Oh, Leave It Alone

We Californians live in a foodie-enhanced environment, with the Bay Area serving as ground zero for all things food-trendy. On the whole, I’m very happy to live in such a place. People here appreciate good food, and if nothing else, the emphasis on fresh ingredients has been an unmitigated blessing. Of course you can still pick up a box of Hot Pockets at the local supermarket. But you can also get some of the most marvelous produce you ever saw, and you don’t have to visit a farm stand or U-Pick, either. (Although living where I do, such delightful places can be found hither, thither, and yon.)

However: certain iconic dishes need to left alone, in my humble opinion. Even as artifacts of an earlier, tin-can and frozen-bag American non-food culture, they were and are perfect in their own way. There is no need to re-think or re-interpret them, to fuse them with some other world cuisine, or to gentrify them to near incomprehensibility. Either make them the way they were meant to be made, or make something else.

I offer the humble ice-cream sandwich as a case in point. I discovered an article in the cooking section of a major metropolitan newspaper in which the oh-so-foodie author went in search for the “perfect” ice-cream sandwich. Her verdict? Some overpriced thing with a peanut-cookie crust and ginger ice cream.

Oh, Christ, I thought. If she wants her peanut-ginger thing, bully for her. But I don’t look to an ice-cream sandwich for some special culinary experience. I don’t think I’d even like peanut and ginger together, to tell the truth. Besides, a peanut-cookie and ginger thing isn’t an ice-cream sandwich, which is by definition an uncomplicated comfort food. Which means the perfectly perfect Lucerne ones, with the plain vanilla ice cream and the thin but not sticky chocolate cake-ish outsides. They’re cheap, they’re reliable, and most importantly, they are the true ice-cream sandwich. And you can buy them in boxes of 48 if you want. (Unlike certain bastardized Atomic Age creations from certain continent-encompassing retailers, Lucerne ice-cream sandwiches will melt, and melt very quickly, when taken out of the freezer.)

With the homely but perfect ice-cream sandwich in my Number One slot, I present a few other dishes that I vastly prefer when they’ve been left in their humble and pristine state:

Grilled Cheese Sandwich

There is nothing simpler to make than a classic grilled cheese, and nothing more brutalized by overly-enthusiastic foodie types who can’t leave well enough alone. Here’s how you make a good one: butter one side each of two slices of good, but not exalted, white bread. (I think Oroweat Country Buttermilk is perfect.) I prefer a butter/Canola oil blend for its better spreadability, but margarine would be OK as well. Cover the bread thoroughly, but thinly. Heat up a skillet to medium. While you’re waiting, peel the plastic off two Lucerne American cheese slices. (I’m not the only person who thinks that the Lucerne beats the pants off any other American cheese on the market, and American cheese really is de rigueur for a proper grilled cheese.) Put one piece of bread, butter side down, in the skillet and push it down lightly with the back of a spatula. Lay the two cheese slices across the bread (don’t stack them) and the put the other slice of bread (butter side out) on top. Let the thing grill until the bread is toasty — don’t use too high of heat or the bread will brown before the cheese even gets warm — probably a few minutes max. Peek if you need to. Flip the sandwich and press it down again with the spatula. Cook until done — probably only a minute or two. The cheese will start to melt visibly along the edges. Don’t let it get too brown. Slice it diagonally with one quick knife stroke, and there it is. Serve and eat immediately since it’s only really good when crispy and melty fresh.

And for heaven’s sake, don’t get all creative, and don’t get all high-dudgeon-ish about using American singles. It’s what they’re meant for.


Another plainly perfect dish often ruined by meddling and/or grandiosity.

Here’s what to do: brown a pound of ground beef in a big skillet. Drain it. Pour in a full-sized bottle of your favorite spaghetti sauce. (Mine is Classico Tomato and Basil.) Let it simmer until fully blended. Meanwhile, boil up a batch of spaghetti. Cook it to whatever you like — some people find al dente offputting. Drain the spaghetti. Serve some on a plate with a big ladleful or two of the sauce. Sprinkle parmesan on top. (I don’t like the canned stuff, but you can get nice fresh grated Parmesan at any grocery store these days.)


I’ll allow that there are many different versions of chili out there, but to this elementalist there’s really only true chili, and all the rest are silly upstarts. How to do it: brown a pound of ground beef together with one each green pepper and onion (chopped, of course) in a nice big dutch-oven sized pot. Drain excess oil. Add one standard 16 ounce can each red kidney and black beans. Pour in about 2 standard (8 ounce) cans of tomato sauce and about the same amount of water. You can use beef stock instead of the water — it makes for a richer broth. Add one standard 16 ounce can of diced tomatoes. Add plenty of chili powder — several tablespoons at least, about the same amount of powdered cumin, some salt and pepper (don’t overdo it), some cayenne pepper (ditto), some oregano (ditto) and paprika (very ditto). Cover, bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer it for a couple of hours. Check to make sure it has enough liquid and add more if it doesn’t. Check spices about halfway through. Serve with chopped green onions, grated cheese, and sour cream if you want.


Those floppy silver-dollar sized tortillas with a tablespoon of exotica on top in trendy Bay Area restaurants can be quite nice, but I cannot bring myself to call them tacos. That’s because they aren’t tacos. They’re hors d’oeuvres with a mariachi beat. Again the elementalist speaks. This is a taco:

Brown a pound of ground beef in a skillet and drain if necessary. Add one packet of taco seasoning mix and whatever else it says to use (usually tomato paste and water). Cook as directed. Meanwhile, set out a box of crispy corn tortilla shells (nowadays they make some that are flat at the fold so they’ll stay upright more easily) into a baking dish. Put in some of the meat filling, scatter a goodly glob of Mexican-style grated cheese over the top, and pop them in the oven or microwave long enough to get the cheese good and melted. Pour over a bit of taco sauce, then stuff in plenty of shredded iceberg lettuce, and top with salsa and (maybe) a bit of sour cream.

Macaroni and Cheese

Let us have no broccoli or kale or rare wild mushrooms added, no layering with mousselines or spinach soufflées. No experiments with semi-ripened or blue veined or exotic smoked cheeses, no special finishing treatment with a blow-torched Panko top crust. Let’s just make real macaroni and cheese, simple and always fine.

Boil up elbow macaroni. Drain it and put it back in the pot. Grate plenty of mild cheddar into it — Tillamook is good — and then some milk. Stir it over medium-low heat and watch for the texture and color you want; yellow and creamy. Don’t put in so much cheese that it gets stringy. Put in more milk as you need. You’re basically done at that point (some salt is probably going to be a good idea) but, if you want, add a little more milk to make the sauce a bit thinner, put a layer of grated cheese on top, and then put it in a casserole dish and pop it in the oven for 20 minutes or so until it gets melty and crusty on top. That’s it.

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A Year’s Difference

As I turn officially 62, I consider my state of mind just one year ago. As age 61 dawned, I lived in the grip of a persistent unease, a dissatisfaction that ran as broad as it was deep. I was antsy. I was unsettled. Almost every morning upon awakening I began considering where I wanted to go that day. Anywhere was going to be acceptable, more or less, as long as it was out. I’m normally without a hint of wanderlust, but last summer I had it in spades. It wasn’t distance I sought, but difference. Mostly I was driving around the Bay Area and a bit beyond, visiting communities that I had perhaps seen on the map or passed by on the freeway, but never explored. Hayward, Union City, Fremont. Millbrae, Milpitas, Manteca. Davenport, Davis. Cotati, Capitola, Petaluma. Tracy, Concord, Livermore. I kept driving around without any clear plan in my mind but an overall sense of seeking. What precisely I was seeking hadn’t taken shape yet.

I drove here, I drove there. Once in a while I stayed for a few days in a bed and breakfast. I was making mental notes to myself about many of the places I was visiting: could I retire here? Would it be possible, in about ten years’ time, to have saved enough to buy a house for cash?

That’s where my mind was at the time. I was seeking the cure for an as-yet undiagnosed illness. I kept thinking in terms of buying later, pipe dreaming rather than acting with purpose. I was house hunting after a fashion. When I wasn’t hitting the roads I was glued to Zillow, looking at listings, at first outside California on the assumption that upon retirement I would resettle where I could buy the house I wanted for cash, no mortgage. The Fort Worth area was appealing. So was the country well to the north of Atlanta. I considered central Oregon. I considered northern Iowa.

The mental murk began clearing as I chanced upon the far-outer East Bay communities of Oakley, Brentwood, and Discovery Bay, together with the southeastern arm of Antioch that’s known as Deer Valley. Brentwood in particular grabbed me firmly: as I rounded the last curve on Highway 4 and saw that lovely small suburban city, with Mount Diablo looming to the west, I felt a jolt of recognition, of belonging. Brentwood is a stellar exemplar of the affluent modern suburb: big landscaped streets, spacious shopping malls, good schools, well-designed housing developments filled with attractive homes and sprinkled with immaculate parks. Yet it is a real place with a long history as a Delta farm town. There’s most definitely a there there. Or perhaps I should say there’s most definitely a here here.

This was what I wanted. This was the climate I wanted: sunlight, real summer, warm evenings, a dearth of clammy winds. This was the environment I wanted: clean, safe, convenient, car-friendly. This was the community I wanted: families with children, retirees, and plenty of farm folks with generations on the land. This was what I had felt was utterly out of my reach, living as I did in an insanely expensive city while practicing a profession not noted for high wages. This is what I had told myself I couldn’t have, no matter how much I actually wanted it.

I had convinced myself that I had to stay firmly within San Francisco and avoid commuting, that I was lucky to have what I had (a sizable and shockingly affordable, albeit dumpy, Victorian flat smack-dab in the center of the city), that my longed-for suburban bliss was achievable only when I retired. Until then, I kept telling myself, just suck it up and bear city living. Forget that I am not temperamentally a city dweller. Forget that I am a dyed-in-the-wool homebody for whom even San Francisco’s myriad urban attractions mean little. No. I had a great deal with my inexpensive 1200 square feet of decaying Victorian bling, my walk-to-work location. So what if I was climbing the walls in desperation?

Convergence arrived: I realized that I wanted to live in Brentwood, that I had enough for a solid down payment, that I could easily afford the extra expense, and that I didn’t give a rat’s ass about the inconvenience of a long commute. Actually I rather welcomed the long commute for its clear-cut distancing from city living. Even the undeniable trauma of moving—after twenty-eight years of continual burrowing in my Victorian flat—was welcome.

I was primed, ready, and determined. All that wandering, all that Zillow-ing, turned out to have a purpose. On August 12 I became the owner of a contemporary Mediterranean right in the heart of Brentwood.

And that was, indeed, the cure to my malaise. That persistent unease, that deep and broad dissatisfaction? Gone. One year later, an all-encompassing contentment has arisen to take its place, a rock-solid feeling of rightness, of thisness. I enter year 62 with gratitude, happiness, and fulfillment.

Not to mention two inches off my waistline and the start of a pretty decent suntan.

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Screw the Truffled Arugula

No doubt it’s just another of those getting-older things. The pastimes of youth fall by the wayside as we trek along; what once seemed chic now seems blah, what once was a must-do is now a yeah-maybe. The sage who quipped that age brings with it the acute pleasure of not going knew of what he spoke. Not going is just about the best thing there is.

Item: having to attend every new movie, no matter what. I never really signed on to that one anyway, but with time my formerly lukewarm movie-going has cooled down to absolute zero. I just don’t go. I don’t like movie theaters. I don’t like all those people and their noise. I don’t like being trapped (sort of) in that big box. I don’t like feeling like just another monkey sitting on the branch, staring agape at the screeching and twitching going on in the lit box before me, hooting and scratching if something pleases me, throwing my feces at the screen if it doesn’t. I don’t like being entertained en masse and by utter strangers. Leave me alone, you patronizing bastards: I don’t need your bread, your circus, your stupid dog-and-pony show. I’m just fine staying home with a book, or puttering in the back yard, or cleaning the stairs, or preparing lectures, or studying music, or any number of far more worthwhile pursuits. Just fine? No: let me correct that. I’m delighted to stay home with a book, to putter, etc., thrilled and honored and comforted to stay home.

Item: attending store openings, building dedications, all that public ceremonial crap. I can’t say I was ever much into that, but while I mostly lacked the gotta-see-the-dogfight mentality, most of my younger-day associates were dogfight afficionados to the core. I recall being dragged to a guided tour of the reborn SF Opera House after the Loma Prieta Earthquake had knocked it about enough to warrant its extended closure and re-do. Three hours of my life gone forever as some dweeb burbled on incessantly about the honest-Injun carpeting made by the same manufacturers as the 1930s and the PH balanced laundry. Nowadays a SWAT team couldn’t get me in there. I have grown and acquired a much better ability to say NO, with or without the thank you. Come to think of it, a discouraging snarl can settle a lot of hash.

Item: being a first-nighter who always catches the opening night of the Opera, the Symphony, whatever. Oh, please. I’ll go second night if I must, and avoid the crowds and the silliness of fashion parading. If I live to be 500 or 5000 or just soldier on until the end of it all, I’ll never understand the appeal of clothing fashion. And this coming from a guy with a professionally-trained musician’s ear and a pretty good eye for color, mind you. But putting value on the animal skins or woven plant fibers draped across one’s body seems silly to me. Always has. Personally I think the men have it the best here: we can’t get much fancier than a tuxedo, and tuxedoes are pretty much the same from Bangor to Bangladesh.

Item: and the reason for this posting’s snarky title: no more pish-posh restaurants with their oh-so-fancy food and their oh-so-astronomic prices. Let me put my cards down on the table, finally, for once, and for all: the only reason I enjoy going to restaurants is for the company, for the evening or afternoon chitchatting with my companions. I could give a rat’s ass about the relative merits or demerits of the eatery, provided they cook decent stuff decently. Not all of them pass that test, of course, but when you get right down to it, most of them do. I love good food, and by “good food” I mean wholesome and attractive and not much more. I am the least snobby, the least demanding, the least sanctimonious, diner around. Give me a halfway proper hamburger with edible fries and I’m just fine and dandy. Give me a steak cooked the way I like it—that’s medium-well with just the barest bit of pink showing, thank you very much—and I don’t care whether it came from a privileged cow that was raised by hand and met its end as a piping chorus cooed inspirational verse, or whether they just picked it up at Safeway.

Screw the truffled arugula, in other words. Screw the amuse-bouche (I am not amused) and screw the in-house charcuterie. Screw the itty-bitty portions and screw the artful patterns of sauce that were swirled on with a plastic squirt ketchup bottle that they probably swiped from a somebody’s hot dog stand. Screw the dissonant combinations of flavors and screw the egoistic refusal to leave well enough alone. Screw the trendiness and screw the month-ahead reservations and screw the noise and screw the prison-car crowding. Screw the $20 glasses of a wine that goes for $7.99 a bottle at BevMo. Screw having to ask for water. Screw paying $10 for a cup of ordinary coffee. Screw not being able to see your hand in front of your face. Screw waiting in line to pee. Just screw it all.

No. If I must go out for dinner—to socialize, to get a break from regular cooking although in fact I quite fancy cooking for myself and for company—then I’ll be just fine with a local chain restaurant that doesn’t pull any punches, that gives me enough to eat for a reasonable price, that doesn’t hurt my eardrums, and that isn’t puffed with pretention. Give me BJ’s Roadhouse instead of Gary Danko; Outback instead of Frances. There’s a long-established family-run taqueria near me here in Brentwood that serves a substantial enchilada dinner for $8.00. They’re clean, they’re quick, they’re friendly, and they do take-out.

Better yet, give me a well-managed and well-stocked Safeway and let me pick up what I want for dinner, and let me go home and prepare what I want in my own comfortable clean kitchen, using cookware that I know to be properly maintained since I’ve maintained it, served on dishes I like because I bought them, prepared precisely the way I want because I’m the one who has prepared it. I make good chili, tasty spaghetti sauce, dandy pot roast, delightful Cajun chicken with andouille sausage, yummy biscuits. Rissoto, casseroles, stir-fries, all that. Tonight I served myself a quite fetching chicken parmesan. It wasn’t much trouble to make and I’ve got three more servings chilling away in the freezer now, meal-insurance against one of those evenings. Total cost about the same as one pickled-in-house Argentine quail egg in aspic—two bites maximum if you have an itty-bitty mouth—at a posh restaurant.

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The Long-Awaited Childhood’s End

Just about anybody with an abiding interest in science fiction has wondered if Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 1953 novel “Childhood’s End” would ever see the screen. One might have thought that the piece has become too dated by now, but Clarke was working with substantial ideas in the novel, notions that have no grounding in a particular place of time. Thus it’s just as trenchant today as it ever was.

The underlying theme of “Childhood’s End” should be familiar to anyone who has ever seen the Stanley Kubrick movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” That great—albeit weirdly flawed—film was a collaboration with Clarke, who brought many of the ideas that were originally presented in “Childhood’s End” to the later film, in particular the idea of humanity’s morph into a higher plane of consciousness. (The same basic idea was turned into a ham-handed platitude in the first Star Trek movie, by the way.)

Enter the SyFy Channel’s six-hour big-budget television adaptation. Wisely, the writers kept their intrusions minimal. The opening chapters needed simple updating to the present day, of course. No problems there. Very little was needed by way of internationalizing the cast of characters, since Clarke had been well ahead of his time in that aspect. The characters of the original novel were already considerably more racially diverse than the era’s norms. The screenwriters just tugged a bit more in that general direction, with perfectly fine results. In the original, the scientist Jan Rodericks was a mixed-race South African; in the new version he becomes a full-tilt black American. Not a major change, and in some ways a good one. He has an Asian girlfriend/partner.

Clarke was a scientific writer first and foremost, and his impossibly wooden characters have always posed a problem for adaptations. That is, unless you’re Stanley Kubrick, in which case you embrace that very featurelessness and use your characters as pure archetypes, as in 2001. That’s really better than the strained attempts at turning those characters into full human beings, as happened in the sadly blah sequel 2010. For better or worse, the new adaption of “Childhood’s End” goes whole-hog in trying to make Clarke’s one-dimensional characters into living, breathing people. Understandable, but that attempt is behind most of the weaknesses in the adaptation.

Rikki Stromgren, middle-aged secretary-general of the UN, becomes Ricky Stormgren, Midwestern farmer and all-American-boy archetype who wears a pair of Levis with distinction and emits oodles of charm. Unfortunately, Ricky becomes a soap opera character early on, as the authors saddle him with a dead first wife and a new girlfriend and a mind full of regretful memories. His dying scenes in Part 3 are pointless detours, fillers really as is the nonsensical plot tangent about his picking up some devastating disease from his stay in the Overlord ship. All of that should have been dispatched with a merciful stroke of the Delete key. Ditto the mayor of New Athens, who is given a vaguely unhappy backstory, but not given anywhere near enough character development to account for his King Lear-like pontificating as he prepares to blow New Athens to smithereens. Even the Jan Rodericks character (renamed Milo in the adaptation) acquires a plastered-on Asian girlfriend who mostly clings to him and sobs that he shouldn’t leave, oh he mustn’t leave, as he prepares to stow away on the Overlord’s ship.

All that An Affair to Remember bullshit is fortunately small potatoes. Consider the brutal hatchet job that could have been done on Clarke’s meditative original, and be thankful that a soupçon of Scarlett and Rhett is about the only damage done. The core of the novel came through perfectly and with minimal change from the original. The screenwriters compressed the time frame, with reason. Clarke’s long-view time frame works well in print, but in a dramatic adaptation it’s best to follow the same basic group of characters from beginning to end. So whereas Clarke’s humanity transforms to the Overmind only after numerous generations of preparation, the adaptation gets it down to just one generation plus extended coda.

Something that impressed me no end was the use of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s haunting The Lark Ascending as an underlying musical trope and the last human music to be heard before the children consume the Earth’s total energy to fuel their transformation into the Overmind. It makes for a beautifully poignant ending. Pity that the SyFy Channel just had to overlay crass, noisy advertising over the end credits.

For some reason the screenwriters chose to omit a particularly impressive moment from the original. For those who do not know the novel: the benevolent Overlords who arrive on Earth to usher in humanity’s transformation to a higher level of being are dead ringers for our universal representation of Satan—cloven hooves, horns, red scales, barbed tail, the works. They avoid showing themselves to humanity for (in the book) several generations, understanding as they do the terror their appearance will be sure to elicit from a sizeable portion of the population. Eventually humanity progresses far enough past those primitivist fears to be able to connect with the Overlords in person.

As the end of it all approaches, now last-man-on-Earth Jan Rodericks asks supervisor Karellen the fateful question: did the Overlords visit us earlier in our history? What went so horribly wrong that your physical appearance would resound down the ages as our common image for evil? Karellen answers: we were never here before. That demonic image isn’t a collective memory from humanity’s earliest times, but a collective precognition of humanity’s end.

I wonder why the writers left that out; it seems like vital information to me. Oh, well.

The plusses of this adaptation are many. The Overlord ships are beautifully realized, as are the Overlords themselves. The elegiac tone of the original is expertly captured. I love the choice of giving Karellen a beautiful British accent with a light touch of elegant irony; it’s really the perfect voice for a being with about umpty-zillion the IQ of ours. The resistance to the Overlords is well portrayed, as both political and religious groups try desperately to hang on to their privileged positions while the world around them is changing with lightning speed. Placing New Athens in a deserted big city (it looks a bit like present-day Boston or maybe Seattle) is a notable improvement on Clarke’s having put it on a distant tropical island.

To turn the child Jennifer into the trigger and leader for the transformation wasn’t part of Clarke’s original thinking, but it actually works rather well as a dramatic license taken to humanize some of those cardboard characters. It also creates an unfortunate lapse in logic: since the Overmind is a collective, it makes no sense for the transformation to involve a leader and followers.

Maybe the children’s segregation prior to their ultimate transformation is just a tad hokey: in Clarke’s original, the Overlords airlift the kids to a remote location so as to get them away from their parents—mostly to protect the parents from the kids, and not vice-versa. In this adaptation they all go wafting up into the sky, sort of like those silly evangelical Christian notions of the rapture: Come fly with me …

But on the whole, it’s one of the better science fiction adaptations I’ve seen, especially given the honored status of the original novel in the science fiction literature. Clarke may have been a colorless writer and unable (or unwilling) to create real, flesh-and-blood characters, but he thought big and he had a poet’s touch with philosophical ideas. They managed to catch some of that poetry in a 6-hour TV adaptation, and that’s no small achievement.

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Wings Stretched and Fluttering

Blips of hot bacon grease zinged my left elbow before it dawned on me: just move farther away from the cook top. Hell, move to the other counter.

Move to the other counter.

Gott in Himmel, what a concept. The other counter.

I am living in the fourth abode of my adult life. The first was a one-bedroom apartment in the Mount Vernon area of downtown Baltimore. Counter space: about 2 square feet. Length of residence: one full year.

My second: a one-bedroom apartment in the Sunset district of San Francisco. Counter space: about 2 square feet, part of which was tucked underneath a low-hanging cabinet that rendered it marginally unuseable. Length of residence: eleven years.

My third: a spacious Victorian flat in the Castro district of San Francisco. Counter space: about 3 square feet. Length of residence: twenty-eight years.

Each apartment was bigger than its predecessor but counter space remainined stubbornly minimal. And yet I am a guy who enjoys cooking and can attest to some reasonable skill in the kitchen. I have prepared quite elaborate meals in those kitchens with their next-to-no counter space. I practiced a stern spatial economy, acquired an unshakeable habit of cleaning up as I went along, and learned to think carefully about where things needed to be for maximum efficiency.

The Castro district kitchen evolved into an area in which I could reach just about everything I needed directly from that postage-stamp counter space. Well, I had to walk across the kitchen to get the cookware itself, but otherwise it was a stand-and-deliver workspace. I had all my utensils hanging on the wall behind the sink, others hanging on hooks nearby, a few in a container within easy reach. The kitchen actually looked pretty cool, but it was woefully inadequate.

Now to my fourth abode: homeownership of a spacious contemporary single-family detached house in Brentwood, California. To call this a whole different ball game is the understatement of the century. For the first time in my adult life I have a full-sized kitchen that was designed to sustain 24/7 food prep for a potentially boistering, bustling, and perpetually hungry family. Thus there’s a whole lot of counter space, and not just one counter, either. I could, and did, plop a sizeable toaster-oven on one section of one counter. I put a Keurig coffemaker on another section of the same counter. I even allowed a full set of canisters on another counter. One counter is reserved for wine bottles, my prescriptions, and cookbooks along the back. I’ve still got buckets of counter space. I’ve still got unused cabinets. (Me being me, those cabinets are utterly clean and lined with brand-new shelf paper.)

Whereas my previous kitchens either had zero drawers (numbers one and two) or just a few (number three), this kitchen has lots of drawers and cabinets in addition to a walk-in-pantry-cum-storage-room big enough to moonlight as a Tokyo studio apartment. As I was settling into the new kitchen, I realized that I could actually forget where I had put something, a situation that was downright unthinkable in my previous culinary digs. Long habit made itself felt and I wound up with an arrangement that gets the most oft-used utensils in drawers or cabinets immediately near the cook top. Other than scattering the cookware hither and yon—after all, I could dedicate one entire cabinet to serving dishes alone—Gawdamighty you gotta love suburbia—I have managed to set up another stand-and-deliver cooking space for myself even within all that spaciousness. I like it that way. Well, I guess I like it. Forty years’ worth of ingrained habit trumps all.

So there I was tonight: grease popping off the bacon in the 12” cast-iron Lodge skillet just by my left elbow, because I was standing immediately beside the cook top, grating cheese and slicing onions. I had not budged from my customary two square feet of counter space. Instinct born of long necessity was calling the shots.

It took a while and a few minor burns on my left elbow before satori arose: move farther away from the stove. Grate the cheese and slice the onions over there. Hell, make a U-turn and use the long counter on the other side of the kitchen. Spread out. Expand. Migrate. Don’t stand there with your left elbow an inch or so from the edge of a blazing-hot 12” cast-iron Lodge skillet. You can move. You should move. So move. Now.

It was kinda scary, but I proved myself the master of my own destiny. Not only did I move, but I even screwed up the fortitude to do the utterly unthinkable: after I finished grating the Gruyère cheese, I left it sitting there on the counter on its cutting board, while I moved to another place along the counter and sliced the onion on another cutting board. I used up, oh I don’t know, maybe five or six square feet of counter space.

It took courage. It took cojones. But I did it.

And I’ll do it again. Just watch me.

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The appalling situation on the sidewalks of San Francisco has always bothered me, but never more so than now when I am no longer a resident of the city. In my current incarnation in a prosperous, clean, safe, and far-outlying East Bay suburb, I am struck more than ever by the sheer magnitude of San Francisco’s street vagrancy problem. My thrice-weekly commutes into the city require me to walk only half a block to reach my school—but that trivial distance is typically accompanied by disgraceful offensiveness.

My inward trip: drive from Brentwood to Pittsburg/Bay Point BART, then a one-hour ride to Embarcadero Station in San Francisco. From there I switch to the Muni Metro system. (For non-San Francisco folks: the Metro is the in-town subway/streetcar system. It shares the downtown stations with BART, so you exit one system and enter the other all within the same underground space.) I take any outbound car on the Metro to Van Ness Station. An escalator wafts me up to the corner of Market and Van Ness. The return trip is similar, except that I take the inbound Metro only to the next stop at Civic Center—the closest Muni/BART portmanteau station. (That strategy increases my chances of a seat on the BART train, since the higher-traffic Powell, Montgomery, and Embarcadero stations are still to come.)

In sum, my engagement with outdoor, surface-level San Francisco is limited to a mere half-block walk. You’d think that would be uneventful. Consider the situation of the past few weeks:

Yesterday (Monday) morning I emerged at Van Ness and Market on the escalator. Made my usual U-turn so as to reach the corner, whence I turn left twice in quick succession to reach my school. I hadn’t gone fifteen paces before I had to endure the screaming profanities and angry posturing of a whack job who was howling at cars and passers-by. (This at 6:45 AM, mind you.) On the way home, a different but equally scary man was standing right next to the entrance of the Van Ness station; you had no choice but to endure passing right past him to get to the stairs going down.

Last week: On Wednesday afternoon I had a few hours off and, recognizing that I needed a few minor items such as toothpaste and Kleenex for my office, I decided to walk over to Walgreens on Gough and Hayes, about two blocks distant. I hadn’t made it ten steps out of the school’s front door before a dangerously out-of-control vagrant came careening down Oak Street, screaming imprecations and threats. I stood absolutely still and looked carefully away. He went staggering on.

Earlier that week I had crossed Market Street at Van Ness to go to a nearby sandwich shop. Over the course of that brief round trip, I was panhandled at least three times that I remember.

And yet Market and Van Ness isn’t some grisly, scummy neighborhood. It’s not Pacific Heights, mind you. Nevertheless, it’s the gateway to Civic Center. City Hall, the Asian Art Museum, main branch of the library, Bill Graham Auditorium, Davis Symphony Hall, Opera House, War Memorial, SF Jazz, Nourse Auditorium, SF Conservatory of Music, not to mention major governmental buildings such as the central Courthouse, Federal Building, and State Building—all within a few blocks. And yet it’s crawling and overrun not necessarily with just “homeless” (to use the politically-correct term) but dangerous, whacked-out druggies and feral street people. Nor is the carnage limited to that one neighborhood. Such obnoxiousness has spread throughout the city. The ultra-well-heeled residents of Presidio Terrace and the like keep the riffraff out, no doubt, but ordinary middle- to upper-middle-class people can do little, if anything, about it in their less exalted but still perfectly fine neighborhoods.

I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said ad infinitum already. Everybody is aware of the seriousness of San Francisco’s street vagrancy problem. But these days I’m seeing it through the eyes of a non-resident, re-sensitized to the pervasive offensiveness. Increasingly my reactions are those of an out-of-towner, a tourist, utterly appalled by the catastrophic condition of quotidian San Francisco. Was it really that bad when I lived there? I endured similar behavior every day, so I suppose it was. I had become adept at shoving each unpleasant encounter out of my mind, ignoring it with whatever mental fortitude I could muster. I was only too aware that it was everywhere and 24/7—meaning right outside my front door, even on my charming little street lined with picture-book Victorians.

Can it be fixed? I have no idea. But it cannot continue unchecked. Throwing money at it isn’t going to do a damn thing, that’s for sure. If anything the extra funds just make it worse. San Francisco is gradually morphing into a third-world city in which the affluent hover high above in their skyscraper aeries or behind the gates of their walled communities, while a writhing mass of addicts, criminals, and derelicts seethes below and around them. Cool Grey City of Love—finis.

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Things that Go Bump

Recently I read an article about the correlation, if any, between trained musicians’s ears and sensitivity to random noise. The study concluded that musicians aren’t any more bothered by environmental noise than anybody else, at least based on the statistics. However, I can say with absolute certainty that this musician is a great deal more bothered by random environmental noise than your average joe.

In fact, random noise drives me bats. I’m a connoisseur of noise-suppressing devices: high-quality ear plugs, professional-grade ear muffs, noise-cancelling headphones. There were times during my city-living days when I wore Hearos ear plugs (they can cut up to 36 decibels if inserted properly) together with high-end industrial ear protectors (which can douse another 30-ish decibels.) The end result was a nearly hushed environment, although at the price of discomfort, both from the ear plugs—which can make one feel as though one has an ear infection—and the ear protectors, which apply a fairly strong clamping force on both sides of the head.

Nonetheless, it was often the only way for me to maintain my composure at home, when the various noises of the surrounding city had conspired to rob me of serenity. Then again, nobody lives in a city for the serenity. But there I was, living in the city, and being slowly driven to distraction by incessant sonic disruptions.

Even more troublesome, for me, was the nagging fear that accompanied most of my life in a city. I jumped at the lightest thump or creak or knock, given that I never felt safe in my neighborhood. That was with good reason: even if actual break-ins were rare, the little one-lane, one-block street in front of my house was abuzz all the time with passers-by, cars, and later at night, vagrants of various sorts. It was San Francisco, after all, and the Castro—a busy hub most hours of the day and night. I was always on edge about somebody breaking in, or at least causing damage out in front (which happened fairly regularly.) Noise could spell trouble.

A hot summer evening during my last month in San Francisco. I was sleepy and wanted to stretch out on the living room couch with a book and maybe nap a bit. Given the heat, I had one of the front windows open—although that always made me a bit nervous even if the windows were a half-floor above street level. I hoped for some quiet, but alas: as soon as I started relaxing, something always happened. A car beeped as it was being unlocked or unlocked remotely. Or a honk. Or people talking. Or a door slamming. Or bone-grinding bass came wafting by on somebody’s hip-hop infested car stereo. Or a siren was heard streaking along somewhere. Or or or or. Always something. Wide awake and annoyed, I decided to keep track of just how many sudden sound events (like doors slamming or car beepers going off) happened in a ten-minute period. After I had gotten past two dozen, I realized just what an impossibly noisy environment this was. No napping on the couch with this kind of stuff going on.

It didn’t take long after I moved to an outlying East Bay suburb for me to realize just how raw my nerves had become about sound shocks, because in my detached family house with its excellent insulation and oh-so-quiet neighbors, the sound shocks ceased. They are rare to nonexistent in my new environment. At night the house can be absolutely quiet, the only sounds coming perhaps from a minor gurgle in the refrigerator or the faint tick-tock of a battery-operated clock half a house away. And it stays quiet. No sudden blats or bloops or honks or beeps or whacks. It just stays quiet. And it’s an exceedingly low-crime environment. No vagrants, junkies, derelicts.

With the things that go bump in the night stilled, I have been able to relax at a level I hadn’t really ever experienced save at meditation retreats. Maybe silence doesn’t actually equal safety. But it’s a big step in the right direction.

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The reasons for home ownership are many and compelling. Investment: excellent. Security: you’re immune from rent hikes or capricious landlordish dictats. Flexibility: you can have it your way without having to ask anybody’s permission. Depth: your roots dig deeper and spread outwards. Taxes: it’s the great middle class income tax scam, pure and simple; not only interest on your mortgage is deductible, but so are your property taxes. Monthly: in many cases, the monthly payment is either competitive with rent or is notably lower. Pride: you own it — ‘nuff said.

All of that is very well and good. But all of those many lists of advantages leave out what is undoubtedly the 500-pound gorilla of the bunch.

They never talk about just how crazy fun it is. And Gott in Himmel, is it ever crazy fun. A house is the ultimate grown-up toy. Nothing can compete with it for sheer absorption of time and energy, for heady joy in seeing it grow and develop, for a sense of limitless possibility. It’s the last word in cool hobbies. It’s a Barbie Doll on steroids. It’s the electric train set that stamps finis on all other choo-choos. It’s a friend that responds to every gift with gratitude. It’s a never-exhausted list of intriguing projects. It’s friend and lover, colleague and challenger, competitor and crony, mentor and student. It’s the coolest toybox ever.

My house has come to me after a five-year period of benign neglect. Without a doubt its former owners valued and loved it. But they didn’t clean it very much or very well. And they painted some of it in colors that are several orders of magnitude removed from my idea of good decor. The paint is easy to fix and results in the most dramatic improvements. Cleaning, on the other hand, offers more subtle improvements yet continues unabated, even if I took full possession of the property almost six weeks ago. The basic rule of thumb is: if I haven’t cleaned it yet, it’s dirty. I’m not exaggerating that. Today, while painting the family-room-turned-office, I removed the plastic light-switch plates and electric-socket plates. Each of them needed a run under the faucet and a soapy sponge before I would return them to their niches on the wall. There is no baseboard that hasn’t accumulated a thin crust of gunk, no doorframe that doesn’t need its upper rims given a good scrub, no stretch of flooring that won’t yield up copious amounts of goo and grime. The only clean windows are those that I have cleaned so far. There isn’t a square foot out of its approximately 6000 (counting garage, house, and land) that doesn’t call out for my ministrations.

But that’s part of the fun. For one thing, I’m one of those disturbing people who actually enjoys cleaning. I am particularly partial to persnicketty, itty-bitty household engineering, such as going after a goopy crevice with a Q-tip or doing away with faint lines of gray gunk along the rounded strips of wood that border the floor sills. So a dirty house, while distressing, is not anything I’m going to view with alarm or dismay. I’m going to take it for what it is: a project to be tackled for the sheer fun of it all. And the house gets truly clean, bit by bit, in the process.

I love going to Lowe’s. I love buying stuff for the house, big stuff and little stuff and practical stuff and cool stuff. Oh: I need a pair of pruning shears. Oh: I want to get a nice garden spade and a weed-puller. Oh: I need a couple of rakes and isn’t that a great-looking shovel? Oh: I need plenty of extra screws and nails. Oh: look at those cool hoses! Oh: you know, that room could really use a better lighting fixture. Oh, yeah—a dimmer switch for the dining room and what about a good carpet shampooer? Noticed last weekend that there isn’t enough light for the back deck at night; what to do about that?

Bed, Bath and Beyond: I could ruin myself financially in there. But what fun it is! Oh: let’s try a gray-and-slate motif for the bathroom towels this year! Ah, yes: I have three bathrooms now, don’t I? Which one goes gray? All three? No. The downstairs powder room will be much better in a sand-and-beach motif. But the upstairs bathrooms—oh, yes. Grays and slates most definitely. And then a wild splash of dark green in the midst! Howzabout this matched set of Kleenex cover–soap dish–lotion dispenser–drinking glass?

Target: homelier but homey nonetheless. The perfect place to stock up on supplies for those aforesaid three bathrooms. “Wow, lots of big sizes here,” the checkout clerk said. “Three bathrooms,” I answered with a laugh. So of course I need to buy big shrink-wrapped stacks of Kleenex boxes and 32-packs of toilet paper. Shoe racks. Closet organizers. New alarm clock.

Pier 1 Imports: another place to lose it utterly. Get a load of that beautiful vase, the really high one with the reddish streaks through all that black glass. That would look just incredible in the upstairs hall, wouldn’t it? How much? Hmmm … the Visa card balance isn’t really that high, is it?

Kirkland’s: another paradise. Stuff that looks great that an ordinary person can actually afford. Nice people. Great seasonal stuff. Just wander and let the imagination do its thing.

Paint. Rugs. Wrenches and pliers and brushes and clasps and brooms and mops and cleaners and fasteners and tillers and ceiling fans. Wall hangings and floor coverings. Walking down the floor-tile ailes at Lowe’s, making notes and thinking about how this or that tile might look in the two upstairs bathrooms, which will be getting new floors some time in the not-too-distant future.

Garden aisle. That whole glorious, still slightly mysterious, half-outdoors area at Lowe’s where you get plants and flowers and trees and fencing and ground cover and all that.

Glass cleaners. Wood floor cleaners. Toilet bowl cleaners. Shower cleaners. Bathroom cleaners. Window cleaners. Kitchen cleaners. Oven cleaners.

Paint and brushes and rollers and canvas dropcloths and blue masking tape and detail brushes and detail rollers and edgers and rough-edged cleaning rags.

Stuff to put in vases. Stuff to put on counters. Stuff to put on the walls. Stuff to put on the windows.

Bigger stuff: when to replace some double-paned windows that have lost their seal and suffer from cloudy patches? When to replace the window that has a bad track and doesn’t open properly? Do I or don’t I commit to eventual recarpeting of the whole? What about a major kitchen remodel, or perhaps just have the cabinets re-finished? What about having the hardwood floors sanded down and refinished? How many miles does the water heater still have on it? Roof is good now after escrow-period inspection; what about next year? Remember to call to get a chimney-sweep to come out. What about getting the AC/heating vents cleaned? Professional landscapers for the side lawn that’s full of rapidly decomposing dog poop right now but could turn into something wonderful? When will be the best time to re-seed the dog-scraped patches in the back yard?

When will I get to the garage? How long will it still be filled with boxes? (Answer: it will be full of boxes until I’m damn good and ready to do something about that.)

Game. Challenge. Project. Avocation. Profession.

Sheesh. Anyone who thinks that all you get for your (typically horrific) purchase price is a hunk o’ land with a building on it: wrong, wrong. What you get is the best time you’ve ever had, albeit one with backaches and scrapes and burns and chafes attached.

And you get to live in it—live your life, practice your profession, entertain your friends and colleagues, read and cook and practice and walk and watch TV and listen to music and waste time on the Internet and sleep and wake and eat and dress and bathe and shave and talk on the phone.

So there it is: a toybox for living. Expensive, yes. But worth it. Lordy Hallelujah, how worth it.

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Living in San Francisco: Stuff I’ll Miss

Of late I’ve been inveighing about the many inconveniences, difficulties, and upsets of living in San Francisco. Now that I’m on the threshold of moving to Far Outerburbia and becoming a three-times-a-week commuter into SF, it would be churlish of me not to bring up some of the pleasures of life in San Francisco.

I begin with a simple disclaimer that I’m not going to bring up those aspects of San Francisco that are equally available to resident and commuter alike. Thus I needn’t mention the joy of all the City’s cultural institutions: symphony, opera, ballet, theaters, chamber music. They remain tremendous advantages. I don’t think I really need to bring up the panoply of world-class restaurants, since they remain fully available to me. That’s even true for my lunchtime jaunts into Hayes Valley, within easy reach of the SF Conservatory, since I’ll be in that neighborhood just as much as I am now—i.e., during work days.

Instead, I’m thinking about those aspects of SF life that I will be unlikely to revisit once I’m no longer living here—the sorts of things I have truly enjoyed, but won’t be travelling into the City to experience any more.

The Corona Heights Walk

One of my favorite walking paths, albeit it high-exercise and not soothing in the slightest, is a path leading up to Corona Heights above the Castro district. It’s a stiff uphill clamber, getting from my house to the park that surrounds the Randall Museum, then up around the edges of Corona Heights itself, then out on the other side on Roosevelt Way. Depending on my schedule and remaining energy, either I continue up to Buena Vista Park and huff/puff my way to the top, or else I head downhill via the magical Vulcan Steps down to Ord Court, and then head back up a hidden short staircase to States Street. I cross States and return to the park around the Randall Museum, then retrace my steps—now sharply downhill—home. Lots of great views and abundant flowers and trees along the way.

The World’s Greatest Wash ’n’ Fold

It may sound odd to put something as prosaic as a wash-and-fold laundromat on my list, but the simple fact is that Steve and June’s thriving family business on the corner of 17th Street and Sanchez is one of San Francisco’s jewels. They do wonderful work with my laundry and they’re incredibly fast about it all. I won’t be needing a wash ’n’ fold in the future since I have my own laundry room in my new house. But for the past eight some-odd years, that shiny-clean and well-maintained laundromat around the corner with its expert wash ’n’ fold service has been a priceless time and energy saver for me. Drop off in the morning, pick up in the afternoon. I’ll miss them.

Golden Gate Park

There’s no exhausting of this gigantic park, no amount of time you can spend there that dulls its appeal. You can always find a quiet place in Golden Gate Park, even if that may be farther out towards the ocean. I’ve never been all that attracted to the big park institutions such as the De Young Museum or the Academy of Sciences, but I do love the many meadows, ponds, and out-of-the-way surprises that never end. When I lived out in the Avenues I had a favorite little duck pond I visited almost daily during the summer. Nowadays getting to the park takes a bit more planning, but it’s always worth it.

Outdoor Staircases

Even if I have become a zaftig guy who has to approach physical exertion with caution thanks to coronary artery issues, I still love the outdoor staircases that pepper San Francisco. The Vulcan Steps down to Ord Street are my all-time favorite, but I enjoy many others, such as the Liberty Street steps or that huge multi-block staircase that traverses a big chunk of Twin Peaks and ends near Tank Hill. Even little ones, such as the stairs you encounter along Sanchez at 19th St., can be a lot of fun. I may need to take my time and ascend slowly, but that makes them even better somehow. The views become ever better as you ascend, of course.

Noe Street

I refer here specifically to the stretch between Market and Duboce, lined as it is with fully-mature trees that form a gorgeous soothing canopy, mute the traffic sounds, and bring a general sense of peace & well-being to an otherwise cacophonous and tension-wracked neighborhood. It is also flat, and thus lends itself to casual strolling without having to brace for the usual uphill/downhill orientation of many SF streets. I always enjoy that four blocks or so.

That’s my list for now. I’m exchanging all of them for what I consider to be improvements: safer and better parks, less hilly terrain, my own laundry room, and the like. And it’s not as though I’m leaving the Bay Area; everything that I prize about San Francisco remains available to me, in most cases just as easily as it has always been since I work here a minimum of three days a week. But I will miss some of those nifty out-of-the-way places. I’ll find new ones in my new home town, of course. But memories will remain fond.

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San Francisco Stuff I Won’t Miss

Today I took my Camry to the gas station. Time for a fill-up. As usual, the pump asked me to put in my zip code, as a way of ensuring that I am the real McCoy and not some despicable ringer with a stolen credit card. So I entered the zip code that I’ve had for the three decades — after all this time the numbers more or less punch themselves in — and then looked in blank amazement as the pump had the pumpish equivalent of a hissy fit and told me that it wouldn’t give me any gas, no way, uh-huh, nada, zip, bupkis, and would I be so kind as to step over to the kiosk and speak to the attendant.

Then I remembered. I have a new zip code. Although my actual move is yet a few weeks in the future, I’ve gotten the ball rolling with most of the necessary address changes. I’ve always been proactive. Besides, as of August 12, 2015 my legally-defined primary residence is a fine contemporary Mediterranean right in the heart of Brentwood, California 94513. The bank considers Brentwood to be my home now, and so do I, even if I continue to hang my hat in San Francisco for a bit longer. The die is cast and the Rubicon is crossed. I was 94114. Now I’m 94513.

It’s embarrassing that a Chevron gas pump knew it better than I did.

Which gets me thinking about how much I will miss living in San Francisco, as I become a commuter after so many years spent in these 49 square miles.

Frankly, I won’t miss it one damn bit. But there are some things I won’t miss more than others.

Wind Chimes

I have had a charming, responsible, and altogether fine neighbor to my immediate south for the entire three decades I have lived in my current house. Everything about her is exemplary, from her tidiness to her fine cooking (which she shares sometimes) to her quiet life to her adorable dog. But I will not miss her $@#$! wind chimes. She’s potty for wind chimes. Upon my heartfelt pleading, she did away with one particularly egregious specimen that sounded like two saucepans being flung together. But several others remain. Every time there’s a puff of breeze I brace myself: more dingy-dingy. Her wind chimes are metal, not bamboo, and are pestered with particularly nasty overtones. I can’t really gripe about them. She tolerates my stereo system, after all, and even though it’s a super-duper audiophile system that I use to play high-quality music, it’s still got to bug her sometimes.

It has bothered me so much that I wouldn’t have bought a house in Brentwood with a wind-chime-toting neighbor. I checked before I bought. Carefully.

My Zip Code

Although 94114 is a “cool” zip code by San Francisco standards, I have never liked it. That’s because I tend to remember numbers by their scale degrees. Try singing “94114”, just try: it sucks big time. Those two “ones” right there in the middle create a rhythmic trainwreck and, furthermore, the stupid thing has absolutely no harmonic outline worth remembering. That wan “4” at the end renders it ending on either a predominant or a dominant seventh chord. Creepy.

But 94513: now there’s a nice little tune for you. It creates a respectable perfect authentic cadence, albeit one with a slight anticipation of the ending tonic with the “1” in the penultimate position. Musically it has it all over 94114—just as Brentwood has it all over San Francisco as a place to live.


Maybe it was romantic once. I doubt it. I told myself that it was oh so cool that San Francisco is so gray. Cool gray city of love and all that. But dammit, it’s gray. The skies are gray. They lighten up midday and then just as often go right back to gray in the early evening. I’m sick and tired of waking up in a dank, cold, and gray house. I want to wake up with sunlight, with color, with birds that twitter merrily instead of huddle miserably on a chilly and damp tree branch.

Close Encounters with Bicycles

San Francisco is not set up for bicyclists and motorists to share the roads. That’s especially true when the cyclists tend to ignore the rules of the road, as they do here. I don’t mind bicycles in the abstract—in fact, I’ll probably buy one for myself once I’m settled in Brentwood, where there are bike paths galore. But I do mind dealing with careless and arrogant bicyclists on crowded city streets.

The Castro District

This is a vow. The day I move to Brentwood for good I will never, ever set foot in the Castro District again. Ever. Fortunately I don’t have any friends living there. A few in the hills above, but that doesn’t count.

OK; I’ll stop there. I haven’t even mentioned the big-ticket items, but need I? Stepping over urine puddles and/or human excrement, cringing away from whacked-out lunatics and drug addicts, trying to drive two blocks while maintaining my composure and/or sanity, shying away from aggressive activists brandishing clipboards, paying ultra high prices for everything, putting up with casual everyday rudeness, etc. Besides, I ranted heartily about all of that in an earlier posting. No: right now I’m looking forward to abundant morning sunshine, a singable zip code, no bicycle terrorists, no wind-blown dingy-dingy, and above all, no Castro.

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