Journal: 2009

Journal 2009

To start the year, i found this Diamond Street siding just irresistible:


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Here’s a tasty tidbit from the 23 June 2008 The New Yorker, which had got buried for six months but was paid for and thus had to be read.

In a splendid article on the cave art in Southern France, Judith Thurman writes: “From a corner table in the dining room [in a hotel in Foix], I could watch the swollen Ariège river flowing toward a distant wall of snow-covered peaks – the Pyrenees – that were black against a livid sunset.”

Ms. Thurman does not say so, but i am speculating that there is a local folk belief that two drops from this miraculous river on the forehead of a true believer can cure the plague. But only a true believer. And the holy water must be taken from the river just at the point at which, high in the mountains and pitifully shrunken, it flows into a small crack in the rocks.

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I realized decades ago in graduate school that OK, i’m not really a scholar, but still there’s a little streak of it in me, and every now and then i run across something that makes my heart pitter before my head patters. Like somehow blundering last night onto this Wikipedia graphic of Faroese isoglosses:

Ahhhh, don’t those southerners talk funny!

A key sentence of the accompanying text reads: “… Faroese … has a very atypical pronunciation of its vowels, with odd offglides and other features.”

Thirty years ago I was discussing the character of a mutual acquaintance with Allen’s friend Laura when she interrupted me, giggling, “I just love hearing you say that.” Didn’t understand what she was talking about until she carefully pronounced for me “a-yes ho-ule” [IPA approximately æjəs hoʊəl] in the Texas accent that i had had in those days mostly lost except in stressed moments.

Yes, those “odd offglides”.

And speaking of offglides, I glided off the other day down to the Noe Valley Bakery with the fully premeditated intent of buying one of their divine pecan pies. They had me cold: I’d saved the packaging from the previous one and had it with me so that my virtue in not wasting all that paper and cardboard would outweigh the vice of eating most of the pie myself. Luckily, the pie is seasonal, and the season is over, so I had to settle for this lo-cal shot of the BofA ATM across the street in the winter morning sun:


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I spotted this afternoon an only-in-San Francisco moment, or maybe it was a simply a sign of our times:

A young street person, less scruffy than usual, holding up some text crudely lettered on a piece of cardboard. No, not the usual plea for spare change for a hot meal, but rather a straightforward business proposition. Alas, i was on the Segway and had forgotten my camera, but in any case, there was a line in front of him and i was in a rush. The sign?


I’m definitely gonna check out his corner tomorrow, as i can’t decide which i’m more likely to see: 1) same guy, same sign, but the price raised to whatever the market will bear or 2) in the true capitalist spirit, a row of competitors offering the same service at a discount.

I did think of a couple of profit-enhancing lines for him, though:

” That one was worth two dollars, Ma’am.”


“The dollar was for me alone, Sir. There is a two-dollar additional charge for invoking my mother.”

The pic of the day? Well, how ’bout this glimpse of the ovipositor of the elusive giant Castro arboreal wasp:


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A pic from this morning down the street, a modern representation of an ancient savage spring ritual, a bunny impaled the wrong way on a carrot and then hanged. Silly, of course, but they thought it brought them eternal life, so they joyfully slaughtered each other over how best to hang the bunny. Isn’t it wonderful that our modern world is free of all that ignorance and superstition!

Easter bunny

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Palm Springs

One of the greatest horrors of aging is watching your friends sicken, maybe worse than watching yourself sicken.

My friend Bob had been in remission after surgery for colon cancer last winter and had moved to Palm Springs for his retirement. Alas, his doctors have found a recurrence, but he’s still feeling good, so i’ve come down to Palm Springs to pay him a visit while we can have some Quality Time.

As usual, getting here provided some Moments. Like blasting down I-5 and passing this huge truck and noticing in the mirror that the radiator was painted like a gigantic, gaping mouth with great fangs. Gave him a thumbs up out my window and he tooted me back. Highway humor, there’s not enough of it.

Well, i do provide plenty of my own entertainment, like by somehow forgetting to check Mapquest before the trip and realizing as i neared the obligatory stop at the Kettleman City In-N-Out Burger that i couldn’t remember the damn highway i had to take east once i got into the Los Angeles area. Luckily, when i got the paper map out, the route was obvious: I-5 to 210 to 57 to I-10 to 111.

It was also rather longer than i’d remembered, a full 500 miles (800 km) although it’s almost all at freeway speeds and goes faster, especially since when you’re on feature-limited I-5 the boredom factor is so high that almost everybody is going well over the speed limit, so you can cruise along between 75 and 80 (120-130 km/hr) with plenty of decoys out there to attract the attention of the highway patrol, of whom there are lots.

In other ways, though, road trips don’t go as fast as they used to. Sure, my Prius can go well over 500 miles on a full tank of gas, but my bladder, alas, is good for only a couple hundred miles anymore.

The southern part of the San Joaquin Valley is pretty much desert now, with intermittent patches of bright green irrigated farmland. Painful to remind ourselves that much of this desert was once the largest lake west of the Rockies (Tulare Lake) plus a gigantic marsh teeming with wildlife. That was before we changed the ecology by harvesting the wildlife and repurposing the water, delivering it south to irrigate the desert.

In the superbly written, gorgeously photographed Farewell, Promised Land by Robert Dawson and Gray Brechin, Brechin paraphrases an account of the death throes of the lake in the 1880’s as described in 1954 by an ancient settler named Bill Barnes, who had been a youth when the lake was murdered. The rivers feeding the lake were diverted and “starved of inflow, the lake shrank. Millions of fish died on the mud, making a terrible stench, Barnes recalled, but the otters feasted for weeks. Then they too starved, and never returned. Raccoons moved in for their turn on the carcasses of the dead otters until nothing was left, and Barnes later watched thousands of them stagger about, emaciated, on the dry lake bed. The birds went elsewhere to starve. Then, there was silence. ‘The country was never the same afterwards,’ he observed laconically.”

One of these trips here, i’m going to make an early start so i can waste some time on one of the scenic routes that cut through the Tehachapis even though there is plenty of beauty crossing them on I-5 and in at least parts of the route east through greater LA. I love the approach to Palm Springs through Banning Pass, the stark mountains on either side, their lower slopes and the valley floor adorned with thousands of wind turbines turning oh, so gracefully as they generate electricity to aircondition the desert. Well, some of it, at least.

In any case, there’s a good deal of beauty here, especially in some of the newer condo developments. Here’s a shot of Bob’s place from the pool in his complex. A crisp contrast between the barren background mountains and the juicy landscaping down below.


There was one major breakthrough on the trip down. I mentioned it’s 500 miles. For the first time in memory, at least on this continent, I drove 500 miles without a single chocolate milkshake, normally my sustenance of choice when on the road.

Well, i made up for it at brunch yesterday. Bob took me to the Manhattan Deli, where i fressed upon the hot pastrami and chopped chicken liver combo sandwich, generous portions of each with potato salad on the side.

But then Bob keeps the house so damn hot that i took my shirt off while i was wrestling with assembly of this multi-adjustable office chair he’d bought. Unfortunately i caught a disgusting glimpse of myself in a reflective surface and thus began the diet last night. I stir fried us a supper of a couple of ancho chiles, a few stalks of fresh green garlic, and some baby artichokes that i’d smuggled down from San Francisco. Skinned and boned and broke up a couple of baked chicken breasts outta his refrigerator, and threw those in. Tasty. And no damn extra calories, either.

Still fat this morning, though, so the diet may have to be continued.

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Palm Springs, Continued

An aspect of Palm Springs i like very much is the street fair they have on Thursday afternoon and evening. They close to vehicular traffic something like eight blocks of Palm Canyon Drive, the main shopping street, and fill it with a double row of stalls selling everything from kitchy crafts to fresh vegetables to fast foods to various services. All the shops and bars and cafés and restaurants are also open, so it’s quite festive. The closest thing to this i’ve experienced is the Albert Cuyp Markt in Amsterdam, although i don’t recall a climbing wall for little kids to clamber on in Amsterdam.

In any case, though, the vibes at this market are superb. The majority of the people attending are pretty clearly tourists, but tourists are by and large having a good time, so they bring their own fun with them and share it with the natives. Not that the natives are incapable of a bit of humor:


Palm Springs also fascinates me in a different way because it’s the only retirement community i know. So what’s a retirement community like? Well, basically the population seems to consist of retirees plus their waiters, bartenders, car washers, housecleaners, gardeners, property managers, retail clerks, pool cleaners, air conditioner repairmen, and security guards.

Especially security guards. The level of paranoia is breathtaking. Think i’m exaggerating? Here’s a little photographic essay i took this morning in the space of half an hour:

















edison warning














I’m speculating that part of the reason for the paranoia is that the typical retirees here are folks who made a good deal of money and got a lot of nice things, which they enjoy admiring and displaying. And now that they’re retired and their income is reduced, replacing My Precioussss would be between difficult and impossible.

So they’re prisoners of their possessions, afraid to leave their houses for fear that somebody might break in and get some of their stuff. Thus, the layers and layers of security.

Not that the paranoia is groundless. I was astonished when a reader sent me a link to a crime rate site indicating that Palm Springs enjoys a burglary rate more than double the national average. Looks like i’m not the only person who’s surmised that those houses are chock full of choice items.

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Rina already had her plane tickets for a visit here when i fell sick, and she arrived six days after i got out of the hospital. I’d warned her that i didn’t have the strength to do much running around, but she’s so generous that she volunteered to nurse me back to health. I didn’t really need anybody to nurse me, but i did take advantage of Rina’s offer to help in one way.

When i got out of the hospital i had a really ugly deep hole the size of a fifty-cent piece in the outside of my right arm a couple of inches or so below the elbow, which was left from where an infection that i picked up in the hospital had erupted. The nurses had given me instructions on how to treat the wound and change the bandages every day, and they sent a visiting nurse around every afternoon to do this for me. All i really needed, though, was an extra pair of hands to help put this elastic net-like device over the fresh gauze pad to hold it in place, and so when Rina arrived she agreed that we could reduce my use of medical services by letting her do this.

Rina is the least squeamish woman i know, the only woman, in fact, who was as entertained as i was by my getting to watch on live television the progress of the catheters while they implanted the stents in my aorta and femorals four years ago. So after she agreed to help me change my bandage, i started to show her how the elastic net thingy worked and accidentally ripped the bandage off, exposing the suppurating wound.

We nearly bumped heads trying to see down into it simultaneously.

The rest of her visit was low-key, as i didn’t have the strength to do much. We did get to Renzo Piano’s masterpiece of sustainable design, our new California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, to our legendary Exploratorium that i hadn’t visited in over thirty years and that was still as wonderful as ever, and to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Going to the Monterey Bay Aquarium was a mistake, as by the time we had walked from the parking garage to the Aquarium i was already exhausted. Rina came through by commandeering a wheelchair and pushing me around in it. Humiliating, but i could never have done it otherwise.

On the other hand, perhaps the high point of her whole visit was Flora Grubb, not your typical plant store. Rather, it’s a gorgeous botanical garden with, it you look closely, small price tags on just about everything. No no, it’s the tags, not the prices, that are small. Check it out:

Flora Grubb

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Body Language

I have written on several occasions about how the ability to read the body language of others is a skill that improves with age. And i’ve been less than modest in describing my own ability at this. Yesterday i had an enlightening experience.

I had gone out shopping, as usual on the Segway, and had stopped first at Costco and then at Rainbow, completely filling my pack and two shopping bags suspended from the handlebars, so i was heavily laden. But on the way home i realized that i needed coffee and could treat myself to a bag of the good stuff at Four Barrel on Valencia.

As i approached the curb i briefly considered jumping it since it wasn’t particularly high and was clearly doable, but before i’d even slowed down much i realized in a spasm of prudence that i was a little too heavily burdened to try it, especially with heavy bags swinging from the handlebars and destabilizing me. So i stopped in front of the curb. And as i was levering the Segway onto the sidewalk, a young employee having a cigarette in front of the store queried, “Didn’t wanta jump it?”

He’d read me like a book, so i immediately confessed and we got a good laugh over it.

Oh, yes. To celebrate my 68th birthday i Segwayed out this noon to Raja for some curried spinach and naan, and what did i discover but a Morcky opus right here in San Francisco that had been there on Fillmore off Haight since sometime last fall. I wrote about Morcky Boy, as he then styled himself, in my 2004 Amsterdam tale Amsterdam by Foot, which was before anybody else had covered him on the Internet. By the following year, he was all over it and even had his own site. Now he’s intercontinental…and getting better.


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About 1980 a couple of guys named Ditmar and Wolfgang came to San Francisco from Munich, introduced themselves as Didi and Waggi, and established The German Oak on Market Street between Noe and Sanchez. It became a very popular restaurant owing to their hard work, the good food, the reasonable prices, the gemutlichkeit, and the excellent wait staff – the two stars of which were Richard, whose last day at the Oak ended, alas, when a couple of large men in shiny black shoes dropped by with the terrible news that according to their records he had died twenty-five years earlier at the age of two in Los Angeles, and Susie.

Susie was about thirty, the daughter of German immigrants, born here and completely bilingual. She was also very pretty, completely charming, and totally on top of any situation that might come up.

Like that time one evening when the Health Inspector paid an unannounced visit. As soon as one of the somewhat over-indulged patrons at the bar realized who the visitor was, he bristled and stood, about to “protect” the establishment. Susie picked up on this instantly, and before anyone else could move, she swooped in and deftly distracted our would-be savior, thus preventing a scene.

I saw her do this sort of thing routinely. Her radar covered the whole restaurant, and she was never at a loss.

But then, toward the end of the restaurant’s run, she announced that she was going to be married, not to anyone we knew but rather to this mystery boyfriend named Philip no one had seen and she hadn’t even mentioned having. A couple of weeks later, she announced that they were having a simple civil ceremony at City Hall followed by a party at her house, where we could all meet Philip.

So on the happy evening Allen and I wrapped our presents and walked over to Susie’s house.

She and Philip opened the door.

” Philip!” I shrieked.

” Aarrgh!” squealed Philip.

“Well,” observed Allen to Susie, “I see your husband knows my husband.”

Susie, on the other hand, was speechless.

And OK, it wasn’t as bad as it looked because Philip and i had met a year or so earlier and done some pawing around, but negotiations over who was getting what broke down before any real sex occurred.

Finally, since we’re in an Amsterdammy mood after that Morcky shot, how ’bout this San Francisco version of a gevelsteen i spotted on 11th Street between Market and Mission. A little harder to read than most, but at least it’s in English:

American gevelsteen

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