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When the Techies Took Over Tahoe

They just kept coming. The day-trippers, Airbnbers, second-home owners, and unmasked revelers. Unleashed after California’s first statewide COVID-19 lockdown ended in late June of last year, they swarmed Lake Tahoe in numbers never before seen, even for a tourist region accustomed to the masses. “It was a full-blown takeover,” says Josh Lease, a tree specialist and longtime Tahoe local. 

July Fourth fireworks were canceled, but that stopped no one. August was a continuation of what Lease called a “shit show.” 

The standstill traffic was one thing; the locals were used to that. But the trash—strewn across the sand, floating along the shore, piled around dumpsters—was too much. Capri Sun straws, plastic water-bottle caps, busted flip-flops, empty beer cans. One day in early August, Lease picked up a dirty diaper on a south shore beach and dangled it before a crowd. “This anyone’s?” he asked. 

Lease was pissed. He couldn’t believe the lack of respect people had for this beautiful area, his home for two decades. Plus, they’d invaded during a pandemic, bringing their COVID with them. 

That day, after the diaper incident, Lease went back to his long-term rental in Meyers, California, a few miles south of the lake at the juncture of Highways 89 and 50, where he could see the endless stream of cars. An otherwise even-keeled guy, he logged on to Facebook and vented. “Let’s rally,” he posted on his page, adding that he wanted to put together a “non welcoming committee.” He was joking—sort of. But word spread like the wildfires that would soon rage uncontrollably around the state. Before long someone had designed a flyer of a kid wearing a gas mask, with a speech bubble that read “Stay Out of Tahoe.” It went viral.

On Friday, August 14, at four o’clock, over 100 locals from around the lake began to gather. They commandeered the roundabouts leading into the Tahoe Basin’s major towns—Truckee, Tahoe City, Kings Beach, and Meyers in California, and Incline Village in Nevada—to greet the weekend hordes. Young women in bikini tops, elderly couples in floppy hats, and bearded dads bouncing babies in Björns held up hand-painted signs: “Respect Tahoe Life,” “Your Entitlement Sucks!,” and “Go Back to the Bay.” One old-timer plastered his truck with a banner that read “Go Away” and drove around and around a traffic circle.

But summer turned to fall, which turned to winter, which became spring, and the newcomers are still here. It’s not just the tourists anymore, whose numbers have ebbed and flowed with lockdown restrictions and the weather and whose trash has gone from wet towels twisted in the sand to plastic sleds split in the snow. There’s another population of people who came and never left: those freed by COVID from cubicles and work commutes. They migrated, laptops in tow, to mountain towns all over the West, transforming them into modern-day boomtowns: “Zoom-towns.”

Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe(Photo: Parker Ulry/Unsplash)

“Absolutely bananas.” That’s how Truckee-based realtor Kaili Sanchez of Sierra Sotheby’s described real estate activity in 2020. And, she added with an air of disbelief when we spoke in mid-January, it’s still going strong. 

The bulk of Sanchez’s clients come from the Bay Area and L.A. “They’ll say, ‘I want all the screens out of the house,’” she says. “‘I just want to hear the birds! See the stars!’” But much of the activity is also represented by locals capitalizing on the frenzy and cashing out, she says. They’re heading to Reno, Nevada. To Montana. Back east, to the ice, to get two houses for the price of the Tahoe one. Year-over-year stats from Sierra Sotheby’s are staggering: In November 2019, the agencyhad 67 pending sales, totaling $38.2 million. In November 2020, it had 94 pending sales, totaling $127.6 million.

According to Zillow, Truckee (population 16,735) saw 193 home sales in December 2020 alone, an 88 percent increase over December 2019. Home values were way up, too—December’s median sale price in Truckee was $833,000, an almost 30 percent increase compared with the same month the year before. Sales have soared as high as the Sierra Nevada’s snow-covered peaks, especially for properties with views of them. In wealthy Incline Village, the median home price hit $2.2 millionin February 2021. And even on the relatively humble, less developed west shore, the median sales price in 2020 was $756,000. Inventory is at a historic low, while demand is at an all-time high. For example, Truckee’s Tahoe-Donner neighborhood typically has 80 to 100 homes for sale at any given time during the summer. In the first week of 2021, it had six. Buyers are signing contracts after Zoom walk-throughs, or even sight unseen, says Sanchez, and multiple offers over the asking price are now standard, as are all-cash bids. More than one Tahoe local has gotten a knock on their door, accompanied by an unsolicited offer: “I’ll give you $2 million for your house.” 

“It’s the wildest time,” says realtor Katey Brandenburg, who works on Tahoe’s Nevada side. For her and other realtors around the lake, the autumn of 2020 felt like winning the lottery. “I paid off a lifetime of debt—28 years of loans, college, credit cards, and cars—in three months.”

All told, 2020 saw more than 2,350 homes sold across the Tahoe Basin, for a boggling $3.28 billion, up from $1.76 billion in 2019, according to data analyzed by Sierra Sotheby’s. That $3 billion stat is on a par with 2020 home-sales revenues in Aspen, Colorado (albeit there, the latest average home-sale price came in at $11 million). The trend is in line with real estate records being shattered from Sun Valley, Idaho, to Stowe, Vermont. And according to a just-released market update, it hasn’t stopped: in the first quarter of 2021, median prices for single-family homes increased by an astronomical 70 percent year over year in Truckee, 72 percent in South Lake, and 81 percent in Incline Village.

With Tahoe just a four-hour drive (well, without traffic) from a Silicon Valley–funded tech city, San Francisco, the Zoom-town effect here embodies all of the cultural and economic tensions fueling the mountain edition of the Great COVID Migration. “It’s the white-collar flight,” says Colleen Dalton, CEO of Visit Truckee-Tahoe. Urban professionals are trading in the proverbial button-downs—or rather their Silicon Valley hoodies—for puffy jackets. 

“I’ve had several California clients tell me, ‘I don’t care if it’s Jackson or Park City,’” says star realtor Katherine Rixon from Ketchum, Idaho. “They just wanted a mountain town.”

According to U.S. Postal Service data analyzed by the San Francisco Chronicle, Truckee alone saw a 1,082 percent increase in San Francisco transplants between August 2019 and August 2020. More San Francisco households requested a change of address to that greater area’s 96161 zip code than to any other zip code in the country. And notably: “A disproportionate number of people who purchased homes in Tahoe in 2020 are employees of some of the largest tech companies in the Bay Area,” says Deniz Kahramaner, founder of Atlasa, a real estate brokerage firm that specializes in data analytics. Of the 2,280 new-home buyers Atlasa identified throughout the Tahoe region in 2020, roughly 30 percent worked at software companies. The top three employers were Google (54 buyers), Apple (46), and Facebook (34). 

Prior to the pandemic, most people who moved to the mountains would probably consider themselves the type to prioritize place over career: where you live comes first, what you do to support yourself while living there is a distant second. Jobs in the mountains rarely came with Slack accounts or stock options or even, very often, full-time salaries. You were either employed by the mountain or the restaurants, shops, and hotels surrounding it, or you carved your own path as a free agent and Lived the Dream, making bank and riding bumps. But in Zoom town, you can work for Pinterest and ski powder. The Dream has become a reality, and with it, the potential for a kind of culture clash that inherently follows all that cash: when those who have it and those who don’t begin living side by side.Tahoe residents rallying on the side of the road in August 2020(Photo: Tim Parsons)

Lake Tahoe has long been home to money. Some of the West’s wealthiest families first ringed the lake with their summer estates in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of these historic properties, like the Hellman-Ehrman Mansion, are now state parks popular for snowshoeing in winter and picnicking in summer. The classic Cal-Neva Hotel and Casino, which sits on the north side of the lake, was owned by Frank Sinatra in the 1960s and was a haunt for JFK, Hollywood celebrities, and mobsters alike. Oracle’s Larry Ellison bought it for $36 million in 2018. (Plans for redevelopment and reopening have since been paused by the pandemic.) 

And yet somehow, despite Tahoe’s proximity to the Bay Area, it’s managed to stay relatively low-key compared to its posher mountain-town peers. Most of the swank has been confined to the resort villages (such as the Ritz-Carlton Hotel at Northstar); behind the country-club gates at the 2,200-acre, mansion-studded Martis Camp; and at secluded lakefront estates, like Mark Zuckerberg’s $59 million compound on the west shore, which he bought in 2019. When I ask Heidi Hill Drum, CEOof the Tahoe Prosperity Center, why the area has neveroozed glitz, she hypothesizes that part of it may be because Tahoe is a more local, drive-up market, unlike Aspen, Telluride, and its ilk, where visitors fly in.

Still, locals worry that the “Aspenification of Tahoe” is underway. “Private jet traffic is just as busy as it was before, but the character of flights has changed,” says Hardy Bullock, director of aviation and community services for the Truckee Tahoe Airport. Now it’s mostly midweek business travel, whereas before the pandemic, it was Bay Area families flying in and out on weekends. “Those families live here now,” he says.So do young, kid-free professionals with money to burn. At one lakefront restaurant, I recently overheard a stylish couple talking startup valuations and ordering rounds of $100 bottles of wine on an ordinary Wednesday.

They migrated, laptops in tow, to mountain towns all over the West, transforming them into modern-day boomtowns: “Zoom towns.”

Silicon Valley money hasn’t dramatically transformed the character, or tenants, of Tahoe’s various downtowns yet. A walk-up lift ticket this winter at Squaw Valley might be pushing $230, but that’s a symptom of the ski industry, not the tech industry. (Locals old and new have season passes anyway.) Most businesses in downtown Truckee are still locally owned, says Cassie Hebel, executive director of the Merchants Association. Grassroots organizations like Mountain Area Preservation have worked hard to keep it that way. Unlike Aspen, it’s doubtful a Prada store will ever come to Truckee, and Hebel says it’s doubtful the town would even support a Prana store. People here don’t want global brands and chains, whether they’re luxury or low-key, she explains. And unlike the more remote ski towns, those visitors who do can just drive back to the Bay for that.

What’s more, there are a lot of budding upsides to the influx of new residents: Diversity. Locally operated grocery delivery (which has provided jobs to laid-off restaurant workers during the pandemic). More culinary and cultural offerings. Higher property taxes going toward public services. And more money eventually pumping into bars and restaurants. Drum sees the potential for a more diversified economy and workforce in a traditional tourist destination. What if Strava opened a Tahoe City satellite office? she muses. What if a college grad who comes to ski could stay and be an engineer? What if Santa Cruz Bicycles decided to have a testing base out here? 

Finally, more homes being filled with full-timers means fewer homes being rented out on Airbnb for, say, Tuesday-night bachelor parties. (North Tahoe’s Washoe County recently passed an ordinance cracking down on short-term rentals, aiming to help curb the ongoing complaints about them.) Even with the influx of new homeowners, the Tahoe Basin actually has fewer full-time residents than it did at its peak in 2000. Says Drum, “We’ve got room for more.”

There is, however, one glaring issue with all this rapid, high-priced growth: the people who actually make a mountain town run—the ski instructors and patrollers, lift operators and shuttle drivers, housekeepers and snowcat mechanics, cooks and servers—can no longer afford to live there. 

This isn’t a new problem. Nor is it unique to Tahoe. Lack of affordable housing in regions dominated by tourism and the low-paying service sectors that support it is a decades-old issue. It’s just suddenly on steroids.

“It’s very scary,” says Deb Lee, pulling down her mask to take a sip of coffee from her favorite café, Zuri. It’s a sunny, snowless afternoon in mid-January, and we’re sitting on opposite tapestry-draped couches outside Truckee’s beloved 50-50 Brewery and adjoining Drunken Monkey restaurant, where her daughter, Katie Baillargeon, is the general manager. (And which was preparing to reopen for outdoor dining again the next day.) 

Deb and her husband, Spencer, moved to Truckee from New England in 2014. A lively, fleece-clad couple pushing 60, the Lees wanted to be closer to Katie, who settled here after college in 2012. Deb found a job in town, the couple fell in love with the community, and eventually, in 2018, they signed a three-year lease on a cabin near Northstar. “We cared for it like our own,” says Deb.

When COVID-19 hit, Deb, who is immunocompromised, couldn’t return to her retail job. But she and her tight-knit neighbors brought each other food. “We helped one another,” she says, tearing up.

On August 1 of last year, the Lees came home from a walk and discovered an eviction notice taped to the door. “Not even a phone call,” says Spencer. “We had 60 days to get out.” 

“I contacted every real estate office, banged on every door,” says Deb. “I was crying every day.” All the long-term rentals online were booked. Every storage unit within driving distance had a waiting list 50 people long. Their three-bedroom cabin, built in 1975, was listed for $1 million and sold within a week. “Cash,” says Spencer. To a couple who barely looked 30 years old.

A year into the pandemic, affordable homes in Tahoe have disappeared faster than the snow on the 55-degree Friday I visited in mid-January. According to the Tahoe Prosperity Center, in 2019, only 28 percent of residents in the Tahoe Basin could afford to buy a home—a percentage expected to drop after 2020 stats are tallied, says Drum. And the rental market is hardly an affordable alternative. Recently, Spencer forwarded me a Redfin listing he found for a basic, four-bedroom house in Truckee going for $6,000 a month. He prefaced it with one flippant word: “Sure.”

Some locals are trying to help. Truckee-based Colin Frolich, the 40th employee at Lyft, is putting his tech money toward the problem caused in part by tech money. He founded Landing Locals in 2018, with his wife, Kai. The company aims to personally match long-term renters in Tahoe and other resort towns like Telluride, Colorado, and Big Sky, Montana, with second- or third-home owners who’d rather invest in the community than deal with the churn or COVID-related hassles of Airbnb. 

Landing Locals tried to help the Lees, but to no avail. Demand among renters in need was too high.Eventually, the Lees posted a Hail Mary plea on Nextdoor. A man miraculously came to their rescue, with a cabin in Carnelian Bay, on the lake’s northern shore. They got lucky.Lake Tahoe

We should talk about the shoveling.

City slickers can be naive about mountain ways, say the seasoned Tahoe locals. “[There are]a lot of new people up here this year who don’t know how to move snow,” a Tahoe-Donner resident commented on Nextdoor in late November. “Using a shovel is like rocket science man, not everyone gets it.”

“A lot of us feel like they don’t know what they’re getting themselves into,” says Matt Schorr, a Tahoe-raised realtor. For instance, he’ll ask buyers if they want the seller of a new house to throw in a snowblower, and the buyer, having purchased the home during the gorgeous summer, will pass it up. “They’ll be like, ‘Nah, we don’t need it,’” he says.

They have more basic weather concerns instead. The Lees’ daughter, Katie Baillargeon of the Drunken Monkey, says the restaurant gets calls at dinnertime from folks asking if it’s cold outside. It’s winter in the mountains: “Of course it’s cold outside!” she says. 

Some new neighbors have so many questions that longtime second-home owner turned full-timer Dayna Grubb and her husband, Terry, have jokingly considered compiling them into a pamphlet. “We call it Terry’s Tips,” says Dayna. “What’re those poles lining the driveway?” (So the plow doesn’t tear up your yard.) “Who do we call to plow?” (Jesse.) “What’s up with all the exterminators?” (They’re for the carpenter ants, which invade every spring.) Terry also offers unsolicited tips: Don’t put your trash out the night before collection, and don’t ever keep any food in your cars. (Bears.) And definitely don’t leave your dog outside. (Coyotes.)

Many of the newbies are also “super tree huggers,” says Lease, the tree specialist. Clients who have never heard of defensible space—the landscaped buffer created around a home to protect it from flames in a wildfire—will tell Lease, I want to save this tree! “It’s not their fault,” he says. “You go from a concrete jungle to being surrounded by burnable material, you don’t necessarily understand. But they need to learn.”

The other big thing they need to learn, locals say, is how to safely venture into the backcountry. As in other mountain regions, interest in backcountry skiing and snowboarding skyrocketed in Tahoe over the winter, driven in large part by the new arrivals and the COVID-related desire to avoid resort crowds.The trailheads are often overparked by 9 A.M. To be fair, it seems many are eager to learn: sign-ups for some intro classes and American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education Level 1 courses sold out back in August. Backcountry Babes, the 24-year-old backcountry-education organization, had a waiting list 100 names long. 

Other first-timers, though, are more clueless.“People will come in and ask, ‘Do you guys have any of those avalanche finders?’” says one Tahoe-born employee who works for a gear store in Truckee. They’re referring to the lifesaving beacon-probe-shovel package, and their lack of knowledge is “scary,” he says. “New, inexperienced groups increase the avalanche risk for everybody.” (Around the West, the 2020–21 season has been one of the deadliest on record, although Tahoe has been unscathed by avalanche fatalities so far.)

As Caleb, one localchef who preferred to speak with a pseudonym, put it: “This isn’t the Japanese Tea Gardens in Golden Gate Park—you can actually fucking die out here.” 

Locals hope the harsh living might weed some people out. Back in December, Truckee resident Matt Chappell, who’s lived in the area nearly 25 years, told me, “Everyone’s hoping for a huge winter to knock people back to the Bay. The winter that destroys your roof and blows your back out shoveling.” Now, as vaccines roll out and cities reopen, some hope the quiet mountain life everyone craved during the pandemic will lose its luster in muddy May. Because what many local residents fear more than unprepared transplants is the long-term incursion of what one person called “the San Francisco vibe.” 

For one, there’s the honking. People never honked before, says Chappell. Now he’s honked at while crossing the street with his kids. The chef, Caleb, got honked at the other night. “I was like, Are you reallyhonking at me because I’m not driving fast enough out of the Raley’s parking lot?” he says. “You’re in this dreamy place! And you’re honking?”He rolled down the window of his weathered Wranglerand told the guy in the squeaky-clean white BMW X3, “Hey man, why don’t you go wash your car?”

This newcomer shininessis part of what annoys the lifetime locals.All the sparkling cars, the untested gear, the brand-new puffy coats, and the eager-beaver enthusiasm.“Tahoe is attracting a less calloused crowd,” Lease says. “I miss the diehards. It’s like the Good Vibes Squad around here!”

Except when they’re complaining and giving off bad vibes, of course. “‘I ordered this a second ago, and I want it right now,’” says Sanchez, offering an example. “‘Why is the Wi-Fi so slow?’ ‘Why isn’t the gym open?’ ‘We need a heater.’” Lease recalls the time “a house full of techies” moaned about the noise from the chainsaws when he showed up for a three-day tree-clearing job. “I don’t know what to tell you,” he told them. “Welcome to the woods!”

And finally, there are the Teslas. Almost every local I spoke to talked about the number of Teslas, though a couple did point out that the company had opened a new factory in nearby Storey, Nevada. Nonetheless, there they are: The Teslas blowing through intersections. The Teslas stuck in the snowy ditch. The Teslas spun out on steep Northwoods Boulevard. Again.At a rally in Tahoe last AugustAt a rally in Tahoe last August (Photo: Tim Parsons)

To be fair, for every bumbling newbie, there is another who’s been coming here for years and who prepared for this move long before the pandemic. They’re ready for the storms, the fires, and the fact that it’s hard to find good Indian food. They’re happy.

Dayna and Terry, of Terry’s Tips, moved into the weekend cabin they’d owned for more than ten years last June and never looked back. “Why would we?” says Dayna, who runs a small online retail business. Now they go for sunset walks and gather around the Solo Stove with their new neighbors (including, admittedly, a few from the tech industry). “We’ve met more people here in six months than we did 12 years in Berkeley,” she says. 

Nina, a director at a Silicon Valley–based AI company who asked that only her first name be used, moved to the area in October, when she bought her first home just five minutes from Heavenly Ski Resort. She and her husband, newly married thirtysomethings, say they may not be experts at mountain life, but they’re eager to learn. (YouTube has been helpful, she says—it’s where they learned how to rake pine needles.) When she’s not working, Nina is snowboarding with women she met on local Facebook groups. She’s in heaven.

But like other newcomers, she and her husband have sensed a little resentment. She recalls the time a check-out woman at a grocery store in Stateline, Nevada, gave her and her husband one look and said, “Oh, you’re not going to last a winter.” She admits to skirting around the fact that they moved during the pandemic in casual conversations with locals. “I’ll say, ‘Don’t worry, we’re not the bad tech people,’” she says. Another source told me, “There’s a lot of negative feelings about people like us.” Most Bay Area transplants I spoke with similarly requested anonymity, and many more declined to be interviewed. (So did many longtime locals. “Sorry, it’s a touchy subject,” one told me.) The newcomers just want to quietly slip in and fit in. 

Not everyone has that option, though. If you’re not white, like 82 percent of people in Truckee, you stand out, says Grace (not her real name), who is Korean-American and moved into her longtime second home last spring before the boom. Being Asian American “is like a big ‘Bay Area’ sign pointing at my head,” she says. She was disgusted by the “Kung flu” comments and other casually racist quips she saw on Facebook and deeply disturbed by the time she was fake sneezed on at the Safeway. She and her family moved back to San Francisco full-timeby the fall: “I needed to be with my people,” she says. But thanks to the influx of new homeowners, she says, Tahoe feels a little more comfortable on the weekends, a wee bit more diverse. In honor of the Lunar New Year, the Trokay restaurant in Truckee even debuted an all-Asian takeout menu for the month of February. “The fact that they’re doing this makes me feel hopeful,” Grace says. Still, her husband, who is white and wears flannel, handles the contractors; otherwise, she says, “I get gouged with Silicon Valley pricing.”

Cross-country skiing past a trailpost carved with the words “Locals Only” doesn’t feel good. Neither does being evicted mid-pandemic because someone with more money wants to move in. Both beg a very American question that’s long been asked at the intersection of rural and urban, between the haves and have-nots. 

Who’s a local? Someone with duct tape on their Gore-Tex? Who belongs in a mountain town? In a city? In this country? “Are you a local if you were born in Tahoe?’” says Lyft’s Colin Frolich facetiously. “Our friends like to joke that you’re a local if you went to high school here, and are divorced.” 

In the Great COVID Migration to the mountains, do Dayna and Terry count as locals? They bought their house more than ten years ago but only relocated ten months ago. Do the Lees count? Their daughter, who had to lay off most of her local restaurant staff, is a local, right? How about the Salesforce guy who’s been hiking Sunrise Bowl for two decades and just paid $100,000 more than he’d anticipated for his first house in Tahoe-Donner? He drives a Tacoma, after all.

The Dream has become a reality, and with it, the potential for a kind of culture clash that inherently follows all that cash: when those who have it and those who don’t begin living side by side.

Ultimately, most of the locals I spoke with said they welcome anyone who wants to be in Tahoe as long as they respect its trails, its quietude, its small-mountain-town culture. “We have this soulful community,” says Chappell. Reminiscing about pre-COVID times, he remembers, “When you walk down Main Street, six people stop to give you a hug. I worry that we’ll lose that connection. I worry that we’ll lose that soul.”

What Tahoe will always have, though, is its heart: the lake, where on a quiet winter night, after the sun sets behind the snowy peaks, the water and sky melt into one as they morph from electric Sierra pink to brooding blue. The lake, and the mountains around it, are why locals both old and new are here. “What we all want—what we really want—is to ski fresh pow in the winter and catch big fish in the summer,” says Caleb, the chef. 

The outdoors has always been the draw, the great equalizer. Even longtime locals admit that what one does for work is ultimately beside the point. “It’s not about how much money you make,” says Frohlich. “What matters is, did you skin up Castle Peak?”

People everywhere are hanging on to the past, hoping their towns, cities, country, and, above all, their lives return to normal. The pandemic shook everything up: neither Tahoe nor the world will likely return to what it once was. But change has always been a certainty. 

“My father-in-law moved to Squaw in the sixties and has seen several cycles of this,” says Chappell. “He always says, ‘You can either get on board the steam train and help steer it, or you can complain about it and leave.’”

Instagram’s Most Fascinating Subculture? Women Hunters.

It’s a dry January, which means two things on this girls’ trip to central Arizona: we’re all skipping the margaritas tonight, and the river will be low enough for our Tacoma to cross in the morning.

Crowded into a booth at a Mexican restaurant in a small town near the edge of Tonto National Forest, swapping names and where-are-you-froms, we are a motley crew: two millennials wearing camouflage and eyelash extensions, an overalls-clad photographer who lives in an Airstream, and me, a San Francisco food writer soon to be out of her comfort zone.

Our server, Penny, flower pen poised over her notepad, is confused. “I have to ask,” she says, inspecting us through rhinestone-studded spectacles. “What are you ladies doing here?” 

Rihana Cary, 33, and Amanda Caldwell, 32, friends who met on Instagram, look at each other. They’re used to this question.

“We’re going hunting,” Amanda explains.

“What? Four ladies hunting? All by ­yourselves? Well,” says Penny. “This is rather interesting.” She wishes us luck.

Apparently, we’re going to need it. What we have, I learn, is a late-season, last-minute, over-the-counter, nonresident, archery-only antlered-deer tag on public land. We’ll be hunting mule deer: an animal that’s flighty and fast, with 310-degree vision, a sense of smell a thousand times stronger than ours, and ears twice the size of Alfred E. Neuman’s. The $300 tag will be difficult to fill—odds of success are just ­10 percent. In other words, it will take serious luck to bag a buck in the next five days. But also serious skill, which these ladies definitely have. 

Ladies they don’t mind. Just don’t call them huntresses. “We hate that word,” says Rihana, who lives in Layton, Utah, and works as a marketing director for Mtn Ops, a company that sells nutritional supplements and clothing for hunters. “It’s too sexualized, like temptress or seductress. Why does everyone try to put us in our own category? We’re hunters”—like hikers are hikers and runners are runners. Amanda, a realtor from rural Montana, agrees.

The style of bowhunting we’ll be doing, called spot and stalk—spotting an animal from afar, then stalking it until we’re within shooting range—is popular on the vast public lands open to hunters in the West, and it’s much harder than, say, deer hunting from a tree stand, which is more common in the East. “There will be lots of highs and lows,” Rihana warns. “But if we do get a deer, it’s going to be epic.”

I want epic. I think. As a liberal, urban, coastal-living walking cliché, I care where my food comes from: I’ll pay for the precious $4 peach, the $8 carton of local eggs, and whatever my bougie butcher counter charges for its organic grass-fed beef. But I have never cared quite enough to take it to the next level and harvest my own. That’s why I’m here, to fulfill my moral obligation as a meat eater. To experience what it feels like to, if not kill the animal myself, at least watch it die. And then, you know, help dismember it before sitting down to dinner.

Modern-day omnivores have long outsourced the dirty work, of course. And in doing so, we’ve created something even dirtier: factory farms and slaughterhouses. Things most meat eaters like to ignore for the ease and inoffensiveness of picking up a pound of plastic-wrapped chicken breasts on the way home from work.

“Ohhh, he’s so killable!” whispers Amanda, her long blond locks free-flowing around her moon-shaped face.

In 2004, David Foster Wallace wrote in Gourmet about lobster, though the same holds true for steak: “As far as I can tell, my own main way of dealing with this conflict has been to avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing. I should add that it appears to me unlikely that many readers of Gourmet wish to think hard about it.”

But today, food has come to dominate our collective conversation. “Who makes the best ramen?” is the new “It looks like rain,” and photos of Early Girl tomatoes get nearly as many likes on Instagram as photos of cute kids. At the same time, we’re increasingly concerned about the environment and climate change—according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, livestock contributes 14.5 percent of the world’s human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions. The result is our fervent desire to know the source of everything we eat, from our honey to our halibut. Consumer interest in sustainable food increased 23 percent from 2018 to 2019, according to a recent study by Tastewise, a data platform for the food industry. Harvesting your own meat is a way to opt out of the distasteful aspects of factory farming. 

The global COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened our interest in self-sufficiency, from gardening to raising backyard chickens to hunting. While people panic about meat shortages, having the ability to secure your own supper is an attractive idea. 

Hunting in America has long been associated with gun culture, something for dudes who love to drive big rigs and drink beer and shoot things. But shouldn’t it also be associated with food culture, something for women like me­—or, really, anyone—who love to hike and drink wine and eat things?

Rihana Cary closing in on a buck

We leave our Airbnb and roll into the desert before first light. Everyone but me is dressed in top-of-the-line camo. Rihana wears Under Armour, which has sponsored her as an athlete since 2015. (The company started making women’s hunting apparel in 2011.) Amanda has on more than $700 worth of Sitka gear in Gore Optifade. I’m rocking a pair of baggy REI zip-offs circa 2006, which I pulled from the depths of my dresser because they were khaki, and a puffy jacket, which is lime green. (I know. It’s all I had.)

Clouds stutter across the sky as it glows gold. A thin frost coats the hard, reddish ground, crunching beneath our boots. Snow-dusted mountains rise in the distance. Rihana and Amanda, whose hair and makeup look better at dawn in the desert than mine would at a black-tie dinner, break out binoculars. They begin to glass a hillside across a broad, flat valley. Birds chirp. ­Coyotes take roll call. Otherwise it’s still and quiet, as it should be when you’re scanning for animals that have hyperacute hearing. Then I slam the truck door. Rule number one: “No slamming doors,” whispers Jen Judge, 48, the photographer for this story. Jen bowhunts, too. But without a tag, all she can do on this trip is glass. She’s goddamn good at it.about:blank

“I got deer,” says Jen, not long after sunrise, describing the animal’s location in the beige and sage landscape like she’s giving directions to a lost spa-goer in Scottsdale. “Left of the outcrop, left of the saguaro, in the drainage, in front of that tree.” Which tree? Rihana and Amanda sync up within seconds. Bouncing my binoculars around, I just make myself dizzy.

Doe. It’s the rut—mating season—which means odds are there’s a horny, aggro, testosterone-fueled male on the doe’s heels. Through the spotting scope, Rihana confirms: buck. Bedded under the bush, about 1,200 yards away, the four points on each of his antlers blending seamlessly into the branches. How the hell did they see him?

“Ohhh, he’s so killable!” whispers Amanda, her long blond locks free-flowing around her moon-shaped face. (No hair tie for this hunter.) He’s napping below the chapparal-shrouded ridge, 40 yards from the top, which means Rihana can hike the long way around and over and be within range when he wakes and stands. She’s never gotten a mule deer with her bow before. “I’m so excited for you!” says Amanda. She and Rihana clasp hands and squeal like tweenagers before a Beyoncé concert. 

Rihana plots the buck’s approximate coordinates using OnX Hunt, an app with topo and aerial data that allows stalking hunters to mark and share an animal’s location. She sprays what looks like a Visine bottle, testing the wind. If it’s blowing the wrong way, he’ll catch her scent. The breeze is good. The hunters clink slabs of homemade elk jerky. Rihana readies her bow, tosses her dark, auburn-streaked braid over her shoulder Katniss Everdeen style, and sets out. But not before putting her leopard-print-cased phone into selfie mode, turning the camera on herself, and pressing record for her 65,000 followers.

Rihana and Amanda are part of a growing scene of what I’ll call huntstagrammers, social-media influencers who are quite literally changing the face of hunting. Sure, men like Cameron Hanes and Sam Soholt have helped make hunting look hipper and more handsome on Instagram, too. But it’s their female counterparts who are shifting perceptions, with feeds that are also filled with rifles and camo, bloody fist bumps and butchered backstraps.

According to some industry groups, women are a fast-growing demographic of hunters in the U.S., during a time when overall participation has declined. Four percent of Americans hunt, the lowest share in three decades, says a Fish and Wildlife Service survey. But according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, female participation increased 59 percent from 2010 to 2019, while male participation dropped 4 percent. (Stats from the Fish and Wildlife Service, which uses a different data set, conflict with these numbers, and indicate a slight decline in female hunters.) Today the NSSF says women make up 22 percent of all hunters, compared with 12 percent in 2003. Artemis, a group of sportswomen-­conservationists founded in 2017, already has some 11,000 community members, the majority of whom are between the ages of 25 and 45. 

Women have always hunted, of course. Research suggests that Neanderthal women helped men hunt big game. In the early 20th century there was Nellie Neal Lawing, known as Alaska Nellie, who left Missouri (and her first marriage) in her forties to open a roadhouse along the Alaska Railroad and became a famed trophy hunter. In regions where it’s part of the culture, generations of women have long hunted, often with men, though all-women groups are not unheard of. (The Swamp Witches, a crew in Mississippi, have been duck hunting together for two decades.) Amanda’s mom hunted, too, and so did her grandmother. None of these women had social media, however, or the impulse it breeds to broadcast their skills, and kills. 

Today, women hunters are more visible than ever. “It’s exploded,” says Curt Wells, editor of Bowhunter magazine. He says social media has played a major role. Before it, he explains, when women did show up in traditional hunting media like TV shows, they were often portrayed as sidekicks or cohosts. (Wells cites examples like Ralph and Vicki Cianciarulo, “America’s favorite hunting couple” on the Outdoor Channel, and Lee and Tiffany Lakosky of the show Gettin’ Close, on the same network.) Now a new school of young women are becoming stars in their own right, using the Hefe photo filter and hashtags like #girlshunttoo and #womenwhohunt to garner huge followings. Thirty-two-year-old Eva Shockey, for example, is arguably the queen of hunt­stagram, with more than two million followers across platforms and her own television series, My Outdoor Family. (Shockey also cohosts a hunting show with her father, celebrity hunter Jim Shockey.) 

“I had such a heavy heart. So much adrenaline. I was crying,” Rihana says. “Taking a life is always emotional. Once it’s not, you should probably stop hunting.”

Hunting brands are embracing the trend. Following Under Armour, Idaho-based apparel company First Lite launched technical women’s gear in 2015. And legacy brand Orvis, which makes upland (hunting for certain bird species) apparel for women, began expanding its options around the same time. Between 2016 and 2019, Orvis’s women’s upland-hunting business grew 210 percent. 

Prior to that, pickings for women were slim—and what existed was often too big, bulky, and unbreathable, or made with cheap materials. “We used to have to wear men’s stuff,” Amanda recalls. “Remember when they came out with pink camo?” She and Rihana scoff. 

“Kind of defeats the purpose,” Rihana says. 

In the mid-nineties, companies began making women’s compound bows. Like the men’s versions, these high-tech bows use a levering system of cables and pulleys, thus requiring less strength to draw and hold than the longbows you might recall from summer camp. Women’s compound bows are smaller and lighter, with typical draw weights of 40 to 50 pounds, compared with 60 to 70 for men’s versions. Women’s participation in bowhunting increased by 260 percent between 2003 and 2017, according to the NSSF.

“Companies are realizing women are a way to make money,” says Elizabeth Covelli Metcalf, an associate professor and social scientist at the University of Montana who studies hunting. “They’re designing gear and investing in influencers and social media, and it’s spreading awareness.” In 2018, Metcalf started coteaching a course called Hunting for Sustainability; the majority of students who signed up were women. 

Society is used to the image of the burly dude posing with his trophy kill. What challenges expectations more: millennial women like Rihana and Amanda, done up like Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, boasting draw weights of 60-plus pounds, elbows-deep in elk guts.

As Rihana treks toward the buck, Amanda assembles her Phone Skope in hopes of recording the kill. An adapter that allows her to use her smartphone to magnify the view through her spotting scope, it’s much better than my nausea-inducing binoculars. 

An hour later, I see Rihana peeking over the ridgeline, then creeping downhill, each step as intentional as a dancer’s. Hunkered behind a bush, she’s 88 yards from the deer. She needs to get within 60 to shoot. Popping almonds like popcorn, I feel like I’m watching a silent thriller. I thought hunting was supposed to be hard. We’re only three hours into day one and Rihana’s already poised to shoot a stately looking senior? Too easy.

Doe up! She senses something. Now the buck is standing. He’s chomping a bush. Amanda makes a bleating fawn sound to distract the animals, allowing Rihana to inch closer. Rihana is at one with the hillside, as much as the deer and the dead ocotillo shrubs are. It’s primordial. The hunter and the hunted, in one real-life frame. I’m breathless. And then, just as she’s about to draw, for some reason the buck busts. 

Smart guy. Inside, I cheer.

Rewatching the grainy clip later, we’ll realize that it wasn’t Rihana who spooked the deer. It was a bobcat, leaping off the top of a saguaro in the same frame. Holy fucking nature: bobcat saves buck’s life.

“That could be it,” says Amanda over Oscar Mayer honey smoked turkey wraps at lunch. “We could go the rest of the week without seeing another buck.”

But that afternoon, we—well, they—spy three more, including a big guy going nuts for a doe, who is not in the mood. “How are we gonna kill him?” schemes Amanda. It’s her turn to stalk. Two hours later, she texts. The wind was bad. Buck’s gone. So Rihana and I traipse up the ridge to try to find him. A needle in a haystack has got nothing on a deer in 2.9 million acres of national forest.

By the time we get back to the truck an hour or two later it’s dark and raining, and I’m pulling cactus needles from my calves. On the drive out, I wonder why anyone bothers hunting when there’s Uber Eats. Can’t we just get burgers?

Rihana hasn’t had a greasy beef patty in years. She lost her taste for fatty cow meat, she says. She eats wild game now, mostly elk. Her six-foot-long freezer at home is full of it—some 300 pounds of meat that she harvests annually, everywhere from Utah to North Carolina to New Zealand.

That’s quite a feat for a former vegan who grew up in Ashland, Oregon, where the only thing her family hunted was mushrooms. In college, Rihana worked at a Macy’s makeup counter and ate McDonald’s. After graduation she enrolled in nursing school, where she researched a paper on factory farming and was appalled at the animals’ squalid living conditions, how they were pumped with antibiotics. She couldn’t afford organic meat, so she gave it up altogether for a while. Then she met a guy. (It’s always a guy.) He brought her on hunts. She loved the sounds of the forest, the way her senses heightened, the reverence she felt for the animals, and the fact that from life to death to dinner, she controlled every aspect of the meat she ate.

The guy gave her a ring. But her 23rd birthday brought the better gift, the one she kept: a bow.

“I used to think hunting was horrible!” says Rihana, who now, nine years later, spends some 200 days a year in the field for her work with Mtn Ops or just hunting with girlfriends. (Her new boyfriend doesn’t bowhunt, and Amanda’s boyfriend doesn’t hunt at all. But they both plan to teach their men.) Before killing her first animal, a black-tailed deer, Rihana remembers looking at it and thinking, Can I really do this? She pointed her rifle and closed her eyes. “You don’t close your eyes!” she laughs, recalling the moment now. She missed. “On purpose, I think,” she says. Then she got a rare second chance—and dropped the deer. “I had such a heavy heart. So much adrenaline. I was crying,” she says. “Taking a life is always emotional. Once it’s not, you should probably stop hunting.” 

Rihana learned to shoot both a rifle and a bow in the same summer, but it would take several more months of archery practice before she felt strong and proficient enough to shoot an arrow in the field. Thirty-eight percent of gun owners cite hunting as one of their primary reasons for owning a gun. Contrary to what many may think, not all hunters are members of the NRA. Jen says that in her small circle of hunter friends, not one is. Amanda is an NRA member; Rihana’s membership lapsed. Both women still rifle-hunt and carry for protection. But they prefer bowhunting. To them, it’s the epitome of fair chase, an ethical approach to hunting that emphasizes honorable pursuit of an animal. 

The difference is ultimately a philosophical one: with a rifle the hunter arguably has the advantage; with a bow the prey does. An experienced rifle hunter need only get within several hundred yards of an animal, whereas on this hunt, Rihana and Amanda must slip within 60.

While learning to outsmart an animal, to stalk close enough to shoot, Rihana says she developed the patience and persistence and confidence she’d lacked in her aimless teens and early twenties, when partying was her priority. She felt like she’d unleashed a natural ability. “I’m 25 percent Native American,” she says. Her grandparents were Juaneño and Cahuilla, tribes that historically bowhunted. “I feel like it’s part of me.” Caldwell stalking among the prickly pears

Hunting is in Amanda’s blood, too. “I was born in a camo onesie,” she jokes. Hunting has always been her primary means to a meal. Finances were tight in her family, so once she was 12, old enough for a tag in Montana, her father took her out. “At dinner my mom would say, ‘This is your buck, Amanda.’” 

In the fall of 2018, after her mother passed away, Amanda spent three weeks alone in the Montana wilderness (she won’t say where—hunters never reveal their spots) before shooting her biggest elk yet: a mature Rocky Mountain six-point she stalked for six hours with her bow, coming within five yards of the bull. She harvested a year’s worth of meat. 

Processing and packing out an animal is not for the squeamish. Amanda uses the gutless method, which requires slicing open an animal head to tail down its backbone. She peels off the hide, pulls out the backstraps, then the front shoulders, then the hind quarters, and debones. She hangs whatever meat doesn’t fit in her pack or on her horse and returns for the rest, sometimes multiple times. She once carried 95 pounds on her back over six miles and crushed a vertebrae. It took her two months to recover.

“Telling a woman not to wear makeup in the field is like telling a guy not to fart in the field!” Rihana says. “Why would I change who I am when I go hunting?”

Amanda posted a photo of that six-point bull to her Instagram feed, and it remains her most liked post to date. “You were completely solo?!?” commented @mountain_momma_1102, with a mind blown emoji. But not all female huntstagrammers are willing to post photos of fresh carcasses. Some stick to selfies in cute orange hats or bowls of venison bulgogi. Rihana doesn’t shy away from gore. “I’m not afraid to show blood,” she says. “I’m not afraid to show the reality of it.”

No matter what #womenhunters post, they receive the same thing male hunters do: hate mail. But more of it, some say. “I’ll get stuff like ‘I hope your family dies,’” Rihana says. “I’ve probably blocked 1,000 people, including friends from high school who wrote that they don’t understand who I’ve become.” She and Amanda also get asked out at least once a day. “Can I take you hunting?” is a recurring DM. Both say their followers are 75 to 80 percent male. 

Ultimately, though, the “You’re an inspiration!” messages far outnumber the nasty comments. Rihana and Amanda are on social media to share their love of hunting, they say. To show women they can do it, too.

Day three, and we’ve rented a UTV. It’s a full moon, which supposedly keeps deer up all night and bedded down all day. Still, Jen spots a buck, hot on six does, within minutes of ­adjusting her binocs. Later, Rihana superheroically spies another from 1,200 yards away. 

After two long, ultimately failed stalks, we meet Rhonda, a sweet, gangly fifty-­something mom from Flagstaff wearing camouflage. She’s with her husband and son, and the three of them are also bowhunting for mule deer.

“I saw you two earlier!” she says to Rihana and Jen. She looks at me and Amanda. “And then I saw two more! I never see women hunting together,” she says with a mix of awe and envy. 

I want to tell her I don’t really count. But then I realize, hey—I’ve been out here 12 hours a day, and now I’m wearing borrowed camo and cooler khaki pants and even picking out puffy white butts hidden in the brush, so maybe I do? 

In the afternoon, we gorge on Sour Patch Kids and go after a bedded dude with two does who eventually busts. As the sun dips behind the mountain, Jen again has deer. A buck, two ridges over. It’s 30 minutes until dark. “We still have a shot!” Amanda cheers. As the sky bleeds purple, we speed off in the UTV, rumbling over rocks, through creeks. Four women chasing a nice-looking male we can no longer see.From left: Cary in camo; Caldwell’s handmade leather leash, adorned with ivories from elk she harvested

Women hunters might be all over Instagram, but as I’m learning, the idea of us hunting IRL without men is still a new one. “Where’s your husband?” is a question women told me they occasionally hear, in the woods or at Cabela’s. And though more women are trying hunting, retention is a struggle. In the West, on average, 36 percent of female hunters don’t renew their licenses each year, compared with 22 percent for men. In the Southeast, it’s 48 percent (32 percent for men).

“We’re working through it,” says Ben O’Brien, host of the Hunting Collective podcast. Last spring, it dawned on him that he’d put together 54 episodes and hadn’t had on a single woman hunter. For episode 61, he reached out to Jess Johnson, cofounder of the conservation group Artemis. “Is this a space that feels good to be a woman in?” she asked. “There are times it doesn’t feel welcoming.” 

Rihana would reluctantly agree. She gets occasional jealousy or condescension from men, she says, but both she and Amanda have sensed judginess from both sexes for looking the way they do—though they suspect that if they weren’t such successful hunters they’d feel it more. “No one says anything to our faces. It’s just a vibe we get,” says Rihana, inky liner curled above her eyelid. “Telling a woman not to wear makeup in the field is like telling a guy not to fart in the field!” she adds. “Why would I change who I am when I go hunting?” 

Amanda agrees. “Makeup makes me feel good,” she explains. “And if I feel good, I’ll have a better hunt.” 

There are gradations and nuances among the women of huntstagram, and among those who follow them. On one end of the spectrum are the “gun bunnies,” influencers whose feeds are all skimpy bikinis backed against big trucks and booty shorts stuffed with handguns. Some of these women have follower counts in the hundreds of thousands, dwarfing Rihana’s and Amanda’s combined, but they question the authenticity. “You can’t actually hunt dressed like that,” says Rihana. “Especially not with all this cactus!” 

Then you have more homespun, seemingly Maybelline-free huntstagrammers like Allie D’Andrea, whose tasteful feed focuses on her white lab and the beauty of public lands. (She’s a cofounder of Artemis.) Known as @outdoors_allie, she has 116,000 followers, Jen among them. “Wearing makeup in the outdoors just doesn’t compute in my brain,” Jen says. “I have a million things I’m thinking about when I’m hunting: the wind, my scent, my noise. The way I look is not one of them.” (Still, Jen declared Rihana and Amanda “the real deal” by day one.)

The huntstagram chatter is reminiscent of high school and its cliques. The unadorned (like Jen) evaluate the “Barbie dolls” (like Rihana and Amanda), who judge the gun bunnies. Jess Johnson of Artemis states the obvious yet often unspoken fact about all this scrutiny: “No one ever picks apart men. I’ve never been like, ‘That guy’s pants are too tight, he must not be a legit hunter.’ Women have to scramble harder for validity.”about:blank

Predawn on our penultimate day, we begin as we have every morning, with Hot­Hands in our pockets and binoculars in front of our eyes, scanning for the flicker of an ear, the shimmy of a cotton tail, beige racks between beige branches. Before long we spy a four-by-four—a buck with four points on each antler—with a limp, all by himself, 400 yards away. After a two-hour stalk, the deer bounds off.

Then Jen spots a funny-looking fella chilling under a tree. Debate ensues until the spotting scope confirms: a one-antlered buck. Bedded. We send OnX coordinates to Rihana and Amanda, who pivot from one stalk to the next. Then Jen and I sit in the desert sun, whisper-talking about old boyfriends and death and family and Trump and whether Rihana and Amanda will vote to reelect him (they will). We watch and wait and watch, riveted by one spike of one antler, tucked beneath a distant tree. I’ve never sat so still for so long, glued to something so unexciting and yet so exhilarating.

“I love this buck,” says Jen, peering through her binocs. “He’s a misfit like me.”

Hunting, I’m realizing, is an entirely different way of being outdoors. As hikers, campers, or photographers, we’re nonconsumptive land users, the type of nature lovers who frolic among the flora and fauna without firing, appreciative participants merely passing through. Hunters, though—the good ones—become part of the land and everything in it. They attune to behaviors and tracks as they crawl from cactus to cactus, bush to boulder, stepping as swiftly and softly as humanly possible, another animal in search of supper.

Hiking suddenly seems oddly aimless.Glassing from the UTV (Photo: Jen Judge)

Our last morning, our last chance. Before 7 A.M., Jen’s got deer. “A really. Big. Buck,” she says. Biggest one yet, another four-by-four, 800 yards away, eating breakfast. Now—yes!—lying down.

Rihana, wearing convertible fingerless camo gloves, plots his location on her phone. She tests the wind. Amanda applies a fresh coat of lip gloss and they’re off. Two scents, two sounds—it’s risky, but it might allow for more opportunity.

Jen and I set up on a knoll. I’ve grown rather expert at spotting by now. He’s to the right of the auburn bush, buried deep in a dead ocotillo. We keep our eyes on what we hope is an antler while he takes a nap of Rip van Winkle proportions. 

“I have to pee,” Jen says, three hours in. 

“You can’t,” I whisper.

Rihana and Amanda relay word via text that they’ve split up and are each closing in. Rihana is hidden in the drainage, about 130 yards away. She can’t get closer though, or he’ll see her. Amanda reaches the ridge, then creeps in her socks between prickly pears to within 25 yards. Rihana can see both Amanda and the bedded buck, and texts her a snapshot of his spot in the brush: “Just wait till he stands.” We wait. Amanda’s arrow is nocked. 

Holy shit. My binoculars are shaking. This sweet deer is about to die.

Except, as soon as we see him stand, Amanda doesn’t. There’s a slight drop in the terrain, hiding him from her view. He’s up! He’s up!, we attempt to mind-meld Amanda. Maybe he scents her. Maybe that airplane is flying too low. Whatever it is, before she ever sees him, he trots off—right toward Rihana.

They attune to behaviors and tracks as they crawl from cactus to cactus, bush to boulder, stepping as swiftly and softly as humanly possible, another animal in search of supper.

She’s ready, at full draw. Amanda makes a bleating call and the buck stops: ten yards from Rihana, and behind a sprawling bush. It’s too thick; she can’t see his body. His head is exposed, but to be confident that she’ll deliver a lethal hit, Rihana needs to target his lungs or heart. They lock eyes, and he bolts.

“It wasn’t a clean shot. I just didn’t have an ethical shot,” Rihana says, trudging back through the saguaros. She says it again and again throughout the day. The one that got away, as they say.

We have only three hours left to get a mule deer. And after more than 60 hours of trying, I realize that I, of all people, want a mule deer.

It’s true that I’ve never hunted before, but hunting with women feels different. 

In her research, Metcalf found that women hunters are motivated in different ways than men. They’re generally more family oriented, more about feeding people, she says. Men view hunting as an individual pursuit, with internal motivations like solitude, skill development, and outcome. 

That squares with Jen’s experience. “It’s like my way of feeling maternal,” she says. She usually hunts with her husband, a cyclist and rock climber. (She got him into it.) “He’s more success oriented than I am. Yet I’ve had more successes.” She smiles. “This hunt is a true team effort. I’m loving it.”

We persist. Glassing a gorgeous canyon we’ve nicknamed Heaven, Jen, holding her binocs, can barely believe it. “It’s a fawn. And, oh my God, a fucking buck. My heart can’t take this!” No one thought we’d have another stalk today. Now here we are, 700 yards from our farewell dinner.

Jen and I keep watch, as we do. And then another UTV rolls up. It’s the Flagstaff family—Rhonda and her two guys. Because we’re nearing last light, they set up their scopes to help us glass. We text Rihana and Amanda that they’re here, that we’ve got backup. Five pairs of eyes on a flighty forky (hunter slang for a two-point). The camaraderie of stalking an animal.

Rihana and Amanda creep, in socks. At 51 yards they stop, exposed. The buck is busy eating. And soon, standing broadside. Amanda pulls out her phone and Rihana pulls 61 pounds. With the buck looking straight at her, ears perked, she shoots.

And just as her arrow arrives, he dodges it.

And then he bolts in our direction. 

“Rhonda! Get ready!” Jen and I whisper. At the same time, Rihana sends a text: “Tell that gal to get her bow.”

We drive out after dark, in cool open air, feeling alive—but empty-handed. Rhonda disappeared for a good hour into a drainage, but the buck darted before she could get close. Well, at least I don’t have to slice open an animal’s anus. Still, isn’t that what I came for? The full experience? And then I realize that is what I got. It’s the thrill of the hunt, not the guarantee of the grocery store.

Weeks later something will be lost. I’ll find online photos of people beaming beside dead deer as creepy as I always did. But in the moment, back in the desert, it’s different. This wilderness has come to feel like my neighborhood. The red rocks and morning frost, Heaven and the howling coyotes, my trusty little auburn tree and that saguaro that looks like it’s giving us the finger. And Rhonda and her family, the misfit and the limpy buck, and a lucky two-point who gets to live.

Our last supper may not be mule deer, but it is elk, grilled over an open flame. Elk that Rihana stalked, retrieved, packed out on her back—300 pounds, which she (with her boyfriend’s help) hauled over six miles in two trips at 2 A.M., and butchered in her kitchen, then brought here, to share with strangers who’ve become friends. Before we feast, she shows us footage of the kill from last fall. 

We hear the bull elk bugle and watch Rihana, crouched in camo at full draw, as she waits for the hulking creature to round the bend. We see her arrow fly and sink into the animal’s skin behind its shoulder, a clean shot to the lungs, and the elk sprint off before it falls. We watch Rihana’s jaw drop and her big eyes grow bigger as she stands in the woods, filled with shock and awe and disbelief—even though she’s done this many times before.

And then we eat. Tenderloin brought from trees to table by Rihana’s two hands, not 200 others’. It’s rosy pink and pure, lean and tender and deeply flavorful. I feel a gratitude for this elk that I never have for even my favorite $21 burger. And for Rihana and Amanda and Jen—for sharing their animals and their stories, and for being women who cook and clean and kill their own dinner.

I got a taste. And I’m going back to San Francisco wanting more.

RACHEL LEVIN

Rachel Levin is a San Francisco–based journalist who has written for The New York TimesThe New YorkerThe Wall Street Journal, and Eater, where she was the first San Francisco restaurant critic. She is the author of LOOK BIG: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds (Ten Speed, 2018) and EAT SOMETHING (Chronicle Books, 2020).

Running Free at San Quentin

“I’m not a betting man, but if I was, I’d put my money on Fidelio,” says Markelle “the Gazelle” Taylor, winner of the 12th Annual San Quentin Marathon—and the three before that. He isn’t running this year. The 26.2-mile race, held inside the 30-foot walls of what’s got to be the prettiest prison in the world, is for inmates only.

Prettiest, at least, from the outside, where the sparkling San Francisco Bay stretches to the sky and Mt Tamalpais rises above the barbed wire.

The Gazelle always appreciated that view of Tam while running around and around and around the prison yard. He completed his last San Quentin Marathon—105 laps around a quarter-mile track— in a record 3:10:42. A few months later, paroled after 18 years, he ran to the top of the mountain he’d been looking at for so long. (And then he ran the Boston Marathon, in 3:03:52, his personal best.)

No one is going to beat Markelle’s time this year, predicts Frank Ruona, 74, crazy-accomplished ultra-runner, Vietnam vet, longtime coach of Marin’s Tamalpa Running Club—and head coach of San Quentin’s 1,000 Mile Club, since its inception in 2005.

But on a sunny, 46-degree Friday morning in late November, two guys set out to try: Fidelio Marin and Mark Jarosik. Lifers both, like most of the 4,215 inmates at the maximum-security penitentiary, California’s oldest.

I don’t want to know what these guys did to get in here.

Coach Frank sends me the roster of runners in advance, their names right there, ready for me to type into Google. Instead, I concentrate on another email I receive: a Word doc detailing what not to wear. The list is long. No jumpsuits. (Noted.) No sweats. No gray or white or denim or anything resembling denim—or anything that might make me resemble an inmate.

So that the guards with guns watching from the towers above can easily distinguish you, I’m told, in the event of any trouble.

It doesn’t explicitly say no body-hugging Oiselle pants, which is what I usually wear running, but as Kevin Rumon, another longtime volunteer, put it over the phone: “These guys don’t get a lot of female communication, so…” Also, he reminds me, I won’t be running.

*

The sun rises as I cross the Golden Gate Bridge. I breeze through the rainbow tunnel and pass all the Highway 101 exits I typically take. Sausalito, Stinson Beach, Muir Woods. Just past the posh Marin Country Mart, home to $400 bikinis and $32 burgers, I follow signs to its antithesis, another iconic Marin County destination. The one I’ve driven by for years — yet have never been to.

It’s about two minutes till race time and the first runner I meet is Fidelio. At 49, he’s wrinkle-free, with warm eyes and a wide smile, dressed in droopy gray shorts, white socks, and donated gray Adidas sneakers. He has a white napkin wrapped around his forehead, like a bandana. I ask what he had for breakfast. “Snickers,” he says.

There’s a digital clock on the ground and a homemade “1000 Mile Club” banner hanging over “San Quentin’s Field of Dreams” scoreboard, but otherwise the runners gather without fanfare.

No one else on the yard seems to care, nor much notice, that there’s a marathon today. Not the men doing push-ups or the men punching bags or the men playing dominos or the men, so many men, ambling the same track in long denim jackets marked CDCR Prisoner. The geese puttering around the patchy grass could give two poops, too.

‘But these runners do. They’ve been training all year for this, with Coach Frank and Kevin and a handful of other elite runners—who are here this morning, in black puffy coats, with stopwatches and clipboards and pouches of berry-flavored Gu. All lifers in their own way, they joke. They care, too.

“It’s one of those corny-sounding things,” says ultrarunner Diana Fitzpatrick, 61. “About getting more out of it than I put in, but it’s true.” She hasn’t missed a San Quentin marathon. The first had only one finisher, she recalls. Ronnie Goodman, since paroled. A lot of 1,000 Mile Club runners have been paroled.

Running today are 30 of the 60 or so in the group. Not all are looking to finish and 17 are injured and not running at all. (Hips. Hernias. An ingrown toenail.) Still, they’re here help, to hand out water, to cheer on their teammates.

Like Brett Ownbey. “Positive affirmation isn’t something you typically get a lot of in prison,” he says. The 1,000 Mile Club has given him that, and more.

Incarcerated for 17 years, he’d never run before arriving at San Quentin last September, weighing 252 pounds. He has since completed his first marathon, in four-and-a-half hours, and lost 62 pounds. “Running has taught me to set goals, and attain them,” says Brett, 45. “When I’m on the track, I’m in the present. I’m not just a prisoner. I’m human.”

Manning the starting line chalked in gravel, he finally feels a part of something, he explains. “Individually, you know, we’re all going at our own pace, at our own ability—but together, we make up the club.”

“3-2-1,” Frank counts down, and they’re off. A ragtag group, ages 22 to 72; whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians. The rest of the yard might be segregated, but not the 1000 Mile Club. “There’s no racial bullshit” as one runner puts it.

“This track is horrible,” says Ralph Ligons, 68, cofounder from a plastic chair on the sideline. He was an All-American sprinter at Cal State Sacramento who competed in the 1972 Olympic trials, before being sentenced 25 years to life, before he had a cane and his scraggly goatee turned white. He retired from running ten years ago. “But I never stopped walking,” he says. “You’ve got to keep going.”

Part-pavement, part-dirt, the “route” has six 90-degree turns and all sorts of distractions. It starts in right field, near the flaming sweat lodge, then cuts between the busy basketball court and the always-taken tennis court, weaving past a pull-up bar and an artist displaying his work.

A few things, though, make this race different from any other in Marin County: the sporadic prison alarms forcing everyone on the yard to sit down where ever they are, until the issue, whatever it is (medical, rioting, murder), is resolved.

Perhaps the toughest thing: “Every lap, you’re passing the finish line,” says Nicola Bucci, 47. “You’re thinking: ‘When’s it going to end?’” Not unlike prison itself, he adds.

Recovering from surgery, Bucci is sitting this one out. He completed his first marathon last year, coming in dead last. Didn’t matter. “It felt like coming in first,” he says. “It gave me the will to want to continue. It helped me realize that whatever I face, I can overcome.”

“Only 102 laps to go!” cries Dan McCoy, giving a thumbs up as he goes by. There are no live bands or little kids holding signs or water stations. Most guys BYO in old plastic Pepsi bottles, to hang on the chain-link fence. Some are topped with squirt caps Kevin bought for them on eBay, so they can drink and run.

Eventually, the smiles and waves turn to groans, guys gripping hamstrings, some shuffling to a walk.

John Levin, 55, a two-time finisher, cuts out after 18 miles. “Hey, sister!” he jokes, having heard we share the same last name. His brother loaded up his MP3 player with running-themed songs, he tells me. “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen. “Marathon” by Rush.

John came to San Quentin with a degree in computer science, but had never run before. “It means everything,” he says, wiping away tears. “That coach, and all these free people, show up, and can look past your poor decisions and treat you like a real person, like you’re not the worst thing you’ve ever done.”

For most of the race, Fidelio is indeed in the lead, a full lap ahead Mark. Until mile 21—lap 87when he rolls his ankle.

Mark pulls ahead. He’s got less than a mile to go. “Down in the yard,” booms a voice over the loud speaker, cramping the runners’ style. Seventeen minutes later, they’re allowed up.

The last lap is a short one, the .2. Shirtless and chest puffed, 107.7 “The BONE” blaring in his ears, Mark barrels toward the finish line.

Brett and Bucci hold up a piece of red plastic tape that reads “Danger” — and he busts through, six minutes short of Markelle’s record.

Feeling like a lone SportsCenter reporter after the SuperBowl, I scurry over, holding up my mini-recorder. “There’s a new king in town,” says Mark, with a wry smile. Then softens for a moment. “Running takes you out of this place.”

Fidelio rolls in two minutes later; second place but still beaming.

Steve Reitz finishes at 3:41. His mom is going to be proud, he says. Vicente Gomez follows in white stocking feet. He kicked off his crappy sneakers four miles ago. Blisters.

Watching them go by is Warren Corley. He’s inspired. “I had no idea there was a race going on. I was just sitting on the wall and said, ‘Hey, I know half those guys! I’m gonna get them some water.”

This is his second stint at San Quentin. His first was in the ‘80s, he tells me. “It was another place back then.” Riots. Murders. Tension all the time. “None of this was here,” he says, surveying the yard. No tennis. No garden. No 1,000 Mile Club. No marathon.

“I could imagine doing this,” says Warren still holding a cup no one has grabbed. “Yeah, I’m going to run next year.” He pauses. “I’ll be here.””

The marathon won’t be over for another couple of hours.

Fourteen more guys will finish, including fresh-faced first-timer Michael Johnson, who fixed to have a friend waiting at the end with Peanut Butter Panic ice cream. (“I lent him a calculator earlier,” he explains.)

And, for the fourth time, Tommy Wickerd, his tattooed arms bulging, his bad knees holding, his bald head inscribed: “Ma & Pa I Tried.” He never ran long distance before prison. “The cops always made sure I didn’t get very far,” he jokes. Then turns serious. “Running has changed my life. When I’m running, I’m not in prison. I’m thinking about my father, my grandkids, my next breath, my next step.”

Brett and Bucci string up the red tape for every runner crossing the finish line, as if instead of Danger, it reads: fresh start.

 I’m ushered out before the end of the race. I leave these men and their mistakes and regrets and hopes and dreams. And Mike Keeyes, still trucking tortoise-style at 72, before he finishes his fifth San Quentin Marathon in five-plus hours. He’s been incarcerated for 45 years. My entire lifetime.

These guys run, I realize, for the same reason I do: to feel alive, and free.

The bars clank close behind me and I drive out along the bay toward Tennesee Valley. I swap pants and hit the trails until the sun starts to set.

Later, at home, I can’t help it: I Google. Yet like Coach Frank and Kevin and San Quentin’s geese, I don’t care. I want to go back.

Is the Shofar … an Instrument of Technological Disruption?

Sure, it’s been around since biblical times, but suddenly the shofar is trending among Bay Area billionaires.

Well, O.K., only two leading tech C.E.O.s of our time have revealed that they are quite skilled in the most analog of instruments. Still! Their mothers must be so proud.

On Sept. 10, the 34-year-old founder of Facebook posted there a video of himself tooting his own ram’s horn in the comfort of his home in Palo Alto, Calif. “Mark Zuckerberg is celebrating Rosh Hashana,” read the status update, complete with an apple-and-honey emoji.

He huffed and puffed an impressive tekiah-teruah-shevarim: a series of staccato blasts followed by a longer high note, as per tradition. Unintentionally adding an extra fillip: his 1-year-old daughter, August, wailing offscreen.

 As of Monday, the day before Yom Kippur begins, the clip has received some 1.4 million views and 13,000 comments on Facebook. (Although an earlier post of his baby goat standing on top of a tortoise got more.)

“Love the Jewish pride!” one commenter wrote. “That’s some serious blowing skills.”

“I got a little carried away on my Teruah,” Mr. Zuckerberg posted.

Another commenter tried to comfort him: “Your terua was perfect.”

Heartfelt wishes for a “happy, healthy!” poured in from around the world, along with a healthy dose of criticism. “Dear Mark,” one person posted, “I wish you new algorithms.”

Others offered fun shofar facts, pulled from Wikipedia: Apparently a call once recorded by composer Elmer Bernstein for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 “The Ten Commandments” was later used by sound editors in “Return of the Jedi” as the cry of the Ewok battle horn. (Currently available as a free ringtone, as is the Shofar itself.)

A man from Cairo posted a fair question: “What is Rosh Hashana?!”

“It’s the Jewish new year. Happy new year!” Mr. Zuckerberg replied joyously, to hundreds of Likes.

Apart from rushing Alpha Epsilon Pi, a Jewish-oriented fraternity, at Harvard, Mr. Zuckerberg wasn’t always so audibly observant. Fatherhood, the attacks in Paris, the rise of anti-Semitism, all influenced him, Mr. Zuckerberg has said. Last year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, he asked for forgiveness for Facebook’s sins (on Facebook).

Then there’s Marc Benioff, the C.E.O. of Salesforce, the cloud computing company, who recently with his wife made news by buying Time magazine.

While Mr. Zuckerberg was blowing his shofar before a virtual crowd, Mr. Benioff, 54, was blowing his own, in a San Francisco synagogue, before the city’s largest congregation, and one of the oldest West of the Mississippi.

Backed by a talented guitarist, the holy ark and a toddler wielding a purple plastic horn, Mr. Benioff raised what looked like the shofar of all shofars: a long, curled, hollowed-out horn. With cheeks and chest full, he exhaled a tekiah-gedolah as well as any of the talis-draped rabbis beside him.

Around 5 o’clock, Mr. Benioff and some 700 members gathered at nearby Baker Beach to cast away the sins of the past year and usher in the next. Beneath September’s glowing sun, the burnt-red Golden Gate Bridge as a backdrop, they tossed birdseed (bread crumbs are so 5778) into the Pacific, drank rosé and blew shofars above the crash of the Pacific.

Afterward, San Francisco’s Jewish community continued to kibbitz, but Mr. Benioff wandered off. Wearing billowy white pants and one of his signature fuchsia Tommy Bahama shirts, dog leash and shofar in hand, he headed home through the sand to prepare for his own high holy day, happening next week: Dreamforce, the technology conference.

It’s Jewish! It’s Nostalgic: It’s Camp!

As if on cue, the first camper I meet is a guy named Josh: a nice, 27-year-old Jewish boy with kind eyes, a subtle smile and the same name as my husband, another nice Jewish boy, back home.

“Do you know where Malbec is?” asks this Josh, Josh Blake, rolling his eyes, and then his suitcase, over a wide dirt path flanked by rickety cabins that have been renamed for the weekend. (Malbec and Cabernet, for the men; Pinot Grigio and Rosé for the women; Raisins for all.) “I don’t want to walk all the way over there, if it’s back there …” he says, sounding not unlike Woody Allen.

I don’t blame him. The camp is desert-hot and dusty. And he’s ultimately here, he later admits over bagels, because his parents paid the all-inclusive $525 for him to be. They met on this very land, albeit half a mile away. “Talk about pressure!” he says, laughing.

Ilana Rosenberg, 31, sitting nearby, agrees. “My mother said, ‘Have fun! Go meet your Jewish husband!’ My sister was like, ‘Mom, she could find a Jewish wife, too, you know’.”

American Jewish University owns these 2,800 acres in Southern California’s Simi Valley, which is home to rolling hills and herds of cows, the university’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus and Camp Alonim. Over the next three nights and four days, this 66-year-old summer camp for Jewish kids has been commandeered by a new kind of summer camp — Trybal Gatherings, for Jewish adults.

Trybal Gatherings was founded by Carine Warsawski, 34, a buoyant, Boston-bred M.B.A., with the goal of fostering lasting community among Jews in their 20s and 30s, and, ahem, a few in their 40s.

She held her first Gathering at Camp Eisner in the Berkshires in 2017, roping in mostly friends of friends. Over Labor Day weekend, it sold out, with 125 campers and a wait-list dozens’ deep. Last year, she added Wisconsin; next summer Atlanta, and has plans to expand from Seattle to Austin to Toronto.

Whereas traditions like Birthright Israel offer free trips to the homeland, Ms. Warsawski’s aim is to offer an immersive, low-commitment experience closer to home — one rooted not in Zionism or religious doctrine, but in the shared nostalgia of a Jewish-American rite of passage, complete with archery and horseback riding, and a roster that reads like it’s from the Old Testament. (At one point, I’d forgotten my name-necklace. “That’s O.K.!” someone joked. “It’s probably either Sarah or Rachel.”)

Also, adult campers have careers, though no one talks about them. Web developers and screenwriters, wedding planners and wardrobe stylists. And yes, a few doctors and lawyers. The majority came solo; others hand-in-hand and interfaith or happily married in matching outfits, like Emily and Rachel Leavitt — my Secret Santa, er, Mystery Moses.

It’s a mix of die-hard camp people reliving their glory days, once-homesick campers redoing their awkward years, and first-timers wondering what all the fuss is about. “My parents were immigrants from Iran! They didn’t know about camp!” says Baha Aghajani, 30. Neither did Saraf Shmutz, 39, who moved from Tel Aviv to San Diego. “My summers were ‘go play soccer and bug off.’”

No Abe Weissman rompers were seen.
CreditBeth Coller for The New York Times

As a writer who hasn’t been back to her camp, Young Judaea, in New Hampshire, in 25 years, I signed up to learn what’s moving Jews to opt for uncomfortable bunk beds and kosher-style mess halls, in lieu of a real vacation.

Trybal isn’t the only over-21 camp cropping up these days. Nor is it the only Jewish one. Camp Nai Nai Naiwhich also operates on both coasts, and attracts a post-college, more conservative crowd. And “55+” Orthodox Jews have been davening at summer retreats for decades at places like Isabella Freedman where campers crochet kippahs and take day trips to Tanglewood, in the Berkshires.

Trybal is arguably the only camp, though, that starts the day with an “Abe Weissman Workout,” a calisthenics routine straight out of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” (Tomato juice refreshers included, but no rompers.)

It’s also, explains Ms. Warsawski, “a place for people who are more -ish than Jew.” Like Molly Shapiro, 28, of Berkeley. ““This is my jam!” she says. “Synagogues today aren’t really designed for us. We want something less traditional, more affordable, more fun. I mean, playing cornhole isn’t Jewish, but we’re playing cornhole together!”

Togetherness is what Trybal is all about. The schedule is packed from early morning to midnight with get-to-know-you-games and group activities like partner massage and mah-jongg, pickling and pool time.

 “Will 20 loaves be enough for all 60 of us tonight,” some worried during challah baking class.
CreditBeth Coller for The New York Times

The next morning, I pass up dreamcatcher-making for challah baking. “Oh yeah, this is what I’m here for,” says Abel Horwitz, a young Robert Downey Jr., kneading dough we’ll later braid and adorn with toppings beyond the traditional sesame. Rainbow sprinkles. Peaches. Jalapeños. “Will 20 loaves be enough for all 60 of us tonight,” some Jews worry.

Next, it’s a tossup between the relationship workshop and the ropes course. I decide I like humans more than heights and head over to hear what the visiting Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, has to say. She reads a passage from the 20th-century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and tells us to partner up. A 26-year-old named Sam and I stare into each other’s faces for a full five minutes. “Sit with the discomfort,” the rabbi urges. Reluctantly, I do. I smile. He winks. I wiggle, examining his wrinkle-free forehead and bushy eyebrows bound to grow bushier in old age, until my awkwardness turns to calm. I’m overwhelmed by a deep feeling of curiosity and compassion for this man, for myself, for humanity.

“That was a good reminder,” Ms. Aghajani says afterward. “To give people more of a chance. To not swipe so fast.”

After a grilled cheese buffet, there’s solar art and yoga and Slip-n-Slide kickball. I head for the hammocks, where a guy with long red hair is lounging in a tie-dyed Helvetica T-shirt that reads “Falafel & Sabich & Hummus & Schwarma.” It’s his third Trybal. He is the camp guitarist, and a rocket scientist in real life.

“I come to be a kid again,” Jeremy Hollander, 34, says. He pauses. “And to, you know, be with my people.” In real life, he doesn’t bring up the fact he’s Jewish. “‘Hollander’ isn’t ‘Schwartzenbaum’. People see me and usually think I’m Scottish or something.” He feels safer that way. Especially today, he says, with rising anti-Semitism. “The flame is being fanned. You never know who has what opinions. Here, I can let my hair down.” (Although, technically, it’s in a ponytail.)

“The only one thing I have to worry about at camp,” he says, “is when am I going to squeeze in a shower?”

Still, before sundown, we all emerge from our bunks neat and clean and dressed in white. “Can you believe I got this for $2.99 at Saks Off Fifth!” exclaims Lauren Katz, a volunteer staffer wearing lace. (We can’t.)

Picture time. “Say Cheese!” the camp photographer instructs. “But we’re lactose intolerant!” someone cries from the crowd.

We gather in a stone-lined grove, to sing and sway and cheek-kiss “Shabbat Shalom,” before making our way to the dining hall for a sit-down dinner of roast chicken. And, of course, plenty of challah.

I agree with what he said earlier. There is something easy and assuring about spending a summer weekend like I used to (albeit for eight whole weeks): with my people. Or, at least with people who remind me of my people. New friends bonded by old memories.

 

Trybal is like a modern millennial shtetl, where gesundheits fly. And “Hava Nagila” plays at a Hawaiian luau. And campfire stories include, “How I Became a ‘Nice Jewish Guys’ Calendar Model.”

It’s an alternate, insular universe where I find myself running through a field, streaked in war paint, chanting: “We have spirit, because we’re Blues! We have spirit because we’re Jews!”

It’s a world where conversation flows from the Netflix show “Shtisel” to the lack of Jews in Santa Barbara to the universal disdain for online dating (despite the fact that Trybal is sponsored by JSwipe), to whether Ms. Rosenberg indeed met her future husband.

“We’ll see,” she says, smiling. She did make-out at Arts & Crafts with the Trybal barista: a boy she barely remembers being at her bat mitzvah.On the last night, I slip quietly out of the luau, where the D.J. is rocking “Lean On Me.” I leave the Leavitt ladies in their twin Hawaiian shirts and my Rosé bunkmates dancing the macarena. Mr. Shmutz and the Cabernets are making reunion plans. Mr. Blake is flirting with one of his crushes.

I have an early flight to catch. Back to my husband and kids and, in a way, the future. In the morning, I’ll miss the friendship bracelets and the compliment circle and, like a true last day of camp: tears. For a moment I have FOMO. And then I realize, it’s fine. Sometimes an Irish goodbye is just as good as a Jewish one.

Help! There’s a Bear in My Airbnb

Ann Bryant’s phone rings all season long. She has four phones, actually, in her Homewood, Calif., home office, and they ring 24 hours a day. “Sometimes all at once,” says the executive director of the Bear League, a community-based nonprofit that aims to educate the human public about their animal neighbors. Its tagline: “People living in harmony with bears.”

The thing is, though, people and bears are living not so harmoniously these days — which is why Bryant is busy. She operates what is basically a 911 service for people’s bear-related emergencies.

And in Lake Tahoe, people have a lot of bear-related emergencies. Home to some 300 bears in the summer months, the popular vacation area swells with second-homeowners and car-campers and Airbnb-ers, many of whom do not always understand the proper protocol for visiting bear country.

“Fifty percent of the time we coach idiots,” says Bryant. “I could tell you crazy stories all day.”

There was the guy who left a trail of cookies in his yard, leading into his living room, because he thought it would be fun to get a picture of a bear eating cookies on his couch watching TV. We had a father at a campground who put peanut butter on his child’s face then stood him next to a dumpster filled with food, and waited for a bear to come and lick it off so he could get a photograph of the bear “kissing” his kid. That sent us reeling. Another father, of an 8-year-old, put food in his daughter’s hand, then filmed her feeding a bear, like it was a dog. Bears are not dogs.

Shockingly no, but the parents should have gone to jail for endangering a child, and a bear. We don’t want people to get hurt, but we also don’t want bears to get hurt.

People don’t understand. They have a city mentality; they’ve grown so out of touch with the natural world. They come up here and they think it’s a controlled environment. Like a zoo. I’ve gotten calls from tourists asking: “What time do the bears come out?” Or, “Where can we go to see the bears?” Or they’ll say, “I just saw a bear in the woods behind our rental cabin. You need to come get it, and put it back in its crate.” I have to tell them: These are wild bears, and they’ve lived here long before we did. This is their home, too.

People leave dinner on the deck and trash cans in the driveway. So the bears come. Then those people leave, but the bear keeps coming back, because the previous guests fed him for the last four days! People come here to hike and water ski and have fun and they just don’t think about it. They go off to the beach and leave the door ajar, or a window open, and then they come home — or wake up — to a bear eating everything in the kitchen. They might remember to put the garbage in the bear bin, but then they’ll forget to lock their car. We had a big rampage recently of bears getting into unlocked cars. All it takes is a pack of gum in the console. A bear can open a door, like a human. Then the wind blows it shut, the bear gets stuck inside, and the car gets destroyed. Visitors might learn by the end of the week, but then they go home, and the new renters arrive. It’s an endless cycle of ignorance.

Bird feeders are the biggest culprits. Get rid of the bird feeder. If you feed the birds, you’re feeding the bears. A lot of older cabins are nothing more than cardboard boxes with single-pane windows. You need double-pane windows, solid doors, electric doormats — otherwise known as “unwelcome mats.”

It gets busier every summer. When I first started the Bear League 20 years ago, we’d get about five calls a day. Today, we get about 200 calls a day. People panicking — “A bear keeps coming into my backyard!” — and they don’t know what to do.

Or they’ll hear noises in their house and think it’s a bear. Or sometimes they’re upstairs sleeping and don’t realize until morning that a bear broke in. Bears break in to homes around the Tahoe Basin every single night.

I’ll head right over and check out the scene. If we get a case where there’s a bear on the premises and it won’t leave, it’s usually because it’s a mama with cubs. I’ll go and get everyone away, so she can get her cubs down from the tree safely. If there’s a bear under a deck, I’ll crawl under there to see what’s going on. Sometimes I’ll use a paintball gun to scare them off.

No, it’s the bears who are scared. I can read a bear’s mood, its body language and facial expressions. I know what a bear is thinking. I was a wildlife rehabber. I’ve dealt with all kinds of wildlife. Raccoons, squirrels, whatever animals are native. An injured pregnant porcupine once needed my help. I’ve raised Maude (pictured), since birth. She was born in my living room.

I can’t be everywhere! I have people, wildlife lovers all around the lake, who are trained to help. But if you see a bear on your deck, or hear noises and think there’s one in your house, just stomp and yell and bang. As soon as you do, the bear usually leaves. Black bears are big chickens. They’re really easy to chase off — just don’t get in their way.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.


Rachel Levin is a contributor to the Travel section and the author of “LOOK BIG: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds.”

Taming the Beast in Your Basement

“I get lot of calls about animals in pools,” said Ray Hartley. “Squirrels in pools. Skunks in pools. Usually I tell people, ‘You don’t need me. You’ve got a skimmer, just gently scoop it up!’ ” Recently, though, a woman rang about a deer in her pool.

“That was a first,” said Mr. Hartley, owner of Intrepid Wildlife Services in Westchester County, N.Y. His tagline: “Your castle shouldn’t be a zoo.”

We can deal with pesky seagulls on the beach. But when it comes to raccoons in our chimney, chipmunks in our yard and bats in our bedroom, we human beings are helpless, especially in this era of Uber-Insta-On-Demand everything. Why would we handle a snake in our garage when we don’t even hand-select our own groceries?

Mr. Hartley is one of a growing breed of professional critter gitters—also known as nuisance-wildlife-control operators. They are a fearless group of (mostly) men willing to rescue us from wildlife that has gotten in our way. (Or is it vice versa?)

“It blows my mind what people pay me to do,” said Mr. Hartley.

And lately people have been paying for woodchucks—starting at $400 for up to four visits. Woodchucks, or groundhogs, tear up the lawn, burrow tunnels, erode the foundation and eat away at the electrical. “I jumped, like, 250% on woodchucks!” he said. “Been jamming on squirrels, too.”

And last summer—every summer—bats, 24/7. Bats in toasters. Bats in washing machines. “Bats and squirrels are my bread and buttah,” he said, joking.

He fields anywhere from 200 to 300 frantic calls a month,he said. Winter (mating skunks), spring (flying squirrels), summer (rabid bats) or fall (den-seeking raccoons), all you’ve got to do is call. Whether it’s two in the afternoon, or four in the morning—he’ll rush over in his Toyota Tundra Rock Warrior. And charge accordingly.

Mr. Hartley, 53, got his start snaring beaver and catching coyotes in the 1990s in rural New Hampshire—long before the industry had formal training and Facebook groups and national conferences. He was pretty much a lone wolf back then, self-taught, aided by a bimonthly magazine called Wildlife Control Technology and his buddy’s VHS: “Snaring Beaver Alive.”

“The farmers loved me,” he recalled.

They paid him in bushels of corn and bottles of maple syrup. But he didn’t love New Hampshire. “Too many do-it-yourselfers,” he said. “Business is way better in Westchester.” (Plus, people there pay cash.)

Business is booming, said many of the wildlife-control operators who attended last year’s Wildlife Expo in New Orleans, which had a record turnout and offered programs such as “Zoonotic Disease: What You Wish You Didn’t Have to Know” and infrared rat tours of downtown. The annual industry event is put on by the National Pest Management and the National Wildlife Control Operators associations.

“The industry has grown exponentially,” said Mike Tucker, 60, who has been chasing squirrels in Minneapolis for 40 years. He and Mr. Hartley stood on the second floor of Harrah’s New Orleans Hotel & Casino surrounded by furry replicas of rats and cans of Critter Ridder repellent.

“It’s urbanization,” explained Mr. Tucker, sporting a navy “Wildlife Removal Services” cap. “We’ve made it more hospitable for animals. Sleeping under a porch is cozier than sleeping under a rock. We put out our birdfeeders… We house them, we feed them, and then we complain about them!”

As city populations surge and developers push into previously uninhabited areas, humans and wildlife are interacting more. And more interaction means more conflict. “People are used to having a pool guy and a landscape guy, now they need a raccoon guy,” said Mr. Tucker.

As an industry veteran, Mr. Hartley led a conference session called, “Preparing for the Unexpected Jobs.” He showed a video of himself pulling a growling raccoon out of a client’s bathroom wall by (gloved) hand, then wrangling it into a steel Tomahawk Live Trap. “That’s how we do it, folks!” he said.

The crowd cheered.

Escorting out uninvited guests is a big part of the gig, but so is sealing up entry points and installing devices such as chimney caps to prevent home invasions in the first place.

Educating clients is, too. “People call up all the time saying, ‘Oh my God. There’s a coyote in my backyard!’ ” said Mr. Hartley. “I’m like, ‘Yup, that’s nature. Call me if it gets aggressive.’”

Added Mr. Tucker: “Customers are clueless. A guy once demanded I find the squirrel eggs in his attic. He was from New Jersey. Not that that matters.”

Rates range, uh, wildly, depending on animal and location, urgency, severity and number of visits required. A middle-of-the-night bat call in Chappaqua might be $325; a midday squirrel call, minimum $485; a raccoon eviction in San Francisco, $140 for an inspection and $400 for Junio Costa—aka Mr. Raccoon—to, say, catch pole one feasting in your kitchen.

Most wildlife-control operators do it all—snakes, squirrels, skunks—but they often have a soft spot for certain animals. Keith Markun, owner of Beast Wildlife Solutions in St. Paul, Minn., likes working with birds and bats, and has a bat colony etched on his arms to prove it.

Jimmy Hunter, of Nashville, has seen an influx of armadillos. And Gregg Schumaker is all about skunks. He calls himself the Skunk Whisperer of Northern Michigan, where he removes some 200 a year from vacation homes and high-end hotels. He also has a skunk as a pet. His name is Tybalt, like the Shakespeare character, and he is allowed to sit on the couch.

“I like the smell of the spray,” Mr. Schumaker admitted. “A lot of people do.”

Newbie Dan Bailey, 24, with a degree in wildlife biology, handles a lot of snakes in New England. Once, he removed a 2-foot-long milk snake from a nail salon. “That was fun!” he said at the expo, beaming beside a stack of pigeon birth-control pamphlets.

It may take time for him to learn what Mr. Hartley and his peers confirmed after decades of house calls. What’s the craziest animal they’ve ever dealt with?

They replied in unison: “People.”

Rachel Levin is the author of “LOOK BIG: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds.”

Taking out the Trash? That’s Still a Man’s Job

On a recent Monday night in San Francisco, as I lounged in the living room watching “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” out of the corner of my eye I also watched my husband, Josh, march around our house as he does every Monday night, collecting pails and tying plastic bags.

Next, he dons his headlamp (which underscores: serious business), grabs his Leatherman and spends the next 15 minutes or so outside in the dark fending off raccoons and annihilating the latest crop of Amazon Primeboxes; cramming the week’s wine bottles and every last LaCroix can into the blue bin; dumping eggshells and avocado rinds and our kids’ abandoned crusts into the green compost bin; and bungee-ing the filled-to-the-brim black garbage bin. And then bu-bump-ing-bu-bump-ing the trio one by one, down the entryway to the curb. Eventually Josh returns, washes his hands, and joins me, cozy on the couch.

This is our weekly ritual. There’s no acknowledgment of the obvious inequity. No you-do-it-next-time admonishment. He accepts his role without a hint of bitterness. (In a way I do not when it comes to, say, driving car pool or coordinating play dates.) Every Monday around 9 p.m., I feel a tinge of guilt, except … not really.

Almost every woman I know who lives with a man shirks this chore. It’s as if all hard-won equality in the home is tossed on trash night. It may be the last bastion of accepted 1950s behavior. And in this case — and this case alone — women are fine with that.

As one friend pointed out: “Women deal with the rest of the garbage.”

For many, it’s the simple ick factor. “I don’t do trash juices,” said Gabriela Herman, 36, a photographer who lives with her husband and 17-month-old daughter in a brownstone in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Mr. Athimattathil, 40, grew up in Yonkers, where he said his father always took out the trash, until he passed the job down. “My sister and I would both be sitting on the couch watching TV,” he recalled. “And my dad would always say: ‘Noble, take out the garbage.’ Why not my sister? She had two arms and two legs!”

Nancy Casey, 41, a nurse practitioner in Portland, Ore., isn’t fazed by garbage. (“Eh, I’m up in vaginas all day.”) Still, it’s her husband’s job. “I do everything else,” Ms. Casey said.

Trash night in Portland is especially taxing, she said, because it occurs only once every other week. Moreover, the standard bin is half the size of the compost and recycling, which are picked up weekly. “It’s the liberal hippie thing. There must have been some kind of movement,” said Ms. Casey, who grew up in Chicago.

She added: “If we ever have extra space in our can it’s like Christmas! And we start running around the house looking for things to throw in.”

Rarely is “Who’s on Trash?” an actual discussion among couples. The division of labor just happens. But Deya Warren and her husband, Gus, likely talked about it, she said, if only because they were given a book before getting married called “The Hard Questions,” which offers discussion topics like: “Do we eat out a lot? Or a little?” “What kind of bed do we sleep on? A king size? A water bed?” (Water beds?)

“The whole idea was that you should talk about the little things because, over time, they inevitably become bigger things,” said Ms. Warren, a 39-year-old entrepreneur and mother of three in Bronxville, N.Y. “Trash beyond grosses me out. I know it’s a gender stereotype, but I don’t care. I’m the one with the drill! I’ve dismantled our broken dishwasher and put it back together! I’m confident enough in my defiance of traditional roles. Gus can take out the garbage.”

What about all the single ladies, that highly scrutinized cohort?

Sophie Galant, 24, a consultant, lives with female roommates in a San Francisco apartment and routinely passes the honor of trash duty to guy friends who come for dinner. “I always ask them to take it out on their way out,” she said. “It smells. And I don’t want it to drip on me.”

Laura Manzano, 26, who moved from her college dorm in Virginia to a three-unit building in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, has never dealt with the trash. “Anthony does it all,” she said matter-of-factly, referring to her superintendent. “We don’t even tip him. Maybe I should start?” (Yes.)

Elizabeth Hand, 41, a stay-at-home mother in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, long had a helpful neighbor. “This elderly Italian man named Augie who’d lived here forever,” she said. “He would just do it for us. I had no idea how much work it was, until he passed away. We miss him.”

Trash chutes in the hallways can make the task easier for apartment dwellers, though some still struggle. “Tom has a habit of taking the trash out from under the kitchen sink, tying the tall bag, then just leaving it on the floor, in the garbage can — but obviously unusable, now that it’s tied,” said Jenny Patt, a lawyer who lives in Peter Cooper Village in Manhattan, referring to her partner. “As though that counts for something.”

When quarters are close, there are often heated battles over bins, on whose property they should reside, and who lugs them out each week.

In a recent thread on Nextdoor, the regional social network, a man in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn asked people to petition the city to change their collection time from morning rush hour to off-peak hours. This set off impassioned, paragraphs-long responses, including complaints over noise; comparisons to Europe; scorn at the offense of commuting by car; and the general sentiment that bags are more efficient than bins, and that the city’s metal trash cans of yore were barbaric.

(But are Manhattan’s Hefty mountains any better? Apparently people think so. Rats seem to like them as well.)

Recycling has added to the burden. “It’s insane how much cardboard we generate,” Ms. Herman said. “We get Amazon, like, daily. Fresh Direct, Blue Apron … We have a whole staging area! Sometimes, it’s stacked to the ceiling.” Some admit to such anxiety about box breakdown that they get packages sent to work.

Dawn Perry, 38, the food director at Real Simple magazine, is a self-proclaimed recycling Nazi. “I went to Boulder,” she said, referring to the eco-conscious college in Colorado. When Ms. Perry and her husband, Matt Duckor, moved to a garden apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, they started seeing some “crazy behavior in the trash bins,” she said. Like plastic where clearly only paper should be. (And don’t even get her started about the lack of curbside composting.)

“One day I semi-aggressively said to a neighbor: ‘Are you going to break that down?’” Ms. Perry said. Mr. Duckor furthermore printed (and laminated) diagramed recycling directions to post above the shared bins. He also mentioned a recent maggot issue. “All he had to say was ‘maggots,’” Ms. Perry said, “and people listened.”

Last year, Danielle Fennoy, 37, and her family moved from a 45-unit building in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, to a triplex in Bedford-Stuyvesant. “It was the biggest wake-up call on the planet,” said Ms. Fennoy, the co-owner of Revamp Interior Design. “I thought: ‘Seriously? Now I’m the trash lady?’” An early riser, she would put out the bags before work, a method that avoided rodent, or human, invasion. “I’d be out there in my jammies, with my neighbors. That part was nice. The camaraderie. ‘Like, here we are … trash day, again.’”

Until one trash day, she had a revelation: “I woke up and said, ‘You know what? I’ve got enough on my plate.’” She told her husband to take over trash. “And he was, like, ‘O.K.’”

Lauren Gersick, 36, a college counselor in San Francisco who shares the chore with her wife, believes that garbage night’s gender divide isn’t so much about women eschewing heavy bins or leaky bags. It’s not about a fear of rats or raccoons, or some sort of contrarian feministic stance.

It’s about men’s desire to get out of the house, Ms. Gersick thinks; a sanctioned opportunity to step out, away from the children and the chaos, into the dark solitude of night.

“I know at least when I do it,” she said, “I’m like, ‘Bye! I’m going to do the trash.’”

Happy Hour Without the Booze

On a recent rainy afternoon over veggie burgers at NeueHouse, the co-working space in the Flatiron district, three Vedic meditators were discussing drink options for a new kind of happy hour they were organizing.

“Tonight would be a good night for tea,” Katia Tallarico, 33, a lanky psychotherapist from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, said to Light Watkins, 42, an organizer from Los Angeles typically partial to a hot lemon-ginger elixir.

“It’s O.K., we have a really great water, from Australia,” said Andrea Praet, 34, a trend strategist from Greenpoint, who also runs an urban retreat series, with Ms. Tallarico, called the Uplift Project. Around 5 p.m., the three made their way over to set up a “bar” and buffet at General Assembly, a fourth-floor technology school and site of New York City’s inaugural Shine: an inspirational, alcohol-free evening.

Founded by Mr. Watkins, the bimonthly after-work party began in Venice Beach, Calif., where it quickly grew to 200 attendees from 12. On this night, for about the price of a glass of nebbiolo at the NoMad, 90 New Yorkers were submitting to an evening of meditation, “enlightertainment” (including live music and film) and vegan food. “Though meat is an option,” Mr. Watkins said. “We want to be normal.”

And “normal” in Manhattan typically involves booze. “Alcohol is such a part of the city’s culture,” said Ms. Tallarico, who drinks occasionally but said her social life doesn’t revolve around it. “There’s nothing wrong with drinking. But people are looking to evolve. They’re looking to wake up.”

Though malbec has arrived at the movies, and brunch cocktails now go way beyond Bloody Marys, some are seeking social gatherings where alcohol isn’t even a temptation.

A recent 50-person “juice crawl” through SoHo was so enthusiastically received that the organizer, Anna Garcia, said she would be hosting them weekly this year. The year-old Manhattan-based social group Clean Fun Network was so overwhelmed by the initial response, it had to temporarily shut down, said Jimmy Hamm, a founder.

And tickets to the Shine sold out within a week, with a lengthy wait list. “We didn’t even do anything,” said Ms. Tallarico, who donned a shimmery top for the occasion. “It is the Shine,” said Ms. Tallarico, putting on lip gloss. Ms. Praet, who pumped her shoulders to a silent beat as volunteers unloaded bottles of floral essence water, said, “Fun, fun, fun.” Ambience, though, was a bit of a concern. “The light is definitely too bright,” said Light.

That’s the thing about alcohol-free events — they tend to be “unsexy,” said Catherine Salway, owner of Redemption, a new “bar” in London’s Notting Hill that opened last August, serving beet-o-tinis, coco-ritas and the like.

“A lot can be done with décor and music,” Ms. Salway said. “It’s not alcohol creating that vibe, it’s the people.” She opened a second location this month in the trendy Shoreditch neighborhood. A former brand director for Virgin, Ms. Salway is also eying New York and (brace yourself) Las Vegas. “If we can convince Londoners to take a night off booze. …” she said, trailing off.

Back above Broadway, doors opened to a disproportionate number of tall, willowy women with flawless skin and a blasé, “I-just-have-more-fun-without-it” attitude toward alcohol. At the name-tag table, everyone was asked an icebreaker: “What actor would you cast to play you in a movie?” Elle Fanning. Kate Hudson. Several Natalie Portmans. A man in a blazer scanned his phone, stumped. “You know, in ‘Sex & the City 2’? When they’re in Dubai? That butler?” asked Siddhartha Banthiya, an investment banker.

People lined up for sunchoke salad and kale-pumpkin-seed pesto. “This is truly a breath of fresh air,” said Porl Gordon, a multimedia designer and regular drinker, guzzling a green juice. “Conversations are more solid and rooted than any alcohol-fueled chat.”

Nick DiMattina, 28, an Australian life coach, said that he had come looking for love, and that he prefers to date sans alcohol. “It’s the only way to see the real person,” he said. “I told my friends, this is where you’ll meet a cool girl.”

Likewise, Jennifer Ekeleme, 37, a freelance brand strategist, thought she had decent odds of meeting “a straight, down-to-earth, culturally aware man” — at least better than during her drinking days at an ad agency. “Booze was always flowing, people would just get hammered and start talking about how unhappy they are,” she said. “It was getting too hard to justify the toll alcohol was taking on my body, wallet and spirit.”

At the Shine, though, people were all smiles. “This is the only real happyhour happening in Manhattan right now,” said Mr. Watkins, kicking things off with a human massage chain. Next, Emily Fletcher, a meditation guide, took the mike and commanded people to close their eyes and plug their right nostril with their thumb, exhale with the left, then alternate.

Meditation Bar in Austin, Tex., offers “Happy Hour” classes, and MNDFL, which opened in November on East Eighth Street, has quickly morphed into more than a place to just sit in silence. “We dedicated half the space to feel like a living room, with couches and free tea,” said Lodro Rinzler, MNDFL’s co-owner and author of “The Buddha Walks Into a Bar. …” “We have real mugs,” said his partner, Ellie Burrows. They also host MNDFL Taste, a partly silent organic catered dinner, paired with water.

“Today, we had training that ended with a happy hour, but I didn’t go,” said Stephanie DiSturco, 26, a digital media planner who chose to go to MNDFL instead. At the Shine, as people sipped water, some vowed to start meditating more, others exchanged business cards. A 40-something woman who works in finance, was glad to have a new kind of night out.

“Rarely, do I ever come home from a bar and say, ‘That was really amazing,’” she said.

 

Advice to Serena Williams on Raising a Kid in San Francisco

Dearest Serena,

Congratulations! You’re pregnant (due in late August). We’re so excited for you. And for us—it’s been a while since we’ve had a non-tech celebrity in town, and with a baby to boot!

Rumor has it that you and Alexis [Ohanian, cofounder of Reddit] are putting down roots and raising your future Wimbledon champ in San Francisco. You have been spending an awful lot of time here lately,crashing a tennis game in Dolores Park, chasing down a phone thief at Mission Chinese, joining the board of SurveyMonkey. You even recently admitted you’ve been “craving tacos”—tweeted like a true local!

Before you officially move in full-time (fingers crossed), there are some things you should know about what it means to raise a kid in S.F. For starters, there are the hills and the kid-unfriendly restaurants and the absolute dearth of teenage babysitters (they’re all too busy mastering Mandarin or plotting Stanford acceptance strategies to wipe your baby’s ass). And there’s the side-eye you’ll get for breastfeeding in public, even though if you don’t do it, you’re a criminal.

You’ll figure all that out, no doubt. But since you’re so busy, I’d like to let you in on some facts of parental life in San Francisco:

• It’s just a fact that before your child learns to tie his or her (we’ll go with her) own laces, she will spy, with her little eye, wrinkly penises and silver spray-painted penises and double-XL penises poking through black leather straps.

• She will see hypodermic needles in the sand and human poop in the park and encampments that she says look like the forts she makes in the living room. Except they are not like the forts she makes in the living room.

• She will not be assigned to a public school you like, but to one you vehemently don’t like on the opposite side of town. (This may not be an issue.)

• She will never learn to swim, unless you commit to attending a 30-minute swim class at noon every Saturday for three years.

• Her first word will be doggie, and she’ll use it every time she sees that dude who hangs out across from the Haight Street Whole Foods yelling at his two pit bulls.

• On her way to her $30,000-a-year kindergarten, her little feet will step around a woman sleeping on the sidewalk. And she will ask you: Why is that woman sleeping on the sidewalk? And you will respond: Because she doesn’t have a home. And your daughter will ask: Why doesn’t she have a home? And you will say: Because some people can’t afford a home. And your daughter will ask: Can she live with us? And you will say: No.

• She will correct your composting and yell, “Jackson says that’s poison!” every time you pass McDonald’s.

• She will understand how two women make a baby.

• She will specifically request sashimi, not nigiri; shabu-shabu, not soup dumplings.

• Before naptime, she will play at a playground with sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge and clamber over Andy Golds­worthy art in a national park.

• She will live in a blissfully foggy bubble, and you will worry, with friends over a bottle of Soave brut at the new champagne bar in Hayes Valley, that maybe she should live among people with varying viewpoints on topics like guns and Trump and climate change, but then you will remember that you don’t want her to live among those people.

• On Halloween, she will dress up as something super clever, like a little old lady fighting eviction, and she will think trick-or-treating means scrambling for candy as it’s shot from a homebuilt cannon above a garage that has been transformed by Burning Man veterans into an old-time saloon serving artisanal whiskey so parents can have fun, too.

• On April 20, while watching a never-ending stream of people entering Golden Gate Park from her car seat, she will tell you, “It smells like a skunk,” and she will explain that it’s because it’s Mary Janna Day, a holiday where people burn leaves.

• On her birthday, you will suggest a picnic at the park, but she will ask for a party at Pump It Up or House of Air, also known as Hells on Earth, where all the other parents have their kids’ parties—except for those parents who transform their Calistoga compounds into Moana movie sets, complete with virgin mai tais, handmade grass skirts, and a performance by Auli‘i Cravalho herself, just because they met her the other weekend in Hawaii and thought it would be fun.

• And on every Martin Luther King Jr. Day, she will carry a handmade sign that says “Always Share” and “Be Kind to Everyone,” and she’ll march around the block singing “This Little Light of Mine” with her classmates of all colors as bystanders wave and Muni drivers honk and shopkeepers smile. Because peace and love and equality is what her preschool—like San Francisco itself—preaches. It’s a really great school. If you can get in.

I think you have a good shot.

Love,
Rachel

P.S. All my friends have moved since they’ve had kids. Can we hang out?

The ‘Kidbutz’ of Topanga

In a four-bedroom, 3,400-square-foot house with three and a half baths and a two-car garage in this hilly Los Angeles County enclave, Aleksandra Evanguelidi, 41, sleeps in the master bedroom; in the room next door is her daughter, Juno, 6, who shares it with Claire, also 6. Across the hall is an under-the-sea-theme loft. Eli, age 4, sleeps there. His mother, Ashley Welch, 24, has the room across the hall, which doesn’t have a bathroom of its own but does have a private balcony. And in the room next door, is Justin Balthrop, 37, Claire’s father.

Abby Lewis, 63, comes to visit for a month each summer. Everyone calls her Grandma. She is Mr. Balthrop’s mother, and lives in Albuquerque. “She fits in well here,” Mr. Balthrop said one afternoon this past spring as he whipped up a banana-kale-peanut-butter smoothie. “She used to live on a real hippie commune.”

Meet the Topanga Family, as their neighbors call them. They are the vanguard of communal living and child rearing, contemporary-style, where a dusty, off-the-grid farm in the middle of nowhere gives way to a sprawling $2 million house with endless views and vaulted ceilings, a Viking kitchen and multiple terraces, 20 minutes from Santa Monica.

While “co-living” is on the rise in cities like San Francisco and New York — a result of astronomical rents and a craving for community — so-called “hacker houses” and new cohabiting businesses like Common and WeLive are geared toward the young and childless. This is a different situation. The Topanga Family was created to befit single parents. And, in turn, their kids. Everyone involved agrees that the greatest perk is the siblinglike relationships that have developed among the children.

“What we’re doing isn’t new,” said Ms. Evanguelidi, a midwife. “People have been doing this forever. We’re just pimping it out.” She is the one who initially found the listing for the house, which is why, she said, she has claim to the large master suite with its two-sink marble counters, deep soaking tub and enormous walk-in closet.

On this spring evening, Dallas Garcia, the children’s 19-year-old nanny, was barefoot in the kitchen making lentil soup and chopping carrots and celery against a backdrop of the Santa Monica Mountains. Three blond children bolted through the front door, past a small wooden sign hanging in the foyer that read, “Remember, as Far as Anyone Knows We Are a Normal Family,” and into the kitchen. They scrambled to get to the countertop. “I want to sit next to my sister-roommates!” demanded Eli, clambering onto a stool between Claire and Juno.

Typically, everyone eats dinner together around 7 p.m., but tonight, Juno’s and Eli’s mothers were still driving home after spending a day off at the hot springs in the desert. So Ms. Garcia was in charge. She just finished her first year of community college; she works part time at a pizza place and part time for the Topanga Family. She found the job through her boyfriend, who is the son of Ms. Evanguelidi’s boyfriend, whose name is Troy Mitchell. “I tell my friends where I work, and they don’t get it,” Ms. Garcia said. “It’s totally opened my mind. It makes me feel like I don’t need to grow up and do things the traditional way.”

Before Mr. Balthrop came along, the Topanga Family used to be all female — except, of course, for Eli. It was known around town as the Hen House, and it originally started out of necessity. Ms. Evanguelidi is a single mother, and her career in helping to deliver babies means that she works odd hours, often at night. In 2012, she was scanning Craigslist, looking for a new place for her and Juno to live when she spotted her dream house: a Topanga single-family modern manse with a landlord asking for a rent of $5,500 per month. (The rent is now $7,500 per month.)

But then something very Los Angeles happened. She ran into a single mother of two she knew at the Whole Foods in Venice who was also looking for a new home and support. “It was fate,” Ms. Evanguelidi said.

By word of mouth, they soon added more single moms, and more children. At peak, there were four women and five kids under age 5. Once, a woman who was not a parent moved in, briefly. “She just didn’t get it,” Ms. Welch said. “She tried to label her food in the fridge, and we knew it wouldn’t work.” (This is not a kibbutz, it’s a “kidbutz.”)

The current configuration of residents took shape in 2013, when Ms. Welch arrived with Eli, who was then 1. During her pregnancy, she had been working as a sales manager at Bloomingdale’s and sleeping on a friend’s couch while taking nutrition courses through an online school. At a party, Ms. Welch met a friend of Ms. Evanguelidi’s who told her about the Topanga house. The women met, and it was an immediate fit.

In 2014, Mr. Balthrop, a programmer, was going through a divorce. His former wife had heard about this nearby house “with a bunch of parents,” as he said she described it to him, and urged him to check it out. Ms. Evanguelidi and Ms. Welch invited him to dinner. The lease was awkwardly lying on the table, like the rose on the silver tray on “The Bachelorette.” At the end of the evening, he signed it — and he and Claire moved in soon thereafter.

Mr. Balthrop was the first man to live in the house with the Topanga Family. Eli and Juno, whose biological fathers live in other states, initially started calling him “Daddy.” Then the children’s fathers came to visit, and “Daddy” reverted “Justin.”

Ms. Evanguelidi and Ms. Welch were initially worried about adding a man to the family. “I didn’t want to ruin what we’d created,” Ms. Evanguelidi said. It was a rocky start. “Our first week, Juno busted in yelling, ‘This isn’t your room!’” Mr. Balthrop said. Then Ms. Evanguelidi threw out all his food that wasn’t organic. “I was like, uh, this might not work,” he said. But two years later, Claire and Juno are best friends, and Mr. Balthrop keeps a stash of Jif and YoCrunch with M&M’s in a minifridge in his room.

Last year, a second man moved in with his two daughters. “That totally changed the energy,” Ms. Evanguelidi said, especially because both she and Ms. Welch initially found him attractive. Within weeks, he and Ms. Welch hooked up. “We were just so connected musically,” she said.

Other rules of the house: In addition to no nonorganic food and no TV (Mr. Balthrop surreptitiously binge-watches “House of Cards” on his laptop), there is overnight guest etiquette. “Sometimes,” Ms. Welch said, “I’ll wake up to check on Eli and I’ll hear Aleks and Troy, and I’m like, ‘Aleks! You have to shut your door!’”

Everyone shares the rent, the car-pooling duties and the expensive Los Angeles County water bill. They also freely discipline one another’s children. “Every kid is fair game,” Ms. Welch said. For example, when her son, Eli, dumped all of Juno’s dresses off their hangers, Mr. Balthrop (the parent of neither child) took charge.

Household duties are split. Ms. Evanguelidi does the grocery shopping; Ms. Welch does the cooking (wild Alaskan salmon with quinoa one night, beef tacos with sautéed kale the next). “I eat way better than I did when I was married,” Mr. Balthrop said. He fixes the overworked washer-dryer and marches around with a fly swatter, stamping out the insects that hover around the compost bin and countertop bowls overflowing with yams, oranges and avocados.

On occasion, they try to take advantage of their unique living arrangement. Ms. Evanguelidi and Ms. Welch recently registered as domestic partners on Eli’s kindergarten application to increase his chances at getting into Juno’s Waldorf-inspired school. “It’s not a lie!” Ms. Welch said. “We are domestic partners. We have been for the last four years.”

As in all serious relationships, though, there can be complications. There have been arguments over money, and issues of jealousy and secrecy. When Ms. Welch became involved with the man who had moved in for just a short time last year, she didn’t tell anyone for months. “One night, Aleks said to me, ‘I’m so happy neither of us would ever hook up with our housemates,’” Ms. Welch said. “And I was like, uh. …”

It was ultimately Grandma Abby who realized there was an entanglement. She mentioned this to Mr. Balthrop, who was unaware. Then the man revealed his and Ms. Welch’s indiscretion to Ms. Evanguelidi, and she and Ms. Welch talked it out. Everything went back to normal sometime after the man and his daughters, for a variety of reasons, moved out.

When the Topanga parents meet people, and share the details of their living arrangements, there are, inevitably, two questions, Ms. Evanguelidi said. One is whether there are any openings, and the second is whether the single adults date one another. The first answer is not currently. The second answer is not really. (Ms. Welch and Mr. Balthrop made out, but only once, they say. Now they are working together on a dating app they have created.)

The members of the Topanga Family aren’t looking for free love, but for friendship, support and freedom from parental convention. “The mundane pattern of work and dinner and putting the kids to bed,” Ms. Evanguelidi said, “it’s not my existence. The traditional family setup is just so passé.”

What’s It Take for Two Women To Get Pregnant Around Here?

Romantic it was not. For starters, it was too dark to see. “Oh shit, I forgot a flashlight,” said Wendy, rummaging through her bag. “Honey, just use your phone,” said Sara, lying spread-eagle on the couch in her office, wearing a button-down blouse and nothing else.

It was noon, a Thursday in February, and a nice man had just masturbated in the bathroom down the hall. A week or two earlier, over tea at a nearby café, the semi-stranger had generously offered to help Sara and Wendy. And, unlike so many men who’d preceded him, there he now stood, true to his word, holding a plastic cup with his sperm in it, ready and willing to impregnate Sara.

Except, oops, they needed scissors. Luckily, Wendy had a Leatherman in her truck. She returned with the blade and sliced off the top of a syringe. At least it was sterile.

The same could not be said of Sara’s office, but it was a few blocks from their donor’s place of work, and—as any 41-year-old woman undergoing fertility treatment knows—timing is everything. According to Sara’s basal body temp and ovulation strips, it was go time. By the light of her iPhone 6, Wendy squirted the man’s semen into Sara’s cervix.

Afterward, everyone but Sara dashed back to work. A therapist in private practice, she lay on her couch for an hour, hips elevated—shopping online for sweaters, waiting “for the little guys to swim up there.” Hoping, but careful not to get her hopes up too high, that this time one of those little guys would make it.


Getting to this point
 had been quite a journey—a term often used by cancer patients undergoing chemo, but also by lesbian couples looking to conceive. It’s a cliché, but an accurate way to describe the quest that two women undertake when they decide to start a family. There’s no “Oops! I’m pregnant!” when you’re a lesbian. “That would be nice,” Sara says, drolly.

Five years ago, the petite, pretty PhD had been single and living alone in the Bay Area burbs. (Well, with seven rescue cats.) She’d recently come close to buying a house back East to be near her mom, whose help she’d have needed to have a baby on her own. It was something she’d been determined to do until, ironically, her realtor, a lesbian, talked her out of the house (and the solo parenting) and told her to move to San Francisco instead.

So then there she was, in a one-bedroom rental, wrapped in a blanket and weary of dating, online shopping of a different sort—fielding emails from random dudes supposedly seeking progeny and a platonic parenting partner. “I am well-endowed,” boasted one forty-something man on the European site Coparents. “I am extremely good-looking,” offered another. “Let’s do it the natural way,” suggested the last suitor, before Sara shut her laptop. This wasn’t the way she’d wanted to do this.

In the last few years, websites like Coparents, Modamily, and FamilyByDesign have appeared, aimed at connecting aspiring parents of all stripes. The media immediately glommed on to the new trend in family making, with everyone from Good Morning America to CNN touting smiley, straight, single women who’d all found success starting nuclear families with men they’d met online. But, says founder Ivan Fatovic, 20 percent of female Modamily members identify as lesbian, and he expects that number to climb with the legality of same-sex marriage. Now he’s making a more concentrated push into the LGBTQ market, specifically here in San Francisco, where he hopes to host offline mixers that bring together queer people considering kids.

Such startups have clearly filled a need. But dating for sperm left Sara depressed. “It was like being on Match or OkCupid, but worse,” she says. “I mean, how many people do you interact with online that you actually even want to go to dinner with? Imagine trying to find someone to be your kid’s dad and in your life forever?” (She was adamant that the donor not be anonymous, but rather a fatherlike figure to her child.)

She had always wanted to fall in love first, but the clock was ticking. A year passed before she met Wendy at a gay dance party. “I’m pretty sure I told her on our first date I wanted to have a baby,” she says. Five years younger and focused on her career, Wendy was in no rush to start a family. So Sara waited a little longer, until she hit 40 and realized that if she wanted to have a biological child, it was now or never. Wendy agreed. And then they had sex, and nine months later their baby was born! Ha. That would be nice.


From the moment
 a lesbian couple decides to have biological children, they’re in for a constant stream of deep discussion and decision making, discrimination and dollars—often a lot of dollars—along with the kind of messy, emotional drama that straight folks, barring fertility issues, never have to face.

Queer couples who have biological kids are a minority within a minority. Those who do want kids face legal battles and societal judgment and constant frustration over the fact that—no matter how in love they are—they cannot biologically have a baby together, and have no choice but to rely on a third entity. Considering that same-sex marriage was broadly legalized only last year, it’s no surprise that societal acceptance of queer couples having kids still has a ways to go. Which is why, as one lesbian mother puts it, “It’s important to bring our stories out of the closet.”

Many of the issues faced by lesbian couples looking to conceive are, of course, similar to those faced by all women of bearing age, in the sense that they all need something they don’t have: sperm. However, that’s where the similarities end: The list of topics every lesbian couple analyzes to death goes way beyond those faced by straight women. Who should carry? How will the non-carrying parent feel? Who will be the donor? Will he be known or anonymous? Do we want a donor who does diaper duty or do we want a donor we see once a year (or never)? If anonymous, what kind of qualities do we want in the sperm supplier? If known, how do we ask him? Who will we ask? An acquaintance? A coworker? A second cousin? How will we inseminate? How will we pay for it? Can we pay for it? Wait, how much will this cost again? For biracial couples: What race do we want our baby to be?

Typically, when you read about queer couples having kids, the accounts are very matter-of-fact: “The couple went to a sperm bank.” Or, “A friend agreed to be the donor.” Between the lines, though, there’s always a story—one rarely told. “Everyone talks about fertility issues, and how painful and emotionally draining that can be. For lesbians it’s a whole other kind of roller coaster,” says Sara, echoing essentially every lesbian couple I spoke with for this story (many of whom, like Sara and Wendy, wished to remain anonymous). “No one understands what we go through.”

Elizabeth (not her real name), a mother of two boys, was in her early 30s when she first learned the lesbian version of the birds and the bees. “We had no idea what the steps were,” she says. “Once we decided to have kids, we were like, ‘OK, now what?’” Like many of their sistren, Elizabeth and her partner looked for help. The bible is The New Essential Guide to Lesbian Conception, Pregnancy & Birth (2006), by midwife Stephanie Brill. But reading a book only gets you so far. Apart from several local support groups—like Baby Buds, for lesbian and trans Asian Pacific Islanders, and Our Family Coalition, which occasionally holds parents-to-be gatherings—there are very few solid resources. Says LGBTQ advocate, author, and recent mother Michelle Tea, “As a queer person who wants a baby, you’re pretty much left to figure it all out on your own.”

Which is partly what moved Tea to write a play-by-play blog for three years called Getting Pregnant with Michelle Tea—until she finally did. Tea had a story to tell “and no one to tell it to,” she says. “All of my queer, broke artist friends didn’t want to hear it. They were like, ‘Why do you want to ruin your awesome gay life and throw away your freedom and disposable income to have a baby? Parenthood is for straight people.’”

Betsy Kershner, a photographer living in the Sunset whose wife, Toby Branz, has been trying to get pregnant for the last two years, felt similarly alone and went searching for others’ stories. “But when I googled ‘lesbian moms,’ all that basically came up was porn or stock images of super-femme-y women with pregnant bellies,” says Kershner. So two years ago, she started a portrait series called The Pride + Joy Project, intended to reveal real-life two-mom families and show, “Look! Lesbians can have babies, too,” she says. “There’s so little social conversation about how queer women make their families. I wanted to know everything.” And, as she soon discovered, so did everybody else.

In January, she started a Facebook group called Queer Mamas and invited 110 of her friends. By day 10, it had ballooned to 10,000 members, with 24-7 posts from Sweden to San Anselmo. From “What is the best piece of advice for me and my wife hoping to conceive this year?” to “We got ourselves a donor!!” to “My five-month-old cries every time he hears a man speak. Tips?” to “Can anyone recommend a good book about penises?,” the conversations signal an insatiable appetite for more intel. “People are clearly craving this connection,” says Kershner. “They want to talk about it.”

But they don’t always want to talk about it with everyone. More than one Queer Mama has posted questions like “Does it bother you when people ask, ‘How’d you make your baby?,’” generating reams of impassioned replies. Some find the inquiry nosy and/or offensive. “A mom asked me on a playdate and I felt cornered,” commented one woman from San Francisco. “I wanted to reply, ‘How was your child conceived? From fucking from behind or were you on top?’”

Lauren Gersick, a college counselor and mother of a seven-year-old boy in Bernal Heights, thinks it’s weirder not to ask about it. “It’s not like I’d prefer that people ask. But to be honest, I’m often more struck by the silence. There was obviously a man somewhere. I always wonder, ‘Do people wonder?’ Because I would. I do!”

I’ll admit: I’ve been friendly with Lauren and her wife for close to two years now. Our kids are in the same class; we’ve had them over for supper; I mean, we saw Zootopia together—and yet it wasn’t until reporting this story that I’d ever asked about their son’s origin. It wasn’t because I wasn’t curious. Of course I was. I’d just always presumed that if a lesbian couple (or, for that matter, a single mom or a gay dad or a straight married woman struggling with fertility issues) didn’t bring it up first, it was off-limits. But such once-taboo topics are slowly becoming acceptable cocktail party conversation. It’s not uncommon anymore for an acquaintance to confess that she’s freezing her eggs or to gripe woman-to-woman about progesterone injections. And as more same-sex couples marry and have kids, it seems inevitable that how they procreate will no longer be such a fraught topic.

With the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling in June 2015, the rate of same-sex couples marrying has more than doubled, perhaps even tripled, within the year, says Gary Gates, formerly the research director at UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute. While it is difficult to track the number of same-sex couples having biological kids, Gates says there is a definite increase in “intentional parenting.” The number of adoptions by same-sex couples doubled between 2000 and 2009. According to 2000 census stats analyzed in Gates’s book, The Gay and Lesbian Atlas, 10 percent of same-sex couples in the San Francisco metro area were “raising” kids. (This includes not just children they conceived but also adopted children.) In 2010, 13 percent of same-sex couples in the San Francisco metro area were raising kids. And according to research covering 2012–14, that percentage soon increased to 14.4.

Given the increasing frequency of LGBTQ people giving birth or raising children, shouldn’t it be OK to talk about the process by which that happens? Clearly, you shouldn’t ask strangers in the Safeway line, as a white mom of an adopted Ethiopian-born daughter told me someone recently did. As in: “Excuse me, how much did your baby cost?” (Yeah.) Family is, of course, deeply personal. But given the proper context—and language—asking a woman how her child came into the world seems fair.

Still, choosing the right language often stymies people, says Gersick. “No one knows how to ask.” And so they don’t. (Attention, unwitting heteros: One of the most offensive questions you can ask a lesbian mother is “Who’s the real mom?” They’re both real moms. The other: “Who’s the father?” There is no father.) Despite the fact that the language surrounding parentage has been “common in our culture for hundreds of years,” says Gersick, “it’s just not language that always works for our family. Intellectually, I get what someone means when they say ‘dad,’ but emotionally, it feels undermining.”

Of course, some lesbians are guilty of taking language to the opposite extreme, too. The desire of many female couples to minimize male involvement in their family making is understandable, but some take it a step further and pretend they bucked biology altogether. “They’re like, ‘What man? We did this on our own,’” says Sara. (Although reproductive science and stem cell research might one day make it so.) For now, every egg needs a sperm. It’s just a matter of how you get it.


Pick your poison:
 fresh or frozen?

Sperm banks have been popular with lesbians since the 1980s, when, as a 1989 New York Times article put it, there was a national “baby boom of unusual complexity.” Partly in response to the needs of would-be lesbian moms, the Bay Area boasts the largest concentration of sperm banks in the country. San Francisco’s Pacific Reproductive Services (PRS) and the Sperm Bank of California were among the first to specifically serve the lesbian community. At California Cryobank, 60 percent of clients are lesbians, up from 30 percent 10 years ago.

The pros to sperm banks are plentiful. Donors are thoroughly vetted. The sperm is tested for sexually transmitted and common genetic diseases. There are rarely legal or parental-rights issues with sperm banks, as it’s all quite clear-cut: Donors either are WTBK (willing to be known, once the child turns 18) or agree to remain forever anonymous. But, says PRS founder Sherron Mills, “most donors these days are WTBK; no one wants anonymous anymore.”

In love, you compromise: He smokes, but he’s smart; he’s hairy, but he loves House of Cards. In sperm selection, you are able to customize your donor down to an almost ridiculous degree. Bachelor’s or master’s? Engineer or artist? Five nine or six feet or, hmm, maybe six two? Hilariously, at California Cryobank, the largest sperm bank in the country, with a popular Palo Alto branch, you can even choose a donor based on his celebrity look-alike, with an infinite scroll of options: Jake Gyllenhaal or James Gandolfini? South Korean idol Lee Joon or a young John Stamos?

Elizabeth and her wife didn’t actually want sperm from so close to Stanford University. “My brother had gone there and told us the entire men’s water polo team donated on a regular basis. ‘Those guys are assholes,’ he said. ‘You don’t want their stuff.’” But of course, one woman’s trash… “I would’ve loved a water polo player’s sperm from Stanford,” Gersick says. “I’d be more worried about some dweeby tech bro.”

The biggest downside to sperm banks, though, is the cost. Browsing might initially be free, but if you want any info beyond the basics (age, height, education, occupation, interests), you’ve got to pony up. Baby pictures of the donor, $15; adult photos, $15; the full 18-page profile, another $10 per potential donor. Some banks offer profiles that include personal essays and audio for $245. There are sign-up fees, liquid-nitrogen-tank fees. One vial of sperm runs between $690 and $890. Physicians recommend two inseminations per cycle, and it typically takes multiple tries, which means that on average a couple can burn anywhere from $2,000 to more than $10,000 on sperm alone.

Then tack on midwife fees, doctor’s visits, and medical inseminations—IUI, ICI, IVF—which, when they are covered by insurance at all, are often covered only after six unsuccessful attempts, whether a woman is gay or straight. “The lack of initial coverage is a huge issue for our patients,” says Marcelle Cedars, director of UCSF’s Center for Reproductive Health.

Lesbians, who can get pregnant only by insemination, are essentially categorized as “infertile” from the get-go. In the best-case scenario, insurance coverage will kick in for lesbians after six unsuccessful insemination attempts, but a majority of insurance plans have no fertility coverage, says Cathy Sakimura, family law director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR). Like Sara and Wendy, most lesbian couples who are self-employed (or low-income or don’t work for companies like Google with generous insurance plans) have to pay out of pocket. There’s really no getting knocked up for free when you’re a lesbian. (Unless you have sex with the donor, which Tea did try, once or twice, to no avail.)

“The current coverage plans are unfair to lesbians,” Sakimura says. “Lesbian and bisexual female couples and many transgender parents cannot conceive without assisted reproduction, yet many insurance companies require them to meet a higher burden before getting coverage than different-sex, non-transgender couples who cannot conceive without assisted reproduction. They may be denied completely or have to pay for 6 to 12 months of assisted reproduction before getting any coverage.” Hetero couples, by contrast, can try to conceive during those 6 to 12 months via intercourse. The NCLR is currently fighting to get full insurance coverage for fertility treatment for same-sex couples, transgender people, and single mothers—for anyone who cannot conceive with a partner without assistance. “We are advocating on an individual basis at this point, and are interested in litigation if a case is presented,” Sakimura says. She and the NCLR are also fighting for the complete recognition of same-sex parents and parents using assisted reproduction in every state, so that families can travel and move freely without fear of losing their parental rights.

Most insurance forms don’t even account for two-woman (or same-sex) couples. “It ends up looking like my wife is a single woman trying to get pregnant, thus invalidating me as her spouse,” says Kershner. “In so many ways—because I’m female, because I cannot create sperm, because they don’t have a box to check for married, same-sex couples—it’s all very maddening.” (Also maddening: Because of fears about HIV transmission, the FDA still prohibits gay men from participating in sperm bank programs at all.)

Sperm supply is also an ongoing issue. California Cryobank has 500-plus donors in its catalog at any given time. PRS has 135. Each donor at PRS is asked to make 65 “deposits.” This sounds like a lot of sperm, but it’s not nearly enough to meet demand. “We always need more donors,” says Mills. Competition for the best sperm is Ivy League tough, the interview process extensive. “Everyone wants the tall, blond, blue-eyed rocket scientist,” Mills says. And there are only so many of them. There’s only so many of anyone.

To guard against one man spawning a small city—the so-called Delivery Man effect, named after the 2013 movie in which Vince Vaughn plays a former sperm donor who discovers he has 533 kids—sperm banks set limits. Back in the ’80s, at PRS, the maximum number of families who could use a given donor was five. “But we kept running out of donors!” says Mills, so they raised it to 20. (Each family can have as many kids as they want from one donor.) In 2013, PRS “thought it was a good idea,” says Mills, to lower the limit to 15.

Although the San Francisco metro area has the highest percentage of adults in the country who identify as LGBT, according to a 2015 Gallup poll (6.2 percent; in San Francisco specifically, it’s about a percent higher), it’s still a relatively small subset of the region. And the number of queer couples who have biological kids is even smaller. One unusual potential consequence of this small number of women “overfishing” a small pool of donors is conceiving a child who turns out to be a “dibling”—a donor-conceived sibling. To avoid this, some lesbians intentionally seek sperm out of state, paying shipping fees for peace of mind. It’s doubtful that two San Francisco high school sweethearts would end up together forever only to find out they’re diblings, but there have still been awkward moments. At Tea’s baby shower, one outspoken mother noticed a toddler with the same superfine, spiky hair as her child’s. “Oh my God, I bet we have the same donor!” she ran around the party shouting. The other mother was mortified. Later, they exchanged donor numbers, and sure enough…

Going the fresh-sperm route, like Sara and Wendy, may be cheaper—and more effective—but it presents its own hassles and heartbreak. “In the beginning you think the world is your oyster,” says Sara.

Before Sara and Wendy even announced they were ready to conceive, they had all sorts of offers from good friends, peripheral friends, guys they’d meet in bars. “It helped that Sara is hot,” says Wendy of her partner, who is slim, with a wide smile and long blond locks. “No one wants an ugly baby. People see her and are like, ‘I’d have a child with her.’”

After a “bajillion conversations,” they decided to go with Wendy’s younger brother. He could be bossy, and they were worried about boundaries, but they loved the idea of both being biologically related to their baby. Plus, ever since he was 16 he’d assured his sister he’d hand over his sperm whenever she said the word.

Wendy was uncomfortable. “I’m not a big favor asker,” she says. “I felt vulnerable asking something so big.” Still, they went ahead with it, and at first Wendy’s brother said yes. But then he talked it over with his girlfriend. A week later, he sent an email saying sorry. He’d changed his mind.

Sobs. Anger. Devastation. Once they recovered from the setback, they moved on to plan B: Sara’s best friend, Brendan (not his real name), whom she’d briefly dated back in high school and with whom she’d later talked about the possibility of having kids. But Wendy, as the non-carrying partner, was afraid she’d end up feeling like a third wheel in her own family. “He’s still kind of in love with her,” says Wendy. “They’re so close, I worried it would feel too much like their kid.” Plus: “He’s thin and wiry. He looks kind of sickly.”

She agreed to let Sara ask him anyway. They wanted a solid option. But as with people’s awkward reactions to death or cancer or divorce, you can never predict how someone will respond when asked to be a sperm donor. When officially faced with the proposition, Brendan “just disappeared,” says Sara, disappointed in her longtime friend. “He never even said no. He just kept me hanging, and sent me a cryptic text weeks later with some metaphor about sea changes and shifting winds. I was like, ‘I don’t have time for metaphors.’”

Time was, indeed, marching on, Sara’s eggs getting older and fewer by the minute. She and Wendy went back to their short list and analyzed every possibility for hours. “When actually confronted, though, we realized guys just get overwhelmed,” says Sara. “Their life flashes before their eyes. They envision this little creature running around the world that they have no control over, and they freak out.”

Sara begged, “Does anybody know anybody?” It turned out her friend’s friend, a gay accountant in his 40s, was interested. The three of them went out for drinks and discussed it. He was in. Wendy and Sara picked up the tab, thanked him profusely, and said they’d be in touch. Then, on the way home, Wendy told Sara, “I’m just not that into him.” Yet another intense conversation ensued. “Wendy thinks if we’re going to hang out with this guy for the rest of our life, he should be cool and fun, a good dancer,” says Sara. “I’m like, ‘Who cares! I just want a good person.’” And this guy was. But he was also moving back East, which didn’t sit well—the point was for the guy to be around. It killed Sara, but they turned him down. “It was so hard,” she says. “You’re so grateful, this person offers to do you this huge favor, to change his whole life for you, and he is excited about it. And you have to call and say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’”

They were getting desperate. “I was ready to ask the mailman,” says Sara. But then, miraculously, they hit the jackpot. Designer sperm! For free! Sara had once been awarded a prestigious fellowship at a university, and she posted a Hail Mary plea on the fellowship’s alumni Facebook page. To her shock and awe, a fellow scholar—a local, strikingly handsome scientist and PhD candidate who is also an accomplished artist who rescued his dog from the streets of Asia—replied. It was love at first email.

Brunch, also including his husband, was arranged. Sara put on her best. “I wanted to look like a viable woman, worthy of his sperm,” she says. She spent 50 bucks on flowers. Wendy made a comically large fruit salad, which she put in a beautiful wooden bowl and carried uncovered on her lap on the drive to his place. On a sunny, warm day, there they sat, two sets of strangers making small talk over vegetarian bacon and organic eggs until Sara steered the conversation to the matter at hand: his semen. Would he share it? And if so, what would the ensuing relationship look like? Wendy and Sara left knowing they’d found the one. The feeling was mutual. Until it wasn’t.

The honeymoon phase didn’t last long. There were weeks of cold contract negotiations and a couple thousand dollars in (his) lawyer’s fees. Meanwhile, Sara continued her fertility injections and acupuncture appointments. Although a 2013 law (AB 2356) allows lesbians to be inseminated with fresh sperm at a clinic without having to retest the same donor’s sperm for HIV at every insemination (straight couples don’t have to retest the sperm every time, as it is assumed the man is the woman’s monogamous partner), Sara and Wendy preferred “at-home” insemination. “It’s more intimate,” says Sara. And cheaper. At the time, though, that meant finding a doctor willing to be present to vouch that two consenting adults never had sex, meaning the man would not legally be the father. (In January, a new law passed stipulating that sperm donors are not presumptively defined as fathers in cases where children are intentionally conceived through assisted reproduction—and that no medical professional need be present during insemination.) After recurring logistical nightmares involving where and when to meet, finally they were ready to inseminate.

They wanted the first time to be special. On the floor of Sara’s office, Wendy arranged a picnic, lit candles, played Stevie Nicks, and did the insemination herself. Afterward, Mr. Designer Sperm had tears in his eyes. “We’re going to make a beautiful baby,” he said. It didn’t take. And after two more unsuccessful inseminations—and two insemination dates for which Sara painstakingly prepared and Designer Sperm didn’t show—he officially pulled out.

Donors renege. It happens. It’s a lot to ask. It’s a huge time commitment, and donors can’t ejaculate for two to five days beforehand, which is a disincentive for some men. Sara and Wendy didn’t know why, exactly, Designer Sperm had bailed, but they were devastated. It felt like a breakup. Another lesbian couple who went through a similar situation told me that the experience of losing their ideal donor was “like mourning a death.”

Donorless, pumped up on Follistim, and poised to ovulate, Sara was distraught. She didn’t want to miss a cycle. Near tears, she called her doctor and shared her predicament. He listened. And then saved the day: He knew someone.

The next day, Sara and Wendy met this man at a café. He was kind and smart and good-looking. They had no idea if he was a good dancer, but he wanted to help. Eight weeks after the insemination by iPhone light—which resulted in her only positive pregnancy test thus far—Sara went in for her first ultrasound. Nervous and excited, she lay on the table, placed her feet in the stirrups, and waited for the doctor. The mood was tense, if cautiously optimistic. They were a team of three facing a fifty-fifty shot, with Wendy holding Sara’s hand and the doctor holding a condom-covered wand. Everyone quietly hoping for a heartbeat.

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco

Uber and the Islanders

The “Help Wanted” sections in Martha’s Vineyard’s two local newspapers still read the same as they did 20 years ago, when I was looking for a summer job: server at the Seafood Shanty, carpenter’s assistant, rural mail carrier. Except for one, an ad with a glamorous-looking woman emerging from a shiny black car. “Drive with Uber,” it said. “Get paid weekly just for helping our community of riders get rides around Martha’s Vineyard.”

Uber, the ride-hailing app, began business on Martha’s Vineyard — as well as on Nantucket and Cape Cod — over Memorial Day Weekend, triggering mixed feelings among islanders and, of course, a barrage of resistance from the family-run taxi companies that have long dominated the island. “It will be the slow death of us,” Jim Hickey, a co-owner of Bluefish Taxi, told the Vineyard Gazette, in one of dozens of local articles and competing op-eds (with headlines from “Hashtag, Stay Local” to “Fan of Uber”) that have run since spring.

While many locals praise such technological advances coming to their community, some longtime visitors are unhappy about Uber infiltrating a place they would prefer remain timeless. “I don’t like it,” said Matt Fortenbaugh, 40, an Internet ad sales manager from Boston who spent summers growing up at his family’s home in East Chop, on the northern end of the island.

“McDonald’s, Uber, stay away,” he said. “You come out here for an escape. If you have all the conveniences you have at home, why bother with the hassle of taking a ferry? It used to be a badge of honor not to have a cellphone here. You’d say, ‘Leave me a message at the house.’ Uber is just another thing mainstreaming the island.”

While it is now available in 58 countries and more than 300 cities, operating in quaint seasonal vacation destinations is a new thing for Uber. (In spring, it also opened in other idyllic spots like the Berkshires and Mystic, Conn.; Kiawah, S.C.; and Eden, Utah.) But Uber’s on-demand model doesn’t quite seem to be working — at least not as well as it does in urban areas.

Islanders’ resistance to change is one reason. Uber’s resistance to small towns’ strict regulations is another. But ultimately it is the lack of reliable, round-the-clock drivers that has been the real obstacle. Cars will circle Oak Bluffs like sharks on a Saturday night. “But the drunk people can be annoying,” said Willie Simon, a nephew of the singer Carly Simon, and a part-time Uber driver. In Boston, where he is in school and drives for Uber part time, he might wait five minutes for a passenger, he said, whereas in Martha’s Vineyard it could be an hour. And if he is up island in Chilmark and the ping comes from Edgartown, a halfhour drive way, Mr. Simon said it is not worth the gasoline money or sitting in summer traffic to pick up a fare and then not have one waiting on the other end.

An occasional driver from Vineyard Haven who asked not to be identified because he has another job, said he earns roughly $250 a week as a driver. “It fills my tank, pays for lunch,” he said. “I’m not trying to make a living doing this.”

And that’s the thing: Few islanders are. Five or six drivers on the Vineyard was the estimate repeatedly given. “My friends have other ways of making 20 bucks an hour,” Mr. Simon said. “They have trucks or old cars they don’t feel like cleaning out.” Uber declined to comment on the number of drivers on the Cape and Islands. But Austin Geidt, the company’s head of global expansion, said, “We’ve seen overwhelming demand among riders and we’re always looking to bring more drivers onto platform to help meet that demand.”

This may be a bit overstated. Islanders’ transportation habits are well entrenched. Most locals and seasonal people have their own cars, parking is easy, and a bus ride is inexpensive (an all-day, island-wide pass is $8). Many people here said that while they are happy to have Uber — and see it as a solution to the island’s perennial drunk-driving problem, which worsens in summer — they would not use it.

What’s more, many tourists also don’t realize that Uber is available here. “Three full buses went by before we could get one,” said Bankole Ayodeji from Brooklyn, holding his toddler. “We didn’t even think about Uber. We would have totally taken it.”

On several occasions, when I opened my app in July, it flashed: “No Cars Available.” When I eventually did get Uber, on a Friday morning, I ended up paying $35, including tip, for a 13-mile drive from Vineyard Haven to Chilmark. I rode alone in an Audi sedan with leather seats. A taxi the following Saturday morning from Chilmark, called after another failed Uber attempt, cost me $60, including tip, to take me just two miles farther. I sat on a frayed tapestry, the driver was nice and on time and said his gig came with seasonal housing. (Which is harder to find on the island than Uber.)

It’s the same on Nantucket, said Briana Johnson, 25, a bartender at the Rose and Crown. “I can never get a Uber in the morning,” she said. “But I’ve taken it three nights after work. It’s been the same guy every time.” Dealing with small town regulations has led to some complications for Uber. After starting service in East Hampton two years ago, Uber suspended its operations in June because it refused to comply with local rules that all drivers have a local business office. On the Vineyard, Edgartown has fines up to $375 a day for any driver caught picking up passengers unless they adhere to the same licenses and laws as its taxis — including displaying the company logo on both sides of every vehicle and the town name on the back.

Uber was a good fit in East Hampton, where the social scene is an extension of New York City, and SoulCycle and Starbucks line the streets. But Uber’s arrival represents a bigger cultural clash on Martha’s Vineyard, where people still hitchhike, uphold the existence of dry towns, and leave their doors unlocked. The only chains that squeaked through are Stop & Shop and a Dairy Queen camouflaged by cedar shake shingles. And for better or worse, the old rumbling vans that await the ferries are as much a part of the landscape as the stone walls and sailboat-dotted ponds.

You would expect islanders (who eschew all things corporate) would support their local taxis in the face of a behemoth like Uber. And some do, citing potential congestion around the ferries and the fact that cabs will stick around come winter. But many locals see Uber as a refreshing alternative to a broken taxi system, plagued by rude drivers, rundown vehicles and steep, inconsistent fares.

“Every time Uber is mentioned in the local papers, it’s followed by hundreds of hateful comments about the taxis. Really mean stuff,” said Mr. Hickey of Bluefish Taxi. (He’s not exaggerating: “Is any creature more reviled on this fair isle than the surly taxi driver driving like an escaped psychiatric inmate in his dingy van? Perhaps the lowly deer tick … Or perhaps not,” posted Rex Treadwell of Tisbury.)

“I don’t even know why Uber wants to be on Martha’s Vineyard,” Mr. Hickey said. “They must think there’s gold in the hills. I work 100 hours a week and am just getting by.”

Despite Uber’s recruitment efforts, its doubtful more drivers will sign on at this point. After all the hoopla, as its inaugural season winds down, Uber has been a bit of a bust. Even Mr. Hickey admits his “slow death” comment back in April has yet to prove true. Business is busier than ever, said Casey O’Connor, who helps manage 25-year-old Stagecoach Taxi, which recently added an app and tablets to compete.

Still, the island will always appeal to purists, like Coco Dowling, a Columbia University sophomore and summer clerk at Edgartown Books. “The other day, I biked from my house to Back Door Donuts at sunset,” she said. “I think it made my doughnut taste better. If I’d just tapped my iPhone for an Uber, it wouldn’t have been the same.”

And she might not have gotten one anyway.

I Tried It … One of Those Damn Juice Cleanses

The text caught me in a weak moment: two days after Thanksgiving, while I was eating a bacon-gruyere cheeseburger for lunch. “Juice fast! Juice fast! Juice fast!” my friend Samantha cheered.

I wasn’t wholly unprepared for her message. A few months earlier we happened to meet the nice, if skeletal-looking co-owner of San Francisco’s Juice Shop at a happy hour. (We were drinking wine. He, of course, wasn’t.) After hearing all about how he and his two brothers started this company because green juicing had saved his life after a serious health scare, we were inspired. “We’re in! We’re doing it!” we’d declared, a little tipsy. And then, on our way to dinner, we promptly dropped the ridiculous idea.

But then, gluttony sort of sneaked up on us. My husband and I followed this year’s all-day turkey feast with a weekend of barbecued oysters dripping in bourbon-butter sauce, cinnamon sticky buns, the aforementioned cheeseburger — and a six-course supper of duck liver pate and pork belly; soup brimming with rabbit sausage; filet mignon paired with a braised beef stew; cheese and chocolate cake for dessert. In this extremely overstuffed moment, the idea of a juice cleanse seemed like a smart one.

And so, $189 dollars, plus deposit and home delivery (!) fees later, I was indeed in. They call it a “cleanse,” but I knew better. Whatever the promise of detoxification and recalibration and regeneration, this was a full on three-day fast: 102 liquid ounces a day of algae elixirs and local, organic cold-pressed concoctions that come in cute glass bottles in flavors like kale and celery, beet and carrots, pear and chia seed and, the real indulgence, raw almond and Himalayan salt.  “Yes!!!” I texted back. “I’m IN. 100%”

There are five or six juicing companies in San Francisco alone, and more juice bars and juice boxes and juice presses around the country by the day. Juice seems to be the new Coke for crying out loud, and I guess we should all be happy about that. Still, Americans — of the LuluLemon-clad, Range Rover-driving sort — have no qualms about spending nine, ten bucks a bottle to unleash their inner Gwyneth Paltrows. It’s a trend I’ve mocked while watching women, and men, (but mostly women) parade around town with their BPA-free bottles of green sludge.

I’m an eater. One of the best. Which is why everyone mocked me when I said I was on a juice cleanse for the next three days.

So, yeah, this was my first-ever fast, without having the stomach flu. Even on Yom Kippur, the one day of the year that Jewish guilt could potentially convince me to forgo breakfast, I start the day off with a three-egg omelet. I’m an eater. One of the best.

And, for better or worse, of the body type that’s more or less able to withstand an above average level of gluttony. Which is why everyone mocked me when I said I was on a juice cleanse for the next three days. “You??” “Whhhhyyy? “Good luck with that…”

How did it go, you wonder? Because, admit it, you have been wondering whether you should maaaaybe try a juice cleanse, too. I’ll tell you: It sucked. Pretty much every second of it was awful.

I choked down the algae, telling my daughter it was medicine so I didn’t give her an eating disorder at age 5. I had a persistent headache from the get-go from giving up coffee. My stomach growled incessantly. I drank herbal tea while my officemates celebrated a book deal with martinis and apple pie.

I would savor every single seed swimming in my favorite juice, the Pear-Pineapple-Chia, and try desperately to reach the ones on the very bottom of the bottle with my tongue to no avail. I peed, oh, about every half-hour. I almost-puked a few times, and eventually, started fasting on the fast because (sorry Juice Shop!) I just could not get the Deep Greens down.

I googled “juice cleanses bull shit” and came across this Jezebel clip entitled (yup) “Juice Cleanses Are Kind Of Bullshit.” And a hilarious feature in San Francisco magazine, “Are We Glowing Yet?,” that made me think, for a split second, when I looked n the mirror on Day 3, that, hmm, maybe I was glowing. Or was that jaundice? Slate’s piece— the one Samantha posted on her Facebook page, along with this apt comment: “Juice cleanses are just privileged people starving themselves voluntarily” — put it best, though: “Stop Juicing: It’s not healthy, it’s not virtuous, and it makes you seem like a jerk.”

And a jerk is certainly what I felt like at the movie theater as my friends passed the popcorn directly over me, while I demurred, no, no, thanks, I’m good with my raw almond-coconut water and, um-excuse-me-everyone bathroom breaks.

But, ok, ok, the upside? I had more time when I was on a juice cleanse. Without my morning run or latte wait or wondering What Do I Want for Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner? (Because when you live in San Francisco especially, every glorious, delicious meal counts.) Life opened up a little. Also, I slept well. I lost a pound. I felt… calm.

Ultimately, though, for me, the real virtue of The Cleanse was, simply, that I did it. (Despite the two texts to Samantha in which I tried to bail.) I said I was IN, 100% percent. And I was. Except for one prematurely celebratory glass of red wine on the last night, which left me a little loopy.

Bottom line for anyone contemplating a juice cleanse? Guess I’d tell you the same thing that I tell my kids: Chew your food.

 

So You Want Your Kid To Speak Mandarin?

Elizabeth Goumas’s top criterion in choosing an elementary school for her kindergarten-bound son, back in 2009, was that it be within walking distance of her house. “If there were an earthquake, I wanted to know that I could get there,” she says, half joking. School leadership, diversity, and a supportive community were all close seconds. What wasn’t a priority, whatsoever, was a language immersion program. “My husband and I had totally ruled out immersion,” says Goumas, a blond, blue-eyed former software sales executive. “We thought it was too complex, too much to take on.” Chinese immersion wasn’t even on her radar.

As it often goes, though, with the San Francisco public school lottery, the Goumas family didn’t get anything on their wish list. Instead, they were assigned to De Avila, a closed school in the Haight that was due to reopen as a Chinese immersion K–5 elementary. “It was also across from a head shop and kitty-corner to the free clinic,” says Goumas, laughing. “We were like, oh no.”

But then they joined a summer playdate with other newly accepted families and saw their son hit it off with two bilingual Chinese kids. “Our biggest worry had been, how is Nicolas going to find his best friends? Will he be able to find them in those four or five kids who speak English?” Social concerns allayed, they decided to “take a leap of faith.” They also decided not to mention the Chinese thing to their son. “The first day of kindergarten,” says Goumas, “he came home and said, ‘Mom! My teacher didn’t speak any English!’”

Six years later, Goumas’s son (now in fifth grade) and daughter (in third, and about as tall as her Chinese teachers) are fully proficient in Cantonese; De Avila is one of the most sought-after public elementary schools in the city; and Goumas is throwing Chinese banquets out of her lower Pacific Heights home—despite the fact that she herself can’t understand a lick of the language. “Sending my kids to De Avila has been a transformational experience,” she says. She marvels as her nine-year-old chats up Cantonese speakers all over town, from the fiftysomething women fondling fabric at Britex to the waiters at Chinese restaurants. She says, “We feel connected to our community in a way we never would have.”

In 1981, the first Mandarin immersion school in the country—the private Chinese American International School (CAIS)— opened on Oak Street in San Francisco. West Portal Elementary followed three years later, becoming the nation’s first public elementary school to offer a Chinese immersion program. Since then, as China’s role in the world economy has grown, so has the number of non-Chinese parents (and second-, third-, fourth-, and fifth-generation Chinese-American parents) who want their kids to learn the language spoken by 1.2 billion people.

This fall, San Francisco will have a total of 14 Chinese immersion programs. Eleven are public, most at the elementary and middle school levels. Half are Cantonese, half Mandarin—and all are in high demand. Some operate as a separate language program within an otherwise conventional school; others, like De Avila and Presidio Knolls, a private K–8 Mandarin school launched in 2012, are full immersion. All in all, roughly 2,700 students are enrolled in Chinese immersion programs in the city.

And more are coming. Alameda County got its first Chinese public immersion school, Yu Ming Charter, in 2011; it receives four applications for every available spot. Next year a public school in Redwood City is introducing Mandarin immersion, and parents are clamoring for Mandarin immersion schools in Menlo Park and San Jose. In total, there are about 50 Chinese immersion schools in California, most of them in the Bay Area.

A majority of their students, not surprisingly, are Chinese-American or have one Chinese parent. While these schools are international and multicultural in obvious ways, they are not exactly bastions of diversity. At De Avila, 63 percent of students identify as Asian, 18 percent as white, 4 percent as Hispanic, and 1 percent as African-American. The demographic breakdown is similar at CAIS, where 38 percent of students are Asian-American and 41 percent multiethnic, 19 percent Caucasian, 1 percent black, and 1 percent Hispanic. The student body at a public K–8 immersion school, Alice Fong Yu, is 66 percent Asian and just 5 percent white. (Because they speak the language, some Caucasian students actually self-identify as Chinese.)

What is ‘Asian’ anymore, anyway?” asks Beth Weise, a former parent at Starr King Elementary and the author of A Parent’s Guide to Mandarin Immersion, published in 2014. “My daughters’ dad is Asian, so they are half Chinese, but they are being raised by two white lesbian moms.” Jeff Bissell, head of school at CAIS, agrees, pointing to the number of mixed-race couples in the area. “San Francisco is a wonderful mishmash,” he says. “The term ‘Caucasian’ is becoming less and less relevant.”

Semantics aside, interest in Chinese immersion education is on the rise, say administrators like Bissell and De Avila principal Rosina Tong. Parents are drawn to it because they want to stimulate their kids’ brains (being multilingual has cognitive benefits, studies show) and prepare them for the working world. Not surprisingly, a big draw is the traditional Asian emphasis on academics. Chinese immersion schools are invariably high-performing, which makes them attractive. “Take a closed or under-enrolled school and make it Mandarin, and test scores go up, enrollment goes up. You get a socioeconomic mix, and you attract parents who might otherwise go private. Waitlists form,” explains Weise. “It’s a win-win for everyone, the district and the families.” She adds, “I’ve never heard of a Chinese immersion school where it isn’t considered cool to be smart.”

It’s also become cool to be global. Linda Vann-Adibe, admissions director and parent at CAIS, says that what’s attracting parents today is the hope of creating global citizens in an increasingly globalized world—and the desire to give their children a competitive edge. Those goals, she says, were less evident 13 years ago, when she was a kindergarten parent—or even 6 years ago, when she started working in the admissions office. “Parents are more sophisticated now. They used to think: I’m not Chinese; why would I learn Chinese? The new parent thinks: It doesn’t matter whether I speak Chinese. This is the future.”

Patti Huang, a Taiwanese American who is married to a white man, says that she chose Starr King to prepare her kindergarten-age daughter for the competition that she will eventually face from the billion-plus Mandarin speakers around the world. Huang also wanted to spark in her daughter a general love of languages. “The heritage thing is a perk,” she says. “And there’s an element of wanting to make grandparents proud.” The desire to connect with their cultural heritage continues to be a major factor for many multiethnic and Chinese-American parents. “I have always wanted immersion,” says Kim Wong, who is also married to a white man. Their six-year-old son attends a traditional public school and takes Saturday Mandarin classes because he didn’t get into an immersion program. “I regret not knowing how to speak Chinese,” Wong says, “and there’s a loss of heritage. I want my son to at least be able to talk to my grandma if I can’t!”

For Weise, it’s also about creating opportunity. “I’m not telling my girls, ‘I want you to become biotech moguls in Singapore or software engineers in Shanghai,’” she says. “I’m just giving them tools. Maybe they’ll decide to become potters or open a restaurant. Learning Mandarin is about options.”

It’s also about rote memorization—and ridiculously difficult. To be considered literate, one must learn about 3,000 Chinese characters. And when it comes to learning those characters, the younger the better. Prime time is kindergarten and first grade, when children’s brains are like sponges and everything is new—washing hands, tying laces. Why not tack on Cantonese, too?

And these assimilated days, no one has a leg up. Most kids in the immersion programs, whether Chinese-American, multiethnic, or Caucasian, are starting from scratch. Some may have attended Mandarin preschool, but about 90 percent of families who choose Chinese immersion education, Weise estimates, don’t speak the language at home. Families who do tend to be more concerned that their children master English, so they choose all-English programs. And newer immigrants may not even be aware that immersion programs exist.

Income levels skew somewhat higher at Chinese immersion schools, Weise adds. In 2012, for instance, the number of Chinese-immersion students who qualified for reduced-fee or free lunch was around 34 percent, versus the district-wide 61 percent—at De Avila, it was only 17 percent. But that’s by no means universal, says Weise. And for parents who view private school as the pinnacle, getting into a Chinese immersion program is a “golden ticket”—they get an academically strong school without having to pony up $25,000 in tuition.

That’s not to say that everyone’s a happy customer. Some white parents just want a more multicultural experience for their kids—and then are shocked by what being a minority in middle school can actually mean. Back in 2003, long before Mandarin was trending, therapist Samantha Smithstein and her husband purposely sought out immersion—any immersion. “Spanish, French, Korean, Chinese…we really didn’t care which one.” They ended up at Alice Fong Yu (AFY). The first few years were wonderful, says Smithstein. “The kindergarten and first-grade teachers were warm and good at gestural communication—my kids loved it. They just soaked up the language.”

But the honeymoon didn’t last. By middle school, Smithstein’s twin daughters were miserable. “Many of the teachers were harsh. Some would publicly humiliate students, make them cry,” says Smithstein. “It was scary for my kids.” Her twins have since graduated, and her son, now in the seventh grade, is doing better than her daughters did. Still, she struggles to make sense of the experience. “I don’t know whether it’s the school or the principal or just a cultural difference. I’d heard stories about schools in China that are intense, and I’d think, is this the price I pay for sending them to a Chinese school?”

Sophie Wallace, a white French woman married to a white American man, has kids in the fifth and eighth grades at AFY. She raves about their experience, academically and socially. “The great plus is that the kids learn early on that they are not a majority, so they can’t be cocky,” she says.

But for Smithstein, AFY’s social structure was a definite minus. Many children have a tough time at that age, but her twins were outcasts. “There was a kind of racism at the school that was not addressed,” she says. “By eighth grade it became clear that the ‘in groups’ were the Chinese and mixed kids, and the ‘out group’ was the non-Chinese. By eighth grade most of the out group had dropped out—maybe only five or six non-Chinese kids were left. My kids told me it was the low point of their lives.”

Still, Smithstein doesn’t regret her choice. “When I step back, I know that it was a really cool experience. I feel good about the academics; they were exposed to a different culture; they are unafraid to plunge into new experiences; they traveled to China. They are two tall Jewish white girls who speak Chinese—so many positive things came out of it.”

One of the biggest positives? “We cannot help with homework,” says Mikhal Bouganim, a founding parent at Presidio Knolls. “And I love, love, love it.”

 

Pass the Pork Belly, and the Joint

SAN FRANCISCO — On a dark corner here in the Mission District on March 31, the doors opened at 7 p.m. for an under-the-radar pop-up dinner. Stationed at the entrance was a man who meticulously carded each of the 60 guests, even two with white hair.

Inside the bar, long tables were set with wineglasses, place cards and something you don’t see much of anymore: ashtrays.

Soon after the party began, smoke wafted through the chandelier-lit room. Servers passed kimchi mini-pancakes prepared by the evening’s chef, Robin Song, of the Mission’s popular ham-and-oyster bar, Hog & Rocks.

A university professor who arrived a little late slid into his seat, saying, “You know, you can smell this place from across the street.”

The dinner was the third iteration of the Luck Pot, a series of get-togethers intended for adult users of marijuana, sponsored in part by a rotating group of medical-cannabis companies based in Northern California. To get in, guests have to present a state-authorized medical-marijuana identification card, made possible by a program established in 1996 by theCalifornia Department of Public Health.

The Luck Pot was started by two 30-something friends who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the hazy legal status surrounding the cannabis industry. (This, despite the fact that the event itself appears to be legal in California: The city’s public health department treats a private party at a public place as if it were in a private home, so medical cannabis at such an event would be fine, according to Nancy Sarieh, a spokeswoman for the city’s public health department; Robert Raich, a lawyer who specializes in medical-cannibas law, concurred.)

That night, a woman in a polka-dot dress welcomed guests with what looked like bar snacks: glazed pecans, pretzels, chile-lime peanuts. Unlike the usual nibbles, each came with a suggested dose. “These are what we call our ‘everyday edibles,’ ” said Lauren Fraser, a 29-year-old former mutual-funds manager and now the president of the Oakland-based Auntie Dolores, a company that specializes in cannabis-laced foodstuffs.

Mandi Bateman, a 38-year-old pony-tailed Pilates teacher who had driven in from Sausalito, Calif., seemed uneasy. “I guess I still have that lingering fear you could get arrested for smoking pot,” she said. Getting high with a bunch of strangers was not her main motivation for attending this night. “I thought I might meet some hot men,” Ms. Bateman said. “But then I realized, wait, I don’t want to date a stoner.”

Her odds were decent. The male-to-female ratio was roughly two-to-one, and this was hardly a scruffy “Dazed and Confused” kind of crowd. Tickets were $120 each, and among those in attendance were software engineers, organic chemists, lawyers, authors, Stanford M.B.A.s and tech types from Google, Pandora and Salesforce.

Also in attendance were several “potrepreneurs,” who seemed poised for 2016, when marijuana is expected to become legal in California. Among them was a co-sponsor, Mike Ray, 35, a former Wall Street trader who is now the director at Bloom Farms. Asked about the differences between finance and the nascent pot industry, Mr. Ray said, “The people are much nicer” in the latter.

For Arianne Simone, 28, a Reiki master with a perfectly coifed Afro, the evening was a total surprise. “My boyfriend said, ‘We’re going to a dinner tonight with lots of weed,’ and I was, like: ‘Yea! Yea! Yea!’ ” Scott Samuelson, 42, a commercial television producer, said that he was there for the food. “I’d heard it was the Korean pop-up,” he said. “The pot was just a bonus.”

One of the Luck Pot’s co-hosts, clad in a blazer, welcomed people to their seats. “On your tables is the first of three joints,” he said, acting as a kind of pot sommelier. “Tonight we’re showcasing flower grown by a Sonoma collective of 10 farmers with a total of 150 years’ combined experience in artisanal indoor crops.”

A professionally rolled fatty lay in each ashtray. The first joint of the evening was a strain called Girl Scout Cookies. “It’s an indica-sativa mix, 59 days flowering,” he said. “You’ll taste sweet evergreen with light hints of pepper-spiciness.” He touched on an aspect that wine sommeliers do not discuss, the effect. “This should make you feel focused and relaxed,” he said. “A little heavy-headed. So spark up. Eat. Enjoy.”

As people wrapped pork belly in lettuce cups and blew puffs of smoke, they were asked to sum themselves up in four words. “Kyle,” the Reiki master’s boyfriend said. “I like Afros.” “Justin,” another man said. “I hate cancer.” “Husband home with kids,” said Celine Schafer, a 37-year-old mother of three.

The talk turned to how, exactly, they had procured their medical-marijuana cards. “I told the Skype doctor I had trouble sleeping,” Ms. Schafer said. “He told me to ‘hit the vape.’ ”

“Everyone says, ‘I have insomnia, I have anxiety,’ ” griped Andrew Bock, 34. “I’m like, ‘I have Crohn’s, I’m legit!’ ” The chitchat covered standard topics: bad UberPool experiences, soaring housing costs, the Bay Area versus New York. “I was miserable in Manhattan,” said the good-looking Mr. Bock, who was seated across from Ms. Bateman. Her glassy eyes widened when he said he lived in Sausalito, too. “I’m a block from the beach, I drive an electric carand I just bought a paddleboard,” he said, mocking himself as the California cliché.

“Please pass the joint,” the professor said, as if it were the pepper.

It was heartening to see that, even in these Purell-crazed times, people are willing to share joints.

The man named Justin didn’t want to give his last name, out of fear that he could get into trouble because, he said, he grows marijuana in the house he rents and sells it for recreational use, paying his unwitting 94-year-old landlord in cash. But in this smoky space, his career choice was not something he had to keep secret.

Michael Koch, 38, a father of two and the owner of an online advertising agency, spoke more openly. “I was an indica guy in college, when I’d just lie around,” he said. “But now that I have a job and kids and responsibilities, I smoke sativa. It works for me.” (Indica marijuana tends to have a calming, sedative effect on the user, while sativa is more uplifting and energetic.)

The servers began whisking away the plates. A panic set in. “Wait, is that it?” one guest asked. “There’s got to be more food,” the professor said. “It’s a pot dinner.”

People rejoiced when the second course arrived: a potato stew with pork neck and a joint made with a strain called Fire OG. “Twenty-one percent THC,” the co-host said. “It’s sweet and earthy, slightly woodsy. This’ll give you a mental uplift and a full body mellow.”

Perhaps too mellow. Suddenly, a chair toppled over. “Woman down!” someone yelled. Three guys helped the laughing lady to her feet. As dinner progressed, conversation regressed. “My grandmother used to use these for cashews,” said Mr. Bock, gesturing toward a glass-ridged ashtray.

“My grandma put al-monds in hers,” someone else said, pronouncing the first syllable so that it rhymed with “pal.” “It’s ahhl-mond,” Ms. Schafer chimed in. A number of guests began to chirp the word “almond” over and over again, and the table broke into hysterics.

Accompanying the third course was Holy Grail, the final pot of the night and the strongest. The co-host walked around with a Ziploc bag, distributing. “Does everyone have a joint that wants one?” he asked, like a preschool teacher passing out snacks. “Oh, my God, there’s actually too much pot,” Mr. Koch said, pointing to several half-smoked joints still in the ashtray. Ms. Schafer smiled and tucked one into her purse. “For my husband,” she said.

The Comfort Food of Strangers

At first I think we might have come to the wrong address. When my cousin Dave and I ring the bell of a Bartlett Street duplex right on time, minutes pass before the door opens—revealing a blue-haired guy in a white V-neck T-shirt with a toddler hanging all over him. “Hi,” he says, as we size each other up. The presence of a cute, soon-to-be-crying little person catches me off guard. It’s one thing to have dinner with my own children or those of friends, but eating elbow-to-elbow with some random kid is not really my idea of a night out. Then again, this is more of a night in.

We slip off our shoes, climb the old Victorian’s carpeted stairs, and are fumbling with the baby gate when Eden, the guy’s wife and our host for the evening, ushers us in. On Feastly, a new San Francisco–based meal-sharing site, she’d advertised the dinner she’s about to serve us as a “hearty Thai family supper”—but standing awkwardly around her stove making small talk, I’m wondering what I’ve signed up for, exactly.

It was only a matter of time before the sharing economy took over the home kitchen. In the last few months, startups like Feastly, EatWith, and Cookapp have arrived in San Francisco, luring locals hungry for the next big thing into the homes of total strangers who like to cook and hope to make a few bucks, maybe find some new friends, and perhaps, if they’re lucky, gain a following.

Eden’s Mission rental is nowhere near as hip as the restaurants near it. Plastic toys are strewn about; toiletries clutter the split bath. Stacked against the dining room wall are boxes of bulk diapers, draped with purple gauze to minimize their intrusion. But the table is lovingly set with carved-wood chopsticks and floating elephant-shaped candles.

I’m half wishing that I were at home watching Homeland and eating Lers Ros takeout when I catch a whiff of fresh lemongrass and ginger. After my first sip of tom yum gai—and some gratis sauvignon blanc—I’m feeling soothed. And soon enough, I’m laughing with a table of six strangers over pumpkin curry and the cow-tipping of Smart cars.

Eden spent just “three days, once” in Thailand, she says, but she worked for several years under a Thai chef in Austin and ghostwrote a Thai cookbook. Because this is her first Feastly supper, the company’s chief operating officer, Leigh Goldstein, is at the table too, making sure that all is kosher, figuratively speaking. As it turns out, the $40 meal’s pacing is off, the two curries lack kick, and the dessert is plastic-wrapped mints—but overall, the meal is pretty good. Not Lers Ros good, but more fun than sitting at home—which for some is a huge part of the appeal of this weird new breed of dining experience.

“We see the dinner table as the original social network,” says Feastly founder Noah Karesh, who conceived the company after he and his girlfriend were invited home for supper by an avocado seller during a visit to Guatemala. “The meal was magical,” Karesh recalls. He wanted to re-create that authenticity here and, in doing so, build a community. “Someone may have 5,000 Facebook friends, but still eat dinner alone,” he says. “We want to bridge the divide between offline and online.”

It seems to be working. What were once considered underground supper clubs are inching toward the mainstream—at least in urban areas. In June, EatWith founder Guy Michlin moved his headquarters here from Tel Aviv to be closer, he says, to Greylock Partners, his new investors. Cookapp launched in Buenos Aires in 2013 and expanded to New York and San Francisco earlier this year. Year-old Feastly also recently relocated here from Washington, D.C. And there are others, like Cozymeal and SupperShare and PlaceInvaders.

The sites have much in common. Meal prices are set by the cooks, all of whom are vetted (some more vigorously than others, based on my experience—EatWith says that its acceptance rate is only 4 percent). Each site offers a staggering variety of themes and cuisines, from singles’ oyster night to paleo desserts to a paella party. “Restaurants can get boring,” Feastly’s Goldstein tells me during our meal at Eden’s house. “You know what to expect. This is more like an adventure.”

Still, this kind of adventure can be a tough sell in a city already drowning in upwards of 2,400 restaurants. Michlin, who has had respectable success with EatWith in 162 cities around the world, admits that launching in the Bay Area has been a challenge. “Tel Aviv has a food scene, Barcelona has a food scene, every city has a food scene—but I’ve never seen anything like this,” he says. “San Francisco is very competitive. We have to draw diners away from restaurants. It hasn’t been easy.”

It isn’t easy for me, either: My friends don’t jump at my house-hopping invites. Cousin Dave is into the idea because he’s an up-for-anything kind of guy, but my friend Raina, visiting from Manhattan, has zero interest in EatWith’s fried chicken night at Lindsay’s apartment. She hates chitchatting with people she’ll never see again, and there are a zillion real restaurants that she wants to try instead. Lavinia reluctantly agrees to EatWith’s Pugliese Pasta Night at Kai’s but then regrets it—there are too many olives for her taste. My friend Anne—who thinks that we’re planning to hit a new restaurant in Noe until she rereads my text and realizes that we’re actually going to Seafood Wednesday at the house of a man named Mitch—replies, “Shit, do we have to?”

But Seafood Wednesday proves to be a happy meal. The work of Mitch, a payment and fraud analyst and a Cookapp member with multiple CSA memberships, and his friend Justine, it’s worth the $65 price tag. “It’s Seafood Wednesday because the fish comes in on Tuesday,” explains Mitch. He’s the kind of home cook who carries vanilla beans back from French Polynesia—Justine used one of them in a tarte tatin that I’m still thinking about. Their multicourse meal is as good as any I’ve had at my favorite San Francisco restaurants—more memorable, in a way, because it wasn’t at a restaurant.

As we eat his food in his immaculate, Zen-inspired home, Mitch explains why he joined Cookapp. “My friends don’t care that I spent 10 hours making this fish fumet broth,” he says. “I like cooking for people who appreciate it.” He surveys our motley table. “And maybe I’ll make friends who do, too.”

Maybe. That’s a lot of pressure to put on someone who just came for the fresh-caught poached albacore. But when you sign up for one of these dinners, you’re signing up for a peek into people’s lives. You might learn that your host uses Natural Organics for Hair Loss shampoo or is trying to get pregnant. You’ll likely be invited to yoga or a playdate or, at the very least, asked to come again.

But would I? Why chance a half-baked chicken at Chad’s house when Zuni accepts walk-ins? The city is saturated with exceptional restaurants, and we’re spoiled. That said, food-sharing sites, like food trucks before them, are bound to expose some truly great cooks. And where there’s good food in San Francisco, there are always takers.

As Feastly’s Goldstein says, showing up on someone’s doorstep for supper is an adventure. And it’s one that I’m up for—occasionally. But at the end of the day, I’d probably take the sure bet of the communal table at Nopa over someone’s random dining table in NoPa.

 

The Talk of the Town: Mom Friends

Two mothers from Montclair, New Jersey, piled into a black Volvo on a recent rainy evening and drove forty-five minutes to a lonely street in Gowanus. “It’s a good night for being inside making friends, right?” Hillary Frank (mother of Sasha, four and a half) said to her friend, Natalie Chitwood (Freddy, five; Wynn, two), as they unloaded goody bags containing sweet-potato-and-pumpkin baby food.

Frank, the host of the WNYC parenting podcast “The Longest
Shortest Time,”was worried that the weather might keep women
from leaving their plastic-toy-strewn homes for the Bell House, a club
where she was holding her first live event,“Speed Dating for Mom
Friends.” The twenty-five-dollar admission included a cocktail,
snacks, and plenty of promising new adult playdates. Sixty moms had
signed up.“We have someone driving in from Pittsburgh!” Frank said,
picking raisins out of her purse.

Billed as a “3 A.M. bedside companion for parents,” Frank’s biweekly
podcast covers such themes as “What Does Your Breast Pump Say to
You?” and “A Parents’ Guide to Eating Over the Sink.” “Over and
over,I hear, ‘It’s hard to make mom friends,’ ”she said.“It’s such a vulnerable time. You’re suddenly in charge of this person, and youdon’t want to screw it up. You need support.” She and Chitwood met four years ago, at mommy-and-me yoga. “It was love at first sight,” Frank said. Tonight, she was hoping to help her fellow-moms find the same thing.

At seven o’clock, the doors opened. Aretha Franklin’s “Baby I Love
You” blasted, and new mothers from such places as East Harlem and
Williamsburg wandered in and scribbled nametags.“I’d like to meet
someone from the senior set,” Allison B. (Oliver, thirteen months), a
personal stylist, said.“I’m forty-three, and there aren’t a lot of us.”

Standing solo by the bar was Jennifer M. (Henry, six months), a stayat-home
mom from Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. “If I see someone
breast-feeding at the park,I think, Oh, good, she’s not a nanny,”she
said.“Sometimes I meet someone who seems O.K., but then she
starts badmouthing vaccines and I’m, like, Red flag!”

“How many times a day do you want to throw your kid out the
window?” Kathryn M. (Julian, three years) asked a young woman who
was sipping water. The woman looked petrified.“I’m only ten weeks
pregnant,”she replied. She looked around.“Am I the only one?”

Soon, everyone had settled around card tables. Beth Pappas, a
professional speed-dating host, who had on black stilettos and a
spaghetti-strap top, took the stage. “Ladies, listen carefully,”she said.
“Interior row stays seated, exterior row rotates.” She banged a butter
knife against a gong.“Go!”

The room erupted with the sound of women talking.

“I have four children, and I don’t work,” Chana M., an Orthodox Jew
with red lipstick, told her tablemate. “Wow, you must be busy,”
Allison B., the personal stylist, politely responded. Chana M.ontinued, “Most women in my community have three to six kids and
work.I feel like an underachiever.” Probably not a match.

Gong!

Susan F. (unnamed kids, ten and thirteen) slid in across from Lee I.
(Mavis, three), who was wearing a floppy red hat. Susan F. confessed
that she is the founder of Park Slope Parents, and that if moms
needed to speed-date maybe she wasn’t doing her job.“So what’s your
story?”she asked. Lee I., an environmental planner with the mayor’s
office, brought up her daughter’s love of singing. “No,I don’t want to
know about that,” Susan F. interrupted.“I want to know about you.
You’re so much more than your daughter.”

Gong!

Afterward, the mothers were invited to “grab your new best friend for
a picture in the couples photo booth!” Two women who’d bonded over
the Cry It Out philosophy jumped in front of the sequinned photo
backdrop. Others hit the bar for another round of Long Island Iced
Teas. Kristine A. (Eva, two months) was tired.“It was nice to meet
you,”she said to her tablemate. “I’ve got to go home and feed my
baby.” ♦

The Tipping Point

Hi Rachel,” greets my barista on most mornings. He smiles. Scrawls my name and personalized order in black marker on a white paper cup. Swipes my card. And then—before turning to the La Marzocco espresso machine to make my latte—he swivels the iPad around to face me.

The screen, which stands in for a cash register at this shop, displays five simple options: 15 percent; 20 percent; 25 percent; custom tip; and then, in a cautionary bright yellow, no tip. My barista stands there as I complete the transaction. Today, because he looked me straight in the eye as I aimed my finger at the tablet, I panicked and pressed 20 percent.

The American way of tipping, in case you haven’t noticed, is getting a software update. As mobile payment systems like Square, PayPal Here, Shopkeep, and Flint jockey with each other to determine the future of how we pay for stuff—in a cashless world where practically anyone, even your babysitter, can accept credit card payments—the future of the tip is likewise up for grabs.

Judging from the performance of Square and Shopkeep, two apps with fairly similar approaches to tipping, the future looks, well, pretty gratuitous. Compared to the old-fashioned tip jar, their sleek tablet interfaces are a major step up for baristas, bakers, and sandwich makers. The whole tipping exchange seem less like a meek request for a handout and more like an evenly matched game of computer chess: When the iPad swivels around, it’s as if to say “Your move.” Sometimes, I like to watch how people respond. Today, out of five customers at my local cafe, which uses Shopkeep, three selected 15 percent; one opted to custom tip and manually typed in $1; and the fifth flailed his finger around for a few seconds, unsure what to do, and then, somewhat sheepishly, went with no tip.

If the primary motive to tip is to win the approval of the server, then automating the process will eat away at that motivation over time.

Among the millions of businesses that already use Square (the current frontrunner in the payments race), 45 to 50 percent of all tippable card transactions included a tip in 2013, up from 38 percent the year before, the company says. Individual businesses, too, report a pretty dramatic surge in gratuities. In Seattle, Molly Moon Neitzel, the owner of Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream, says tips to her staff have increased by nearly 50 percent since the company adopted Square. In Manhattan, Matt Lindemulder, the owner of Porchetta, a trendy sandwich spot in the East Village, says tips have increased by 20 to 30 percent since he switched to Square last April.

“Before, customers had the option to tip, but it was easy to ignore; they could plead ignorant, order a sandwich, and just walk away,” Lindemulder says. “Now, the suggestion is right there in front of them.” And the power of suggestion is pretty powerful.

Square’s harnessing of it is no fluke. A spokesperson told me that the company’s interface is deliberately designed to “encourage tipping.” And there’s a lot of science to confirm that it works: Behavioral economists have explored why interfaces like Square’s do indeed get us to tip more. But it would be premature to declare that the cashless future will be one in which gratuities keep increasing. In fact, it seems just as likely that the tip is headed for a decline.

AMERICANS HAVE ALWAYS HAD an uneasy relationship with tipping. “The vast majority,” wrote the anti-tipping polemicist William Scott in 1916, “do so under duress.” Ever since the custom migrated over from Europe in the 19th century, it has offended democratic sensibilities, undermined workers’ access to a straightforward wage, and generally put people in a bad mood. Just in the last year, rants against tipping—some calling for abolition—have run in Esquire, Slate, and The New York Times.

But the high point of the crusade to abolish gratuities came way back in the early 20th century, when the Anti-Tipping Society of America attracted 100,000 members, and six states passed short-lived anti-tipping laws. Since then, tipping has only gained traction, both as a cultural norm and an economic crutch. The average tip has crept up from 10 percent in the early 20th century to around 19 percent today. And it’s gotten easier, not harder, for employers to pass their labor costs on to the public, as laws in many states have given businesses a pass to pay tipped workers just a fraction of the federal minimum wage (some as low as $2.13 an hour).

Meanwhile, the list of people we are expected to tip always seems to be growing. Some years ago, The New York Timespinpointed the moment—in 1990—when Starbucks made it company-wide policy to “put a tasteful and discreet cup on the counter” for baristas’ tips. (There had been nothing before.) Now Stabucks has started accepting tips through its own mobile payment app, guiding customers to the default options of 50 cents, $1, or $2. Even for a cup of drip.

To really understand what’s going on when we tip—and how new technologies might change our behavior—it helps to start out by asking: What’s the motivation behind tipping? It’s not as straightforward an economic rationale as many people think. According to research by the Israeli economist Ofer Azar, only about 13 percent of Americans say they tip to influence future service. By contrast, 60 percent of Americans say they tip out of guilt. Sixty-eight percent say they do so out of gratitude. Eighty-five percent, because it’s the social norm. And four percent, pricelessly, to avoid being yelled at.

It all boils down to this: “The primary motivation for tipping is to win the approval of the server,” explains Michael Lynn, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University who has extensively studied the subject.

Standing face-to-face with your barista, as Square essentially requires you to do, presumably involves a stronger dose of this social pressure, Lynn says, than what a diner typically feels when taking a moment to sign a credit card slip in a busy restaurant. And certainly stronger than what a café customer feels as their eye brie!y rests on a tip jar.

So Square does two things. On the one hand, it heightens all the social motivations involved in tipping, giving tippers more of an interpersonal push than usual. But it also makes the decision to tip almost effortless, thanks to a technique that is a subject of fascination among behavioral economists.

It’s called default tipping: giving customers a defined set of options instead of leaving the whole transaction in their hands. If you want to deviate from the given options, it’s up to you to make the extra effort.

This turns out to be surprisingly effective. We are extremely suggestible in the face of prompts. Not only do default tip options nudge people to tip where they otherwise might not—as Square’s track record shows—but in other settings, higher default tip suggestions have been shown to lead directly to higher tips. A 2013 study by economists Kareem Haggag and Giovanni Paci compiled data from 13 million rides in New York City taxis with credit card touchscreens designed by two different companies. One company’s touchscreens suggested tipping 20, 25, or 30 percent for fares over $15, and tips of $2, $3, or $4 for fares under that amount; the other company suggested tips of 15, 20, or 25 percent for all fares.

Ever since tipping migrated from Europe in the late 19th century, it has offended democratic sensibilities, undermined service workers’ access to a straightforward wage, and generally put people in a bad mood.

Haggag and Paci found that the touchscreens with higher defaults produced tips that were, on average, 10 percent higher. Those same touchscreens also prompted a bit of a backlash: A slightly higher proportion of riders said stuff it, and left no tip at all. But this reaction was drowned out by the much larger increase in generosity.

Defaults work for several reasons, according to behavioral economists. Most importantly, they make decision-making easy, by lessening what psychologists call our “cognitive load.” It takes less effort to defer to a prompt than it does to make a judgment call from scratch or do even a little mental math, and our minds appreciate the fast lane—even if it takes us somewhere we might not otherwise go. “Because people don’t like to do even a little bit of extra work,” Cass Sunstein, the legal scholar and co-author of Nudge, writes in a 2013 article, “the suggestions will matter a lot, and the average tip will increase significantly.”

Defaults also exert a kind of psychological pressure, making customers think that if they tip below the suggested amount, it means they didn’t like the service. They help establish (or alter) a social norm, guiding customers toward an idea of a proper tip—even if the customer never really had one in the first place.

Consider, for instance, the sweet, befuddled Swedish tourist behind me in line the other day at yet another popular San Francisco café. Presented, for the first time, with the sleek Square screen after purchasing two cappuccinos and a bag of coffee beans, he pressed 25 percent. “I didn’t know what to do,” he told me. “So I just picked the middle one.” If touchscreens really were cash registers, this one would have just said ka-ching.

IT’S STILL TO EARLY to tell, however, whether Square is the Facebook of mobile payments—or the Friendster. There are other models out there that could gain traction, and there’s nothing inherent in mobile technology that nudges people to tip more. The new mobile payments company Flint, for instance, doesn’t suggest default tips—but instead lets customers set their tip with a slider bar. “There are no psychology games being played,” says the company’s CEO, Greg Goldfarb.

And Square seems to have at least one big vulnerability. Despite how easy it is to punch a percentage on a touchscreen, you do carry a heavy cognitive load when you buy a latte with Square. It’s the mental baggage associated with the social interaction itself: that momentary need to manage how you come across to another human being. So what happens if a payment company decides it’s a smart business move to take that away, too—to make purchases even easier on customers by making them less personal?

As it happens, there is another service-oriented company that has had great success offering so-called “friction-less” transactions. Uber, the five-year-old business that has upset the taxi industry, is celebrated for several reasons, but one fact that’s been relatively overlooked is that Uber has achieved something rare in the history of American tipping: It has converted a big chunk of tipping territory—the business it has seized from taxi companies—into non-tipping territory. Drivers who work directly for Uber do not receive gratuities at all, and are instead paid a straight commission—automatically, with no need for the customer to pull out a credit card, glance at a meter, or even give a second’s thought to a tip. This is a big part of the company’s appeal. (Ordinary taxi drivers who use Uber to accept payments do still receive tips—but even then, the 20 percent gratuity is automatically deducted from your credit card as you hop out of the car.)

So maybe the old American anti-tipping spirit, harnessed to modern-day mobile payment technology and a business model that capitalizes on our discomfort with feeling pressured to pay people, will finally gain serious ground. And maybe more companies that pay employees a straightforward wage or commission will gain a competitive advantage.

But here’s a final possibility. Maybe the practice of tipping will stick around, but our tipping behavior will become totally automated—governed by a default setting that we enter into our personal digital-payment profile settings once, and only once. A new app geared toward diners, called Cover, aims to do pretty much just this. Cover allows you to pre-set your own default tip anywhere between 18 and 30 percent for all restaurant transactions. You can change the tip amount during a given meal if you’re moved to do so, but otherwise the default stands, and you can leave the table without ever being presented with a physical bill.

Given what we know about tipping, this could bode ill for the millions of Americans who depend on gratuities: If the primary motive to tip really is to win the approval of the server, then automating the process—and removing the social component—will probably eat away at our motivation to tip over time.

Cover’s co-founder, Andrew Cove, reports that since his app launched in 70 New York restaurants in 2013, the average tip has been 22 percent. That’s higher, he says, than what most restaurants see from typical credit card payments.

But even if you start with a high default, there’s no guarantee you’ll stick with it. There may come a day when you do some digital spring cleaning and say, You know, I can’t really afford to pay everyone a 22 percent tip anymore—I’m going to notch that down and become an 18 percenter. And should that moment come while you’re sitting at home, it will be a totally abstract calculation—uninfluenced by the heat of a social interaction with someone who has looked you in the eye or drawn a smiley face on your check.

Matt Lindemulder, the owner of the Porchetta sandwich shop, says he tries to give people space while they decide how to tip using Square. “I usually give them a moment of silence,” he says. “I don’t want them to feel like I’m trying to influence them or anything.” But here’s the thing: His mere presence does. And the same technology that heightens that influence right now could, with a simple update of the software, take it away.

Turkey Slaughtering is the New Book Club

Modern Farmer talked to Marnie Jackson, who traded in her urban life for a rural one in Marin, CA. Now she’s the founder of West Marin’s new Homesteader Group and says she’d rather slit birds’ necks than get her nails done. Pictured above is the club touring  Hog Island Oyster Farms, led by homesteader member Elizabeth Hill of West Marin Food & Farm Tours

So you fled the suburbs for Nicasio?

Eight years ago, we were living in Menlo Park, in Silicon Valley, and we were starting to get rolled into that life: nannies, nail salons, Nintendo, and I was, like, wait a minute, this doesn’t feel right; this isn’t where I want to raise my kids. I’m American, but I grew up in a small Italian village with a 400-year -farmhouse next door. In Menlo, we had a veggie garden and chickens in our backyard, and I liked to hang my laundry outside to dry. But people didn’t think that looked very good in the Stanford neighborhood. I was on the local news and everything. A friend of mine from West Marin called and said, “You don’t belong there. Move up here.” Three weeks later we found a house and actually did.

How was the transition into rural life?

We became animal acquirers, we got horses and rabbits and sheep and laying hens. We live on a hill above a pond. But it wasn’t all roses that first year: there were also things like mountain lions and ticks with Lyme. When we found a rattlesnake curled up in our baby’s room, I said to my husband: I can’t believe we did this! It’s funny — in the suburbs we had block parties and neighbors who lived three feet from away. But I immediately found deeper connections in Nicasio, even though we can’t even see another house from ours’ and our friends live miles away.

What gave you the idea to start a homesteading group?

Well, first I’d actually started a book club, but everyone was into romance books or science books and I realized all I wanted to read was farming books. It just got, well, boring. We’d just sit around chatting, drinking wine, and I thought it would be more fun if we actually did something. Like our grandmothers used to. The ladies would come over, they’d get their aprons on, it was called “Putting Up Your Vegetables.” They’d pickle and can tomatoes and make jam. Everyone helping each other. I posted it on our local community website and word spread, we’ve got about 6 to 13 women, all ages, some in their twenties, some in their sixties.

One woman said, ‘I’d love to join but all I know how to do is make shoes.’ I said, ‘Are you serious?! Teach us how to make shoes!’

So, what’s it all about?

Sharing skills. That’s what we do. Once a month, someone teaches the group something new. The first meeting was at my house. I’ve got angora rabbits so we met by the rabbit hutches and I taught everyone how to care for the rabbits, how to sheer their fur, how to spin it into wool. We have sheep, too, so I like to take the soft fuzzy angora and blend it with the wool and make these great hats for the foggy weather. We also have one woman who knows how to make cheese, so we gathered in my kitchen one afternoon and she taught us all to make ricotta. It’s all very organic, Another member said, I’ll know how to catch wild swarms of bees. She had a whole presentation with handouts, online videos, a bibliography, and everything. I was, like, wow, all I did was talk about rabbits!

Any skills you don’t want to learn?

Nope. One woman said, “I’d love to join but all I know how to do is make shoes.” I said, “Are you serious?! Teach us how to make shoes!” Myriam Pasternack, of Devil’s Gulch Farm is going to teach us how to tan rabbit hides. She’s been doing this for 30 years; she’s amazing. She has medals from Obama for her volunteer efforts in Haiti! So when she called me asking to join, I was almost embarrassed. I thought, what can we possibly teach Myriam Pasternack? Turns out, she’d never made cheese before! So that was cool. Just standing next to her, I feel like I’m learning something.

What’s up next?

Suddenly everyone wants goats! I’ve already got too much on my plate. But some members started a goat circle. They’ll mentor and milk and help care for each other’s goats. And I just ordered 15 chicks — we’re going to raise heritage turkeys. I told everyone, though, you’ve got to commit to slaughtering your own bird. It’s a lot of work. I’ll teach everyone how to do it, but when the time comes, you take your bird to your own corner. Then we’ll all come together on the tarp and pluck and eviscerate and clean, and take out the guts and intestines and legs and neck and all that slaughtering entails.

Any requirements to join the club?

My only requirement is no lookie-loos. Some people have said, “Oh, I just want to come watch.” Nuh uh. You’ve got to come ready to get dirty and muddy and bloody.

A Rabbi, a Pastor, and a Zen Monk Walk into a Bar…

…and agree that famously secular San Francisco
is having a religious awakening. A divine conversation—with drinks.

Moderated by Rachel Levin

What brought you to
 San Francisco?


Rabbi Noa Kushner: I know it sounds clichéd, but it was an act of faith. San Francisco embraces experimenta- tion. I knew that if I tried out the Kitchen in other parts of the country, it probably wouldn’t fly. But here we have this very experimental culture, this prototype culture. Pastor Aaron Monts: For me, it was definitely a calling. I’m a Cubs fan, from Chicago. I came for a Giants game 10 years ago, and it was an amazing experience. Six years later, I moved here. Reverend Shundo David Haye: I was a sound engineer in London and read about the bicycle coalition’s annual party in the Bay Guardian, and I thought, “That’d be fun—I’ll go talk to some people about bikes.” Instead, I met a woman who lived at the S.F. Zen Center. She became my wife.

The city has not always been on the friendliest terms with organized religion, particularly the Catholic church. Were you wary of starting something religious here?

Kushner: San Francisco is actually one of the most religious towns I know. In our first year, we already have a mailing list of 600-plus. Hundreds of people attended our High Holiday services this fall. And we didn’t make it easy for them—we couldn’t hold services at our regular space at Friends School, so we did them at the Fort Mason General’s Residence. Which meant people had to climb 50 steps to get there! I continue to be blown by how much people seem to be aching for community. Haye: The tape recorder isn’t capturing all of our heads nodding. At our first meeting, we were expecting maybe 10 people to show up. But we had 25, then 30, 4o, 50. The room was overflowing.

Who would you say is your congregation?

Haye: We get all sorts, in their 20s, 30s, a lot of tech-types looking to turn off the noise. They’re ambitious and under the constant stress of a startup, but inside they have something else going on. They come here to express that. Monts: We’ve been called a “hipster church” before. But that’s not really us. We have some people who grew up going to church or who were disenfranchised by the church, but also a lot of people who’ve never set foot in a church before. Our community is the most diverse I’ve ever seen, not just ethnically and racially, but socioeconomically. We have people who’ve sold their startups and people living in SROs. We’re kind of like a mini, more intimate Glide, but without the choir. We do have a banjo, though! Kushner: We get the farmers’ market crowd—a little yoga, a little LGBT, a little bohemian. Maybe they were going to Pizzeria Delfina before, and now they’re going to Shabbat and then to pizza. Monts: We get a lot of young people who heard about us through friends and thought, “Hey, that sounds cool.” We actually lack elders. I wish we had 70-, 80-, 90-year-olds to share their life experience. Haye: Come over to the Zen Center. We’ve got a lot of old people. Our former abbotess is 86. She’s amazing.

How does your approach break from tradition?

Haye: Buddhism is a very formal organization, and it can be austere and forbidding for newcomers. But part of our mission as Zen monks is to spread the dharma. So with YUZ, we wanted to break down the barriers and present the content in a more accessible way. Kushner: We don’t want to water down the content either—but we want to present it without the typical trappings that surround religion, without the formalities.

Noa, did you come up with the name
“the Kitchen” to capitalize on the city’s 
food obsession? 


Kushner: No, that was just lucky. The idea of the kitchen was that, well, almost everyone has one. (In New York City, we might not be able to say that!) The kitchen is the room where everyone wants to be, where everyone gathers—where it all goes down. Haye: Kitchens are pretty central to Tassajara as well: we’ve been called a food cult before, and food preparation is considered part of the practice. Potlucks have become a big thing with YUZ; hikes, picnics, movie nights—it’s become a social outlet.

Your organizations are basically startups—but without VC backing. How do you make it work?

Monts: Yeah, Ikon did actually have a few “angel investors.” But 70 percent of our operating income comes from weekly offerings. Kushner: No way! We’re not allowed to handle money on Shabbat. We can’t pass a basket. Haye: We have a unique financial situation. Tassajara [which doubles as a summer resort] is basically a cash cow for us, and we also have Greens Restaurant. Monts: I have to do it, but I’m not equipped to run the business side of the church. I don’t have an MBA—I went to Bible school! Kushner: The Kitchen is as risky as any startup. We have some grants, which help, and we charge membership fees—we have to pay our teachers. But I’d love to see a venture capitalist invest in a religious organization! The payoff won’t come in money, but I’d love to meet a VC who sees payoff in a spiritual light. I see it every day.

 

The Biggest Rock Star You’ve Never Heard Of

The Rumpus interview with Chad Stokes of Dispatch

Odds are, Barry Manilow and Anita Baker have never heard of Chad Stokes — or his band Dispatch, the reggae-funk-rock trio with whom they share the fall calendar at Radio City Music Hall. But any liberal arts college grad under the ever-rising age of, say, 32 knows every word of the band’s lyrics by heart—as evidenced by the hearty, head-nodding (occasionally pogo-stick-like-jumping) sing-a-longs at every sporadic (and, always, sold-out) Dispatch show since its one-hundred percent indie rise.

In August, Dispatch released its first album in 12 years, “Circles Around the Sun,” on its own Bomber Records label. Back from Europe, the band kicked off its cross-country tour in Vancouver, B.C. last week– they play Radio City this Friday (Oct. 5). Tickets sold-out, months ago, in just a couple of hours.

That’s nothing. The last time Dispatch played in Manhattan, in 2007, they sold out three nights at Madison Square Garden in 23 minutes. And donated all profits from ticket sales— more than $1 million  — to Zimbabwe. Who the F does that?

Chad Stokes Urmston. A slightly scrappier Bono who founded the nonprofit Calling All Crows, which inspires music fans to social activism, and has so far raised a quarter of a million dollars for empowering women in Sudan and Afghanistan. He launched his first solo album Simmerkane II last year (on which Carly Simon collaborated). He’s also the front man of State Radio, the ska-punk-rock band he started in 2005 after Dispatch disbanded– following its free, “final” show at Boston’s Hatch Shell, which ended up drawing 120,000 fans from as far away as Australia, closing down Storrow Drive, and making history as the largest independent music concert ever.

Chadwick, Braddigan, and Repete (self-anointed nicknames, all) met at Middlebury Collge in the mid-90s; their upbeat music spread from dorm room to dorm room across the country during Napster’s heyday. They repeatedly turned down offers from the major labels (“You guys could be the next Dave Matthews!” the bigwigs dangled). Instead, Dispatch remained independent all the way. Eventually, infighting and political differences broke up the band — just as it was reaching its peak. 

These guys gave up the dream of every fledgling college band. And yet, still, more than a decade later–they are arguably bigger than they would’ve been had they stayed together.

What do you think, Chad? Is Dispatch bigger now than it would’ve been if you hadn’t broken up?

 I think so… We broke up and somehow became bigger. There’s something about the chase, right? It was a crazy phenomenon, really. So much of it was timing. It was the late ‘90s. It was Napster. The music industry was changing so quickly, and we were part of all that. I feel like we kinda slipped in the backdoor on the old guard, on the old labels.

Why did you guys break up anyway? After 120,000 people showed up for the “Last Dispatch” at the Hatch Shell in Boston, were you guys, like, Umm, maybe we should stick this out?

We were all in our early 20s… At that age, we were all vying for control in the band… Who’s the lead singer? Who’s getting the most attention… Dispatch was all we had; it defined us so much. It defined me too much. I needed to get away. 

What’s different now that you’re 36? I mean, now that you’re dads and all.

I think there’s a lot more appreciation and maturity and acceptance of everyone’s flaws. Now that we’re, wow, 13 years older, we realize how lucky we are. To be recording again. To have a career in music. To still be a viable band.  I think the fact that we all have other creative outlets helps too. I have State Radio. And my solo thing. So it doesn’t have to be all about Dispatch.

What about your political differences? You like to use music, and performances, as a platform. Is it tough to have to bite your tongue, especially in this election year?

 Well, yeah. We definitely all have different views. I like to express this and that on stage, but it’s too polarizing for Brad. And it gets too much away from the music for Pete. That’s why on this tour we chose to focus on education. We’re donating one dollar of every ticket– and album — sold to Amplifying Education. It’s something we all really wanted to rally behind.

So, okay: Did NASA really offer you $2 million to take the song “Circles Around the Sun” off your new album?

Weeelll… we’ve sort of been perpetuating the Untold Story of Larry Perry. How back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the government came and took this six-year-old kid with severe cerebral palsy, who couldn’t speak, away from his parents and sent him into outer space. How NASA tried chimps but wanted to get a better read on humans and so chose Larry because he was “expendable.” At that time, people with disabilities weren’t seen as real people. And how the funny thing is, Larry had the time of his life. But, no it’s not true…It’s just what we’ve been telling the media when they ask us what the song “Circles Around the Sun” is about.

How come?

 Honestly, I was getting bored telling the real story behind the song. Which is that my friend Larry Perry had cerebral palsy and was a real adrenaline junkie, so I’d take him on all these crazy amusement park rides… When he died, I had this one idea for a song, but when I started writing the lyrics, it just took this whole celestial sci-fi twist… Then Brad and I came up with NASA’s whole Shut Up Dispatch campaign. The other day, Pete said, “You guys are telling the Larry story as if it’s true.”  And we were, like,“It is true …” But, ultimately, it’s just a story. Like all those memoirs everyone is publishing these days.

I heard you guys played an impromptu free show in NYC’s Washington Square Park the other day? Rock stars should really do more of that.

 I was skeptical. It was the day our new album was coming out (Aug. 22) and we weren’t doing anything special so Brad drummed up [no pun intended, Brad is the drummer] this idea to dress up as Statue of Liberties and go stand around Washington Square Park. So we went to one of those year-round Halloween stores on 11th Street and got these silver masks. The kind that looks like you can’t see out, but we could. We sent a note out on Twitter, got to the park, put on our costumes, and hopped up on a bench. The plan was to stand completely still for a while, you know, like statues— and then eventually just start singing. At first no one noticed us. Then a few folks gathered around. And, suddenly there were, like, 1,000 people swarming around us. We took off our masks and started playing. It was really fun.

How’d it end?

 We hadn’t anticipated it, but getting out of there was hard. We pushed through the crowd and started running away. By Waverly, I was still running. Then I realized: Wait, I can stop running now. We’re not the Beatles.

 

 

Pastrami: Discuss

Notes from the first-ever Deli Summit

Noah and Rae Bernamoff’s The Mile End Cookbook: From Hash to Hamantaschen, which came out earlier this month, contains more than 100 recipes from the couple’s 430-square-foot messiah of a smokehouse in Brooklyn, the Mile End Delicatessen. The Bernamoffs had a few fellow “geniuses” contribute to the book, too, with full-page black-and-white photographs and unpolished prose. Bob McClure of McClure’s Pickles lists “Seven Things I Love About Pickles.” Joel Bukiewicz, of Cut Brooklyn, explains “How To Love Your Knife so It Will Love You Back.” And Ken Gordon of Kenny & Zuke’s Delicatessen, in Portland, Ore., gives the all-important “Ode to Pastrami.”

“It was quite an honor,” says the Queens-born cook, who smokes 2,000 pounds a week of the stuff and recently opened a new late-night spot that serves a $12.95 “Jewcuterie board” and a daiquiri containing loganberry Manischewitz and aged rum. “I’m actually 40 pounds lighter now than I was in that photo,” he says, referring somewhat remorsefully to his headshot in The Mile End Cookbook. “Got diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and had to cut back.” (Job hazard.)

Noah and Ken met up last summer, at a JCC in Berkeley, Calif., to discuss the future of pastrami-on-rye, at the first-ever Deli Summit. Joined by the other cool deli kids—Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman of San Francisco’s wildly popular Wise Sons, and hosts Peter Levitt and Karen Adelman, co-owners of Saul’s Deli, down the street—it was a meet-and-greet of the self-anointed New Guard: deli artisans who brine/pickle/cure/smoke/hand-slice their-own-everything; serve only humanely raised, hormone-free meat; and could care less about kosher.

“It was kind of an exclusive invite,” explained 5-foot-3 Karen, in baggy khakis and a black blouse, standing excitedly in the lobby before the crowds formed.* “People asked me, ‘Why isn’t Katz’s coming?’ ” She shrugged. “Old guard.”

“I get crap from those guys all the time,” said a blasé Noah, with his wife, Rae, by his side, clad in his-and-hers hipster glasses, square and cat-eye, respectively. “They’re, like, ‘What’s he doing here?’ They don’t really talk to me. Or to each other. The owner of Carnegie’s, I forget his name, but he thinks his shit doesn’t stink. Big guy.”

“They’re all big guys,” said Rae.

Not Wise Sons co-owner Leo Beckerman. The skinny 28-year-old, with a permanent smile and waist-length dreadlocks, was slinging still-warm bialys smeared with house-made chive cream cheese and lox. Waiting in line were heavily made-up ladies who trekked in from Palo Alto; pregnant women debating whether, wild or not, it’s OK to eat smoked salmon, and the requisite kvetchers. (“How can you call Saul’s a Jewish deli, when they don’t even have salami!”) East Coast transplants, too. “I’m from New Jersey,” confessed an Asian man who came straight from work. “Gimme a good bialy.” Another proudly pointed to his “Yonah Shimmel” hat. “How ’bout a knish?”

“The Deli Summit is the place to be tonight,” said a freckly redhead. “I think Obama might show up.”

A hot ticket, yes, but not an instant sell-out as in 2010, when Saul’s hosted a Referendum on the Jewish Deli Menu. “We had star power then,” explained Karen Adelman. “Michael Pollan. He’s a regular.” This year, they tried for Ruth Reichl. “She really wanted to do it! Mark Bittman was interested, too …”

Before show time, the speakers assembled in the back office to discuss what to discuss. “Bacon?” someone proposed. “Ooh, don’t go there …” warned Noah. “The Tablet ripped on us!” “I could tell my favorite joke,” proposed Ken. “What’s the biggest Jewish dilemma? Half-price sale on pork.” “Butter versus shmaltz?” someone suggested. “Oo, yeah, Shmaltz! Good one,” said Wise Sons’ Evan Bloom.

This was no G8 Summit of suits. The line-up on the small stage looked more like a student council meeting at a Yeshiva day school. Ken, the graying grandpa of the group, wore a black T-shirt emblazoned with Body by Pastrami. (Note: This was before he lost the 40 pounds.)

Third-choice moderator Joan Nathan, the prolific Jewish cookbook author with a perfectly coiffed pouf and an encyclopedic knowledge of kugel, kicked things off. “Tell us your pastrami conundrums.” Noah detailed his intricate sourcing and smoking process. “People don’t understand why I sometimes run out of meat. I can’t just call up Donny over at the plant and order more.” “At least you’re not dealing with a population that’s 75 percent vegan!” said Ken, from Portland. “We do a veggie Reuben,” offered Evan. Cheers and applause erupted from the Berkeley audience.

Sephardic cuisine, shrinking menus, pastrami portions were all fair game, but it was the topic of complimentary pickles that really got people fired up. “I don’t give pickles, or anything, away,” declared Noah. “Unless you’re a policeman. People come in asking, ‘Where’s my free slice of pastrami like I get at Katz’s?’ I tell them, ‘inside your sandwich.’ ”

“Nostalgia is something we all deal with,” continued Noah. “I have 85-year-old ladies telling me my chicken soup isn’t as good as their grandmother’s,” griped Ken. “Sorry, but your grandma has been dead for 40 years! How do you even remember?”

“You guys are just lucky not to be in New York,” Noah went on. “I’m still battling the 120-year-old meat temples. The idea of the ‘New York Deli’ is a joke.”

“Katz’s isn’t a deli,” muttered Joan.

People, some in faded Levis and Birkenstocks with socks, listened intently, cupping their faces and furiously scrawling questions on note cards. None of you are kosher. How can you call yourself a Jewish deli when your food is off-limits to a large number of Jews? “What, like 12 people?” scoffed Ken. “Portland isn’t exactly West Jerusalem.”

 “Basically, it’s just cool to be Jewish again,” concluded Evan. Hoots, hollers, and then folks filed out. Most beaming. Others were disappointed. “Too much talk about meat,” said a woman sporting a “Bubala’s Rugelach” T-shirt in an attempt to pimp her new start-up. An orthodox man was blatantly offended. “That one from New York, he’s a self-hating Jew.”

At an invite-only after-party at Saul’s, the panelists clinked glasses of Côte Du Rhône and passed platters of potato latkes and bowls of rhubarb-and-carrot tsimmis. “We all have different philosophies of pastrami-ama,” said Karen, “but for deli’s survival, it’s important that we stick together.” Every member of the New Guard agreed.

Now, a year later, with gefilte fish trending on par with foie gras, the New Guard is indeed getting together again. This time it’s happening in Manhattan, at the City Grit, where Noah invited his West Coast deli friends to collaborate with him on a $200, nine-course Shabbat dinner on Oct. 12, as part of the Food Network’s New York City Wine & Food Festival, to be followed by a still-unnamed second Deli Summit on Oct. 13, moderated, this time, by David Sax. “I keep coming up with all these pretentious names,” says Noah, “like, ‘The Symposium on the Future of Jewish Food’ or whatever. But maybe it’ll just be ‘Deli Summit II.”

“It’s only 65 percent sold-out right now, but I’m not worried,” he adds, sounding slightly worried. “They wanted to pair me up with a Food Network chef—Michelle Bernstein from Miami,” Noah scoffs. “She does Spanish food?! It was, like, Yeah, yeah, they’re Jewish, stick them together …”

But with his new book out, especially, “I feel this unique responsibility,” says the 30-year-old cook who—unlike Ken—has admittedly packed on a few pounds since leaving law school to, unintentionally, carry a torch. “Together, we, you know, kind of represent the future of Jewish food.” So he dissed the celebrity chefs to stick with his peeps.

“It’s going to be a good reunion.”

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