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Hex, the Corpse Flower, and Berkeley’s Tree-Sitters: A Summer Sabbatical

This spring, I mailed off applications for our boys to attend an academically challenging summer school run by the University of California at Berkeley. When the letters arrived in the mail telling us whether they’d been admitted, I opened them with mixed emotions – perhaps even a certain amount of dread.

Both boys were admitted, which made me proud. But that also meant we’d be setting our alarm clocks for 6:30 every morning to make it to their classes in Berkeley, which would begin at 8:30 a.m. sharp.

platform_200.jpg A summer day in Berkeley includes seeing buildings rise and fall at the Lawrence Hall of Science (above) and smelling the "Corpse Flower" (below), whose name and odor both recall Audrey II, the killer plant from another planet (bottom). stinkbloom.jpg feedme.jpg

Since hiring a chauffeur wasn’t in our budget and reliable public transport system between our home and Berkeley doesn’t exist, their acceptance to the program meant that I’d be spending at about three hours a day in the car ferrying them to their respective campuses.

Even though I am now a best-selling author, with the The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty under my belt, and a newly-signed contract for a non-fiction narrative with Grove/Atlantic, I’m still stuck with the school run.

And like many working mothers across the country, my life becomes infinitely more challenging in the summer, at least in terms of finding the time to squeeze in work. (I’ve found the time to write this, for instance, while I’m waiting for one son outside a summer school classroom: I’ve got exactly 18 minutes left before the dismissal bell rings and my writing day ends.)

Even so, I realize how lucky I am to have the chance to spend this time with our boys, unlike so many other working mothers who punch in and out at work every day. Despite my grumbling, I’m grateful for this privilege.

To explain why I don’t mind driving our young scholars every day, let me tell you about how my younger son and I recently spent the morning in Berkeley – he gets one day off from class each week – while my other son was in school.

We started off at the Lawrence Hall of Science, arriving nearly an hour before it opened. We passed the time playing a fascinating game in the atrium (which opens before the rest of the museum) called “Hex.” The game was introduced in 1942 by Piet Hein at the Niels Bohr Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen, and then “reinvented” on the tiles of his bathroom floor at Princeton University in 1948 by John F. Nash, the subject of Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind. It’s a fascinating challenge that encourages you to think spatially and, like chess, to mull a variety of options available to you and your opponent each time you move.

When the doors to the rest of the museum opened at 10 a.m., we headed in to the engineering section, where we used Velcro strips to cross-brace a building we constructed before hitting the “earthquake” button – our structure collapsed!

Then, we sat down in front of a computer screen which provided us with step-by-step instructions for making paper airplanes. Feeling a bit cocky, we first attempted one called the “Extended Phoenix,” with 30-some-odd steps, but abandoned that about half-way through because it was too hard.

We decided to choose a simpler, more elegant design called the “Serge Golian,” with a mere 20 steps. Like mastering “Hex,” once again our 10-year-old seemed to grasp the subtleties much more quickly than I did. We tested our respective plans in a mini-wind tunnel. And then we let them swoop, soar, and crash land in the engineering section. It gave me a flash of pure joy – the feeling of delight that I remembered from my childhood but don’t experience much anymore.

I also learned the futility of my even attempting to wedge any work into the one morning a week that our younger son doesn’t have classes. My son and I were racing paddleboats at the museum. Attempting to turn the rubber band that powered the paddles with one of my hands while balancing a work-related book I had brought with me in the hope that I might be able to read for a little while, I lost my balance – sending the book flying into the paddle-boat water. So much for juggling!

As we were leaving the Lawrence Hall of Science, the museum staff had posted signs on the exit doors that a so-called “Corpse Flower” had started blooming the night before at the nearby University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley.

The “Corpse Flower,” more formally known as Amorphophallus titanium, is described on the Botanical Garden website as having an “indescribably awful smell.” Sure enough, when my son and I walked into the greenhouse where this plant – boasting the world’s largest bloom – was in its full glory, the smell was what I’d imagine would be similar to the stench coming from a dead body.

I thought the world’s biggest bloom was remarkable, happily ignoring the unpleasant smell. My son marched into the greenhouse, was hit by the stink, and within 30 seconds, had fled in search of fresh air.

On the way out, we also stopped by the gift shop, where we couldn’t resist buying two small carnivorous plants – Cape Sundew from South Africa and Dionaea muscipula Droseraceae, more commonly known as a Venus Fly Trap. That inspired us to end this glorious summer day with a trip to the video store for “Little Shop of Horrors,” just to hear the monster plant, Audrey II, cry, “Feed Me!”

I also noticed that my friend, Susan Freinkel, will speak at the Botanical Gardens about her book, American Chestnut: The Life, Death and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree, on Tuesday, August 12th, from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. A member of my writing group, North 24th, Susan is a first-rate thinker and lyrical writer.

The final highlight of that morning’s jaunt through Berkeley was glimpsing the tree-sitters, who are now encircled by wire fencing to prevent their supporters from providing them with food and water. The activists have been perched in a grove of oak and redwood trees since December of 2006. Makeshift signs decrying capitalism and declaring “Save the Oaks!” made for an interesting talking point on the drive home with the boys.

I’ll be taking a summer sabbatical through August, spending the time reading and doing research for my next book. I’ll be back with more postings when school starts again.