Monday, April 15, 2013


I watched TV in horror as a sobbing Syrian villager dragged several dead bodies onto the back of his truck.   Seven members of his immediate family, who had left the city for what they thought was safer ground in a rural village, were innocent victims of bombs from military jets overhead.   I closed my eyes and turned my head away when I saw legs blown off and blood everywhere, and as the program continued, I wondered when this insanity in Syria is going to stop.   

The incredibly brave PBS 
journalist followed a rebel fighter on the front lines, knowing that within minutes they could both be dead.  What struck me was that this 23-year-old Syrian rebel had been a member of Assad's regime,  but after witnessing the brutality of Assad against his own people,  he defected and joined the Free Syria Army.    The powerful and horrific scenes were similar to what I saw in pictures from the Vietnam war --  bloody and barely-alive bodies being pulled from the rubble of collapsed houses,  a wailing mother holding her dead child in her arms.  Families, frantic to leave the village, grabbed everything they could and ran for cover as bombs dropped from all directions.   Everyone screamed.  No one seemed to know where to go or what to do in the chaos.  

As I watched this riveting program, I asked myself where was I when this was going on?   Riding my bike with my girlfriends?  Talking and laughing on the phone?   Thinking about what to cook for dinner?    These questions pop into my mind often when I hear or read about real life events that are far removed from my life. What was I doing when the earthquake hit Japan last year or the tsunami in the Indian Ocean several years back?    When I watch documentaries like Frontline or hear first-hand reports on the evening news,  I sometimes feel like I'm watching a movie or a re-enactment.   My mind wanders.  What would happen if the Bay Area was struck by an 8 point earthquake, and my husband and I were injured with no one to help?   I certainly thought this when I watched the recent movie entitled The Impossible,  a true story about an English-speaking family vacationing in Thailand when the tsunami wiped out the resort where they were staying.  Thankfully, I don't dwell on scary thoughts like this very often, but I do live near the volatile San Andreas fault,  and a major quake in my lifetime is a real possibility.   We think tragedy happens only to people we don't know who are living in other places.   That's what the families in Newtown, Connecticut  thought too.    Some of us are naive,  but let's face it, most of us do not think about preparing ourselves emotionally for something so tragic.

After watching the program about the continued violence in Syria,  I thanked God we got the Azan family out of the dangerous Damascus suburbs eight months ago.   I think about them often and wonder what it must be like starting over.    Yes, the Arab culture and language are similar,  but it's not the country they were born in.    More questions:  How would I cope,  and what would I do if I were in their shoes?  Unfortunately,  I have no answers.  

For my family and friends who contributed generously to the Syrian family project last fall,  I want to give you an update.  I also want to inform the hundreds of people, who learned of this family's ordeal through my blog post Putting a Human Face on the Tragedy in Syria (click on link to go to the story).

This is what I know:   

No surprise.  Life has been a struggle for the twelve members of the Syrian family who, by their sheer tenacity and with financial help from concerned Americans,  escaped from their crumbling homeland of Syria to Egypt last fall.   I wish I could tell you that their life is good, but they continue to face many obstacles.

To help support the family, one of the sons works outside of Cairo for a Syrian opposition television station.   The sister and husband, with their two small kids, traveled to Turkey and hope to find work there,  since jobs in Egypt are scarce.  The adolescent boys living with the family in Cairo are unable to go to school because of their immigration status.  The father is in very poor health because his pre-existing heart condition was exacerbated from the stress.   Since he didn't have enough money to buy the equipment he needed, his plan to open a kebab shop in Cairo didn't work out.  Their two friends, who were living in the Damascus home after the family left,  died when the home was bombed.  And adding to their problems, their son, Amy's friend who lives in Rome, is also in a bind.  His Syrian passport expired a while ago, but because there is no longer a Syrian Embassy in Rome,  he is unable to renew it, and applying for refugee status threatens his current work visa.   A Catch 22.    When his Italian work visa expires,  he effectively becomes a stateless person.  What a nightmare he faces, along with thousands of other Syrian emigrants who face similar issues.    

Since the beginning of the war two years ago, 70,000 people, mostly unarmed civilians,  have died in the civil war.  "This massive loss of life could have been avoided if the Syrian government had chosen to take a different path than one of ruthless suppression of what were initially peaceful and legitimate protests by unarmed civilians," said Ms. Navi Pillay, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights, who condemned Bashar Al-Assad for the scale of human carnage and criticized the United Nations for their failure to act.

Neighboring countries struggle to house, feed and clothe the million-plus Syrians who fled to safe havens like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.   Videos taken in the camps show thousands of families cooped up in dilapidated quarters, places you could not imagine living in yourself.  They have very little food to sustain them, and no place for personal hygiene or privacy.  Unthinkable!   How do they maintain a sense of dignity, essential to the human condition?    

We don't get to choose our mother or father, nor do we get to choose the country we are born in, but as a child of immigrant parents, who also fled the ravages of war, I am forever grateful to live in a free country.  I complain about our impossible Congress who can't reach a compromise to legislate gun control or can't agree on how to bring down our national debt.    I worry that our Supreme Court will vote against same sex marriage.  I write letters to my city council about the out-of-control development in my neighborhood.   Yes, these are important issues, but when I think about the destitute Syrians who live in camps and our struggling family in Cairo, these problems seem less compelling.   I wonder how they will continue to make ends meet, but I thank God they are out of harm's way.   The rocky politics and intermittent violence in Egypt are unsettling, but the government is not slaughtering its own people, and our Syrian family's lives are not in danger.   For the moment, they are safe.  

Saturday, April 6, 2013


What a surprise to find an espresso cafe in a running store,   especially one with the unusual name of ZombieRunner.  The shop occupies the former space of The Fine Arts movie theater, where I saw  Ghostbusters in the 1980s, and Joan Baez sat in front of me.   Someone said ZombieRunner makes delicious coffee, so I was curious, but somewhat dubious that a running store would offer good coffee.   A bookstore, yes, but a running store?   It seemed like an odd combination to me.

429 South California Avenue, Palo Alto, CA 

I began drinking coffee in the l960s and was a regular consumer of Peets, long before it became a national brand.  Their second retail store opened in our town, and it was a regular hangout for me and my friends on Saturday mornings.  Making coffee at home was a daily ritual that I loved.  I ground Major Dickason coffee beans for exactly fifteen seconds, boiled water in an electric teakettle, and let the water cool to a perfect temperature,  which took about a minute.  Using a Bodum French press, I put the ground coffee in the glass cylinder, slowly poured in the hot water while I lovingly stirred with a wooden chopstick used only for this purpose.  All of these steps were essential for the coffee to burst with intense flavor.  I did this every morning for many years, and I shunned the ease of a multi-cup drip pot because the coffee tasted burnt and bitter.

Despite the devotion to my morning ritual and love for flavorful coffee, my husband and I gave up caffeine and then eventually quit drinking coffee altogether,  mainly for health reasons.  I was getting weird heart palpitations.  My husband was waking up often during the night and not able to go back to sleep.  His complaints seemed significant enough to warrant a sleep study, but the doctor said the tests were normal.  

Although no one mentioned coffee as a possible culprit,  I told Bruce we should kick the habit and switch to decaf.  He said, "I can never give up my caffeine.  It's what gets me through the day."  He was so adamant that I dropped my case, but I had another idea up my sleeve.  Without his knowing it, I started to add a few decaf beans to the caffeinated beans in the grinder every day, and because it was done gradually over a month or so, he didn't notice the difference.  Neither did I.  Some time later when friends mentioned wanting to get off caffeine, Bruce boasted, "Yes, Pam wanted me to give up caffeine too, but I told her No way, Jose."

Now is the time to tell him the truth, I thought.  "Bruce,"  I said, "you've been drinking decaf for at least two months now.  Then I went on to say how I made this happen.  Everyone broke up laughing, including Bruce, thankfully, and while I'm sorry I tricked him,  he was successfully weaned off caffeine and happy to be sleeping through the night.  And my heart palpitations stopped too.

So, for several years I made decaffeinated coffee every morning, but over time our desire for even decaf lessened.  Before long we stopped drinking coffee entirely,  and we weren't missing it a bit.  Our addiction was gone.

Then about six months ago,  I decided I wanted to drink coffee again, mainly decaf but with some caffeine now and then.   I missed having a cup to sip while reading the morning paper.  Bruce had no interest at all in resuming, so I would frequently walk up the street to Peets and have a delicious cappuccino while reading the daily news.  But Peets was expensive and also fattening,  since I often added a blackberry scone to my order.  The coffee making ritual I used to love was no longer appealing.  My coffee bean grinder became a spice grinder, and my French press was stored somewhere out in the garage.  Then I heard about the Keurig coffee maker and decided this machine might solve my one cup need.  So, for the last four months I've been using the Keurig machine,  and it works for me,  although the coffee is not as robust and full bodied as what I made in the French press or bought at Peets.  

When I arrived at ZombieRunner, the line was out the door.  Most of the people looked like computer geeks who worked nearby.  No one was dressed in running clothes or did anyone in the line look particularly athletic.  I sidestepped the coffee line, walked into the retail store and was blown away. 


There on the wall was a huge selection of colorful running shoes of high-end brands I recognized.  Over on the shelf was a plethora of energy foods like Heed,  Perpetuem, and Recoverite, products I also use for cycling.  

On the racks was a wonderful array of running clothes -- shorts, moisture absorbing tees, halter tops, tights, and rain jackets.    I saw a section with aids for injuries,  like knee straps, elasticized ankle wraps and special socks for sufferers of plantar fasciitis.  I even found some wool socks I can wear for cycling, and they also had a good supply of hydration systems, like Camelbaks, which bicyclists also use.  As I wandered around the store touching and feeling, I could smell the wonderful aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafting in the air.    This was my kind of place.

Gillian and Don, the owners of ZombieRunner, said the store has
Gillian and Don
been open about four and a half years,  but earlier they sold products on line for five.  They are both ultra runners who have participated in the Western States event many times -- a 100 mile run over the Sierra Nevada Mountains-- which is maybe why they call their store ZombieRunner.  But,  in addition to their love of running long distances, they are also passionate about coffee.  "We buy our beans from a small local business who roasts for us four or five times a week," Gillian said.    

Zach and Christina, the well-trained baristas working behind the bar, listened carefully to my coffee history, about how I ordered a long pull cappuccino from Peets, and how I enjoy a robust flavor,  but don't want the buzz from caffeine.  They smiled at me and said, "We can do better."  And they did.  Within a few minutes I was looking down at a cup of cappuccino with a beautiful creamy design.   "Hmm, this tastes a little bitter," I said, after taking my first sip.  "That will happen," Zach replied.  "Just take another sip.  The bitterness will disappear, and you will be tasting sweet, then intensity, and then you will fall in love.  And you won't get hyper because your coffee was made with decaffeinated beans from Ethiopia."  I followed his sipping directions, and he was absolutely right.  The bitterness disappeared after the first taste, and the intense coffee flavor came through like gangbusters, not ghostbusters.

Zach knew his stuff, telling me how ZombieRunners is a purveyor of Third Wave Coffee.   I'd never heard of such a term before, so when I got home I checked Wikipedia and this is what it said:  "Third Wave coffee refers to a current movement to produce high-quality coffee and consider coffee as an artisanal foodstuff, like wine, rather than a commodity.  This involves improvements at all stages of production, from improving coffee bean growing, harvesting, and processing, to stronger relationships between coffee growers and coffee traders and roasters, to higher quality and fresh roasting, at times called microroasting (by analogy with microbrewing beer).  Third Wave Coffee aspires to the highest form of culinary appreciation of coffee."     After reading this  description, I was reminded of the Slow Food Movement that started in Italy many years ago and has now spread successfully around the world.

I swooned.  While I've always loved the flavor of strong, intense coffee, this taste was different, something new, and really, really smooth.   Along with a great cup of coffee, I loved that Zach,  the barista,  gave me the background on why ZombieRunner's handcrafted coffee is unique and how it is made    "I can't wait to email my coffee-loving girlfriends," I told him,  as I scribbled down the word Third Wave.

"Hey, if you love our coffee, try the amazing chocolate at The Chocolate Garage," Christina called out to me as I floated towards the door.  I looked back at her in disbelief.  Chocolate?  Did you say Chocolate?    "You will find it on Gilman Street.  It's awesome chocolate just like our awesome coffee, " she said.    Music to my ears.

I'll write about The Chocolate Garage, I promise.  For someone who has lived in the Bay Area for more than forty years, I love hearing about new finds.