Hiding from the horrors of life

California is on fire, and I am hiding in my guest bathroom.


Not from the fire, but from the despair I feel about the world right now. I’m not just sitting in the dark on the floor in the bathroom. I have the current foster cat family in with me. Or they are letting me hang out with them. It gives me comfort. But still, I consider it as hiding.


I want to help, but I don’t know how. My anxiety keeps me from making a move. I can easily donate money (not much, but some), but I want to DO something. Yet here I sit, playing with kittens, feeling defeated. The most I’ve done is obsessively share Facebook posts about resources for help. Cooking also gives me comfort. But instead of volunteering my services to help feed evacuees, I cook for the 2 of us, and we eat in front of television.

The things I “should” be doing today seem so unimportant. Folding laundry, who cares? I could be writing scholarly papers for school; my PhD is important to me of course, but I can’t focus on anything. It seems trivial when people are losing everything, some even losing their lives.

People do come forward to help in emergencies. Volunteers are helping at evacuation centers. Animal rescuers are helping find shelter and foster homes for displaced animals. Others are organizing donations of supplies for the evacuation centers and animal shelters. I want to be one of those people.

Evacuation center at the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga.

The world seems like it’s falling apart. The hurricanes and the continuing devastation left behind, especially in Puerto Rico. The Las Vegas shooter. The never ending issue of racism and inequity in this supposedly civilized country that treats its own people like garbage. A “president” who couldn’t care less about anyone but himself.

Trump throws paper towels at the victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

It’s like the modern-day Fall of the Roman Empire, or how I imagine it.


I was already feeling it. Whenever I drive around Oakland and Berkeley, I see more and more homeless encampments. Oakland is turning into Tent City. I despair for my own city and its people.


We’ve been watching the Ken Burns series on Vietnam, which I am finding so painful to watch. I am ashamed of how ignorant I am about the times in which I was born and raised. It hurts me to see the the death and destruction, not just of the American youth sent to fight a senseless war, but the countless civilian deaths of the Vietnamese on both sides of the fight. Children killing children. Hate mongering. Old white American men thinking of lives in terms of numbers and “kill ratios”, and continuing a war for their own egos.

Ken Burns.png


Vietnam PBS

And now a place I hold dear to my heart is being destroyed by fires. (Why can’t the idiots in power face up to climate change? It’s for real and the effects are being felt right now.) I lived and worked in the Napa and Sonoma areas not so long ago. I didn’t want to leave to live in Oakland, but life doesn’t always work out the way we think it will. I still have friends in the area, some of whom I know are safe as I write this. Others I haven’t heard anything about, and it scares me.

my backyard
The backyard of my former house in Napa, circa 2005.

And lest I get complacent thinking I’m safe, the fires continue to spread. I never think it couldn’t happen here. It did happen here. There was a fire not so long ago that destroyed a large swath of the area where I live now–the Oakland Hills Fire in 1991. It’s only about 40 miles from Oakland to Napa, and the fires are now approaching the rural area around Fairfield, among other places.

Oakland hills 1991
The Oakland Hills Fire of 1991.

I don’t have an emergency plan. We’ve never prepared any kind of earthquake kit (the usual recommendation in California) or thought through how we’d get all of the animals and ourselves safely out of here.

My heart is breaking for the world, but I bury my head in the sand. I care, and caring is a good first step, but sometimes we have to do something with that caring. It’s is too close to home this time.

Stay safe.

Happy Birthday, Mom

Today would have been my mother’s 80th birthday. She was born February 3, 1936 in New York City, which often surprises people because she was so much a Southerner. Her parents, Dr. James Elliott Scarborough (1906-1966) and Isabelle Wisell Scarborough (1909-1992), moved to Atlanta when Mom was very young. My grandfather was a doctor at what was then the Memorial Hospital for the Treatment of Cancer and Allied Diseases and is now Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. My grandmother was a nurse but left the hospital when my mother came along. The story in the family is that they were so sure that my mother would be a boy, they hadn’t come up with any girl names. Her birth certificate says “Baby Girl Scarborough”. Eventually one of the nurses started calling her Nancy and it stuck.

Dr. Scarborough, originally a farm boy from Hayneville, Alabama but a graduate of Harvard Medical School, was recruited by Coca Cola CEO Robert Winship Woodruff in 1937 to head up the Winship Cancer Institute in Atlanta. Thus my mother became a Southerner and my Vermont-born and raised grandmother embraced Atlanta society.

I don’t have a lot of pictures of my mother. In 1990, the house she was living in with her second husband in Sacramento, California, burned down and many photos were lost to the fire. Here is a short photo tribute to my mother, Nancy Scarborough Cottraux Dilbeck (February 3, 1936-August 23, 2009).

I get the impression from the look on her face that Mom might have a little attitude going. The story she told is that her mother told her she couldn’t wear the ring she has on her finger for the photo because her hands were too dirty, but Mom slipped the ring on anyway.


high school
Mom’s high school senior photo, Henry W. Grady High School, Atlanta, circa 1952-1953.


baby G
Mom with baby Genevieve in 1961. I am the youngest of 4; our father, Stephen Pierre Cottraux Jr., was killed in an automobile accident in 1962.


Mom loved red dresses. This is at my grandmother’s house. I’m in the blue sweater. Sister Ellen is behind me, my brother Steve next to me and sister Cathy behind him.


Mom in the Alps
In 1969, my mother took a trip to Europe. I spent what seemed like a really long time with my grandmother. My brother went to summer camp, and my sisters went on a trip to San Diego to visit our Cottraux grandparents. This is in the Swiss Alps.
Circa 1972.
In 1972, Mom married her second husband, Van Dilbeck. This is on the farm in Georgia where his mother had relocated with her second marriage the same year. My mother is in the back in the dark blue shirt. I am up front, upside down face. My brother Steve is showing off how much fresh corn on the cob he can eat. At 14, it was a lot! Later that summer, we moved to California.


There is a huge gap in the photos after that. Many were lost in the fire, and others I’ve never had scanned. Jumping to 2003, this is in my then backyard in Napa when Mom came from Sacramento to go to a tea party with me.


Mom helping a much thinner me with home decor, 2003. I did eventually learn how to turn the date stamp off on that camera!


sewing 1
Mom was a very talented seamstress. She made most of our clothes when we were growing up. This is at her house in Sacramento in 2004, cutting fabric for an evening dress I decided to make out of a satin tablecloth. I’ve never finished the dress.


Bob cat
Mom with her beloved cat Bob, a stray who took up residence in her yard and hit the jackpot. Here he is getting his Christmas treats.


70th birthday
Mom’s 70th birthday party in 2006.


This is one of the last photos I have of her. In late 2008 she was diagnosed with untreatable Stage 4 lung cancer. She spent her last months in hospice care. Always an animal lover, she was so happy to have hospice pup Violet to cuddle with.


I like to think she would be proud of me for the path I’ve taken over the last few years. She always let me make my own decisions, whether she approved or not (like when I dropped out of college in 1981 to follow a boy halfway around the world). I didn’t always like her decisions either (like moving us to California in 1972), but I’ve come to appreciate the hurdles she faced and the choices she had to make.

I love you and miss you, Mom.