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Wednesday in Escondido and LA

Beach from train_small

For my money, the best view on any train ride in the Western US is the view from an Amtrak Surfrider (or MetroLink/Oceanside) train between Orange County and Oceanside, when the train runs RIGHT next to the beach. I will say the sunrise view of the Cascades on a snowy morning from the Coast Starlight (along the Natron Cutoff/Pegra Pass) is a very close second.


My friend Neal, when informed of my transportation plan for today, pronounced my dedication to mass transit "quaint." But the simple fact of the matter is, I hate driving, but I like seeing JF, a former colleague from my Windows Magazine days, who achieved a trifecta in his career; he worked for Ziff, CMP, and IDC. He now lives in Escondido.

How do you get to Escondido from Venice if you don't like driving? Well, this is America, so, of course, you have to start by driving. You drive over to 2nd and Broadway at 5:45 am to catch the 6:25 No. 10 Big Blue Bus, an express bus to the LA Union Station. You arrive at 7:10 to  catch the 7:25 Amtrak Surfliner to Oceanside. Unless one of the three ticket machines is out of order, one is taking cash only, and there are 10 people in line for the third. In that case, you catch the 8am Metrolink to Oceanside. Takes longer, but still pretty comfortable. Then, the 10:33 Sprinter to Escondido, where JF picks you up. Reverse the process (and add the Red line and the Expo line instead of the Big Blue Bus) and you end up in Culver City for dinner with NV. Door to door, Venice to Culver City is 13 hours in motion for a 3-hour visit, but some people are worth it. JF is a force of nature, a fascinating blogger, and one of the most dynamic human beings I have ever known. He has met my daughters once or twice, and both retain vivid memories of him. He leaned over my daughter, at a "bring your daiugters to work" day, and said simply, "Question Authority."

JF was very calm about my late arrival. As we have for the last few years, we went to a Vietnamese place; he had the noodles, I had the chicken wrap. We talked about his health problems and mine, exchanged news of our daughters, and skipped politics since we know we agree with each other on most things. I met his two new dogs, spent some time in his back yard, toured the house and whiled away a lovely hour exchanging stories of the people we knew when we were both reporters in the computer business.

The trip  back to LA was uneventful.

Neal Vitale, arts editor when I was editor-in-chief of The Tech, now lives in LA and is a wheel in the media business. He also says he doesn't care if I use his real name. We have dined at Chez Panisse several times, and we both enjoy a good meal. So it came as no surprise to me that Lukshon, the Korean-American restaurant he took me to was amazing. Spicy? Oh My Yes! But delicious, especially the black rice, the chicken pops and the mango pudding. Actually it was all good, the Tea Leaf Salad and the ceviche-like fish dish with coconut powder and the incredibly spicy szechuan noodles, and the spicy pork dumplings. Really, except for the mango salad, just assume the adjective spicy applies to all the dishes. Except the pink champagne. The food is all small plates and family style.  Neal tells me the chef is quite strict; if you hold an event there, you must use his wine; you cannot bring in your own. No substitutions. If you can't eat it his way, don't order it. And best of all? Just two blocks from the Culver City stop on the Expo Line. Which, by next year, will no longer be the end of the line! 

Tuesday in LA

When I make my annual visit to LA, I like to stay at Su Casa; the rooms are one-bedroom apartments with a full kitchen and lots of space to spread out. I always get an oceanview room. You are literally 40 feet from the sand once you get out the front door. The front desk gets one (1!) copy each of the NY Times and LA Times for all the tenants. I grabbed the Times; no one else asked for it. Sign. Print media really ARE dying.

As usual, I tried to do too much in the morning, so instead of the one-hour walk on the beach I wanted, I got a 20-minute walk. My motto is: something is better than nothing. I excused myself because I knew I had a big walk coming.

It was time for my annual walk and talk with J, a colleague from my days at He lives in Studio City, across the street from an entrance to the Santa Monica hills. Usually, we hike to the top, but he is now 82 and told me he didn't trust his balance on a dirt path with steep sides. So, we went instead all over his neighborhood. It was a two-hour walk, and pretty vigorous at that.

Thank goodness the LA heat wave had broken that morning, so it was only 80 instead of 90. I love the people I get to see in LA each year, but even in October, the town is too damn hot for my taste.

J and I talked of cabbages and kings, of politics (he is a rather conservative libertarian/Republican), and the Authors' Guild (we are both members, but he makes real money from his books, something I never did do), of old Hollywood, architecture, and the death  of pets. We have eaten lunch at the Good Earth for a decade on these visits, but the restaurant was gone, so we had Thai food instead. Nice, but nothing to write home about. I know we both enjoyed our few hours together, because we both told each other we had.

Back to Su Casa for a quick nap, during which I was reminded that a rotating selection of musicians sits directly across the beachside path from my room, plugs an amplifier into a portable generator and plays music, loudly, on a continuous basis during the day.

Ninety minutes, at rush hour,  to make a trip Google said should take an hour, to Echo Park for dinner with B, an IT industry guru and consultant, with whom I have maintained a friendship since I profiled him for InformationWEEK in 1986. We had prime rib at Tam O' Shanter, the original Lawry's restaurant from the 1920s. We sat there for several hours, swapping old IT stories, as well as life stories. He is a raconteur, no question about it. And again, I don't have to guess that we both enoyed our time together. Usually we spend some time on the patio at his lovely old house, but I was sleep-deprived, so begged off early. After my experience with freeways earlier in the day, I took Western to Sunset to PCH to Ocean to my hotel. About the same amount of time, but at least I was moving...

The Two Faces of January

As they might say in Variety, this film is a three-hander. Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac soak up 99% of the screen time. Dunst is barely recognizable as made up. I understand they do this in Hollywood so a famous actor or actress can play a role without overpowering it, but in my experience as a filmgoer, all this does is make you really strain to figure out, "Who is that, really?" Anyway, taking the lazy was out (and insuring that I commit no spoilers), IMDB's capsule description is: "A thriller centered on a con artist, his wife, and a stranger who flee Athens after one of them is caught up in the death of a private detective."

My wife and I enjoyed it. Some reviews have called it boring and tedious, throwing the old "nothing happens" canard at it. Well, we like European movies, and slice of life movies, and this is a slice of life movie set in Europe. The Rotten Tomatoes rating is all over the lot; 82% from critics, 54% from viewers. Go figure. Its already streaming, so you can see it cheaply. It is entertaining and intelligent, a good combination in my opinion.

Slate Superfest West

 On Sunday, Oct. 5th,, the online magazine, did something unprecedented. They brought 7 stars from three of their podcasts to San Francisco for the first Slate Superfest. Mike Pesca, of The Gist, Steven Metcalfe, Julia Turner and Dana Stevens from the Culture Gabfest, and David Plotz, Emily Bazilon and John Dickerson from the Political Gabfest. My younger daughter and I never miss either podcast, and when we heard they were coming to town, we jumped on two tickets. The Embassy Ballroom sold out in a day (San Franciscans would quickly figure out the Embassy Ballroom is the former Embassy Theater, which showed first-run films for 50 years).

Pesca was the host. The unvarying format of Slate podcasts (which was, by coincidence, the same format I used for my pre-iPod podcasts in 1998-99) is three panelists and three topics. For the Superfest, each panel consisted of four panelists, two from each podcast. It is easy to see why the format normally calls for three panelists; with four, someone inevitably gets short shrift. Still, watching the taping from the balcony was great fun, despite the dripping-sweat heat. Like many SF venues, the Embassy has never bothered with air conditioning because in SF, "nature provides the air conditioning," except when it doesn't. I wish I had a dime for every Sunday matinee of the SF Ballet I sweated through.

In any case, the panelists were lively  (although, not surprisingly, the Political Gabfest people steamrollered the more refined Culture Gabfeasters) and so was the crowd. If you are not listening to Slate podcasts, you should be. And if they come to your town, go see the circus. You'll be glad you did.


Mike Pesca at the podium, joined by David Plotz, John Dickerson, Steven Metacalf and Julia Turner


In case we forgot where we were, this was projected onto the ground outside the Embassy Ballroom after the Slate Superfest West.


Worthwhile Project

My daughter has been working for a long time for "a non-profit seeking to empower Malians by translating and publishing "Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook" in Bambara. She was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali. Most of you who read this blog can't come to the fundraiser, but you can go to the website and donate. And if you can come, the African food will be unlike anything else you've ever eaten.



Annual LA Trip (and some housekeeping)

Just for fun: I submitted the No. 3 (out of 14) item on the "Lesser Known Celebrity Dances" list at Humorlab:

The Bill O'Reilly: Dance very loudly, without the moves making any sense.

I am in LA on my annual trip (delayed from August) to visit old friends and colleagues. Keep an eye on this space for the rest of the week for updates. Coming tonight: my anniversary column. Later in the week: Slate SuperFest West and a review of the film Two Faces of January, as well as LA updates.

Sunday afternoon, the Danville Community Band played its annual Rossmoor concert. I announced. After the concert, several band members pointed out that I had accidentally worn a Moraga Teachers Association polo shirt, instead of the Danville Band polo shirt. They are both the same color and style. I have removed the MTA shirt from my closet to prevent any recurrence.

My wife V generously rushed me to the airport after the concert in plenty of time for my 7:15 flight... which did not leave until 8:45. But of course I brought plenty of reading material. I didn't get to my room at Su Casa on Oceanfront Walk in Venice, CA, until just before the desk closed at midnight. It was a close run thing. At midnight, it was 80 degrees in Venice, which is too darn hot for a beach town.

Monday's formalities began with lunch at the USC Staff and Faculty Dining Hall, a lovely room in a former library. The air conditioning was out for the first hour of lunch, which made things uncomfortable. My old friend JS, entering hi 47th year as a member of the Annenberg School journalism faculty, took me to the new multimedia newsroom. Very impressive. He said that by some measures it is the largest newsroom in the world. We bounce off each other so well.

Then, instead of the nap I was anticipating, it was off to Long Beach for a two hours on board a Capri 21 sailboat with my former CMP colleague DS. We had a wonderful time, despite the fact that I don't really drink anymore. It was a lovely, pleasant afternoon, temperature in the high 70s even out on the water, and enough wind for most of the trip. DS didn't have to fire up the iron sail until we were almost back at the dock. We hadn't seen each other in several years; it was fun to catch up. And we sent a gag picture to our mutual friend EF from on-board the boat.

A quick run up the 405 to Manhattan Beach for dinner with N&C, two old friends of the family (he knew Vicki and played tennis with her in Berkeley years before I met her). The took me to a Greek restaurant downtown where I had a mind-boggling feta-crusted rack of lamb and the usual round of enjoyable conversation.


Sixteen Years Later

A reprint of my annual anniversary item, with small adjustments).

As of Oct. 16, it will be 16 years since I started this incarnation of P.S. A Column on Things. 

When I started this column, I was still working for CMP, and had a weekly podcast, back before pods (which definitely cut into our audience). My heart beat by itself and I weighed 270 pounds (this morning: 251).  In short, things were different. I believe I was one of the longest (sort of) continuous bloggers on the Internet.

In 1998, during the Clinton impeachment, I  had to start a column. PSACOT gave me a forum in which to express, to an audience (no matter how small) my feelings about that political circus. [As a U.S. history teacher, I am forced to note that Andrew Johnson's impeachment was a rabid partisan witch hunt, as was Clinton's. Only Nixon's was bipartisan--and only Nixon resigned.]

The column/blog has since evolved into a combination of diary for my family and me and bulletin board for my clever friends--in short, a personal column. Like, but not as good as, former San Francisco Chronicle columnist Adair Lara or ongoing columnist Jon Carroll. Or, to take a national example, former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen, considered the mother of the personal column concept (even though Stanton Delaplane and Charles McCabe of the San Francisco Chronicle actually beat her to it--but of course, if it hasn't happened in New York, it hasn't happened).

PSACOT is also a revival of sorts. Among my readers, Daniel Dern and Peter Peckarsky would remember the original P.S. A Column On Things, which ran in ERGO, MIT's objectivist newspaper from September 1970 to March 1971, and The Tech, MIT's semi-official student newspaper, from March 1971 to May 1971. Those were among my happiest days as a journalist. If I had truly understood the fulfillment a personal column gave me, perhaps I would have fought harder to keep it when Bob Fourer killed it (along with my restaurant reviews), or I would have revived it when I became editor-in-chief two years later, or tried to practice the craft as an adult (and become, perhaps, the father of the personal column).

The weekly column lasted a lot longer this time (15 years versus 1), but all good things come to an end. Thanks for meeting me here all that time, and for sticking around for my current sporadic efforts.