September 15, 2017No Comments

Robber’s Cave social experiments hold lessons for us today

Summer camp is not just a rite of passage, but also a fine social experiment in making friends, overcoming homesickness and trying new things. A week at summer camp in Robber's Cave State Park in Oklahoma's Sans Bois Mountains when I was 12 brought me a fascination with Belle Starr the Bandit Queen, a fear of archery and a first kiss from a boy named Shane.

But 60 years ago, a group of 12-year-old boy campers at that same spot found themselves in the middle of a now-famous and quite grand inter-group conflict experiment -- a real life Lord of the Flies conflict that mercifully stopped short of killing. The study of inter-group conflict and cooperation was led by Muzafer Sherif, the founding father of present-day social psychology, and conducted with University of Oklahoma researchers.

The boys, selected for their similar backgrounds and the fact that none knew each other before, thought they were at a typical summer camp. So did their parents, who paid $25 for them to go. But the boys were lab rats in a maze, placed into engineered situations and conflicts to see how they would behave.

Sherif's research objective was to watch how tribes and prejudices could be formed and then overcome. His study took place in three distinct phases. First, the boys were broken into two separate, distinct groups that had no knowledge of each other at the beginning. A week was spent building esprit de corps among the group through camping, swimming and sports.

During the second week, the two groups were brought into conflict with one another through a multi-day tournament comprised of games of tug-of-war, baseball and tent pitching competitions. Antagonism between the groups peaked. They refused to eat together in the same dining hall. They organized raids of one another's cabins. Name-calling and trash talk morphed into flag burning, property theft and fistfights.

With hostility at its height, Sherif and his team now created extreme situations, like the water supply being shut off and the food truck breaking down. The two groups were forced to work together for things as simple as water and food. Their collective success sowed the seeds of peace between the groups. By the end of the third week, the two groups were sharing food and playing together.

Sherif demonstrated in this study our very human tendency to form groups, and within those groups, to succumb to hostility toward those outside the group. Each human group tends to develop its own culture, find its own leaders and develop its own rules for behavior. The groups become like little countries, forming mini-governments and legal systems and boundaries to differentiate it from others. These miniature systems form the root of conflicts between small groups.

The Robber's Cave experiment is famous because it seems to have the prescription for reconciling warring groups and bringing them to peace. But 60 years later, we're still struggling with the same painful issues of division and hostility.

Just a glance through my Facebook or Twitter feeds shows me that the dynamics at play among those campers are alive and well in our adult groups (political, religious, or economic). We're still inclined to be hostile to or judgmental of those who are not in our immediate group.

But we can do better. This kind of groupthink is a construct that we can break down by understanding our tendencies and then focusing on larger goals together.

Social harmony is hard to come by. An Okie girl living in California is very aware of how differently people view red states and blue states and the people within. All of us tend to think our group's views are the best, truest and most virtuous. But so did those 12-year-old boys in Robber's Cave.

September 9, 2017No Comments

The Oklahoma Girl Scout murders

The summer of my eighth birthday was overshadowed by a grisly crime made all the more harrowing because of its child victims. On a humid and rainy Sunday in June 1977, the idyllic memories of summer camp I had shared with my friends shattered into shards of horror when three Girl Scouts, two from Tulsa and one from Broken Arrow, were brutally murdered on their first night at sleep away camp.

Not only was I the same age as one of the victims, but like most of my friends, I was a Tulsa Girl Scout. My troop had just returned from a day camp near Tulsa, where we’d made seat cushions called sit-upons, sang songs about friendship to the fast drumbeat of cicadas and roasted marshmallows at a campfire, all in blissful ignorance.

Our parents kept most of the heinous details of the Camp Scott murders from us, but I overheard the news enough to know that one girl had been strangled and the other two hit on the head in a place called Locust Grove. Only as an adult still questioning how something so awful could have happened did I learn the more gruesome details about rape, blood, and bodies zipped in sleeping bags. True crime stories have since held a fascination for me, because I still try to reconcile how humans – who I believe are naturally good – can do such terrible things to one another. Like these murders.

Until that summer, I’d had no experience with death. Not even the childhood rite of passage of losing a pet. Yet here were these doomed girls who were my own age, staying at a camp like one I went to. I didn’t have to use any imagination to put myself in their places. This crime could have easily happened to any of my third or fourth grade classmates.

Eight-year-old Lori Farmer, 10-year-old Michelle Guse and nine-year-old Denise Milner had written letters home that night before going to sleep in the tent they shared at Camp Scott. Lori and Michelle had penned upbeat, excited notes about friends they had made, while Denise’s missive home reflected her deep homesickness. “Mom, I don’t want to stay at camp for two weeks,” she had written. “I want to come home…”

The next morning, a camp counselor out for a sunrise jog came upon two sleeping bags and the body of one of the girls under a tree. County sheriffs would later discover the other two girls’ bodies in the sleeping bags. Camp Scott closed down immediately, packing every camper on a bus for home. The campground never opened again.

The fallout

This was before the Friday the 13th movies were in theatres. Before the fictional Camp Crystal Lake made gory, over-the-top murder mainstream. Our parents had surely heard of terrible crimes against children like the Chowchilla kidnappings or the Babysitter Killer the year before, but we kids had been living in a bubble. We had always walked to school alone or with other others our own age. We had ridden our bikes around the neighborhood for most of our summer days, hardly ever checking in at home except to ask for money to buy ice cream.

After those murders, all that freedom evaporated. My mother didn’t let me out of her sight that summer. Outdoor games of freeze tag and hide-and-seek turned into board game marathons around the kitchen table. No more casual popping in and out of friends’ houses and backyard pools. Now, every mother scheduled play dates instead. The search for the killer went on for 10 months at a total estimated cost of $2 million, with progress reported daily on television and in the newspaper. The Camp Scott murders and the maniac responsible for them never left anyone’s mind.

Nearly 40 years later, the enormity of the evil of those murders and those poor, doomed girls still has a nightmarish hold on those who lived through it, particularly as the crime lacks a clear resolution. Though most people who followed the case will remember Gene Leroy Hart as the main suspect, he was acquitted after trial due to a lack of conclusive evidence. He died of a heart attack in 1979 at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester where he was serving time for unrelated charges. Though the autopsy had found he died of a heart attack, the sheriff had been quick to tell anyone who would listen that other inmates killed him out of a “code of honor.”

Today, a quick Internet search turns up stories about mysterious happenings at his grave in Mayes County and rumors that he had studied shapeshifting with a Cherokee medicine man and had the power to change his physical shape at will.

The suspect

Understanding evil requires looking closely at the suspected perpetrator. So what do we know about Hart? Known to friends and family as Sonny, Hart was a Cherokee and a star high school football player raised by a single mother. He had married young and had a son, but his wife left him when he first got into trouble with the law in 1966. That year, he pled guilty to charges of kidnapping and raping two pregnant women in Tulsa. His family members and community supporters claimed that Hart had only confessed to the charges because he had thought he would have been given suspended sentence, since the two women were with him willingly and hid in his trunk from their husbands.

He served three years before being released on parole. Soon after he was caught burglarizing Tulsa apartments. He went back to jail and then escaped in 1973, supposedly living in the wooded Ozark hills around Camp Scott, close to where his mother lived.

Books such as “Tent Number Eight” by Gloyd McCoy and “Oklahoma’s Most Notorious Cases” by Kent Frates describe more fully the lack of evidence against Hart for the Camp Scott murders. But months of daily news attention created a lot of pressure on Mayes County Sheriff Pete Weaver, who quickly settled on Hart as suspect number one. Hart was eventually caught at a tarpaper shack owned by a Cherokee named Sam Pigeon deep in the Cookson Hills about 50 miles away from Camp Scott. He had been living there, in the bosom of his hometown friends who believed he was innocent, for eight months.

Though some would say that Hart was a convenient scapegoat for the Camp Scott murders, most of Oklahoma outside of the tight knit Locust Grove community breathed a collective sigh of relief at his arrest in April 1978.

His trial lasted a month, and the jury deliberated over two days. Juror Lela Ramsey spoke on the 25th anniversary of the murders about the experience for an OETA documentary. “We didn’t have any choice but to acquit him,” she said. “Things just didn’t add up.”

Even after his acquittal, the district attorney and Sheriff Weaver held resolute in their opinions that Hart was the Camp Scott killer. Demands to find the real killer from Hart’s supporters were largely ignored, in the same manner that folks would later scoff at football player O.J. Simpson’s claims he would find his ex-wife’s real killer. Hart’s death meant it was time to return to normal life. Even if now, Oklahomans were more likely to lock their doors at night and keep their children close.

Why? The elusive answer

The murders on that rainy June 1977 day hollowed out the hearts of Oklahomans and robbed them of the conviction that nothing like the Chowchilla kidnappings or the Oakland County child killings could happen in the heartland. For me, it led me through fear and sadness to question how and why such a crime could happen. The closest I have come to an answer is within this excerpt from “Tent Number Eight” that recaps a 1977 speech given by clinical psychologist Robert Phillips to the Associated Press Oklahoma news executives:

Whoever committed the murders, according to Dr. Phillips, did so because he hated happiness, innocence and decency. The best way to degrade those things was to violate the young girls.

“Something happened in this man’s life to make him feel inferior and built up a passionate hatred in him. He hates being alive, and in killing, he is taking revenge on a world he believes has mistreated him.”

Phillips said the murderer probably did not plan on killing all three girls. He got caught up in the savage emotion, and the beast in him emerged. Then the man, who had no order in his life, tried to put things back in order by cleaning up the blood and putting two of the girls in sleeping bags.

We just cannot know for sure what happened that night. A broken person, three vulnerable girls, a terrible instinct, followed by terrible acts, driven by a force of evil. That all of these things came together on one rainy June night is all we know. And that makes me continue to ask why.

August 23, 2017No Comments

Trade-offs of dental school care

In 1999, I landed a job that offered excellent medical benefits with one hitch: no dental coverage until after the first year. Perhaps I could go without dental benefits for one year? It seemed a calculated risk worth taking, my then-husband and I thought.

We were enrolled in his medical plan, paying almost $100 a month out of pocket. (Goodness that sounds cheap in 2017.) It included dental coverage, but the monthly contribution took too big a bite out of our very limited budget. The choice seemed clear: We would sign up for the free medical coverage at my new job. We would both schedule dental appointments right before our coverage ran out, and then cross our fingers and hope for the best for the next 12 months.

Then, a few months later, it happened: a nagging pain in one of my molars that continued to worsen over five days. A trip to a dentist friend confirmed my suspicion. I needed a root canal--and quick. Aware that I lacked insurance, my dentist offered a 15% courtesy discount, slicing the cost of the one-hour procedure to a still-hefty $500.

But the pain in my tooth was worse than the pain to my pocketbook. I knew I had to do something. I underwent the root canal, parted with my money, then discovered later that the surgery was just the beginning. I would need a crown to protect the now-brittle tooth at an additional cost of $700, even with a discount. And I had several cavities that needed to be filled, at $90 each. There had to be a better way, I decided--or at least a cheaper one.

A co-worker tipped me off to the UCLA dental school clinic, which provides full dental care to patients for about half of a practicing dentist's fees. The student work was supervised by dental school faculty. Not everyone can get in: Patients were pre-screened to ensure that their dental needs match the school's educational needs. Once accepted, patients paid $89 for a comprehensive exam, cleaning, and a full set of X-rays. Then patients were treated for correcting their dental problems. A filling had cost between $40 and $65; a root canal between $215 and $330. A crown had cost from $275 to $335.

It was a good deal for patients, but there were some trade-offs. Appointments at the dental school clinic lasted three hours, and were sometimes devoted to a single procedure, such as a teeth cleaning or a cavity filling. The lengthy appointments were made to accommodate the students' busy schedules, and the clinic was closed during school breaks and exams.

As I waited for my initial cleaning appointment--the first step to getting my half-price crown--I got an offer I couldn't refuse. Was I willing to be a test subject in a state dental board exam? I would get the crown and a filling for free, while also doing my part to advance the field of dentistry.

To become a licensed dentist in California, students needed to pass a tough written and clinical exam--the latter of which involves cleaning teeth, putting on a crown and filling a cavity, all under the watchful eyes of state dental examiners.

Because I needed a crown and had five cavities to fill, I was a great candidate for the dental hopefuls.

I decided to give it a try and duly went to the dental school several times, where my teeth were X-rayed and prepped for their debut as educational material. The good news: I had two perfect cavities for fillings. The bad: My crown was inappropriate for the exam. (I did get a free temporary filling as a consolation prize, though.)

Despite having lost the chance for a free crown, I decided to proceed as a guinea pig. By now I wanted to help and, heck, a free filling was nothing to sneeze at.

On exam day, I cleared four hours out of my schedule to be available for the test. I arrived early, signed a few waivers and headed upstairs to wait in the hallway outside the large exam room with my anxious dental student and his assistant.

The dental students seemed nervous as we waited for the exam to begin. Failure would be costly, and not just to their pride. Beyond the years of studying and thousands of dollars in student loans, the prospective dentists have shelled out $600 to take the exam and an additional $500 to pay the assistant.

My dental team started to work immediately, numbing my mouth and swiftly installing a "dental dam" in my mouth. The dam was basically a piece of metal propping my jaw open, and a rubber sheet isolating my teeth from my tongue. He drilled an opening and cleared out the decay. A portion of the freshly drilled tooth chipped away, and the assistant rushed off to find a supervisor for consultation. The white-coated, poker-faced referee deemed the chip unavoidable, and directed my dentist to correct the problem.

Two hours later, I was sent on my way with a new filling. I left without knowing whether my dental student passed his exam. (I later found out he did.) While the price was right for my new filling, the three-hour ordeal left me with a "sprained" jaw, restricting me to a soft-food diet for several weeks and delaying my other dental work for several months. But discomfort aside, I was satisfied with the experience--and my free filling.

When my dental insurance finally kicked a few months later, I decided to go back to seeing a private dentist. It was a decision based on convenience more than anything. But even with the safety net of insurance safely in place, it is still nice to know that quality dental care at a reduced cost is there if I ever need it again.

Originally published in the Los Angeles Times on January 4, 1999.

July 6, 2017No Comments

Protect yourself with better passwords

I have more digital passwords than keys, and without a handy key ring and visual clues like a Hello Kitty key cap, I'm having a hard time keeping them straight.

Add to that the cautions of most info security professionals to avoid using the same passwords across multiple sites and systems, and creating passwords with at least seven characters using symbols like $ or % as well as capital letters and you've got a mind-melding memory challenge. Did I forget to say that you shouldn't write them down, either?

The password we should protect the most is our email password. If a hacker gains access to your email account, he or she could use the "helpful" Forgot Your Password? feature on most sites and possibly change the passwords to your other accounts, like banks, PayPal, social networking and more.

Three different types (desktop, portable and web-based) of software solutions have surfaced for those of us who confuse our bank password with our Yelp password.

Password management programs like KeePass and Password Safe (available free) will store your passwords in one encrypted database and allow you to access them with one master password or key file. Even easier to use are web-based password managers like 1Password and LastPass that allow you to access your encrypted passwords from any device.

Experts say that the most common passwords, and thus the easiest to break, are:

  • the word "password"
  • birthdays or anniversary dates
  • children's or pet's names
  • QWERTY or ABCDEF or ABC123
  • cities and hometowns

And if you think picking a word from the dictionary is the answer, think again. Among the different ways hackers use to crack passwords are the "dictionary attack," which basically tries every word in the English or any other foreign language as your password. Some dictionary crackers even substitute symbols for letters, like pa$$word instead of password.

The best recommendation for password protection is to use a password manager, and to think of phrases that have personal meaning to you and are more complex than a proper name or a dictionary word. Some people use book or poetry excerpts, favorite dinner entrees, phrases from childhood or song lyrics as a foundation for their passwords, and then build in special characters and capital letters. Complex, yes, but some things -- like bank accounts and other personal information -- should be protected to the best of our efforts.


December 30, 2016Comments are off for this post.

In Memoriam: Margaret Arakawa

Steve's mother, Margaret Arakawa, died on December 26, 2016 of natural causes at home and surrounded by family in Arleta, Calif. She was 92.

Feisty and faithful, Margaret worked hard to gain her mobility and voice back after a serious stroke in January 2015. We watched her recover slowly over many months, her determination in physical therapy astounding caregivers and medical pros who assumed a 91-year-old wouldn't have much fight in her. She would prove them all wrong. I have many memories of her perseverance during those PT sessions and on her own: endless arm and leg lifts in bed, those first steps with a walker, learning how to write with her left hand. She took a fierce pride in surprising people with her abilities in recovery, and she taught me that age is only a number. Steve, who saw her nearly every day, did everything possible to keep her in her home until her last breaths.

I met her for the first time in 2004. She was 80 but you might have guessed late 60s. She had an exercise bike in the living room in front of the television that she rode every day, and the healthiest diet of anyone I knew, despite her skill at cooking big, rich Italian dinners for us. Family and dog photos, art projects by her grandchildren, clown figurines and even a statue of Pope John Paul II covered the walls and nearly every surface of her tidy home. She wore hearing aids in both ears, and to this day, we're not sure how much she could hear. Sometimes she seemed profoundly hard of hearing, and other times, we were surprised that she understood our sotto voce comments.

She loved dogs and had one or two as companions for most of her adult life. She had a soft spot for male dogs. About ten years ago, she adopted her last dog, a young female German shepherd whose previous owners called her Ginger. Margaret promptly renamed the dog Champ and from that point on referred to her as "him." We always laughed and shook our heads at Champ's forced gender confusion, but the dog didn't seem to mind what you called her as long as she got treats and belly rubs.

Born and raised in Washington D.C., Margaret was the youngest of four children and possibly the most mischievous. She told my mother a wonderful story about her days at the all-girls St. Patrick's Academy. I may not remember all the details correctly, but it went something like this: She was hosing down a patio at the school as part of a punishment after class. I wish I could remember what the punishment was for -- talking in class, maybe? Talking back? The nun who had reported her transgression walked by to check on her work. Margaret saw her, pointed the hose nozzle right at her and drenched the nun. Margaret smiled as she told the story, giving us the impression she had absolutely no regrets.

She moved to Los Angeles in the 1940s. She met her husband, chef Raymond Arakawa, while waiting tables at the Tam O’Shanter Inn. Known by her coworkers as Rusty because of her red hair, Margaret waited on Los Angeles luminaries including Walt Disney and former attorney general John Van De Kamp when he was a child.

Margaret and Ray married in February 1958. They raised four sons: Tony, Stephen, Gregory and Michael. She quit working to focus on raising her children. She and Ray were married for 54 years until his passing in March 2012. Family formed the center of their lives and they loved nothing more than spending time with their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Ray and Margaret Arakawa at their 50th wedding anniversary party at the Tam O'Shanter Inn, where they met.

Ray and Margaret Arakawa at their 50th wedding anniversary party at the Tam O'Shanter Inn, where they met.

An active member of St. Genevieve’s Catholic Church throughout her life, Margaret volunteered for many church and school functions. She founded the church’s “55 club” for senior parishioners and remained actively involved in organizing lunches and bingo for two decades until 2012. A natural entertainer, Margaret enjoyed bringing smiles and laughter to children and adults as a clown during parties in the neighborhood as well as at the Tam and St. Genevieve’s. She was a sports fanatic and attended Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants games, but she rooted most passionately for the Washington Redskins, Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Steve and I, like all of her family and friends, struggled watching her body fail her over the past few months, but we took comfort in knowledge of her deep faith in God and belief that she would rejoin loved ones in the afterlife.

A Mass in her honor will be held Sat. Jan. 7 at 10 a.m. at St. Genevieve's Catholic Church, located at 14061 Roscoe Blvd. in Panorama City. Following the burial, the family invites attendees to join them for lunch at the 94th Aero Squadron restaurant at 16320 Raymer Street in Van Nuys. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in her honor to Notre Dame High School of Sherman Oaks, St. Genevieve's Catholic Church, and the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America.


October 25, 2016No Comments

God of the Internet Book Signing

My book signing Saturday at Book Soup in West Hollywood drew a great crowd of friends and fans. What a treat it was to be on such hallowed ground on the Sunset Strip, appearing just days after Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson and a few days before Girls' creator Lena Dunham.

God of the Internet's plot seemed ever so timely as well, with hackers having launched an effective attack on a portion of the internet's backbone the day before, rendering Twitter and PayPal and many other sites unreachable for large parts of the day. The large-scale distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack used every day devices like baby monitors and security cameras to flood servers with a firehose of traffic making it impossible for regular users to get to the site. The Mirai botnet used in the Oct. 21 hack is not unlike the fictional one I created for the hackers in God of the Internet, and yet another reminder of the need for basic security measures like changing administrative passwords from generics like "password" or "abc123."

My huge thanks to everyone for coming out, with a special nod to Book Soup staff, Kim from LA for promoting the event, and Brad White of ICANN for being the smoothest emcee. Your support means the world to me.

Photos/Susanica Tam info@susanica.com

(Photos/Susanica Tam info@susanica.com)

(Photos/Susanica Tam info@susanica.com)

 (Photos/Susanica Tam info@susanica.com)

(Photos/Susanica Tam info@susanica.com)

Author Lynn Lipinski discusses and reads from her new book, The God of the Internet, at Book Soup in Hollywood, Calif. on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016. (Photos/Susanica Tam info@susanica.com)

(Photos/Susanica Tam info@susanica.com)

October 11, 2016No Comments

The looming digital crisis of confidence

The first hints of trouble will probably start after the polls close on November 8.

Should votes not go his way, GOP Presidential Candidate Donald Trump will likely reiterate and ramp up his claims of a “rigged” election. These cries, left vague enough to fit neatly into a number of real world risks as well as conspiracy theories, are designed to exploit our worries about cyber security, Russian espionage and voter fraud.

From there, it’s not that far of a leap to a call for recounts in key states, “Not My President” signs in yards, and a full frontal legal assault on the legitimacy of the election.

This is the ugly side of a digital, interconnected world. The fact that to date there have been no indications that previous elections have been tampered with gives little comfort in light of state-sponsored cyber attacks that are becoming increasingly sophisticated and damaging. I wrote my second novel about terrorists' cyber attacks shutting down water, power and banking systems. Equally scary and not at all fictional is the Russian willingness to try to influence November's presidential election via hacking.

Voters need only read headlines to understand the breadth and depth of the risks of any computerized system in an inter-connected world. Today’s cyber threats come from all angles – power grids being shut down, water treatment systems tampered with, millions of dollars stolen from banks. Little wonder that more than half of U.S. voters (56%) are concerned that this year’s election will be affected by hacking or cyber attack, according to a September 2016 survey conducted by security firm Carbon Black.

The vulnerabilities of state voting systems, particularly those using direct-recording electronic (DRE) machines, have been well-documented since the 2000 Gore/Bush election. These machines record and store votes electronically, and pose the greatest risk for a security breach. Many are backed up by paper trails, but a large group are not.

Many pundits are looking at Pennsylvania as the state to watch this election. Not only is it a swing state showing a very close race between the two candidates, but it is also a state in which the majority of its counties are using DREs with no verifiable paper trail. Should the legitimacy of this election be questioned, Pennsylvania is likely where it will happen.

That we should have seen it coming won’t matter come November.

Internet security professionals have been warning us for years that anything connected to the Internet can be hacked, even as companies race to connect our toasters, deadbolt locks and pacemakers to the much-vaunted Internet of Things.

Most of us have decided that the benefits of hyper-connectivity outweigh the risks. We like the convenience and we don’t think much about the huge data trails we leave in our wakes. We use 123abc as our password for multiple accounts, and tap into free wifi without worrying about what data we are sending through the airwaves. It’s hard to fully comprehend the risks until we see real-world consequences like identity theft, exposure of private or embarrassing photos or data, or the failure of systems we rely on.

Maybe this November will give us our wake-up call. Or maybe not. Voter fraud in the U.S. is quite a rare thing, and back-up paper trails provide confidence that tampering, if it happened, could be uncovered.

Still, the queasy feeling about this November’s election persists. Part of Donald Trump’s genius is that like a true dealmaker, he always leaves lots of room for negotiation. He exploits the fears of the electorate by undermining and questioning the very process itself. If you’re losing the game, question the rules.

When Trump says that if he loses in November, it will only be because the election was “rigged,” he leaves out the specifics of how. He could mean the scheduling of the debates, the endorsements of party leaders or any number of potential upsets. Should he lose on November 8, the hackability of the voting machines will be ready and waiting as a reason.

Undermining the confidence of our voting system is the real danger. The doubt itself is damaging enough.

September 30, 20161 Comment

Secrets of the Kitchen Cabinet

The roaches have discovered my secret. They've invaded my unit's kitchen cabinets and made little roach tracks through the dusty wasteland of cut crystal vases, a KitchenAid stand-up mixer, bread plates, a stainless steel seltzer bottle and a carved wood ice bucket.

The roaches have found the wasteland of my wedding registry gifts.

And for the exterminator to eradicate these six-legged intruders, I have to pull everything out of the kitchen and bath cabinets. Seeing all of these cooking, baking and entertaining objects is like unpacking lost baggage from a long-ago vacation. These gifts--china, crystal--have outlived my interest in home entertaining and also the marriage. The days when I thought I would be throwing dinner parties are pretty much over. Hell, most weeknights I'm balancing a sandwich or Thai takeout on the couch with my laptop. Weekends I go out to dinner. I don't need a fancy cheeseboard with four different kinds of cheese cutters to slip a slice of cheddar out of the pre-packaged bag from Ralph's. I don't need silver ice tongs to crack a cube out of the tray in the freezer. And the seltzer bottle? I don't even like seltzer water! What was I thinking?

I know what I was thinking. I was under the mid-1990's spell of the Macy's, Bed Bath & Beyond, Ross Simons and Williams-Sonoma wedding registry lists. Marketers had concocted a set of fantasy images about my married life and I'd bought right in, imagining somehow once we said the "I do's" that we'd magically morph into people who throw cheese tasting parties and serve seltzer water with artisanal ice cubes. People who make their own ice cream and cheese. People who use double-boilers and candy thermometers. None of these things happen.

Now roaches claim these glamorous items as their landscape and I must take the territory back, object by object. A one gallon stock pot. Christmas china. Ceramic ramekins. Cloth napkins. A mortar and pestle. A spring coil strainer. All-Clad pots and pans that get passed over on the rare days I do cook because they're too heavy. Bon Appetit cookbooks with recipes that call for Tahitian vanilla beans and blood orange zest. Confronting these relics is like reading old diary entries from middle school: nostalgic, startling and a little embarrassing.

I pack everything into boxes and consider a garage sale. But is there even a market for these things? A quick search on eBay reveals that the last Lenox Federal Cobalt place setting of china sold a month ago for 39 bucks.  I had become a hoarder of tableware and gourmet cooking tools that I had no use for and not many people want anymore.

A friend deep in the wedding scene tells me that now, brides and grooms ask for money toward honeymoons and houses now. Crowdfunding. How practical! We should have done that.

So, if you're in the LA area and you need mother of pearl caviar spoons, cut crystal high ball glasses or a melon baller, drop me a line quick before the whole lot goes (washed, of course) to the thrift store.

Now to tackle the bathroom cabinets, which are a graveyard of hair, skin and makeup products that didn't work out. That's another blog post.

May 23, 20163 Comments

Groundwork for a salmon revival

I thought human teen-dom was tough. My own experience of navigating mean girls, not having two Polo shirts to wear at the same time (80s kids called that doubling-up) and picking the wrong boy to kiss after school pale in comparison to the rites of passage nature inflicts on its non-human inhabitants. Take salmon, for example, as a case of one species' rough initiation to adulthood. Orphaned as hatchlings, they make an epic journey from inland rivers to the sea and back again. It is an odyssey fraught with peril, as they learn to avoid predators and forage for food, only to have to find their way around manmade obstacles like dams, mining pits and pumping plants.

Of course, salmon may not be the most sympathetic creatures in the world. A search for videos and photos reveals more interest in serving the fish for dinner rather than enjoying images of it in its wild habitat. But in California, the health and well-being of salmon gets a lot of attention from water agencies and environmental groups alike, who monitor its population as an indicator of the ecosystem's health. I recently had the chance to take a tour of several salmon recovery projects around the Sacramento Valley's Yolo Bypass and came away impressed with the fresh thinking being applied to solving some big, systemic problems.

Knaggs Ranch, Yolo Bypass

The Nigirl Project at Knaggs Ranch, after the water has gone.

Let's talk about the Nigiri Project, one of three stops on the tour I took. Despite its name, the project has nothing to do with sushi, but everything to do with helping young fish prepare for their journey to the sea. The name is a play on the Japanese term nigiri, which means fish over rice, which is a perfect description of what the project does. Project managers flood rice fields not far from the Sacramento airport with water from the Sacramento River during winter months, and juvenile salmon are captured and brought there for several weeks. The fish grow large, thanks to the nutrients in the water, before they are put back into the river to continue on their way.

It's a strategy that Asian countries have used between planting seasons for many years, and it seems to be working in California as well. The salmon living in the flooded rice fields thrive and get plump on microorganisms in the water, while their counterparts in the river do not. Since beginning the project in 2012, project collaborators California Trout and Cal Marsh & Farms have also been able to replicate these results across five different agricultural floodplains throughout the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. It works because it mimics the more natural flow of the Sacramento River before flood management practices were put in place, and it's good for the environment and for agricultural interests economically.

The Nigiri project is just one of many innovative collaborations aimed at helping fish while benefiting agriculture. Todd Manley from the Northern California Water Association has an enormous list of them, some completed and some in progress, that are happening in the Sacramento Valley. Most are public-private partnerships that give hope to those who think gains can be made when differing sides work together, not against one another. One we visited is a century-old water pumping plant on the Sacramento River that is being replaced with a new, state-of-the-art pumping plant that will employ screens and barriers that block young salmon from getting sucked into the pumps. The joint project by Reclamation District 2035 and Woodland Davis Clean Water Agency is one of the last remaining projects from a 20-year effort to protect threatened and endangered fish species while moving water to relieve nearby cities of Woodland and Davis from dependence on groundwater.

Juvenile salmon aren't the sole focus of these projects. The adults swimming upstream in the Sacramento River to spawn are kept on track and out of dead ends through a series of barriers that prevent them from taking the wrong turn out of the river and into natural drainage areas. Lewis Bair, general manager at Reclamation District 108, walked us through one of these projects near the popular fishing spot Knight's Landing.

Knight's Landing

Project site at Knight's Landing

It's worth noting that the land here doesn't even reside in RD108's service area, yet the water agency chipped in just under a fifth of the $2.5 million cost for the improvements because it knows that nature doesn't draw boundaries like people do. Bodies of water are connected, whether they are in one service area or another, so it makes sense to treat them in an integrated, interconnected way.

With drought conditions ongoing in parts of the state, Mother Nature isn't resolving the issue of water scarcity any time soon. Collaborative, forward-thinking projects like these are at least moving us -- and those young salmon -- in the right direction.

January 29, 2016No Comments

From outcast to Africa’s “golden voice”

People said he was cursed. Schoolchildren avoided him. His father sent him to live on the streets when he was a teenager.

Mali musician Salif Keita could be a bitter, angry man, but instead, he writes beautiful songs about life, love and fighting prejudice. His most recent is the plaintive “Folon.” The word folon means the past in Keita’s native tongue, Bambara.

“In the past/ no one wanted to know/ In the past, whatever happened, you could not speak about it/”.

Keita has lived through political turmoil, spending 15 years in exile during Mali’s military dictatorship. “Folon” is about his homeland’s return to democracy, but it could just as easily be about Keita’s own life. Born albino, he was ostracized by his village and his family, and left to live on the streets as a teenager. He found his voice and his salvation in music. Today, he has earned a place among the best and brightest on the world music scene and is frequently called the golden voice of Africa.

“Music is my life, my freedom. It gives me the opportunity to talk to people. To tell them what I want and what I feel,” he said in an interview with PBS Newshour in 2015.

Cast away by his family, Keita made his own living in Mali’s capital, Bamako, by drawing on his heritage, peppered with his own experiences as a pariah. Music and storytelling came naturally to Keita, who came from a family of griots, or storytellers, who have kept West African history alive for thousands of years through words and music. His big break came in the eighties as leader of West African supergroup Les Ambassadeurs who rode the global music wave with their fresh take on afro-pop.

Keita’s albinism, a genetic condition that causes the skin, hair or eyes to have little or no color, also caused his blindness. But looking back on his life and his success, he demonstrates nearly boundless resiliency and optimism. “If I were black,” he told Newshour. “Then I wouldn’t have had this opportunity to be popular in the world.”

When he was young, Keita wanted to be a teacher. Today, as the father of several albino children, he splits his time between family, music and his eponymous global foundation for the fair treatment and social integration of people with albinism.

“Albinism is not a curse, but a disease which, like any other, needs to be treated with care and love,” he told South Africa’s City Press in 2014.

He sent a powerful message from his life in the song “La Difference”:

Some of us are beautiful

Some are not

Some are black

Some are white

All that difference was on purpose

He found lightness and humor in his journey from outcast to one of the continent’s most well known musicians. “If I were black, I would have had good eyesight, and I could be a teacher for 40 people,” he said. “But now, I’m a teacher for a million people. That’s funny.”

As he sang in “Folon,” “In the past, people did not want to know/ today, people want to know.”

Note: this text originally appeared in Give YourSelf Permission Magazine 2015.