Journal: 2003

Bad Habits

By now most of us have got over all those silly and ill-planned new year’s resolutions and life has returned to normal, at least it has for me. Now that I think about it, I don’t believe I’ve ever actually terminated a bad habit purely as an act of will. In most cases, events have conspired and the bad habit has left me pretty much of its own accord.

One lovely spring morning in 1984 I was standing crisply by my gleaming limousine at the curb on Post Street outside Gump’s waiting for my client to emerge. (I was a minor partner in a small limousine company back then.)

I was buffed, I had just had a haircut, I was wearing a new Givenchy three-piece pin-stripe navy-blue suit, and I was feeling, frankly, pretty damn spiffy as I watched the traffic creep along. Then, as I scanned upstream I saw about to pull level with me a stunningly beautiful woman driving a Mercedes convertible. Like Cleopatra on her barge except Cleopatra wasn’t driving. My gaze lingered as she pulled even with me.

And then she met my eyes as she rolled by and said, in a calm, conversational tone, “Stop biting your nails.”

I was, as the Brits say, gobsmacked.

I wasn’t biting them when she spoke, but obviously she had seen me biting them at some point before I turned and saw her.

Some of my earliest memories are of my parents telling me to stop biting my nails. In public school, teachers criticized this habit. When I was in the Army, sensing that it was conduct unbecoming, I went underground and indulged in clandestine nail-biting.  I had bit them all my life.

But I have not tasted another nail since she spoke. Not once have I found myself biting a nail and stopped. There was no exercise of will, there was no tapering off, there was no withdrawal. The habit was simply gone, lasered into nonexistence in an instant.

Then I discovered the negatives. You have to clean underneath them. You have to keep them trimmed or they get in your way. They’re a constant hassle! But alas, keeping them trimmed short the natural way, the way our ancestors on the savanna did, is no longer an option.

How could that woman have had such power over me? What if she’d told me to rob a bank?

“Which bank, Ma’am?”

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This morning I drove over to Oakland, picked up my friend Kobe, and hit the Jack London Square Farmers Market. Yeah, yeah, I had taken my neighbor and his visiting lovely lover to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market yesterday, but I had managed to limit my purchases. Besides, I just wanted to check out another Bay Area market. Good thing I did.

Right off, I spotted Oakdale Cheese. First time I’ve seen them in a year, as they have stopped coming to the Ferry Plaza and Justin Herman markets. They make an excellent moderately-aged gouda. They also make by far the best quark I’ve had in this country, and while I try not to allow the price of foods to influence my purchase decisions, I’m still enough the mean old Scot to notice that they charge half the price of their competitors like Cowgirl Creamery.

And then right beside them there was the Golden Sheaf Bread Company from Watsonville, from whom I used to buy their four-seed baguette at the San Mateo Farmers Market when I was working at Oracle. I would spark a feeding frenzy by putting it out on the refreshments table, which was rather like tossing a Jack Russell terrier into a knee-deep pool (his knees) of half-starved piranha, a pleasure which has never been mine but one which I have imagined repeatedly owing to my great love for piranha.

My German friend Chris is a honey connoisseur, eager to sample them from all over the world. When I discovered this, I leaped into seeking new sources locally, hoping to fan his interest into an obsession, a task I sense will be fairly easy. This autumn I discovered that there are urban bee keepers in San Francisco who market their honey in specialty shops, labeling it by neighborhood. These include: Golden Gate Park, The Castro, Pacific Heights, Lake Merced, Richmond, Sunset, Twin Peaks, Glen Park, Cole Valley, Cow Hollow, Dolores Park, Lone Mountain, McLaren Park, Mountain Lake Park, and Presidio Heights. Chris took a selection back to Germany last November.

Today, I was pleased to see at the market honey from a vendor I didn’t recognize. Her name is Ann Wilson and she lives in Le Grand, but the honey was made in Madera County orange groves by a bunch of bees she has enslaved. Talk about a sweat shop! No retirement program; they work ’till they drop dead, and then are dragged out of the hive and cast unceremoniously on the heap.

Unlike Freddy, who they “dropped off the fire escape into the alley with military honors.” I hadn’t thought about Don Marquis in years, but as soon as I did, whole stanzas came back to me. It’s all in lower case because archy types by climbing onto the typewriter carriage and jumping down onto a key and thus cannot do capital letters. To give you an idea of the time frame here, the dust jacket on my “new edition” of the lives and times of archy and mehitabel describes archy as “the gay little cockroach.” As opposed, in modern language, to a little gay cockroach, which archy is not, although he is a cockroach and not particularly large.

Yes, I will do anything to set these up.

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Segway in the Prius

It all started when, realizing 1) I wanted to go the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market because of those astonishing clementines that Fairview has had and may not have past this week (these are the ones that I may have mentioned have pushed Page mandarins down to second place and have been eaten to the point of bowel intolerance in certain households) and 2) that I was going to have lunch at Palomino with some ex-colleagues, it struck me that I should just go to the market late and then drive the few blocks down the Embarcadero to Palomino. I don’t have to worry about refrigerating stuff from the Ferry Plaza this time because yesterday I took Sue on her introductory trip to European Foods and went into a buying frenzy which resulted in my now having a refrigerator full of food that I must eat in order of imminent spoilage. So I knew I wasn’t going to be buying much besides the clementines.

Anyhow, one of the ex-colleagues had expressed interest in the Segway, so I’d offered to toss it into the trunk and let her take a demo ride. I had written on several occasions about how the capability of just tossing it into the trunk was one of its most attractive features. I knew there’d be no problem because I’d lifted the first one I’d ever seen out of a Segway rep’s trunk last November, and they weigh only 83 pounds.

Well, yes. They still weigh only 83 pounds, but it’s a very cumbersome 83 pounds and singularly ill-provided with places where one who is losing his grip might grasp, especially when he is not being watched by a woman and is thus not focused on making this test of strength look easy. But with some grunting I got it up to the lip of the trunk only to discover that the Prius trunk is clearly not as large as the trunk of that woman’s car. It wouldn’t just plop right in. But we all know how if you approach these things at the right angle, you can get one wheel in and then adjust the angle and slip the other in. So I tried this from various approaches and with the Segway at various angles and can now state with some confidence that the Segway cannot be placed into the trunk of a Prius. I can also state with equal confidence that the Segway cannot be forced into the trunk of a Prius, and mine has a couple of minor scrapes to prove this…as does the Prius.

It can, however, be wrestled around to the passenger-side front door and allowed to rest there while the vehicle interior is examined and certain dimensions compared with those of the Segway. The fit looked iffy, so I went ahead and wrestled it into the back seat area after I had moved the front passenger seat as far forward as possible. Is the phrase “grunt work” current in American English?

(Late Note:  The second generation Prius, which became available in December of 2004, has, among other great improvements, a hatchback into which a Segway can easily be fitted.)

I got a turnover place adjoining the market on my second pass and made one careful pass through the market, not a wasted step. I picked up twenty bucks worth of the clementines (they range from agate to golf-ball size), a couple of packages of dried tomatoes and a few Marsh grapefruit from the Hamadas, a half-dozen of Lee’s fabulous and expensive eggs, and a bottle of Frog Hollow apple juice.

Back to the car, where I collapsed gratefully into the driver’s seat and glided along the Embarcadero to Folsom, where I got a parking space and read the paper for thirty minutes (all bad news). Then I wrestled the Segway out, untelescoped the handle, and rolled down the bike lane to a cut just past Palomino, where there is, glory of glories, a wheelchair ramp. Palomino has a large outdoor seating area, and I rolled right up to the edge of it, parking the Segway out of the way beside a planter.

Lunch with the colleagues was as enjoyable as ever even though I have minor reservations about recommending Palomino. The interior is gorgeous, the terrace offers a spectacular view out over the bay, most of the staff are very pleasant, the menu is exciting, and the food was well presented. What more could one ask? Well, the others seemed quite happy with their food, Sharon going so far as to describe hers as having “bright bursts,” a metaphor at which my heart leaped.

And yes, my strawberry lemonade was superb and my ability to appreciate the entree was perhaps dulled by eating way, way too much of a gargantuan appetizer of waffle-cut French fries with a gorgonzola sauce. My excuse was that I kept trying to find more gorgonzola in that rich, creamy sauce, and by the time I gave up I was pretty much full. Enough so that my “fettuccine Alfredo con seafood” (sic) perhaps was troughed in front of a sated appetite. Still, it was every bit as unexciting as my recent entree at Catch, the glitzy new seafood place on Market near 16th. (In Meredith Brody’s review of that place recently in SF Weekly, she mentioned that when she had told her father that she was eating at a gay fish place, her father inquired, “Where do you think they find the gay fish?”)

Rachel’s introduction to the Segway was uneventful, once I noticed that her feet were too far back (and the manual had warned me to make sure they put their feet in the right place when I allowed others to test it). Women, I have noticed, tend not to have the control issues that make the first few moments on a Segway difficult for cops of any age or sex and older men.

This evening I’ve been nibbling away at the stuff I got yesterday at European Foods. Just now, the fresh smoked sprats. The counterwoman and I enriched our vocabularies over the sprats, as I had failed to point at them when I asked for a half pound. She didn’t know the English, which explains why the label was only in Russian, but when I pointed at them, she said something that sounded virtually identical to the German Sprotten, which I pounced on…and then carefully pronounced “sprats” for her.


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I’m just loving the Segway, but there have been two problems. Well, three, if you include its not fitting into the Prius’ trunk, which I certainly do, although I’m now thinking that if I took the Handlebar/Control Shaft Assembly off, which requires only a #4 hex wrench and disconnecting some wires……

More recently, after I graduated to the Intermediate and Advanced keys so as to attain higher speeds, I’ve been having a problem going down steep hills. Yes, down. One of the safety features is a governor. When this kicks in, the handlebar forces itself back, which slows me almost to a stop, after which it allows me to continue in another little burst downhill. I can’t increase my speed even by leaning precariously forward against both common sense and the explicit warnings in the manual. Quite annoying, especially when rushing to an appointment.

So last night after Bob got here and he got his brief introductory lesson and rode the thing around the house a bit, we set out for the world-class cioppino at The Anchor. I suggested that I ride it down Noe to Liberty, turn left, and continue a third of the block to the point where Liberty becomes less steep before he got onto it. A glance down Noe at its steepest there in front of the house convinced him immediately of the wisdom of my plan. I think anyone contemplating stepping onto an unfamiliar wheeled vehicle with no brakes at the top of that hill would quite naturally flash on a vision of his freshly-skinned carcass twitching pitifully after it finally came to rest at the bottom.

So we set out, and Bob did splendidly on the gentle middle slope. As I had feared, though, I had to progress by fits and starts (OK, I exaggerate slightly) and could barely keep up with him (more slight exaggeration) on the steep downgrade. I really must try this one more time with the Advanced key and make sure it’s not just me before I call the Segway hotline.

The other problem is that it attracts so much attention. I have yet to see another on the streets of San Francisco. Heads turn, which makes me cringe. Folks chat me up, which I rather enjoy in general, but a disconcertingly high percentage of them ask how much it cost.

Well, this is a sore point. I loathe ostentation. Displays of wealth sicken me. I’m so neurotic about this that I can’t even bear to wear the Rolex I bought for my father when I was in the Army, so I gave it away. Yet, here I am riding around on what looks like (and for many people is) a 5K rich-guy toy. So I spin it as a wheelchair substitute, which in fact it is, albeit a bit early. What it’s mostly doing now is allowing me to do my shopping and errands in Eureka and Noe Valleys without using my car. But still, it gives me the creeps to admit how much it cost.

Bob had the perfect solution. When someone asks what it cost, I’ll simply reply: “It was a gift.”

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I just talked to Segway customer support. That problem with the over-eager governor? In a word, regenerative braking (OK, two words.)

According to company instructions, I keep the thing plugged in at all times because the manual says it’s good for the battery.

But I live at the top of the hill. And if the battery is fully charged and the regenerative braking tries to kick in, the stupid little thing doesn’t have the sense to just spew that generated electricity out into the ether. Ummmm, or better yet, turn it into a force field around me. So since there’s no place for the electricity to go, the Segway solution is to slow down forward movement so that no electricity is generated. Since I must go uphill to return home, the battery is being depleted, so of course I can go as fast as I want. Well, up to 12 MPH, which frankly seems much faster when you’re perched on a little platform eight inches off the ground instead of sitting inside a Hummer.

It is so strange to me that such a high-tech vehicle employs such a crude solution to a problem that would be experienced by every user who lives at the top of a hill. And let’s face it, folks who buy 5K toys tend to live at the tops of things. This is actually a real flaw rather than the minor inconvenience caused by their location of the charge indicator light immediately below the cord input. So all you have to do to make sure that you’ve got it plugged in properly and it’s charging is get down on your hands and knees and bring one of your eyes to a position about 5″ off the floor to get a look at the light. It winks at ya.

Now I’m going out to ride around some to run the battery down a bit and then try to zip down a hill at breakneck speed.

Tell Becky I loved her.

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How many times have you found yourself in a low battery situation, desperately trying to conserve that last little feeble trickle?

On the other hand, have you ever tried to run down a battery? They cling to life like Lillian Hellman’s turtle. (See Pentimento.)

I took the damn thing out and rode all over the top of this hill, seeking the steepest upgrades at maximum speed and deliberately going very slowly on the downgrades so as not to accidentally commit any regeneration. I must have gone a full mile and still the indicator showed a full charge.

But then, figuring that I must have expended enough energy for my testing purposes, I went for it: Down Noe to Bell Market.

As is almost always the case, there was some ambiguity. No, it did not slow me to a virtual stop as before, but the governor did, to some degree, still hold me back more than I liked. And no, I have not become a speed-crazed maniac because I must admit that there were also a few occasions when my own terror reaction kicked in before the governor did.

So I feel somewhat better about this issue even though nagging doubt remains. At Bell, though, I picked up a really fine nagging doubt remedy, one of their excellent fried chicken breasts, a great bargain at $1.59 and one that can be rushed home in a separate bag for consumption while still hot. Separate from what? Well, from the half gallon of Kern’s divine Peach Nectar out of the refrigerator case, a recent discovery that doesn’t have quite as many calories as, say, a chocolate milk shake.

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I am becoming a neighborhood feature on the Segway. In preparation for Chris’ arrival tomorrow, I rushed out to Bi-Rite, that way expensive new grocery down 18th near Guerrero, to purchase some of their spectacular house-made chicken with smoked tomato sausages. What else do you get for a German? As usual, I spotted a few other delicacies that I had to have while I was in there, but I am pleased to report I managed to refrain from purchasing any of their Mexican wedding cookies, their version of which being made with pecans and so good that the entire bag gets eaten before sunset. Afterwards, I went over to Noe Valley to pick up some cheeses.

The round trip took nearly two hours because every time I slowed down, folks wanted to talk about the Segway. And people were swarming in the streets today because it was just gorgeous on this first day in a week without rain. The most interesting person I talked with was a woman who looked my age (and was thus twenty years older) walking with a cane in front of the cheese store. She broke into an ear-to-ear grin when she saw me and remarked excitedly, “I rode my sister’s in the East Bay last week and put one on order!” I just love seeing old folks with ear-to-ear grins.

On the way back home I yelled, “Electricity rules!” to the driver of a Honda Insight that pulled alongside me at a corner, which got big grins from the nearby walkers, but they were decades younger. Maybe it’s because a German visitor is coming, but somehow I’m feeling that I want to get back to the Germanic roots in my speech, and “walkers” sounds a lot more down-to-earth than the effete “pedestrians.”

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For all its wondrous qualities, the Prius has features that become flaws and vice versa.

One fine feature is that when you’re down to a small amount of gasoline, a melodious chime sounds and the last bar on the gasoline gauge begins blinking discreetly. The flaw in this feature is that the warning occurs when you can still go well over a hundred miles, so it does not instill a sense of imminent peril. In fact, you get downright cavalier about it and begin thinking of it as merely a suggestion that you need to go through the hassle and expense of tanking up sometime during the next couple of weeks or so when you happen to be passing by a station and are not rushing someplace.

We know where this is leading, don’t we?

Which introduces another feature: when you run out of gas in a Prius, you are not completely out of luck because while you are out of gas, you are not out of electricity. And so even though after those sickening little coughs the engine dies and the instrument panel lights up in an impressive display of warnings, the car still moves forward quite nicely with the motor alone when you press the accelerator although it doesn’t seem to want to go more than 30 MPH or so.

And since being out of gas in a car is so disquieting that it inspires a compulsion to head for the nearest gas station, I can’t tell you how far you can go on electricity alone. Yet. And won’t push it because Toyota gets just hysterical at the idea of your doing this.

Today I ran out of gas at 21st and Valencia and being somewhat emboldened by having gone a good deal farther the previous time I ran out of gas, I elected not to go to that expensive station on Valencia at 23rd but rather to head straight on down across Mission to South Van Ness and then right four of blocks to a cheapo station on Army Street where I found regular for only $2.13 a gallon. And then relaxed.

As with beauty, an abundance of excitement is out there, waiting to be let into your life.

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Cherry Scoop Revisited

Last year about this time, to be exact it was 29 April, I wrote about planning to go to the Justin Herman Plaza farmers market because Juan at the Hamadas had alerted me that he’d have their first cherries and that he expected to scoop the other growers.

Well, I went, but on my way to the Hamadas’ booth I couldn’t help noticing that another vendor had a half-dozen boxes of cherries on display. I mentioned this to Juan as I was buying his cherries, and he remarked, with chilly disdain, “Yes, but did you taste them?” The ones I got from Juan were quite good, especially considering that they were, after all, the very first local cherries to hit the market that were actually ripe.

The following week their cherries were much better, of course, but, as is the case with any fruit, when you haven’t had fresh local cherries in nearly a year, even the very first ones on the market are a great treat. You enjoy them thinking of them as a herald of joys to come.

Flash forward to this year.

Last Saturday was the last time for the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market to be held on the Embarcadero between Union and Green. This coming Saturday is the grand inauguration of the newly-restored Ferry Building with its six-hundred-foot skylight visible for the first time in decades and many other improvements, including outdoor space provided for a farmers market and some permanent indoor stalls. So last Saturday was a low-key farewell event and it was a wonderful day. Most of the vendors I talked to expressed cautious optimism regarding the new location, and I think everyone wants very strongly to make it work.

Perhaps because there were so many other issues being dealt with, when I was at the Hamadas’ booth Juan didn’t mention that the Hamadas would be having the first cherries of the season at the Justin Herman Plaza market on Tuesday. This is perhaps also because he doesn’t work at the Tuesday market anymore since the tragic death of Mrs. Hamada last winter. She was so wonderful, radiating kindness, and every time I go to their booth I am saddened by the memory of her grace.

My friend Chris from Germany is visiting now, and having someone upon whom to inflict all this food is a great pleasure. I wanted to take him to the Slanted Door for lunch, and the place is so popular that you need to be there when it opens at 11:30. Since it’s only six blocks from the Justin Herman Plaza market, we went down to the market first and discovered that yes, the Hamadas have scooped everybody two years in a row. And it’s just as wonderful this year as it was last, to get the first local cherries of the season.

While we were there, we also picked up some green garlic, snow peas, and shelled English peas from the Mouas. Then we got a basket of strawberries from Yerena, to whom I expressed my fervent hope that some under-ripe Tayberries for jelly might somehow find their way to his stall in the Ferry Building on Saturday.

Finally, we got a comparison basket of strawberries from Ella Bella. Hitting Ella Bella was a special pleasure because of seeing the delightful Sharon (whose name I just nailed down at this meeting). She is very seasonal and very part time, but now I can give her the jar of jelly that I missed giving her last fall. Michelle and Brandon, the two regulars for Ella Bella are two of the most charming and delightful vendors at the market, and that’s saying a lot. They’re also beautiful, especially Michelle… not that I would have turned Brandon down twenty or thirty years ago had he been in my generation. No indeed. And as I already knew in my heart, they also have better strawberries than Yerena. A bit more attention to detail is what does it, I suspect. Unfortunately, they’re aware that they have better berries, and they price them accordingly. I try not to look at the prices.

After the market we went to the Slanted Door and gorged on Spring Rolls, Imperial Rolls, Shaking Beef, and Caramelized Shrimp with a half bottle of a superb Spälese. What is it about those sweet wines with spicy food? A wonderful restaurant, delicious food in a beautiful, angular setting.

Sunday night was Ton Kiang. At night they have Hakka food and a modest selection of dim sum. The Hakka stuff was good, but we both felt that having a full selection of their fine dim sum at lunch is better.

This morning I went to an appointment with Dr. Janice Fong, my optometrist and dim sum advisor, who says that Ton Kiang has been replaced in her estimation by Harbor Village. Since we have two more lunches, one will be there since I just love being one jump ahead of the reviewers. Besides, Dr. Fong says it’s more authentic and has not suffered the portion shrinkage afflicting Ton Kiang.

The remaining lunch will be at Tu Lan, a nasty little Vietnamese dump in the Tenderloin/Sixth Street corridor that was Discovered by Patricia Unterman twenty-odd years ago and is still undoubtedly one of the best food bargains in the city if you don’t mind your elbows sticking to the table while you are eating enormous portions of good Vietnamese comfort food. (This was not what mother had in mind when she cautioned me against putting my elbows on the table.)

Tonight we went to Thep Phanom and ate their legendary Larb Ped appetizer while we studied the menu. Emboldened by the symphony of flavors and textures in the Larb Ped, we tried two new dishes: an excellent duck with honey and spinach dish and squid stuffed with pork swimming in a green curry sauce that was so good that we ate the dab remaining in the bowl with spoons. That place gets better and better.

I have decided that I shall start calling Chris “C.H.F.” At least until I see whether I get away with it the first time. I mean, if it works for Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, it should certainly work for Christian Heinrich Friedrich Geibel. I told Chris that he ought to introduce himself as “Christian” over here for the little frisson it would evoke, but he demurred because he knew that “Christian” would get pronounced as it is in English (Kriss Chun), which grates on his ear. Oh, these fussy foreigners. A friend of Jürgen’s who lived in San Francisco for many years always introduced himself as “Chuck.” After I got to know him he confessed that his name was really Herbert, but he could not bear to hear folks using the English pronunciation (Hurr Burt) in reference to himself.

Did I mention I’m off my meds and feeling great?

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Tu Lan Lunch

Chris and I went to Tu Lan for lunch. They seem to have raised their eyes beyond the stoves since my last visit, as my table was not sticky…although the general ambiance, if I dare use such a refined word in reference to Tu Lan, remains unchanged. Chris had the Pho. I had the penultimate soup which was a “spicy beef with noodle” whose Vietnamese name I forget. We both tasted each other’s, and both had a slight preference for the Pho, but both soups were very good…and enormous. We split an order of Imperial Rolls (2), which meant way too much food, but we both wanted something besides soup. Then too, I have to say that theirs, while not so refined and yes, a bit greasy, tasted nearly as good as the Slanted Door’s…or at least close…OK, at least in the same ballpark.

Speaking of the Slanted Door, a conversation with the waiter there last Tuesday occasioned a forty-eight-hour-delayed Treppenwitz. I had asked him the status of the expansion of the original location on Valencia, and he said that they had only recently broken ground but that he had seen the plans and it was going to be spectacular. He said they’re now thinking about retaining the beautiful Embarcadero location as the upscale end and serving a bit more economical menu on Valencia. What I should have remarked is, “Oh, you mean a clean Tu Lan?”

At the end of the meal I suggested to Chris that we order iced coffee, never having had it at Tu Lan but somehow knowing that the Vietnamese make a drink almost identical to Thai Iced Coffee. I’m so glad I did because it just blew us away. In the first place, when I asked the waiter if they had iced coffee with sweet milk in it, he asked, “Iced coffee?” When I responded, “Yes, iced coffee with sweet milk in it like the Thais do,” he declared firmly, “Iced coffee!” and walked away. Language skills are not a hiring criterion at Tu Lan.

He returned shortly carrying two tall glasses full of shaved ice with spoons standing in them. A couple of minutes later he arrived bearing a pair of assemblies consisting of a short glass with about 3/4″ of a white substance at the bottom. Atop this glass was a stainless steel cylinder about 2″ in diameter and 2″ high merged with a disc about 4″ in diameter beneath it. The cylinder was filled to the brim with a mixture of finely ground coffee and steaming water, and black droplets were falling from the center of the disc into the glass below. After five minutes or so, the water had all drained through, so we removed the brewing contraption, stirred the black and white layers in the glass together, and poured the mixture over the shaved ice. It was divine, the best Thai Iced Coffee I ever drank.

But there is more than food in my life. Chris has mentioned to me that our long dialogues about second person pronouns during his previous visits have made him acutely conscious of current German usage, and he now sometimes finds himself actively thinking about what had previously been an automatic, unconscious selection of the correct pronoun.

How easily we corrupt the young.

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