Journal: 2004

Cool Thing

Yesterday afternoon I needed to run down to the PO to mail a critical letter, so I hopped on the Segway and tore down to 24th Street only to discover that the PO was closed for some holiday, which I should have suspected since the streets were packed with cars and the sidewalks with people.

Stifling my disappointment, I scratched my head for an alternative errand, since I was already down there, and realized that I could go to the Noe Valley Cheese store and ask Charles about a Basque blue recently glowingly reviewed by Janet Fletcher in the Chron. So I spun around and zipped back down 24th Street, which was totally jammed, backed up for a full block both ways because a van had double-parked in the eastbound lane and exactly opposite it in the westbound lane a meter man had stopped his Cushman to issue tickets, perfectly positioning himself so that between him and the van there was not enough room for a car to squeeze through. Our primary hiring criteria for meter persons are thickness of skin and skull.

The Segway, of course, breezed easily through the jam both ways, adding a bit, I sensed, to the annoyance already experienced by the folks sitting there with their engines snarling. Will this give any of them the idea that they don’t have to use a four-wheeled vehicle to shop on 24th Street?

Traffic was not stopped in the block between Noe and Sanchez, but owing to the level of traffic and folks trying to parallel park, the larger vehicles with enclosed passenger compartments were moving slowly enough that I could easily keep up while maintaining a mid-lane position. I find this empowering.

All this excitement so nerved me up that in the moment I had to consider the decision while crossing Sanchez, I elected to perform a Right Flank, March! at full speed into a three-foot slot between parked cars in front of the cheese store. I had been practicing this maneuver on side streets, but I had not yet tried it when a slight misjudgment would dump me in the road to be run over by onrushing traffic, smash me into one of the parked cars, or impale me on the parking meter.

But it worked. Not only did it work, it worked perfectly. Totally smooth. I alit crisply on the curb as my body came upright again and the Segway stopped.

As I did so I heard a voice over my shoulder, “Is that thing cool or what?” And as hard as I could play devil’s advocate, I don’t think it was sarcastic.

Charles of course had the Basque blue and gave me a taste. As an alternative, he unfurled a major gorgonzola, at which I saluted.

And to put this all into perspective, an hour ago I attempted to jump a low curb in front of my barber shop, one that I had successfully jumped in the past, only to somehow hit it just a hair wrong and end up on my ass in the squishy mashed leaves and muck. Yuck.

Two patrons and my barber were watching. Triple yuck.

I am so enjoying this late adolescence. See, when I was a teenager I was too busy being good.


Oh, and here’s my friend Sybil testing the Segway.  Hadn’t yet figured out how to get rid of the date/time stamp:

Sybil on the Segway

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An admonitory note I sent my friend Andrew, which he agreed I could share:


Picture the following situation:

You are on one of your Nature Walks way up in the hills when suddenly, you are jumped by a mountain lion. Her attack is vicious, and although you fight back valiantly, you lose consciousness.

When you awake you discover that you are wounded too severely to move very much and have been loosely covered in brush. The horror of your situation rushes over you: rather than drag dinner to her cubs, she has tucked you away out of sight off the trail and is bringing the cubs to dinner.

Realizing that when dusk falls she will be back with the cubs to devour you, tastiest parts first, you frantically whip your cell phone out and call for help. They ask, “Where are you?”

Alas, you can give them only the vaguest answer, and you whine, “Oh, if only I had listened to Matte and got myself the Garmin Etrex Vista 24MB Global Positioning System with compass, altimeter, and PC cable.”

Much later, as the sun sinks slowly through a haze of pain, you hear a faint padding sound. “This to save a measly $250,” you whimper.

There is a rustling in the brush…..

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The Russians

What an afternoon yesterday was! After watching Justine and Roger win the championships in the Pacific Life Open, I went out shopping on the Segway down to 24th Street. I was trying to run the battery completely down because this extends its life if done periodically, but I cut it pretty fine because I ran out of juice about ten yards short of the summit at 21st Street on the way home. So I let it rest for a minute and then made it over the top and down to my door. Wanting to completely exhaust the battery, I rode back up to the crest and practiced turns in the flat space at the top of the hill, mostly just emergency swerves.

As I whirled around, a couple of pedestrians crested the hill from 24th and stood watching me. Somewhat self-conscious, I explained to them that I was trying to run the battery down, and we got to talking since it was immediately obvious that they were tourists and I do love tourists. As we chatted, I tried to figure out where they were from but couldn’t place the accent and neither made grammar errors that gave anything away. Finally, I broke down and asked. Boston, they replied. Oh please. That accent wasn’t “pahk the cah in Haavahd Yahd.”

After a while, it finally seemed appropriate to ask where they were from before they were from Boston, and by that time they had lost enough reserve to tell me that they were originally from Russia. It came out that they hadn’t come here until 1991 when we were talking about Solzhenitsyn’s works and they spoke of reading them in samizdat. Yow! And the difficulty when your copy was the tenth carbon and you could see only about half the letters and yet you had the social obligation to pass the manuscript on in 24 hours. At least the pressure to figure out the words and get it read kept your mind off visits by the NKVD.

Before that we’d talked about tennis, and their take on Safin is the same as mine: if he gets his head together he will slaughter everyone else. Ha! I got points by knowing that Irakli Labadze was, like Joseph Vissarionovich, from Georgia. Actually, that’s how we made the segue from tennis to literature. For some reason I’d quoted them a line (and I think also a chapter title) from The First Circle “Give us back capital punishment, Joseph Vissarionovich!” Igor also loved it that I remembered the last line from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: “The extra three were for the leap years.” If you don’t remember the novel, you’ll need to know that the penultimate line was something to the effect that there were 3,653 days like this one in Ivan’s ten-year sentence.

My problem with Russian (well, one of my problems with Russian) is that I can read lots of Russian nouns but can pronounce only a certain percentage of them well enough to be understood by, say, a Russian.

At some point in the conversation (well before Solzhenitsyn), I’d invited them for coffee. Like everyone does, they loved the view out back, but what thrilled Nina even more was my collection of Haworthias, which was at its peak then.

Here’s the ones on the dining room coffee table:


She reached into her purse and pulled out this teeny little camera and leaned over until it was a couple or three inches from the leaves and took closeups. I’d never seen a camera that would take such closeups, and it was love at first sight.

Thanks to the combined efforts a couple of weeks later of my friend Jim and the Nikon Rep we blundered onto at Best Buy, I am now the proud owner of a little toy camera that will fit into my pocket, a Nikon Coolpix 3200.

Here’s my first halfway decent pic, the inflorescence on the Pachyveria nelii on the balconette.  The photos before this one are retrofits:

Pachyveria nelii

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Modest Proposal

Nobody asked, but here is my modest proposal to solve the problem of all them nasty queers wanting to get married. I offer it out of a pure spirit of public service since I, myself, am far too old and cranky to even consider marrying anyone of any sex.

The problem is that in this country there is a long list of special privileges (people counting them have come up with numbers over a thousand) that are granted only to couples who are married. But marriage is a religious ceremony, so giving the married special privileges is a violation of the doctrine of the separation of church and state. The church is free to grant privileges to the married, but the state should not. Since the members of various religions all over the globe have traditionally loved nothing more than slaughtering persons who worship incorrectly or at least discriminating against them, the state should not do anything to encourage religion.

Unfortunately, over the past few hundred years, the line between church and state has been blurred so that it is now possible in this country to get married without ever darkening the door of a church/temple/ mosque/whatever. This is absurd when you think about it. Can you go down to City Hall and get a baptism or bar mitzvah?

The logical solution is to get City Hall out of the marriage business and require folks who want to get married to do so in the religion of their choice. If your religion holds as doctrine that left-handers cannot marry each other, and you, born a lefty, fall in love with another lefty, then you’re out of luck. You must either marry somebody acceptable to your religion or get yourself a more generous religion.

What City Hall should do instead of marrying people is give them civil unions. It is these civil unions that ought to convey to their members all the civil rights now given to the married. To ease the transition, persons who are currently married should be considered to also have a civil union.

Unfortunately, all the idiots from Gavin Newsom to the Pope to George W. Bush neglected to consult me on this and are now busily igniting a political war. Just what we need….another war, another way to divide ourselves from each other.

Notes: Gavin Newsom is the mayor of San Francisco, and he recently allowed several thousand same-sex marriages before a bunch of Christians enforcing Christ’s love got a court order to stop it.

The Pope is the head of the Roman Catholic Church, and he sends millions of wretched third-world poor to their deaths of AIDS to keep their souls from being sullied by the use of condoms. In his spare time, The Holy Father pushes legislation against homosexuals.

George W. Bush is President of the United States, and he is working tirelessly to stuff his religious doctrines down all our throats. Do we really want no abortion, no stem cell research, and the teaching in the schools of creationism on an equal par with evolution? Oh, and no birth control for the people, the poor, who need it most.

And yes, i went a little overboard with wires and reflections when i first got the camera:

market street wires


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Road Trip

My friend Dick has recently taken possession of a 2004 Prius, and I am eager to get his impression of how it handles. I’m just delighted with mine, but this is doubtless influenced by having spent a year and a half behind the wheel of a 2002, which was certainly the least stable vehicle I’ve ever owned. This wasn’t a problem in the city, but on the highway I always felt that I was just barely in control, especially on curves at highway speed.

Chris is visiting now, and on Monday I took him up to Calistoga to see Jeff Notias’ Bulldog Cactus Ranch. On the way up I took 101 over the Golden Gate Bridge and then 37 across the Petaluma River flood plain and on over to 29 up to Calistoga. En route, I was able to play tour guide, pointing out terrain features and prattling incessantly about the various wineries as we passed them. The 52.4 MPG I got on the trip up was made possible by the lower speed limits and fairly heavy traffic up Highway 29.

The greenhouse was fascinating, and Chris showed admirable patience while Jeff and I talked the talk and inspected plant after plant. Exercising great restraint, I purchased only five new Haworthias, for example, H. springokulok v. sandpoort EA976, just call me Sandy:

H. springokulok v. sandpoort EA976

And OK, I couldn’t resist, a female Euphorbia obesa, a mate for my male. He’ll be so happy.

Euphorbia obesa

To take a different route on the return, I cut west up the grade out of the valley at St. Helena. This narrow, twisty back road provided my fir st real opportunity to seriously test the handling, as it was one 20 MPH curve after another all the way up and all the way down. I can now report that I just love the handling. It feels like all four paws are gripping the asphalt, and as I grew more accustomed to it, I could take the curves faster and faster.

Actually, the only problem during this phase was an occasional minor squeak, but after listening closely I determined that this was just Chris.

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Sundial Bridge

Last Wednesday I set out on the drive to my summer camp. The idea was that I would drive a couple hundred miles up I-5 to Redding, arriving in time to get some good shots of Calatrava’s Sundial Bridge in the afternoon, stay overnight and take some night shots, and then take some morning shots before I set out for Saratoga Springs via a scenic route due west of Redding to US-101 and then down to the cutoff for camp. A fine plan, but not thought through.

Unfortunately, I didn’t put enough effort into thinking through my packing. So about halfway up I-5 I started thinking of things I’d forgotten, and thought of more and more as I pushed on northwards at 74 and 3/8ths MPH. I mean, surely they wouldn’t give a ticket for less than 75, especially to a vehicle as public-spirited and essentially innocent as the Prius.

So I got to Redding, parked in the bridge lot, rolled the Segway out the back, and spent an hour taking pics from every angle, including from underneath, which provided some entertainment to a bunch of guys drinking beer under an umbrella at a little table about fifteen yards frun a dirt embankment of which I was rolling back and forth along the edge, looking for a route down that would combine the least possible slope with the minimum loose gravel, which was what it seemed to mostly consist of.

Even at that distance, I could tell from their body language they were on my side. They were rooting for me. They wanted me to succeed. And somehow I also knew that they, like me, clearly understood that failure was a very real possibility and that if Fate (or lack of skill) so willed it, they really did want to be watching when the wipeout occurred and the Segway and I slid, perhaps even tumbling dramatically over and over each other, until finally we came to rest at the bottom and they could make their way cautiously down as the dust cleared and either render aid or, I being beyond aid, put me out of my misery and make off with the Segway.

So I picked my spot, eased over the edge…. and started losing traction immediately. So I had no choice but to increase the speed of the descent, limiting the increase as much as possible in hope of attaining the bottom in an upright position. Knuckles were white. My audience permitted itself a mild murmur of what I took to be approval when I finally came to a stop on the flat, dismounted, and took a few deep, thanksgiving breaths.

After taking a few pics of the underside of the bridge on this shore, I was ready to attempt the ascent back up the embankment. This time, of course, I needed to be going as fast as possible when I hit the incline so that I could decrease speed as I started losing traction. By the time I made it to the top, I was barely moving, and on the ascent I was no longer quite so sure that all of the observers were wishing me success since a loss of control near the top had such high entertainment potential.

So then I rode over the bridge and down around the smooth concrete ramp beneath the other end, taking pics all along. The glory of this bridge is that just about anywhere the camera happens to be pointing, you’re going to get a good shot. Actually, after seeing this bridge, the phrase “amazing grace” has new meaning for me. That bridge enraptures me. It just jumps in front of the camera and exposes itself.

Sundial Bridge

After basking in the glow of this awesome engineering and precise beauty for an hour, I had to turn around and blast back down I-5 home so that I could get a good night’s sleep and pack the car with everything I’d forgotten before I set out up 101 to camp Thursday morning.

Oh yeah, camp turned out to be great fun, as always.

Late note:  To see an expanded version of this post that includes a bunch more shots of the bridge, click here.

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Over It

OK, folks, it’s over. Done. Finito. I have finally seen them as the beasts they are.

My love affair with the SUV is over.

It happened quite suddenly day before yesterday afternoon when I was out looking for some California Bay soap. See, back in the spring I had bought a bar from this charming young woman in a stall in the left arcade in front of the Ferry Building.

I kind of felt sorry for her because nobody was even looking at any of her stuff, which was a collection of fancy-schmancy, new-agey, alternative, back-to-the-landy, hand-made things in which my interest level is negative. But my eye alit on a normal-size bar of soap wrapped with a very simple band of paper showing a California bay leaf (Umbellularia californica), and I immediately thought of Rina. Of course, you don’t see too many bars of California Bay soap in Amsterdam. So I bought it.

When I gave it to Rina, she ripped off the shrink-wrap and sniffed it. I did, too, and immediately wanted it for myself. I don’t like perfumy things, but this was quite nice. Hmmm, I thought, it’ll be like I was rolled vigorously in a bay leaf pit until I smelled good, plucked out, brushed off, and sent on my way trailing a faint whiff of the forest.

So when I got back I looked for the nice young woman’s booth at the Ferry Building…on Saturday, and then Tuesday, and then Thursday, and finally, in desperation, on Sunday. I’d have looked other days if there’d been an exterior market on them. Alas, she was gone.

Day before yesterday it was a really nice afternoon and I decided to look for the soap in some of those fancy unguent places in the Castro. I swear, I saw soaps made out of every other aromatic on the planet, but no California Bay.

I had given up looking for it and was about to stop in at Cala for some bread when an SUV driver flung his door open at just the right moment for me to discover that the space I have been allowing so that cars couldn’t “door” me was inadequate for an SUV. But of course. It stands to reason that the doors on an SUV would be proportional, so they’d stick out farther when you fling them open. No point in looking, since you’re invulnerable.

You know how in action movies they slow the motion down so you can see everything? Well, I keep noticing during my little events that the motion seems to be speeded up. I mean, one minute, I’m just gliding along so gracefully, describing a clean arc toward my destination when WHAM I’m meeting the ground. Hello again, ground.

One thing for sure, my rendezvous with the ground have all been different. This time my right wheel was stopped abruptly by the end of the SUV’s door and I kind of pivoted to the left. Something got me in my right ribcage, probably the upper part of the door, but that was incidental. My feet were knocked out from under me by the instantly pretty much stationary Segway and I landed, hard, on my left side.

The driver was out of the SUV and hovering over me before I realized what was happening, and he dragged the Segway over to the curb after I had suggested to him that I needed a moment to collect my wits before I started moving. Actually, I was stalling in hopes that things would stop hurting so much.

But of course you can’t just lie there in the street, so I experimented with gingerly small movements, resting various parts of my body on the pleasantly warm asphalt and then finally was able to stand even though the lower half of my left side did not seem to be working very well. Still, as I kept moving things I decided that nothing was broken and that I hadn’t even lost much skin.

At about this point I noticed the SUV driver inspecting his door, so, keeping my best light tone, I observed that if he were concerned that some damage to the vehicle might show up later, perhaps we should go ahead and call the cops to get a proper report written up to establish the facts and make sure he could contact me. This caused him to feign a loss of interest in his vehicle, darting only a couple of surreptitious glances at it before I left.

After I’d tested the Segway to make sure it would still work so I could get home, I bid him goodbye. On the way home I stopped in at the corner grocery at 19th and Castro to get another carton of milk, the previous one having ruptured in the fall and rendered its precious fluid in a thin stream to the gutter.

Thanks to a handful of 1995 vintage hydrocodone left over from some dental surgery, the night passed pleasantly…as did much of yesterday, which was mostly napping except for a couple of obligatory excursions. Today I’m covered with sore spots and scrapes, but it hurts only when I take a deep breath or laugh. Back into the fray!

Helmet, schmelmet.

Then again, I had an aha moment this morning as I was trying, unsuccessfully, to slither out of bed without flexing my ribcage: My second adolescence is turning out pretty much like my first, but so far without the prudence and common sense.

Oh yes, I finally found the folks who make that wonderful California Bay Soap. They’re at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market on Saturdays, southeast end: Juniper Ridge.

And here’s a Prius silhouette on I-5 somewhere near Arbuckle:


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I’m going off Saturday to help my friend David save Mt. Diablo. Actually, he’s enlisted a few other people in case we can’t do it by ourselves, it being, after all, a pretty good size mountain for the Coast Range.

But like so many things, this is not as simple as it might at first seem.

David brought me in because he felt that a useful mountain-saving tool would be a Segway. All our great leaders are visionaries, so David is not unique. Still, I would never have thought of using a Segway, which of course underscores my failure as a leader.

On the other hand, I follow well, so I eagerly came on board, only afterwards thinking of the consequences.

The Segway was beaten up pretty badly by Air France to and from Amsterdam, and, to be fair, I had also skinned it up while learning to avoid potholes, jump curbs, and keep from being doored….all the hard way. One of the fenders was cracked, both fenders were covered with scars, the kick stand was broken, and the mode change cap and charge port cover had been torn off.

Also, it was filthy, especially places where the Air France Securité stickers had been pretty much permanently plastered.

So I ordered replacement parts, which sat patiently in their wrappings while I tried to figure out the tools I needed. See, I didn’t really know what a T-15 Torx wrench was, and I didn’t know what the difference was between this and the other torque wrench I needed for the wheel nuts except that the T-15 needed to be capable of 1.5 Newton-meters while the other had to pinpoint 50 Newton-meters.

I also figured it might be useful to know what a Newton-meter is, sensing that it’s probably not the size of petard required to hoist Isaac Newton one meter.

I went online to Griot’s Garage, thinking I might figure something out by looking at T-15’s and other torque wrenches. I just got more confused. Clearly, this was going to require my going to some auto supply place and humiliating myself.

So, I put it off. Time passed. I tried to drag my friend Bob into this, and he was helpful. In fact, he bought a 16 mm. deep socket for me and lent me some other tools. His doing this somehow nerved me up, and so I went to the Kragen out in Westlake, knowing nobody would know me way out there and I’d never have to go there again. Besides there’s a 99 Ranch in Westlake, and I’d been wanting to shop one of those since I started reading about them last year.

Hey, it wasn’t all that bad, and I proudly brought home a regulation torque wrench. But then it fell out that my pride was premature. However, since even I am bored by the details of how many trips to how many places it took to get everything I needed, I’ll cut to the workshop area…the dining room floor.

Segway modification

Frankly, I was astonished at how easy the whole thing was, particularly since I had got so wound up over it, and I ended up having a good time blasting Dan Bern’s New American Language while I replaced both fenders and the kickstand, scrubbing the wheels in the kitchen sink while they were off.

This morning I wheeled the Segway out onto the front sidewalk and detailed that sucker with a toothbrush. Are we ready for our screen test or what?

And if it weren’t for David I’d still be running around on a filthy Segway with a cracked fender and a broken kickstand. Thanks, David.

OK, there have been inquiries.  My landlord saw this pic and immediately jumped to the conclusion that I had been, in effect, repairing a motorcycle on his third-hand, already soiled rug brought up from his basement.  Actually, there’s no dirt or grease inside a Segway since the motors for the wheels are factory-sealed units.  Furthermore, as evidence that I wasn’t, in any case, repairing the thing on his rug, a casual glance at the precise arrangement of the tools will reveal that the photo was staged.  Furthermore, I luckily didn’t frame the photo well enough because you can see at the bottom edge the newspapers that i had spread out against the contingency of any road dirt falling from the Segway and then moved before staging the photo.  And finally, that wood saw was not actually used. I just put it out in terrorem, to soften the Segway up.

And why not? Here’s what we’re trying to save.  This is a view from the area where we picnicked:

Save Mt. Diabolo

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Herb Mix

I just got a package in the mail from an address in Amsterdam’s red light/drug district, and on the customs declaration the description of the contents was “Herbs Mix.”

“Oh, goodie,” I said to the postman as I was signing all the forms, “I’m so excited. When did you take over the route from my regular postman? He doesn’t make me show ID.”

“Aw, I’m just a special substitute,” he replied, as he stepped back out onto the sidewalk.

We both waved at the tourists across the street who were videotaping the neighborhood. See, the way they were dressed was a dead giveaway these guys were tourists.

And then I raced back in here and tore the package open to reveal three small jars of different herb mixes, one of which Rina had mixed with olive oil and served with my pickled Spanish mussels the first time we cooked together. Now I have the herbs…and if not the proportions, at least the names of what’s in each jar.

Well, the names of what’s on the labels.

OK, just kidding. It was my regular postwoman.

And I didn’t see anybody videotaping.

And the jars smell like you’d expect from the labels.

Speaking of herbs, here’s a branch of the California Laurel at Saratoga Springs:

Umbellularia californica

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I just got home from the hospital. I’ve been thoroughly stented, four of ’em actually, one at the bottom of my aorta, one at the top of the left iliac, and two at the top of the right iliac. The best part is that i got to watch the entire procedure on the monitor above me as they snaked the instruments in through a femoral, positioned the stents, and squirted dye into the aorta.  Such a joy to see it not go anywhere after they installed the first stent in the right iliac and then whoosh right through after they installed the second.

I’m taking it real easy now because they got my attention when they released me by pointing out that if I popped my traumatized femoral open, my life expectancy could be measured in the low single digits…of minutes. However, I can already tell that yes, there’s a major difference in functionality, or to phrase it plainly, I sure can walk a lot better. I can already see that what will slow me down on hills is going to be lack of lung power rather than lack of oxygen to my legs.

And the lung power will improve after I’ve spent a few months in the galleys.

Now for the credits: Dr. Ross for setting this into motion by being unable to find a pulse in my feet and diagnose my walking difficulty as due to a lack of blood flow. Dr. Eichler at UCSF Medical School for gaining my confidence and convincing me I should do an angiogram. Dr. Schneider and his crew at Moffett Hospital for performing the angioplasty, and some really nice folks on the recovery floor whose names I was too gaga to write down.

More credits: On Tuesday morning when I was changing into the gown for the procedure, I remembered to rub the belly of the little green good luck frog Merrill and Sybil had given me Monday night.

Later in the afternoon:

I just got back from taking 24 jars of assorted jams, jellies, and chutneys to the hospital, 12 for the Interventional Radiology crew and 12 for the staff on the 14th floor, where I languished for a day after the procedure.

Still later:

Now that I’m up from my nap, it’s all clear. Merrill’s little green frog must have restored my ability to walk for a reason, so he now sits atop my monitor to guide me. For the first time in my life, I have an icon I can follow wholeheartedly.

He has not spoken to me yet, but I stand ready to do his will. I don’t know what my first mission will be, but there’s a lot out there that needs correcting.

Meanwhile, I am purifying myself spiritually, building strength and endurance. I bask in the blinding light of the Certain Frog.

At bedtime:

Some folks inquired after my first missive whether I had been enjoying some post-operative pain medication. Oh, yes, pain is now a stranger. Others inquired whether congratulatory chocolates were in order. The Frog has indicated that after I have served as his terrible swift sword, chocolate will be in great abundance.

It is good to be The Frog’s scourge, but tonight I must rest, for I feel as if a tiny all-terrain vehicle has been driven around inside me.

Meanwhile, an interior shot of the Ferry Building after the restoration but before it got swarmed with tourists:

Ferry Building interior

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