Journal: 2019

The Cruise

My flesh creeps as i imagine myself trapped on a boat with most of the kinds of people that i hear about taking cruises. But then, people i like tell me about their cruises, and i realize that i wouldn’t mind being on a boat with them. But still, the very idea of being trapped on a boat bothers me and not because much of the time the nearest land is over a mile away…straight down.

I’ve already made a transatlantic voyage on a boat, one that i did not particularly enjoy. My voyage was from New York to Bremerhaven on the USNS Simon B. Buckner in August of 1964 when i was a brand new US Army 2nd Lieutenant on my way from Brooklyn Army Terminal to my first duty assignment at the USAREUR ASA headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany.

The Buckner was no cruise ship but rather a WWII troop transport measuring a fraction of the size of a modern cruise ship but employed to carry almost as many passengers. Well, see, the accommodations were somewhat more cramped.

Since i was an officer, i resided luxuriously: Four of us lieutenants shared a room that was the length of two bunk beds plus two feet for a cabinet between them and the width of the beds plus two feet. In the wall opposite from the beds there was a door leading into a tiny bathroom that we shared with a similar room next door. Oh, and pearl beyond price, at the far end we had a porthole giving us a view of the ocean. Hate to date myself here but one of the inhabitants likened looking out the porthole to watching the test pattern on a TV. Still, it was way better than no porthole.

For the enlisted men, life was grim. They were stuffed into “compartments” deep in the bowels of the boat, and when i say “stuffed” i mean that the bunks were stacked four high with barely enough space between them to walk through.

My duty assignment for the eleven-day voyage was Commander of Compartment C-3, and my entire duty consisted of a morning and night ritual at which the men filed past me as my NCOIC called their names in alphabetical order, showing me their ID’s so that the Army could determine the precise twelve-hour period in which someone had gone AWOL. I rather imagine that my duties would have become more complicated had one of my charges disappeared, but none did.

Pretty easy duty, right? Well yes, and a good thing it was, too, because as a fresh new second lieutenant i was petrified that i would somehow screw up and make a fool of myself. However, i lucked out because at the very beginning, when a naval lieutenant commander met with my NCOIC and me to explain to us how to conduct our twice-daily headcount. Immediately after he left, my NCOIC (roughly my father’s age) asked me why the naval officer had called me “Mister” when it was obvious that i was not a warrant officer but rather a lieutenant. Thank goodness i was able to get some credibility by telling him that field grade naval officers traditionally addressed company grade officers as “Mister” rather than with their precise ranks.

After that, it was smooth sailing. Well, at least until the eighth day out when i was awakened in the night by the pitching and rolling of the boat and was feeling a bit queasy by the time morning arrived. Yes, the weather had turned and the seas were up.

Alas, it was not just i who was queasy. When i got down to my compartment and opened the door, i was hit by an awful stench. It had never really smelled like roses in there, what with 253 men packed into a space about the size of my one-bedroom apartment. But today was dramatically different since during the pitching and rolling night a number of them had been unable to make it all the way to the head before they threw up. And this almost immediately made others sick, and some of them didn’t make it to the head, either, so it fed on itself. Yes, it was foul.

And i was already queasy. Oh no, i prayed, pleasepleaseplease don’t let me throw up in front of 253 enlisted men. The horror, the horror. Luckily, i didn’t need to say anything during the headcount – Bailey, Carter, Clemens – so i could close my nostrils like a camel and breathe through my mouth to lessen the stench – Douglas, Edwards, Ellis – while i speculated that there was a conspiracy to drag out today’s headcount until i finally tossed – Gates, Goodwin, Graham.

It crept on – Hamilton, Howard, Innes – as my stomach churned and i locked my jaws tight. And on and on until finally – Watson, Wright, Yarbrough – the end was near. And then, Zamboni, and the count was done and i needed only to open my mouth and utter one sentence to turn the compartment over to my NCOIC. Which i did successfully.

I’d almost made it. All i had left to do was, showing no haste at all, stride purposefully toward the door, open it, go through, and walk calmly away as it slowly swung shut.

But wait. I can’t throw up here because even if someone didn’t open the door and display me heaving, i would be by far the most likely source of the mess on the floor. So no, i had to put some distance between me and them, so i started running up the flights of stairs (6? 8?) until i got to my level where i’d seen barf bags tucked into the handrails along the hallway.

Finally i made it all the way to safety, leaped into my hallway, grabbed the closest bag … and nothing happened. I even kinda tried to throw up, but no, i was simply not at all sick anymore.

So there it was. I had invented the perfect seasickness cure and could have made a million dollars if it had only been patentable.

The remaining three days to Bremerhaven were uneventful.

Meanwhile, an interesting paint job on a house across the street.


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Obstacle

Folks, January has been difficult, and to compound the problems, WordPress has updated itself with a new release that supposedly has a plethora of excellent features. Unfortunately, i’m having a great deal of trouble using it and cannot, for example, even throw in a damn photo. Worse yet, i can’t figure out how to revert to the previous release, which was working just fine. Please be patient while i crawl in bed and pull the covers over my head, whimpering softly.

Ahhh, nothing like a solid hour of whimpering to help me figure out a workaround. The alt attribute is empty, but this’ll do until i find where WP has hidden the Add Media function in this release. Hmmm. Maybe a kind reader who uses WP can send me a helping hand. mattegray.sf@gmail.com

Night Bloom
Night Bloom

Late note: Turns out that I thought I had a workaround, but now the pic doesn’t show up. The good news is that after months of bashing around with it, I’m now much more successful at getting pics to show up.

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Night Bloom

Sometimes one’s winter heart is warmed by experiencing a glorious burst of civic engagement and mellow cooperation, one sparked by creative people who produce a communal artistic experience that leaves the participant stunned. And i said “participant” rather than “passive viewer”. This is not a museum. Not that i have anything against museums, just that, for me, there are higher forms.

One such form, to which my friend Bob took me just after Christmas, was Night Bloom, a light and sound exhibition at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park.

So what is it? You can click on the link in the previous paragraph to get the official story, but the short version is that a company called Lightswitch put together a light show inside and outside the Conservatory, and some industrious volunteers figured out that the way to allow the maximum number of visitors to enjoy it without crowding is to admit a small group of people every hour on the hour from 5:00 to 11:00 PM.

You queue in front of the building shortly before your appointed hour. There’s a good view of the building, but it’s cold outside and there’s no need to be early since being at the front of the line confers precious little advantage.

Here’s the Conservatory from the waiting line.

Conservatory of Flowers Night Bloom

When your group’s time comes, you are admitted into the foyer and given an introductory talk by a witty, vivacious, and utterly delightful young Chinese woman. Not that i could understand more than a couple of words in her rapid-fire monolog, but she delivered it with such panache that i suspect she has training in the theater. Off to a great start here.

Then they flung the doors open, and as i passed the young woman who’d given us that fine introdution, i said “Brava” and gave her a thumb’s up, which she acknowledged with a chuckle. Then we were in the central hall, the part with our beloved 40-foot philodendron, the jewel in the Conservatory’s crown that bloomed 25 years ago when the director of the Conservatory was a ballsy young man who erected a scaffold beside the plant so that the adventuresome could climb way up there to the top to view the blossom.

After just a couple of minutes, people had started moving ahead at their own pace, so from then on we were well dispersed along the trail laid out through the conservatory, and there was no sense at all of being crowded since the trail as it wound around turned out to be a full mile long. On the contrary, there was a wonderful sense of shared experience. Many of us were snapping photos, and somehow the sense of togetherness made the photography even more enjoyable.

It was like stepping into an illuminated jewel box. I overhead someone fret over it not being well enough lit. Oh please. No, the whole thing was not cranked up to sunny-day-in-Phoenix, but that was a plus since it left your eyes free to seek out the illuminated bits here and there and savor them.

Night Bloom

And so we wandered through the connected greenhouses, each with its own climate and all finely illuminated. Throughout the whole system, there was playing at a gentle volume what my friend Bob described as “a bunch of chirps and chimes with small animal noises” but which i kept trying to think of as music. In any case, it certainly added to the experience.

Night Bloom

One thing that struck me was the large number of species in the Nepenthes  genus on display now. Yeah, yeah, i now know that there are 170 species in this genus, but i’d had no idea there were so many, and i was astonished at how large some of them were. These here are nine inches long whereas the largest i’d seen before had been something like three inches.

Nepenthes at Night Bloom

It was just one treat for the eye after another.

Night Bloom

Some of it almost surreal.

Night Bloom

Truly a marvelous tour through the greenhouses on a winding trail that’s a full mile long although it doesn’t seem like more that a hundred yards.


Night Bloom

And once you get outside, you notice a number of rather strange forms on the lawn, all of impermeable cells, this one rather like an igloo

Night Bloom

Alas, the show ended in January. Catch it next year.

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Phoebe and Jim

 

How fascinating it is to be living in times when political discussions begin with “when sanity is restored…” and will perhaps end with “…from a scaffold erected on the White House lawn”.

 

I met Jim and Phoebe from Palo Alto in the late spring of 1976 at an EST training and found them delightful. And clearly it was reciprocal because shortly thereafter they called me up and invited me to join them on a Point Reyes hike.

It was a wonderful day. From the Visitors’ Center, we took the Bear Valley Trail that mostly followed the creek, crossing it repeatedly on stepping stones. It was cool and shady along the creek with lots of ferns and other low-light vegetation, and we hiked and talked all the way to the coast and then turned right along the cliffs for half a mile or so until we could get down to the beach, where we ate sandwiches we’d picked up at a deli on the way. Then we reversed our route 4.5 miles back to the Visitors’ Center. Nine miles seems like a long way to me now, now that i can barely walk 9 yards, but we were young and fit, Besides, they’d provided white crosses (slang name for tiny dexedrine pills) to perk us up.

We all had such a good time that they came to the city to hang out with me the following Saturday. And that was so much fun that they invited me down to dinner at their home in Palo Alto the next weekend.

Dinner was early so that her 12-year-old son from a previous relationship could eat with us before he was packed off to bathe before bed and we could do a blitzkrieg washing of the dishes. When we’d done that i announced that i needed to go pee. At which Phoebe squeaked as a look of shock and horror swept her face, and, too late, i realized that the boy had not yet emerged from the bathroom.

And more importantly, to me, that Phoebe saw me as a child molester just waiting for an opportunity to go into the bathroom and ravish her kid.

And worse yet, that there was nothing i could say to walk it back. So i just muttered that i couldn’t expect them to believe anything i said, dashed out, pissed in the alley, and drove home.

Afterwards i realized that there were some bitter ironies. First, that the only person in that household to whom i was sexually attracted was not her son but rather her handsome husband who’d escaped un-hit-upon when he spent the night between EST sessions at my place. The other was that, not being a pedophile, i’d paid so little attention to the kid that i hadn’t even been tracking where he was and that of course if i’d seen the bathroom door shut, i’d have remembered he was in there.

All that too late though, so there was no further contact either way.

Meanwhile, an interesting assemblage in San Francisco.

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Brothers

Safety Tip of the Week: “Drive it like you stole it.”

What is it about brothers and how they are routinely anything but their brothers’ keeper, starting with Cain and Abel?

When i was young i wanted a brother, but he had to be a little brother i could protect, lead, and teach the necessity of deferring to his elders, starting with me.  No way i wanted to be some cruel jock’s little brother, treated the way younger brothers all too often were in the oil camps thirty miles west of Odessa, Texas in the early fifties.  And then in Odessa itself in the late fifties.  And then in the early sixties as an undergraduate at Texas Tech where i lived in the same dormitory as three brothers, all in engineering majors.

Phil was a senior when i was a freshman, a leader always ready to help and advise the younger students, including his younger brother Tom, in my class, to whom he gave a magnificent gift, his poop.

No no.  Your poop was all the handouts from a class, your tests, and your lab work, if one was involved as it was in physics and chemistry.  To possess this was valuable in any case and invaluable if you had the same teacher as your predecessor.  Teachers were only too human, and they often reused the same tests and assigned the same lab experiments in subsequent years.  And if they weren’t exactly the same, they were similar.

So there was a barter economy in which you found someone who was taking a class from the same teacher for whom you had a set of poop and traded him your poop for his, hopefully for the class you were taking.  A set of poop, particularly from an A student, was a pearl beyond price.

So Phil passed his on to Tom.  And then two years later Dick matriculated.  Tom gave him the cold shoulder all along, but that would have been unfortunate but not really shocking.  What was mindblowing was that he gave his and Phil’s poop to someone other than Dick.  Nobody in the whole dorm looked at either of the brothers in quite the same way after that.

That episode faded into distant memory over the years, but i was reminded of it, in a wonderfully benign way, in the early eighties when i was a partner in a small limousine company and knew a fellow driver named John Ashbury.

His younger brother once joined us for a cordial lunch  Actually, the lunch was more than cordial, it was downright convivial as John kept us well entertained with his wit.  But then there came a moment that left everyone slackjawed.  John turned to his brother and addressed him as “Ashbury”.

There was a loud silence for a moment while we processed this, and then, as it sank in, we all, including the younger brother, burst into laughter at the delicious absurdity of it.  Yes, you call your teammates and fellow soldiers by their last names, but nobody in history had called his brother by their last name.

Gotta keep ’em on their toes, even in gentle ways.

Meanwhile, a south-facing planter box in front of a high-tech beverage cafe on 24th St.  Yep, it’s that time of year when so many of our succulents are blooming.  Here we have some Aeonium arboreum flanking a stand of Crassula argenta (AKA Jade Plant).

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The Marine

Semper Fi

Allen came to San Francisco to live with me in 1979 and after a honeymoon right here for a couple of months, answered a want ad for a commercial artist placed by a large plastics company down the peninsula in Redwood City. The job was just temporary to help the art department through a backlog, but at the end of the interview they offered it to him and he took it. He was so talented and so charismatic that the the other five artists (and later their spouses/girlfriends since they were all straight) were so enraptured with him that they started organizing events after work and on weekends as an excuse to see more of him out of the office. Have you ever had a job in which you met after work with almost all of your colleagues?

I felt quite lucky to be caught up in the whirlwind with these fun-loving people, outrageous and given to elaborate practical jokes.Allen and i were almost miraculously compatible, and the longer we were together the better it became. Case in point: when our first Halloween together came, i was trying to figure out what to do as a costume for a party and hit upon just wearing my Army dress blues that i’d not yet got around to selling. So i put them on and pranced into Allen’s room to show him. Wow! Turned out that Allen had a bit of a uniform fetish. Actually, quite a bit, and i had to call him off to keep from messing up the uniform before the party. After that, he sometimes prevailed upon me to wear them at home.

At that time Allen and i were living in the upper unit of a two-flat Victorian on 18th Street. It was over a garage at ground level, and to reach the upper flat you had to climb almost two floors of stairs to a landing and then turn left for a few more steps into the flat. Fortunately, the flat was equipped with one of those door release levers at the landing so that if someone rang your doorbell, you could just step down to the landing and push the lever to open the front door so you could see who was there and either invite them in or tell them to go away and lift the lever to close the door. Sure did beat running up and down two floors of stairs every time someone was at the door.

Early one evening when i’d beat Allen home from work, the doorbell rang. I stepped to the landing and flung the door open to reveal, resplendent in crisply tailored class A’s, a handsome young Marine. My jaw dropped. He inquired whether Allen were home, and i told him no. Then he said that he was a recruiter who’d been given Allen’s name.

Even way back then i couldn’t think fast enough. What i should have done was tell him to come back tomorrow after 6:30 when Allen would be here (and could enjoy the visit). I’d let him tell the Marine that he was a veteran of the Army, forty years old, and not Marine material, being gay.

What i in fact did was tell the Marine was that i didn’t think Allen was interested, whereupon the Marine inquired, “Are you his father?”

I just kept being fed opportunities for excellent lines and muffing them. The obvious reply was, “No, i’m his lover, and aren’t you a handsome one.”

But i just said i was his roommate and that he was an Army veteran and forty, so there had to be some kind of mistake, when in fact i’d figured out that one of the artists had doubtless given the Marines Allen’s name. And that was that for the marine.

Meanwhile, yeah yeah, they’re common as dirt, but i just love it that Aloe nobilis blooms in the late winter…in its dress reds.




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Obituary

I’m not actually dead yet, but there’s lotsa stuff wrong with me besides simple old age, and even though the odds are very, very low that i’ll drop dead tomorrow, i figured i’d go ahead and post my obituary so i don’t have to risk someone else screwing it up.  Besides, we see all too few obits nowadays written in the first person.  Think of this as a pre-need obit like my pre-need arrangement with the Neptune Society.

Matte Gray 1941-2019 aged 78 and astonished that i lived so long.

I’ll start with a blanket apology to all those i’ve wronged.  Has to be blanket because otherwise this part would run to too many pages.  Well, at least if it listed all the individual wrongs that i review instead of sleeping.  Isabella Allende remarked on the death of Roberto Bolaño, “Dying does not make you a nicer person.”  True enough, but at least it prevents you from committing more wrongs.

When you write your own obit, you have to guess about the cause of death, but here are some options, some more likely than others:

Burned at the stake for heresy

A surfeit of nightingale’s tongues

Under the wheels of the F Market

An overdose of chocolate ice cream

“Removed” by a CIA drone strike

Rescuing a damsel in distress

While swimming back from the Farallones

Eaten by a school of piranha

Under interrogation

Apoplexy while listening to Donald Trump

Consumed by a leopard seal on the south coast of Antarctica

Electrocuted by my Prius

Pork belly

A fall from the balcony of the Castro Theater

In a secret CIA cell

On a hot date with Sage Northcutt

Replacing the batteries in OR-7‘s collar

While watching Roger Federer win another major

In a federal prison for applauding Edward Snowden

Or in the worst case scenario, something boring like a runaway illness.

Others conquered countries, wrote acclaimed novels, won international prizes, made millions of dollars, had illustrious careers, and were survived by a dozen loving grandchildren.  Me, i was just a B+ kind of guy whose only achievement was this website, so i hope you got some entertainment out of it because i sure enjoyed writing it.

Subsisted on crumbs?  Sure, but i brought some pleasure to a good many people, stayed out of jail, outlived my enemies, and was survived by a dwindling handful of loyal friends and my beloved sister, who gets any leftover money.

Oh, and i can’t go much into this lest it be “coat tailing”, but in the last year i developed even more medical problems.  And my legs continued to get weaker and weaker, leaving me more and more dependent on the Segway and, since my upper body strength has dwindled, reduced to using folding aluminum ramps to get it into the back of the Prius when i need to take it out of town.

I’m hoping that it’ll be my abdominal aortal aneurysm popping because the sharp pain will get my attention, but i’ll remain conscious a couple of minutes, long enough to have a deathbed conversion and embrace Jesus as my personal savior, thus insuring an eternity in heaven in case it’s still there.  To touch all bases, i’ll also explain to Allah and Vishnu that i was just kidding in that loose talk about atheism and actually think they’re wonderful entities entirely worthy of my worship and surely they won’t mind my side bet on Jesus.

I had put way too much thought into trying to arrange to keep this website up for a little while after my sister has cancelled my credit cards, but then it finally sank in that since my readership has not soared out of the hundreds, the people have spoken and i’ll just let the site die when Sonic’s last bill bounces.  So if you want to copy a recipe or something, you should go ahead and do it now.  The odds are good that i’ll have another birthday, but they’re excellent that there’ll be very few of ’em.

Oh, and i’ll keep posting until i can no longer reach the keyboard.

 

Meanwhile, when visiting my friend Nina in Kaiser, i affix the Segway to a handsome bike rack.

 

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Bitten

Yikes! As of 20 March 2019, something has bitten my website so that many features no longer work, images no longer show up, and the home page is hopelessly messed up. I’m working on this. Please be patient.

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A Horticultural and Culinary Triumph

In the Libertarian Bible, Christ auctioned off the loaves and fishes.

Ever since i put my prized Pachypodium brevicaule out on the public patio so it could get enough sun to bloom and it promptly got watered to death, my favorite houseplant is my Epiphyllum anguliger, which has bloomed faithfully for me for the past five years. For the last two years, i’ve put it out on the public patio the night it bloomed so that the folks here could see the huge blossoms and smell their fragrance.

For the last three years, something has pollinated it, and it has set fruit that ripened to maturity.

The first time i harvested the fruit, i edited the Wikipedia entry above with a description of the fruit and added a photo of a fruit split to show the interior. Then i gobbled it up. I just ate the next one, too. But this year, there were two. And then i realized that i could turn this into an extravaganza, especially since i’ve lived here long enough that the other inhabitants have begun to humor me when i go on these flings.

So i invited Joann to join me for the harvest and to share it with me. Of course i used my finest china and plated each fruit alongside the spent, dried blossom that had hung onto it since last fall .

Then i sliced each in two and served the halves.

Epiphyllum fruit

The skin is tough enough that you can’t cut through it with the rounded edge of that little pickle fork, but that’s just as well since, the fruit being only about an inch and a half long, an entire half constitutes a modest bite, and the skin can be easily chewed up with the rest. One last note, prompted by Joann’s reaction to her first taste, is that i got a bit overexcited when i was editing the Wikipedia some years ago and described the taste as “delicious”. I need to go back in there and change that to “tasty” although “surprisingly good” might be even more accurate.

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The Slippery Slope

“You feel as if you’ve stepped back to when the cars driving by were Packards rather than Priuses. ” – John King

I’m trying desperately to hold my mind together.  We all are here in this senior housing since most of us have watched a dear one swirl down into Alzheimers and thus have as our greatest fear, that that will happen to us.

So we take active measures. We organize our lives so that we’re actively using our minds in our hobbies and entertainment. We gather on Tuesday afternoons to play word games at which, in spite of my background, i’m only average. Anything to stave off Alzheimers. But of course, we’re old and what comes with that, outside of Alzheimers, is forgetfulness and less attention to detail, which we try to counter by making shopping lists, to-do lists, and notes to ourselves all over the apartment.

But sometimes all that is not enough. Don’t tell Becky, but Thursday before last as i left the apartment building in a rush on the Segway, i realized that i would not be available the following morning when the street sweeper came, so in a moment of cleverness to avoid a $75 ticket, i simply moved the car to a long open space across the street with the intent of moving it back to my side of the street on Friday night, where it would be safe until two Fridays hence.

And then, on Saturday morning i went out to move the car and couldn’t find it anywhere along the other side of the street. Who would steal a fifteen-year-old Prius? i wondered. And then another thought popped up. Had i somehow parked wrong and got myself towed? The SFMTA has made checking on that easy, just plug your plate number in, and you can see a history of your infractions going back five years, and yep, there it was at the top, i’d been towed.

Somehow in my haste, i’d backed up into the wrong end of that long parking place and was so momentarily insane that i didn’t look to see that the end i’d chosen was in front of someone’s driveway.

When i added it all up – the ticket, the towing charge, the storage charge, the wear and tear on the tow truck, the hourly wage for the ticketer and the tower, dry cleaning for the officer’s uniforms, the lunch they deserved after all that work, more storage charges because i didn’t ransom out the car on the day it was towed, and a few more trifling items, the bill came to $900, which will impact my entertainment budget for quite some time. And there i was, thinking about finally treating myself to State Bird Provisions. Maybe next year.

But hey, lest you think i’m in the habit of such ridiculous errors, the last time i was towed was in 2009 when Rina was visiting, and it was all her fault because i was enjoying her so much that i didn’t notice that TOWAWAY ZONE sign. And the last time before that was in 1974 when i was visiting the city and was having a wonderful time in the Buena Vista Cafe with my friend Dick while my car was being towed for commute hours on Bay Street.

Meanwhile, there is some resentment among the lower orders here against the rich newcomers driving up rental rates.

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