Julia Scott

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Under One Roof: How COVID-19 Turned My Apartment Building Into a Community

Thursday, April 16th, 2020

I live in a tall condo building with hundreds of neighbours in Oakland, California. The San Francisco Bay Area has been under lockdown for five weeks now, though many of us have already lost count.

These are long days. Sometimes I forget to eat. I sit in front of my laptop at my kitchen table — which is also my dining room table — and mark time by counting the number of delivery vans in the driveway from Amazon. Everyone in my building is ordering in and no one is venturing out.

And I’ve started to wonder: how are we all coping? How has the coronavirus changed our lives so far, and how will it change us as a building? As neighbours?

We live solitary lives behind our 119 doors. And yet we’ve never had more in common. The threat we face from outside is invisible, terrifying and real. And all of a sudden, we’ve come to depend on each other to stay healthy. One person’s COVID-19 exposure could endanger others in proximity. We all need to protect each other at the same time.

Possibly no one in the building understands the threat better than Katie Stephenson. She’s a pediatrics resident at a local hospital, and she lives on the second floor. She regularly works 12-hour shifts at the hospital, where she sees children who have been admitted because their parents are afraid they might have COVID-19.

‘I just assume that I’ve been exposed’

When she comes home from work, the first thing she does is strip off her scrubs and take a long shower with a lot of soap. “Because it’s not only just the germs, but it’s also the sweat and everything from being in the hospital and trying to sleep on the little cots there, and being exposed to all the coughing,” she says.

Katie is not just trying to stay clean. She’s trying to protect our neighbours from the coronavirus — since she thinks it’s only a matter of time before she becomes infected herself.

I just assume that I’ve been exposed, or that I’ll be exposed again. So my mission is just to keep my germs confined to my little space and not let them get out,” she shrugs.

Kate Stephenson at work at Oakland Medical Center.

The prospect of infection doesn’t scare her. But she knows she could infect our neighbour Judy Rosenberg, a woman in her 70s who lives just two doors down. Judy is an improvisational pianist who keeps a concert piano in her living room. She doesn’t find herself wanting to play that much these days, though.

“I just feel an overriding sadness, and I have felt depression in my life. The amount of deaths per day is just staggering to me,” she says. “I’m in my early 70s and nothing like this has ever happened to my generation. Even 9/11 was horrible … but it was an event; it came and it went.

“This is of a different character, and this has a quality of war to it,” she adds.

Judy’s days revolve around not getting sick; the outcome would likely be far worse for her than for Katie. She still goes out every day with a mask on for walks and groceries, but she’s shut in the rest of the day, emailing friends and reading spy novels to pass the time. She tries not to watch the news.

Katie and Judy’s lives have little in common, but it struck me that — now more than ever — what we do to protect each other makes a stark difference — maybe even between life and death.

Our land-based cruise ship

Gina Belleci and her girlfriend Jessica Holt, my neighbours on the sixth floor, made their unit into a shared office space after the lockdown. They settled into a routine, dropping food off for Gina’s mom once a week to keep her from being exposed in the grocery aisles. They also took care of their neighbours, shopping for an elderly friend on the eighth floor who really should not leave the building.

But as the news worsened and the disease’s virulence became more widely understood, they made the difficult decision to clear out of our building and go live with Gina’s mom. They were worried that living with 180 people gave them more potential exposure to COVID-19, and they feared transmitting it to Gina’s mom on those weekly visits.

“I either need to choose being with my mom, or we need to really commit to this land-based cruise ship we live on, which is so big and has so many people coming in and out. And quite frankly, I don’t know that anything’s being cleaned above and beyond,” says Gina.

“Land-based cruise ship.” I hadn’t quite thought of it that way, but there is a concern here about sanitation. Our building’s maintenance man has gone home, and there is no cleaning going on. All of the building’s common touch points could now be vectors for infection. Elevator buttons. Door knobs. I’ve taken to wearing gloves just to go downstairs. When people see me inside an elevator they’re waiting for, they give a tight smile and wait for the next one. Even the mailroom has started to feel a little snug.

But a lot of nice little things have happened in my building, too. Several neighbours left notes on the bulletin board in the lobby, offering to help anyone who needs it. On

e person organized the entire seventh floor into a group text, so that when someone’s leaving for a grocery run, they can take requests and minimize the number of trips from the building.

We’re also connecting in new ways. My sixth-floor neighbour Guillaume Chartier, a fellow Montrealer, dropped off a slice of homemade lemon meringue pie after I interviewed him for this story. I had my first real conversation with my third-floor neighbour Ernesto Victoria, who has lived above me for five years but with whom I’ve mostly exchanged only pleasantries.

And after a few people started meeting on the roof to watch the sunset, it turned into a socially-distant Friday happy hour where everyone brings their own drink and stands at least two metres apart.

This pandemic has changed our world, but it has also changed our building. I’ve met more neighbours in the last week than I’ve gotten to know in the past five years. I already feel better knowing I have so many people to talk to who are facing the same situation — the same questions — as I am. We may all be behind our doors for now, but we really are in this together.

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Shut In Together: 119 Neighbors and Me in an Oakland Condo

Tuesday, March 31st, 2020

I have a confession. I don’t know most of my neighbors. I don’t even know the names of everyone on my floor. I live in a tall condo building in Oakland, with a towering view of Piedmont and the surrounding neighborhoods. It’s the kind of building where you can nod to a neighbor for years, without thinking about the interaction.

No more. Because right now, almost all of us are home together. Thinking about, or trying not to think about, the virus. Our lives intersect in new ways. Our interactions will follow suit.

COVID-19 has transformed my world. My one-bedroom is now my office, tiny gym and portal to the friends I miss hugging and to my parents, who are holed up in the North Bay and haven’t set foot outside since shelter-in-place orders took effect.

In recent days, I’ve struggled with my emotions and video chatted with my therapist. I’ve had good days when I am overwhelmed with gladness to be part of a team at KQED whose coverage of this pandemic, deemed an “essential service,” has become more essential than ever.

I’m not the only one in my building who’s struggling to find our way in a new landscape with no view of the horizon. The coronavirus is an unspoken part of every interaction. And the fear is there, too. We fear getting each other sick, and we fear what might happen to us if we were to fall ill. My 119-unit building has about 180 residents. For the next few weeks or months, we’ll almost all be living and working here in our little units, separated by a concrete wall and under one roof. I started wondering: How are we all coping so far?

Our ‘Land-Based Cruise Ship’


I put up a note on the bulletin board in the mail room, asking my neighbors to reach out and tell me their stories. The first one who did was Gina Belleci, who lives on the sixth floor. She and her girlfriend, Jessica Holt, have been sheltering together since Gina’s startup sent everyone home. She now telecommutes from a small table wedged next to the kitchen, while Jessica works with her laptop propped up on a dresser in the bedroom.

Gina says some of her days are spent in “silent panic” mode. Other times, she feels optimistic. Gina and Jessica take care of their neighbors. Lately they’ve been handing out toilet paper and grocery shopping for an elderly friend on the eighth floor, who really should not leave the building.

“I think we just really need to band together. And these small, tiny ways really add up,” said Gina. ”It’s generosity breeds generosity. I feel really excited to be part of this building to see what happens here.”

Jessica is a freelance theater director, and she told me that her prospects have become extremely uncertain, very quickly. All of her upcoming theater productions have been canceled, and the same is true industry-wide.

“This is all I’ve really practiced as a trade, as a craft, my entire life,” she told me. “I’m not going to lie — the other night, I sort of threw myself into a little heap. And I and I keep saying, well, we’re going to get through this. There will come a time when we return to normal. But will we? Will we ever be able to return to normal? I don’t know.”

They told me that they’ve made the difficult decision to leave. Gina’s 74-year-old mother lives in Antioch and doesn’t have anyone to take care of her. They worry that the longer they spend in a building with 180-odd people, the likelier they are to pick up the coronavirus and bring it back to Gina’s mother.

“I either need to choose being with her, to be able to go get things for her just to keep her in the house, or we need to really commit to this land-based cruise ship we live on — which is so big and has so many people coming in and out,” said Gina.

So they’ve packed their suitcases for a month and said goodbye to their neighbors.

She’s right about the sanitation issue. Our building’s maintenance man has gone home, and there is no cleaning regime, which I suspect is true of many large apartment buildings here in the Bay Area.

In a building like mine, where space is limited, it’s nice to be able to open your door and have a conversation with someone you meet by the elevators or in the mailroom. But each of those touch points now could be vectors for infection. Elevator buttons. Door knobs. I’ve taken to wearing gloves just to go downstairs or when I’m in the laundry room. When people see you inside an elevator they’re waiting for, they give a tight smile and wait for the next one. Even the mailroom has started to feel a little snug. People don’t linger to enjoy those conversations anymore.

So it was a pleasure to receive a text from my neighbor Dina Mackin on the third floor. “Want to meet up on the roof to see the sunset?” it read.

Dina Mackin.

When I got there, Dina had a glass of rosé in her hand and was standing in front of a darkening view of West Oakland and in the distance, the Golden Gate Bridge. “This is what I have to do every day to keep my sanity,” she said. “The beauty of just seeing something so simple that happens every single day, that marks the passing of time. You just appreciate it more and more. And this is the time to appreciate it.”

As she spoke, I realized that I hadn’t been outside in two days. This was the first time I’d tasted fresh air. When days start to run together, watching the sunset is an important form of closure. Even better to watch it with a neighbor.

Dina agreed. “This is one of the few things we’re still able to do,” she said.

On the Front Lines


Katie Stephenson, my neighbor on the second floor, cannot shelter in place because she is a second-year pediatrics resident at Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center. I barely see her as she darts in and out to shower, sleep and drink some coffee before heading back out to the hospital for another 12-hour shift.

I spoke to her on an evening she had just tested negative for COVID-19. She had a post-allergy season cough so her doctor sent her to have a test. But she assumes that it’s only a matter of time before she does get the coronavirus, so she’s careful to limit her contacts within the building.

“My mission is just to keep my germs confined to my little space and not let them get out,” she said. “But I also think that if I’m one of the people who gets COVID-19, that I would do fine — most people my age, if we’re healthy, we do fine. I think a lot of people in my residency program, myself included, are very likely to get it and are very likely to do fine.”

Katie has been on the pediatrics ward for the past three weeks. She sees children who have been admitted because their parents are afraid they might have COVID-19. All medical staff must wear personal protective equipment — essentially hazmat suits — and masks around the children, which is profoundly unsettling.

“There are nurses wearing the suits, and there’s multiple doctors coming in wearing the suits. It’s scary,” she said. She tries to defuse the fear by making her young patients smile. “I have some stickers that my mom sent for St. Patrick’s Day. They’re all green. And so I have been bringing in stickers and putting them on my suit. Or I’ll draw like a smiley face, to be a big yellow smiley-face person.”

Katie’s supervisor has told her group that they’re running a marathon, and so far they’ve only run half a mile. They need to remember to pace themselves. Luckily, Katie is an actual marathon runner — she’s done three of them — so she knows when to push herself. Her freezer is stuffed with homemade dinners prepared by her mother — a source of comfort at the end of another long day.

My neighbor Alexa Eurich is also running a marathon of sorts. Somehow, she’s had to find a way to teach her combined classroom of kindergarten and first grade students from her apartment on the fourth floor. Eurich has taught at Aurora School in Oakland for 15 years. The school closed down so quickly that no one had time to grab enough teaching supplies for a month, let alone the rest of the school year.

“When you hear about teaching kindergarten remotely, you just have to laugh … because how is that even humanly possible?” she said. “It’s been very hard not knowing, because I’ve felt competent at my job for a very long time.”

Alexa has 16 kids in her classroom. She manages to video chat with four of them each day, in addition to checking in regularly with teachers and parents. She’s trying to keep up with the lessons her kids were learning two weeks ago, but she has to improvise with whatever books the students have around the house. They have to be trained to talk to her through a computer screen. It can be hard to connect.

“I know without a doubt that the best way we humans learn is through a relationship. And not being with them physically when they’re at this developmental stage is very trying to the relationship,” she said.

It’s also been trying for her. Because she is in remote meetings all day, her husband has to stay in the bedroom for hours at a time.

“I’ve been working from, like, six o’clock in the morning to about six o’clock at night,” she said. “And I am still in love with teaching. I love my job. But I’m not in love with this job right now. I have to learn how to do it in a way that feels wrong to me.”

Staying Sane Inside Four Walls


I asked my neighbors what they are doing to stay sane amid deeply uncertain circumstances. My neighbor Guillaume Chartier and his husband Grant Eshoo have been baking lemon meringue pie and watching “Star Trek: The Next Generation” after they have finished the day’s work at their improvised desks in the living room. (Guillaume is an animator, and Grant works for Alameda County).

They chose to re-watch Star Trek for its nostalgia, but are finding that it holds surprising relevance to our present moment on Earth.

“There was an episode where they were facing a lethal epidemic and they had to take measures to contain it,” said Guillaume. Of course, they succeeded — thanks to Dr. Beverly Crusher.

“It displays a very earnest, optimistic outlook on humankind. And we’re just the kind of nerds that we enjoy watching it together,” he added with a laugh. “It’s all imaginary settings, but it touches on very current real human conditions and phenomena.”

My second-floor neighbor Judith Rosenberg is in her mid-70s. She reckons she now spends 90% of her time indoors, except for a brisk daily walk or to pick up groceries. She escapes into serial mysteries and spy novels by authors like John le Carré and Charles Cumming. She also emails with her friends, which alleviates some of the “overriding sadness” she has started to feel.

“I have felt depression in my life. I’ve felt all sorts of emotions, but I don’t get sad very much. This is a deep sadness,” she said.

Her other great comfort is music. Judy has a gleaming concert piano in her apartment. Her specialty is musical improvisation.

“I feel a certain life force when I’m playing,” she told me. “When I sit down to play, there’s something about that experience that makes me feel more alive in a way. And it is a great gift.”

Ernesto Victoria at home. (Julia Scott)

My third-floor neighbor Ernesto Victoria is also in his 70s. He isn’t much of a worrier, but he did get concerned a few weeks ago when he developed a cough. His doctor assessed his symptoms and ruled out the coronavirus. Still, the cough has been hard to shake.

“I get a little scared from time to time, I have to be honest with you,” he said. “The other day, the symptoms were really bothering me. And I just got really emotional.”

He pulled out his computer and started writing memories of his childhood in Mexico and of growing up with his seven siblings.

“Maybe there was this thought, you know, of, ‘If I die, I want my daughters to see this,’ ” he laughed. “I was just feeling sentimental and emotional.”

Ernesto loves swimming, biking and hiking. With his pool closed and his favorite biking and hiking trails off limits, his daily pleasures include video chats with faraway friends.

“It is so good to see a face and to talk. It’s the joy of talking with somebody after being sequestered for so long,” he said.

A lot of nice little things have happened in my building over the past two weeks. I was happy when Ernesto accepted my offer to shop for him sometime soon. Someone on the third floor left a message on the bulletin board offering to help anyone who needs it. Another neighbor organized the entire seventh floor into a group text, so that when someone’s leaving for a grocery run, they can take requests and minimize the number of trips from the building.

I know this virus will escalate in the next few weeks. The news will get scarier. But I’ve met more neighbors in the last week than I’ve gotten to know in the past five years. I already feel better knowing I have so many people to talk to who are facing the same situation, the same questions, as I am. We may all be behind our doors for now, but we really are in this together.


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The Panic Button

Tuesday, October 1st, 2019

When I think about how we come to fear, I think about a photograph my parents took of me as an 11-year-old. I’m in their bedroom, perched on the edge of their bed. It’s plenty warm in the house, but I’m dressed for subzero temperatures. I have on layers of clothes underneath my wool winter coat. I wear a bright pink ear-warmer headband above my ponytail and glasses, through which I stare out at the camera with a baleful expression. I am clutching a fire extinguisher.

I remember that my parents thought I looked adorable in my getup as I prepared myself for a notable first: They were leaving me alone, without a babysitter, to go out with their friends for the night.

They naturally assumed I would eat the dinner they’d prepared, watch some TV and go to bed. I naturally assumed that something would cause the house to catch fire and, despite my attempt at heroics with the fire extinguisher, I would end up in the snow outside, watching it burn.

I spent much of that evening on their bed, waiting for them to come home, the fire extinguisher propped up on a pillow next to me. Every so often I’d peer into the snowy street to see whether any strangers were approaching our front steps. I scurried upstairs and downstairs, my heart pounding, as I listened for sounds that seemed out of place — anything that could be construed as the first signs of a burglar who, I was sure, would choose this exact evening to try to break in. Whenever the refrigerator switched on or a truck rattled by, I jumped.

To say I was a needlessly fearful child is accurate, but it also diminishes the reality of my dread. I was certain that something bad would happen — soon — to me or to the people I loved. When my parents left me at home, I’d tell myself terrible stories that initially seemed plausible, then seemed inevitable, and then didn’t seem like stories at all — panic-inducing scenarios of my parents being assaulted on the street or getting into a car accident. The feelings produced by these fake storylines felt real. I was scared, and therefore I had reason to be. That was the feedback loop.

My mother would try to help me see my fictions for what they were by offering an alternative ending. She would stop what she was doing, sit me down and detail how safely their evening would play out, from dinner at the restaurant to the play they would see afterwards. She would never, to my frustration, commit to a curfew.

Frequently, she reassured me by pointing out the little doorbell installed on the left side of her bed. It was round and white to blend in with the rest of the wall and positioned about a foot above the telephone. The panic button, she called it. One push and it called the alarm company. The police would come to the house. Only use it in an absolute emergency.

This only confirmed what I had suspected: I had legitimate reasons to panic. I timed how long it would take me to run down the hallway from my bedroom and push the panic button. Sometimes at night I would creep toward my parents’ room, ease the door open, and tiptoe over to the bed to make sure they were still breathing.


The more we know about the world, the more there is to fear. I wish we talked about it more, but it seems that fear is the final taboo. We like to think we should be over our fears by adulthood — that we should be better, more perfect, more evolved. The opposite is true for me, and I’m convinced I’m not alone.

In my opinion, most adults carry around deep, sloshing cisterns of confusion, pain and fear. We move slowly and carefully, lest we spill a drop and expose ourselves. Our fears are among the few things that unite us, yet we suffer them quietly and alone.

“As far back as I can remember, every minute of life has been an emergency in which I was paralyzed with fear,” writes poet and essayist Mary Ruefle in Madness, Rack, and Honey.

Yet why is it that all we hear are stories about people who overcame their fears? Of public speaking. Of snakes. Of air travel. Of failure. Even of death. We celebrate these achievements. We talk about ‘conquering’ our fears as if they are a cancer — and as if there were a cure.

Until recently, all that talk of fear-squashing sounded pretty good to me. At 38, I still have much in common with the child edging toward the panic button. Many nights, I close my eyes and wonder whether this will be it. I live in Oakland, California, so my specific and immediate concern is whether tonight will be the night my apartment building will collapse on top of me. The Hayward Fault runs less than three miles from my home and is notoriously overdue for “The Big One.”

With the recent string of earthquakes in Southern California, it’s become even easier to imagine myself buried under rubble, suffocating, my back broken, unable to call for help. In other, more optimistic scenarios, I emerge from the building into the fresh hellscape of my neighborhood, bleeding and starting to walk toward the hospital.

When I drive across the bridge to San Francisco I am frequently seized by fear. Rather than admire the view, I think about an earthquake buckling the concrete and ripping the steel girders in two, sending my car straight to the bottom of the bay. I try to strategize: Should I bail out of the car while it’s falling? How long would I survive once the car hit the water?

It’s not just earthquakes that keep me up at night. I can’t stop thinking about all the potential ways catastrophic climate change will end life as we know it. But I may not be around long enough to witness that . . . because I also semiregularly convince myself I have a new terminal health condition. I wake up after a night of Googling and my search history is still open: “Early Stage Ovarian Cancer — Three Signs to Look Out For.” “When to Get Tested for Alzheimer’s.”

I am a treat at parties.

Just kidding — I don’t tell anyone I have these thoughts.

What’s worse, my thoughts no longer just poison my mind. I’ve started clenching my jaw in my sleep and had to get a tooth repaired. And this spring, I experienced my first panic attack in 15 years. It was such a nonsequitur that I didn’t even understand what was happening until later. One moment it was a beautiful Saturday, the next I was crumpled over on a bus-stop bench, nauseated, breathless and confused. How odd, I remember thinking. Why can’t I make this stop?

When I have a problem, I usually poll my friends. So I put a message on Facebook, asking them to volunteer some stories about their fears. Implicit in my asking was a hope that they would also tell me how they overcame them. Something I could pilfer and apply to my own life.

Clearly, I didn’t understand fear.


One of the people I talked to for this story — we’ll call her Morgan — had a terrible fear of heights. She would go to theme parks with her friends and watch people screaming with joy on the roller coasters, knowing how ill it would make her feel to climb up and strap herself in. She’d force herself to do it anyway. One day, when she was 19, it dawned on her that she could conquer her fear — and impress her motorcycle-loving boyfriend — by learning to fly propeller planes. She found a flying school at a local airport and signed up for 10 lessons on the spot.

“I set out to prove to myself that I could do something that scared the living shit out of me,” she says. “It was stupid and bizarre and harsh.”

Flying was more satisfying than she’d projected. With her instructor beside her in the cockpit, Morgan could force her attention onto the intellectual aspects of gauges and weather and how everything worked. She learned swiftly and built confidence. When her lessons were complete, she even let her instructor persuade her to fly solo. Morgan felt certain she’d be cured.

The day of her solo flight, Morgan tried to stay calm by telling herself the plane was just a machine — a car you drive in the sky. Taking off, she felt the fuselage give a tiny shudder and then she was airborne.

It was magic. She felt like Amelia Earhart. She was the one who had pulled that piece of metal off the ground and was circling in the sky.

Then she realized that she had to land. She tried to squeeze down her mounting panic by recalling her training. Rather than let herself think about crashing, she checked off every step, one by one. In the end, she made a perfect landing.

But Morgan was disinclined to celebrate. The moment she cut the engine, she knew she would never fly a plane again. Her fear of heights had returned in full force. Four decades later, she has come to accept that it will never go away.

People spend their days quietly coping with fear. “When an elevator goes up, my palms start to sweat. I can’t control it. I know it’s totally irrational,” says one man I know who developed some new fears in midlife but doesn’t tell people about them. Let’s call him Roger. He says going above the 20th floor is guaranteed to induce a panic attack.

Roger lives in a town with mercifully few high-rises. When he travels, he always requests a hotel room as low to the ground as possible. He also hates flying. He would rather drive eight hours than take a one-hour flight. He doesn’t know how these fears got started; they just happened. Today he copes with Xanax.

Another friend — I’ll call her Claire — traces her fear of heights to a trip to Italy she took three years ago. She was driving up a winding mountain road toward a cliff town to take in the view. After a lifetime of happily climbing to the tops of European castles, standing at the stomach-churning edges of canyons and exploring California’s mountains by car, something changed. The road was practically cantilevered over the sea. Every time she hit another switchback, it felt like she was about to tip over the edge.

Soon after that, she started to suffer panic attacks on mountain roads. Her palms and feet got clammy and she worried that she wouldn’t be able to hold on to the wheel or hit the brakes in time to save herself.

Then the claustrophobia set in. A year later, while hosting a party at her house, Claire accidentally locked herself in her bathroom. She had to remove the handle and jimmy open the door. She started avoiding bathrooms at cafés, especially the ones with heavy deadbolts. On airplanes she asks a flight attendant to please watch the door — she can’t bear to lock it.

Claire went to a psychologist who prescribed exposure therapy to help her fight her fears. No way was that going to happen, she says, so she, too, uses antianxiety medications. “I’m not over the anxieties, but my response to them is much more muted,” she explains. “As a woman, especially, I don’t want to lose my independence because of fear.”


I started out writing about “how we come to fear,” but I actually think it’s more accurate to say that our fears come to us. And if we can’t forestall them, what hope do we have for resisting their influence?

Security expert Gavin de Becker says that’s the wrong question. His book, The Gift of Fear — published in 1997 and still the most popular fear-advice book in a crowded marketplace — argues that fear plays an innate role in keeping us alive. In his professional experience helping people assess threats from co-workers, ex-partners and stalkers, de Becker believes tahat when it comes to predicting violent behavior in particular, fear sends us helpful survival signals that we too often choose to ignore. Instead, we should embrace the fear as a kind of intuition, a guide to predicting that something bad will happen.

But here’s the catch: The helpful kind of fear, he says, is short-lived and rare. And it really only helps us avoid unexpected dangers like an assault, not the things some of us have feared for years, like earthquakes or heights or being trapped in enclosed spaces.

“Real fear is a signal intended to be very brief, a mere servant of intuition,” he writes. “But though few would argue [with the notion] that extended, unanswered fear is destructive, millions choose to live there.”

De Becker distinguishes between useful fear (which manifests when we’re threatened) and useless fear. He points out that in a life-threatening crisis, fear is often the last thing we feel. Claire can attest to this. She has been held up at gunpoint, and she’s been in car accidents. She stays calm and enters a state she calls “taking-care-of-business mode.” I’ve had similar experiences after car accidents. The terrible thing has happened. You accept it immediately and launch into problem-solving. Fear is absent.

“The very fact that you fear something is solid evidence that it is not happening,” de Becker notes in a neat turn of phrase. “If it does happen, we stop fearing it and start to respond to it.”

So, what’s happening to me when I startle awake at night, trembling, my heart pounding so hard that I mistake the sensation for my bed shaking in an earthquake?

According to de Becker, that’s not authentic fear. It’s worry. “Worry is the fear we manufacture,” he says.

When I read those lines, I frowned at the word “manufacture.” I doubt the people I interviewed would say they’ve manufactured the burden of their fears.

But de Becker insists that remaining in a state of fear — like a car alarm that won’t shut off — is a choice, and it is more dangerous than we think, because it often leads to panic. It could even cause more harm than the fear itself.

Too bad fear and worry feel the exact same way in our bodies — like an existential threat.

This makes perfect sense on a physiological level, says journalist Jaimal Yogis, author of The Fear Project. That shot of cortisol that makes me gasp at night is a symptom of the classic fight-or-flight response that Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon first characterized in 1915. We’ve all experienced the rest of them: dilated pupils, tensed muscles, elevated heart rate.

These symptoms are governed by the amygdala, which has been protecting us since early hominids faced down saber-toothed cats and giant hyenas. Unfortunately, our amygdalas have not evolved with the times. I can set mine off reading a scary headline on my smartphone.

“By the time you can say ‘I’m afraid,’ your body is already well into the stress process,” Yogis writes. We have no medium setting built into our bodies for medium-sized scares. It’s just an on/off switch. There’s no going back once you’ve hit the panic button.

Over time, chronic anxiety can translate into devastating physical disorders like pulmonary disease and cardiovascular problems. It can disrupt the central nervous and endocrine systems, flooding the body with stress hormones like cortisol, which in turn contribute to all manner of issues with sleep, weight gain, diabetes and, yes, even teeth-clenching at night.

What of this idea, then, that we can choose a better way? De Becker offers three behavioral tips that underpin his philosophy of grappling with dreaded outcomes.

1) When you feel fear, listen.

2) When you don’t feel fear, don’t manufacture it.

3) If you feel yourself creating worry, explore and discover why.

“Worry will almost always buckle under a vigorous interrogation,” he writes triumphantly, and you can almost see the sheriff’s badge gleaming on his chest.

But the problem with all our fears is that they tell good stories. The plots may vary, but the core message is unsettling. It’s about uncertainty, about our profound lack of control over our lives, on this planet, in this universe. Objectively speaking, potential disasters are everywhere — epidemics, asteroids, drunk drivers. They could strike us down at any time. Our nervous systems keep us aroused, sniffing the air for the next threat. And when you see it that way, it makes sense to stay vigilant for all of them.

“Anxiety, unlike real fear, is always caused by uncertainty,” says de Becker. When we can’t predict something, we can’t prepare for it. We’re forced to admit there’s nothing we can do. Welcome to the human condition.

Sometimes, our fears also depend greatly on context. The Chapman University Survey of American Fears offers a fascinating snapshot of just how much our fears and anxieties can change over time based on the media zeitgeist — and which ones abide, year after year.

In 2016, for instance, three of the 10 most prominent fears Americans cited were terrorism, gun control and Obamacare — all major themes of the presidential campaign.

In 2017, according to the survey, Americans widely feared getting into a nuclear confrontation with North Korea — at a time when the Trump administration’s nuclear brinkmanship and “fire and fury” threats were constantly in the news.

In 2018, for the first time, five of the top 10 fears were about destruction of our environment: contaminated drinking water; the pollution of oceans, lakes and rivers; bad air; the mass extinction of flora and fauna; and global warming. At least now I know I have company.

What I find most interesting, however, are the three universal fears that climb to the top of the chart every year and sit there, unmoving, like Dante’s shrieking harpies perched in the tortured wood. Two are closely connected: the twin fears of a loved one becoming seriously ill and of a loved one dying.

The third is the consistent number one thing we Americans fear: the behavior of corrupt government officials. Regardless of party affiliation, it seems people most fear government malfeasance.

That may seem odd, but to the worrier, all fears have their own logic. Mine are no exception. The Hayward Fault will definitely erupt . . . sometime. The climate crisis is here, and it’s going to get worse. And everyone dies of something, whether it’s cancer or a wrong turn off a steep mountain road.

How are we supposed to handle ourselves in the meantime? This is as much a question about living, I’ve come to realize, as it is about coping with life’s less appealing features: uncertainty and lack of control.

For me, catastrophizing — thinking about the worst possible thing that could happen and letting my mind deal with the consequences — offers a kind of perverse comfort, the promise of tussling with my fears and shoring up my resilience to suffering. The trouble is, I never actually escape the fear loop. I’m never really reassured. And this minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour anxiety drip becomes its own eternal wellspring. Anyone who has a history of panic attacks will tell you that the fear of having one can be enough to set the next one off.

“In terms of fear of heights or flying, what I actually fear is the feeling of panic, of being trapped and unable to get away, and how I’ll act and feel. Not so much crashing. So that you begin to fear the fear,” says Roger, the man who avoids flights and elevators. Fear will just metabolize itself after a while.


I sometimes think about my young self and wonder what happened to me. Why wasn’t I more resilient? Did my parents not cultivate my independence? I’ve started wondering about how much our early development and even our personalities shape our viewpoint when it comes to risk and fear. When I was 11 and facing a night alone, I perceived those parentless hours as a harrowing ordeal. But some other kid might have turned them into an escapade, watching off-limits TV channels and gorging on junk food all night.

I am acquainted with people who go through life assuming that everything will be OK. And even when it won’t, they see no point in worrying about it, because there’s nothing they can do to prevent bad things from happening. My grandmother, for instance, had a favorite expression: “What is, is.” She held tight to those words amid several life-changing setbacks, and lived to age 96. I envied her disposition, but I will never be like her. My version of resilience involves planning for the worst, even though I know it’s an endless iteration.

So I’ve been looking for a third way — a middle path. When someone recommended I read The Places That Scare You, a book of Tibetan Buddhist teachings by Pema Chödrön, I resisted at first, even though I have my own flailing meditation practice. I worried that she would tell me that fear is an illusion or something equally trite.

But unlike Gavin de Becker, Chödrön doesn’t claim we can ditch our long-term fears. She says they’re part of the human condition. Chödrön describes fear as something we learn early and often — it’s a product of circumstances that “harden us” until we become resentful and afraid, she says.

We can ease fear’s grip by opening ourselves up, over time, to what hides beneath: tenderness and vulnerability. She says these two qualities could take us a lot further in life, but most of us have bricked them off and poured concrete over the wall for good measure.

“Tapping into that shaky and tender place has a transformative effect,” she writes. “Being compassionate enough to accommodate our own fears takes courage, of course, and it definitely feels counterintuitive. But it’s what we need to do.”

Rather than waiting for our fears to overtake us on their schedule, she suggests we acknowledge their shrieks and look up at the branches where they perch in our lives every day. That we get to know them.

We’d rather do almost anything else. I know I would. I would rather numb myself watching YouTube far into the early morning hours than spend another night facing whichever fear asserts itself.

Chödrön says that tendency only makes things worse. “Openness doesn’t come from resisting our fears but in getting to know them well,” she writes.

I am trying. Sometimes when I’m fearful now, I let myself acknowledge how it feels — I’m scared. This is scary.

Other times, I try to bring some of my reporter’s persona to the moment and become curious — an approach Chödrön mentions in the book. Asking “What’s really happening here?” and “What’s under this feeling of panic?” can yield results. It’s possible my presumption that I have a terminal disease has something to do with my deeper fear of failing at life, of not having mattered at all. Maybe my horror of earthquakes is tied to a distasteful reality I’d rather avoid: the impermanence of this life I’ve built, and having it taken away from me.

I no longer shake my head at that little girl who sat on the edge of her parents’ bed, sweating in too-much clothing, eyeing the panic button. She had a certain wisdom. Deep down, she sensed a truth her parents couldn’t refute: Life is uncertain and few things are within our control.

Fear seemed like the best way to handle that news at the time. I’m hoping it’s not too late to learn another way.

I also regularly give in to — and I’m not sure Chödrön would approve of this — the exigencies my fears demand. Last year, I purchased two heavy, fully stocked earthquake-emergency backpacks. I stashed them in my car and my apartment. I bought two more for my parents for Christmas. (They were confused.) I also treated myself to a shiny new fire extinguisher, even though my old one was not expired.

The friends I talked to all choose to be out in the world despite their fears. But their lifestyles are limited, and the do’s and don’ts are a process to be managed, constantly. Claire still likes to explore steep mountain roads, but only those with a barrier. She feels sick when she’s obliged to drive over a long bridge, but she can handle it if someone else, like a bus driver, is at the wheel.

Morgan attributes her fear of heights to a childhood wound that never healed. Some things she simply won’t do, like roller coasters and downhill skiing. But she’ll climb a mountain for the beauty. It’s hard to do — sometimes really hard — but there’s simply no other way to enjoy the vista. When I asked her how she overcomes her fear, she gently corrected me.

“I have found of myself that a surrender practice is the best. It’s not a conquering, or a getting over, or a getting away from,” she said. “And climbing a mountain is another form of that surrender practice.”

We can keep ducking our fears, but at a certain point they prevent us from seeing the view. I could leave Oakland, but I love my tranquil apartment, my neighborhood, the white-blossom magnolia tree in the courtyard, and the patio where I can contemplate its flowering while I meditate. So I choose this.

“What has life taught me? I am much less afraid than I ever was in my youth — of everything. That is a fact. At the same time, I feel more afraid than ever. And the two, I can assure you, are not opposed but inextricably linked,” writes Mary Ruefle.

Bad things will happen. To me and to the people I love. To the planet, and the creatures on it that don’t have a voice. I know this to be true. But something good could happen, too: the type of alternative ending my mother tried to teach me to construct. With all my planning and preparing for the worst, I have little space to imagine an actual future. The version of the story in which I go on living — not because of my fears, but despite them.

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On Being Alone

Tuesday, January 1st, 2019

When I was a little girl, I never dreamed of a husband or children. I never pictured a wedding starring me as the bride with white dress and elegant bouquet. I never pictured the groom. I couldn’t see our first dance, the exotic honeymoon. No matter how hard I strained, I could not get excited about the issuance of babies with cute faces and soiled diapers.

Instead, I dreamed of a goat.

It could have been a sheep or a ram. I’m not sure I knew the difference back then, or which image may have lingered in my mind after my mother finished reading me the stories of Heidi in the Swiss Alps and the Three Billy Goats Gruff. But at a certain age — the one where people start to ask you what you want to be when you grow up — the where seemed to be a lot clearer than the what. Whenever I pictured my adult life, I pictured a hillside high above a rural town. On that hillside, a small cabin where I would live. Next to that cabin, a goat.

As I learned about the world, and even began to travel a bit to Europe in my early teens, this vision became more specific. The cabin was situated on a hillside in France, in Provence, in a remote valley a short walk from a glittering view of the Mediterranean. I would get to know my neighbors and offer them tea when they passed by my open door. We would speak French together. I would write. Occasionally I would have a male caller, just one. The details of what we would do in the cabin were hazy. The male caller could come and go, but the main thing is that he knew when to go. The goat would be my main companion, and the source of delicious and nutritious milk, just like for Heidi. I would learn to love goat milk. I would relish my solitude.

It may not surprise you to learn that I was an only child. Growing up, this made me different from most of my classmates. They fought for their parents’ attention and had to share a bedroom. I woke up alone. From early on, I had an imaginary friend named Mr. Rice Guy. I wish I could tell you I remember what I imagined he looked like. But I do remember how he made me feel. Being with him was safe and gentle. I think we must have spent endless hours together in my bedroom, on my frizzy green carpet, chattering and playing. Mostly I think I chattered and he listened.

When Mr. Rice Guy wasn’t needed, I spent the bulk of my time inside books. But I also liked to do nothing at all — just look out the window at the alleyway behind my house, and daydream. I had friends over for sleepovers, which was fun because I owned all kinds of games, and you couldn’t play Candy Land or Clue without someone else. But I was always a little glad when they left and I could sink back into the quiet of my room. I didn’t have to share my stuffed animals. This was a perk, but it also meant that some of them went neglected, which I remedied by carrying a different one to bed with me on a rotating basis. I didn’t want them to feel alone, although I rarely did.

Alone. That word seems like a threat, mostly. What do we do with children who misbehave? We send them to their room, alone. Tell them they’re grounded, the punishment being to deprive them of companionship and force them to “think” about what they’ve done. These days, we take away their electronics so they can’t play games, go online or post updates on social media. The message: Time with others is a treat we earn. Being alone is a reprimand.

We find so much comfort in the presence of others, sometimes without realizing it. Even having someone in the next room is a comfort. But when the house is still and there’s nothing else to do, the self confronts. And we would do almost anything to avoid hearing what it has to say.

What lives alongside solitude? Boredom, potentially. Anxiety, often. And the concept of loneliness has an overwhelmingly negative connotation — the absence of others is plain and uninspiring.

“In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fortunately, we have many tools at hand to prevent us from slipping into a 3 a.m. of the soul: they’re our laptops, iPads, smartphones, books, magazines and TV remotes.

One of my favorite studies about the experience of solitude and loneliness — there is a whole subfield of social psychology devoted to it — took place in Atlanta in 2015. It surveyed 185 adults, aged 20 to 81, to determine their reactions to the experience of momentary solitude: those interstitial parts of the day when there’s downtime with nothing to engage in.

The study’s authors had the idea to analyze not just people’s stated feelings about solitude, but their physiological reactions to being alone. Specifically, they measured levels of cortisol — the “stress hormone,” activated when the body perceives a threat. Seven times a day for ten days, they had participants submit saliva samples — at random moments, when a beeper went off. Sometimes when the beeper went off they were alone, other times they were not.

Overall, cortisol levels were higher when people were alone, as opposed to being with others. Even if they said otherwise in the questionnaire, their bodies were stressed. But there were some interesting variations. People over 51 had a different response; their cortisol levels were lower. In fact, several studies have suggested that as we age, we mind our solitude less, and we may even prefer it — a neat trick as we approach a time of life where we may be facing more of it.

A review of the literature suggests that free will is the decisive factor here. Getting to choose solitude makes a big difference in how we handle it, and whether it contributes to our well-being. Yet there is a fragile line between the solitude that heals and the one that salts the wound. Many other studies have shown how involuntary solitude and isolation can prove not only anxiety-inducing, but dangerous — from a slightly higher risk of heart problems to deep-seated alienation, especially among vulnerable teens.

For me, a great deal has been lost of that little girl who knew how to be alone. Some writers (or future writers) crave a room of their own: I craved a life of my own. Served up in short, bracing doses, I discovered early on that isolation — the extreme version of solitude — can offer me the only hope I can ever have of knowing who I truly am and what I actually want, absent the “shoulds” of the world.

But as an adult, even when I have it, I’ve become used to filling the silence rather than letting it speak to me.

I fall asleep and wake up next to my smartphone. The first thing I do, before I get up to go to the bathroom, is reach for the phone. I look at Google News and let algorithms tell me what to think and care about. I bite my nails without noticing. My habits have become more pronounced amid the ongoing national perma-emergency in our politics. The daily outrage drives the double-time news cycle — confronting me, all of us, every day.

It’s not just my time that’s being nibbled away by my devices, not to mention the whole superstructure of adulthood. It’s my mind. Recently I noticed that I was having trouble generating original thoughts: problematic for a writer. I worry that, at 38, I have become a dullard. That my inner creative world has shrunk to the occasional glimpse from a car’s window while my smartphone chirps directions, always preventing me from exploring an intriguing side road or getting lost.

The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence,” asserted Adrienne Rich. You can silence your cell phone. But the “fertilizing” quality of silence, as she called it, won’t reach a distracted mind.

Even with all my electronics put away in a drawer, my apartment shouts at me from every corner. CLEAN ME OR YOU WON’T SLEEP WELL TONIGHT, says the carpet. READ ME, YOUR CAREER DEPENDS ON IT, screams my pile of unread magazines. Even with the sound turned off in the movie of our lives, there’s always the director’s commentary. See what happens when you glance at a bookshelf. Or notice the details of your child’s room.

When was the last time I was truly solitary? I couldn’t conjure it. I’m not talking about the default experience of solitude when we’re doing laundry, checking email or driving somewhere with the radio on. Some people harvest solitude for content (for instance, choosing to listen to a podcast) and others for insight (I include meditation here, because although it can be very helpful, it still has intentionality). None of these things are bad ideas — they’re part of everyday life, mine included. But I wanted to explore around the margins, where the instinct to fill time loses its edge. My appetite for solitude may be greater than some others’, but in its ideal form, I don’t seek to harvest it for anything.

Yet I am the first to admit that solitude — what I define as true solitude, the state of being alone without needing to do anything in particular — feels dangerous.

“So afraid one is of loneliness, of seeing to the bottom of the vessel,” wrote Virginia Woolf, who saw the bottom of the vessel more than once. An overwhelming number of writers have detailed the contributions of solitude — and even loneliness — to the creative mind.

“What is needed is this, and this alone: solitude, great inner loneliness. Going into oneself and not meeting anyone for hours — that is what one must arrive at,” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke in 1903, offering advice to Franz Kappus, his tortured young protégé. But even Rilke struggled to enforce his own solitude with the demands of family and the necessities of travel. And that was before YouTube.

I realized that I urgently needed to turn off the narrative channel of my daily life. So this summer, I made a little experiment. I would go away on a retreat, disconnect from everything familiar. I would rent a cabin in a part of California that was strange to me, and, to the greatest extent possible, be alone. I didn’t want to go on a meditation retreat with a group of strangers. I wanted to unfurl, alone, without any fixed agenda. I wanted solitude, even if it was attended by troubling doses of boredom and loneliness. And the only way to do that was to remove myself from my “self.” Only then could I hope to access the deeper well of inner silence — true isolation — and explore what it had to offer.

The term “solitude,” though, continued to bother me because it didn’t quite describe what I was missing. A friend of mine came up with the concept of self-visitation: the active work of peeling away those aspects of life that distract one from oneself. It is conscious, methodical subtraction, without any expectation of a payoff or reward. True self-visitation contains no epiphanies; it is simply the communing familiarity of self in space and time.

But with the layers stripped away and no one to step in and tell me how to think or who to be, what version of myself would I be left with? And, whispered a voice I was ignoring, what if she doesn’t have anything interesting left to say?

Looking online, I found a one-room cabin up north in a town I’d never heard of, Forestville. It had no electricity, no Wi-Fi and no indoor plumbing. There was an outhouse and an outdoor sink and shower. Meals could be wrangled on a butane burner. Trying not to think too hard, I booked it for three nights.

As I made ready to leave, I made some other decisions. My phone could come with me in case of emergencies, but would be turned off and locked in the glove compartment of my car. No laptop. No alcohol, no caffeine. No music. And no books — I would need to leave my books at home. The only companion for my mind would be a journal to write in. Not with any writing goal in mind, just to record my thoughts if I wanted to.

“But won’t your mind start to spin when you’re alone?” asked a friend. I shook my head, but I didn’t really know. I would deal with the dark night of the soul if it came to pass, at 3 a.m. if need be.

Another friend looked at me in horror when I told him I wouldn’t be bringing along any reading material. “Not even one book? Can’t you hide one under your floorboard, like a box of crackers in case of emergency?”

I waited until the last minute to pack for my retreat, cramming the morning full of work deadlines. It’s a simple hour and a half to Forestville from where I live in the Bay Area, but I arrived three and a half hours later than expected. I was still checking my phone and answering emails up to the moment I pulled up on a Monday afternoon. My host, the owner of the property, was there to greet me. To get to the cabin, he helped me carry my bags down a long wooded lane, over a soundless creek tamed by the heat. The only other house on the property belonged to him, and I couldn’t see it through the trees once I settled in.

It was even smaller than advertised — just a bed, desk and chair, a side table and a narrow armoire, stuffed with linens. The outhouse was 100 feet away, which I suspected would be interesting at night. No goat, alas.

Looking around, I thought of Henry David Thoreau’s description of looking at his simple cabin, his pond, his woods and his bean field. “I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself,” he wrote.

The first thing I did was to take down the heavy mirror behind the bed, which trailed a skein of absconded spiderwebs as it left the wall. I put it on the floor, facing inward. I didn’t want to witness myself witnessing myself. I carefully washed my produce — two apples and two tomatoes — in the outdoor sink that, I discovered, drained straight to the forest floor. I brought them inside and lined them up on a windowsill with my two lemons in a little pattern. There.

I fetched a pot to make hard-boiled eggs over the butane burner and it had two living spiders in it, one of which did not want to leave the pot and merely surfed the water. Suddenly, I felt a sharp sting on my lower back — and immediately decided I had been bitten by a tick carrying Lyme disease, my superparanoia. (It turned out I had no bug bite at all.) I had a brief, panicky moment when a bee buzzed past my ear and the sound made me think I had missed a text on my cell phone. Actual panic — my heart was pounding when I remembered my phone was turned off, in my car.

In brief, I was nearly insensate of the pleasures of my new home that night. I could tell it wouldn’t be a silent retreat. I could be as quiet as I wanted, but I was staying in someone’s rural backyard. I lay on my back far into the night and listened to trucks buzzing by on the main road and a demented dog barking in the distance. Absent other distractions, my mind immediately started to cannibalize what I had last fed it, devouring the finer plot points of Sherlock and replaying the opening bars of Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1 over and over again. Then I started to catalogue all the ways in which I had caused friends or family members to feel neglected, hurt or let down over the years.

The next morning was so bright and cloudless that when a hawk passed for a moment above where I sat with my journal and morning tea, I wondered who’d turned out the lights. I claimed a wobbly bistro table with peeling green paint on the narrow deck outside my cabin. Twice a day I brushed away the leavings from the redwoods and coast live oaks that hung over the deck. The oaks shed their leaves constantly. I could hear them ding onto the metal roof as I lay in bed.

I walked the property, then took in my private fire pit. It sat in a clearing with six brightly colored Adirondack chairs around it, clearly awaiting the company of friends. I watched some dusty salamanders sun themselves on the circle of rocks and dart across the ash, and wondered if I would make myself a fire, and whether it would be sad to sit in one of those jolly chairs and stare at the flame, alone.

What on earth would I find to fill my days with, my friends wanted to know. It seemed like a strange enough question to me as I sat at my green table, long enough to watch the transit of the sun to what must have been high noon, judging by the heat. I watched two skittering brown squirrels chase back and forth between a pair of elegant oaks on opposite sides of the laneway. The trees had grown toward each other until their branches crossed like broadswords.

In the woods, what you notice fills you to the brim. I could have sat far longer, but there always seemed to be something to do — although nothing that needed doing beyond basic survival. Of course, there was the meal prep and cleanup, the daily troubleshooting — What substitutes for a colander? — the dressing and undressing and showering. The journaling was optional. (I suppose the showering was, too, but I’m not an animal.)

I took strenuous hikes on the Sonoma coast. It transpired that there were many important things to do: to pause, overheated, every few hundred yards on an uphill climb and notice, as I tried to catch my breath, how the spines of sword ferns have a soft coating that belies the brittleness of the leaves. I paused to taste wild blackberries and savor their tartness; to meditate by a creek, and caress the moss next to my feet; to pick a clover from the mounds that grew up around the redwood fairy circles, and chew the stem to enjoy their secret lemon flavor; to observe how the sun filtered through the ferns, stenciling the roseate soil with a living photo negative.

I noticed and did things without noticing or doing things, just because I was curious and it felt good. It turned out that I liked my mind after all.

“The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself,” wrote Michel de Montaigne around 1572. When I was on forest time, the world belonged to me. I stopped feeling anxious. The most significant questions pertained to the timing of dinner and bedtime. I learned to gauge how much daylight remained by eyeing the corona of blue in the sky above my cabin clearing, rather than the crepuscular creep along the forest floor. Still I misjudged a couple of times and ended up brushing my teeth and showering after dark, with a flashlight, having a giggle at my own expense.

I wrote without effort, often at night in bed with my journal propped up on my knees, straining with a candle in one hand and a pen in the other. On my last evening, I built a fire and sat next to it, eating my meal. I looked around at the five other empty chairs and did not feel any desire to fill them. “This is as close as I come to feeling holy,” I wrote that night.

But I hadn’t thought about what would come next. Within 45 minutes of leaving Forestville the next day, I had bitten off two nails and was taking mental notes of all the things I needed to accomplish as I zoomed down Highway 101. I had a long and guilty reunion with my laptop that afternoon.

My reentry was wobbly. As easily as I had settled into my solitude, I felt myself losing the thread. I cried a lot. I had trouble sleeping, trouble working. For a time, I stayed off Google News. In the car, I forced myself to sit in silence and avoid listening to the radio. I meditated in the morning. I lit candles at night. But little by little, I felt my old condition settle in somewhere near my solar plexus: that state of dullness mixed with hypervigilance.

The world felt immense and harmonious when I spent my days hiking in vast places and sleeping in a very small one. But now, with access to everything in the world on my computer, in the Bay Area, and at the supermarket, it felt like I had fewer choices. The air in my lungs felt compressed. I didn’t experience the same sense of possibility.

I had been hoping to portage some elements of my retreat life into my ‘real’ life, but I forgot that the same person — me — is always there, struggling and striving and kicking and generally making a mockery of attempts to honor my goals and stay aligned. I should have read my Montaigne more closely: “Ambition, avarice, irresolution, fear, and lust do not leave us when we change our country. . . . Neither deserts, nor rocky caves, nor hair shirts, nor fastings will free us of them,” he wrote.

It took only three days of self-visitation to remind me that my internal compass still points in the direction of true north, just as it did when I was a child. But how do I keep it in my sights when I’m getting spun in circles? And, when I find it again, how can I follow it without walking out on my life, when there are so many things that deserve my attention — a project that’s due, a friend who’s in pain, this country’s civil rights, our environment?

How can I live in the world, engaged and open-hearted, while cultivating my inner silence and need to withdraw?

Montaigne thought it might be possible to do both. “Real solitude,” he wrote, “may be enjoyed in the midst of cities and the courts of kings; but it is enjoyed more handily alone.” Thoreau returned to society after two years, and when he was at Walden he had frequent visitors — he describes his small cabin filled with up to 30 people at a time. He was no hermit, but walked frequently to town along the railroad tracks and recounts his conversations with all manner of folk who knew the woods.

There is something reassuring about these questions, and the fact that they have been with thoughtful writers for such a long time — Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Merton, Annie Dillard, May Sarton, Emily Dickinson, Louise Bogan and hundreds more. They all sought a balance between the version of themselves they gave to the world, with its traumas and distractions, and the need to belong to themselves, cultivate their autonomy and create something original and true. They weren’t just talking about how to write, but self-visitation in the everyday.

My childhood vision has come true. I never did marry or have children, and I have yet to even cohabitate with anyone, although I have had several meaningful relationships. I don’t own a hut on a hillside, but I do have a male caller. He, like me, relishes his solitude and knows how to respect mine. I intend to take a self-visitation retreat every year. In the meantime, I will do my best to keep my door open and, after all the visitors leave, get back to the page, alone.

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How Canadians Took Silicon Valley… And Never Owned the Win

Tuesday, June 12th, 2018

[Original story here: https://thelogic.co/news/the-big-read/origin-story-canadians-in-silicon-valley/]

Lars Leckie knew C100 had arrived when he was walking down the street in downtown Toronto a few years ago, crossing an intersection while wearing his C100 jacket. A young entrepreneur stopped him mid-stride, and introduced himself. “‘It’s so great to meet someone from the C100!’” Leckie recounts the man telling him. “And I’m like, ‘I’m just in downtown Toronto, I’m not at an office where you expect to see startups,’” says Leckie. “It was pretty cool.”

Bay Area venture capitalists like Leckie, managing director at Hummer Winblad Venture Partners, rarely get that kind of open-mouthed rock-star treatment in Silicon Valley, although they are a key part of its mystique—the golden-robed men and women who, like ancient Roman emperors in the Colosseum, control pollice verso the fate of companies and the circulation of economy-altering sums of money.

But together, the charter members of C100 have inspired their own mystique, a coveted stamp of approval. C100 is a small, member-driven non-profit that connects Canadian tech entrepreneurs with the Valley’s top Canadians in the industry. Hundreds of companies apply for 48 Hours in the Valley, its signature program, each year. Only 20 are selected. The pitch session trainings and mentorship that CEOs receive—not to mention introductions to funders—have contributed to the growth of companies like Clearbanc, Frank And Oak, Kik, Wealthsimple, Tulip and Well.ca.

All told, more than $3 billion in venture capital was invested in Canada in 2017, and another $3.2 billion the year before that. C100 estimates that the funds companies with a C100 connection since 2010 easily stretches into the billions. Yet the story of Canadian excellence in the Valley is fraught—and not just by conversations at home about “brain drain,” even as Canadian entrepreneurs continue to derive a net benefit from the training they get from U.S. universities and tech jobs. The other issue is the hidden history of Canadian success itself.

In its reluctance to acknowledge the realities of the modern tech diaspora, Canadians—or the Canadian press, at any rate—have inadvertently overlooked the names and diminished the achievements of generations of Canadians who handed the baton to the tech workers transforming our digital economy.

The resulting lacuna may seem benign, but it has had real consequences for today’s tech talent, according to Canadians I spoke to in the Valley. It’s fostered a hesitation for Canada to celebrate its wins—and has affected Canadian entrepreneurs’ tendencies to see themselves playing a bigger role on the world stage.

“Americans are so good at telling the entrepreneurial story and Canadians need to improve. In the mythology of Silicon Valley, we are surrounded by the Elon Musks, the Steve Jobses. Who are those people in Canada? Most kids in high school don’t even know who Tobi Lütke is,” says Anthony Lee, a managing director at Altos Ventures and co-founder of C100, referring to the founder of Canadian e-commerce behemoth, Shopify.

People here like to say that the longer you live outside Canada, the more fiercely Canadian you become. The charter members of C100—a Who’s Who of Canadian technorati—pay for the privilege of participating in events and volunteering their time, not the other way around. Leckie defines the job as “making sure that people know Canada is kicking ass.”

He meets me at his office—a bright, wood-beamed space whose windows overlook San Francisco’s Pier 33, where tourists queue up along the ferry dock to Alcatraz. In a previous life, before attending Stanford University, Leckie was a member of the Canadian Sailing Team, who represented his home country at the Pan American Games. But the plaque he keeps in his office has nothing to do with sailing competitions. He excuses himself and comes back a minute later to show it to me: a hockey puck mounted on a trophy base, presented to Leckie by C100 to thank him for his work as an inaugural co-chair of the organization.

Yet judging by how Canadians back home perceive the diaspora, people like Leckie—not to mention Lee and his C100 co-founder Chris Albinson—could represent the face of the “brain drain” as much as any of the young engineering grads migrating down from the University of Waterloo or the University of Toronto today. They had intended to come to the Bay Area for a year or two before returning home, but ended up staying. They are giving their time (and, sometimes, money) to help Canadian companies succeed. But they are agnostic on the question of where Canadians should locate their startups, at least in the beginning stages.

“We think people ought to be in the ecosystem here, to be a part of it. If you want to be a giant in tech, you have to spend some time down here. But you don’t have to stay here,” says Lee.

Albinson cringes at “brain drain.” “It’s a term I find horrifically bad for the country,” he says. “No, we’ve always been about supporting Canadian entrepreneurs. But if you’re only doing Canadian entrepreneurship in Canada, that gets away from this idea of flow. There should be no barrier for capital, people or information.”

Some of the people I interviewed for this story live in the Bay Area, while some have returned home to Canada. But none of them say their career trajectories would have been possible had they stayed in Canada, rather than coming to the U.S. for work experience. That’s changing now, but there is too much precedent to think it will end any time soon.

The early 1990s saw a wave of Canadians pouring into the Valley on the crest of the telecom boom. Two cohorts preceded them, but their names and stories are not widely known. This is where the details get sketchy, owing to a lack of published materials. It’s hard to piece together a narrative from the paucity of recorded histories: unlike the volumes of work on Americans (including American immigrants) and their successive technologies, the body of information on Canadian tech achievers is, for the most part, paper-thin.

I’m not the only one who’s noticed, either. “I’ve not come across an historian of Canadian technology. If you find said person, please share their name with me,” John Stackhouse tells me. The former editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail now works for RBC, and is writing a book on the Canadian diaspora. He helped a bit with the following history.

Canadians at U.S. engineering schools in the ‘40s and ‘50s undertook advanced studies and research as part of the Cold War nuclear academic arms race. Starting in the ‘60s, Canadians are thought to have worked at companies like Fairchild Semiconductor, one of the early chipmakers that helped Silicon Valley get its name.

In subsequent years, Canadians were among the engineers who developed software programs, modems and routers at companies on both sides of the border. The University of Waterloo’s computer science program was established in 1964, soon becoming one of the biggest of its kind in the world, catching the eye of companies like IBM. Around that time, U.S. companies started hiring Waterloo grads, a tradition that continues today.

Some important names come up in conversations that track the origin story of Canadians in the Valley—people of Canadian descent whom some of today’s tech cohort have claimed as their forebears. Cecil Green, co-founder of Texas Instruments, was born in England and raised in Vancouver, where he studied at the University of British Columbia in the ‘20s. His financial gift helped build the university’s Green College and a visiting professorship program. Gururaj “Desh” Deshpande is an Indian immigrant who studied at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) and Queen’s University in the late ‘70s. He worked at a Motorola subsidiary in Toronto and later co-founded Sycamore Networks, one of the biggest IPOs of the telecoms era, and endowed an innovation centre at UNB. And then there’s James Gosling, the father of the Java computing language, who was born and raised in Calgary and worked at Sun Microsystems for nearly three decades before moving on to Oracle, Google and Amazon Web Services.

By the ‘90s, Canadians were thick on the ground in early computer software, graphic design, telecoms and mobile. And then they started climbing the masts of the Silicon Valley flagships: Shaan Pruden at Apple, Jeff Skoll at eBay, Don Listwin and Rob Lloyd at Cisco, Jeff Mallett at Yahoo, Doug Roseborough at Oracle and Rob Burgess at Macromedia (now Adobe). The list really does go on—and that’s before you get to today’s top Canadians who occupy the upper ranks at marquee companies like Facebook, Dropbox, Uber, Google, Salesforce, Zynga and Slack.

Silicon Valley Canadians of the late ‘90s and early aughts didn’t have a lot of ways to find each other. There was—and still is—the delightfully-named Digital Moose Lounge, which hosts social gatherings like Canada Day events. Aside from that, people were mostly dispersed, ending up camouflaged among American colleagues at work. Later, when LinkedIn came along, Leckie created a “Canadians in the Bay Area” LinkedIn group, and Canadians started self-identifying. That helped form the basis for C100’s early outreach.

The Canadian ability to blend in has made it surprisingly difficult to pin a number on the population of expats in the Bay Area; various estimates peg it at somewhere between 250,000 and 350,000. Not even Rana Sarkar, consul general of Canada in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, knows for sure. He says, “A good chunk may have dual passports and…are inadvertent Canadians: either their parents are Canadian, or they moved down here at a young age or they’re laying low and have married an American.”

But the central question of what constitutes a Canadian is an interesting one, he reckons. What about people like Deshpande and Musk, who passed through Canada and occasionally reference their maple-leaf roots? “If someone’s mom or dad is a Canadian and they’ve only visited the country a few times, does that mean they’re a Canadian of interest?” Sarkar asks. If the answer is yes, the narrative of the Canadian diaspora will need to be expanded—and many in the Valley think Canada will the better for it.

There’s an expression Albinson, the C100 co-founder, uses often: “When the United States catches a cold, Canada catches the flu.” In 2008, Canada’s tech sector had a bad flu in the midst of the financial crisis. “Canada, as an innovation economy, was on death’s door,” he recalls. “There was no venture capital. There was no angel money. And all over the country, entrepreneurs were losing their companies. Nortel was dead, Research in Motion [known as BlackBerry] was wobbly.”

It took a crisis for Canadians of the Valley to see themselves as a collective asset.

In addition to co-founding C100, Albinson is co-founder of Founders Circle and Panorama Capital. A Kingston boy, he was always intrigued by a painting of the Golden Gate Bridge that his grandmother brought home from a trip to San Francisco. He dislikes hierarchy and the East Coast. And he loves the weather and beauty of his adopted home of Larkspur, a little town in Marin County, Calif., where he meets me in the garden patio of a restaurant with fountains and birdsong.

Back in 2002, when he was a venture capitalist at JP Morgan Partners, Albinson was part of a trip to India designed to showcase the country’s goal of becoming a technology leader by 2020. In Delhi, he witnessed the benefits of viewing Indian expatriates not as a lost liability but rather as an asset. The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) is a Silicon Valley-based non-profit that connects entrepreneurs with South Asian roots around the world with funding, networking, education and mentorship. Founded in 1992, TiE became a model for C100 to emulate in building its own support ecosystem for expats.

By contrast, in 2008, Canada had few startup incubators. And it had a tax law requirement that made foreign venture funding of Canadian startups so difficult that investors were skipping the country altogether—Crunchbase called it “a leper colony for tech entrepreneurs.” Canada eliminated the tax section in 2010, after lobbying by stakeholders like C100, says Albinson.

“We realized the Canadian environment was very fractured,” says Albinson. “One of the reasons why Canada wasn’t having that much success wasn’t that the entrepreneurs weren’t good, but because the ecosystem around them was a mess.”

Albinson and Lee hatched C100 together just minutes after first meeting at an event in Palo Alto sponsored by the Canadian government. The consul general wanted to recruit them to a business advisory board to stimulate industry connections, but they had a better idea.

In January 2009, Albinson stood in front of the 85 most successful Canadians in a conference room on Sand Hill Road, the so-called “Wall Street of the West” in Menlo Park, Calif.. He cleared his throat and issued a call to action on behalf of their homeland. “I looked them in the eye and said, ‘You’ve had the privilege of a passport, you’ve had an amazing education. Because you’re in this room, you’ve had a lot of success down here. You have a responsibility. We want to start this. You owe it to these entrepreneurs to do this.’”

Lee says they felt inspired by Own the Podium, the national campaign (now a non-profit) to invest in Canadian winter sports that helped make Canada the top gold-medal finisher at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. “It was very un-Canadian to say, ‘We’re going to win,’” says Lee, “and I think it was kind of a turning point for the Canadian psyche” (Later, C100 created its own video homage to Own the Podium with a Silicon Valley twist: “It’s about claiming the podium as ours, painting it red and white, crushing it and sprinkling the dust into the eyes of our competitors”).

Albinson and Lee weren’t sure if their pitch would work. It was a novel ask, and people inside the room had no reason to contribute, other than their patriotism. “What I didn’t know was, did the thing that burns inside me about being Canadian, was that in everybody?” says Albinson.

Nearly everyone took out a pen and wrote a cheque for US$850.

What a difference a decade makes. As Canada’s tech sector gains traction, government support and major venture capital from south of the border, the freshly-laid infrastructure convinces top Canadians in the Valley that the growth trend will accelerate. It’s when someone like Montreal native Patrick Pichette moves on from his role as CFO at Google and turns venture capitalist, joining iNovia with the express purpose of elevating Canada’s best startups. Or when homegrown Hootsuite hero Ryan Holmes uses his success to build a national entrepreneurship accelerator to help youth in Canada launch the next big thing.

In 2017, Canadian companies comprised 14 per cent of the Deloitte Technology Fast 500, which tracks the fastest-growing tech companies in North America, up roughly three per cent from the year before.

Today, it’s U.S. venture firms that are working to get in front of Canadian entrepreneurs. Andrew D’Souza, co-founder and CEO of fintech service company Clearbanc, says he personally hears from at least one U.S. venture capitalist a week, usually from San Francisco or New York, asking him for advice on whom they ought to be meeting with in Toronto. “People are starting to wake up and realize there’s great talent and great companies built here,” he says.

It’s no longer strictly a requirement for Canadian entrepreneurs to knock on Silicon Valley doors for Series A funding, or even to base their companies in the Bay Area, says D’Souza. But you do need a “good connection” in the Valley, if only to level-set with the competition. “In Canada it’s very easy to be a big deal before you’ve accomplished very much. You can get in The Globe and Mail and you can get on TV…. It’s helpful to be able to look up and realize you’re actually competing on a global scale.” He co-founded Clearbanc in San Francisco in 2015, but a year later, it was clear the conditions were right for a move to Toronto. Now he recruits from both countries.

Albinson talks about being Canadian as though it were a superpower. “You tell people, ‘I’m Canadian,’ and suddenly you’re into three levels of trust. You need to be very, very careful with that. That’s one of the things I tell the C100 folks: we have this amplification that we’ve been entrusted with, whether we know it or not.”

More than a decade after Canada’s telecoms era sputtered, the country’s tech economy has all the ingredients it needs to dominate. What’s missing right now may not be something C100 can provide.

“It’s almost just a matter of confidence,” says Lee. “One thing I’ve noticed is that Canadians working in any industry will pay more attention to Canadians outside the country. Canadians have always needed outside validation. It’s always been part of the culture.”

He pauses. “Part of what we’re trying to say is, ‘Stop it, already.’”

Americans don’t need to name their success stories constantly because they’re all sewn into the mythology. They’ve managed to make all their disparate stories into American ones—to give them an inevitability. But in this case, history is being made in real time by Canadians at home and abroad in an industry that has little narrative of its own.

Canadians will recall getting intermittent history lessons on TV in the ‘90s by way of “Heritage Minutes”— those iconic national video clips depicting important Canadian moments. They’re how we learned about Canada’s contributions to basketball, Superman and even the real-life bear that was said to have inspired Winnie the Pooh. But why not the father of Java?

“I grew up during the Canadian iconography era,” says Leckie, referring to those film clips. “It’s always been my goal that Canadian tech would have that moment in the sun.”

If that happens, it will need to include the Silicon Valley diaspora.

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Letter of Recommendation: Candle Hour

Sunday, March 18th, 2018

One of my best teenage memories starts with a natural disaster. In January 1998, my parents and I returned to our home in Montreal to find that a giant tree limb had ruptured our living room. What would soon be known as the Great Quebec Ice Storm had struck. It was the most catastrophic in modern Canadian history. Accumulations of freezing rain had cracked our maple tree nearly in half. It shattered our front window, glass fringing the tree limb like a body outline in a murder scene.

Outside, downed power lines sparked like electric snakes. More than a million Quebecers were left without power. Cars were crushed and impaled by fallen limbs. Because the ice could inflict violence at any moment, everyone retreated indoors, making for an oddly quiet state of emergency. Except for the distant beeps of electrical-crew trucks, all you could hear was the crack of trees buckling under the weight of the ice, day and night. Long after the sidewalks were cleared, we tiptoed past the eaves of tall buildings and kept our voices low, steering clear of icicles thick as baseball bats and sharp as spikes, primed to fall at any moment.

For seven days and seven nights, until the power returned, we lived by candlelight. We learned to be mindful of candles: how to stand them up, walk with them, nurture their light. At first it was maddening to cook dinner — to carefully carry a plate of candles to the cupboard, poke around for ingredients, then go off again in search of a knife, taking care not to drip wax into the cutlery drawer. I learned how to brush my teeth and bathe by candlelight; the light bounced off the mirrors, making the bathroom for once the brightest room in the house. In our bedrooms, we piled under blankets and read ourselves to sleep by the flickering flames.

Outside, our neighborhood descended into darkness at twilight, but if I stared hard enough at windows blurred with ice, I could just make out little dancing lights. Decades later, no one in my family remembers what we talked about, or ate, or how we spent our afternoons that week. But we all remember the candles.

The Montreal Ice Storm, 1998. (Archives de Montreal)

I’ve since settled in California, and last January events in the world left me with a hunger for silence. I adopted a strict information diet: no television news or social media. One evening, I didn’t even bother to flick on the lights in my apartment. I walked quietly to the window and watched the last of the day, the darkness swallowing the trees along my street. Instinctively, I went looking for a book of matches in the back of the kitchen junk drawer. Opening a closet, I felt around until I discovered the remnant of a housewarming gift: a milk-white candle. I struck a match and lit the dusty wick. I commandeered a plate from the cupboard and set it on my coffee table. I nestled in a blanket, listening to the wind in the courtyard. Eventually, for the first time in too many days, I found myself surrendering to sleep.

That was the start of a practice I’ve taken to calling Candle Hour. An hour before I go to bed, I turn off all my devices for the night. I hit the lights. I light a candle or two or three — enough to read a book by, or to just sit and stare at the flame, which, by drawing oxygen, reminds me I need to breathe, too. I surround myself with scents and objects I like — some fresh rosemary plucked from a neighbor’s bush, a jar of redwood seed pods. I have a journal ready, but I don’t pressure myself to write in it. Candle Hour doesn’t even need to last a full hour, though; sometimes it lasts far longer. I sit until I feel an uncoupling from the chaos, or until the candle burns all the way down, or sometimes both.

Candle Hour has become a soul-level bulwark against so many different kinds of darkness. I feel myself slipping not just out of my day but out of time itself. I shunt aside outrages and anxieties. I find the less conditional, more indomitable version of myself. It’s that version I send into my dreams.

At night, by candlelight, the world feels enduring, ancient and slow. To sit and stare at a candle is to drop through a portal to a time when firelight was the alpha and omega of our days. We are evolved for the task of living by candlelight and maladapted to living the way we live now. Studies have noted the disruptive effects of nighttime exposure to blue-spectrum light — the sort emanated by our devices — on the human circadian rhythm. The screens trick us into thinking we need to stay alert, because our brains register their wavelength as they would the approach of daylight. But light on the red end of the spectrum sends a much weaker signal. In the long era of fire and candlelight, our bodies were unconfused as they began to uncoil.

Tonight’s candlelight will cast the same glow on my Oakland walls as it did on my parents’ walls in Montreal in 1998. I’ll feel in my bones that the day has passed — as all days, even fearful ones, eventually do. The day’s last act is cast in flickering gold. I’ll watch the flame bob and let my mind wander, until I realize I’m sleepy. After a while, I’ll lean over and blow it out, ready now for darkness — where renewal begins.

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Beyond #MeToo: Teaching Boys About Consent

Wednesday, January 24th, 2018

Coaching Boys Into Men

When is the right time to start teaching young boys about consent, boundaries and respect toward women?

A nationwide program called Coaching Boys Into Men trains school coaches to work with boys as young as 11, who are on their school’s athletic teams. Boys trust their coaches, and the conversations that ensue are designed to plant seeds that will help prevent abuse — and give young men the tools to speak up when they see something that’s not right.

Student athletes are often the leaders at their schools, and they can set the tone for the other students.

At Petaluma Junior High School, former student Danny Marzo and Athletic Director Zach Dee told us about how the program has led to changes on a personal level in the school culture overall.

This story was part of a series on KQED’s The California Report, Beyond #MeToo: Sex, Abuse and Power Through a California Lens .

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What Makes San Francisco Sourdough Unique?

Thursday, April 20th, 2017

If bagels are a New York thing, San Francisco definitely has sourdough. And probably no one has convinced more people that our sourdough is unique than Boudin Bakery, where tourists line up at Fisherman’s Wharf for a taste of that moist-tangy, fogbound delight.

Bay Area native (and KQED staffer) Peter Cavagnaro has been eating local sourdough all his life. It’s his favorite bread. And that got him wondering about something. He asked KQED’s Bay Curious….

“What makes San Francisco sourdough so unique?”

Here at KQED, we’ve always heard there’s something in the water or the air that makes our sourdough special. But is that really true?

It turns out that this is as much a science question as it is about the history and local mythology of our “authentic” local sourdough. By the time I had the answer, I also had 2 pounds of smelly homemade sourdough starter fermenting at home, and the results of a lab test that described the microbes living in it.

Taste the Microbes

To understand what makes our bread taste the way it does, you need to know how bread gets started. My investigation began in the fermentation room at Semifreddi’s bakery in Alameda, one of the best-known local producers of sourdough, along with Acme Bread Company and Tartine Bakery.

The fermentation room is the inner sanctum of the bakery. It’s a very cold, stainless-steel vault where 300 yellow buckets brim with slow-bubbling beige goop: future sourdough. I stood there, shivering in a hairnet, with co-owner Mike Rose and head baker John Tredgold.

Rose is a soft-spoken man who talks about sourdough with wonderment, as if it’s alive — which it is, with millions of microbes.

“Can you hear it? It’s hungry,” Rose said. “It will be fed later today. It gets fed once a day. Equal parts flour and water.”

Before sourdough gets baked, it has to be grown. Born as a primordial glop, aptly called starter. All it needs to grow, as Rose said, is flour and water. And time. That’s it. If you add anything else, it’s not real sourdough. Eventually, the sugars in the flour start to break down, and fermentation happens on its own.

Tredgold handed me a plastic spoon and pointed me to a bucket. I could see bubbles rising to the surface of the bucket — a sure sign of microbial activity. The starter tasted like very sour yogurt to me, but Tredgold treated the experience like tasting a fine wine, smelling and savoring.

“This is more like creme fraiche,” he said. “It makes you salivate, it makes you excited to eat more.”

The author’s starter, looking healthy with lots of air pockets.

Flour, Water, Temperature, Time

Semifreddi’s produces 9,500 loaves of sourdough each day. But no two loaves taste exactly alike. And that’s because the starter is alive with millions of wild yeast cells and naturally occurring bacteria. The yeast makes the bread rise. And the bacteria create the acids that make the bread sour.

The flavors vary from day to day, and batch to batch. Sourdough is one of the most ancient breads, dating back at least 5,000 years. It’s reasonably easy to create a starter from scratch, but tricky to master the triple arts of crust, crumb and flavor when baking. So much depends on capturing enough wild yeast to make the bread light and airy. (Adding commercial yeast is not a permitted technique at the baking stage if the goal is authentic, old-fashioned sourdough).

“We try to control it by temperature and time. And our hands. It’s never fully totally under control, because we’re dealing with natural organisms,” said Rose. “I love it,” he added with a grin.

Rose was so passionate that I decided to try growing my own sourdough starter at home (more on that below).

The Boudin Lore

A little voice nagged at me, though. Anyone can make sourdough, but would it be authentic if it wasn’t born in San Francisco? (I live in Oakland).

No one has convinced more people about the unique qualities of San Francisco sourdough than Boudin, which says it’s been selling the same loaf of bread for 168 years. According to the Boudin Bakery museum at Fisherman’s Wharf, the company’s mother dough follows an unbroken line back to the Gold Rush in 1849. Louise Boudin even saved the starter from a burning building in the 1906 earthquake.

A museum docent told me the starter is so special and irreplaceable that the Boudin mothership sends its retail stores fresh starter every 23 days. Without it, they say the sourdough those stores produce would stop tasting like San Francisco sourdough and start tasting like San Diego or Sacramento sourdough.

Why? Well, according to the museum, Boudin bread owes its special flavor to a strain of bacteria that thrives only in San Francisco’s climate. Scientists identified it here in 1970, so they named it Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis.


Not That Unique, Actually

It’s a great story. Too bad it’s not quite true.

Scientists did identify Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis here. But recent studies have found it in up to 90 percent of countries where sourdough is produced. So from a biological standpoint, San Francisco sourdough is not all that distinctive.

“It’s something that everyone thinks is unique to San Francisco and that is not true at all,” said Ben Wolfe, a microbiologist at Tufts University in Boston. His lab studies fermentation full time … including the microbes you find in sourdough.

So, case closed? Not quite.

Boudin Bakery says their decades-old starter is the key to the bread’s flavor.


Science is still learning about the lactic acid bacteria (like L. sanfranciscensis) that give sourdough its main sour flavor. Other fermented foods have lactic acids, too, like miso, yogurt and kimchi.

But scientists don’t know where they come from. Or how they get into your sourdough starter when you make it in your kitchen.

One explanation is that the bacteria could be in the flour to begin with. So when you go to the store and buy a bag of flour, it’s not sterile. They could also be on your skin or floating around your kitchen, but Wolfe says those are less likely to become the dominant bacteria in your starter.

“This is one of the big questions we’re trying to answer in our story of American sourdough: Where are the lactic acid bacteria coming from?” said Wolfe.

The Sourdough Project

There’s never been a large-scale study in home kitchens to really identify the sources of bacteria at home.

Until now.

Wolfe’s lab has partnered with the Rob Dunn Lab at North Carolina State University on the Sourdough Project, the first comprehensive effort to test the DNA of sourdough starters across America — and understand the evolutionary biology that underlies the differences among starters.

The Sourdough Project is soliciting hundreds of sourdough starter samples from amateur and professional bread bakers across the country. (To participate in this public science project, get started by filling out this questionnaire).

Scientists will analyze samples to answer the baseline question: How variable are the microbes from region to region? And how much variability can be attributed to the grain of the bread, versus the air, the water or the humans involved?

There are so many factors. Wolfe ticks them off.

“It could be the time that people ferment their breads. It could be the temperature. It could be a special set of recipes used in San Francisco than in other places.”

When I told him I was growing my own sourdough starter, he offered to analyze it.

So while science may yet discover something special is lurking in our sourdough, Wolfe isn’t holding his breath.

Not even the bakers at Semifreddi’s, a company that has been in a position to benefit from the reputation of local sourdough, embrace the cachet.

Semifreddi’s head baker Tredgold says it’s pure marketing.

“It sells the city. It’s one of the things the city’s known for. The bridge, the bay, the sourdough.”

And Rose, the co-owner of the bakery, added: “If we take our local starter and bake with it in Los Angeles, I think it will taste very similar to what we’re making here,” he said.

Blasphemy! But possibly … true.

My Kitchen Sourdough Experiment: Results

My own sourdough experiment lasted more than a month. I used King Arthur whole wheat flour and kept my mixture on the kitchen counter. As it grew, it smelled distressingly like vomit before it mellowed. At one point it almost spilled out of the Tupperware I’d been keeping it in.

As my starter matured, it needed to be fed twice a day on a regular schedule. I raced home from work to give it more flour and water, spoke to it, and pampered it with field trips out to the balcony to give it some exposure to the Oakland atmosphere. (In spite of what I learned about the uncertainty of the science of microbes in sourdough, I still pictured my starter capturing beneficial wild yeast and bacteria from the atmosphere.)

I don’t have pets or children, so I took photos of my starter’s regular maturity and forced my friends to admire them.

But the most important question was: How did it taste? I baked two little loaves and brought them into the KQED newsroom to get some brutally honest feedback from fellow reporters.

Julia Scott, left, and Bay Curious podcast host Olivia Allen-Price enjoy the fruits of Scott’s labor in the KQED newsroom — some homemade sourdough bread.

Being a first-time baker, you can imagine how this went. The loaves were so dense they had almost no air pockets. They weighed at least 3 pounds and were nearly rock-hard. My colleagues at KQED charitably praised the taste, but it was clear something had gone wrong in the baking process … or with the starter itself.

A few weeks later, I got my sourdough DNA results back from Ben Wolfe’s Tufts lab. My starter had two bacterial species: Lactobacillus brevis and Lactobacillus plantarum; and one yeast species: Wickerhamomyces anomalus. All of which are very commonly found in sourdough starters made around the world, according to Wolfe. It’s also common to have no more than a few species of yeast and bacteria in any given starter.

But that one bacterium once believed to make our bread so special — Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis? My bread didn’t have any. Would things have gone differently if it had shown up? I may never know.

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Heavyweight episode: “Julia”

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016


What happens when you go back and open the door to a time in your childhood that you tried to forget? Heavyweight host Jonathan Goldstein and I found out together.

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The Loneliest Man in Belize

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

‘Rozco! Love you, hon!” cried a man in baggy jeans. His shout, insincere and taunting, was aimed at the back of Caleb Orozco, a 41-year-old man walking along a row of tarp-covered souvenir stands near one of Belize City’s ferry terminals. Orozco’s only acknowledgment was to walk a little faster, car keys clutched in his hand. It was a hot December afternoon, a week before Christmas, high season in the city’s tourist zone. Two policemen appraised Orozco but said nothing as more taunts flew. “Saw you on TV!” a woman dressed in white jeered from her craft stand, where she sold carved wooden boats. Farther down the sidewalk, two men snickered. “Caleb! You done rub too hard!” leered a man in a blue baseball cap, pointing to Orozco’s crotch.

Batiman!” someone called from the shade of a food­-cart umbrella.

In Belize — a small Anglophone Caribbean nation tucked into the eastern flank of Guatemala and Mexico — “batiman” (Creole for, literally, “butt man”) has long been the supreme slur against gay men, the worst possible insult to their personhood and dignity. But now another slur is beginning to take its place: “Orozco.”

Caleb Orozco. Photo credit Julia Scott

Caleb Orozco. Photo credit Julia Scott

Five years ago, Orozco’s lawyer walked into the Belize Supreme Court Registry and handed over a stack of papers that initiated the first challenge in Caribbean history to the criminalization of sodomy. Caleb Orozco v. the Attorney General of Belize focuses on Section 53, a statute in the Belize criminal code that calls for a 10-year prison term for “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” If Orozco won, his supporters hoped, it would establish a moral precedent across the Caribbean and even create a domino effect, putting pressure on other governments to decriminalize sodomy. But it took three years for the Supreme Court to hear the case; two years later, the nation still awaits a verdict.

In the meantime, Orozco operates the United Belize Advocacy Movement, or Unibam, the only gay ­rights advocacy and policy group in Belize, out of his home in a thick-walled compound on Zericote Street, where stray dogs nose for food scraps in the dirt. The walls are topped with broken shards of glass and rusty, upside-down nails. A seven-foot-tall security gate barricades his driveway. When home, he must remember to lock all six locks — two for his house, two for his office and two padlocks on the gate for good measure. Those precautions do not prevent Orozco’s neighbor or people walking by his house from throwing rocks and bottles over the walls, shouting, “Aala unu fu ded” (“All of you should die”). Other residents have picked up two-­by-fours and chased him in the street. People stone Orozco’s house frequently enough that he rarely bothers to call the police at this point. (This being Belize, a country with a population of just 360,000, he sometimes knows whoever is throwing the rocks on Zericote Street anyway.)

Orozco’s natural habitat, the place where he feels powerful and at ease, is in front of his pink laptop in his office, a squat outbuilding with barred windows. Inside these walls, no one will disparage his manner of dress: snug graphic tee, stylish camo-print shorts and black Keds that hug his feet like shapely hooves. No one will comment on the way he styles his hank of hair, with a flip to the left and some highlights that tend to come out looking gray. He greets clients and funders with a soft handshake and a wry joke — usually at his own expense. When they leave, he spends hours online in the growing dark, sometimes past midnight.

“Did you know we caused the floods in Belize?” he remarked airily, scrolling through headlines on a local news site. “There’s an actual comment from a man who says so.” Later he double-­locked his office doors and led the way across a yard strung with empty clothing lines, dry grass crackling underfoot. He paused for a few moments, listening for unrest from his neighbor’s house, before mounting the heavily sagging steps. He jerked open the sticky door. The floor tipped at an angle, and the ceiling was patched and moldy. One window had holes big enough for him to poke his head through. “My house is like my life — a hot mess,” he said, making his favorite joke with a wan smile.

He is Belize’s most reviled homosexual and its most ostracized citizen, a man whom fundamentalists pray for and passers-by scorn; a marked man at 30 paces. His weary face is on the evening news and in newspaper caricatures, which have depicted him in fishnets and heels. His name is now a label, one used to remind other gays that they are sinners and public offenders. Win or lose, Orozco’s fight for his fundamental rights and freedoms will follow him for the rest of his life.

Americans and Europeans visit Belize for all the things that make “the Jewel” an ideal place to relax: coral reefs, paradisiacal white beaches, a green-azure sea. It is a deeply Christian country, with a Constitution that proclaims the “supremacy of God” as a first principle. Recently, it has seen a surge in Pentecostalism and other proselytizing strains of faith. Although bounded on two sides by Latin American countries with more liberal attitudes toward same-sex relationships, Belize retains a culture more closely aligned with Caribbean countries whose perspectives were colored by 200 years of British occupation. There is an ethos of “live and let live,” but only as long as the gay community remains invisible. Gay couples cohabitate and quietly raise children, but without demanding legal recognition. Couples don’t hold hands in public. No hate-crime laws exist to punish targeted assaults.

Formerly British Honduras, Belize gained independence in 1981, inheriting most of its governing documents from its former master. Section 53 is an artifact of Belize’s colonial past dating to the 1880s. The British bequeathed similar “buggery” laws to all 11 other Caribbean countries once ruled by the crown. (The Bahamas has subsequently removed them.) Buggery became a criminal offense in the England of King Henry VIII in 1533. Of the 76 countries that still criminalize sodomy around the world today, most do so as a holdover from British colonial rule. (Britain repealed its buggery laws in 2003.) In Belize, anti­gay laws extend beyond the criminal code: Homosexuals are still technically an explicit class of prohibited immigrants, along with prostitutes, “any idiot,” the insane and “any person who is deaf and dumb.”

Much as with Lawrence v. Texas, the case whose resolution in the United States Supreme Court invalidated anti-­sodomy laws still on the books in 13 states, Orozco’s challenge is less about sodomy than about discrimination. Even the most zealous Christian leaders, the ones leading the crusade to keep Section 53 on the books, acknowledge that law or no law, sodomy does happen in the privacy of bedrooms in Belize — and not just between gay men, either. Despite the fact that the law is rarely enforced, Orozco and his lawyers say that the threat of indictment encourages public harassment, threats and occasional violence against many gays and lesbians, who have little recourse. The police sometimes charge hush money not to turn people in, according to Lisa Shoman, one of Orozco’s attorneys. The Belize attorney general told me that he personally believes that Section 53 is discriminatory, though his office is obligated to defend it in court.

Orozco is an unlikely instigator of this challenge. He wasn’t politically galvanized until he was 31, when he went to a workshop for gay men and people living with H.I.V. at a public health conference in Belize City. One by one, the men stood up, spoke their names and added, “I have H.I.V.” or “I have sex with men.” Orozco was bowled over. “I got up and said, ‘By the way, I like men.’ I realized that you perpetuate your own mistreatment by remaining silent. And I decided I would not be silent anymore.”

A year later, he helped found Unibam as a public-­health advocacy group for gay men. Until that point, Orozco had never paid much attention to the H.I.V. epidemic in his country. Even after one of his uncles, who was gay, died from complications related to AIDS, Orozco didn’t fully grasp what had killed him. He couldn’t acknowledge being gay — to others or himself — until well into his college years. “People would ask me, ‘Are you gay?’ And I would say stupid things like: ‘I’m trisexual. I’ll try anything just once,’ ” he recalled. “The truth was, I wouldn’t try anything.” He didn’t have sex until he was 23, and when he did, he felt pressured into it. He has never had a long-­term boyfriend. The men Orozco knows won’t be seen with him. “There was one man who would only want me to pick him up after 8 o’clock at night,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I think about it all the time — is this the price I’m paying? To have no love life? To be the one publicly gay man in Belize? To be the most socially isolated?”

Caleb Orozco in Belize City. Photo credit Julia Scott


Orozco did not have litigation on his mind at an H.I.V. conference in Jamaica in 2009 when he spoke to two law professors — one Jamaican, one Guyanese — with the University of the West Indies Rights Advocacy Project, which they had recently founded with a colleague to focus on human rights in the Caribbean. They had been studying bans on same-­sex relationships, laying the groundwork for a test case that, if successful, could encourage similar legal challenges in neighboring countries. Belize was ideal: It had a Constitution with stronger personal privacy and equality protections than other Caribbean countries. From a human rights point of view, it was a case they thought they could win.

When Orozco heard this, he recalled, “I put up my hand — literally — and said: ‘What about me? I’m ready since yesterday. How can we do this?’ ” But even as he signed the legal papers, litigation itself was never the point. “I realized the case was simply a tool to create a national dialogue,” he said. “It isn’t just Section 53. It’s adoption. It’s Social Security. It’s not having the first say of the health of your partner. There’s the dignity issues, which haven’t been recognized.”

The legal challenge was a controversial move in Belize’s gay community, where the question of gay rights — what they are and how to get them — is a conversation that has just barely begun. Belize has never had an inciting incident to catalyze a movement, like the 1969 Stonewall uprising. There is no annual Gay Pride parade. No member of government or other prominent figure has ever come out. No gay bars or ritual “safe spaces” exist as places for people to meet, just carefully organized house parties and private encounters on Facebook. The L.G.B.T. community in Belize, with the exception of a dedicated corps of organizers and supporters, remains timid, fractured and apolitical. Unibam itself has only 128 members, in part because of people’s concern that their names could be made public. “Don’t ask, don’t tell — that’s the way with just about everything here,” said Kelvin Ramnarace, a Unibam board member. “It doesn’t mean progress. It’s one thing to not have rights and know it. Here you think you do, because it’s not so hard to live here. But we don’t.”

But Orozco’s lawyers had reasons to hope that a softening was at hand. The tone had already begun to shift across much of neighboring Latin America, where activists were laying the groundwork for a string of victories. Today, six Latin American countries recognize same-­sex marriage or civil unions. Eleven countries have banned employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, and seven countries protect L.G.B.T. citizens against hate crimes.

“Even though people said they anticipated some backlash in Belize, almost all the groups I spoke to seemed favorable,” said Arif Bulkan, the Guyanese lawyer Orozco met at the H.I.V. conference. Bulkan and his colleagues spoke to a range of Belizean civil-­society groups and local leaders, including those in the church establishment. He recalled an important meeting with the president, at the time, of the Belize Council of Churches, which encompasses Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians. “He said they wouldn’t support us openly,” Bulkan said, “but they wouldn’t oppose us either.”

So Orozco had few reasons to think he might regret putting his reputation, and Unibam’s, on the line. Today, he shakes his head like a man in a dream. “I just thought it was going to be some litigation,” he said. “I didn’t expect opponents, didn’t expect propaganda and all that other stuff that happened.” He paused. “I really didn’t.”

In Belize, church leaders are granted deference in the press and by lawmakers on social issues. But in large part, the ecclesiastical focus has always been on the spiritual rather than the political realm. So Orozco was blindsided by the announcement, soon after the suit was filed, that the Roman Catholic Church of Belize, the Belize Evangelical Association of Churches and the Anglican Church had together joined the case on the government’s side as an “interested party,” a legal distinction that allowed them to hire lawyers, file motions and be heard during the trial. More than 400 church leaders and ministries came together to mobilize their adherents in the name of public morality. In another first for Belize, church leaders founded a nationwide activist campaign, Belize Action, and began drawing thousands of believers to rallies that denounced the “homosexual agenda.”

The churches also flexed their legal muscle in a pretrial motion to remove Unibam as a claimant in the case; as an organization, they argued, it had no standing to challenge the law. Their motion succeeded. Suddenly Orozco was the sole claimant. The case would come down to whether Orozco’s personal human rights had been violated. He was hounded for interviews, and his name was broadcast all over the world. Someone posted a video to YouTube called “[Expletive] Unibam dis da Belize,” with a photo of Orozco. He received death threats when his name was printed. Shoman, an opposition senator in the National Assembly of Belize as well as one of his lawyers, received explicit rape threats. One day, Orozco was walking downtown, alone, when a man on a bicycle, shouting antigay slurs, threw an empty beer bottle at Orozco’s head. It smacked him on the jaw and cracked two of his molars. After taking his statement, “the police said, ‘If you find who did this, tell us, and we will pick them up.’ Why is that my responsibility?” he asked me with a sardonic smile.

Before the churches joined the case, Orozco allowed three organizations to join forces as an interested party on his side: the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, the International Commission of Jurists and the Human Dignity Trust, major transnational nongovernmental organizations with global standing, large budgets and access to the best human ­rights lawyers in the world. “I thought that using interested parties from the international community would have brought some kind of leverage,” he told me.

But the presence of these foreign groups, even on paper, allowed Orozco’s enemies to reframe the case as an act of cultural aggression by the global north. According to Bulkan, “a lot of the negative press after that was about foreigners coming in.” Prime Minister Dean Barrow told a local news station: “One of the things that we have to be grateful for in this country is the culture wars we see in the United States have not been imported into Belize. Well, obviously, this is the start of exactly such a phenomenon.” The United States and Europe were meddling colonizers, Orozco their traitorous pawn. Orozco’s religious opponents referred to victories for same-­sex marriage in California and Canada as further evidence of the true agenda at work in Belize. “It puts a lot of pressure on us,” Orozco said. “When we started this, we weren’t thinking about gay marriage.”

Opponents made much of the fact that Unibam receives all of its budget, around $35,000 a year, from foreign governments and foundations, including the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives, the Swiss Embassy in Mexico City and the Open Society Foundations. “Is Unibam being used for a foreign gay agenda?” one news station asked. The Amandala, the nation’s largest newspaper, published a page-­long editorial under the headline “UNIBAM DIVIDES BELIZE.” “Homosexuals are predators of young and teenaged boys,” wrote the editor in chief, Russell Vellos, in a separate column. “Woe unto us, Belize, if homosexuals are successful in our court. Woe unto us! In fact, since ours is a ‘test case,’ woe unto the world!”

The headquarters of Unibam. Photo credit Julia Scott


Six days a week, Orozco drives to his mother’s squat rental in a Belize City suburb and sits down at her glass kitchen table. Perla Ozeata, a matter-­of-fact woman with the same dark eyes as her son’s, serves up his favorites: steaming dark bowls of chimole, a Belizean specialty; escabeche with chicken and whole jalapeños; and her special cheesecake. Strangers have cursed her for “encouraging” her son to be gay, but she is proud of him. The first day Orozco went to court, he wore clothes his mother bought him. She ironed his shirt and tied his tie. Sometimes when she looks at him, she still sees the friendless schoolboy who played in the yard by himself, catching lizards and trying to avoid his bullies and his father’s chronic disapproval. She intends to one day tear down the house on Zericote Street and rebuild, so she can move back in with him and protect him. “Somebody have to live with Caleb, because people take advantage of him,” she told me one afternoon. “Caleb no fighter. He can fight out the mouth, but he can’t fight physical.” At one point, when Orozco was out of earshot, she said in a low voice: “Every time he walk the street, they promise to kill him. Win or lose the case, they’ll kill him.”

These days Orozco leaves his compound on foot for only two reasons: to walk to the bank (10 minutes) or to the market for groceries (five minutes). On good days, he can make the 10-minute walk in seven and the five-minute one in three. But even inside a place of commerce, things can go awry. “A gentleman said he wanted to push his bat up my you-­know-­what,” Orozco told me at one point. “I was at the bank. I had my nieces with me.”

He was sitting on his messy bed, his knees pressed together. His clothes were jammed into a dresser decorated with peeling children’s stickers. Twice a day, Orozco brushes his teeth over the tub because he doesn’t have a sink. The walls are a single run of wooden slats with holes like gapped teeth, so pests are a problem. “Compare rats to spiders, and I prefer spiders,” he said.

Coming out is supposed to broaden your world. Orozco’s world has narrowed to the space between these walls. Some days the tension in his neck hurts so badly that he resorts to painkillers. Other days he just feels numb. He doesn’t answer his cellphone when it rings and just watches TV until he drops off to sleep. “I don’t like feeling trapped,” he acknowledged. “But I cannot afford to lose myself in this work. I create my own social space, completely.”

Once in a while he takes a chance on a night out at Dino’s, a dance club in downtown Belize City. But he never goes without a friend. At midnight one Saturday, Orozco parked near a faded billboard with a picture of a sad-looking woman and the message “ABORTION: ONE DEAD, ONE WOUNDED.” With his sister Golda, her husband and a friend, he ascended a narrow concrete stairwell to a long, dark room with earsplitting Caribbean dance music. “This is what we do,” Orozco said, shrugging. It’s an in-­joke that Belize City’s only gay-friendly club is on Queen Street. Drag queens have performed as dancers and singers, but on most nights, like the night we visited, the club is filled with straight couples grinding up against the plywood walls. “Not a lot of gays here,” I said. Orozco replied, “That’s the challenge.”

There were a lot of watchful eyes at Dino’s. Camo-clad security guards, grim-faced and armed, scanned the crowd for troublemakers. Hand-painted brontosaurs and stegosauri stared out from the walls, rendered with cartoon menace in Day-­Glo colors under black light. As the dancers watched one another, they took in Orozco, taller than most Belizean men at 5-foot-11, as he stood by the door for a long time in burnt-­orange slacks and natty brogues, sipping a Coke over ice. He watched them back, seeming very ill at ease.

Orozco counted eight members of his tribe in the room that night. He knew all their names, professions and stories. But in four hours, only one, a contractor who had done some work with Unibam, approached Orozco and his group to say hello. Orozco approached no one at all. “I don’t have many friends,” he acknowledged later on. “You turn left, you have criticism. You turn right, you have indifference.” He has warm relationships with his clients and colleagues, but he doesn’t socialize.

Ramnarace, the Unibam board member, told me that he supports Orozco as a leader, but that others in the gay community have their doubts. “Internationally, I think he is more accepted than he is locally,” Ramnarace said. “Because when he says certain things here, he doesn’t always come across well.” In interviews, Orozco can appear peevish or overly cerebral, seeming impatient with his interviewer or else resorting to the programmatic lexicon he uses at human rights meetings. “But still,” Ramnarace went on, “he’s a brave little bitch to go do that, even to fumble. It isn’t easy to do, not here, not alone, a little Hispanic guy.”

Orozco used to love going out dancing late at night. One memorable time at Dino’s, he made out with a man in public, right there on the dance floor. Tonight, he and his small group formed a circle in the darkest part of the room. Golda began to dance in her gold sandals and light flowered dress, smiling at her older brother in an encouraging way. Her husband and their friend danced at her sides. Orozco, expressionless, planted himself near a pillar and began moving in place, gazing down at the floor. “As long as I don’t see an eye looking at me, I can lose myself in the music,” he said. “I just don’t want to be conscious of anyone’s eyes looking at me.”

It has now been 24 months since the hearings on Section 53, with no word on when Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin will deliver a decision. The Supreme Court does not have a calendar for decisions, and sources close to the case have refused to speculate as to the cause of the unusual delay. The Supreme Court Registry did not answer a request for comment. “Unfortunately, civil matters in this country do proceed at a very slow pace,” Shoman said. “But I could never have imagined that something of this magnitude, a case regarding the personal liberty of the citizens, should take so long.” She and the rest of Orozco’s legal team have sent multiple letters to the registrar general but received no reply.

Caleb Orozco in his office. Photo credit Julia Scott

Caleb Orozco in his office. Photo credit Julia Scott

Jonathan Cooper, the chief executive of the Human Dignity Trust, is just as eager for results. “The ramification of the Belize decision will be felt across the Commonwealth, if not beyond,” he told me. Because either side is likely to appeal any decision all the way to the Caribbean Court of Justice, the highest court for not only Belize but also Barbados, Dominica and Guyana, the controversy (and Orozco’s notoriety) is likely to spill over into those nations as well. And then there is the matter of international human rights law. The legal groups invoked the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights in their argument, with the knowledge that should the appeals court rule in Orozco’s favor on that basis, other jurisdictions would find the criminalization of sodomy very hard to justify.

After waiting so many years, Orozco has made a decision of his own. Shortly after the court hearings, he quietly stepped down as the president of Unibam. He stayed on as its executive director, but he told me that he hopes to leave that post next year. “I’ve come to realize that I’ve sacrificed my life to this work,” he said. “And I wake up to an empty bed and a pillow. And what does that say about me?”

These are not the words of a Harvey Milk revolutionary, and in fact Orozco doesn’t see himself in the mold of Milk, who was murdered at 48. But Orozco has believed for some time now that he won’t outlive his middle age. “My larger goal is to survive to the end of my case,” he said. “They said that if something should happen to me, the case would be over. I’ve invested seven years of my life in this thing, and I don’t want to throw that away.”

Orozco has come to the conclusion that the big changes he thought were within reach five years ago are actually a generation away. Living in Belize as a gay man or woman is like peering across a demilitarized zone with a pair of binoculars. If he took a four-­hour bus ride to Chetumal, Mexico, Orozco would enjoy the right to marry. Someday, Orozco may tear down his house and rebuild it. He may go to law school or pick up the business-administration career he left behind. But he has ruled out leaving Belize. He loves his family too much. He hopes that with time, most of his fellow Belizeans will learn not to judge. “Our opponents have been fear-mongering,” he said. “Most people could care less what I do in my bedroom.”

One afternoon, Orozco took his least favorite walk, to the bank. He rose from his office chair, turned off the fan, cut the lights, locked all six locks and stepped out in a brown tie-dye button-down and knee­-length cotton pinstripe shorts. The narrow downtown streets were clogged with cars short on mufflers, long on horns. He passed bakeries and pharmacies and street vendors hawking bags of peanuts and dried fruit and discount clothing stores blaring pop music.

Stoop-­sitters on Central American Boulevard nudged one another and gestured. A man in a truck driver’s uniform, smoking a cigarette, quietly watched Orozco go by, then spat and uttered a profanity. Two adolescent girls turned to look back at his retreating form, then doubled over with laughter. Three construction workers, legs dangling in a muddy trench, looked up as Orozco walked past. “Hey, Belize bwai!” they shouted. “Hoo da fayri, butt bwai?”

A few steps from the bank, Orozco passed two women alongside a young girl with her hair tied back in braids, wearing gold sandals and a flouncy white dress. She gazed at Orozco with curiosity. Then she looked up. “Mama,” she said, “that’s a batiman.”

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My Bed Runneth Over

Sunday, February 15th, 2015

“So are you guys in an equilateral triangle, or are you more of a V?”

A dark-haired woman leans over to an eager-looking young couple seated next to her and holds up her thumb and forefinger. Each of the V signifies a person; the fleshy connective tissue between them stands for the partner to whom they’re both sexually connected. Her hand gesture is intended as an icebreaker, but the couple pause awkwardly, as if they don’t know exactly how to answer.

Courtesy San Francisco Magazine

In polyamorous relationships, knowing where you stand is crucial, but often hard to figure out. Whether you have 2 partners or 10, managing multiple liaisons can feel like walking a tightrope—which is perhaps why the perplexed couple have come to this unmarked warehouse on Mission Street that houses the Center for Sex and Culture. Tonight’s Open Relationship Discussion Group is exploring “Threesomes and Moresomes.” The attendees—a total of 22 men and women, a commendable turnout for a Monday night in November—sit in a neat circle, jittering with the same blend of excitement and anxiety that you might find in a roomful of people training for their first parachute jump.

Coats still on against the chill of the unheated room, the gathered polyamorists try not to stare too obviously at the painted nudes on the wall, rendered in various poses of masturbation and frottage. It’s a hip-looking crowd, mostly in their 30s and 40s, white, and flying solo, though there are a few couples and one triad: two women and a man who stroke each other’s hands and listen, but never speak.

When Marcia Baczynski, a relationship coach and tonight’s discussion leader, asks how many people are new to the group, nearly half raise their hands. Some of them are new to poly altogether, including one smartly dressed woman who met the love of her life—a married man—on OkCupid six months ago. With his wife’s consent, she and the man started a passionate affair. Little by little, the two women grew to care for each other as well, to the point that the three of them now sleep in the same bed.

“If I hadn’t fallen in love with him,” the woman says, “I wouldn’t have been able to develop feelings for her. They’ve been together 17 years, and sometimes I see them as the same person.” She gestures toward the man on her left, who smiles and takes her hand. Then her face falls: The wife, who is not present tonight, is pregnant. “There’s this other large need that I have,” the woman confesses, “to get married and have kids. There’s a huge guilt in me for wanting to date other men. I’m afraid I’ll hurt him if I do.” She starts to cry. The room is silent until the man speaks up: “I’ve told her that the last time I loved someone this much, I married her. I don’t know what to do with this.”

Someone asks whether the two of them have talked about having a child together. They have, and they may. “But that’s the hard part for me,” the woman says. “It’s so not what my parents wanted for me. It’s not the social norm.” Everyone nods.


“Jealousy, time management, and lack of clarity around what you’re doing.” Baczynski ticks off the three most common pitfalls that beset practitioners of poly. We’re seated close together on a lipstick-red velvet chaise at Wicked Grounds, a kink-friendly café on Eighth Street where you can purchasee hand-carved rosewood butt paddles with your peppermint tea. Curly-headed and bright-eyed, Baczynski exudes friendliness that inspires a tangible intimacy. A decade ago, she gained fame in the alt-sex community as the coinventor of cuddle parties, which began in 2004 with clothed strangers caressing each other in her Manhattan apartment and have spread to thousands of living rooms across the United States and Canada. Now she’s one of the Bay Area’s most sought-after relationship coaches in the poly sphere, thanks in part to the prominence of her online curriculum, Successful Nonmonogamy, which helps couples open up their relationships without imploding them.

Twenty-four years after Sonoma County pagan priestess Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart conceived the word “polyamory” (meaning “many loves”), the Bay Area poly scene is still the biggest in the country and very much in the vanguard of a movement to disrupt monogamy. Many of its members are more aptly described as “monogamish,” Dan Savage’s term for couples who stay committed to each other while having sex on the side. (Polyamory also extends to couples who date each other and single people who date around a lot—although poly types tend to dismiss cruisers and commitment-phobes as not part of their tribe.) But the variations only spin out from there. The aforementioned V becomes an equilateral triangle when a threesome commits to sharing sex, love, and face time among all three partners. Two couples, or a couple and two singles, make a quad. If a fivesome is connected via a common partner, that’s a W. Partners may be primary, secondary, or tertiary, though some polys reject those terms as too determinative. A distinction is made between lovers and metamours (a partner’s partner), the latter often a close friend who steps in to resolve conflicts, cook dinner for everyone, and help raise the kids.

The concepts behind these words are constantly being hashed out in homes throughout the Bay Area, long known as polyamory’s petri dish. New additions to the vocabulary often bubble up here before filtering out to polyamorists in the rest of the country. “Compersion,” for example, defined as taking pleasure in your partner’s pleasure with another person (the opposite of jealousy), emerged in the Kerista Commune, a Haight-Ashbury “polyfidelitous” social experiment that used a rotating schedule to assign bed partners.

William Winters, Anna Hirsch and their partners. Copyright San Francisco Magazine.

Dossie Easton, a Bay Area therapist who wrote the landmark poly bible, The Ethical Slut, in 1997, gets emotional when she talks about how far the poly world has come since her arrival here as a sexual revolutionary in 1967. “I see people who start out where I fought for years and years to get to. They think that they should be able to come out to their families, that their parents should accept them and welcome all their various partners and their various partners’ children for Thanksgiving.”

This isn’t the polyamory of your imagination, filled with ’70s swinger parties and spouse swapping in the hot tub. In fact, the reality of polyamory is much more muted, cerebral, and, well, unsexy. Generally speaking, self-identified poly types aren’t looking for free love; they’re in search of the expensive kind, paid for with generous allotments of time and emotional energy invested in their various partners—and their partners’ children and families. All of that entails a lot of heavy lifting, and a lot of time-consuming sharing. “There’s a joke,” Baczynski says, laughing: “Swingers have sex, and poly people talk about having sex.”

If it all sounds inordinately complicated, that’s because it is. What do you do when your partner vetoes a potential lover? How do you handle it when your spouse starts dating your ex? To cope with jealousy and the thorny subject of sexual boundaries, the poly community relies on an excess of communication—hence, discussion groups like tonight’s. The community calendar offers nonstop opportunities for support, conversation, and debate, including potlucks, workshops, coffeehouse socials, political discussions, and book readings. As one woman tells me, people here like to geek out on relationship philosophy as much as they like to geek out on software (and, in fact, the polyamory world has considerable overlap with the tech community).

In the poly world, uncoupling monogamy and sex leads not only to casual sex but also to uncasual sex and, sometimes, uncasual unsex (that is, ritualized cuddling). “I have the freedom to do whatever I want—and what I want includes taking on a lot of responsibility,” says Baczynski, who is in long-term relationships with one woman and two men. Polyamory isn’t about destroying a beloved institution, she argues. Instead, it’s about casting people in the roles that they actually want to play. “There’s an assumption in our dominant culture that the person you’re having sex with is the person who has all the status and has the mortgage with you, too,” she says. “Why do sex and mortgages go together? I’m not sure.”

But freedom comes with a multitude of challenges, many of which were voiced by the following sampling of local poly practitioners. Collectively they provide a glimpse of what it’s really like to be “open.”


Gloria and Alex and Luna and Joe

Gloria Schoenfeldt wasn’t particularly drawn to polyamory, just to people who happened to be polyamorous. First the 31-year-old school-teacher got used to having a polyamorous best friend in Luna Murray, a 25-year-old event planner. Hearing of Luna’s sexual adventures may have made it easier for Gloria to open her heart to a man named Alex, a 45-year-old photographer and relationship coach who identifies as not only poly but also pansexual.

At first, Gloria didn’t want to know about Alex’s other liaisons, other than their names—she couldn’t take the details creeping into her imagination. But that changed when she realized that she wanted to be a part of his “joys and sadnesses,” even if they weren’t with her. “It’s always worse in my head than it is in real life. It’s always bigger and scarier and more intense and more likely to cause the end of our relationship,” Gloria says. Now she comforts Alex through breakups and heartaches—and enjoys dating other men as well.

When Gloria introduced Alex to Luna, she was happy to see that they hit it off. The couple also got along well with Luna’s boyfriend Joe. So well, in fact, that eventually they all became lovers. Last February, the two couples decided to cohabitate, renting a two-bedroom apartment in Berkeley. For the first time in her 31 years, Gloria tried on the poly lifestyle in earnest, taking care to schedule her dates at the same time as Alex’s so as not to feel abandoned. She shares an occasional sexual four-way with her husband and housemates (they call their state of emotional intimacy a “quasi-quad”). Most of the time, though, they’re plain old housemates, two linked couples who pool money for groceries and get into tiffs over keeping the house tidy. “We live together, we have this loving family connection, and I don’t know what to call that,” says Alex.

Does it work? It does for now—one year in is too soon to declare it a permanent success, although the couples are talking about having children of their own. And both couples married last July, in jubilant back-to-back weddings in Orinda and Berkeley (they served as each others’ witnesses). What keep things stable are the poly-relationship standbys: limits and communication. While they sometimes couple off or have collective sex in the same room, it’s not an orgiastic free-for-all. There are boundaries. Gloria’s never had one-on-one sex with either Luna or Joe. When dating outside their marriage, Alex and Gloria only have protected sex. Luna and Joe won’t bring home a date who hasn’t been vetted by their respective spouse, as well as by Alex and Gloria. Everyone keeps a lid on when Alex’s 12-year-old daughter from a previous relationship comes to stay, although she knows that her dad is poly and has seen him kissing his housemates in a non-housemate-like way.

Still, the arrangement has its challenges. Joe, a 25-year-old server at an upscale Berkeley restaurant, used to get so jealous of his wife’s lovers that they developed a system: Before she left on a date, she would sit him down and tell him all the things that she loved about him and promise him that she was coming home. Over time, “it got easier and easier,” says Joe. Now the tables have turned. Joe has several lovers, while Luna’s sex drive has plummeted. It’s made her insecure and sad. “I used to be this sexual beast, and I’m feeling very fragile about my sexuality and my body…. He’ll talk about how much he loves his partner’s body, and I’ll start crying,” she says.

But as far as Gloria’s personal plunge into poly goes, she considers it a success. She was skeptical of monogamy prior to meeting Alex (“It doesn’t provide the security it claims to, because it can’t”), but had questioned whether she had the emotional capacity for an open marriage. Seven months in, the answer is yes, this is a good life. So far.

“The abandonment stuff still comes up,” Gloria says. “When that happens, I cry. And we talk. And he holds me and he reassures me.”



Ian Baker became a practicing polyamorist the hard way: He fell in love with a girl who told him that she didn’t want to be monogamous—and then slept with his housemate. “I freaked out,” recalls Baker, but he wanted to be with her nevertheless. “I had to do a lot of work for it to be OK,” he says, “for my particular psyche to be OK with it.”

That he faced such a difficult adjustment was surprising to Baker, for whom polyamory was hardly a new concept: He’d grown up in a poly family with three parents—his dad, his mom, and his dad’s girlfriend—who bedded down together every night. They were poor, living in a small cottage in the woods in Sonoma County. Baker, who believes that the arrangement helped keep them all housed and fed, likes to use his story to counter the perception of poly as the domain of oversexed, affluent people with way too much time on their hands. “When I was a kid, my parents’ relationship made perfect sense,” he says. “Whatever situation you grow up in is the situation that makes sense.”

Baker, a developer and CEO of the Y Combinator–backed startup Threadable, describes his younger self as an insecure fellow who looked to his girlfriends for validation. He started reading books about jealousy, and slowly it dawned on him that polyamory could help him outgrow his core anxiety. And so he tapped into the poly community for emotional support. “The only reason that I ever wanted monogamy,” he says now, “was because I was insecure.”

Baker is in love with Lydia (not her real name), his partner of four years. He doesn’t date much outside the relationship, he says, because he’s basically fulfilled. “But that doesn’t mean I want to be monogamous,” he quickly adds. “I like the connections that exploring sexuality brings to my life.”

Lydia, on the other hand, does have other lovers. “She wants to see other people, and I want her to have what she wants,” Baker says. But every time she takes a new lover, he admits, “I have some anxiety. So when that’s the case, I have to do a little work. I’ll call someone and chat with them about it for a few minutes, and then I’ll feel better. It’s not a big deal.”

For poly practitioners like Baker, self-improvement and sexual exploration are overlapping preoccupations. It’s well-nigh impossible to handle the emotional agitation of concurrent relationships without facing one’s own self-relationship, they say—your resilience must be equal to the task. “There’s a bunch of different ways that you can learn to be emotionally self-sufficient, and it happens that I learned those lessons by having my girlfriend sleep with my friends,” says Baker, chuckling. “But since then, it’s been wonderful.”



Bespectacled and wearing pink yoga pants, her hair wet after a shower, Sherry Froman leads me up the rainbow staircase to her bedroom and stretches out on her cozy sheepskin rug like a cat in the sun. She has hosted play parties—featuring touching and, sometimes, sex—for years on these sensuous carpets, beneath tapestry-draped ceilings that evoke four-poster beds. Some of the parties begin with an opening ceremony that resembles a personal-growth workshop: Participants practice communicating boundaries and desires, gaze into each other’s eyes, reveal the body part that they want to be touched, practice saying yes and no, explore the mattresses laid out on the floor. But, Froman hastens to add, “not everything is like that—New Age, woo-woo spirituality. The poly scene is very diverse.”

When Froman falls for someone new, someone she wants to date for a while, she skips the elaborate lingerie and whips out her calendar—not because she wants to keep her multiple suitors from colliding, but because she wants them to meet. If they form a copacetic bond, she believes, someday they all might cohabitate in the big house that, for now, resides solely in her imagination. That dream was a reality once, 20 years ago at Harbin Hot Springs, just north of Napa Valley—Froman would walk from house to house visiting friends and lovers who were studying tantric techniques and the full-body orgasm. “I was 23, and all these older men wanted to pleasure me and were fine with me not giving anything back,” she says. “I thought, that’s different from college boys.”

Since then, Froman has dated her share of supposed polys who hypocritically wanted their women to be monogamous with them. “I think a lot of men have a difficult time with polyamory, because the fantasy looks nothing like the reality,” she says. “Because if a man has several female lovers in his life, chances are that the women are going to talk about him to each other. And they’re all going to want him to be comfortable talking about his feelings.”

In the two decades since her time at the hot springs, Froman has learned to resist the pull of NRE—that’s “new relationship energy,” a poly term for the fizzy bubble of endorphins that envelops the newly besotted. While NRE feels great, she says, the high highs usually lead to the opposite. “You’ve got to think sustainably,” she says. “How is this person going to work for you over a period of time?”

Froman describes herself as having been a “very” sexual person since puberty. (When she decided to lose her virginity at age 16, her mother reserved a honeymoon suite with a heart-shaped Jacuzzi for the occasion and took her lingerie shopping.) After years of casual encounters, she stumbled onto the poly world and started choosing partners for different reasons—love, friendship, community. But lately she has again been hankering for more male partners in addition to the long-term beau with whom she shares this four-bedroom in Glen Park—it’s called “adding on.”

Froman, who met her live-in boyfriend on OkCupid (where users can self-identify as nonmonogamous) more than five years ago, believes that her schedule could support three other live-in men. But how to find them? She used to make promising friends by hosting Open Relationship Community potlucks at her house, but now she’s trying to explore new social venues to unearth men. “Once I find them,” she says, “then all of us being in the same bubble with each other is going to be a lot easier. It’s like having a family.”


William and Anna

Anna Hirsch thought that William Winters was going to be her first one-night stand. She ended up marrying him. When they met in Baton Rouge, their relationship styles—his casual connections, her commitment to monogamy—seemed as mismatched as their temperaments. Then they discovered poly, which squared their deep, if idiosyncratic, love with their desire to avoid the mistakes of relationships past. They agreed to experiment, and when Hirsch left town for several weeks, Winters slept with someone else. He didn’t tell Hirsch until she got back.

“She cried for two consecutive weeks,” recalls Winters. “It was totally fucking horrible. I remember saying, ‘Anna, if it is this hard, we do not have to do this.’ It was she who said, ‘No. There is something in this for me. I’m choosing this. But we cannot do it your way.’”

Eight years later, Hirsch, a writer and editor, and Winters, a progressive activist and organizer, are one of the most socially conspicuous poly couples in the Bay Area. In honor of the poly potlucks that they organized for a time, the Chronicle went so far as to dub Winters the “de facto king of the East Bay poly scene”—if you ask, he’ll show you a playing card, designed by his friends as a joke, that depicts him as the king of hearts.

Hirsch and Winters live in the Oakland Hills, in a studio apartment attached to a house occupied by several other poly couples. These days, Winters hosts private play parties and enjoys mingling with women. Hirsch is in a four-year relationship with a married couple (she’s more serious with the husband than with the wife) and has a boyfriend as well. Doing things Hirsch’s way means that Winters has the freedom he needs to play, while she puts down roots with the people she loves. Although she’s legally married to Winters, she likes to “propose” to her partners as a way of acknowledging their importance to her. When she mock-married a platonic friend back in Baton Rouge, Winters was her date to the wedding. “I have this whimsical image of myself old on a porch somewhere, someday,” Hirsch says. “And I would like William to be on that porch. And I think it would be amazing if there were other people on that porch, too.” This process—fitting together relationships without elevating them or putting them in special categories—is described by the couple as “integrating.”

So why did they marry at all? Winters frowns. “I feel like that question itself comes from a scarcity model that says we only have time for one major relationship. That kind of underlies the dominance of monogamy.” Hirsch has a more practical answer: They were in love, and she needed health insurance. “But what do I care about what marriage means?” she says. “It’s not a promise. It’s a celebration of what’s possible.” On their wedding day, she and Winters nixed vows and simply made a toast.

On the poly success scale, Winters rates their relationship as a 9.8 out of 10. Jealousy? Never a problem. Boundaries? The couple’s only rules concern safe sex and date disclosures (each a must). Even so, their marriage has been shaken this past year by the same temperament and communication problems that have plagued them since they got together—at one point, they put their chances of splitting up at 50-50. For all its laboriousness, polyamory is a deeply gratifying lifestyle for Winters and Hirsch, and the effort that it requires—the sometimes Augean task of maintaining multiple messy arrangements all at once—is more than paid off by the emotional rewards. Still, the day-to-day upkeep of a relationship can test anyone’s fortitude. “The poly stuff? So easy,” Winters says. “And the rest of it is like, sometimes, why does it have to be so fucking hard?”

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A Wash On the Wild Side: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love My Microbiome

Sunday, May 25th, 2014

For most of my life, if I’ve thought at all about the bacteria living on my skin, it has been while trying to scrub them away. But recently I spent four weeks rubbing them in. I was Subject 26 in testing a living bacterial skin tonic, developed by AOBiome, a biotech start-up in Cambridge, Mass. The tonic looks, feels and tastes like water, but each spray bottle of AO+ Refreshing Cosmetic Mist contains billions of cultivated Nitrosomonas eutropha, an ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) that is most commonly found in dirt and untreated water. AOBiome scientists hypothesize that it once lived happily on us too — before we started washing it away with soap and shampoo — acting as a built-in cleanser, deodorant, anti-inflammatory and immune booster by feeding on the ammonia in our sweat and converting it into nitrite and nitric oxide.

In the conference room of the cramped offices that the four-person AOBiome team rents at a start-up incubator, Spiros Jamas, the chief executive, handed me a chilled bottle of the solution from the refrigerator. “These are AOB,” he said. “They’re very innocuous.” Because the N. eutropha are alive, he said, they would need to be kept cold to remain stable. I would be required to mist my face, scalp and body with bacteria twice a day. I would be swabbed every week at a lab, and the samples would be analyzed to detect changes in my invisible microbial community.

Artwork by Dan Cassaro

In the last few years, the microbiome (sometimes referred to as “the second genome”) has become a focus for the health conscious and for scientists alike. Studies like the Human Microbiome Project, a national enterprise to sequence bacterial DNA taken from 242 healthy Americans, have tagged 19 of our phyla (groupings of bacteria), each with thousands of distinct species. As Michael Pollan wrote in this magazine last year: “As a civilization, we’ve just spent the better part of a century doing our unwitting best to wreck the human-associated microbiota. . . . Whether any cures emerge from the exploration of the second genome, the implications of what has already been learned — for our sense of self, for our definition of health and for our attitude toward bacteria in general — are difficult to overstate.”

While most microbiome studies have focused on the health implications of what’s found deep in the gut, companies like AOBiome are interested in how we can manipulate the hidden universe of organisms (bacteria, viruses and fungi) teeming throughout our glands, hair follicles and epidermis. They see long-term medical possibilities in the idea of adding skin bacteria instead of vanquishing them with antibacterials — the potential to change how we diagnose and treat serious skin ailments. But drug treatments require the approval of the Food and Drug Administration, an onerous and expensive process that can take upward of a decade. Instead, AOBiome’s founders introduced AO+ under the loosely regulated “cosmetics” umbrella as a way to release their skin tonic quickly. With luck, the sales revenue will help to finance their research into drug applications. “The cosmetic route is the quickest,” Jamas said. “The other route is the hardest, the most expensive and the most rewarding.”

AOBiome does not market its product as an alternative to conventional cleansers, but it notes that some regular users may find themselves less reliant on soaps, moisturizers and deodorants after as little as a month. Jamas, a quiet, serial entrepreneur with a doctorate in biotechnology, incorporated N. eutropha into his hygiene routine years ago; today he uses soap just twice a week. The chairman of the company’s board of directors, Jamie Heywood, lathers up once or twice a month and shampoos just three times a year. The most extreme case is David Whitlock, the M.I.T.-trained chemical engineer who invented AO+. He has not showered for the past 12 years. He occasionally takes a sponge bath to wash away grime but trusts his skin’s bacterial colony to do the rest. I met these men. I got close enough to shake their hands, engage in casual conversation and note that they in no way conveyed a sense of being “unclean” in either the visual or olfactory sense.

For my part in the AO+ study, I wanted to see what the bacteria could do quickly, and I wanted to cut down on variables, so I decided to sacrifice my own soaps, shampoo and deodorant while participating. I was determined to grow a garden of my own.

Week One

The story of AOBiome begins in 2001, in a patch of dirt on the floor of a Boston-area horse stable, where Whitlock was collecting soil samples. A few months before, an equestrienne he was dating asked him to answer a question she had long been curious about: Why did her horse like to roll in the dirt? Whitlock didn’t know, but he saw an opportunity to impress.

Whitlock thought about how much horses sweat in the summer. He wondered whether the animals managed their sweat by engaging in dirt bathing. Could there be a kind of “good” bacteria in the dirt that fed off perspiration? He knew there was a class of bacteria that derive their energy from ammonia rather than from carbon and grew convinced that horses (and possibly other mammals that engage in dirt bathing) would be covered in them. “The only way that horses could evolve this behavior was if they had substantial evolutionary benefits from it,” he told me.

Whitlock gathered his samples and brought them back to his makeshift home laboratory, where he skimmed off the dirt and grew the bacteria in an ammonia solution (to simulate sweat). The strain that emerged as the hardiest was indeed an ammonia oxidizer: N. eutropha. Here was one way to test his “clean dirt” theory: Whitlock put the bacteria in water and dumped them onto his head and body.

Some skin bacteria species double every 20 minutes; ammonia-oxidizing bacteria are much slower, doubling only every 10 hours. They are delicate creatures, so Whitlock decided to avoid showering to simulate a pre-soap living condition. “I wasn’t sure what would happen,” he said, “but I knew it would be good.”

The bacteria thrived on Whitlock. AO+ was created using bacterial cultures from his skin.

And now the bacteria were on my skin.

I had warned my friends and co-workers about my experiment, and while there were plenty of jokes — someone left a stick of deodorant on my desk; people started referring to me as “Teen Spirit” — when I pressed them to sniff me after a few soap-free days, no one could detect a difference. Aside from my increasingly greasy hair, the real changes were invisible. By the end of the week, Jamas was happy to see test results that showed the N. eutropha had begun to settle in, finding a friendly niche within my biome.

Week Two

AOBiome is not the first company to try to leverage emerging discoveries about the skin microbiome into topical products. The skin-care aisle at my drugstore had a moisturizer with a “probiotic complex,” which contains an extract of Lactobacillus, species unknown. Online, companies offer face masks, creams and cleansers, capitalizing on the booming market in probiotic yogurts and nutritional supplements. There is even a “frozen yogurt” body cleanser whose second ingredient is sodium lauryl sulfate, a potent detergent, so you can remove your healthy bacteria just as fast as you can grow them.

Audrey Gueniche, a project director in L’Oréal’s research and innovation division, said the recent skin microbiome craze “has revolutionized the way we study the skin and the results we look for.” L’Oréal has patented several bacterial treatments for dry and sensitive skin, including Bifidobacterium longum extract, which it uses in a Lancôme product. Clinique sells a foundation with Lactobacillus ferment, and its parent company, Estée Lauder, holds a patent for skin application of Lactobacillus plantarum. But it’s unclear whether the probiotics in any of these products would actually have any effect on skin: Although a few studies have shown that Lactobacillus may reduce symptoms of eczema when taken orally, it does not live on the skin with any abundance, making it “a curious place to start for a skin probiotic,” said Michael Fischbach, a microbiologist at the University of California, San Francisco. Extracts are not alive, so they won’t be colonizing anything.

To differentiate their product from others on the market, the makers of AO+ use the term “probiotics” sparingly, preferring instead to refer to “microbiomics.” No matter what their marketing approach, at this stage the company is still in the process of defining itself. It doesn’t help that the F.D.A. has no regulatory definition for “probiotic” and has never approved such a product for therapeutic use. “The skin microbiome is the wild frontier,” Fischbach told me. “We know very little about what goes wrong when things go wrong and whether fixing the bacterial community is going to fix any real problems.”

I didn’t really grasp how much was yet unknown until I received my skin swab results from Week 2. My overall bacterial landscape was consistent with the majority of Americans’: Most of my bacteria fell into the genera Propionibacterium, Corynebacterium and Staphylococcus, which are among the most common groups. (S. epidermidis is one of several Staphylococcus species that reside on the skin without harming it.) But my test results also showed hundreds of unknown bacterial strains that simply haven’t been classified yet.

Artwork by Dan Cassaro

Meanwhile, I began to regret my decision to use AO+ as a replacement for soap and shampoo. People began asking if I’d “done something new” with my hair, which turned a full shade darker for being coated in oil that my scalp wouldn’t stop producing. I slept with a towel over my pillow and found myself avoiding parties and public events. Mortified by my body odor, I kept my arms pinned to my sides, unless someone volunteered to smell my armpit. One friend detected the smell of onions. Another caught a whiff of “pleasant pot.”

When I visited the gym, I followed AOBiome’s instructions, misting myself before leaving the house and again when I came home. The results: After letting the spray dry on my skin, I smelled better. Not odorless, but not as bad as I would have ordinarily. And, oddly, my feet didn’t smell at all.

Week Three

My skin began to change for the better. It actually became softer and smoother, rather than dry and flaky, as though a sauna’s worth of humidity had penetrated my winter-hardened shell. And my complexion, prone to hormone-related breakouts, was clear. For the first time ever, my pores seemed to shrink. As I took my morning “shower” — a three-minute rinse in a bathroom devoid of hygiene products — I remembered all the antibiotics I took as a teenager to quell my acne. How funny it would be if adding bacteria were the answer all along.

Dr. Elizabeth Grice, an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the role of microbiota in wound healing and inflammatory skin disease, said she believed that discoveries about the second genome might one day not only revolutionize treatments for acne but also — as AOBiome and its biotech peers hope — help us diagnose and cure disease, heal severe lesions and more. Those with wounds that fail to respond to antibiotics could receive a probiotic cocktail adapted to fight the specific strain of infecting bacteria. Body odor could be altered to repel insects and thereby fight malaria and dengue fever. And eczema and other chronic inflammatory disorders could be ameliorated.


According to Julie Segre, a senior investigator at the National Human Genome Research Institute and a specialist on the skin microbiome, there is a strong correlation between eczema flare-ups and the colonization of Staphylococcus aureus on the skin. Segre told me that scientists don’t know what triggers the bacterial bloom. But if an eczema patient could monitor their microbes in real time, they could lessen flare-ups. “Just like someone who has diabetes is checking their blood-sugar levels, a kid who had eczema would be checking their microbial-diversity levels by swabbing their skin,” Segre said.

AOBiome says its early research seems to hold promise. In-house lab results show that AOB activates enough acidified nitrite to diminish the dangerous methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). A regime of concentrated AO+ caused a hundredfold decrease of Propionibacterium acnes, often blamed for acne breakouts. And the company says that diabetic mice with skin wounds heal more quickly after two weeks of treatment with a formulation of AOB.

Soon, AOBiome will file an Investigational New Drug Application with the F.D.A. to request permission to test more concentrated forms of AOB for the treatment of diabetic ulcers and other dermatologic conditions. “It’s very, very easy to make a quack therapy; to put together a bunch of biological links to convince someone that something’s true,” Heywood said. “What would hurt us is trying to sell anything ahead of the data.”

Week Four

As my experiment drew to a close, I found myself reluctant to return to my old routine of daily shampooing and face treatments. A month earlier, I packed all my hygiene products into a cooler and hid it away. On the last day of the experiment, I opened it up, wrinkling my nose at the chemical odor. Almost everything in the cooler was a synthesized liquid surfactant, with lab-manufactured ingredients engineered to smell good and add moisture to replace the oils they washed away. I asked AOBiome which of my products was the biggest threat to the “good” bacteria on my skin. The answer was equivocal: Sodium lauryl sulfate, the first ingredient in many shampoos, may be the deadliest to N. eutropha, but nearly all common liquid cleansers remove at least some of the bacteria. Antibacterial soaps are most likely the worst culprits, but even soaps made with only vegetable oils or animal fats strip the skin of AOB.

Bar soaps don’t need bacteria-killing preservatives the way liquid soaps do, but they are more concentrated and more alkaline, whereas liquid soaps are often milder and closer to the natural pH of skin. Which is better for our bacteria? “The short answer is, we don’t know,” said Dr. Larry Weiss, founder of CleanWell, a botanical-cleanser manufacturer. Weiss is helping AOBiome put together a list of “bacteria-safe” cleansers based on lab testing. In the end, I tipped most of my products into the trash and purchased a basic soap and a fragrance-free shampoo with a short list of easily pronounceable ingredients. Then I enjoyed a very long shower, hoping my robust biofilm would hang on tight.

One week after the end of the experiment, though, a final skin swab found almost no evidence of N. eutropha anywhere on my skin. It had taken me a month to coax a new colony of bacteria onto my body. It took me three showers to extirpate it. Billions of bacteria, and they had disappeared as invisibly as they arrived. I had come to think of them as “mine,” and yet I had evicted them.

– – –

BONUS: Eavesdrop on Julia’s conversation with The 6th Floor blog at the New York Times.

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Julia Scott

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