Journal: 2003

Flowers

The day began badly.

I discovered that the order to fix my DSL had fallen through the cracks eleven days ago and that getting back up will take at least another week. I was just barely polite, being just furious…mainly at myself for being so stupid as to sit here for eleven damn days without bugging somebody.

But then, the forecast was for a gorgeous day and by ten or so the fog had retreated out of sight to the west, so I decided that instead of sitting here seething I’d hop on the Segway. I find that the wind blowing through my hair cools and relaxes my brain.

And then I realized that well, hey, this would be an excellent day to head out to Golden Gate Park and take a look at the newly-restored San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers, a spectacular pile of Victorian gingerbread that just re-opened a couple of weeks ago after being basically taken apart and reconstructed piece by reinforced piece after having been near-mortally wounded in the Great Storm of 1995.

I promised dear ones that if I didn’t crest the hill and plunge into a bank of fog so thick that, owing to the wind-chill factor, I was transformed instantly into a rolling Popsicle, I’d write a report upon my return

This is it.

The park was positively basking in the sun, and the conservatory is better than ever. Well, actually, it’s practically the same except that at the extremes of the wings there are new refinements. The lily pad pond at the end of the right wing is now a hydrologist’s delight and the pads are handsome and up to about four feet across with big purple blossoms arising from the water between them. Amazing. And hey, they don’t have those signs up anymore asking you for God’s sake please don’t chunk stuff onto them to see whether they’ll collapse.

Out on the left wing there is a kid-friendly learning area with rotating exhibits. The current exhibit is on butterflies, and I must say it’s just delightful to be in a large room with hundreds of butterflies flitting all around you. You are cautioned not to grab them off blossoms or out of the air, and if one of them should choose to bless you by alighting upon you, you are enjoined to just enjoy the moment because the butterfly will soon find you less delicious than you looked and depart.

Great fun, although afterwards I had a dark thought: they must have penned those butterflies up and half starved them. They sure were greedy for those blossoms.

Despite the fun, there were two downsides. First, except for the highland rain forest area, every room was oppressively hot and steamy. This is bearable because we know it’s a necessity. The other negative is the incredibly tacky multicolored lights that someone chose to more or less randomly cast onto foliage and blossoms. It’s like putting a neon frame around the Mona Lisa. Where’s our taste gone?

Then I realized the colors were awfully pure and in very limited amounts and that oh hell, they’re from natural prisms in the panes of glass! Aren’t I happy I suffered in silence on that one?

And speaking of plants, we Californians sure do know how to make the most of self-inflicted adversity, even before he’s inaugurated. Yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle included an ad from a big discount builders’ supply nursery for, and I quote this letter for letter, “hausplonts.”

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Complaints

OK, time for some complaints.

October is finally here, so it’s summertime in San Francisco and it’s too hot.

I’m sitting here in my underwear with every window in the house open because it’s too damn hot to even think about going to bed. I’ve got all the lights off except for the computer screen so as not to generate any unnecessary heat. I suppose this is the payback for the day being so gorgeous that I spent a good chunk of it just cruising around the adjacent neighborhoods on the Segway going from shop to shop invigorating the local economy. I did some serious invigorating in the bookstore, perhaps because I’ve been a bit down recently and done little but read and am thus depleting my pile of unread books.

Luckily I have learned not to leave the house on the Segway without wearing my backpack since without it I have no way to carry home impulse purchases. The good news is that the pack imposes a limit. When it’s full, I must go home.

I just finished Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa. Stupid me, I thought it was going to be a book about a volcano. You know, bright lights, explosions, gouts of lava, pyroclastic flows….that sort of thing. It was, of course, but it covered the volcano so thoroughly that it really should be right there beside McPhee’s Annals of the Former World in the Plate Tectonics Department. That is, unless you’re thinking about all the social implications he discusses and put it in the Social Studies Department.

As an aside here, Winchester finally tipped the scales on Max Havelaar. His was one too many mentions of this book the past couple of years, so I went ahead and put it on order while I was in the bookstore. No, the English translation.

I had received in yesterday’s mail a long article Chris had clipped from that bastion of fluffy, light-hearted reading, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagzeitung, and I searched the envelope in vain for a translation. Unfortunately, since I do understand at a glance many of the words in the first few sentences, I know it’s about a European version of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market or perhaps Copia.

So I’m going to have to spend a day or two looking up the remaining words and untangling the Allgemeine’s famously difficult syntax and will thus not be interested in taking on a Dutch novel in Dutch, even a short one that arguably altered the course of Dutch history. Now that I think about it, it was perhaps the Dutch Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

But enough on that. The real reason I’m writing this note is to pass on a line from Molly Ivins’ Bushwhacked, her best-selling exposé of Dubya’s dirtier deeds which she leavens with wit occasionally lest you slit your wrists in despair. For example, she quotes William Brann: “The trouble with our Texas Baptists is that we do not hold them under water long enough.”

Yes, William Cowper Brann, editor of the late-nineteenth-century Texas magazine,The Iconoclast. Brann realized the secret ambition of all journalists: he wrote columns so incisive, so scathing, so savagely satirical, that one afternoon on the streets of Waco a freshly-enraged reader paid him the ultimate compliment by shooting him…in the back.

Brann fell, mortally wounded, but as he fell he managed, like a true Texan, to get the last word by turning, drawing his pistol, and killing his assailant.

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Food Column

You may possibly see soon the first of the Satsuma mandarins in your markets. They are good enough until right at the end of their season, which is a long one. They are superb at the beginning of their season. Hint: select the ones that feel fullest and heaviest for their size. On Saturday as I was leaving the Hamada’s stall, Gordon had the kindness to point out to me that I had missed the display of them.

And Bernard’s had the very first of their old sour white Marsh grapefruit. One of world’s great citrus fruits and now, in this country, in dwindling availability since every year fewer of the old trees remain and there are not enough of us connoisseurs to encourage farmers to replant this variety. One of the things wrong with the younger generation is that their taste buds have been dulled by all that junk food and they are incapable of tasting anything subtle. Not, of course, that most folks would describe the taste of a Marsh grapefruit as subtle, now that I think of it. What I really meant was “not sweet.”

And Lucero is still peddling glorious strawberries. He is also teasing the season out with his heirloom tomatoes, but few are left and you need to hit him early to get the good ones. What I can’t believe is that it took me so long to figure out that his strawberries were just simply better than everyone else’s, and you don’t have to hit him early to get the good strawberries. He also still has good raspberries. I’ve got some in there macerating in crystalline fructose while I write this. Well, strawberries this good deserve better treatment than being overwhelmed with table sugar….or even berry sugar since we now know about crystalline fructose. Oh, yes you do. Surely I’ve mentioned this before and besides, I cannot imagine Whole Foods not having it. It’ll be right beside the dark agave nectar (not that tasteless light swill), just two aisles over from the aged piave and the hoch ybrig.

When the strawberries have sweated enough to completely dissolve the fructose (and yes, I do give them a little stir now and then), I plop a tablespoon or two of clotted cream on them to remove any healthiness factor remaining after the addition of all that fructose. Yes, my first jar of clotted cream. I’d been reading about it for years, and Chris grew fond of it as a Schmand substitute when he lived in England. I found it, priced by the molecule, at this new little gourmet store called “Yum” on Market at Valencia.

I fear the poor thing is not going to survive because their selection is simply too refined and too high end. For example, they have the original recipe Dr Pepper there. Still bottled in a special plant in Plano, Texas. Still using cane sugar instead of that high-fructose corn syrup. Still in 8 oz. glass bottles. Still available in returnable glass bottles at the plant but alas not over the internet. When you’ve found the right drummer, you keep marching to him. He’s drumming away at Dublin Dr Pepper.

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Working Girl

On Saturday at the Ferry Plaza I stopped at Marin Sun to pick up some of their free-range eggs and discovered that during the week there had been a performance review followed by executions of the underperformers, whose bodies were dressed, sealed in clear plastic, and displayed for sale to bring in a few extra dollars as well as to “encourage the others.”

“Dressed,” in the sense of plucked and drawn, is way up there on my list of favorite euphemisms. Actually, “drawn” is up there itself.

We have read all our lives that for maximum flavor, you want an old hen, but you don’t see too many opportunities to buy them, so I snapped one up.

I chopped her up and threw her into a pot with some aromatic vegetables, and simmered away until she was tender, which took a full three hours! These are tough working girls, and the flavor is amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything quite so chickeny as this stock. Clearly, nothing would do but to fish the chicken out, shred it, return it to the pot, and float some dumplings on top.

I let Aunt Sara get senile before I had the wit to try to extract from her the recipe for her glorious, cloud-fluffy dumplings. Aunt Sara was by far the best cook on either side of the family, but by the time I got around to asking her, she responded, “Oh, now I just cut flour tortillas in strips and use them. You can’t tell the difference.”

Well, I can tell the difference. I knew it was insane, but I tried it. Actually, they weren’t bad, but they were definitely not Aunt Sara’s famed dumplings. Tonight I used a recipe that I’ve had for years and had never got up the nerve to try.

Unfortunately, they were so wonderfully light and fluffy that they disintegrated, but they served very well to thicken the stock with the torn-up chicken and remaining tattered vegetable bits into a thick, delicious stew. But not, alas, chicken and dumplings. I’ve found a couple of promising recipes in old East Texas church cookbooks, and if I can get one of them to work, I’ll put it in the Recipes section.

And when I say “get it to work” I mean get it to work several times in a row successfully. I recently tried a biscuit recipe out of Lewis & Peacock’s The Curse of Southern Cooking and was just entirely smug with my great success. Then I made them again for friends, and they were a near-total failure. Some of these damn things are, I swear, dependent on the phase of the moon. Ummm….I don’t want to go in the kitchen and check, but it may be “Gift” rather than “Curse.”

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Kobe’s Cat

I just live for my little ah-ha experiences, but for sure this one is the first that involved a cat…my friend Kobe’s cat. He’s a nice cat, as cats go, and we all know how I do kind of like cats…especially friendly cats, and since Kobe’s cat is Home Alone during Kobe’s work week, there is some pent-up need for affection, or at least attention or whatever it is that cats are after when they signal they have noticed your presence by rubbing up against your leg.

So of course I reach down to pet him, which he facilitates by flopping down on his back to better present his eminently pettable belly.

Some months ago in the course of giving this cat his belly-rub, it came to my attention that he was fat. I called this medical problem to the attention of the house dietitian, wondering aloud whether he was in the process of killing the cat with kindness.

On subsequent visits, I observed that the cat did not seem to have lost girth and was, if anything, getting fatter. So I renewed my acid observations regarding its morbid obesity. The phrase “cat murderer” may have passed my lips…and fallen on deaf ears, as the cat grew fatter and fatter.

On a recent visit I noticed that, in addition to the premium canned cat food stacked in huge piles and clearly fed to the cat morning and evening, there was a bowl of dry cat food sitting there against the possibility that a single hunger pang might strike the cat at any moment during its waking hours. I was aghast. No wonder the cat is so fat!

But then as I was railing about his encouraging the cat to eat itself to death it struck me that from the cat’s standpoint this might be a damn fine way to go. Yes, there is more and more evidence that animals fed a nutritious diet but kept on the brink of starvation live longer, but it occurs to me that the animals might prefer a shorter life with plenty to eat.

And then I thought about my own situation. Ummmm yes. Back when there were certain advantages in sporting a six-pack, there was good reason to watch my diet.

But now that I don’t care how I look, I am getting…well, not as fat as Kobe’s cat, but I’ve made a start.

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Electric Adventure

What a wonderful electric adventure I had today.

From home at 21st & Noe I took the Segway down to the Viking at 17th & Sanchez for a haircut.

From there I rode down to the BART station at 16th and Mission, where the absence of a “down” escalator immediately came to my attention. So I trundled the Segway down the stairs into this deep pit, remembering only about half way down that there were elevators for the disabled. (I had brought my handicap placard along just in case somebody wanted to hassle me by pointing out that the law specifically permitted only bicycles and wheelchairs, but the attendants were quite nice about explaining how I had to push the Segway through the handicap gate and then walk back around and use my ticket to get through the turnstile.) After a six minute wait, I boarded the Dublin/Pleasanton train as it pulled into the station exactly on time.

I had used BART routinely in the late ‘seventies to get to work at Chabot College over in Hayward when I lived at 23rd and South Van Ness, so I was familiar with the first part of the route. And let’s face it, since BART runs underground from 16th and Mission and then under the bay until it briefly surfaces in West Oakland and then dives back underground for three more stops, there’s not really all that much to see for the first part of the journey. Although the stations themselves are all interesting architecturally, the insides of tunnels are quite similar.

However, once my train reached a point just south of the Bayfair station in San Leandro, it veered off onto the new Dublin line that I’d never taken. The first part is relatively uninteresting, but once you’re out in the country, the views are splendid. The BART tracks parallel I-580, but when you’re driving you simply can’t enjoy the panoramic views the way you can when your attention is not taken up with keeping the vehicle in one lane. We’re into winter enough that the hills have greened up and the scattered trees are glossy, the wimpy winter sun lighting them up from the side. Just beautiful.

My friend David and a couple of his colleagues met me at the BART station and we tossed the Segway into the back of his van and went off to Little Home for a splendid Thai lunch. Then back to the PeopleSoft parking lot for a Segway introduction for the two friends and David, all thoroughly photographed and videotaped so as to drive their kids mad with envy.

And then, home again home again. The whole adventure was not 100% electric because of the few blocks in David’s van from the station to the restaurant and back, but I could have just as easily taken the Segway for that part, too.

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Prius

I took delivery of my 2004 Prius on Friday night. Oh, it is so wonderful in many ways. Now that we’ve made friends and I’ve scratched it in its special little places, I don’t need a key anymore. When I approach, it allows me (and nobody else) to open its door. Then I simply sit in the driver’s seat, push the Power button, use the little gear bar to tell it whether I wish to move forwards or backwards, and press the accelerator to glide smoothly away from the curb.

Yesterday, I drove it down to Moss Beach to place a package of get-well goodies and a plea for information on Robin’s doorstep. Robin underwent a hysterectomy last week after failing to tell her husband to email me recovery updates…and me without their phone number. And so in the middle of the night last night I started imagining Something Going Wrong and by dawn, my imagination working overtime, I was, well, practically hysterical.

Then again, this may have been just an excuse to take the new Prius on the road, and take to the road it did. Oh, the handling, the handling. Vastly improved. Just clings to the road.

Moss Beach is right below Devil’s Slide, that legendary section of US Highway 1 that keeps crumbling into the ocean hundreds of feet below. My nerves are no longer what they once were, and I touched the brakes once or twice along there, wasting momentum that could have been turned into electricity. But see, headed southbound you get a good look at the Slide itself as you approach it and you can tell it’s well named: an unbroken stretch of scree about five hundred feet long and trembling at the angle of repose from the edge of the highway down to the water. Anything that gets on that is tumbled and abraded all the way until whatever is left spatters into the Pacific.

Robin called me not long after I got back home and let me know that everything went splendidly and she is recovering apace. When she gets a bit better, I’ll go down to visit her, which will give me another chance to see whether I can make it down that hill without chickening out and using the brakes. At worst, the battery will be fully charged…at least until we hit the surf.

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Unsilent Night

I went out Monday afternoon and bought a cheap boom box so I could participate fully in “Unsilent Night.” My friend Bob came over from Marin, and we went out together, him trotting along beside the Segway, without which there is no way in hell I could possibly have done this.

I had combed the article in The San Francisco Chronicle for clues as to the route, but it turned out that the route differed quite a lot from that described in the newspaper, I suspect at least partly because the described route would have involved climbing major hills.

We were given our cassettes at 18th and Dolores and pressed our Play buttons more or less simultaneously at the countdown. We were led up Dolores to 19th Street, down 19th Street across Guerrero to Dearborn and then over to 16th Street. Dearborn is a tiny little alley with Victorians and newer buildings rising two and three stories directly from the sidewalk…more or less sheer walls on either side, the ideal place for a lot of reverberation.

And reverberate we did. Imagine a thousand people carrying boom boxes playing the same tape in a narrow alley. It was just glorious, and improved by the sight of windows being flung open as the inhabitants became aware that they were being engulfed by what in the sixties would have been called a “happening.”

The communal spirit was uplifting. San Francisco is, at least by eastern standards, a very open and friendly city, but we carried this friendliness to a yet higher level. Bob brought his video camera along and I am looking forward to his sending me some clips, which I will share.

In contrast to the happy scenes he reported filming (we kept separating and rejoining) was a motorist whose car was trapped by other vehicles when we were crossing Dolores and who was nearly apoplectic with rage at having his progress impeded for ten minutes by a thousand people radiating splendid music and great joy. His realization that Bob was filming him ratcheted his rage higher, and I sure do hope this part of the video is available online. (Thanks in advance, Bob.) The Grinch is alive and well, if a bit purple of face, in San Francisco.

The return was via 16th back across Dolores and then up another alley to Church, and then left back to the northwest corner of Dolores Park. From there the crowd went across the park to the center just in time for the final chords to sound.

Getting across the park, however, involved a flight of stairs at 19th Street, and after I had dismounted and was starting to drag the Segway up the stairs, a young local couple behind me and their visiting friend from Addis Ababa grabbed the bottom of the Segway and, over my protestations, practically threw me up the stairs. At the top we introduced ourselves, and I gave them a quick demo while we let the other folks travel without us the last thirty yards to the end point.

A wonderful evening. You might want to participate in this should it come to your city.

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Best Friend

As is probably obvious, I write this stuff as incidents happen and send it as email to a friend or two. If I get interested in them, I make little edits as I send them to more people. After a sufficient amount of banging on them has taken place, some of them get to the point that I think they’re entertaining enough to post, a decision often reached rashly, as is also obvious.

What I’m trying to do right now is describe what it feels like when your dearest friend, at whose wedding you were Best Man 35 years ago and with whom you had had a rich and vibrant correspondence and meetings as often as possible, stopped answering your letters after you came out to him and his wife the last time you saw them. And now he has discovered your web site and breaks 33 years of stony silence with a short but chatty email saying how happy he is to have found you, says he loves reading your stuff, gives you two email addresses and a telephone number at which he might be reached, and salutes you as “your old friend.”

Yeah. The laughter, the tears, the running around the house screaming. Still, the bottom line is that I’m old, sick, half-crippled, and depressed, but yet, yet I have not lost my curiosity.

I really must know whether, if I yield to my desire to respond, he will ever hint that it might have been even slightly better had he broken his silence a year, a decade, a generation earlier.

Note: I celebrated the new year by writing back. I discovered that my coming out to them occurred by purest happenstance just at that point in time that he simply got too busy to write or call me.

Oh.

I thought about this a lot.

And finally it struck me that I, too, had walked away from relationships…and, unlike my friend, for no good reason. Remember, in those days folks who were discovered to be gay were routinely shunned by their churches, expelled by their schools, fired from their jobs, disinherited by their families, and/or just killed. I got off easy.  All I lost was my best friend.

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Culinary Cowardice

I must share with you a recent outrage I experienced right here in San Francisco.

You will perhaps recall my rhapsodies over the brain masala at Shalimar on Polk. Well, all this news coverage over mad cow disease got me to thinking about that masala and so yesterday I made a special trip, in the rain, yet, to have some.

Well, the sissies have stricken it from the menu! Until now I had not appreciated the etymology of the “cow” in cowardice.

I explained patiently (at least at first) that when one is old and sick he gets to eat anything he wants, particularly when his brain is already somewhat spongy, but they were unmoved.

Thank God I still have five veal brains individually wrapped in my freezer. I can’t decide whether to cook them all at once in a great banquet for my friends or to stingily eat them one at a time by myself.

Finally, an observation from my outpost on the Slippery Slope: The transition from humming a happy little tune while one works to just uttering continual grunts is subtle, so I’m not sure when I made it.

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