May 2015

War Stories


“It’s so dry, San Franciscans are wearing succulents in their hair.” – Elizabeth O.

There i was, pinned down by the Nazi machine-gun nest that had killed the rest of the members of my squad.  I’d thrown my last grenade, fired my last round, and broken my bayonet on the last Kraut i’d killed.  I’d drunk all my water and eaten all my rations, but luckily i’d saved the P-38 that came with them.

So all i had to do sneak up on the nest and, one by one, quietly use the P-38 to slit the throats of the sleeping Huns.

Oh wait, wrong war, wrong generation.

Actually, i was safe in Germany while friends were dying in Vietnam, so i didn’t get shot at but have, instead of glorious tales of heroism, some memories of amusing moments.

Like when i was going into the Army and they asked what religion i wanted on my dog tags.  When i said “none”, the response was “Officers have a religion, so put one down.”  So i wrote “Metodist”, and that’s what my dog tags say.  Yes, a religion with one adherent.

The army was good for me.  Partway through the training, after you’d had time to bond with your buddies in your platoon but while you still had half the course remaining, they put you through this thing called the “Confidence Course”, which with delicious military irony was designed to play on your fears.  To flush out the claustrophobes, it had narrow, dark tunnels you had to crawl through, which i found no problem at all.

On the other hand, i had always been terribly afraid of heights, so especially for me they had a sadistic device consisting of 35′ telephone poles with 2×6’s nailed non-too-securely to them at 4′ intervals.  You had to climb up one side, over the top, and down the other while the whole edifice shook precariously from the dozen or so of you on it at once, and what made this really terrible for me was the spacing of the 2×6’s – far enough apart that much of the time you had only one of them to hold onto.

The diabolical ingenuity of the Confidence Course was that however much young men might fear enclosed spaces or heights, their fear of public cowardice is much greater.  So what i immediately learned was that i was quite capable of clambering over heights so long as somebody was watching, and this has served me in good stead ever since.

Another confidence builder was the discovery that i was a better than average shot.  After we qualified on the M1 Garand (which sure does date me:-), they passed out the little silver medals at the evening formation.  I was sitting on my bunk admiring the thing when my reverie was interrupted by gales of laughter from a nearby soldier.

See, i was so pleased with myself that i was humming.  What’s wrong with that? you ask.

It was “C’est moi” from the recent Camelot album.

Let him know i’d shoot him if he told on me.

Meanwhile, a well camouflaged sign on Mission Street.

Mission Street sign

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A Grievance

Lest i be called an old white racist because of my criticism of President Obama’s push for fast tracking the TPP, i must protest that i’m only the first two.

 

Grievances are the American favorite sport, beloved of the whole society, and certainly i air a lot of ’em on this website.  But still, i’d never filed an Official Grievance until a few days ago.

It all started back in the spring of 2013, when i found myself not dealing very well with folks hassling me about riding the Segway in public areas.  In fact, i was downright belligerent and jumped down the throat of anyone who questioned my being on the Segway.

Oh, it is perfectly legal for disabled persons who can still stand to ride a Segway instead of a wheelchair in San Francisco, but i sure wasn’t being nice to ignorant people who did not know the law and who gave me any shit about the Segway.

So i got help.  Yep, checked with my insurance and picked at random a counselor named Kevin Rowland who turned out to be very helpful in suggesting ways to cope.  Like carrying in my pack a memo from the Chief of the San Francisco Police Department explaining that Segways were OK for the disabled, my California State disability permit, and my DD214 (so i could play the disabled veteran card).  That way, the time it takes to dig out and present this stuff defuses my rage enough that i can suffer fools gladly.  Or at least without showing anger.

Actually, the counselor was so good that i ended up seeing him off and on for several months to iron out some residual issues from being a little fag in the West Texas oilfields, and he helped with that, too.  Saw him for the last time in the spring of 2014 and felt very good about the experience.

And then that summer i got an utterly bizarre bill from Clinical Training and Research Institute, the company for whom my counselor worked.  I called the number on the bill and left a message.  No response.

I mailed them a note on the bill explaining its ludicrousness and pointing out that i had my receipts for the copays i’d made for each visit.  No response for a couple of months, and then i got a pretty much identical bill.

I kept calling the number on the bill until a lady finally answered, and i explained to her point by point what was wrong with the bill.  She responded that she’d forward my information to the creator of the bill.

A couple of months later i got an almost identical bill, so this time before sending it back, i wrote notes all over it pointing out in detail how ridiculous it was.

A couple of months later yet another nearly identical bill arrived, which i just ignored because i was busy settling into my new place.  And then a week or so ago i got the same bill again and realized that i was dealing with either madmen or knaves, with neither of whom there being much point in reasoning.

So i called up my insurance company and filed an official grievance, including a copy of the latest bill, which is obviously the product of a spreadsheet gone mad, as it starts by claiming that i walked into the place with a credit balance of $.03.  Here’s a marginally legible reproduction of the bill.

CTRI bill

The first line on the bill is for my initial meeting on 07/01/13, which lists the Patient Responsibility (my copay) as $25 and my amount paid as zero.   Here’s my receipt showing that i paid the $25.

07/01/13 receipt

The next couple of lines are perfectly fine, showing that i received 45 minutes of psychotherapy (transaction code 90834) for which the patient responsibility was $25 and that i’d made a payment of $25.

The next line, for the same transaction code, lists the patient responsibility as $24.94, a six-cent discount, go figure, and shows that i went ahead and paid the full $25.

The next two lines, again for the same transaction code, say that the patient responsibility had jumped to $75 and that on both occasions i paid only $25, the correct amount.

The rest of the lines are all correct, showing patient responsibility as $25 and my payment of $25.

Well, except for one line about halfway down where suddenly the patient responsibility has dropped to $15 even though i paid $25.

It is utter insanity to present a bill showing four different patient responsibility amounts for the same diagnosis and transaction code.

But hey, the doctor who owns this enterprise, T.K. Svensson, is either himself insane or, more likely, an evil genius who’s figured out that if he keeps hassling his company’s former patients for spurious bills, they’ll break down and pay him.

Not this former patient.

And although Svensson has at least one good counselor working for him, don’t go to Clinical Training and Research Institute for your mental health needs unless you like being hounded for months for ridiculous bills.

Oh, and i found Svensson on Yelp, and it came as no surprise to see that the great majority of Yelp reviews described highly negative experiences, most of them involving spurious charges.  So i Yelped him, too and then tried to file a Better Business Bureau complaint, but Svensson is smart enough not to be a member.

He’s a disgrace to the medical profession and should be brought to justice.

Update:  On 11 June i received a letter from my insurance company confirming that i had my receipts and they could see that Svensson was billing me incorrect amounts.  The best parts of the letter, though, are so good that i’ll quote them:

“MHN’s Provider Relations (PR) Department has made several attempts to contact provider, T.K. Svensson Clinical Training, billing department, and to date they have not returned any of MHN’s telephone calls.

MHN’s PR Department has sent a follow up letter to the provider with a request to contact them by June 10, 2015, to avoid impact with participation in-network.”

Yes!!!!  What a wonderful feeling it is to see that it is not just my calls that that swine refuses to return…and that there may be some “impact with participation in-network.”  Ummm, yes, like from an onrushing truck.

“Justice!  Justice!  Justice!” howled the people.

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New England Eight Row Flint

Canada is “like a really nice apartment over a meth lab”. – Robin Williams

 

My friend Sybil, bless her, just gave me an autographed copy of Dan Barber’s The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, which i started reading immediately.

And then stopped at the end of the first paragraph of the introduction and leaped to the computer to track down information about eight row flint corn.  And then sprang back to the book’s index to find and read all fourteen pages on which this corn is discussed.  And then back to the computer to do some more searching.

Well, see, Barber tells us, “There is evidence…that Eight Row Flint corn dates back to the 1600’s, when, for a time, it was considered a technical marvel.”  Ummmm, considered a technical marvel by whom? The Indians? The Puritans?

Look, my only “training” in biology was a class when i was a sophomore in high school, and corn is complicated.  And when you start Googling around on eight row corn you quickly discover that 90% of the hits are on articles in Spanish, which adds some difficulty.  That said, i easily uncovered evidence in English that the Pueblos in the American Southwest were cultivating eight row corn a millennium before 1600 and that eight row corn existed in Mexico at least as early as 1000 BCE.

So Barber’s date of 1600 seems to me to more appropriately coincide with the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620 and their discovery that the Indians were cultivating this corn at that date.  I’ll leave it to others to determine just how early the Indians in New England were growing eight row corn, but it is clear that the Indians spread corn northwards from Mexico by developing varieties with shorter maturation periods and greater tolerance for cooler weather….and that they had done so long before 1600.

This variety was wiped out in New England in 1816, “the year without a summer”, but Barber tells us that the seeds for the New England Eight Row Flint corn he ate were repatriated a couple of years ago from Italy, where it, locally called “Otto File”, has been under continual cultivation since its introduction in the 18th century.

What set me off on this little research project is that i have eaten eight row corn.  Yes, right here in California, and not the New England variety but rather one that Poli Yerena brought up from Jalisco, where it is prized for its delicious flavor and called Máiz de Ocho.  Yerena planted it here and sold some at his stall at the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market.  It makes a superb posole.

But then, what do they know about posole in New England?

Meanwhile, here’s an interesting building going up on Valencia Street.  Don’t know what it’s gonna be, but good bones.

P1000051

 

 

 

 

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Sushi Zone

Has anyone else noticed that his junk mail is now routinely arriving in envelopes prominently stamped “DO NOT BEND”? Yep, just another trick to make you think it’s something worth opening, there being nothing inside that wouldn’t benefit by being bent.

Sushi Zone is just off Market on Pearl Street, just south of Octavia Boulevard.  I’ve mentioned loving it before, but it’s worth a post all to itself.

Where to start?

Well, i come out of a culture that viewed eating raw fish as something you did when you were adrift in the Pacific and starving, so immediately before you started cannibalizing your fellows, you went ahead and choked down enough raw fish to sustain life.

And then somewhere along there in my young adulthood i learned that those inscrutable Japanese actually liked the taste of raw fish.  Oh please.

But that was the beginning of the slippery slope, so in 1973, the first summer i spent in San Francisco, i was touristing around at Fisherman’s Wharf and blundered onto Ichigo, a little Japanese restaurant at the foot of Columbus Street.  The first time, i had the tempura since who can resist fried shrimp?  But then on repeat visits i noticed folks gobbling up plates of something my favorite waitress identified as “sashimi”.  Hmmmm.  Oh, it’s that stuff.

By that time i’d already eaten ceviche and enjoyed it, so just hold the lime juice and you have sashimi, in this case maguro.  I knew i’d be able to force it down to get bragging rights over having eaten raw fish, but i’d never dreamed it would be delicious, so much better than cooked tuna.

And then in short order i discovered sushi and became a great fan.  Loved it all.  Well, with the exception of uni.  Look, i don’t mind slimy.  Hell, i’m a big fan of slimy if it tastes good, and even though i’ve liked every other fish egg i’ve eaten, with tobiko at the top, and keep trying uni in hopes i’ll come around, i still don’t like it.

Yes, they serve uni at Sushi Zone, but everything else is delicious.  So let’s talk about some favorites.  In general, the 25 or so varieties of pristine nigiri and sashimi are all great, and i won’t single any of them out although i have to mention that the rice in the nigiri is just perfect. Here’s a nigiri platter with a California roll.

Nigiri platter with a California roll

And here’s a sashimi platter with hamachi (yellowtail) and sake (salmon).

sashimi of sake and hamachi

What keeps me going back, though, is the rolls.  Oh my goodness, what rolls!  They have about 25 of them, including classics like the plain tuna, but where they soar is with the more innovative ones like the Spicy Hamachi, which consists of the seaweed wrapper around rice, hamachi, avocado, a few shreds of Jalapeño, lime, sprouts, scallions, and “spicy mayo” – a symphony of flavors so sublime that it’s all i can do not to just have that one over and over.

P1000023

The Spicy Tuna, just like the Spicy Hamachi but without the lime and Jalapeño, is my second favorite.

Spicy Tuna roll

I didn’t get around for some time to trying the Spicy Scallop, like the above except with scallops, but it’s right up there with the tuna and hamachi.

Spicy scallop roll

Tuna Masa and Hama Masa are my next favorites, both with avocado, scallions, and masago. Here’s the Tuna Masa on the work board before slicing so you can better see the fish eggs on the outside.

Tuna Masa

And as presented.

Tuna Masa

Here’s another i also quite like, the Hawaiian #1, which has tuna, avocado, scallion, spicy mayo, and Macademia nuts.

Hawaiian Roll #1

And the Hawaiian #2, almost as good with all the above except mango concealed inside instead of avocado.

Hawaiian Roll #2

Like everyone, i just love unagi, so i’m surprised it took me a while to order the unagi roll with avocado and masago, but it’s delicious.

Unagi roll

The California Roll with crab and avocado and masago is practically a cliche here in California, but Yoshi’s version is sublime.

California roll

You really can’t go wrong with the rolls, and there’s such a variety that you’ll have your own favorites.  Not one of my great favorites, but still delicious is the New York – shrimp, avocado, cucumber, and sesame seeds.  The shrimp is cooked, but it’s good anyhow.

New York roll at Sushi Zone

A vegetarian and low carbohydrate cold favorite is the Ume Shiso, which is made by slicing off longitudinally a very thin sheet of cucumber, wrapping it around a filling of pickled ume plum and shiso, and dressing it in a vinegar sauce.  So light and crisp and flavorful!  Note:  this one is on the menu as a roll with rice, but i much prefer it without the rice as pictured here, which you can get by asking Yoshi for it this way.

Ume Shiso

Another off menu item you have to ask for is Yoshi’s astonishing roll that another regular told me about and then was so kind as to give me a taste of, the Eggplant roll, which i’ll directly translate as Nasu Maki.  Or maybe i should just translate it as Utterly Delicious.

Nasu Maki - Eggplant Roll

And there’s the Sunomono, a cold salad of octopus, cucumber, and seaweed, also in a vinegar sauce and also a wonderful combination of flavors and textures, the crunchy cucumber setting off the chewy octopus.

Sunomono

But it’s not just cold dishes, as Futoshi, the sous chef, uses a tiny toaster oven to turn out some excellent hot dishes.  The most popular seems to be the Baked Sea Bass, which is bass, their spicy mayo, and masago baked in giant mussel shells.  My favorite is the Stuffed Jalapeño, in which a very large, very mild Jalapeño is split, seeded, deveined, stuffed with ahi and spicy mayo, and baked.  I also liked the Stuffed Shiitake, where large shiitake caps are stuffed with salmon, spicy mayo, and scallions before baking.  Not to mention the baked mussels with spicy mayo and scallions.

Here are double orders of the mussels and the sea bass, both served in huge mussel shells.  Note:  they are not grilled.  Those stripes are from the blinds filtering the afternoon sun.

Spicy Mussels and Sea Bass with Mango

Prices are reasonable for a sushi place, but one item on the menu stands out – the Rainbow Roll for $189.  Yikes.  It must be gigantic and superb for that price, and i was thinking that maybe for my birthday i could take several friends in and splurge on it.  Then one day i saw a couple getting an item i hadn’t seen, a larger roll with a variety of fish on the outside, and was told this was the Rainbow Roll.  I also learned that it’s a bit of an in-joke, as the menu is misprinted and the price is really only $18.  When i finally got around to taking Sybil in there, i talked her into sharing it with me, and it was as good as it looks.

Rainbow Roll

Finally, i must add that the miso soup is excellent and shows subtle daily variations that indicate it’s not decanted from a 50-gallon drum.

Occasionally regular patrons will discover on their table a little tidbit they didn’t order. Like this poached salmon in a teriyaki sauce.

Poached Salmon in Teriyaki Sauce

Or this tuna seared so lightly that the cooked part is only about a couple of millimeters thick.  Yow!

Lightly seared tuna

Or this very exotic little dish that Yoshi handed me the other day and that i at first thought was the Ume Shiso wrapped in cucumber that i like so much, but somehow it didn’t look quite right.  Nor did the center taste like ume.  Turns out, it’s mentaiko (spicy cod roe) that Yoshi’d spotted in that Japantown grocery store on his way to work and was taking home for himself but shared with me to further my culinary education.

Mentaiko wrapped in cucumber as a roll

Here’s another variation on the ume-shiso, this one with an exquisite filling of  soybean paste, which is even better if you call it Moromi Miso.

Cucumber roll with Moromi Miso

Or this, a little nigiri composed of the rice and a strip of perfectly roasted sweet red pepper.  Excellent combination.

Roasted red pepper nigiri

And finally, it took me forever before i saw someone eating this dish, remembered that it was a great favorite, and spotted its name on the specials blackboard – amebi.  It consists of a nigiri made of “sweet shrimp” accompanied by the heads and complete shells which have been dusted with starch and deep fat fried.  The whole thing, eyes and all, is edible and delicious although i tend to flick out the speck of liver at the bottom since its taste overpowers everything else.  The crunchy little legs and antennae are superb fried although i find the biggest part of the body shell a bit difficult with my impaired dentition.  Do try this one.

amebi

But so much about the food.  It’s a little cash-only place, and no effort has been wasted on decor, but it’s warm and friendly, and not just because of the nice staff and because you’re all jammed in together but rather that most times i’m in there, or waiting in line out front, other patrons and i recognize each other as regulars and chat about the food, each pushing his favorites.

San Francisco restaurants are required to post in a location visible to the patrons their latest report card from the Department of Public Health.  Here’s Sushi Zone’s.  These reports are often in the nineties, but i don’t recall ever before seeing a perfect score.

P1000125

One last point is that it’s a tight little ship with only three crew working in close coordination each night.  The chef is Yoshi, the sous-chef is Futoshi, and the waitress is Hideko, who is charming and gracious, not to mention pretty.

I haven’t really met Futoshi since his station is at the far end from “my” spot at the left end of the bar, which i find the best seat in the house because from it you get the best view of Yoshi’s hands as he constructs the rolls, molds the nigiri, and slices the sashimi.  I do love watching high levels of manual dexterity and knife skills, and besides, he’s friendly, which is how i discovered the Stuffed Jalapeño, the Ume Shiso, and the Tataki Albacore.

A recurrent theme in the Yelp reviews is folks far too entitled to wait complaining bitterly about how long it took them to get a seat and then how long after that before their order arrived.

Well, yes, there are eight seats at the bar and two tables for four.  And every bite of food is painstakingly assembled to order by hand.  You do the math.  The trick is to go there a bit before  5:00 since there is almost always a line before it opens.  If the place is full, you can put your name on the list and duck around the corner to Roku or Pisco and get plastered at the bar while dashing back between drinks to see how close you’re getting to the top.

As Yogi Berra famously observed, “Nobody goes there anymore.   It’s too crowded”.

Oh, and on the door a whimsical spin on the ubiquitous “Zagat Rated” sign.

Will Not Be Zagat Rated

Update, 2017:  Since i wrote this there have been some changes.  Futoshi has been succeeded by a young guy whose name I’ll fill in later.  The open days are now Wed-Sat, and Yoshi works all four days.  The food is still fabulous.

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Business Models

Rep. Don Young (R-AK) has recently given us a one-word solution to our homeless problem – wolves. To this i’ll add that the more able homeless can evade the wolves and will be left available for forced labor in our fields, forests, and mines.

That we have industries with a business model based on paying employees a wage too small to live on, a la Walmart, McDonald’s, et al. is reminiscent of the minimal labor cost business model of the American cotton plantations before the Civil War.

Unfortunately, people are so desperate for a job, any job, that there are many industries that exist in their present form only because they can get away with paying wages insufficient to sustain life unless those wages are supplemented by donations from charitable organizations and by welfare payments from the state and federal governments, thus subsidizing those industries at taxpayer expense.

A good example of this is the restaurant business as practiced in the United States, where the front of the house is able to take home a decent salary because of the tips but the back end must subsist on a very low wage.

And what causes this?  Well, the restaurant business is one of brutal competition, and while a handful of restaurants make a lot of money for their owners, the majority fail after short runs, and the rest just barely cling to survival, caught between the need to attract patrons with low prices and the ever increasing costs of the food they cook and their payroll.

I had dinner a few days ago at my favorite San Francisco restaurant, Hoffmann’s Grill, and during dinner the owner dropped by our table, worried over San Francisco’s recent minimum wage increase and its impact on her bottom line.  She has no choice but to increase her menu prices, and she fears that this will drive away enough business to bankrupt her.

Frankly, i think she’ll survive for a couple of reasons.  First, her prices are now low enough that she definitely undercuts her competition, and i think she can raise them enough to continue to make a profit while remaining competitive.

More importantly, the minimum wage increase affects the entire city, so all her competitors will need to raise prices, too.  So she’ll still be a great bargain, considering the quality of her food and the wonderful ambiance.

Thinking about this situation has led me to realize that an increase in the minimum wage that affects everyone is the solution to the problem of certain businesses being based on an exploitative wage situation and the social damage this causes.  Without a livable minimum wage, a restaurant owner cannot pay all his employees enough to live on without placing himself at a severe disadvantage with his competitors.  With a livable minimum wage, all restaurants can remain on the same competitive level for wages, and those that survive will be those, like Hoffmann’s, who find ways of giving good value with better food rather than figuring out ways of paying their employees less.

Meanwhile, here’s just one of the reasons Hoffmann’s will survive, Karen’s divine take on the classic moules à la marinière that she brightens up by adding some exciting seasoning to the wine and then takes them over the top after plating them by drizzling them with an aioli so fine that i lick every last molecule off the shells, i don’t care who’s watching.

Steamed mussels drizzeled with aioli

And to make sure Hoffmann’s Grill will be there when you want it,  go eat there this week.  Start with the mussels.

 

 

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Sailing With Mr. White

Is it really necessary to curtail freedom to preserve it?

Back in the early seventies i was teaching at Midland College, and a friend of mine i’ll call Mr. Black phoned me with the news that a mutual acquaintance, Mr. White, had invited him to go sailing, and he was wondering if i’d like to join them.

There were few opportunities to sail in west Texas owing to the scarcity of lakes…and boats, so of course i accepted the invitation. Black drove us over to White’s house, and we piled into his car with the boat behind us on a trailer for the seventy mile trip to the closest lake.

Lake J.B. Thomas was created in a frenzy of desperation and creative thinking in 1952 by damming the Colorado River (the tiny Texas Colorado River) at a point out between Snyder and Big Spring where there was sufficient terrain variation for an earthen dam to create a shallow lake.

Unfortunately, the designers neglected to factor in the possibility of drought, so the lake has filled only three times in its history, the last being in 1962.  Since 1969 it has never reached half full and sits there, shallow and turbid, a pitiful excuse for a lake except that it serves as the primary source of potable water for the cities of the Permian Basin.  On the other hand, west Texas is windy, so the sailing is good.

As it was for our excursion.  Since the lake sits in a barren wasteland and is surrounded by a wide bathtub ring of dead scrub, scenery proved no distraction and we could focus on the pure joy of the sailing.  Which we did for the afternoon and then returned to Midland.

Well, you ask, is that all?  Where’s the adventure?  The excitement?  The blow ye winds heigh-ho drama?

That didn’t come until several years later when i learned some back story and discovered that i’d been invited as insurance.

See, I learned that Mr. Black was having an affair with Mrs. White and feared that if this had come to Mr. White’s attention, there might be a terrible accident out on the lake in which it would be revealed after the lake was dredged that somehow the anchor chain had snapped loose at the boat and whipped itself a number of times around Black’s neck.

And then, as luck would have it, Black, perhaps stunned by the blow to his head from the end of the chain, the evidence of which being clearly visible in the autopsy, would have fallen overboard, taking straight to the bottom with him the anchor, somehow entangled in his clothes.

And alas, while the lake is shallow, it is murky, and the accident, of course, would have happened in the deepest part of the lake, so White’s heroic dives would have turned out to no avail, and the whole incident would have been written off as an unfortunate accident.

Black’s brilliant addition of a third party of course prevented the accident, and it is always a joy to learn that one has saved the life of a friend.

Meanwhile, i’m not returning to my unhealthy fascination with flues, but here are some i couldn’t pass up.

flues

 

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