Journal: 2007


This noon I got to listen to Stephen Pinker deliver one of the most enjoyable lectures I’ve heard in years thanks to blessed Sybil for 1) letting me know about this up-coming event at the Mechanics’ Institute Library, 2) making sure I’d got my reservation in correctly, and 3) calling me up this morning to make sure I knew what time it was and warning me to get there early because it was gonna be jam packed.

So much fun. Pinker was just hanging out up front doing nothing before the lecture, so I went up and told him I might be the only person on the planet whose favorite of all his books was Words and Rules. He laughed (incidentally showing that he is far handsomer than the book jacket photos reveal) and said it was actually his favorite, too, which may have just been PR but it sure worked.

The lecture was fascinating, and even though I of course recall little of it now, I was able to follow all of it at the time. Better yet, when he was talking about the mental functionality of swearing, he brought up the case of U2’s Bono saying on live national television that something was “fucking brilliant” and right-wing congressmen being so outraged over the court ruling that the network couldn’t be prosecuted that the House passed HR 3687, the Clean Airwaves Act that actually listed words like “fuck” that were to be forbidden, not to mention saying that derivatives of these words including adjectives, gerunds, etc. but alas omitting adverbs, which “fucking” as used by Bono was.

All this gave me a flashback to Gore Vidal’s introduction to Myra Breckenridge, in which he lamented a then-recent Supreme Court decision declaring that certain words were, in and of themselves, obscene. The obvious solution to this problem, Vidal declared, was to substitute the names of the Justices for the nine most common obscene words whenever they had appeared in his book, thus avoiding any possible obscenity.

He concluded his introduction with the observation that he hoped that this would once and for all solve the problem since there had been by then entirely too much Burgering around with the language. (For those who are not history buffs, Burger was then the chief justice.)

It occurred to me that Pinker might be just young enough and such a serious scholar that he might not have read Myra Breckenridge. And luckily, as I was getting him to sign my copy of his latest book, The Stuff of Thought, which I had just purchased from a great stack oddly enough available on a convenient table, I had a chance to mention the Vidal coup.

He didn’t know it.

How utterly wonderful. After years of feasting on the works of this brilliant scholar, I was able to toss a crumb back.

Oh, and I just recalled one other point in the lecture. Pinker mentioned that when Norman Mailer wrote The Naked and the Dead in 1948, he had to substitute “fug” for “fuck” to get it published. The novel was an immediate commercial and literary success, and when Dorothy Parker met Mailer, she remarked, “So you’re the man who doesn’t know how to spell “fuck.”

Here’s an interesting paint job on Duboce:

blue on Duboce

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Another One

Another one the cowards wouldn’t print: 


According to news reports last week, nothing was done to the huge majority of the audience that howled in derision when Iranian President Ahmadinejad declared that there were no gays in Iran, but in the same week audience members were forcibly removed when they verbally protested over Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Pace’s reiteration of his previous statements that gay behavior….anywhere, not just in the military…should not be condoned. 

What this tells me is that it’s OK in this country to speak out against bigotry when it’s Islamic but not when it’s Christian. 

Your faithful subscriber, 

Matte Gray

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An Act of Cruelty

OK, I admit it. While I am usually a reasonably nice person nowadays, every now and then I am possessed by the devil for just long enough to do something cruel.

Like today, on this gorgeous day with the whole city scrubbed squeaky clean by yesterday’s rain and the air crystalline and the streets filled with folks enjoying the Noe Valley Farmers’ Market and the Noe Valley Harvest Festival on 24th Street and the Boccalone salumi pickup day enlivening Church at 27th Street.

So I’m cruising around on the Segway taking pics, and on 26th Street there’s this Victorian.


What you don’t see is that on the ground floor the garage door is open and this young bodybuilder is strutting around in there doing this workout with these huge stacks of weights which he is tossing around seemingly effortlessly with his enormous, bulging muscles.

And a little voice in my head started whispering, “Louis, don’t do it! It would be cruel, unspeakably cruel.” But I couldn’t stop myself.

I confess: I rolled back and forth in the street in front of his garage door with my camera pointed high, taking pics of that luscious architectural detail on the upper parts of his house. Nothing below the second floor, of course. And then pocketed the camera and pointed at the upper floors and shouted as I sped away, “Nice paint job”!

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Somehow, something has clicked, and after several years of carrying around a belly I have, without actually following any diet in particular, in the past couple of months inexplicably lost fifteen pounds. Well, not totally inexplicably because I have trouble remembering to drink as much alcohol as my doctor prescribes, so I’ve been making a compensatory effort to please her by reducing my consumption of foods she doesn’t want me to eat, a list which by now has grown to include salt, fat, sugar, and starch. Which rules out about 90% of everything edible and 98% of everything good, so it’s not too surprising that I’ve lost 10% of my weight.

I have to say, it’s a wonderful feeling. This morning I’m Segwaying down to the Civic Center Farmers’ Market (officially called the “Heart of the City Farmers’ Market”) to pick up some raspberries and okra and Jalapeños and fresh peanuts and fresh cranberry beans and anything else healthy that catches my eye.

It’s a beautiful day, and as I glide down Market Street, I notice that with my long sleeve shirt open and flapping in the wind, my tee shirt is now pressed against my much flatter stomach, and I’m not looking as bad as I had been.

This feels so good that as I ride, I burst into song:

“I feel pretty, oh so pretty. I feel pretty and witty and gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay….”

Naw, just kidding.

It was “C’est moi, c’est moi….”

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Midland Again

It’s November and I drove back to Midland again because at 97 years old Mel is still 100% clear that I’m coming to see him every fall…and because it makes me feel good to do so.

This year I drove there if not the shortest route, pretty much so, stopping for a couple of days in Palm Springs to visit friends going and returning. And, oh don’t get me started on this slough of wastefulness. Well, do get me started, as I’ve plenty to say.

They seem utterly oblivious to the fragility of their existence. So what if the daytime temperatures are normally well over a hundred most of the year. They have air conditioning. Oh, yes they do. That hum in the air here is the air conditioning units. A quick glance into the shed housing the one for my friend’s condo explains why his electricity bill is hundreds of dollars a month: the engine and motor in my car are smaller.

And then there’s their attitude toward water. Being from west Texas, a land where, because it would not normally grow, the grass lawn was considered both mandatory and precious, I formed the habit as a child of not walking on the grass unnecessarily. I knew how fragile a lawn actually is in a desert, and that it needed constant watering and care to survive.

The houses and office buildings in Palm Springs are almost invariably bordered by gorgeous lawns with excellent flower beds, shrubbery and trees. But mostly it’s the broad, immaculate lawns.

I’m out in the early morning crystal desert air taking photos and find myself in a moral quandary. To take the pic I want, I’m going to have to take a few careful steps out onto one of these perfect lawns. I consider briefly taking my shoes off and then realize, for God’s sake, it’s not like I’m gonna be running around out there with cleats on.

And besides, I’m doing this for Art.

So gently, I step off the sidewalk, and immediately am struck with a wave of horror, something unspeakably awful. Remember, this is a desert we’re in.  The water that makes these lawns possible comes from an aquifer that otherwise intelligent residents have told me contains an infinite supply of water because it is recharged by rains falling on the mountains surrounding the natural bowl in which the city sits.  The concept that those aquifers took many millennia to charge is unthinkable to them.

That’s ridiculous, but it’s not horrifying. The horror came when I stepped on the lawn, and it squished.

Now that, folks, is obscene. Here’s a typical morning scene in Palm Springs, the lush lawn of the luxury condo complex soaked and the excess water running across the sidewalk to the gutter, where it evaporates as it flows down the street:

Palm Springs sidewalk

As I drove east toward Texas I saw many things just achingly beautiful, and I envy the 19th-century emigrants their opportunities to see the landscape at their leisure from their Conestoga wagons on dirt trails rather than at 75 MPH in my Prius on interstate highways where it’s illegal to stop on the shoulder except for emergencies.  Then again, in two days sitting in a well-cushioned seat I reached the continental divide without experiencing thirst, typhoid, or Indian arrows, so maybe it’s a wash.

Taking this more southern route to Midland gave me an opportunity to drive across western Texas from El Paso on “blue highways” rather than the interstate. And you can’t get too much bluer than the part of this route where, having had a spectacular view of Guadalupe Peak, you approach the New Mexico border after 130 miles on US 62. Turn right onto TX 652 to Orla, hook south for a few miles on US 285 before turning onto TX 302 to Kermit where, at the 230-mile mark you encounter the first gas station since you left the outskirts of El Paso. That’s 370 km. for the folks in Enschede.

Poor Orla has fallen on hard times. You think I exaggerate? There are four standing buildings in Orla, and this is not the most derelict:


Midland? Well, Midland is now apparently in full bloom again, and what is particularly encouraging is seeing so much infill in both commercial and residential areas. Not that there’s still any shortage of vacant lots, but at least there are fewer of them. Somehow, though, I doubt that this is the result of some kind of enlightenment of the population since the clear majority of vehicles here seem to be gigantic pickups and “full-size” SUVs, a phrase rather like describing AIDS as a full-size epidemic.

Midland was still the old Midland in culinary matters also. I was pleased to discover that, the locals still not being big sissies about their arteries, there were two drive-ins on Big Springs Street that had excellent fried chicken livers. Those’ll stick to your ribs.

I also got the joy of being the weird outsider, probably a Communist and perhaps even French, when I said I didn’t need a plastic shopping bag to carry my Midland College tee shirt from the campus bookstore to the car. Figured I shouldn’t tell ’em it was a Prius since I didn’t see another one of them Jap rice grinders in the whole town.

The other memorable moment was realizing that this big tree out in the middle of the plaza in front of the student union was actually a mesquite bush that had been given all the water it could drink for thirty years. Good grief. I’d never seen one much taller than me!


Note the gardener with the leaf blower over on the left side to get an idea of the size of this thing:

The visit with Mel was wonderful, mainly because he makes me feel useful by letting me do things around the house that his son, had he not died young, would be doing for him.   That way, the visit was good for both of us.

On the way back, I took the interstate, ten miles farther but with legal speed limits up to 80 MPH (130 kmph). Just as well, since the general deterioration of the towns, especially the smaller ones, was saddening.

I pulled off the interstate to take the old highway through Van Horn so I could get a hamburger at the Dairy Queen®. Oh, I know where my good hamburgers are in Texas, and if there’s not a Whataburger® around, a Dairy Queen is usually approaching the same standard.

The Dairy Queen is still there, but alas, the rest of the town is fading fast, like this former drive-in, whatever it was:

Van Horn

I was a few miles east of Benson, AZ as the sun was going down, and as I crested a ridge where there was a rest area I saw the photo op of the year. Knowing that the opportunity would last only a couple of minutes, I roared into the rest area, skidded to a stop, leaped out of the car and started snapping shots. Alas, my haste brought its usual reward, and all the shots were blurred except this one:


The next day, I drove on to Palm Springs via the Salton Sea, which was pretty much what you’d expect from a natural disaster allowed to fester for a century. Still, I got a pic I kinda like:


Palm Springs definitely has its own mystique. A lot of wealth and determination to hang onto every last bit of it. The new UPS deliveryman calls ahead:


Best part of the trip was, as always, getting home. And going to the farmers’ market the next day and discovering that feijoa season had begun. They make great chutney:


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Now that the diet is over, a little snack: 

Retrieve from the refrigerator the pot of last night’s Barbarian Pork. 

Reach in with the left hand and tear from the rich, congealed grease a tennis-ball-size chunk of pork, taking care that it brings with it some of the cooked-down jalapeño and herbs. 

Grasp salt shaker in right hand and carefully sprinkle a reasonable number of crystals onto the pork. Put down salt. 

Bite off mouthfuls and chew slowly, fastidiously blotting the grease from the corners of the mouth with a wad of paper towel in the right hand. 

Repeat as necessary, wipe the left hand with the paper towel, and return the pot to the refrigerator. 

Chase with slugs of Diet Dr Pepper directly from the bottle. No no, not that vulgar two-liter thing but rather the dainty 24 oz. size.

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An Encounter with Olsen

There was a memorable moment at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market this morning when I saw that Olsen was back. He grows clementines and oranges and is at the market for about a month this time every year. Superb clementines, if pricey. 

So I rush up to the booth and exclaim over how good it is to see him and his clementines again, and by the way, he’s looking great this year. He gives me this perplexed look and then I hear this guffaw from the shadows at the back of the booth. 

It was Olsen. I had been addressing his son, whom I’d never seen and who failed to participate in the hilarity shared by his father and me.

Well, hell, I said he was looking good!

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Another Snack

Some days I do well and eat reasonably, which means smaller quantities of uninteresting foods with all the good stuff metered out in niggardly portions like slices of butter so thin they’re translucent, salt apportioned by the grain, 1 damn % milk, no sugar on nothing, potatoes only on special occasions and then not enough of ’em, etc.

And then I’ll snap.

Like the other day I’m in Safeway and passing thru the strait between the chocolate puddings and the Eagle Brand, and my cart was tossed in the currents and brushed the cliffs to starboard, leaving it still aisleworthy but causing a six-serving size box of Jello Original Cook and Serve Chocolate Pudding® (not that Instant swill) to become entangled in the rigging.

And once it’s in the cart you have to take it home with you.

And of course it sat radioactively in the pantry for only one day before I cooked it, adding an ounce of grated Scharffen Berger 99% chocolate, a tablespoon of sugar, and two tablespoons of butter (to compensate for that 1% milk).

And poured the six portions into bowls, cooled them to room temperature on the dining room floor (to save energy), chilled them in the refrigerator, ate them by spaced small spoonfuls over the next six hours, and retired somewhat dyspeptic.

Well, see, our rainy season has started, so I need to store up some energy to get through it.

And I look down and notice, yes I have.

On the other hand, these stairs are looking good with the winter sun in coming in sideways:

green stairs

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I went up to Santa Rosa on the 24th so Gloria and I could cook Christmas dinner for four other gregarious folks – a rather Californish group, now that I think about it: two straight women, two straight men, and two gay men…none of us in relationships at the moment.

We ranged in age from me all the way down to a 20-year-old who’d moved here from Japan to be with his father only six years earlier, just a hair too old to learn unaccented English, but he makes up for the slight accent by being totally glib and articulate. He’s already a star salesman for Verizon part time while working full time on a BA. I asked him the secret of his success, and he said he just figures out what people want and then lets them buy it from him.

Gloria and I had a fine time cooking together and hanging out, the dinner could not have been better since all the food turned out delicious, the fellowship was fabulous, and the conversation was stimulating because all the guests were interesting and of different backgrounds.

Oh, and the dinner included as appetizers: perfectly poached shrimp and crudites brought by Cynthia, Tortini Luigi and a Boccalone Sopressata brought by me.

A cold sorrel soup that I brought.

Pork tenderloins Gloria marinated overnight in a mixture of wine and my mango chutney and then briefly seared and roasted to safe but still pink doneness. Gloria and I made mashed potatoes with an obscene amount of butter, and Jae cooked a stir-fry of baby bok choi and mushrooms.

And dinner rolls that Gloria and I made, freely adapting an old recipe of hers to use the modern instant dry yeast. They were pretty good, but not as good as those of either of our mothers.

For dessert Gloria and I had made the night before a lemon tarte and The Pie.

The day after Christmas we dropped in on Sebastiano, this curandero…sort of a secular faith healer. Not sure my neck is any better, but I got this pic of a shed outside his house:

Sebastiano's shed

And finally, to close out the year, a winter window treatment:

yellow windows

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