Monday, December 01, 2008

I've lost my laptop

No posts on this blog? Well, it's because I'm missing my laptop. I left it aboard a Delta Airlines flight from San Francisco to Atlanta and now am having a bitch of a time getting it back. If you happen to find it... it's a blue Dell XPS 1330 laptop computer in a black computer sleeve (with gray trim). My dull Netflix movie (Encounters at the End of the World) is inside.

I am told the aircraft went on to Copenhagen, but haven't had much luck reaching the Delta folks at the Copenhagen Aiport. Please email me at A reward is waiting for you!

And then everyone will get to read more of my complaints.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

I am married

It sounds weird. But I had to do it, we had to do it. It wasn’t the timing I wanted but I have learned to accept that. We wanted to make sure we took advantage of an opportunity to be legally married, before it’s possibly taken away from us by discriminatory hate mongering religious zealots who do a good job of twisting God’s words to promote intolerance, the opposite of what God would really want.

Do I believe in God? I’m not sure what to believe in. Believing in a divine being is weird; it’s pretty implausible. But here I type this on a plane and hope God helps to guide my plane to its destination safely. So I suppose I believe in the goodness of God. And I believe in the proud traditions of people who have been free to worship God, and I like and respect those traditions.

Do I fear God? No, not at all. I think that’s the problem with the majority of people. Why would you fear God? That’s powerful preacher speak to make people worry about their destiny so they’ll spend forever in church or temple donating vast sums of money to help avoid the wrath of God. It’s a form of fear mongering that plays to people’s uncertainties. It’s manipulative, but I think most Americans living lonely lives in suburbia like the power they get from being a part of something that protects them from God.

Personally, I’ll take my God unprotected. If a supreme spirit exists, it is unfathomable to me that I should fear God. That I need to speak my sins aloud to be forgiven .

Let me take a traditional view. God has done so many wonderful things, creating a beautiful world with bountiful food and an abundance of specimens that should live in harmony with one another. God has enabled us to make art and music, to talk to one another, to visit one another, to care about one another.

I try to live my life doing good things for good people, and although I’m not always successful, I think I’m pretty good, and I think a lot of other people are also here to do good things. And they do those good things without fearing God.

A child’s prayer goes, “God is great, God is good. Let us thank Him for our food.” It doesn’t go, “God should be feared and if we don’t do what the religious leader says, we will perish.” If anything, God’s greatest accomplishment is that we were given free will. Free will to do whatever we want to do and be with whomever we want, and think whatever we want to think. Free will does not come with consequences of fear.

If there is a hell, as envisioned in stories I know nothing about, surely it is for people who try to restrict other people’s free will, who try to interfere in love, who feel that their way is the only way. The Jerry Fallwells of the world, the Hassidic Rabbis, the High Priests: all of the fundamentalists who think they are right –and only they are right – are the ones who actually have it all wrong. And it’s a good thing they believe in Judgment Day: if they start now, they have an opportunity to separate themselves from archaic texts that have been misinterpreted time and time again. But they won’t. They will continue to be sheep as part of a flock that respond to their shepherd’s dog out of fear.

If there is a heaven, it is for people who respect others, afford others dignity through caring and their deeds, and spend time with others, doing peaceful work to make the world a better place. It’s for people who enjoy their lives and for those who suffer, but for people with a genuinely good, tolerant heart. That doesn’t come for people who seek God. You either have it or you don’t. People who do good, out of fear, will be very surprised when they die. And only then, when it’s really too late, will they realize they had it all wrong.

Today is Election Day in the United States. We can only hope that the good people will triumph and if they do, it may set in motion the end of the hatemongering and the fear that has been such a part of the American political landscape over the last eight years. Unfortunately, it’s not in God’s hands. If it were, I doubt there would be a Republican Party.

Before voting, think about fear combined with power and how it corrupts the soul. Vote with your heart.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

How many blog entries do I write that I do not post?

Based on the quality of writing and incoherent spittle I manage to spray into Splenda Sucks, you would think that everything I write ends up here. The reality is different.

My computer has a number of half-baked things that I started writing. Most of them are rambling political jeremiads, which I sort of try to steer clear of on Splenda Sucks so I can continue to be likable to the five people who read anything I write. I write those unpublished things, blow them full of my anger and then I pop them, deciding that they are too angry and offensive and, ultimately, unpostworthy. Part of the joy of writing things to stick on the web is that I can focus on the mundane, because that’s what the web should be about.

However, I will veer away from the perfectly mundane to write something personal and political (although, a bad experience at Walgreens is personal and being pissed off about paying taxes is ultimately political). I will try to keep my entry as mundane as possible.

This is about my wedding. I am getting married.


Thank you for the warm congratulations.


No, I am not registered for gifts and don’t intend to be for any period of time due to the ongoing remodel of my house (another blog-unworthy rant parked on my hard drive for now).


No, I will not tell you the details, but let it suffice that I have informed you of this happy occasion.


Yes, I am keeping it a big secret. I am following in the footsteps of my friend Anne, a true West Michigan pioneer.

To prepare my family and friends for my marriage, I emailed a letter, which you can find here, about the value of a wedding and what might impact the timeline. And what we (“We?,” you ask? … I am marrying someone of course. I am not the fourth sister on this spectacular Saturday Night Light performance) intend to do to make this marriage a reality by the end of the month.

You will get an update soon. But in the meantime, please read this letter and forward it to everyone you know in California (and everyone you know everywhere, so they can forward it back to those of us in California), and donate money to block the efforts of people who want me to marry someone else.

There! So how innocuous, blogworthy, and gently apolitical was that?

Still don’t understand? Try this. Splenda really sucks and is made by hateful people. The people who make it are creepy religious lying fanatics who say it’s only natural because it’s made from the sugar God told them to make Splenda from. And the non-Splenda eaters, they say, are far from what God deemed. They eat amazing red velvet maltball seven-layer cakes with Meyer lemon Scharffenberger chocolate glaze and fresh churned lavender ice cream. Sure they get a little fat, but if they go to the gym a lot, they’ll be in good shape and happy.

Although sugar is perfectly natural , the evil Splendadoers have an intolerant agenda, but are spreading their lies to the people via chains of Rite-Aid and Wal-Mart, making innocent people believe that a Splenda banana moonpie sealed together in a sucralose glaze concoction is really what nature intended.

Don't accessorize

Accessories are important. We all like to accessorize with jewelry, things in our hair, things around our neck, groovy belt buckles and shoes. I have no problem with accessories because they keep millions of people employed in China and provide minimum-wage jobs at Claire’s stores across North America. Pre-teen girls seem to be the biggest consumers, snatching up scrunchies and bobbles and charms that say Justin Timberlake and Zac Ephron. Plenty of teenagers and, come to think of it grown women, also seem to trash out their bodies with the accessory treats sold at Claire’s, and Dollar Tree, Target, and bankrupt (and closing) Mervyn’s.

Guys are not exempt. Just walk into H&M and see the racks of chokers and necklaces and beaded leather and metal bracelets that make you look unique even though everyone else is wearing these things to maintain their own style. I have owned copper bracelets, studs for my pierced ear which has long since grown shut, and I used to regularly wear a leather and silver necklace thing I bought in Puerto Escondido (what do you call them when they’re made for a guy?), but am currently unadorned (until this coming Friday, but that’s a different story).
What’s the purpose of international travel if not to buy accessories?

I’m not Tim Gunn, but I personally think jewelry should be limited to bracelets, necklaces, pins, earrings and watches. I’m not a fan of septum rings, though I sort of liked eyebrow rings when those were in vogue, but fortunately they are now passé. I used to see people with pierced foreheads and necks, but I’m really happy that I don’t see many of those people anymore.

Nipple rings are sort of gross to me, even though I have some friends who have them. Pierced navels and pierced anything lower than a navel is out of the question for me, but if they give people sexual fulfillment, that’s fine because I don’t usually have to see whatever’s pierced down there.

Although I say jewelry is a fine accessory, I really detest certain ear implements. Many years ago, when I was in Malaysia, I took my friend Robin’s advice and went to a museum about people who do unnatural things to their bodies. It was exhibit after exhibit of bound feet, elongated necks, penises sliced in half, and lips with giant plates stretching them forward like a clam. One exhibit made not much of an impression on me: the stretched ear lobes that dangle down to one’s shoulders. Why? Because I see those in San Francisco. I’m told you start with a small earring tube and then keep replacing it with larger ones until someday you can stick your fist through your earlobe. Very unattractive in my opinion.

But the reason I’m writing today is actually not to complain about shoelaces or rings or anything I just derided. My main peeve is a relatively new accessory. It’s called a trashy-ass Bluetooth headset. What’s the deal? I own one. I wore it twice and then decided I didn’t like it, I didn’t want a brain tumor. I am now an old-fashioned mobile phone user with a cord leading to my ear, but wear the contraption only when I really need to use a headset.

Unfortunately, an awful lot of people seem to think of these Bluetooth things as an accessory. You know who I’m talking about. It’s the old geezer having dinner with his family at the Chinese restaurant who keeps his Bluetooth headset on throughout the meal (and now, I’m not being insensitive… it is not a hearing aid. It is a telephone). It’s the woman wearing the red skirt suit walking through the airport with her children, but she’s not talking on the phone. It’s the temp employee my colleague hired in Los Angeles who kept it on the whole time she was on the job even though she was doing face-to-face surveys and was not supposed to be talking to the phone.

These things are meant for wearing in the car. Period. People who are talking on the phone in public using them look silly, but I’ll cut them a teeny bit of slack because at least they are using them as they are supposed to be used and not as a decorative object. I think these people – the old geezer, the red suit woman and the tacky LA surveyor -- wear them because they actually think they look good. It makes them look modern and high-tech. It makes them look like they are successful, because they can afford to buy this piece of modern technology (which currently retails for about $30 or even less if you check out the Chinese crap on But instead, the people sporting their Bluetooth headsets look like total morons and will get brain tumors.

The moral of the story: Wear your wedding ring and your earring, but keep the phone ring to your phone when in public.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Figuring out what to be for Halloween is difficult for a child

For an adult, it can be overwhelming.

Here’s my list of 18 possible Halloween costumes for those of you who can’t decide.
  1. Dress as Sarah Palin or Cindy McCain! Just beware that everyone else will be dressing as this barfball duo. So only do it if you have an amazing likeness or if you do it with a twist (Lesbian Cindy McCain or Sarah Palin with puncture holes (from all of the voodoo dolls people have been using to stick pins in here).
  2. Dress as a hobo! There’s nothing quite like that Tim Conway look, and you can wear whatever you’ve got around the house that’s dirty and ugly. The only problem, most people will say you’re dressed as a homeless person, which is way not politically correct. Hobos are more charming. Find a cool stick for the little fabric pouch you carry over your shoulder.
  3. Dress like Bree Vandekamp or Hans Solo or Knight Rider! These are the lame-o costumes that you buy at Target or the Halloween Superstore. They’re meant for a one-time wear and are made of 100% acetate. You’ll definitely amuse the few other dull people at the party – the ones dressed as hobos.
  4. Go as a concept! This is the ultimate creative straight person costume. Go as “blue” (paint yourself blue!) or as “incognito” (wrap yourself in a corset that says ‘cognito’) or ‘retired’ (wear a tire and act really tired). There are thousands of opportunities here.
  5. Go as a senior citizen from Iowa on an escorted tour! Obviously, I can write about this with authority because I’ve done it. Gray wig, ugly safari purse, and an identification button that ensured I wouldn’t get lost from the tour group. I also mispronounced all of the local attractions. The only problem… it’s really hard to get out of character and people get annoyed having grandma at the party.
  6. Go as a drag queen! When all else fails, dress as a flashy, raunchy gal. Although some people take this very seriously, concept drag queens are the best. For examples, I was once “Thundra,” a drag queen thunderstorm sporting poofy clouds, a jagged lightning skirt, and airplanes spinning around my head. Another year, I was “Fridgina,” a drag refrigerator superhero with a magnetic surface, basket full of condiments, and as a hair accessory, an egg tray. Beware of lame drag queens. Just dressing as a woman doesn’t mean people will be impressed with your effort. You must go all out.
  7. Go as a brand name item! Do you know how many people sew Crayola crayon costumes? Or dress as M&M’s? If you dress as a Fresca bottle, others will be impressed with your effort, if not your imagination. But my sister once dressed as a Glamour Shot: just tackied up her face and wore a picture frame in front of it. I like that.
  8. Dress as a studly sailor, luscious lifeguard, muscle mechanic, perverted priest, or foxy fireman! These have been done so many times, but if all else fails and you really just want to get laid at the Halloween party, you can get into character and take advantage of your new persona.
  9. Dress as someone who has a menial job! This may be about as insulting as a hobo. But it can be fun to dress as a cafeteria worker and hand out scoops of peas, or be a custodian and push around a bucket of blue water and position wet floor signs wherever you go. Just make sure the party isn’t at a custodian’s house.
  10. Make a homemade costume of a popular character! When I was younger, I dressed as R2-D2. The problem is that I wrapped foil around a huge box (not a round box, mind you) and walked around holding flashlights under my costume’s various holes, moving them in a strobe-like fashion. Everyone thought I was a washing machine. It was devastating. My advice: if you make it at home, be clever and do a really good job, or just be willing to have your costume interpreted as something else.
  11. Be a ghost! The lamest of all costumes is great for teenage boys without imagination. Just make sure you use a white sheet. I remember a friend of mine at Briar Vista Elementary School went as a ghost. The problem was that the only sheet his mother would let him cut holes in had yellow and purple flowers all over it (think 1970’s flower design!).
  12. Dress as your parents! No need to say much else.
  13. Dress as a dog that can’t lick itself! Okay, this is another I know about from experience. Wear a cute fuzzy dog costume, cover your gonads with a giant Band Aid, and wear one of those huge Elizabethan dog collars around your neck. You’ll get a lot of lovin’ in this costume.
  14. Dress as an advertisement! Surely you’ve seen’s horrible dancing advertisements on the Internet. Those obnoxious ads that who dancing skeletons or women with big breasts. Hopefully they’ve gone out of business by now. Anyway, this costumes easy because all you need to do is line dance around wearing a poster that says click here for lower mortgage rates. This is a costume I’ve always wanted to try.
  15. Be someone of another ethnicity! This is a lot of fun. Dress as a Mexican, with a big hat and carry tortillas or push a little fruit Popsicle cooler with a bell on it. You could also dress as a small pushy Asian woman carrying pink plastic shopping bags filled with bok choy and keep pushing your way in front of everyone you see. These costumes are best carried off by Republicans attending cloistered Halloween gatherings.
  16. Dress as a superhero! Everyone loves a superhero in sexy tights and a cape. Come up with your own superhero concept and knock yourself out.
  17. Go as an FLDS woman! Be one of many brides living in a bleak suburban Texas subdivision wearing your teal dress with Rapunzel hair wrapped above your head in Sarah Palin fashion. There’s a website called, but you have to know the secret FLDS password (my coworker tried typing Warren Jeffs as the passcode, but it doesn’t work) . I confess, a few of us were looking to make this costume a reality this Halloween, but have had a hard time finding the perfect dresses at local San Francisco thrift stores. Unfortunately, I won’t have time when I’m in Boston tonight to go to Brookline for Orthodox Jewish dresses, which might be a good substitute.
  18. Don’t dress up! Just sit there in your house and eat the candy you bought to give to the little brats who won’t really show up. You bought six bags of Snickers, Milky Ways, and Almond Joys but you know that only two kids are going to ring your bell. Besides, name one kid who likes Almond Joy?

If you take any of my advice, please email me a photo of yourself. Happy tricks or treats.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Training myself not to be like others

Scene I, yesterday morning

I dragged my suitcase out of my hotel room, pulled it on to the elevator, and went downstairs. I inquired about the shuttle bus to the train station and airport, boarded the airport/transit center shuttle bus and slunk in to the bench seat behind the driver. The door reopened as a 60-year old woman with white hair stepped into the van. She was talking into her cell phone, her voice filled with exasperation. She had a polite face and her hair was pretty, pulled back from her face in a plain short haircut.

The van driver stashed the woman’s bag in the back of the van, and then he stepped up into the driver’s seat. The woman continued to talk on her mobile phone, asking if there were any other options, telling the person on the other end of the line that thirty minutes would not be enough. And then finally hanging up.

She smiled at me and raised her eyebrows. She said “My flight was cancelled."

“I’m sorry,” I replied.

“Well, I was able to get on another flight. But they had wanted to put me a on a flight that only had a 30-minute layover and I wouldn’t have made that flight.“ She shook her head and looked into her purse. ”You’ve got to be careful because they always try to pull that kind of stuff. “

I said, "I’m glad to hear it worked out," with a concluding clip to my voice. I returned to looking at emails on my phone.

A couple of minutes later, our shuttle van came to the end of a long line of traffic.

“Why is there so much traffic?” the woman asked the driver. But before waiting for an answer, she turned to me to say,” What nerve they have calling that an 'airport hotel.' It was the biggest dump I’ve ever stayed in. Don’t you think so?” She waited for my reply.

I wanted to make sure the driver was on my side and would take me to the transit station. I told her, "My room was actually pretty nice.” I avoided eye contact with her again.

I managed to avoid conversation after that until after she was dropped off . As she got out of the van, I wished her luck with her flights.

As soon as the van pulled away, the driver said to me, “People like that should stay at the goddamed airport if they want an airport hotel.”

My reply: “Yes, she was a mess.”

I gave the driver a tip and exited the van at the MBTA Blue Line Airport Station. The driver was an asswipe, but I wanted to appear the better of the two passengers. The self-searching began.

Scene II, two months ago

Brad and I are at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. We are looking at the baskets and crates of peaches and nectarines. It’s August and each of the organic fruit growers has a staff of shorts-wearing 4-H Club young men and women slicing pieces of fruit with grimy army knives and offering their bounty for our salivating tongues to test.

After a day of sampling white peaches and nectarines, trying apriums and plumcots, plums and apricots, and golden yellow nectarines and peaches, my hand reaches out for a slice of a white peach, handed to me by a worn out looking Asian woman. I take a bite and I turn around to look at Brad, and while I turn I say, “It’s not good.”

Brad tells me I said it too loud. I reply that it’s just her fruit, not her.

Scene III, one year ago

“Ugh, everyone who works here is just so incompetent. “ I said that. In IKEA once.

Scene IV, a few weeks ago

“No,” I said to the cashier. “It should be $1.99. That’s the price that’s on the shelf. I’ll go back and get the price tag from the shelf. “ I leave my purchases on the counter , holding up the line and return with the correct tag from the shelf. The cashier looks at it and says, “The price expired last week.”

I explain to the cashier that the price is what is hanging on the shelf and that’s the price I’m going to pay. I will pay $1.99, not $4.69. The cashier asks another cashier how to refund my money and they spend a couple of minutes at the register figuring out how to cancel the price while the line gets longer. The cashier hands me my change, and says that the shelf tag was there because somebody forgot to take it off --scorn for making her return my money. I explained it wasn’t my fault if the people stocking the shelves aren’t so bright.

As she handed me the cash, I noted a sign posted on the cash register. And asked about it: “What about your policy on this sign to provide me with a $5.00 gift certificate if the price rings up wrong?”

“That doesn’t apply in this situation,” she replied.

“It looks like it should. Will you please get your manager?" I asked .

She called the manager, who arrived a couple of minutes later. The line for the cashier behind me was really long by now.

When the manager appeared, the cashier explained to him the wrong price tags and that someone named Jesus needed to take off the tags and that I wanted to take advantage of their low price guarantee. She rolled her eyes.

The manager told her what to press on the cash register and handed me a $10.00 bill, apologized and said to have a nice day.

Scene V, last night

The setting: A small wine bar in Boston, called Piattini on Newberry Street.

Robin and I agree to order six small dishes to share and a flight of wine each. Our waitress is lovely, smiling, and very confident about the taste and the quality of the food. We eat tasty antipasti and a shrimp salad, and are served a most incredible veal and sage ravioli in a sweet cider glaze: One of the yummiest things I’d eaten in a long time. We also had pumpkin ravioli.

We also ordered polenta with sausage and red peppers. It sounded good, and Robin and I were easily in agreement to make this one of our tapas. It was served and I took a bite. It was, in fact, a truly horrible dish that tasted like what I would envision the flavor of boiled cartilage to be.

The sparkling waitress reappeared to make sure everything was completely delicious. And I said it was.

I am learning.

A great evening, nice company, good wine, and perfect food.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A whole lot of Meijer

If you don’t live in the Midwest, you likely haven’t been in a Meijer store. They are located all across the landscape in Michigan but you’ll find them in adjacent states, too. If you live in Oregon, you’re likely familiar with the Fred Meyer chain of stores. I don’t think there’s any connection between the two chains, although they are pronounced the same and they both carry anything you could possibly need.

Meijer is the place to be. If you need a peach for lunch or a futon at four o’clock in the morning, go to Meijer. You can buy the latest DVDS and televisions and phones. You can buy guns and hunting ammunition, and bright orange vests so other hunters don’t start shooting at you. You can buy Zoloft and lottery tickets, tents and candy bars from Germany and Britain, and gloves.

I remember driving my friend Anita, a fellow Georgian, to Ann Arbor, but the first stop we made in Michigan -- and the very first place she’d ever been in the state -- was the Meijer in Ypsilanti. Ypsilanti has an unfortunate Native American name that doesn’t translate well to a die-hard Michigan Midwestern accent, but that Meijer was the granddaddy of Meijer stores in my book. A massive parking lot of enormous Buicks and Fords and Chevys and Chryslers surrounded the store, and as we hopped out of the rental Corolla and made our way through the snow flurries across the parking lot, Anita knew, for the first time, what it was really like to be cold. We were there to buy gloves and other warm accoutrements, but the store left an indelible impression on Anita, just as it had on me five years earlier.

Picture it: a bright, cavernous store arranged into neat departments. Large families pushed overstuffed shopping carts with mirrors, fried chicken, chainsaws, live hamsters, Hanes briefs and 3-liter bottles of Vernor's and Faygo Red Pop. Meanwhile, the two of us shivered and huddled in the winter accessories department under a stack of University of Michigan and Detroit Redwings acrylic hats. Christmas music played on the loudspeaker, paused only by intermittent announcements about Meijer’s own macaroni and cheese being on sale, three boxes for a dollar, spoken by a woman with a meticulously flat Michigan accent (she succeeded at pronouncing every hint of a nasal syllable in her verbalization of m-yack-uh-rohwn-nheeeee). Anita looked around at the women in the store with their decidedly Midwestern hairstyles, different versions of cropped bowl cuts and pony tails with sculptural “uplifted” bangs in front. Many of them probably had had their hair styled just upstairs at the Meijer hair salon.

It was culture shock. There were no Meijer stores in Georgia. Combined with hairstyles, snow flurries, temperatures, accents and men walking around in hunting vests, I delighted in her efforts to take it all in. I had the same experience five years earlier when I first entered that same store. At the time, the store was called “Meijer’s Thrifty Acres” and sported an appropriately classy sign. I relished the thought that if I ever wanted to buy a dresser or lamps at 3:00 AM, I could just head over to Meijer to see what I could buy.

My friend Anne, now a professor at small liberal arts college about an hour from Ypsilanti’s Meijer, was my partner in crime at the store. We would compare our purchases of new pots and pans and baking dishes, as well as hammers and oatmeal (for baking her famous honey oat bars), all purchased at that Ypsilanti Meijer. I once went on a date with someone who worked there. And that’s where, as a sophomore in college, I bought a glass bowl, a ceramic castle, water purifying solution, and some blue pebbles, along with two bright live goldfish . My new pets swam around, their unemotional fish faces peering from the clear plastic bag that served as their fragile transport vessel as I rode the public bus home to my dorm room. I purified the water and dropped the two little creatures, whose lives were now in my hands, into their new domicile to swim endless loops in the fishbowl around the enchanted castle, together for as long as they both should live. They were dead a few hours later when I returned.

I rode the bus back to Meijer with the dead fishlets in the bag. I returned with two new ones to introduce to the lightly used accommodations, repurifying the water with a friend to make sure I was doing it right. This time they died within three days.

Perhaps it was something toxic in East Quad’s water – something that panicked me for only about a day – but I figured that fish shouldn’t have been taken from their big fish families (schools?). They just were in love with Meijer. They missed the cheery lights, the “fill your own Icee cup machine," the loaves of Meijer bakery white bread colored bright chartreuse on St. Patrick’s Day.

20 years later, I’m on a flight from Grand Rapids. Having just been in Michigan, I stopped in at two Meijer stores in the heart of Meijerland: one in Grand Rapids, the store’s hometown, and one in Holland, complete with an aisle of candies and cookies from Holland (the other one, with more progressive politics).

The barber shops are gone and the aisles have been brightened a bit, no doubt to compete with Wal-Mart and Target. But I bought bins of Michigan dried cherries, Dutch candies, batteries, and a defective telephone headset that I returned (hence, the purpose of my second visit to Meijer). I told my coworker to do his late-night shopping at Meijer, and he bought a decent pair of pants, a shirt and a tie to wear instead of shorts and a Hawaiian shirt at our interview today (I still say he would have had a good excuse, having flown right to Michigan from his honeymoon, without his suitcase, but he looked very Meijer chic).

A magnificent place. Meijer.

Hey Mister Meijer? Do you want to open a store in San Francisco on Market Street? I think it would appeal to those of us in Northern California who don’t like chain stores taking over our city. Nobody would know it’s a chain store because they don’t go to the Midwest, and they would flock there to buy all of your wonderful products. We need a gathering place to see what our own crazy hairdos look like in fluorescent lights, and to hear our own loudspeaker voices, maybe in the form of a speedy Chinese accent , booming over the intercom to tell us about “three for a dollar” Thai spicy flavored ramen noodles . I will wander in from the cold on a June day in San Francisco to buy “Alcatraz Psychiatric Ward” and 49ers gear shirts to protect me from the bluster. Just leave the hunting department back in Grand Rapids.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Mired in dullness

I haven’t had any work trips for a while. So I haven’t had time on the plane to take a break and write a few things. And now I just watched The Visitor from Row 3, Seat D, looking down on the Great Plains while a movie about America is showing on the small screen. The film is about an unlikely relationship between a dull old typical American male professor leading a dull suburban life and a family of undocumented immigrants from Syria and Senegal. They are scammed by one of the many scammers across this great land of ours who prey on immigrants.

It was a good story and is a good reminder of the need to break away from dullness. I’m sure it conjured up other thoughts for other people -- the need for immigrant rights, families being separated from one another -- but for me it was clearly about making a change in your life to avoid isolation, to avoid suburban plainness.

I get depressed about the thought of people living in the burbs. Those dull boxy two-story homes built in the 60s, 70s and 80s. I’m sure they are still being constructed in this century, but I try to look the other way. Those new housing developments from the nineties and naughts just look like strip malls with lawns.

The real suburbs were the neighborhoods I was envious of as a child. People lived in bright new homes with thick wall-to-wall carpet, had giant family rooms in a subterranean basement, and had a separate television dedicated to the Atari. They had big rectangular front yards, and even larger rectangular back yards, always fading off into a creek. Their lawns were perfect, with thick green grass growing right up the trunk of the magnolias and pines. Their driveways were perfectly paved in grey, taupe or blacktop.

The house of my childhood was one long floor, only three steps down to the sunken living room. It had an interesting ranch-meets-Lloyd Wright style, with cork floors and skinny horizontal windows. As a child it was far from the big clean newness of those suburban homes. It was in an older neighborhood close to downtown. It was where the not-so-“new” members of the middle class resided.

Today, I look at the matured suburbs from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. The once sun-covered lawns now shrouded in pine cones and pine straw falling from the trees on all sides. Some driveways have cracks and some have been repaved. Some houses have been remodeled and others look just as they were. The houses built for families with young children now house the adults of my parents’ generation. They live isolated, hopping in their cars for trips to restaurants in shopping centers and they watch as their home values decline.

Meanwhile, the people living in the one-story older houses have remodeled and re-landscaped. They walk to the new restaurants that have popped up here and there. They mingle with migrants, students, tourists and other people. Their children interact with other children and other adults at cafes. They go to the park not for a family picnic, but to walk around and smile and listen to music and rollerblade with other people. They don’t live isolated suburban lives, living in the denial.

Life’s a bit dull. I can’t shop for furnishings; I can’t travel far and wide; I can’t cook; work is too demanding. A remodel is happening and my money will be spent. It could be bad, and it’s not. It’s all good. Just a bit dull. But it’s all good. Same job for 14 years. Good. Overall it’s good. And when the house is remodeled, I won’t have to get in a car and drive to The Olive Garden for a drab dinner to make life feel very dull and isolating. I’ll walk down the hill to grab a bite to eat and walk around looking at all of the interesting totally freaky wacky people that can help make life less dull. Then I’ll walk back up the hill to look out at the vista of other people’s houses: the same people who were just walking around down the hill, now in their little dull houses.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Pink ribbons

Lots of pink shit everywhere. Everywhere you go, there’s a pink ribbon on something. Delta has pink ribbons painted on their airplanes. You can buy Special K Cereal that’s pink. You can buy beverages and flashlights and t-shirts with pink ribbons. Snacks are available with pink ribbons; computer companies sell breast cancer laptops. Games even have pink breast cancer editions.

A real pink ribbon is great. Pin a little ribbon on your lapel and show the world that you truly are concerned about breast cancer or are a breast cancer survivor. Talk about it. Donate money. Run marathons.

But, pink everything is annoying. I don’t want to associate the foods and beverages I purchase with cancerous breasts. The KFC Chicken Breast “Breast Cancer Awareness Collectors Family Tub-o-Chicken Parts” Dinner with pink stripes and a fake pink ribbon mofit is a really bad idea.
In Walgreen’s there was a pink products display of cards and flashlights and candy purses and pink CDs and all kinds of horrible crap manufactured in China. The sign perched above this stuff said that money from purchases would be donated to breast cancer organizations.

The problem is these little pink plastic creations are what is causing the breast cancer in the first place.

Eat Chicken Breast and we'll donate 10% of profits to make women's breasts healthier.

Pollution and Chinese plastic. Yes, let’s make more pollution and more little crappy pink things that show we’re a caring company and we’ll donate 1% of our profits to battle breast cancer!

But how does that work when those little pink keychains in Walgreen's that nobody will buy are reduced to 50% clearance and then 75% clearance prices? The only profits, then, are going to be for Walgreen’s and the smoking factories in Dongguan that make the pink things that will not be sold. They will end up in landfills and contaminate water supplies and poison the breasts of women everywhere because they happen to contain toxic red 11 or something like that. Even though toxic red 11 (or something like that) was discontinued in the USA in 1989 because it caused breast cancer. It is still, of course, probably, used in China and is being used to dye the little candies pink in the giant pink ribbon breast cancer candy pouch made in China.

Whoa. Ranty ranty ranty.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Bad fruit grows on trees

I’m really disappointed with the state of fruit in America. Here it is, summertime, and I can’t get a good plum. I miss that perfect mix of tangy and sweet, a tough smooth skin on the outside and a pucker of juice pouring though the skin when pierced.

My friend Mike gave me a pile of plums from his backyard. That was very nice of him. He has two or three varieties of plums, all of which look like oversized cherries. You see them hanging from trees across California.

He brought over a mix of red and purple plums and about a dozen greenies. I opened the oversized Target bag in which they arrived and salivated with glee. He’d told me about how good they were, so I picked up a little purple plum and gnawed into it. A beautiful red flush of juice accompanied my bite, but it tasted like a Winn Dixie plum: bad. Mushy, wet, slightly sweet, with almost no tart flavor. I tossed the rest of the plum into the open trash can and picked up another, this time with a reddish hue, and a little firmer skin. I took a bite and cringed. Sour and squishy.

I figured I was just having back luck, so I pulled out one of the green plums, almost the color of a bright sprig of grass. I examined its slightly chalky coloration – that unexplained film that plums seem to possess – and wiped it on my shirt. I took a bite. I took another bite. It was firm. It was slightly dry. It was very tangy. It was horrible.

Out with the recipes. My mom was in town when the Target plastic bag full of plums arrived from Mike. I voiced my displeasure with the three tastes I’d had and she immediately found a solution in the webpages of and Food Network. We were going to make a plum tart or plum jam, or maybe a plum cobbler or crisp. So she chopped up the plums – all three shades – and tossed the pits into the compost bin. Worried that the plum crisp recipe would be too sweet, she used only about one-half of the sugar that was to be added to the batter, took some walnuts I handed her to sprinkle on top, and put the concoction into the oven.

While the thing baked, I thought about the pleasure and displeasure of fruit. I like it dried. I like it freeze dried. I like it shaped into little fruit bars and added to salads. And I like it fresh when it’s really, really good. Give me cherries, peaches or apricots, but don’t give me bad ones. Years of bad bananas finally made me turn away from that chalky fruit. A wonderful cantaloupe thrilled me for two days last week, but the next one I bought tasted like a supermarket cantaloupe – bland and musky. A super-sweet watermelon I downed in New Hampshire a few weeks ago happily substituted for any cake I would otherwise have craved, but the watermelon I purchased in San Francisco tasted like water and melon. Give me cake.

The plum crisp that my mom baked tasted like a mix of cough syrup, lemon, and red food coloring, mixed with clumps of powder and stale nuts (I don’t blame her for that, and I don’t blame Mike either). I couldn’t eat more than a few bites. And when I turned away from the languishing cobbler, I took another look at that big Target bag of fruit. Another hundred plums to deal with.

Over the last few days about a dozen of those plums rotted, skipping the delightful brandied prune stage and going right to oozing wet rot. I pulled one little purple plum out of the batch. It remained blemish-free and firm enough to swell as I wrapped my mouth around it for a bite. It wasn’t too bad. Not great, but not too bad. I would eat more like that.

And dear Mike, whose inexhaustible tree continues to burgeon with fruit, has offered more plums. I may take him up on the offer. I might try one of the other recipes my mom dug up.

In the meantime, I’m addicted to Black Velvet apricots, which seem to be fuzzy little purple plums that are so packed with sugar, a whole pitcher of iced tea could be sweetened by one falling to the bottom. My friend Jesse just turned me on to Trader Joe’s frozen mango chunks, that were delightful enough to finish off in a couple of days. I will continue to buy fresh cherries until there are no more, hoping that one out of ten is sweet. I will pick the most perfect blackberries that grow in the back yard, pulling out a handful from the thorns each afternoon until summer is over, soothing my scratches with moisturizing cream.

Summer will end. We’ll be stuck with the apples that fall brings. Abundant and hard and dull, apples are a compromise we’re forced to accept until the stone fruit trees blossom again next spring and we can begin our seach anew for the perfect bite of fruit.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Bobbie's in town

Time for the annual 4th of July bowl over your face photo (this is what we do when we're incredibly bored in San Francisco on cold summer days).....

Can you figure out which is the mother and which is the son?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Avoiding sheds

I’m on my way home from Jones Island. Maybe you’ve heard of it? It’s a very small island in Highland Lake, which is a fairly small lake in New Hampshire (large by my standards, but small if you compare it to Lake Michigan or even Lake Winnipesaukee). Jones Island has only two buildings on it and is linked to the mainland by a pedestrian bridge, accessible only by foot in the summer months when the center portion of the bridge is in place. At all times of the year, the island can be reached by water and, during the winter, a snowmobile or skis would be an option.

The smaller of the two buildings is a shed that houses an old bed frame, some tools, and a couple of brooms and ropes. The shed smells like a shed. When you pry open the door, your nostrils fill with an expected damp mustiness.

The shed is one of those buildings that qualifies as a #3 building. A #3 building is a building you don’t really want to go inside. The experience of being inside is far less satisfying than the experience of being outside, and in almost any situation, when faced with a choice between being outside the shed or being inside the shed, even in a rain shower, the preferred option is to be outside the shed. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the shed is surrounded by blueberry bushes, and the shore of the lake is about three feet away, making the experience of being outside the shed even better than it would be if you were outside a shed in the middle of the desert or in a city or just a parking lot. Other buildings that would qualify as a #3 building include a rusty automobile service station, a decayed farm, or an old slaughterhouse. I tend to stay away from #3 buildings if I can. I think #3 buildings are responsible for environmental illnesses and phobias and stillbirths.

The other building on Jones Island is a #2 building. A #2 building is one that attracts you with its charm, usually from the outside, but makes you wish for more comforts when you’re on the inside. For example, an old farmhouse may be very beautiful, and you’re perfectly comfortable spending time there, but if you had the choice of leaving to go to an old mill out back selling hand-painted pieces of wood or a Wal-Mart Supercenter, you would probably opt to head for the jumbo parking lot so you could get inside and look at all the goodies Sam Walton pulled together for you: brightly wrapped plastic toys and appliances, an abundance of food and DVD choices. A #2 building is a nice place to be if you can be in the mood for it, but usually, people who spend too much time in a #2 building crave the experience of being inside of a #1.

The #2 building on Jones Island is a beautiful old turn-of-the-century (the 20th) two-story lake cottage. A non-functioning well in the kitchen, the neighboring tiny bedroom has a set of rusted bunk beds. Upstairs four twin beds fill the space of the shabby, but charming, sleeping room. A small parlor on the first floor is home to family memorabilia and antique furniture. Without running water, the cottage has a small room with a compost-generating mulbank, installed in the 1970s as an alternative to an outhouse.

The best part of the #2 building is the wrap-around porch, screened against the mosquitoes, but still offering its guests a peaceful view of the lake shore on all sides of the cabin.

Across from Jones Island, on the mainland, is another #2 house, this one with running water and arguably improved furnishings. I must confess I lied at the beginning of this entry. I didn’t actually stay on Jones Island: I stayed in the other #2 house because I value running water. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t stay on Jones Island next time I’m there, as I did last year when I was there, but this time I needed some modern convenience. Forced to choose between the Wal-Mart and the hand painted wood shop, I chose the Wal-Mart of the two #2 buildings (considering there weren’t really any #1 buildings around). You see, I’m living in a #2 building right now.

A #1 building is a building you really want to be in. Sure, it’s a Wal-Mart or a Bloomingdales, or a Red Lobster or French Laundry. It’s a building that’s well maintained where most of us want to spend most of our time. In a rainstorm, I’m perfectly at ease in a #1 house, whereas I might opt to get wet if my only option is a #3 shed (or #3 outhouse). When I need rustic relaxation, a #2 house is perfectly fine once I realize I can handle a daily Claritin to deal with the mold, paired with a set of Sudafed to unblock my ears that are left clogged even while the Claritin is at work. As long as I know it’s not a long-term stay, a #2 house is perfectly fine.

My previous house was a #1 building. It was very comfortable, quiet, mold-free, structurally sound, had a kitchen stocked with European appliances, and featured forced-air heat. It was clean and polished.

My new house is the opposite of my former home. Although it is cozy, it is not quiet when the windows are open, seems to incubate some spores (must have something to do with water running under the house), leans a bit and has very wobbly rear staircases, has no-name Chinese appliances in the kitchen ("Modern Kitchen" brand?), a small gas leak, and no heat. Ugly wallpaper in the living room and poor lighting do little to mask the other features of the home.

So why would someone trade “up” from a fully outfitted #1 flat to a million-dollar #2 fixer upper? A little bit of insanity perhaps? Yes, perhaps.

“Good bones,” people have said.

“Great views. It’s all about the views,” say others, trying to muster their best compliment.

The most positive has come from my friend Mike: “It’s so cozy.”

My #2 house is charming. It offers a splendid and sunny vista, drops us into a great neighborhood, affords three spaces for parking. It also has that magical word: p-o-t-e-n-t-i-a-l.

“It’s wonderful that the two of you can see the potential in this place,” is the comment that seems to make its way out of most people’s mouths, in one form or another.

Unfortunately, to reach the potential requires a lot of money. The plans have been drawn by our esteemed architect, Mark Reilly, and they’re nothing shy of brilliant. The structural engineer has sent something for me to sign, which I will do later today. The outcome of their efforts, not to mention a contractor, lots of subcontractors, and Brad and me, will be a #1 building. It will feature all of the charms that make it a pleasing #2, but with the added bonus of being comfortable, quiet, mold-free, structurally sound, and with a kitchen stocked with European appliances. Yes: forced-air heat, non-wobbling stairs.

But for now, the house is not so different from the #2 building on Jones Island. The best seat in the house is on the deck. The mold, leaks and creaks, and catawampus floors, suggest to me I have a figurative extended stay on Jones Island over the next year. I will just need to learn to expand my tolerance for #2 buildings, and head to Wal-Mart for a supply of Claritin and Sudafed when I need a #1 building experience.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Three perfect days in San Francisco

Just wrapping up the best three-day weekend. Sloshed down two expensive bottles of wine and looked out at the dreary and cool San Francisco weather. It seems like my friends are mostly out of town and those who aren’t are busy with other things. Let me share some of the wonderful things Brad and I did to pass the time.

Signed up for Netflix. Brad was desperate to avoid the lousy DVD rental places down in the new neighborhood (unless you’re looking for porn, the DVD rental options in the Castro are sad), so we signed up for Netflix. To get things started, he secretly downloaded a show for us to watch: Gay Getaways hosted by Greg Osborne. We sat in the kitchen on two hard wooden stools and ate a sad concoction of “spaghetti and corn” while watching perhaps the most pathetic television show host make his way around strip mall restaurants in Las Vegas. The show is so cringeworthy, you almost feel sad for the guy who keeps saying “Oh my God” and “Awesome” as he keeps moving his fingers toward his nose (cocaine addiction?). The best part of the show, however, is the theme song written and performed by the show’s personality-less host. The few people he seems to interact with on the show seem to be chuckling to themselves with embarrassment that they are being interviewed. But, because it drags on for so long and is so bad, it’s actually incredibly amusing, if you can put up with it. He would make the local cable access “Evening Magazine” television hosts in a place like Topeka seem extremely talented and insightful. Netflix is the best.

Spaghetti and corn. I mentioned it above but it deserves special second mention. We were pretty much out of everything in the house so I dumped spaghetti in a pot and added some corn and tomato sauce. It seemed a bit like something they would serve in a women’s prison on 'fancy dinner' night.

Spaghetti and corn is totally gross. I can't believe this horrible photo is on-line.

Farmer’s Market. Brad and I wandered around the Ferry Plaza farmers market. It had rained Friday night and was cool and dreary, so it seemed a good bet to head to the farmer’s market because it was doubtful that there would be a crowd. But those pesky tourists showed up and saturated the place. I ordered wild mushroom eggs at the lousy Hayes Street Grill booth (one of those restaurants where old white people go to eat broiled fish before the opera), picked up the pepper shaker and started sprinkling not only the pepper that poured out of the little holes, but also the rainwater and dirt that had accumulated under the pepper shaker, giving my eggs a bath in germs and wetness. The bright spot: we bought great cherries and stopped into Miette Bakery and got the yummiest French vanilla macaron.

Strawberry bread. I baked strawberry bread. Because all of the cookbooks are in storage for the next year, I found the recipe on the internet and made use of the gobs of fresh strawberries that are around.

The first strawberry bread was eaten in a few minutes. You see there are three more to go.

This strawberry bread is perched on the deck enjoying the view. I bought the cool little cardboard baking things at Daiso.

Chocolate bars. Out of sheer boredom, Brad and I watched Paula Deen make the totally gross things she makes. There’s a fun clip of her making Velveeta fudge on the Ellen show (click here to watch), skewering it, dipping it in caramel, dipping it in white chocolate, dipping it in nuts, and then Ellen trying to take a bite. Brad wanted me to make Velveeta fudge, but instead I pretended like I was Paula Deen and made homemade chocolate bars with Nestle milk chocolate chips (Do not buy Nestle chocolate chips: they are terrible. I can’t imagine that even food stamp central, otherwise known as Winn Dixie, could sell worse milk chocolate chips under their nasty Thrifty Made label). I made one apricot bar, one filled with coconut, one with rhubarb-cherry jam that I bought in a moment of boredom at Marshall’s, and one – the best of the bunch – with peanut butter. I think I will try again, but next time will use homemade cashew butter and Guittard chocolate.

Paula Deen: Eat your cholesterol-clogged heart out. I'm making chocolate bars.

Put more creams on my rashes. The screwy rash won’t go away. Horrible horrible Orr Hot Springs. That place should be shut down. Stay away!

Anyway, that's the wrap up of my finest moments. Can't wait until next Memorial Day.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Don’t drink the water

I cannot swim in this pool or sip its blue nectar.

I’ve stayed in many hotels where I haven’t been allowed to drink the water (for my own health). They were in Guatemala, in India, in Mexico, in Malaysia, in China, in Colombia … places where we delicate gringos get hit with puking disease when we have a sip. In India, my friend Abigail slapped a big square of duct tape over her mouth for each shower she took so she would avoid taking a sip.

I’m in the US right now, but was handed a letter upon check in to this Best Western that the water is unsafe to drink. They handed me two bottles of “Sunny Select Premium Drinking Water” and told me there were many more bottles if I needed them.

Apparently, the water is flush with bacteria: the Department of Public Works is doing work on the city’s water system under the main street through town. I was warned not to brush my teeth with the water, and the pool is barricaded.

I took a shower this morning. I did a good job avoiding swallowing the water. I have dutifully used my bottled water for brushing my teeth.

The person at the front desk this morning didn’t seem to want to give me any more water. "Didn’t you get some bottled water when you checked in?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “And I was told that I could come back and get as much water as I wanted.”

He harrumphed and passed me two bottles. I thanked him and returned to my room.

Now I watch CNN and see the desperate people in China and Myanmar who have no clean water at all. And no homes. And corrupt, horrible governments. And I will drive to the next town where I can drink the water.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Drug-addicted (sort of) at 40

I use drugs. I nearly freaked out on the teeny plane I was just on, the plane that took off from a location below sea level, wobbled its way into space on the border next to Mexico, swayed in the sky for about an hour, and dove to a landing at LAX.

I used to be a freaky flyer and had to pop an Ativan every time I flew. “I only take drugs when I fly,” was my response, and over the years I whittled that little pill down to something like an eighth of a milligram, just as reassurance that I had some nugget of calming wonder flushing out the freaky interference in my brain. I finally realized I was essentially taking a placebo, and stopped popping the tiny tranquilizing slivers. I had gotten over my fear of flying without drugs.

The airplane freak out happened for the first time on a flight from Tel Aviv to New York. Immediately after the plane took off, I panicked and didn’t know up from down, down from up, terrified for ten hours and finally passed out at some point shy of landing. On the ground in New York, the ticket agent told me I was welcome to hop an earlier connecting flight than the one I had scheduled, but I shot down the offer and tried to calm myself at utterly uncalm JFK for a few hours before finally taking my scheduled onward flight. After a lifetime of flying, at age 22 I became afraid of flying. Ativan came to my rescue and once again I regained the freedom to go wherever, whenever, arriving perhaps a little groggy but calm.

The freak out flight was precipitated by my second go-around with a vestibular neuronitis – an inner ear disorder that would occasionally flare up (usually overseas, due to an illness, or sometimes on its own in very polluted places) and I would begin to have balance problems. Being unable to maintain one’s balance is a horrible feeling, and led me to my panicky episodes on the plane, and sometimes in tunnels and on bridges and other locations.

In the last six or seven years of Ativan-free domestic flights, I’ve gotten a little antsy from time to time, but usually calm myself down after about 20 minutes. For really long, overseas flights, I’ve continued to pop a pill and enjoy a mellow journey that I will have almost no recollection of afterwards. Even puddle jumpers, which have become more and more abundant in our current state of air travel madness, have been perfectly normal floating environments for me.

So I was surprised that I decided to take half of an Ativan on my last flight. And because the drug is best taken an hour or two ahead for maximum results, I don’t think it did anything for me. I felt edgy and irritable and a bit panicky. Now I’m sitting in one of those first class seats on an A319, designed for people with big asses and long legs (and I will become one of them, without the long legs, if I eat anything else today). I feel perfectly at ease.

I’m more drug-reliant than many people I know. They’re all legitimate prescription drugs and I’m not being Dubya daughter or a McCain Barbie wife. I know I’ll never be addicted. I don’t like to take most of them, but do enjoy the comforts modern medicine offers us: Lunesta, Sonata and Valium each have their place in everyone’s medicine cabinet. Sudafed, Claritin, Horsepills of Ibuprofen: these are the modern wonders that help us cope with the modern problems.

I’m assuming that my latest freak out probably had something to do with stress, less than four hours of sleep last night, and lousy air quality on the US-Mexico border. Or maybe I’m just becoming a freak again and I should give up on all of this flying.

I just sold my house and now I should be calm. I should be really calm. And I should finally be able to sleep very well now that I’m not dealing with realtors and difficult personalities. So tonight, with an Ativan already in my system to stay calm, and a Benadryl waiting for me at home, to sleep well, I will medicate my way to the relaxed state of being that I should be now that there is less stress in my life.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Comfort food with dish

I’m just going to vent for a second. Not that I don’t always do that. The last few months have royally sucked.

My mom was counseling me yesterday, offering hope that these recent events will be the “worst thing” I ever encounter, before acknowledging that there will be worse things for me to deal with in the years ahead. “It’s been very rough, but worse things will happen.” She’s very optimistic.

Bad things will happen. Stressful things will happen. Some things have been miserable and some things have just been compounded white girl problems. Between Brad’s grandmother’s death, my uncle’s death, a very stressful house selling transaction (which has, by itself, fifty separate stress points), too much to do at work (and lately I’ve not been the best at staying on top of things), a few research things hanging over my head, a never ending allergy season, buying a new house, retaining a lawyer, asking tenants to move out, spending money left and right, death of a laptop, Brad’s unjustly towed truck by San Francisco’s corrupt DPT, feeling sick and getting this itchy rash from Orr Hot Springs, getting ready for a house remodel, almost a dozen cancelled flights, sleepless nights, and no vacation to look forward to.

So what am I to do? Well, I decided to go to Nate n’ Al in Beverly Hills for a bit of comfort food: A Reuben sandwich (It was too late in the day for a bowl of their delish stewed prunes).

Speaking of sandwiches. I loved French Dip sandwiches as a child. We’d go to Coco’s and I’d order one and think it was the fanciest thing I’d ever eaten, apart from caviar and marinated asparagus. I don’t remember where I ate Reuben sandwiches as a child, but I really liked them too. I probably ate them on fun-filled family trips to Ohio. Then I went vegetarian and then poultry-a-terian allowing me to discover Zingerman’s most wonderful Georgia Reuben (a turkey Reuben made with coleslaw rather than sauerkraut). I have been addicted to anything in the Reuben family ever since. And ever since my trip to Argentina a few years ago, when I became an omnivore, I’ve had a few Reuben sandwiches with corned beef and pastrami. That’s exciting.

Nate n’ Al serves a lame bland Kosher-tasting dill and an even more unsatisfying half dill pickle, along with a small serving or sauerkraut, all smashed together on a little plate. It doesn’t look particularly attractive, but it feels very ‘deli.’ The sandwich also comes with really good coleslaw on the side. I spread on top of the corned beef and cheese and Russian dressing. Yum.

Side dish: half-dill + bland dill + sauerkraut on a saucer at Nate n' Al

So that was how I dealt with the stress. I flew to Los Angeles, drove to Beverly Hills and ate. And then I got back to work and am currently on a relaxing flight back to San Francisco.

The good news is the buyers of my home signed their loan documents today, and I’m supposed to go to the title company and sign my loan-closing documents tomorrow. So I’m still crossing my fingers. Maybe the remnants of extra stress will go away and I’ll be able to return once again to my usual stressed out version of me. Without the bonus stress.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Orr Hot Springs’ creepy crawlies

Orr Hot Springs is a beautiful little hippie retreat near Ukiah in Mendocino County. Little cottages called yurts and creaky old crumbling rooms give the place a rustic feel. The hot springs complex is wedged between a hill of daffodils and a tree-covered cliff, and is the perfect place for nudists to flaunt their flesh and hop into communal tubs and bathroom tubs, soaking up the piped-in waters from the springs. A communal kitchen affords guests a place to store and prepare food, and a common room welcomes guests to gather and play games, play with the cats (stay away if you’re allergic!) or listen to music performed by a local legend.

The water smells a bit like it has high sulfur content. Or at least that’s what I thought it was. It turns out I might have been sitting in a tub full of infectious diseases.

I am scratching. The last time I got a rash all over my body was from Splenda, which pissed me off enough to name my ejournal Splenda Sucks. Now I’m trying to figure out if I need to secure I went to the doctor who told me I have a lovely case of bacterial folliculitis as a result of my time in an unclean tub. Considering my butt started itching within two days of leaving Orr Hot Springs, both the doctor and I are pretty confident that Orr is to blame. Little pimple-like bumps appeared at the base of each hair follicle on my tummy, and in patches on my chest, and under my arm. Add to that itchiness on my scalp and legs, I’m scratching away.

Of course, now I have a wonderful topical antibiotic, and a steroidal spray, priced for those without insurance at $266 a can and $403 a bottle, respectively. Fortunately, with my insurance, and a handy discount card the friendly Dermatologist Sam Ellison gave me, my out-of-pocket expenses were minimized. Now I just need to apply both medications twice each day and hope that my rashes fade as quickly as my desire to ever return to Orr Hot Springs.

My trip to Orr Hot Springs wasn’t especially wonderful. The bed in the old room was the worst I’ve slept in, and just trying to fall asleep was a challenge as I heard every other word that was muttered in the room next door. “Rustic” is a nice term to use, but I think it’s fair to add “uncomfortable” and “not very peaceful.” People were chatty in the group tubs, making it hard to find a quiet, private space. I suppose you can find privacy if you want to bathe in one of their bathrooms, but I can do that at home. In clean water.

Don't tell. Since I’ve acquired this lovely rash, a couple of people advised me to call Orr Hot Springs and tell them that they are spreading disease (and one encouraged me to call the Mendocino County Health Department), but others told me not to do that: that I shouldn’t let them know, because there's nothing the folks at Orr will be able to do about it. A friend of mine, on her way to Orr today, took my warning, but drew from her background in biology and expertise in pathogens to acknowledge getting folliculitis is a risk anyone runs by going to places like Orr. In a discussion I recently had with a few friends who’ve frequented Orr in the past, everyone agreed that the tubs take a long time to drain and people probably don’t wait around for them to drain (and to scrub them), instead plugging tubs back up, keeping the water ripe with dead skin, fecal matter and nasty floaties.

So I will take the advice of my doctor and avoid sitting in dirty water at Orr Hot Springs. I begrudgingly will keep my complaints -- and scratching -- to myself, just like I always do.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Northern Allegheny County offers a transit lover's treat

Driving. I drove more than 300 miles in the last 3 ½ days. I was also in cars and buses, not driving, for maybe another 60 miles. And on airplanes for more than 4,000 miles worth of travel. If a GPS tracking unit had been attached to me and some weird FBI agent was looking at my movements from a distance, he or she would wonder what I was up to. At least one bus driver did.

Of course the flying was linear. I got on a plane in one place and got off in another.

The more than 300 miles was not linear. And much of it was at speeds of 25 to 30 miles per hour. My GPS path would look like a bowl of tossed noodles because I didn’t really go anywhere. I just drove all over the northern half of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.

I actually drove all over the northern part of the county numerous times, taking turns at intersection after intersection and then retracing my steps down the same streets and the parallel avenues and through parking lots. I wove back and forth over bridges and drove around some blocks two or three times.

Learning the roads. Obviously, there was a purpose to this. In planner lingo, we can call it fieldwork. My objective: to learn as much as I could about the existing transit routes operated by the Port Authority of Allegheny County, the public transit system serving the greater Pittsburgh area.

I think I’ve got it. In preparation for the fieldwork, I spent a good bit of time reviewing transit schedules and maps, and looking at street views on Google Maps and at birds’ eye views on Microsoft Live Maps. Then I got on the plane to see them for myself.

It was wonderful to take a drive up Troy Hill and already know what to expect before I even got there: where the school was, what the “loop” where the bus turns around would look like, what grocery store I should expect to see before making a right turn. For the routes that I’d had the chance to preview, it was very easy to understand what was going on -- how those buses navigated the narrow roads, ran over the hill crests and the valleys, made tight turns and launched up grades that rival those in my hometown. For the routes I hadn’t had the opportunity to fully explore online, driving around was invaluable.

Some routes are very confusing. Pittsburgh’s street network is more complex that that of almost any other major North American City. For those routes that completely confounded me, I either rode the bus or followed behind in my rented minivan. This morning as I was following a bus operating along Route 11D, about 15 minutes into my excursion, the bus picked up a passenger at one stop and then pulled forward. Then it stopped again. And it sat there for 30 seconds. The next thing I saw was a very angry looking bus driver who walked behind the bus and headed right toward my van.

“What are you doing following me?” she demanded.

I had already rolled down my window in anticipation of this confrontation and greeted her with a smile.

I assured her I was trying to understand the route and complimented her excellent driving ability. She asked for "some sort of ID" and I promised her I wasn’t trying to freak her out.

She said it made her uncomfortable, having me following her everywhere she went.

"I'm really just trying to understand the route. From what I can tell, you're on schedule and doing a great job, " I told her.

Then she warmed a bit and headed back to the bus.

I followed her for another block and then turned to explore a variation the route sometimes follows. When I got back on the main road, she was long gone. I bet she sped the hell out of there or turned down another street so she wouldn't have to have me on her ass.

I wouldn't blame her.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Cheap vodka for oldsters

Old people. I know I have mentioned how old people love drug stores. Let me tell you about a particular pair of very old women at the downtown San Francisco Rite Aid.

These two seem to be in heaven in the aisles of that store, sorting through their pocketbooks for the correct change. Both wear head scarves, like my grandmother wore when I was a child, keeping their hair in place. One is taller, slightly more robust looking than the other, but with ruddy cheeks, dull gray eyes and hair that’s wispy and white, peeking out from under her olive scarf. She wears a faded powder blue raincoat over a dark plain dress. The other, small and thin, with a tremor and dark glasses, looks as fragile and frail as a nursing home patient. Her scarf, clear plastic with a white rim, tied neatly over a matte of chalky hair, covers her small quivering head. She also wears a raincoat, gray over a black frock. If I were to guess their ages, I’d put them soundly in their 90s, but perhaps they are just old looking 80-somethings.

As they waddle through their way through the store, they make their way to the Rite Aid aisle of booze. They spend a long time in the aisle, grasping a wrinkled Rite Aid circular, and then hone in on the vodka special of the week. The taller woman scoots one bottle – I think it is 1 ½ liters – off the shelf and puts it in the quaking hands of the smaller woman. Then she grasps a bottle herself. The two of them continue to scan the bottles, perhaps making sure they got the best price on the largest available bottle of vodka. Then they turn, again the tall one leading the small one, and wander to the register. They fumble for their change and hand wadded up bills to the cashier. The cashier takes their money and wraps their bottles in triple plastic bags. Then she turns to other cashier next to her. She giggles and rolls her eyes.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

All about show business

February was a low travel month, which was really nice for a change, especially since a bit too much was going on in my life. I’ve been able to keep travel limited in March too, but that is coming to an end. So here I am writing and sitting in seat 13 C on a Southwest Airlines flight to Los Angeles. I have to go to do some fieldwork and a bit of pitch-hitting on a survey that my colleague is managing in Hollywood.

Yes, I will be hanging out in Hollywood for the next two days, not enjoying the glamour of Lindsay Lohan’s and Heath Ledger’s wondrous lives, but instead seeing if there’s anything I can do to help with the down-and-out side of Hollywood, improving the transit services and developing a shuttle to make it easier to get around Tinseltown. In preparation for my trip to Hollywood, I’ve taken in several performances lately.

The Trampoline Hall Lecture Series. My friend Jesse Costello-Good roped me and Brad into this masterful performance. It involves an incredibly annoying guy from Toronto who is very excited about his own on-stage persona and repeats himself a thousand times. What he repeats are the ground rules and how exciting the performance is going to be. As an audience member, you think, “Gosh this Misha guy’s annoying, but he’s so excited about this, it might actually be good.” Then you discover that you’ve made a mistake.

The premise is that the Trampoline Hall Lecture Series assigns a lecture topic to an individual who has no expertise whatsoever in the subject matter. That individual must prepare a convincing lecture and present it to the audience.

The first lecture was dull. The audience’s questions were completely useless. I went to the bar and got another gin-and-tonic, because I expected the remainder of the evening to be an unrivaled experience of blandness. The second lecturer was a space-cadet of a young woman who gave a talk on different forms of gangrene and how to amputate a leg in the event of frostbite or gangrene. It didn’t really fit together so well, but her delivery was amusing because she clearly had flunked basic high school biology. She used an overhead projector to sketch how to make incisions and illustrate how to spot gangrene. It reminded me of my high school anatomy and physiology class.

The third lecture was absolutely terrible: a stand-up comedian sort of guy talking about something I can’t even recall. I just remember it was bad so we left, picking up a photo of my keys (they took photos of audience member keys for no purpose whatsoever).

I saw a performance of Sonny’s Blues. The Word-for-Word Theater Company in San Francisco usually presents compelling short stories with even more compelling performers who act out the text from a short story. In this case, the James Baldwin tale proved to be monotonous, dragging me down and keeping me squirming in my seat during this intermission-free performance. Combined with the fact that the venue, the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, seems to offer San Francisco’s most uncomfortable seats, I was thrilled when Sonny’s Blues ended. Some of the performers were very good, but the lead actor’s monologues were exhausting.

Gurglegurglegurgle. The third show I saw was a live music performance: throat singers playing traditional instruments. Hailing from Tuva, the Siberian republic that once enjoyed a short-lived period of independence and now is part of Russia, the four men who perform as Huun-Huur-Tu sat in their very Tuvan garb across the stage. They twiddled and plucked their beautiful instruments while controlling their vocal cords to emit low-octave croons and high pitched whistle-like melodies. The “young, beautiful one,” as he was called by the leader of the band, gave an impressive unaccompanied (by instruments) solo. I soaked it all up. I was relaxed, sometimes even mesmerized by these nomadic performers. I drank sparkling juice and zoned out, my mind tromping about in the snowy Tuvan countryside.

All of that relaxation is gone now. I suppose a performance of 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother smothered it. (Okay, not really true. I would blame that on real estate transactions and workloads and other annoyances). Judy Gold did a fine job of communicating the lives of Jewish mothers, but the performance wasn’t especially funny. It had touching moments, and plenty of over-dramatized ones too, but some good story-telling kept my interest. My main concern was that it was going to be a very long performance. I kept waiting for the intermission that was indicated on the printed program, thinking to myself, “Oh my God. If this goes on any longer, we’re going to have to leave at intermission.” Thankfully, intermission was also the conclusion.

No performances scheduled this week. I’ll have to find something else to look forward to.

Friday, February 29, 2008

San Francisco house for sale

I haven't had any flights this month, so I haven't had any time for blog blab. Forgive this shameless plug, but I know of a really great flat for sale in San Francisco's hip Lower Haight. Check it out and tell your friends.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Cheers to Michael Jay Miller

Pittsburgh. In the last three months, I’ve been to Pittsburgh three times. The first time was for work, to begin a study for the Port Authority, to redesign the transit system in Allegheny County. Most of my days were spent in meetings and doing fieldwork with Port Authority staff, exploring the busways, riding the light rail lines and buses, and watching the buses circle the streets in downtown Pittsburgh. While I was there I managed to squeeze in a dinner with my Aunt Kathi and Uncle Mike, and we had a fun time at Lidia Bastianich’s restaurant in the Strip District.

My second trip to Pittsburgh was the following week, for Thanksgiving with my family. My mom headed into town, as did my sister and her husband and kids. Cousins came from Cleveland to join the celebration as my Uncle Mike and Aunt Kathi took us to Pittsburgh’s Grand Concourse. We made a visit to Fallingwater and arrived back at my aunt and uncle’s house to watch my niece and nephew crawling all over Uncle Mike.

I’m on a flight now, heading home from my third visit to Pittsburgh. I was supposed to stay until later this week, but am returning two days early because I threw my back out this morning. Nothing sucks more than that.

Something sucks more. I’m coming home from the funeral of my Uncle Mike. The guy I’ve known since I was born; the guy who was the face of Pittsburgh for me. Uncle Mike was my mom’s younger brother, nine years younger than she. He was supposed to live for a long time. But he died of a series of strokes, with complications in the hospital including a collapsed lung, pneumonia, a heart attack, and surgeries gone awry by inexperienced medical staff. My mom spent the last month in Pittsburgh with my Aunt Kathi at my uncle’s bedside hoping for the best news, but getting the worst.

I won’t remember him for the medical problems and hospital debacles that marked his last days. I’ll remember him for picking up the much younger version of me and throwing me around, for swinging me in circles and tickling me endlessly. I giggled without a break, screaming “uncle,” the universal code word for “stop tickling me,” appropriate when shouted at him.

I’ll remember him for standing in the Farrell’s Candy Store, after we shoveled down ice cream parfaits, and telling my sister and me that we had three minutes to get as much candy as we wanted. He was paying. No limits. And I remember my sister and I had the hardest time deciding what to buy.

I remember him at his wedding, where I was a junior groomsman in my rented charcoal tux. And at my Bar Mitzvah. And at my high school graduation. And my college graduation from Michigan, the arch-rival of his beloved Ohio State. He came to all of them. He was there to celebrate with me.

I remember going to Disney World with him. I did it as a child and I did it as an adult.
Other than Walt himself, no one was more of an expert on the Magic Kingdom, Disney-MGM Studios, Epcot, or Disney’s Animal Kingdom than Uncle Mike. He had a passion for it and liked sharing it with friends and relatives.

I remember that he gave me tickets to the Michigan-Ohio State game in Columbus. He had season tickets and couldn’t make the game, so my friend Anne and I sat in the Ohio State Alumni section, next to 80-year olds knitting crimson and grey sweaters and scarves. Anne and I shouted and cheered for Michigan. Michigan won the game and I got slugged in the shoulder by an unhappy Ohio State student.

I remember that he was addicted to his Marriott Rewards points. And the Cleveland Browns. And Costco. And Bernie Shulman’s.

I remember going out to eat with him. He couldn’t have “third world food.” He couldn’t have anything with vegetables. He freaked out when my mom told him the zucchini bread she baked -- the one he was enjoying – was, in fact, zucchini bread and not coffee cake. He spit it out on his plate. And I remember he only liked to eat pizza and fried chicken and hamburgers and milkshakes, and donuts for breakfast, and beer and cheesy eggs and pepperoni rolls. And that’s what was his downfall.

Uncle Mike sure knew how to carve a beast.

At least 200 coworkers and friends and relatives flooded the funeral home, all saying wonderful things about him. “A mild-mannered guy, listened to everyone’s yammering, went out of his was to solve problems and help people.” An unlikely good guy. His death notice appeared in Pittsburgh and in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

It’s been a rough few weeks for my mom and my uncle’s wife and kids.

And a sad five days I spent with them all, trying to celebrate the life of my Uncle Mike, wishing I hadn’t had to make the third trip to Pittsburgh.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Wigdoll freaks me out and other recent photos

I have taken a few photos recently that I would like to share.

First is a sweet baby.

This little doll is bald. But she is modeling her favorite wig. She is a fan of Loretta Lynn.

I also saw the Statue of Liberty. In Tennessee.

Here Brad and Courtney sport a serious pose in front of Lady Liberty.

And here is Lady Liberty, cross in hand, in all her glory without the heathen blocking your view. She's in front of a massive church, across from a religious bookstore, a rent-to-own store, and a minimart.

Belated Christmas.

I dressed up for Christmas. I got the nose from my Secret Santa at work. I got the antlers at the office holiday party. Everyone got them.

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