Archive | adventure

Pooping on Mount Whitney

At 14,505 feet, Mount Whitney watches, serene and deceptively inaccessible, over the Owens Valley. The tallest peak in the lower 48 states, it is a desirable destination for so many hikers and climbers that a permit quota system had to be enacted. Not only is the mountain big enough to feel unique and simple enough to be “peak-bagged” by the layman, but you can climb it in as little as a day. Compare that to Denali (two to three weeks) or Everest (nearly six weeks), and you can see the allure.

Hiking up the trail on Wednesday, June 6th, I knew we were most likely too early in the season to make it to the summit. Still, the day was lovely. The sun shone brightly on blue sky, grey rock, and white snowy patches, and after having hiked for four hours in the dark, we were enjoying the sharp sun-to-shade contrast and, even more, the tiny alpine flowers which, I was delighted to discover, had began to bloom.

As I bent to take a photo of one intricate violet bloom which was growing, like a miracle, on a shelf in the rock face, I noticed something which did not seem nature-made had been stashed right next to it. A bulky black plastic bag, tied into a knot and weighed down by a big rock, was almost perfectly hidden beside the flower.

The little flower next to the secreted WAG bag

Once upon a time, when only a few people climbed Mount Whitney, there was little need for regulations and rules. Today, however, the land surrounding the trail is heavily impacted by human traffic, including the waste that said human traffic leaves. In 2004, the Forest Service removed two composting toilets and one pit toilet from the trail camps and the summit of Mount Whitney. The toilets required maintenance, which in turn required helicopters to fly in and out of the area — a big deal when the area is a federally protected Wilderness. A new solution had to be found.

Enter the WAG bag.

On Monday, June 4th, Karen, Ross, and I went to claim our permit at the visitor center in Lone Pine. We each received from the smiling ranger a rectangular tag with the date of our climb and a plastic-wrapped WAG bag. The ranger then asked if we had ever used a WAG bag.

“No,” we replied, shifting in place.

The ranger turned around and, in one swift motion, collected a demonstration kit. “You spread this out,” he said, “and poop here, and pee a little which activates the sawdust, and then you put it here, and tie it up like this, and,” he added triumphantly, “they are reusable!”

WAG stands for Waste, Alleviation, and Gelling, an unappetizing name. Once open, the bag is bulky and not exactly scent-proof, making it uninviting to hang from your pack or, worse, place inside. Perhaps this is why we saw several of these bags deserted on the trail. Whether behind or under rocks or unashamedly out in the open, hikers on the Mount Whitney Trail make no fuss about leaving their poop — nicely bagged — behind.

I see similar bags frequently on the trails by my house, sometimes even on the street. Owners collect poop, this time their dog’s, and leave the bag behind, adding — it seems to me — littering to negligence.

Sadly, pooping all over the place is not the only way we pollute our world. A headline from the New York Times reads, “The Chemical Industry Scores a Big Win at the E.P.A.” Turns out, as of a few days ago, when evaluating new chemicals, the industry need worry only about chemicals in direct contact with humans, for example, in the workplace. The impact of potentially-toxic chemicals on the environment, our water, air, and land, need not necessarily be examined.

Water is everywhere on the Mount Whitney Trail.

Perhaps I am in a minority, but to me these are all examples of a nearsightedness almost unbearable to behold. Human poop as well as dog poop contaminates water and soil, sending, moreover, (in the case of Whitney) an unpleasant odor into the pure, rarified air of higher elevations. The plastic bags, whether compostable, recyclable, or not, are not meant to be left out on the trail and end up contaminating the environment, a hazard to water, air, soil, and wildlife. Need I mention they are unsightly as well? Seven billion of us poop and pee every day and flush the toilet to make it disappear. Except, of course, that it does not. Neither do the compound chemicals which we release into the world.

Perhaps if we cared enough about the impact of all this poop, if we educated ourselves about how this poop affects our environment — our water, our air, our soil — we would not be so callous about allowing toxic chemicals to enter into the air, soil and water either. Perhaps if we took the trouble and accepted the inconvenience of carrying our poop out the eleven steep and difficult miles of the Mount Whitney Trail, we’d be willing to do a lot more to make sure our children do not end up drinking lead in their water, eating toxins in their food, or breathing yet other poisons in their air.

It all starts at home, in the privacy of our thoughts. We have all made these mistakes. We have all — I am ready to bet — pooped where we shouldn’t, peed too close to a stream, thrown away plastic we could have recycled. Perhaps it is time not to beat our chests with guilt but to stand up and say: I can do better.

I can reduce, reuse, and recycle.

I can be more conscious with my shopping choices.

I can pick up after my dog and dispose of the poop responsibly.

And I can do the same for my own, when out hiking and backpacking.

While looking for the acronym WAG online, I found out its name is being changed (and trademarked) to “Go Anywhere Toilet Kit.” I wonder if, perhaps, the organization producing these kits should not reconsider the name. Toilet Kit sounds too much to me like something stationary. Perhaps “Carry with you human doodoo bag” would be better. Or, “Dispose responsibly take-along pooper bag?”

What do you think? Can you come up with a better name?

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Early Spring Walk to Frog Lake at Henry Coe State Park

Climbing Monument Trail at the beginning of our hike

Getting to Henry Coe State Park is not for the faint — or lazy — of heart. Seven miles of windy road carry us deep into the Diablo Range, into mountains whose ruggedness baffled and challenged even experienced explorers like the 1776 Anza Expedition. While the land had been impacted by the homesteaders and ranchers who followed Anza, Henry Coe is wilder and more remote than anything you might expect so near the Bay Area. I rarely drive into the park without catching a glimpse of wildlife: deer grazing in a meadow, turkey courting, quail flying away at the sight of the car, or the occasional tarantula crossing the road. As the valley below disappears behind the curves in the road, I release a sigh and step forward on a footpath from which you can see only nature; no cars, no roads, no homes.

Shooting stars

The Loma Prieta Family Explorers began offering hikes for families with children ages six to twelve in November. Our first trip led us to Huddart Park where we learned about the redwoods and counted banana slugs. We loved the redwoods so much that we decided to go back and explore Sam MacDonald Park, where we beat our banana slug record, hugged first-growth redwoods, and had lunch in view of the ocean. Since wildflower season is beginning, our next hike led us to Russian Ridge, where we admired three-hundred-year-old Canyon Live Oaks, a golden coyote, and 360-degree views from the ocean in the west to the bay in the east, with Mount Tam and Mount Diablo dominating the skyline. Now here we are, tackling what can only be described as our toughest hike yet, at Henry Coe.

The young crowd led the way, climbing giddily up the hill on Monument Trail. I am always amazed by the details which children see long before us adults. Called back by hollers, I am shown a patch of snow framed by the roots of a bay tree and different types of delicate mosses and lichen. I inform the kids that though we begin with an uphill, they will be tired of the downhill before we are done, but I am utterly wrong. The children gallop down the sloping trail with the same enthusiasm and geniality with which they tackled the steep hill. The parents and I jog after them, enjoying Indian warriors and shooting stars along the way and stopping to appreciate the curious trunks of big-leaf manzanita.

The climbing tree

Just before arriving at our picnic spot, we pause for the climbing tree. This tree had grown strange bumpy burls around its trunk, tempting us with its climbability. The kids attempt it and only make it a few bumps up, but our solitary dad, unwilling to give up, climbs with agility, using the burls as a step-ladder. He peers at us from the top, calling, “Now how do I get down?” His success encourages the kids to try again, and only the promise of a picnic at the campground drags them away.

Frog Lake

Frog lake proves a wonderful attraction, but we’ve sat too long at lunch and we’re cold. After searching for frogs and discovering one toad, we turn to follow the trail back. We hop over Coyote Creek. Small blue butterflies flutter over yet-to-flower blue-eyed grass. Buttercups and shooting stars sprinkled with dew dot the hillside. We see one cold ladybug and tiny waterfalls, swollen into existence by the rain. Manzanitas and gooseberries grow slowly ripening berries, too few and young to weigh down their branches. We’re full of good cheer, telling tales and jokes, discovering giant mushrooms growing on tall trees. A view opens before us, and we realize our hike is almost over. Just a little bit more uphill, another tale or two, some complaints from the youngest member of our crew, and a last glimpse of the trail which carried us high up into the hills many hours ago.

It is hard to say goodbye. We walk to the barn to take a peek at the stable and the blacksmith shop. We imagine how hot it would have been in there when the blacksmith worked. We answer a riddle: how much money did the state pay for the park in 1958? Guessing anywhere between a dollar and a thousand, the answer, ten dollars, only takes us slightly by surprise. Finally, we all disperse to our homes, driving down the same windy road, this time watching as the road leads us, switchback by switchback, back to the human hub below.

The Loma Prieta Family Explorers offers monthly hikes for children ages six to twelve. Please check our calendar for more information. Short Toddler Explorers discovery walks are offered on Fridays and include a walk, story time, and an art project. Please join us for hikes and contact us if you would like to become a leader with the Family Explorers.

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The Center of the Universe

On Monday, I visited the dentist’s office. Mundane, I know, but bear with me. My dentist’s assistant, Marilyn, is a kind and compassionate woman who greets me with soft and welcoming words. I sat in the big dentist chair and waited for the dentist to come, and it suddenly occurred to me that Marilyn plays a small role in the drama of my life. I come into her office in the midst of my hectic rushing-about life, blowing in through the door like some wind of confusion. The intense energy of me pauses for these few moments on her chair, then moves out through door, corridor, waiting room, main door, and parking lot to continue its rushing about in the world, attempting to do no harm. And to me, that is all Marilyn is: these few moments of respite from rushing about while waiting for the dentist to come, her few kind words, the gentle touch of her hand.

Now this may come as a surprise, but Marilyn too lives a full and whole life. She does not exist in the dentist’s office solely to greet me once or twice a year and assist briefly in my care. To her, patients come and go, playing small roles in the drama of her life, which encompasses her relationships, thoughts, feelings, emotions, confusions, moments of happiness and moments of sadness, her own probable attempt to move through the world while doing no harm. In her life, I play a minor and probably somewhat inconsequential part, a tiny burst of wind and energy, now here, now gone, making room for another patient to come through the door.

Shocking, right?

As a teen, I often imagined us humans as bubbles floating through life. Some bubbles never touch, but some get to stop together for a while and interact so that for at least a few moments the bubbles nearly overlap. I still love walking after dark in the street and imagining how people live behind their curtained (or sometimes open) windows, living their bubble-life.

So yes, I am not the center of the universe. And most likely neither are you, even if you believe you are. It’s our minds that play this trick on us, pretending to be important and one-of-a-kind, filled with illusions about how everyone else is thinking about us, and how they act on purpose to affect us. How everything moves forward in the world to either accommodate us or hinder us.

Some years ago, a friend recommended I read a parenting book which, translated from the Hebrew, was titled Fly Little Bird. One of the points which struck me in the book was the idea that as a child becomes an adolescent, we parents find our place shifts away from being center-stage in our children’s lives. Instead, they are now the main actor, the ones in the limelight, and we are relegated to a smaller role. This, the author implied, was how it should be, the normal and healthy way for our children to grow up. I remember reading this all those years ago and thinking how true this was. When a baby is born, mom and dad are the most important figures in her life. She is totally dependent on them for nearly every need, her safety, health, nourishment, entertainment, warmth, even movement. But as she grows into a toddler, she becomes gradually more independent. She can now eat on her own, move herself from an unpleasant situation on her own, remove a layer of clothing if she’s too hot, or put one on, start using the bathroom independently, and more.

Then, seemingly overnight, the baby turns into a teenager, surprising the heck out of most parents I’ve met. Whatever role we had in their life is turned on its head. Some of the changes I’m finding in my teens are: they don’t want to eat my food, they don’t want to go places with me, they’re not interested in talking to me, they get mad if I don’t do what they ask, they decide what they’re going to wear or what they’re doing, and more: friends, how much water they’re drinking or not, whether to get boba tea 4 or 7 times a week, which movies or series to watch, what music to listen to, whether a full stop at a stop sign is necessary and with what speed to merge on the freeway. Crazy decisions, normal decisions, important decisions, everyday decisions, critical-to-the-continuation-of-life decisions. And I am (mostly) out of the picture, or just peeking in through the window, wondering about the bubble of their life and whether I’ll get to interact with them again after they turn 25.

It’s not necessarily easy or simple to accept that I am not center stage in Marilyn’s life, but it’s ridiculously hard to consider that from now on, while I’ll always play some role in my kids’ life, it is actually my job to set them free and allow them to fly.

Time to move out of the limelight, Sigal.

Curiously, I think some people would not agree with me. Many of us parents identify so deeply with being a parent that we really believe our children belong to us, are a part of us, and that all they do reflects directly on us. Some of us might believe that it is our responsibility and our duty to make sure that our children end up productive members of society, good and upright people, honest, successful and happy. Sounds seductive, doesn’t it? But do we really have this much control over another person’s life?

What I think is the truth sounds a lot less lovely than this, for it affirms the fact that we no longer have control over how our teenagers will turn out (and that perhaps the control we thought we exerted before was also an illusion). These newly-minted human beings are walking their own path, with a lot of minor actors in the drama of their lives of which we are only one or two. We can be present to them and as available as possible if they need us. We can be supportive and loving. We can hope and pray that we have given them a good foundation, that the schools we chose gave a good foundation, and that the choices they make now moving forward will be good ones. But no matter how much we try, we cannot make those choices for them, and definitely not for long. Not in a way that will, in fact, promote their happiness.

And so we let go and trust.

We set them free to be their own center stage and allow them to figure out on their own the fact that they too are not the center of the universe. (A humbling and wonderful insight which I wish on us all).

And we pray that they survive this crazy teenaged time.

So fly little birds. Mamma’s in the nest in case you need to find a safe place to land. But from now on you’re responsible for your own worms and direction in life.

Man, admitting that is hard.

May the Force of love, compassion, patience, and inner fortitude be with us all.

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Lil’ Corner of Joy

In one of my favorite Frog and Toad stories, Frog tells Toad how, as a young frog (or pollywog), he had gone to search for Spring. His father had told him: “Son, this is a cold, gray day, but Spring is just around the corner.” And so Frog had gone to search for that corner and for Spring. He turned several corners in his search: in the woods, a meadow, and along a stream, but he couldn’t find Spring. Finally, he got tired, and it started to rain. As he arrived back home, he saw another corner, the corner to his house, and when he went around that corner, there was Spring: the sun coming out, birds singing, his parents working in the garden, and flowers blooming. “You found it!” Toad calls, “You found Spring.” Turns out Spring was just around the corner, right there, where Frog had started, around a corner of his own house.

When I teach a meditation class, I often speak about the obstacles to mindfulness: dislike, desire, sleepiness, restlessness, and doubt; all of which have a common attribute: a wish for things to be different than they are. How often do we, in fact, wish for Spring when Winter reins (or rains, as my pun-loving boyfriend would point out) outside? Or perhaps we wish for more energy when we’re too tired to deal with the kids? How often do you doubt your choice of a route and wish you had taken another? Or that you were on the beach running instead of stuck at work? We think that if only our house was bigger (or smaller), our job better, our family more compliant, the government this way, and the world that way, then we would be happier, more satisfied, more at peace somehow. And yet most people agree that getting what we want is not the path to happiness. Research, in fact, points to other causes: developing gratitude, kindness, compassion, love and acceptance. And those, so I hear, are not around any corner outside in the world, but right here, inside us, living in a corner of our own soul.

Dharma teacher Ethan Nichtern writes: “Lacking the tools to get comfortable in our own skin and safe in our own mind, we get lost again and again in the existential transitions of life, blindly hoping that a true and permanent home lies around the corner, after just a bit more struggle to prove ourselves, a bit more time figuring out how to belong in our lives.” (The Road Home, 5). Searching for Spring around external corners may seem an innocent enough pursuit, perhaps even adventurous and exciting; but searching for ourselves, our true home, far outside of who we are, in other people’s opinions and reflections of us, needing to prove ourselves legitimate from the outside-in by someone else’s approval, and having our happiness depending on these external causes — is that how we want to live our life?

I admit it, though: I love corners. While hiking, I long to turn the next corner, go up the next hill or round the next tree or rock to see what’s there. I know, of course, that behind most hills are more hills, behind the next tree are more trees, and behind the rocky corner more trees and hills and flowers and lovely views, most likely not too different from those I already saw on the trail. And yet the attraction persists. I gaze soulfully at each trail that branches off the main trail and dream of following it. I plan to come back and visit yet another lake or climb another mountain, perhaps find more beautiful mariposa lilies which I can photograph in quest of the perfect lily photo. My desire to go on and on knows no bounds.

And yet, you might ask, in our latest hike on the Tahoe Rim Trail, what were my favorite parts?

A snack break by Fontanelles Lake, sitting on the rocks, watching the limpid color of the water, admiring the rivers of icy snow that still flow down the northern side of the hill, melting slowly into the lake.

Heart-stopping hues of orange, yellow and red in the meadow. Trees waving their branches in the breeze, some bare, some green. The sky a light blue that stretches on forever.

Sunset, colors deepening as the sun makes its way down through the clouds and below the mountains-behind-mountains-as-far-as-the-eye-can-see. The ground cold and hard, my breath catching as my mind conjures the image of a bear coming to attack me. Staying with it, sitting with it, trusting I am safe.

A rough-hewn picnic area by the river. Baby firs poking their heads up through the ground. The creek singing as it makes it way down little rapids that a woodrat could float on a woodratty raft. Tired. Hungry. Making our last breakfast on the trail and filtering pure water that will nourish my body’s cells. It is warm in the sun, cool in the shade, and I feel grateful for whoever made this beautiful camping and picnic spot, for whoever built this gift of a trail.

I love turning corners, but it’s this moment, the little moment, that counts. Sitting here, making room for myself within my own body, accepting that I belong here, now, in this chair, in front of this computer, with the sound of the boyfriend on the phone talking football to my son, a neighbor’s gardener blowing leaves outside, kids screaming in the pool down the road, the click of my fingers on the keyboard, and the alternating light and shade pattern of oaks shadows on yellow grass on the hillside outside. This is it: my legs falling asleep under the weight of the dog, my back warm, tiredness behind my eyes, ears pulsating with all this noise. This is what happiness is, inhabiting this moment, this little corner of joy.

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Thou Shalt Not Lie

Dar and I recently returned from a visit to Alaska, where I was struck by two curious qualities: the wide expanse, breath-taking vastness of the landscape, and the Alaskan maxim of working only so that you don’t need to work.

Wait, what?

Apparently, according to some people we spoke to, Alaskans work only so they have enough money to live on, rather than to collect it in the bank in case of something which may or may not happen in the future. This seems a strange maxim, you might say, to someone spending her days in the Silicon Valley, where people work for a variety of motives, none of which has anything to do with mere subsistence.

I like this idea of working only so life can be sustained. Those of you who know me, know that I have never shown interest in inventing new technologies, increasing the depth and breadth of human power over the universe, or collecting more money in my bank account through any of various means. In a way, I could say that I have struggled against my family’s (and my culture’s) tendency for ambition all my life. This has earned me the unacknowledged title of Black Sheep in my family. My father, in fact, once introduced me to a friend as “My daughter who is not a doctor.”

Perhaps I should move to Alaska and live for the moment, as it seems many people do over there. The thought is tempting. I love the Alaskan open spaces, the tundra, the mountains, and the wildlife. I love the relaxed atmosphere, the fewer cars, the few people. I love the idea of living so close to nature. I love the idea of twenty-four-hours-a-day sun, even if I have a hard time imagining twenty-four-hours-a-day darkness or 30-degrees-below cold. I doubt, though, that I would fit in Alaska society. It seems many people there tend to be more conservative about some things, like environmentalism or LGBTQ rights. And they sure do seem to be enthusiastic (almost righteous, I thought) about hunting and guns.

This is an Alaska female moose who identifies as salmon.

There’s many things I can complain about here in the Bay Area, but not those, for sure. People here seem to be mostly liberal. Take, as a case in point, my recent attempt to manage (behind the scenes) my son’s first foray into the world of college life. The young man, soon to be seventeen, is taking a class at a community college this year. In an attempt to make some money, the college charges for parking fees, not unlike many other universities and colleges around the country. So a few days before school started, I logged into the website and purchased the young man (who is also a young driver) a parking pass. After paying I received notification that the shipping will take ten days and that I will receive a temporary parking pass, which, however, never arrived.

What to do? Like the good, considerate, over-zealous parent I am, I called the school to ask about this. But I didn’t want them to know that it’s me, the parent, calling. After all, this is college, and it would be embarrassing if they knew the parent called for the student. So, with this logic in mind, I told the cashier who answered the phone that I was my son. “And you’re a high school student?” She marveled. “Your voice sounds so much older.”

Ah, the suffering of telling a lie.

Only after hanging up did it occur to me that in order to see the status of the parking pass, the cashier had looked at my son’s information and could probably see that he identified himself as male, while my voice (old though it may sound) was distinctly female. For a moment, I felt discomfited. She must have known I was lying (ah, the suffering of telling a lie). But then the relieving thought came up in my mind. This is California. The cashier probably assumed I was a female identifying as male! And the next thought knocked me off my feet:

In my Californian, crazily-liberal mind, it is much less embarrassing if the college people think my son is a female identifying as male, than if they think his mother called to inquire about his parking pass.

So this is why I plan to stay and continue to struggle against our Bay-Area tendency to rush and be busy and successful and ambitious. I live in a place where it’s (relatively) ok to be gay or transgender, or anything you wish. I live in a place where, when my kids go to visit someone’s house, I don’t really need to worry about guns. I live in a place where there’s fresh fruits and vegetables year round, and sunshine, and where being an environmentalist is only a mildly bad word. We’re not perfect (in fact, we’re pretty ridiculous when you come down to it, with our nail-polish-painted toes and our clothes which we believe say something about us, and all our other foibles which I won’t get into because it’s a whole other series of blog posts). And we still have a lot of way to go before this place is more equal, before we accept all races and all peoples and our responsibility for past and present racism and prejudice. And we have a long, long way to go before we stop using so many of the earth’s resources and live more rationally and with thoughtfulness. But all in all I think we’re trying and a lot of us really care.

So I’m staying here for now, even though Alaska really is such a tempting, lovely place. And, though my parents might be disappointed, I think for now I’ll continue to baaa like the black sheep I am, posting here on the blog instead of submitting to the New York Times, sticking my nose in the kids’ business, meditating, and preaching to everyone who would listen about recycling, using less plastic, and saving water and gas.

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Meditation on Eagle’s Wings

Tuesday, in a forward-hurtling metal hunk of a car, I glance through my open window at the sky. Raptors soar overhead, circling in currents of rising air. I fully expect them to be turkey vultures or red-shouldered hawks, but still I scan for my favorite bird. Then, I see it: long straight wings, head so white it reflects the sun, white tail a stark contrast to the dark body. Huge, huge and monarchical and impressive against the blue sky. A bald eagle. Here! In our sky! My heart pounds in my chest as I try to tell Dar that he must stop, that I must get out. My whole body aches with the wish to pump my fist and yell hurray, to jump up and down, to spread my own wings, to fly, to join that eagle, that miracle survivor of humanity’s impact on nature, in the sky. My head and hand out of the window, I stammer and babble until finally I manage to call out, “A bald eagle!” Too late. The forward-hurtling car is so far, I can’t see the eagle anymore, but I know it was there. A bald eagle! In our Bay Area sky!

Red-tailed hawk above Coyote Valley

One of my favorite Buddhist teaching is the idea that enlightenment, or true freedom, comes through the cultivation of two wings: the wing of compassion and the wing of wisdom. Wisdom on its own is not enough, nor is compassion, one too cold, the other too warm. Like the wings of a bird, compassion and wisdom must balance each other for true freedom, true flight, to occur. Perhaps I love this teaching because of my longing for more wisdom and kindness, but perhaps, too, my love for the wings of enlightenment comes from a much simpler dream: the wish to fly.

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I remember moments in my life, feeling like I could fly.

Eighteen years old, at the completion ceremony for the primary army training, waiting to receive the Hebrew Bible with all the other young women, a gift which symbolizes our national heritage and beliefs: strong Jews, capable of protecting ourselves and our country. I feel as though the whole wide world is open before me, vistas innumerable, opportunities galore. I realize I’m becoming, have become in a sense, an independent adult.

Thirty something, at Asilomar during a writers’ conference, I stand by the railing on the beach, waves breaking below me on a rocky shore, water and sky merging in a splash of blue and grey, the wind under my arms whispering: “Let go, let go, and you can fly.”

Emigrant Wilderness, above Buck Lake, my shadow lingering long over the cliffs, above the water. Feeling the solitude, loneliness, the utter desolate, magnificent distance from other human beings. Enjoying the tantalizing fear of death that comes with the knowledge that a leap is possible.

Point Reyes, surrounded by aspiring California Naturalists, watching a juvenile peregrine falcon perched on a jutting rock, its young feathers as fluffy as a bunny’s fur, the ocean invisible below a thick fog. I’m cold but longing for my own peregrine-falcon wings, strong and powerful and fast. I sense the freedom that comes from being in the body, beating those wings, frolicking in the air between ocean and fog and sky.

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I meditate because I wish to be wiser and kinder, because I wish to live from the heart and to act with intention and love. But I live for the connection with nature, for the chance of coming closer to merging with the sky, the ocean and its waves, the birds, animals and bugs. Every day I move closer not just to who I am but to who we all are, creatures of the earth, like spiders, deer, falcon and eagle, hummingbird and giraffe. Our body is made up of the water, soil, gases, and nutrients of which this world is made, of which gorillas are made, or ants. Living in houses, sleeping in beds, covering ourselves with clothes — we forget that. We call them wildlife and ourselves human, we pretend that we don’t belong to this sweating, pooping, burping, slurping, chomping, dirty, messy congregation. But we are. I am. You are.

Today I read that the president has moved forward with his plans to open the Arctic Refuge to drilling. There is something ridiculous about this, the thought of going so far to seek for oil, of how much work and money will have to go into just getting there and then getting the oil out. And there is something horrifying about it, the thought of spoiling this place which so far has remained pristine and wild, the invasive outreach of the human hand, how nothing is sacred, how the greed for more money, more resources is so all-consuming, how we think we have a right to every place, no matter how unique, no matter how lovely, no matter how important to other people and species, to the balance of the fragile ecosystems of our world.

The thought which really shakes me to the core, though, is how far removed we are from our own wild nature, from our belonging to this wild earth. We too, like all other animals, depend on a habitat, no matter how varied or diverse that habitat may be. Instead of appreciating and taking care of our habitat, this living earth, we are slowly destroying it, sucking it dry of water and food and air. We do this because we don’t really believe we need it. We do this because we believe we’re somehow superior to our habitat. After all, surely there are other planets with life, and if we find them (and we’re looking), we could go there. We delude ourselves with thoughts of how smart, inventive, creative, innovative, and technologically advanced we are.

My heart breaks as I think of what we do to this earth. Drilling in the arctic and the oceans, opening up public lands for coal, how we build more and more housing and manufacturing plants and pave more streets. We’re surprised when a sandstorm comes, or the ocean rises in a tsunami to flood our streets. We install another air conditioner if the weather gets too hot. The oceans will rise? We’ll desalinate them and have more water. The soil or ocean will be polluted? We’ll spray it with chemicals to make it right again. The dodo’s extinct? Let’s see if we can genetically recreate it. We think we can do anything, all powerful, masters of the universe. We don’t need nature, because this is humanity’s planet, god-given, provided for our enjoyment and use.

On Tuesday, Dar and I are flying to Alaska, to the Arctic Refuge. I want to see it with my own eyes, feel it under my feet and in my lungs and blood. There is something humbling about this trip, about the amount of gear that we need to prepare in order to survive there, about how many flights we need to take in order to get there, about the fact that we would not have been able to go without a guide. I go to the Arctic Refuge to cultivate my two wings. Compassion and wisdom to me are part of one wing, the wing of our Humanness. The second wing I wish to cultivate is the wing of Wildness, of being Nature. It’s a tough wing to develop, especially with all that human gear that we are carrying. Despite that, I aspire to strengthen my body-and-heart connection to nature in the most intimate of ways, to become not more of myself but more of It, the planet, the universe, the cosmic and microcosmic sharing of breath and cells and waste, a part of all wild things.

Golden eagles fly over the Arctic Refuge. I hope, in a few days, to be sitting in my pack-raft, floating on the Aichilik through the last untamed landscape on earth, meditating on the eagles’ flight.

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Determined to Hope

In my inbox, a few days after the election, an appeal from Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club:

“Donald Trump’s presidential victory feels like a nightmare that surely we can awake from. But it’s real. Very real.

Yes, my heart sank when I heard Trump’s rumored cabinet wishlist — Sarah “Drill, baby, Drill” Palin as Secretary of the Interior; anti-EPA Texas Ag Commissioner Sid Miller as Secretary of Agriculture; fracking billionaire Harold Hamm as Energy Secretary.”

I read, and my heart too sank by this list — but no, that is not an accurate statement. For a moment, my heart stopped. Sarah Palin responsible for my national parks? A fracking billionaire in charge of making decisions about fracking? My mind went to the Boundary Waters Wilderness where sulfide-ore copper mining threatens the integrity and health of the water, the North Dakota pipeline that would trespass on Native American sacred land, the recently stopped arctic drilling and Keystone XL. I knew the nominations and the anticipated disasters have not yet happened, might never happen, but fear gripped my heart with its chilly hands and would not let go.

Most mornings, after letting the dogs out, I sit and meditate. At 5am, the sun does not yet peek above the horizon, and the world is dark and silent. Even the frogs and the crickets have gone to sleep. Our resident great horned owls alone rule the yard, hooting back and forth, hidden in the murky darkness of the oak trees. That morning, I sat with worry, my mind busy with the places I love and the dangers that loom over them. Every few moments, I’d remember that I am meditating, that my feet are touching the floor, that I am sitting on the cushion and am safe at home. I’d remind myself that I know how to sit with worry and fear, and I’d be a Buddha for a moment. Then my harried brain would go off once again into the fantasy — or horror — of what could be awaiting in the future.

Since the moment of their creation, our national parks, forests, and lands  have faced repeated and innumerable threats and dangers. By its very nature, preservation is a fight that is never over. Whether it is the threat of development, residents’ resentment and objection to the federal government taking over state lands, or the overarching effects of nearby human action (like pollution, invasive species, or hunting), our public lands have had to contend for their right to existence again and again.

Fortunately, nature had and still has many friends, Wilderness Warriors fighting on its behalf: John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, Theodore Roosevelt, Rachel Carson, Terry Tempest Williams, Tim DeChristopher — the list could go on and on. In 1972 Supreme Court Justice Douglas O. Williams, another Wilderness Warrior, stood up for trees’ right to sue. He said: “Contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation.”

I also love this quote by Olaus J. Murie, one of the founders and the first director of the Wilderness Society and the lead defender of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (together with his wife Mardy):

“I think we should go beyond proving the rights of animals to live in utilitarian terms. Why don’t we just admit we like having them around? Isn’t that answer enough? Don’t we realize that something exciting and satisfying will be gone from the world if we no longer hear coyotes howling? And surely some of the meaning and mystery of the night will be destroyed if we kill all the great horned owls.”

On Thursday I went to practice qigong with Tom. Twenty minutes remaining to our session, we decided to end with a protection meditation which I like to call the five animal meditation. In the meditation, the five elements: earth, fire, water, wood and metal, generate in turn a mist (yellow, red, blue-black, blue-green, and white), the latter four of which in turn condense into animals: a red phoenix, blue-black turtle and snake, blue-green dragon and white tiger. As Tom guided us to the blue-green mist, the energy of wood and spring, a powerful image came to me. In my mind, the mist did not generate only from my liver organ (where the wood energy resides) but arrived connected to the whole of nature as symbolized by the trees, lakes, rocks and wildflowers of Emigrant Wilderness. The dragon, once formed, was huge at my side.

My whole being was almost entirely engulfed by the vision of Emigrant Wilderness as it was in July 2015 when I last visited it. The blue-green dragon, the land, and I were one. I felt protected and alive, as vibrant as water rushing on granite. I felt my connection to the land even as my heart longed to walk its paths again.

I have spent these first forty-four years of my life afraid to voice my passion, love, outrage and opinions, but perhaps the blue-green qigong dragon signals a new courage. A few weeks have passed since then, but the connection remains within me.

Edward O. Wilson, a naturalist, environmentalist and ant researcher, points out the disastrous extinction process which is taking place in the world (possibly has been taking place in the world since humanity arrived). Wilson points out that with 6 billion people alive in the world today, the ratio of species to the number of humans is 1 to 1,000. If every human alive today took responsibility for one species, he says, just think what we could do, how many we could save! I, however, am greedy and would like to apply Wilson’s idea to a larger perspective: if each of us cared even about one cause — whether it is gay rights, immigrants, pollution from coal, nature preservation, polar bears — if each of us cared and did something about one cause, think what we could accomplish together!

I have began putting myself out there, and you can too! Here are some ways to feel effective right now and bring to life your own dragon, tiger, turtle, snake or phoenix:

Join and/or donate to the Sierra Club or the Wilderness Society to help them fight for the environment and our Wild.

Join a group like Bend the Arc which fights for social justice and interracial relationships.

Do a random act of kindness — buy coffee for whoever comes next in line, or give a sandwich to a homeless person.

Adopt a bird through the Audubon Society or rescue a pinniped through the Marine Mammal Center.

Call someone who might be feeling threatened by the election results and express your support of them.

Participate in an ocean clean-up day — those are fun as well as helpful.

Commit to using less plastic — decide not to get straws with your drink at restaurants and carry a reusable coffee cup.

Donate to Save the Boundary Waters and support their campaign!

You might have other ideas too!

We can all of us be what Joanna Macy calls Shambhala Warriors — wise, legendary, healers of the pains of the earth — and while we’re at it, the rewards are instantaneous and immense: we feel powerful, effective, and protected ourselves.

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I’d Rather Be Monkeywrenching

Lesley, Lesley’s boyfriend Tim, Dar and I are on a “wind and water caves” group hike in Point Reyes. We’ve only just began hiking down from Laguna Trailhead, trailing, as always, at the end of the pack, when Leslie says, “I want to buy you a gift.”

Eyebrows rise. I ask: “What kind of gift?”

“A car sticker,” Lesley says, as though it’s obvious.

“It’s an I’d rather be monkeywrenching sticker,” Lesley explains.

My breath hitches. “I want five,” I reply.

The term “monkeywrenching” originates from the book The Monkeywrench Gang by Edward Abbey, which I recently read. The book tells of a band of three men and a woman who set out to protest and prevent the destruction of the Utah-Arizona-Nevada desert. Their end goal: blow up the Glen Canyon Dam.

Monkeywrenching is a term not found in most dictionaries. The organization Earth First! defines monkeywrenching as “…a step beyond civil disobedience. It is nonviolent, aimed only at inanimate objects. It is one of the last steps in defense of the wild, a deliberate action taken by an Earth defender when almost all other measures have failed.”

You might wonder what I have to do with monkeywrenching? “Sigal,” you might say. “You’re a law-abiding citizen. Are you really posting about civil disobedience? Is this really something you think about?”

Well, yes, I guess.

The Monkeywrench Gang inspired the creation of the organization Earth First! which engages in activities as varied as barricading a train carrying fracking equipment (in order to prevent it going up to North Dakota, to give a current example), painting graffiti on dams, chaining oneself to trucks or other construction vehicles, and sitting in trees to protest and block logging. The group is fragmented in order to protect its members (in fact, the best monkeywrenchers work alone). From what I can find, despite having a special section in the website called “Security Measures” and a call on the defenders that basically says, “Don’t get caught,” there are quite a few Earth First! members who are serving lengthy sentences in jail.

Yes, monkeywrenching can send you to jail.

In the movie DamNation, we get a glimpse of Earth First! defender Mikal Jakubal as he sneaks to the top of the O’Shaughnessy Dam in Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley, rappels down, and paints a giant crack down the face of the dam with the words, “Free the Rivers — J Muir.”

Imagine it. imagine yourself packing the car with the equipment you need: rock climbing gear, rope, paint, brushes, dark clothing, and a balaclava. Maybe some snacks for the road? Imagine the rush of adrenaline when you arrive, park your car off the road in the shadows. Imagine sneaking onto the bridge in the dark, deciding where to set up anchor, working as silently and as fast as you can. Keeping watch. Imagine trying to keep all the equipment from jiggling and making noise, and then the concentration that falls once you’re standing on the lip, taking that first step backwards into the ominous darkness that is the face of the dam, rappelling down. And finally, imagine the exhilaration of painting the words by the flimsy light of your headlamp, of painting the crack, of making your escape, hiking up quickly from the bottom of the dam. Your headlamp, a single ray of idealism in the darkness of capitalistic blight.

Have you noticed that darkness cannot overcome even the tinniest candle, but even the most feeble light can overpower the dark?

This is what legends are made of. These are acts that make history and inspire countless people. Brashness, courage, disregard to personal safety. Standing up for what’s right.

When I was 18, I wanted desperately to serve in the Israeli army in a position that would make a difference. I was an idealist, yearning to defend the land where I had grown up. Now, at 44, I am still an idealist, seeking for a way to defend another land which is as, or perhaps more, important: our land, where the wild still exists, and the living beings that exist on it.

I stand in defense of water, soil, and air. I stand in defense of Emigrant Wilderness, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Boundary Waters. I stand in defense of the redwood trees and the mariposa lily, the ruby-throated hummingbird, manatees, and beluga whales. I stand in defense of our planet and its myriad of different species. In the light of recent events, I feel determined and resolved to do all in my power to protect those I love, from the smallest organism to the entire planet.

Now, ask yourself, where do you stand?

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The Perspective of the Giraffe (and Other Animals)

These days, it seems we are like ants overwhelmed by an elephant perspective. We read the newspaper and shiver at the pessimistic prognostications, the harried and worried discussions, and the doomsday divinations that are taking place. (The Israeli newsletter dubbed the results of the elections a “Trumpocalypse,” which I thought especially creative). But is our myrmecological perspective of the elephant in the room something we can trust? Is it the truth?

There is a Buddhist story about five blind men who encounter an elephant. One touches the side of the elephant and calls out: “This elephant is like a wall!” Another touches the leg and says: “It’s like a pillar!” A third handles the ear and remarks: “An elephant is like a fan!” A fourth holds onto the tail and insists, “An elephant is like a rope!” And the last holds onto the trunk and contradicts all the rest, “It’s like a tree branch!” Of course they are all right, and yet an elephant is greater, more complex and interesting than any of these parts.

In order to see the elephant, we need to move back enough so our eyes (or touch) can encompass the whole of it. And in fact, even then it would not be enough. An elephant is so much more than its shape. It is the historic path it takes in the jungle, its knowledge of water holes, its place within the biotic community, the food it prefers, its history of being hunted, the parasites which live on it, its bathing habits, and the list could go on and on. Why then do we think we have the perfect perspective of this so-called elephant (or Trumpocalypse, if you prefer to insist on that version) when we’re barely holding onto even one little toe?

What we need is the perspective of the giraffe.

In his wonderful collection of poems and stories, The Sixteenth Ram, Yehonatan Geffen writes (translation, and pronouns, mine):

The giraffe has a tall neck
She can see a bus before it leaves the station
And the sun before it rises

Everything we see, the giraffe sees before us
She has a kind of expression on her face:
How lovely it is to be a tall animal

The giraffe has a tall neck
She sees clouds at the end of the world
And announces

Friends, in two months it will rain here
From the height of a giraffe we all seem small
And our greatest problems
Are mere dots for the giraffe.

Living from the perspective atop the tall neck of the giraffe does not mean that we are blind to the future. We stay vigilant. We see trends (the bus) before they become established (it leaves the station). We see trouble (the rain) by recognizing the clouds at the end of the world. We prepare, and we still fight for what we believe in, but we do it by having the perspective, the ability to recognize that most of our worries and anxieties and predictions are mere dots (most might even be mere shadows) on the map of life.

At this moment in time we are all of us blind men and women hanging on to various parts of an elephant, insisting that our vision of it is the right one. What we need are tools with which to feel effective, ways to increase our feeling of safety and confidence in the world. But how can that be done? The troubles we see coming — global warming, political unrest, religious extremism, and more — seem insurmountable. How can one blind person (in my case, a very near-sighted contact-wearing short woman) succeed in overcoming so much?

Fortunately, we don’t have to overcome all of it alone. As an exercise, I typed in the search “non-profit organizations in Palo Alto” on the web. The results: 799,000 hits. “Social justice organizations in California” generates 2.3 million hits. “Environmental organizations in the world” generates 142 million hits. To me, the results of my experiment are clear: there are many of us here who want to see a change for good. There are many of us who care about the world and all the beings and creations in it.

A month ago, I attended a women’s retreat at Spirit Rock led by Joanna Macy and several other wonderful women teachers. There were a hundred of us at the retreat, women of many sizes, shapes, and ages, but we all had one thing in common: we came to the retreat because we care about the earth. There was an older woman, ferocious looking despite her white hair and short stature, who told us she marches for gay rights. Another woman, curly-haired and grey said she holds signs in front of the police station to protest mass incarceration. A third, tall and regal-looking, worked with women kidnapped and sold to sex slavery in Africa. A fourth was concerned with the stress women live with in the Bay Area. Me? I was there because my heart beats for the natural world. All of us there cared about the environment, diversity, safety, freedom. We cared about the survival of the human race alongside the survival of all other species. We didn’t insist on any one part of the elephant. Instead, we put together all of our little dots to make a spacious and accepting mosaic of life.

It was, I confess, a frightening, overwhelming, and yet hopeful picture. And still it is not the complete picture. Still there are farther perspectives from which our life here on earth at this time can be seen. We, as a moment in history, will probably never know these perspectives, but we can know now that there are many people who care, who work tirelessly to make things better each in their own little piece of the mosaic. This knowledge, that we are not alone in our efforts, can give us the freedom to act. All we need do as an individual is choose a piece of the mosaic that speaks to us and participate in this one meaningful and manageable way.

At the end of the retreat, we all took Joanna Macy’s Vows for Active Hope:

I vow to myself and each of you

To commit myself daily to the healing of our world and the welfare of all beings.

I vow to myself and each of you

To live on Earth more lightly and less violently in the food, products and energy I consume.

I vow to myself and each of you

To draw strength and guidance from the living Earth, the ancestors, the future beings, and my brothers and sisters of all species.

I vow to myself and each of you

To support each other in our work for the world and to ask for help when I feel the need.

I vow to myself and each of you

To pursue a daily practice that clarifies my mind, strengthens my heart and supports me in observing these vows.

We live, as the Chinese blessing goes, in interesting times. We don’t know what will happen, what the future holds. But as Joanna Macy said at the retreat, not knowing allows us to be creative, to have hope, to think of new solutions and possibilities. It allows us to avoid repeating history and instead to soar to new places. It allows us to use Hillary’s election slogan in a way which she may or may not have meant, because truly, in this way, with each of us a part of the mosaic of hope and love, we are stronger together.

In order to be present to the sorrows and difficulties of our world, Joanna says we must first develop love and gratitude for it. As a start, here is the song by Jennifer Berezan, “Praises for the World.”

May our combined force for good be the tipping point for the survival of all beings.

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California Naturalist Class, Part 5: David Plays

There are no lights outside the Chief’s House, and Lesley and I follow David carefully up the uneven stone stairs to the grassy area (which I’d been eyeing jealously as a comfortable meditation spot) and around to the back of the house. It’s late at night, but the fog which had rolled in with the evening’s wind makes the darkness seem lighter somehow. Perhaps particles of starlight, colliding with particles of water, become diffused in the atmosphere, illuminating the darkness with infinite drops of fluorescent fog.

The cypresses wave and creak behind us, and I wonder if our Great-horned owls are watching us from the canopies, eyes yellow and bright, penetrating the shadows with ease. Raptor eyes, they had followed and hunted countless scurrying beasts like us in the mad scramble on the ground from one place of safety to the next. The inner mouse in me quakes at the thought of them taking off on their silent wings, gliding above us. Are they scrutinizing us, establishing our general height and weight, determining if they could — perhaps together? — grasp one of us in their claws and….

I know David’s been in the Chief’s House many times, but our quiet stumble and tiptoe to the back door seems somehow stealthy and clandestine, as though we are breaking in somewhere we’re not allowed. We seem to me, in fact, not much different from the two musicians in Some Like It Hot as they walk-crouch near the wall, covering themselves with their instruments, trying to seem inconspicuous as they run away from the police trap. I am carrying David’s violin, and he is carrying his mandolin and a guitar, so the reference is not quite as far-fetched as it would seem.

“The front door key doesn’t work,” David explains.

I am not surprised. I wouldn’t be surprised, in fact, if in order to get in David lifted a rock and broke the window in the back door, threaded his arm through the broken fragments, and opened the lock from the inside. My breath hitches, but David does not lift a rock. He pulls out a key, and the door swings open without a squeak or a groan.

The three artists who had stayed in the house for the past week had left earlier that day. I’d watched them in the days since we arrived at the Boathouse, a peek here and there, as they wandered the grounds. One carried a camera with a big lens. Another, young, had come to listen to a lecture and had stayed for lunch with us. The third I often saw near the docks where I meditated in the mornings. We, aspiring California Naturalists, had left them be. They had come to spend the week in retreat with the intention of growing creative and inspired, becoming nourished by sea and sand and wind. Now they’d gone home, perhaps to turn the inspiration into essays and poems, paintings, photographs, eternal works of art or books.

The house towers above us, windows tall and unlit. David puts two instrument cases down, reaches for his violin, and holds the door open for us. Lesley and I tramp in and find ourselves inside a small mudroom which opens to a kitchen and a spacious dining room beyond. The kitchen has white cabinets, old and crooked. No table or chairs. A refrigerator hums in the corner. It reminds me of my grandmother’s kitchen when she lived in her old house in Tel Aviv. To my surprise, the rest of the house is beautifully furnished. I had expected it to look sparse, having heard from David that he had scrounged every single item himself from people he knows or at the office. I should have known better. This is David, after all, and the house is, therefore, lovingly decorated with attention to detail and comfort. There are paintings on the wall, apples in a bowl on a side table, and knick-knacks, suitably ocean-themed. David proudly leads us to a sitting room, the most beautiful room in the house, he says. He showcases the front porch and a window, from which, he says, we could see Drake’s Bay in the morning.

We follow David up the stairs to see the three bedrooms. None has a bathroom attached. The bathroom is downstairs, David tells us, and there is another one in the basement, but the basement had not been cleaned out yet.

“We could fit twelve people in here,” he says.

I wonder how. The beds are easily recognizable as halved bunk beds, perhaps from the Boathouse. One of the rooms, which both Lesley and David declare as their favorite, is so tiny as to be more like a monk’s cell than a room. I wonder what it’s like to walk downstairs in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, to sleep in this haunted, groaning old house. What is it like to sleep in a house with a cellar which may still have remnants of inhabitants dead long ago, spider-webbed furniture, old photos strewn near a clothes chest that smells powerfully of dust?

Downstairs, Lesley and I settle on the sofa. I drag the ottoman toward us, and we both put our feet on it. David sits across from us near the dining table and brings out, in order, his mandolin, guitar, and violin. He plays and sings. The dining room is cheery, and David’s voice fills the silence of the house with a lively song. David wrote the words and the music to all the songs he’s singing for us, real and fantasy stories about his experiences mixed with commentary and dialog.

I don’t dance, but I wish I could. I let myself merge with the music, the old house, the nearness of new friends, the cypresses waving in the wind outside. Only one and a half  days are left in the class, and my mind and body are tired. Tired of not sleeping well, tired of being in close proximity with other people, of filling my head full of facts and names of things. I am happy to surrender to the sound of David’s music, to the notes twirling around the room in a jiggy dance. The house creaks gently. Rob, our cook’s partner, comes in and settles in a chair across from us. Later, the next day, I’ll discover he’s a backpacker, and my interest in talking to him will unfurl, but for now I am ready to leave and allow him to stay with David and talk about whatever it is men talk. Lesley and I make our way back around the house and under the cypresses and down the hill to the Boathouse. David’s cheerful music, the ominous creaking of the cypresses and the imaginary wings of silent owls hunting follow me into my sleeping bag and uneasy dreams.

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Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109