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Here comes Winter

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The Bay Area—all of California, actually–has had the most exquisite weather for the last 3-1/2 months. I always complain about our “summers” because, let’s face it, “summertime” in San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley is no bargain. My body longs for warmth, but warm days are rare: Mark Twain’s alleged “coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco” is most apt.

I mean, once the winter-spring rains cease (which in 2018-2019 didn’t happen until May), doesn’t one have the right to expect a spell of warm weather? However, we almost never get it, what with “June Gloom” and July fogs and winds that bring down a scent of glacial chill from the northwest. I can almost smell the Aleutians which, while 2,000 miles away, seem to heave their icy winds across the unbounded seas straight at us. July, frankly, can be a drag.

September and October have long been celebrated as our best months, weather-wise. But August can be iffy. If August follows July’s lead, August, too, continues the disappointment of no-summer. But in this year, 2019, we had the most beautiful August in my memory, which now spans 40 years of life here. Every day was more perfect than the previous. Temperatures of 80 degrees and more were common, with no humidity, under preternaturally blue skies, and hardly a hint of fog. Then came September, and the loveliness continued. Surely nowhere on Earth had better weather than we, in that now-gone month. In October, the days shortened, but remained glorious: shirtsleeves and shorts weather. This three-month spell of perfection—August, September, October—was intimidating, though, for I knew that it could not continue. Winter must come, finally, with its clouds, cold, winds, rain and, in the hills, snow.

So I greeted November with apprehension. Now here we are, with the month one-third over, and while summer is most definitively gone, the weather has remained tranquil. It’s cold in the mornings—cold for the Bay Area, anyway, with temperatures in the 30s in wine country, in the high 40s here in Oakland. But while the sun grows feebler with each tick of the clock until the equinox on Dec. 21, when it does rise low in the sky in the afternoon, one can take off the outerwear one dons for protection against the morning chill. One of my favorite places to enjoy afternoons is in the outdoor café of Whole Foods, which is wind-protected and gains the full impact of the afternoon sun.

No rain has fallen on us since last Spring. Well, we did have an oddball downpour in September, but it was from the remnants of a Pacific hurricane that drifted up through the Central Valley—not a rare occurrence in late summer or early autumn, but not really indicative of an early start to rainy season. The meteorologists are now saying that there’s no rain in the forecast as far out as they can see, which is about 15 days, so it may be that November is rainless. I knock on wood as I say that: we could have a real drencher by Nov. 30, and, after all, we always need the rain. My intellectual opposition to drought was always in constant battle with my animal love of dry warmth, during the drought years of 2011-2015; whenever it rained, I groaned, and Gus, even more than I, detests rain, and does his best to avoid going out in it. Not that he can: I am, after all, the Boss of this outfit. So he slinks along, tail between his rear legs, his ears droopy, with a hangdog look on his face.

So I’ll enjoy the dry weather as long as I can. December will be here soon enough: if it behaves as it has in the past, December will come howling into town with soaking rains and bone-chilling cold. By December, all hope of Indian summer will be vanquished. There is no Indian summer in December; winter arrives determinedly, planting its feet stubbornly on the land, and not prepared to recede until next May, or even June. And one thing I’ll never be able to figure out (as Mark Twain couldn’t, either): Why does a 44-degree winter day in San Francisco feel so much colder than a 17-degree day in Manhattan? It is, like much else in life, a mystery.

Have a lovely weekend!


California Report: Glorious food and wine, horrible wildfires

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Marilyn came to dinner yesterday at my place in Oakland, continuing a tradition we’ve had for 30 years. It was a warm-to-hot day: glorious for me, too warm for her, as she’s born and raised in Pacifica, on the ocean, where the climate is considerably colder and wetter than here in inland Oakland. I thrive on a 90-degree day; she hates it, but on the other hand, when I visit her, I must remember to bring layers, particularly if we’re walking the dogs on the beach.

Here’s my menu. I called it “An Impeachment Dinner” because both of us are waiting for the day when Mr. Trump and his Basket of Deplorables no longer are around:

Old-fashioned pea coup with shu-mei dumpling

Ahi tuna poke salad

Rieussec “R 2017 Sauvignon Blanc

Wild Mushroom and Burrata Bruschetta

Longoria 2011 Bien Nacido Pinot Noir

Cookies

I always make my own pea soup (with a ham hock, of course) and I daresay it’s the best I’ve ever had. The idea of crowning the bowl with a shu-mei came to me in a flash. I buy my shu-mei (and other dumplings and Chinese pastries) from a little hole-in-the-wall bakery in Chinatown; it has no tables but always there’s a line out the door onto the sidewalk. I thought putting a shu-mei into the soup would make it the fusion equivalent of Jewish chicken soup with a matzoh ball. It was fantastic; highly recommended.

We followed that with the ahi tuna poke salad. I used to serve my ahi tuna on a chip of some kind (potato, shrimp) or on toasted bruschetta but lately I’ve preferred mixing it into a salad: greens, cukes, little cherry tomatoes, avocado, sprouts, and in this case I threw in some persimmon seeds because they’re in season; the sweetness added a marvelous layer.

The wine was unusual, the first time I’ve ever had Rieussec’s “R”. Chateau Rieussec is, of course, a 1er Grand Cru of Sauternes; located next to Chateau Yquem, it’s one of the great sweet wines of the world. But they also make “R”, a bone-dry wine, from the same grape varieties: Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. I absolutely loved it: it was what the French call sere, very dry, with great, mouthwatering acidity and subtle but powerful citrus and herb flavors. A wonderful wine, and it paired well with both the pea soup and the poke salad.

I knew I wanted the Longoria Pinot Noir for my third course, but spent the better part of a day trying to figure out the food. I thought of lamb, naturally, but that seemed a little heavy, after the first two courses (both very rich). Gillian, one of my pals from improv, and an amateur chef, suggested mushroom duxelles, and for a while, that was my choice. But later I switched courses and decided instead on a variation, the mushroom and burrata on bruschetta. I marinated the sliced shiitakes for a couple hours in garlic, rosemary, lemon zest, salt, pepper and EVOO; that imparted a delicate, savory kick. Then sautéed them for a few minutes before topping the rustic, toasted long bread (from Acme) and scooping on a blob of the sweet, creamy burrata. A sprinkle of toasted black sesame seeds provided visual interest.

Very good, and the pairing with the Pinot was really perfect. This Pinot was eight years old. That’s a pretty safe age for a top-quality California Pinot Noir. Rick Longoria, an old friend, is a master winemaker, and the Bien Nacido Vineyard is, obviously, one of the best and most famous in the New World. So I had very little doubt it would be great, and it was. It was bone dry, so it made a nice followup to the dry “R,” and was subtle in fruit, herbs and earth. The vintage, 2011, was a tough one: cold and wet. But many vintners succeeded in making red wines that were not as fruit-bomby as usual, to the credit of the wines. The Longoria was a connoisseur’s wine: not immediately flattering, but complex, slowly revealing its charms, and a spectacular accompaniment to the bruschetta. Then, for dessert, I took the easy way out: bought a bunch of different kinds of cookies.

The wind really picked up last night: the Red Flag Warning was apt. PG&E has, as I write, shut off power to hundreds of thousands of people, but—also as I write—there’s a huge, out-of-control fire in Sonoma County, east of Geyserville and Cloverdale (they’re calling it the Kinkade Fire). I just emailed Jo and Jose Diaz, who live in those hills. They’ve been evacuated before (during the Wine County Fires of 2017), and I hope they’re not evacuated again; but I fear they have been.

As if that’s not bad enough, the weather forecast for this weekend—two or three days hence—is for even fiercer winds, comparable to those that drove the Wine Country Fires which, as you know, were absolutely devastating. One thing I don’t know (because it hasn’t been reported) is whether or not PG&E shut off the power in the area of the Kinkade Fire. I suppose we’ll find out shortly.

So that’s the irony or paradox of our glorious Autumn weather: the most beautiful in the world, but so perilous, with these awful fires that ride the offshore winds and continue as long as those winds blow.


Loma Prieta: 30 years ago

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Tomorrow is the 30th anniversary of the Loma Prieta Earthquake, the 6.9 magnitude temblor that wrecked large parts of Northern California.

I remember it well. I was living in Oakland and working as a stringer, or freelance reporter, for the Oakland Tribune newspaper; I’d been assigned a little story for the regional section of the paper (“local girl wins kite-flying contest”) and was interviewing her father over the phone. I was in Oakland; he was in Walnut Creek, about 16 miles away to the northeast. At 5:04 p.m., I felt the first tremor and told him, “We’re getting a little earthquake.”

“Nothing here,” he replied.

“It’s not so little.”

“Now I’m getting it.”

“It’s big! Gotta go!”

Loma Prieta Mountain, the epicenter of the earthquake, in Santa Cruz County, is about 71 miles south of Oakland. Earthquake waves travel an average of 4 miles per second. Since Walnut Creek is further away from the epicenter than Oakland, it took about 4 seconds longer for the waves to reach the kite girl’s father; and our phone call was a vivid illustration of that time delay.

As I hung up the phone, I heard various objects in my home crashing to the floor: wine glasses, framed photos and the like. Outside, car alarms were blaring. The entire house shook violently—and then stopped. A terrible silence ensued, except for the car alarms. The whole thing had lasted a mere 15 seconds.

I ran over to my next door neighbor, Robert’s, place and banged on the door. When he opened it a cloud of marijuana smoke drifted out. “Robert!” I gasped. “Was that the Big One?” All of our electric power was now gone, but Robert had an early-model battery-powered T.V. Its screen was only four inches wide, but he was able to get one of the local San Francisco television stations that remained on the air via their generators. When the announcer said that the Bay Bridge had collapsed, Robert and I almost became hysterical.

The bridge hadn’t collapsed, after all; a portion of the upper deck had, and several cars plunged into the breach, killing one driver. The most deaths occurred on a 2-mile stretch of the 980 Freeway in Oakland (on which I’d driven earlier that day): the upper deck pancaked onto the lower deck, crushing hundreds of cars and killing dozens of drivers. It had been rush hour; the only reason more people hadn’t been on the freeway and died was because the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s were playing against each other in the World Series, at Candlestick Park. Most of the Bay Area had taken the afternoon off to watch the historic ballgame.

A month or so later, I was in the city room of the Oakland Tribune, meeting with my editor on another story, when the paper’s general manager entered and yelled that he had an announcement. The fifty or so people in the room immediately gathered around in silence. No one had the slightest idea what he was going to say.

What he said was, “I am pleased to announce that our newspaper has just won the Pulitzer Prize!” A tremendous cheer went up; the Trib always had a bit of an inferiority complex, and it was amazing to be in that place, at that time, when so many hard-working people felt their efforts had at last been recognized. The specifics: one of our photographers, Michael Macor—with whom I had often worked—had snapped the pictures of the collapsed, smoking 980 freeway, pictures that were reproduced around the world and became, with other images such as the fallen houses in the Marina, the graphic symbols of the Loma Prieta Earthquake.

We here in the Bay Area, as well as other Californians from Los Angeles to Bakersfield to Santa Rosa and who knows where else—live with the possibility of “the Big One” looming at the edge of our minds. Earthquakes are our hurricanes, our potential Katrina: we had a 4.5 magnitude just a few miles from my house the other day, a reminder from the San Andreas network of faults that it is ready to rupture anytime. I went to Grocery Outlet yesterday and stocked up on canned foods to join my bottled water for my earthquake supply kit. This is the reality we live with in California: the possibility of a major disaster, in which we may be on our own for a considerable amount of time.


Stonewall: 50 years and counting…

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On this fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising I share my experience with AIDS.

In the early 1980s I was living in San Francisco, in the Castro District, which was one of the epicenters of the epidemic. The gay press (free newspapers like The Sentinel and the Bay Area Reporter) were reporting on some strange diseases which were popping up in gay men in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. At first, they called it the “gay cancer,” because many of the men were diagnosed with Kaposi’s Sarcoma. Later it was termed GRID: Gay-Related Immuno-Deficiency. Only later was AIDS decided upon as the official terminology.

Gay men in San Francisco—my community—were dying like flies. Fear and panic were palpable. Science couldn’t determine the exact cause, but it sure looked like a sexually-transmitted disease. As things got worse and worse, and there was no official response to the disease, volunteer efforts arose in the Castro. One of these was Shanti Project. People could volunteer to help those afflicted with the disease. I decided to join, in the Summer of 1983.

It was a very busy time in my life. I was going to graduate school fulltime, and working fulltime. Beyond that, I had become a serious runner, jogging every day, and was going to the gym four or five days a week. I also had found my first boyfriend, Eugene, a lovely, spiritual man, with whom I was living and trying to make a life. I didn’t have much spare time to devote to taking care of seriously ill, dying men. But it had to be done.

My first client was a man named Jim. When I first called on him, I was shocked; easily 6’2” in height, he’d wasted away to below 100 pounds. He was grateful to have help cleaning his apartment, shopping for food, and just talking; he was in desperate straits, and many of his former friends had deserted him. The most poignant moment for Jim and me was when he asked if we could lay down in his bed, and hold onto each other. “It’s been six months since I held a man in my arms,” he said, his eyes moist with tears. It wasn’t a sexual request; it was simply the request of a frightened man for human contact.

A million thoughts raced through my head. Nobody knew how AIDS was spread. The Shanti Project people, basing their conclusions on the latest knowledge, told us volunteers they didn’t think that casual contact could be contagious, but they couldn’t guarantee it. For me, the rubber hit the road: what to do?

There was no way to deny Jim his request. He was so sad, so scared, so wonderful. We spooned on his bed, him in back, holding onto me for dear life. I decided I wouldn’t end it until he did. We lay there for perhaps fifteen minutes, when he thanked me. A month later, my manager at Shanti called to tell me Jim was dead. Did I want another client?

I did. My manager told me that she had in mind for me a guy named Gary, who was a bigwig in Shanti Project. He was on the Board of Directors; he was a well-known political figure in San Francisco gay politics. He could be difficult, she warned me: demanding and peremptory. But she thought I could handle it.

I went to his apartment regularly. He would almost always be in bed, watching T.V. or reading. I don’t think we exchanged two words for the six months I helped him. It was the way he wanted it; I wasn’t there to chat but to assist him however he wanted. I laundered his sweat-soaked sheets, washed his dishes, cleaned his toilet, vacuumed the rugs. Then one day, when I was at work, came another phone call: Gary had died.

I myself never came down with AIDS.  But a lot of people I knew did, and died from it. It was a terrible time, made worse by the likes of hideous haters like Anita Bryant, Jerry Falwell and the rest of the homophobic “Christian” evangelical community. I learned during those years who the enemy was. They’re still out there, now morphed into Trump Republicans but no less hateful, harmful and dangerous.

Nearly forty years ago I made it my life’s work to challenge these horrible people. We in the LGBTQ community have come a long way, with gay marriage now legal and gay people allowed to serve openly in the military. But we still face massive challenges. Anita Bryant is now a mere factoid from the past and Jerry Falwell ls dead, thankfully; but the homophobes are on the rise, empowered by the hater-in-chief, Donald Trump. These people will never stop. Neither will I, and neither, thank God, will the tens of millions of gay people and their friends, who will resist returning to the bad old days. So, on this important anniversary, I say “THANK YOU!” to all the LGBTQ people who put their lives on the line in the struggle for equality. And I ask younger LGBTQ people, who did not go through what we did, to please not take your civil rights for granted. What government has granted us, government may take away, if we’re not eternally vigilant


Poor Oklahoma, and Trump lies again (about Iran, this time)

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My mother, who would be 104 years old if she still lived, was a native Oklahoman, born and bred. Her parents settled there before it was a state, when it was still Indian Territory, in the year 1907. Her father, my grandfather Harry, co-founded the first Jewish synagogue in the state.

Mom lived long enough (until 2005) to see Oklahoma become one of the reddest states in the nation. She never could understand it. Her Oklahoma was Democratic—the Oklahoma of Bob Kerr, Carl Albert, David Boren and, yes, Will Rogers. Between 1907 and 1973 Democrats averaged 81 percent of seats held in the state legislature.

But something happened in Oklahoma in the last fifty years. Conservatives, led by evangelical Christians, took over the state, and pushed it to the extreme right. Mom was appalled; she would joke mirthlessly that her Oklahoma relatives were the last living Democrats in the state. She had nothing against Christians. She just couldn’t understand why they were hell-bent on imposing their religion on everybody else.

The last picture ever taken of my mom, by me, is of her with a Kerry-Edwards button on her sweater. It was shortly before the 2004 Presidential election, which the Democrats lost. George W. Bush was re-elected. Mom despised Bush; an avid T.V. news watcher, she would mute the sound when Bush was speaking. She could not bear his voice.

I do the same with Trump. I guess I inherited that from mom. I certainly inherited her Democratic values. When I was a little boy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the mortal equivalent of God in our household. Almost as exalted in status was Adlai Stevenson. I grew up respecting Democratic politicians, who (as I learned from mom) loved the common folks, the workers, the school teachers (which mom was), the laborers. Republicans, I came to understand, stood for the rich, who exploited common folks. In my 73 years, I have seen no evidence to indicate that anything has changed. If anything, the Republican Party has grown even worse. Nowadays, they stand, not just for the rich, but for a class of ignorant, superstitious and bigoted “Christians,” a word I put in quotes because there’s nothing particularly Christian about the people who support Trump. If anything, they’re fundamentalist theocrats, the American equivalent of the Taliban.

I sometimes wonder why my mother was such an ardent Democrat. I regret that I never asked her. Did she inherit it from her parents? Why would Russian Jewish immigrants who moved to Indian Territory have become Democrats? I can only speculate, but I think it was because my grandparents truly believed in the American dream, that all men are created equal. Even 100 years ago, Republicans were preaching the gospel of exclusion and wealthy male privilege. Republicans stood against people of color and the poor, against immigrants whom they tried to bar from entry. Mom instinctively rebelled against such smallness and pettiness.

Mom didn’t have all the answers. But her heart was large. She was engaged in the search for answers. That’s what I love about Democrats: their large heart. Does anyone think Trump has a big heart? Does anyone think Republicans have hearts? Please.

* * *

Anyone who believes what Trump said about not bombing Iran because he was concerned about the potential loss of life, is an idiot.

Trump doesn’t care about anyone’s life except his own and his family’s. He couldn’t care less if 150 Iranians, or 15,000 Iranians, died in a U.S. attack. As long as his base was pleased, so would he be—and of course his base would be pleased because they hate Moslems and Arabs, and they think the only good Iranian is a dead Iranian. So this nonsense that 150 deaths would have been “disproportionate” is just another Trump lie.

Here’s what Trump was really up to. He knows he needs to mend his polling numbers, and fast. He knows the reason he can’t rise in his favorability ratings is because too many Americans think negatively about his character and morality. Therefore he must do something to prove otherwise: show the world that he’s a man of deep compassion and morality. Trump thereby graduates from Trump the Disgusting to Trump the Caring Man, the Savior of Human Life.

This is an opening salvo of his re-election campaign. Expect more demonstrations of his human-ness, his humane-ness, his spiritual side. It will be laughable; this man is about as spiritual as a vulture. But he can pretend to be, in the hope that just enough credulous voters will think that he’s not as bad as they’d previously thought, or, maybe, that he’s maturing in office. A swing of, say, 1 million, spread among the States he’s going to need (Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida) could get him a second term.


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