the word salient, most will remember the sailboat, with its angular sail jutting out, drawn on that same dusty chalkboard. They will remember that the salient point is the one that is most important.

In that same lesson I taught on memory by association or how to remember vocabulary for the rest of your life, they will recall the word capricious and see a stick-figure drinking a Capri Sun, then a Coke, then a Capri Sun, and then a Coke. My does he change his mind frequently! They will remember that capricious means fickle.

Athens, Greece, 2011. photo by cbs

Athens, Greece, 2011.

To this day, I train myself to remember vocabulary in the same manner.

For example, here is a sample of my running vocabulary list this week (with thanks to Vladimir Nabokov in his autobiography Speak, Memory).

You will see the word, its definition, and the way I will remember it:

1. palimpsest (n.)- a manuscript in which writing and pictures have been erased to make room for more writing. An overlay, almost a collage, like a limp piece of erased parchment.

2. palpebral (adj.) – having to do with the eyelids. In my wearinessI will palpate my eyelids.

3. photism (n.)-a hallucinatory sensation or a vision of light. When I had pho noodles at the Vietnamese restaurant, each bright noodle looked like a beam of light.

4. hypnagogic (adj.)- “of or pertaining to drowsiness.” Upon my hypnosis, I fell fast asleep.

Then, I might try putting four or five words into a silly sentence because humor can help us remember things.

On a dark and stormy night, I tried to close my eyes but a photism appeared on my wall, very close to a photo I have of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of the most famous writers of magical realism. That beam of light and its intensity stimulated my hypnagogic state of mind  like a cattle-prod. I leaped from my bed, taking my fists and rubbing each eye like a startled child. My palpebral attempts to come to terms with the other-worldly beam of light were stymied by my sense of rationale and the ticking of my alarm clock. And then I saw IT on the floor, next to my Peet’s Coffee mug and the Harvard Business Review–a palimpsest. Where is Harrison Ford when you need him?


*All definitions in quotation marks taken from



July at the Rancho

Four little babies taking a rest; three facing east and one facing west.

Four little babies, taking their rest-three facing east and one facing west.

One stately hawk, resting on a branch-scanning for hors, here at the ranch.

One stately hawk, resting on a branch-scanning for hors, here at the ranch.


A husband and his wife, existing by design-one providing beauty and the other drinking wine.

A husband and his wife, existing by design-one providing beauty and the other drinking wine.

Fifty-eight olive trees, firmly in the soil-we in the house, hoping for the oil.

Fifty-eight olive trees, firmly in the soil-we in the house, hoping for the oil.

One llow lab, in per-pet-u-al motion-searching for rocks, balls, and devotion. ( with thanks to Peter and Linda for their perfect suggestion.)

One yellow lab, in per-pet-u-al motion-searching for rocks, balls, and devotion. ( with thanks to Peter and Linda for their perfect suggestion.)


Posted in My photography | 13 Comments

Have Dog, Will Travel, but why?



by cheri sabraw

You’ve seen Chip on this blog before. He was driving a car. He isn’t my dog, but his bravado, especially considering he is blind and deaf, is admirable.

Chip is a rarity in this age of neutered males.

As you can see, he is satisfying his appetites.

The best news is that Chip’s owners do not travel with Chip. He stays home, with a sitter.

Perhaps one of the newest trends trespassing into the travel, shopping, and dining industries is the traveling with one’s dogs. It’s ubiquitous. Everywhere–in hotels, in high-end stores, outside of coffee houses, and on planes, dogs are now welcome. At the root of this phenomenon is what has been at the root of most trends: money and self-indulgence.

Stores fear that the person who trots her little Yorkie through the cosmetic aisle at Nordstrom at the end of a pink sparkly leash and bejeweled collar will shop somewhere else if the store has a no dogs policy.

Airlines fear that turning down eccentric (and selfish) people who want to carry their little Poodles in a paisley plastic carrying case with netting for windows might result in canceled fares. Never mind the paying customer sitting in the seat next door dealing with the by-products that emanate from dogs.

The hotel industry knows that most people who travel with their dogs leave them in the rooms when they (the people) go out for dinner. Never mind the whining or barking dog. Never mind dog dander, fleas, or odor left in the room. Steam cleaning will sanitize the place for the next unsuspecting guest (sneeze and itch).

This past weekend in Oregon, I began to notice just how many people took their dogs along wherever they went: to a classic car show, where the temperature hovered around 90 degrees. Canine tongues fell out of slack mouths, whitish from the heat, and found relief in a community dog bowl outside a shoe store. Floating saliva bubbled around the dish until another muzzle plumbed its depths. To a farmer’s market, where hound noses sniffed tomatoes and kettle corn: to a restaurant, where heavy panting under a redwood table competed with conversation.

Most of these people assume that everyone not only loves dogs but also loves (and is interested in)  their dogs. They stand on street corners, extending their dogs’  leashes and talking baby talk to Ginger or Georgie or Slugger or Bowie. They look at you, hoping that you will ask what breed Ginger is or why Slugger’s eye is missing or who Georgie is named after or why Bowie has one leg missing.

Don’t get me wrong. I own a dog. I love my dog. She lives on our rancho with us and sleeps in the house, but I leave her home when I travel. It’s just common courtesy.

But then there’s a guy like Chip.

Natural Balance Duck and Potato was not his food, but who cares?



Posted in Life | Tagged | 23 Comments

The Washington Hospital Experience: Take # 1

by cheri sabraw

It’s been over 53 years since I made my television debut on The Mayor Art Show. You can read about my early (and abridged) career in television here.

Last week, I returned to a studio to be part of a new show, the Washington Hospital Experience, on the Washington Hospital cable network. This time, however, the studio was not a fake mayoral set governed by a silly host wearing a top hat and white gloves, who encouraged the child hosts to shout “Bluey, Bluey!” into a microphone.

Rather, the studio for this episode materialized in three locations: a busy infusion center, where nurse navigators were administering chemotherapy; a beautiful sunlit atrium, the tranquil view on which patients gaze while receiving their treatment; and the hospital lobby, a busy intersection of people and noise—elevator bells and the grumble of an espresso machine.

 To say the first morning of taping was a comfortable experience for me would be skirting the truth: I have a lot to learn. Luckily, I was in the hands of a capable crew, whose sole mission was to showcase the powerful work going on daily at the Sandy Amos R.N. Infusion Center at Washington Hospital in Fremont, California.

The man behind the entire production is Bill Emberley.

Bill has over twenty-five years of Bay Area television production under his belt. In his own words, he “ wears many hats in the mean lean guerrilla production world.  I am the director of photography, sound, lighting, writing and logistics all rolled into one.”

Bill wore a shepherd’s cap as he guided the initiated (me, myself, and I) through the process of video production.

My role was to ask questions, appear OC (on camera) for a short introduction to the series and this specific episode, and to tape a VO (voice over),which described the amenities in the infusion center such as iPads, portable televisions, comfortable rooms and chairs, and a specialty kitchen, full of healthy snacks and beverages.

I had hoped to ask just the right questions in the most evocative way, so that the two cancer survivors, Linda and Brenda, could tell their inspirational stories about their experiences in the infusion center. They, and two nurse navigators—Shari and Tammy—would deliver to the camera lens  short narratives about excellence, courage, aesthetic space, and dignity, all rolled into one.

In addition to learning that I must pause in between questions at least three seconds (for editing purposes), I also realized just how many “takes” are necessary for a creative perfectionist like Bill and his production manager, John, who will record 5 hours of footage, edit it, and then glue the parts of the day into a whole for the year.

Perhaps the most challenging (and at times hilarious) part of the entire experience occurred in the hospital lobby in front of not only a teleprompter, but also a sampling of senior citizens coming in for blood draws, urinalyses, and imaging (which we used to call X-rays…) who became amused, I think, while watching someone repeat the same scene, over and over, like the film Groundhog Day. Even the espresso machine silenced itself.

In the lobby, illuminated with lights of all shapes and sizes, and hidden behind the silky square black screen on which large white words in a blocky font scroll down in a speed determined by the production manager, sat the camouflaged camera lens—a five-inch critical eye that recorded every blink and twitch, tooth and hair.

Snaked up under my crisp powder blue blouse, resided the wire that connected the small lapel microphone to its power source, a battery box clipped to my waistband and hidden behind my blazer. How that microphone found its way to its appointed destination, I have no idea. (Actually, I do.)

All I was supposed to do was stand at the lobby desk and make casual conversation with Gracie, sitting behind the counter. Then, I was to turn and walk toward the camera, stop on a piece of duct tape, and say, “ Hi, I’m Cheri Sabraw, the host of the Washington Hospital Experience, a series of short segments that will highlight some of the service lines the hospital has to offer.”

How hard could this be? I remember thinking.

Twelve takes later, after tripping over my words, overshooting the duct tape, and laughing while on camera, the scene finally worked for Bill, his production manager, John, and the grip, Cody.

Bluey! Bluey!

Posted in Education, The Washington Hospital Experience | Tagged , , , , , , , | 8 Comments