Wednesday, August 31, 2011

San Francisco

Fog engulfed the city last night, as practically every night during summer in San Francisco. I hoped it would burn off by nine or ten o’clock in the morning, but when I stepped out onto Mary’s back balcony the cold wet wind drove me back indoors. I decided to get my morning workout once again on the Lyon Street Steps. I hustled up and down the long staircase for an hour, seeing very little of the view and very much of the steps.

By the time I returned and showered, we saw signs of sunlight in the air. After lunch, we were able to head out without jackets and ride the bus to Chinatown. Alla had been looking forward to tea tasting for several months, and I came with her. We like to visit a company called Vital Leaf, where they stock an incredible variety of teas in big shiny metal canisters. Alla and I sampled a small variety of about fifteen teas and chose a few favorites to bring home. It’s amazing how two ounces here and four ounces there add up to a lot of tea. If you come to visit, don’t forget to ask Alla to brew a cup for you.

After tea we intended to cook dinner for ourselves at Mary’s apartment, but we got hungry before we reached home. So we walked from Chinatown only as far as Hayes and Kebab, a Middle-Eastern restaurant we discovered last week. The owner welcomed us back with a big smile and let his younger brother take care of us. Said brother ran back and forth in the restaurant with a big smile on his face, tending to each customer’s needs with a spirit of genuine welcome. We started with a meze plate including delicious baba ganoush and other tasty treats, and then we moved on to a wonderful vegetarian moussaka.

By the time we finished, we felt fortified to walk all the way home, where I still managed to eat another slice of sharlyn melon, a summer favorite difficult to buy in New England. Despite the foggy start, we enjoyed our day tremendously.

Monday, August 29, 2011


We came to spend the weekend with relatives John and Meredith. They have just bought a home in Woodside, in the southern part of Silicone Valley. Yesterday, in deference to Alla, we took a hike in the woods rather than ride our bikes. We enjoyed a long walk through a redwood forest up to the top of a ridge known as Skyline Drive. Alla saw her first banana slugs, including a particularly large and juicy specimen. Meredith invited me to join an elite club she joined as a child, but the initiation required me to kiss a banana slug and she wasn’t really able to tell me any compelling benefits of membership. Today I learned that John is a member too, but I still feel OK about the fact that I have not joined.

As we drove to and from the park, we passed dozens of cyclists. Traffic slowed to a crawl at a major crossroads, as cyclists whizzed hither and yon through the intersection and stopped at the local very fancy, very organic, natural foods store cum delicatessen. I remarked that perhaps one should not move to Woodside without first purchasing at least one bicycle. Fortunately, we have bikes. So this morning John, Meredith and I rode through that intersection and up to the top of Skyline Drive. The entire Los Gatos Racing Club rode past us when we stopped at the base of the hill. Naturally John and Meredith charged off to chase them and pass quite a few. Unfortunately, I’m not in that kind of condition right now and I managed to pass just a single straggler.

When they’ve put away their bikes, Woodside residents seem to spend lots of time at their backyard swimming pools. At least, that’s the way it appears to us as we listen to the quiet splashing sounds wafting through the bushes. As I write this, in fact, Alla is making quiet splashing sounds in John and Meredith’s pool, heated by roof-mounted solar panels. It’s quite a contrast to the Saturday morning cacophony of leaf blowers, and I’m quite happy to see that the leaf blower folks seem to have agreed on a fixed time for their endeavors.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Best day in a long time

I went for a bike ride today with my cousin Hal Cranston. We’re visiting him at his cabin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and he took me today for one of his favorite rides. We drove to Sierraville, a tiny town almost a mile above sea level. We left our car there and rode up over Yuba Pass under a clear blue sky. The shadows of huge pine trees sheltered us during the first part of the ride, and as we got higher we began to pass fragrant meadows filled with Indian corn lily and other plants I could have identified when I got Nature merit badge at Boy Scout camp.

Though I cannot name the rest of the meadow plants, I can say that they looked as good as they smelled. We passed huge fields of little white flowers, commented on little thickets of bright purple, and admired the ever-changing backdrop of the Sierra Buttes, high alpine valleys, and mountain streams.

After cresting Yuba Pass we descended into a little settlement called Bassetts, where we stopped at a combined general store and restaurant and bought a few fig Newtons to propel us up the next climb. At the top of this one we found a forested mesa with numerous small lakes sparkling behind the trees. By the time we stopped at Gold Lake I could hardly believe what I’d seen and experienced. I’d forgotten the beauty of the Sierra Nevada, its aromas and vistas. Staring across the pristine surface of Gold Lake, completely alone but for my close friend and relative, I could only whisper a prayer of thanks for the opportunity to be there.

We returned by the same route, stopping again at Bassetts to refill our water bottles. Since I’d only drunk two bottles to that time, I decided to go light and fill only one bottle for the last leg of our journey. Unfortunately, I drank much faster under the afternoon sun, and my bottle ran dry a couple of miles before we crested Yuba Pass. Thinking to reach the pass before I got absolutely parched, I rode a little harder and pulled out ahead of Harold. Presently a couple of people in a yellow pickup truck slowed down beside me and rolled down the window to talk. They said that they’d seen Harold go off the road behind me and fall in the dirt at the side of the road. They added that they’d go back and check on him themselves had they not seen me.

I doubled back and learned that Harold hadn’t taken a serious fall, but had just bogged down in soft dirt when he drifted off the pavement. As we rode together again, the couple in the yellow truck returned to assure themselves that we were OK. They said they were prepared to load his bike into the back of the truck if he needed help, and we replied with gratitude and sent them on their way.

Then I begged Harold for a drink of his water. As soon as I returned his bottle, the yellow truck was back, and the passenger asked me if I’d like an extra bottle of water. Yes! With plenty of water, we powered over the pass in fine style and coasted downhill at a wonderfully high speed to our starting point.

I’d forgotten how much I enjoy alpine scenery and situations. Now I want to get out my backpacking gear again and see more of it.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Lobster bake

A member of my college alumni association, Joe Ayers, now works as a professor and researcher at an oceanographic facility on the shore near Boston. He invited our alumni club to a traditional New England lobster feast. I’ve heard of these things, but I’ve never before seen lobsters cooked this way.

We had to arrive early in order to dig a pit on the beach. (But somebody else got there even earlier so Alla and I escaped that task.) Then we piled alternating layers of wood with kindling and big rocks into the pit, and ended with as much material above ground as in the pit. Joe took a shortcut here and added barbecue fire-starting liquid to the wood before throwing in a ball of burning newspaper. The pile burned all afternoon while we swam in the ocean and ate hamburgers cooked on an ordinary gas grill. In addition, we spent a lot of time gathering wet seaweed, which we began even before the tide got low enough to expose it.

Finally the fire burned down enough that the hot rocks settled to ground level and we prepared the food. Joe taught us how safely to remove the bands from the lobsters’ claws, and we put the live lobsters and clams into huge steamer frames along with sacks filled with potatoes, onions and hot dogs. (Lobsters are only safe to eat if cooked alive. It’s apparently something like staying too long in the sauna.) We also laid out lots of corn with the silk removed and the leaves wrapped back around the kernels.

We stacked the two steamer frames on top of the hot seaweed and put two wet tarps on top. A little over an hour later, we removed the covers and took the food up to the lawn so everybody could fill their plates. Dinner tasted excellent, and we had a really great time preparing it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Rainy day fun

We had big plans for Sunday, but then the rains began. Even though I carried a huge umbrella, my pants were dripping onto my feet when I got home from church. Our friends called and apologized that they could not come over for lunch as we had planned. They couldn’t imagine coming through the downpour and bringing their dripping children into our house.

Alla re-set the table for the two of us and we feasted on a meal originally intended to feed six. (Yes, we had leftovers.) We talked about going back to the Museum of Fine Arts to see the Chihuly exhibit one more time before it closed, but decided against fighting the rain and the crowds. Instead, Alla curled up with a book and I got out the slide projector.

About two years ago my dad sent me thousands of slides that he had collected until sometime in the 1970’s when his lifestyle began to change. Overwhelmed, I put the boxes into a far corner and waited for an auspicious time to sort through them and decide which to keep. Finally, I decided after lunch to choose a few from these thousands to salvage.

The first box I opened contained the most recent stuff, from 1973-1974. My parents went to Japan a couple of times then, and my dad joined some mountaineering expeditions with the Mazama club in Oregon. I stormed through the slides, loading a roll at a time into my projector and picking out one or two photos from each roll. While I enjoyed some of the scenic photographs, I didn’t spend long with most of them. I developed a rhythm, click-click-clicking through a roll and stopping only for the really great photos.

After getting through half of the slides, I got tired, bored and hungry. I stopped for dinner and planned to put away the projector and save the remaining slides for later. I didn’t particularly enjoy looking through so many pictures of places I’d never seen and people I didn’t know. But after my break I decided to finish the project for the sake of efficiency. This time I found myself digging into the older stuff (where I appeared more often!) I found pictures depicting the Christmas when Santa brought my brother a toy saxophone and left me a toy trumpet. Roger hadn’t gotten up yet, so I rushed into my parents’ bedroom and told them I really wanted the saxophone. They allowed me to switch the instruments before Roger saw anything. I saw the saxophone again on Sunday, and it brought back far more than a memory of two little boys.

I also found pictures of our bikes decorated for Play Day at school. Play Day! I’d forgotten that too. Once a year we set aside all academic considerations and played. The festivities included a bicycle rodeo, for which we always decorated our bikes with colored crepe paper. A policeman would come to spend the morning with us and judge our cycling abilities. He would also run a little demonstration to show us how much time it takes to stop a car from the moment one of the teachers fired a piece of chalk into the pavement from a gun mounted on his bumper. Then he’d measure the distance from the chalk mark to the bumper and tell us all to be careful around cars.

All the slides are gone now. I selected about 800 favorites and sent them off to a slide-scanning service, where they promise to start work on my shipment sometime next month. The thousands of rejects have already left the city, sent wherever Boston buries its trash.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Something has got to change

Today I wrote a grossly over-simplified blog post about Proposition 13, the consequent failures of education, and the dumb things our Federal government has done lately. I worried that a poorly-educated electorate may be leading toward poor decisions in government (leading to more school cutbacks and... it got kind of black.) I decided not to publish it because it offered no constructive solution, but I am very concerned. The only good news I have in mind right now is that at least I felt free to write and potentially publish my concerns about the direction of the American government. In my other life, I never talk about politics at all.

Rather than publish a finger-pointing piece about people with bad ideas, I'd like to take steps to change the environment and encourage us all to talk together and even think together. But this has to happen mutually, and it can only happen with inspired leadership. Which we must, somehow, elect. (There I go again.)

I think we all need to set aside time to talk together. We may not agree, but if we don't make time to work toward a solution on the local level we will never figure out how to make a solution on the national level. I guess I'll start at my local church. Where will you start?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Lowell Folk Festival

We always like the Lowell Folk Festival. It’s not only big and wonderful: it’s free. Volunteers do ask everybody to contribute a few dollars, but folks from the poor neighborhood certainly can and do attend. Alla and I figured out a couple of years ago that we can stay overnight at a hotel in the middle of town and enjoy two full days of music without driving home late on Saturday night, which makes the show much easier to enjoy fully. This year we almost forgot to make our hotel reservations in time, and they could only offer us a room with two double beds. The big room gave us an opportunity to throw a little party, so we invited our friends Larry and Sarah to stay with us. Everything worked out perfectly.

As we walked out from the hotel yesterday, Alla and Larry spotted a booth offering sunglasses for $8.00 a pair or two for $10. Alla and Larry got together and bought identical glasses. I think their choice must be “fashion-forward,” because the style looked like the glasses the ever-so-trendy guys from Turkmenistan wore last spring at the Minsk State Linguistic University.

Equipped with proper eyewear, we got ourselves a nice spot on the lawn right in front of the stage at Boarding House Park. The program started with a Hawaiian guitar player whom we had just met at the hotel and included a very powerful gospel quartet and a group of sisters who play Texas swing music on the fiddle and sing their own sweet harmonies. We left our stage a couple of times for other opportunities at nearby locations, including a boogie-woogie piano player from Mississippi who both moved our feet and won our hearts, but finished the day with a big salsa orchestra back where we started.

We ate really well this year. Church and other groups from all around town set up booths and sold fresh hot and cold food. We discovered two groups (one Jewish and one Lebanese) selling falafel, and we undertook an in-depth study of the two. I can’t pick a winner because I liked them both for different reasons. If the Lebanese gave their recipe to the Jews, I think that would have been ideal. The Lebanese falafel had more flavor, but the Jewish falafel came with much better salad.

Today we moved around a bit more so that we could hear some groups we’d missed on Saturday. Still, we tried not to spend all our time walking from one stage to another, and we ended up hearing and seeing some really great groups simply because they came up next at whatever stage we happened to be watching. I wouldn’t have expected to enjoy the Cambodian dance troupe, but they turned out to be a wonderful surprise. All-in-all, we had a fantastic weekend.