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October 2014
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Amma came for a short visit to the ashram in San Ramon. I did communications seva on Tuesday, one of only two days she held public programs on this abbreviated visit. She left San Ramon Sunday for Detroit. Then she is off to Rome to meet with Pope Francis). Communications seva consists of monitoring the walkie talkies and answering the phones. It beats sweeping rat shit out of the garage in the house in which Amma stays while visiting. I mention that because it was my seva for several years before I switched to communications. I didn't go to the retreat this visit, so I don't have any new Amma stories to tell.


The weather is turning, and so are the rats. They climbed the tree outside our bedroom window and managed to find a hole big enough to squeeze into our attic. For a long time, I convinced myself the noise at night was tree limbs scratching the bedroom window. But the noise got louder and more persistent, until it included running and scratching. No doubt about it. Rats. The Vector Control Officer for Orinda came and said, "Rats." He repeated something I had heard before, which was that rats can pass through incredibly small holes. Apparently the did in this case. Vicki and I put rat poison in the attack, which means we run the risk of their dying up there and stinking the place up. It is a risk we are willing to take. They are ruining our sleep. If we run the attic fan, it scares them out, but they return as soon as it is turned off. I can sleep through the attic fan, Vicki cannot. We put in electronic rat scaring devices, despite the fact that the Vector Control Office told us they don't work. They can't hurt, right?  I will keep you posted on our vermin situation. Feel free to write and tell me about yours.

The Counter

The Counter: Build your own burger in Walnut Creek
1699 North California Boulevard (Corner of Cole)


I am not quite sure what it is about southern California that makes it the center of American's hamburger culture, but it can certainly and firmly make that claim. The drive-in was invented there, in the homeland of McDonald's, Bob's Big Boy and In n' Out. And now, yet another new idea is sweeping over the nation: build your own burger. But wait, you may say. Red Robin, among others, has had that idea for years. Roam Artisan Burgers just opened in  Lafayette. True, but The Counter takes it to a whole new level. For one thing, they have an idea that is unique, as far as I know: get your burger fixings as a salad, over quinoa. Even if someone else has had that idea, I have not previously seen a place with the variety of meats and toppings offered at The Counter. There is even a "market menu" featuring a daily special meat, topping and bun. You can get bison, lamb, hamburger or veggie burger. Six kinds of cheese. Raw onions or fried onions. You build your burger on a form, which your waiter whisks away and converts into a delicious meal. Everything was quick, delicious and perfect. I didn't try the fries, but the looked good, and I did enjoy the pumpkin shake. Plus, the magic of franchising: a different menu, a different atmosphere, the thrill of a startup. I really enjoyed it.

I will note in passing that a cherished tradition of my youth has spread more widely. A tavern on Fremont Street near my home in Portland, Oregon served the Stanich Burger, most clearly distinguished from other burgers by the addition of a single friend egg on top. I notice this option appearing every more frequently on hamburger menus,  and at both The Counter and Roam.  It makes a burger extra delicious; if you haven't tried it, do!


My daughter R writes, "This is what I want to be like 40 years from now."

She also ran into a political test on Facebook and shared it with me, but I discovered it comes from this website. It tries to describe a person's politics in a more nuanced way. As it says on the site, "There's abundant evidence for the need of it. The old one-dimensional categories of 'right' and 'left', established for the seating arrangement of the French National Assembly of 1789, are overly simplistic for today's complex political landscape. For example, who are the 'conservatives' in today's Russia? Are they the unreconstructed Stalinists, or the reformers who have adopted the right-wing views of conservatives like Margaret Thatcher?"

What am I? A communist world-federalist bleeding-heart libertine; 83% collectivist, 0% authoritarian, 100% internationalist, -100% tribalist and 100% liberal. Which is just about right. If I were in Congress I'd have a 100 rating from the ADA and 0 from the NRA. It is fun to take the test and compare to your friends.
My friend Daniel Dern found this funny. So do I.
Back in the saddle again! I made #4 on list Top 5 list "Top 12 Entries in Russia's Wikipedia," explained thusly: "Russia is tired of Wikipedia besmirching its good name with things like the truth. So they are starting their own Wikipedia."
4. A new article on Soviet Sportswomen of the 1960s says they all WERE women.

I also made the honorable mention list (barely) with this:
Vladamir Putin's height now listed as 6-feet, 2-inches.

Which isn't fair, because Putin is a short man who is sensitive about his height, which makes this a great entry. Oh well. No. 1 on the list, from  Donald Johnson of Cincinnati was, admittedly, more funny than mine:
1. The statistics for Russian election results go all the way through 2024.

I also made another list (at the bottom).
Description: "Kim Kardashian appeared nude in a magazine  last week and these days, having nude published *voluntarily* is actually kind of groundbreaking.
      The Top 12 Comments About Kim Kardashian's Nude Photos"
12> "So that's why there's a worldwide shortage of silicon."

My honorable mention entry was:
"I'm not going to drink out of a champagne glass that's been there." (you have to have seen the pictures to get this one)

This is scary: The moment I learned just how far Uber will go to silence journalists and attack women

Gratitude and Thanksgiving (Early)

For 16 years, I have been running variations of the same Thanksgiving column, listing the things for which I am thankful. A variety of events last year  led me to stop posting regular blog entries and start writing  regular entries in a gratitude journal, which got me to thinking of the difference between thankful  and grateful. Google isn't much help:

Grateful: feeling or showing an appreciation of kindness; thankful.
Thankful: pleased and relieved, grateful

So, basically, it treats the words as synonymous. I do still give thanks for my health and my family. I am also grateful to have them in my life. I am grateful to be of use, to my family and others. I am grateful for the love I get and the love I have an opportunity to give. I am grateful that my medical problems are all treatable. Every day, I am grateful to be here, because very minute I have had since January 2007 has been a gift. I cherish that gift. I don't need Clarence the Angel to show me that this is a wonderful life; unlike George Bailey, I have never for a moment doubted that the world is a better place for my being in it. I give thanks for my blessings every morning, and expect to do so for the rest of my life. And, yes, especially on Thanksgiving Day.

Finally, if you feel life has been dealing to you from the bottom of the deck, I recommend the practice of keeping a gratitude journal. Write down one or two things each day for which you are grateful. Big or small, serious or silly. You may find it helps you keep things in perspective; I know it has had that effect on me. Going back and rereading it sometimes can be an interesting and rewarding activity.

For all of you who are still left to read this now-occasional blog, Happy (Early) Thanksgiving!

A Mediated Life

This week, both my wife, V, and my daughter, R, have asked me, after we had seen a movie or eaten a meal, "So what are you going to write about this in your blog?" It seemed like a funny question at first, but then I realized that if you're producing a personal blog, everything is gist for the mill. Even though I have, in recent years, become more careful about sharing aspects of  the lives of my loved ones (at least, without permission) , they still expect me to report on our shared experiences; just leaving their names out.  But of course if you have a shared experience, your experience is shaped by the experience of the person you shared it with. I started this blog all those years ago to express my political opinions; I find I am not as riled up as I used to be. But I have been flattered that a few dozen people seem interested in what I have to say about life. I'm not going to force myself to write something every week, but I will follow the Mr. Ed rule; this week I have something to say.

A night in Berkeley: Build and David Sedaris

The Zellerbach Theater on the U.C. Berkeley campus is in the middle of a major construction zone. The closest parking garage has been closed. So it behooves patrons to get there early, or risk parking a LONG way away. Thus, R and I  arrived at 6:30 for the 8pm reading by David Sedaris. I expected we'd eat on Telegraph Avenue, but R told me that "Shattuck is Harvard, Telegraph is UC." And thus, at 6:30 on a Saturday night we went looking for a nice restaurant with an open table. No such luck; school is in session. Our eyes were attracted to a garishly modern corner place called Build. We weren't even sure it was a retaurant, but it had immediate seating, so we sat down. It is one of those places that has its own rules, and if you don't know them, you feel foolish as you try to navigate your dinner. Basically, you are given a chit which contains your table number information. You present the chit in the "Construction zone," to a cook who makes a custom pizza to your specifications. The brick pizza ovens are VERY hot, because your pizza comes to the table in 10 minutes. They expect you to order a pizza per person, but frankly, a half pizza (three good sized pieces) and a salad was plenty of dinner for me. I had the Caprese salad, R had the Endive. Both were lovely to behold and delicious to eat, as was our pizza.

Then to the mezzanine for a sold-out reading by David Sedaris, who generously plugged Ann Patchett's book, for sale in the lobby, and the CDs and book of  Dylan Brody, who actually opened for Sedaris. The show was so sold-out that R and I sat in adjacent rows, several seats apart. It was the best pair of seats I could buy. I own all of Sedaris' books, read all of his casuals in the New Yorker and listen to his BBC radio show, "Meet David Sedaris," so he doesn't have much material I haven't heard. R has an ap on her phone that plays animated versions of his journal entries, narrated by Sedaris himself. Sedaris is hysterical in person, with that deadpan delivery he made famous on NPR's "This America Life."  We were both in stitches for 90 minutes. Alas, David has started to work a little blue; there were two jokes that were just a smidge beyond the pale. I mean, Fudgy McPacker was a creation of  Sedaris' early in his career, but these remarks were a tad explicit for our taste. I hope this isn't a harbinger.


I recently flew to Chicago for the weekend to see my old college buddy J, who worked with me at The Tech (making this the kind of blind item that is obvious to everyone who knows us both and totally opaque to the rest of you). I had not seen him , his wife, or his family in seven years.

I flew from San Francisco to Chicago on Virgin America. What an odd airline. I was lured by the fact that a round trip in Virgin first class was the same price as a round trip tourist class seat on American. Virgin tries so hard to make you experience interesting and different. The indirect lighting in the plane is pink and purple. The safety video is a rap song. The emails are so friendly they make my teeth ache. But overall, it was an amazing experience, and if you score one of the four seats in the front cabin, you'll find the food quite nice and the service attentive. In the back, all food is ala carte, which is the way I understand most airlines operate now. Me, I fly Southwest most of the time, where no food was ever served or expected above the level of peanuts, pretzels and cookies. It appeared the tourist class seats had reasonable leg room, but I didn't get a chance to sit in one.

[TRAGIC SIDE NOTE: According to my friend, the travel writer Joe Brancatelli, Jet Blue, the last American airline to offer every passenger a reasonable amount of leg room, will  be adding seats to make the legroom as awful on their flights at on the legacy airlines. Boo. Hiss. I fly their inconvenient schedules sometimes because of their comfortable seats. If the experience becomes the same as everyone else, why not fly everyone else?]

I landed at 10 at night in Chicago and got to my room at the Staybridge Suites  hotel in Glenview. Up in the morning for an adequate buffet  breakfast. Then I rented  a car (a Buick LeSabre no less; great Bluetooth connectivity to my iPhone) and drove over to see J. He and his wife E live with their daughter M in Glenview. I have know him since 1972, but had not seen him in years. He looked great. We chatted, catching each other up on the state of our children. He then took me to lunch; he asked me what I wanted and I told him "grilled cheese," so we went to a sports bar that served a well-made exemplar of the genre. Then we shopped for dinner. I had offered to take him out, but he pointed out a restaurant on a Saturday night would be crowded and noisy. Thus it was that we shopped for my signature dish, chicken with cherries (which has to be made, this time of year, with canned cherries). It came out great. After dinner we played a game I have never played called Cards Against Humanity. It is apparently all the rage with Gen. Y and the millenials. Both my daughters have played it. According to the website, it is "a party game for horrible people. Unlike most of the party games you've played before, Cards Against Humanity is as despicable and awkward as you and your friends. The game is simple. Each round, one player asks a question from a black card, and everyone else answers with their funniest white card." It is definitely rated X. One of the people playing knew the authors of the game. Having seen their output, I'm not sure I'd want to meet them. Definitely rated X. Do not play it with your grandmother.

Sunday morning, I went with J to St. Giles Episcopal Church, where he was married decades ago. On this Sunday, he was preparing a casserole for the pre-service breakfast. St. Giles does communion just once on Sunday,. at 10 a.m. It is a very choral service; parts of it were sung that I have never heard sung before. I enjoyed it. The sermon was interactive: I've never seen that before either.

I lost touch years ago with the widow of my favorite professor, Edwin Diamond. By an amazing coincidence, she wrote me two weeks before my Chicago trip, which enabled me to take her out for brunch on my way to the airport. We had a wonderful walk and talk and a brunch at a Swedish restaurant (I had pancakes with lingon jam and Swedish meatballs).  She said she had seen my tribute to Ed and that there were errors in it. She gave me a contact who knew the correct information. I just updated my Edwin Diamond tribute with that corrected information. The thrust remains the same: Edwin was a great and inspirational teacher. The corrections have to do with how he got into teaching in the first place.

Like my trip to Chicago, my trip back on Virgin America was on time, comfortable and uneventful. For the first time, I took BART back to Orinda from SFO, vastly cutting down on V's driving time to pick me up.

Big Hero 6

I am unfamiliar with the original comic book material, but this film looks like the promising start to a cartoon franchise. The central robotic character is very sympathetic, as are all the kids. The grownups are something else again. San Franciscoyo, a hybrid of San Francisco and Tokyo, made for an interesting locale. I liked it. And it's a $100 million film.