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Happy Thanksgiving!

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I’m alone today, the first time I’ve ever been alone on Thanksgiving.

For decades, the Northern California branch of the family made our way down to Malibu, to eat and be with the Southern California members, plus whoever happened to be visiting from other parts of the country or world. Sometimes cousin Loretta would fly in from New Jersey; sometimes Rebecca and Jesse would fly in from Hong Kong; sometimes cousin Alan would make it here from his base in South Carolina, or my niece Janel and her family from their home in West Seattle. At times, we’d have at least twenty people, which meant my cousin Ellen, our hostess at her home in the Malibu hills, had her hands full preparing a massive feast with all the trimmings.

But over the years, our numbers diminished. People died. Those who didn’t die succumbed to the ravages of age, which makes traveling difficult. Families moved away, raised kids, and began their own Thanksgiving traditions; they didn’t have to go to Ellen’s anymore. And now, here we are, Thanksgiving 2019, and, as I said, I’m alone for the first time on turkey day.

But not lonely. “Alone” doesn’t automatically translate into “lonely.”

There’s a meme in the media that says people who are alone on Thanksgiving or Christmas are especially to be pitied. It’s said that being alone on these family-oriented holidays is a horrible fate, that those of us who are destined to be alone must pine away in our solitude, depressed and, in some cases, suicidal. To such suggestions I can only say: Bah, humbug.

I see the advantages of not having to participate in a huge Thanksgiving bacchanal. It’s certainly healthier: I won’t have to stuff my body with thousands of calories and hundreds of grams of fat. I don’t have to drive 400 miles one-way, and—this being rainy season in California—let me tell you there’s no joy in negotiating the 101 Freeway in a drenching gale. I like most of my relatives, but the truth is—can we talk?—that three days of forced cohabitation can result in bruised feelings, with old spats resurfacing and new frustrations arising.

There are practical difficulties to sharing the holidays with our families. I’m an early-morning person; most of my family aren’t. I’m an early-to-bed person; my family stays up late, watching T.V. and talking. The noise keeps me awake and is irritating. It’s not personal, but anyone who’s ever tried to drift off to sleep while loud noise is seeping into the bedroom knows the feeling. You bury your head under the pillows, but the blare still permeates your brain. And don’t even get me started on shared bathrooms!

So I’m chill with being alone. I get to do all the comforting, bland things I enjoy in my dotage: cuddle with Gus, watch some good T.V., write, plan for tonight’s dinner alone, shop. As I write these words at 8:30 a.m., I’m thinking of taking BART into San Francisco—only three stops away. Do a little Christmas shopping, grab lunch someplace (probably sushi), check out the store windows around Union Square—alone. Gus is fine for six or seven hours without a walk; he’ll be glad to see me when I get home, and vice versa.

So feel not sorry for me! Our culture, I think, puts too much emphasis on connecting, on social activity that can be frenzied, on parties and activities. In insisting that the busy life is the only one worth living, we forget the obvious: that we were born alone and will die alone (no matter how many others surround us at that moment). Being alone is, in fact, a blessing: time to retreat and retrench, to gather stock, to let the nerves relax and enjoy the feeling of Just.Being. Imagine that: Just be. You don’t have to do. You don’t have to talk, or amuse anyone, or be amused. You don’t have to do anything, just be, the way your soul just is, undistracted and undivided.

Am I grateful? Yes, but no more today than on any other day. I don’t have to set aside a day a year to remind myself that I’m healthy, able to support myself, and reasonably active at the age of 73. I have a roof over my head, the companionship of my dog, a few close friends to confide in, and a wider range of acquaintances whose company I enjoy, but from whom I can part ways when and if their company grows tedious. I have a comfortable life—not an affluent one by any means, but one that gives me enjoyment and peace. That’s something to be grateful for.

If you’re reading these words on this Thanksgiving Day, I extend to you the peace of the season, and wish you a happy, safe holiday.


Nov. 22, 1963: Fifty-six years ago

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Nov. 22, 1963 was a Friday. Nov. 22, 2019 also is a Friday. Fifty-six years separate the two dates, but we have not forgotten, and will never forget, the President who was taken from us on that fateful date in Dallas.

I saw John Fitzgerald Kennedy closeup once. I’d grown quite enamored of him as a candidate—probably because he was so handsome and charming, although I also dimly perceived that his brand of liberal democracy was similar to my own, budding politics. The campaign—JFK versus Nixon—was in full swing, and the local newspaper my parents subscribed to (the New York Journal-American) said that JFK would be giving a speech at the Concourse Plaza Hotel, which was just a few blocks from my home.

I asked my mother if I could destroy one of her brooms in order to use the stick for a poster. I bought a large sheet of poster cardboard and wrote on it, in big letters, some supportive reference to JFK (I forget the exact wording). I made my way to the hotel on the appointed date and time. There were some police saw-horses set up by the side entrance, on 163rd Street; a few police cars signified that something important was impending. But other than that, no crowd, not even a reporter. There were perhaps a dozen people, including cops, clustered on either side of the saw-horses. I bellied up to one, which would put me on the Senator’s right as he entered, and waited.

A big black car pulled up. A tall man got out from the rear: the Senator. His legs planted themselves on the pavement; he stopped to adjust his necktie. I waved my poster: he glanced at it, inclined his head ever so slightly in acknowledgement, gave me a smile, and hurried into the hotel.

When he was killed, a little more than three years later, I was in the first semester of my freshman year at college, living in the men’s dormitory. It was just before noon, I remember, that a kid who lived in the dorm came running down the hallway shouting “The President’s been shot!” This was appalling news; I stopped what I was doing immediately and sought additional information, in those pre-computer days. A bunch of us gathered in the room of one of my dorm friends who had a radio; listening, we heard the sad news: “President Kennedy died at two o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some thirty minutes ago.”

The room had been filled with a dozen apprehensive young students. We were all silent, awaiting developments over the radio. At the announcement of JFK’s death, I recall no reaction among my friends. Probably there were gasps and groans, but I experienced nothing except my own collapsed nervous system. Quietly, I left my friends and returned to my room, where I lay down in bed and weeped.

Now, death has rarely caused me to cry. I didn’t cry when my grandfather died, or my beloved grandmother, or my father or my mother, although the latter’s demise was very painful for me. I’m just not the sort that cries at death. But JFK’s death wrung tears out of me. I think I knew that it signified something definitive and horrible: the end of a certain era of innocence in America, and its replacement with something infinitely more complicated and troublesome. And so it turned out: Nov. 22, 1963, is generally thought of as the start of The Sixties, a decade wrapped in turmoil, revolutionary change, disillusionment and death. America is still reeling from the impact of The Sixties, which is to say we are still reeling from JFK’s assassination.

He was President for only 1,000 days, but he left his imprint on the presidency, and on our society, more than any other post-war President. I miss him and honor him to this day; having lived through his brief, inspiring presidency makes living through this current regime all the more awful.


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.


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