Life Behind Bars

Woman eating aloneIf you follow this blog you know I like to travel, and I often do it solo. It’s part conscious choice: I’m an introvert who tends to avoid trips involving days at the beach (there’s not enough sunscreen on earth to protect my pastiness), or hitting nightclubs and casinos. Give me a self-guided walking tour, a few historic sites and a spot of shopping in a mild climate – I’ll be a happy tourist.

Traveling on my own is also sometimes a necessity: I’m single with a lot of coupled-up friends. If I scheduled my trips around their availability, I’d wind up spending an awful lot of vacation time on my sofa.

And of course there’s also solo work travel. I’m not required to do a ton of it, and the trips are usually short so I enjoy them. There’s something about staying in a hotel room that someone tidies for you each day, and eating meals (on the company’s dime) that you neither prepared nor cleaned up after, that feels like an adventure – and not at all lonely.

Given how often I travel alone, and how comfortable I am with it, I often surprise myself when I arrive at a restaurant solo and tell the host/hostess, “Just one for dinner.” Or, “It’s just me.” I can’t explain why I feel the need to include the word just, as if I’m apologizing. Maybe it’s because restaurants so often leave me feeling contrite for taking up a whole table, “just” for myself.

I was recently in Palm Springs for a music festival that my company sponsors. On my first night, I headed downtown for VillageFest, a low-key Thursday night street fair. I arrived early, and found a restaurant that looked promising. I was told I’d have to eat at the bar.

Let me be clear: one of the advantages of traveling alone is I can often eat at great restaurants without a reservation, because I’m usually willing to sit at the bar. But this large bistro in Palm Springs was – I kid you not – about two-thirds empty at this time. There were unoccupied tables for two everywhere, so being booked solid was definitely not the issue.

I forced a smile, said “thanks anyway”, and kept walking, eventually finding a more crowded restaurant where I was nevertheless seated at a real table, like a valued customer. I had two cocktails, an appetizer and main course salad, and dessert. I suppose I felt like making a point.

When I walked past the snooty bistro about 90 minutes later, it was bustling but STILL had empty tables for two. So, what was gained by snubbing me?

Fast forward to this afternoon. I was not traveling, I just had errands to run at San Jose’s Santana Row. Despite its vast array of shops, with even more in a sprawling indoor mall across the street, I’m not a fan of the place. Teslas are on display in the center of the complex, surrounded by beautiful people lingering – being seen by other beautiful people — in large open-air restaurants with white tablecloths and a complete set of wine glasses at each place. In other words, forget every Midwest mall you’ve ever shopped in.

I made the mistake of approaching a French-American themed café by myself, seeing quite a few empty tables, and asking to be seated at one of them. The unsmiling hostess replied that single parties must sit at the bar. Not that there might be a wait, unless I was willing to sit at the bar. I was alone, so the bar was my only option.

I later joked that the swells at Santana Row seemed terrified that I might infect them with my unglamorous single-ness. There were tables to spare, so I can only conclude that the optics of a person dining alone was considered potentially depressing to other diners – an unwelcome appetite suppressant.

Because every ludicrous situation I encounter brings to mind a Seinfeld episode, I laughed thinking of season 9, and germaphobe coworker Peggy who was frantic that proximity to Elaine would contaminate her. Too bad today’s restaurant hostess didn’t leave a keyboard within arm’s reach.

tv comedy seinfeld elaine benez
In 2015, Deloitte University Press released a study focused on a steady rise in single-person households in the United States between 1960 and 2014 that is expected to continue for at least 15 years. While this trend will influence the way communities and housing are designed and built, I hope it will also force establishments like Zin American Bistro and The Left Bank to value the growing number of us who are as likely to travel, shop, dine and reside solo, as in a group.

Show us to a table, if that’s what we ask for, because there’s no more space at the bar.


My Gold Country Road Trip: Hitting the Mother Lode

A few weeks ago, this western film and television fan made a pilgrimage of sorts to Ponderosa country. I didn’t cross paths with any Cartwrights, although I did encounter a perfect Hoss hat in a shop in Virginia City.

According to Baron Hats – the company that designed and manufactured all the hats worn on the TV show — the Hoss model was an original, just like the character for which it was created.

“With a gun and rope and hat full of hope!…”– from the lyrics to ‘Bonanza’

I spent 4 nights in rainy Incline Village next to Lake Tahoe, launching several day trips from there: Carson City, Reno and Virginia City. But the best excursion – the one I really planned my trip around – was to Bodie State Historic Park, home to a ghost town. (#Boo.)

W.S. Bodey of Poughkeepsie, NY discovered gold on the site in 1859. (He died several months later in a blizzard, which probably explains why the name of his namesake town wound up misspelled.)

At its peak, Bodie had about 7,000 residents. Only about 5% of the structures from that period survive, but that’s enough to provide a fascinating, throwback experience. When California State Parks purchased the land in 1962, it chose not to restore or renovate any of the buildings. It merely maintains them as they were discovered.

The town’s population dwindled after Bodie’s heyday of 1877-1881, although mining continued until 1942. What’s left standing has a bit of a Pompeii feel to it, as if everyone bolted one day with only what they could carry in their pickup trucks. Everything else – clothes, toys, furniture, mattresses, baby carriages – was left behind.

The Bodie cemetery is filled with the graves of residents that didn’t make it out – many of them gunmen killed in shoot outs. The visitor’s guide provides some back stories:

  • Alexander Nixon, a native of Tyrone, Ireland, died in 1878 at age 38. He lost a gunfight with a friend. They were arguing over who was the better man. Not sure there was a definitive outcome to the debate, but the friend was the better shot.
  • Chatto Encinos was killed by Sam Chung in 1880, for raiding Chung’s vegetable garden.
  • John Goff was shot in a claim jumping dispute in 1879.
  • Darwin award winner A.C. Robertson died in 1880 while trying to thaw out frozen gun powder in his oven. Seriously? Who DOES that?

Small flags are scattered amidst the cemetery’s desert brush. They pinpoint possible unmarked graves recently identified by human remains detection dogs. See what I mean? Spooky!

The visit was worth the 2.5 hour drive in each direction. As road trips go, I’d say I hit the mother lode.

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The Queen’s English

Queen Anne the Politics of PassionI am an avid reader, and feel driven to finish just about any book I start. I will slog my way through a tome, because I.Am.Not.A.Quitter. I will grant myself permission to give up on a book I’m not enjoying… but rarely take myself up on the offer. It’s a sickness, really.

Case in point: I recently completed Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion, by Anne Somerset — a heroic feat that took approximately three months. While I appreciate a thorough biography of an important British monarch as much the next history major, at 640 pages this one sometimes felt like breaking rocks in the midday sun.

Queen Anne only lived to age 49, and was in ill health for most of her adult life. Truth be told, given the length of the book and the level of detail provided in it, I sometimes hoped that if her gout didn’t hurry up and kill her, a Jacobite would slip something into her food to move things along.

Kensington Palace is one of my favorite tourist stops in London. It has some great exhibitions about former residents Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. There’s also an enormous portrait of Queen Anne (who died at the Palace in 1714) on the ground floor that has always intrigued me. A plaque near the painting states that Anne gave birth to 17 (!) children – and survived none of them.
Sarah Duchess of Marlborough

An even more compelling aspect of Anne’s life was her relationship with Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. I must admit it was a big reason I bought the brick. Er, I mean the book. All I knew going in was that the two women enjoyed a passionate friendship that bordered on scandalous, followed by a falling out of legendary proportions.

Eighteenth century gossip can be juicy, but this tale of friendship gone south wasn’t illicit, at least according to Somerset. The Queen and Duchess wrote each other extravagant “love” letters (complete with pet names) that were the style of the day for BFFs, but over time Sarah’s access to Anne and the massive wealth it brought her and her husband, turned her into an evil monster. With a barbed tongue like hers, she’s lucky she didn’t wind up in the Tower.

How about a little gratitude with that attitude, Duchess?

A less gossipy topic in Queen Anne is the extension of the two-party system during her reign. This is where things got painful. Whigs and Tories were constantly tussling. It is exhausting to read about — not to mention boring, like a scoreless baseball game in the 12th inning. Everyone is tired, and has work tomorrow. Can’t one side drive in a run, already?

There was plenty of partisan intransigence accompanied by backroom deal making for personal gain, and a blatant disregard for public wellbeing or sentiment… unless an election was on the horizon. It’s a relief that politics doesn’t work like THAT anymore, am I right?

I struggled to keep score, Tories vs. Whigs, and rolled my eyes because history really DOES repeat itself. I wonder if, in 300 years, historians will write about bare knuckle brawling between Republicans and Democrats bringing the U.S. government to a near standstill. If our political partisanship feels petty and tedious in 2016, is there any hope it won’t put future generations into a coma? Will they struggle to understand sequestrations, or decide it’s not worth the bother? Will they confuse Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the way I did Godolphin and Harley?

Edward VII in 1868I respect Queen Anne as a scholarly work and a useful tool to historians studying 18th century Britain. But if you are looking for a biography of a British Monarch that is lighter lifting, check out Jane Ridley’s The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince. It’s got it all — family drama (including mommy issues), gluttony and lust. Despite its whopping 768 pages, I finished it in just a few weeks.

I’m taking a break from biographies for a while, and have started reading My Year of Yes, by Shonda Rhimes.

Will I finish it?

All signs point to… YES.

Go Irish

Kenmare, County Kerry, Republic of Ireland
Kenmare, County Kerry

In November 2015, I grudgingly made a last-minute call to scrap a vacation in Belgium. Brussels was locked down due to terrorist attacks in Paris, and while I wasn’t overly worried about my personal safety I dreaded the heightened anxiety and security, and the possibility that some popular tourist attractions could be closed.

About 72 hours before my scheduled flight, I chose to go to Ireland instead. Despite having Irish DNA and always wanting to visit, I’d never been there. The timing wasn’t perfect – it was pretty cold, and some sites outside Dublin were closed for the winter. But I was able to avoid throngs of tourists, and had the Ring of Kerry all to myself.

Another upside: no line to kiss the Blarney Stone – something too cheesy to actually queue up for. And the Blarney Castle grounds were beautiful, and so peaceful they could have hosted a mindfulness retreat.

When I returned home, Christmas was just around the corner. I never got around to posting any photos from the trip.

Now it’s March 2016, but I’m still thinking about that wonderful vacation. So in honor of St. Patrick…. ENJOY!

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Baseball is on the way!

I made the ultimate sacrifice in 2016: I skipped Spring Training in Arizona. OK maybe it’s not the ULTIMATE sacrifice, but I’ve traveled to Arizona every year since 2012 so missing out feels like taking a line drive to the heart.

It had to be done, though. I have some apartment redecorating to do, and despite my best attempts at fuzzy math I couldn’t get my financial conscience to go along with paying for both. But don’t worry, I’m not crying because as everybody knows… THERE’S NO CRYING IN BASEBALL!



One look at my DVD collection will tell you: I love westerns. I’m a particular fan of the black and white ones, in which the antagonists are outlaws and bandits — not indians. My modern-day political correctness is like the “River D” cattle brand (Red River, 1948). It’s here to stay.

My all-time favorite western is Shane (1953), but Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Hondo (1953), 3 Godfathers (1948) and Stagecoach (1939) are honorable mentions.

Fandom started early for me. When I was a kid my family attended church regularly, and western TV shows from the ‘50s and ‘60s were part of my Sunday after-church ritual. I watched The Big Valley, Maverick or The Wild Wild West – whatever was showing on our local UHF station.

Yep, this was technology’s frontier age. If you wanted to change the channel – there were four to choose from — you stood up, walked over to the television and turned a KNOB left and right until you were (relatively) satisfied with the reception. It was another century, after all.

These days, cable TV brings me more than 1,000 channels with programming in multiple languages and ever-increasing states of visual clarity. (HD! 4K!) There’s always something new to watch. Yet hidden among the home shopping, 24-hour sports and news networks I’ve discovered a retro gem – Bonanza! You can find it on MeTV and INSP (“wholesome entertainment, movies and classic shows”), sandwiched between the likes of The Waltons and Car 54, Where Are You?.

Bonanza lasted for 14 seasons (1959-1973) and ranks as the second-longest-running western series of all time. It told the saga of the wealthy Cartwright family, living on the biggest ranch in the Nevada Territory shortly after the Civil War. The stern-but-kind patriarch Ben (Lorne Greene) had three sons, each by a different mother who died in childbirth, or shortly thereafter. He was sort of a catch, but kinda not really. Falling for him could be hazardous to your health. Lucky for Ben, he had a nice face.

tv classic 1960s 1950s western

Because I discovered Bonanza long after its heyday, it’s easy to think of it as a sleepy little show. Guest stars sometimes delivered cringe-worthy performances, but a few heavy hitters stopped by too. Jerry Newton, before he became Wayne, sang “Scarlet Ribbons” in the Virginia City saloon, and it was beautiful. Teresa Wright (The Best Years of our Lives, The Pride of the Yankees) was Katherine Saunders, Ben Cartwright’s fiancée. She broke his heart, but at least she made it out alive.

George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke) made two appearances. Mariette Hartley appeared four times. Once she was Ben’s love interest who also survived (barely). The following season, she fell for his son Hoss. Thanks to the magic of DVR technology, I am able to record and binge watch Bonanza, so I notice when guests return often as new characters.

“Hey, that’s Jenny Carlisle! Why does everyone keep calling her Miss Lola Fairmont? Is Pa gonna go for his six-shooter when he sees Hoss kissing her? Will there be a father-son throw down out by the barn?”

Those of us with keen eyes and ears – as well as memories – notice other things too, like the appearance of the theme song from Little House on the Prairie in later Bonanza episodes. (Michael Landon – aka Little Joe Cartwright — launched Little House shortly after Bonanza was finally canceled, so maybe he got a good deal on the rights.)

What’s more, despite his immense wealth, Ben wore the same outfit for 14 seasons – right down to the green neckerchief he would take on and off throughout the day, for reasons I’ve never understood. His sons were similarly one-note, style-wise.

The Cartwright men got shot a lot. Bullets often grazed them, usually on their foreheads. When the wound was more serious it was in the back, reminding us that they were the GOOD guys. (Bad guys shoot people in the back; good guys get shot in the back.)

Thankfully, the Cartwrights were miraculously quick healers.

Another interesting take away: Regardless of personal wealth, everyone in the Nevada Territory apparently carried Louis Vuitton suitcases. I suppose the age of conspicuous consumption was not yet underway in 1960’s, so maybe viewers didn’t recognize when a new saloon girl stepped off the Overland stage with a $4,000 piece of luggage. But it’s pretty amusing to see now.

The church at Bodie California State Park.In a couple of months, I am taking a Bonanza pilgrimage of sorts, to Lake Tahoe and the Cartwrights’ old stomping grounds — Virginia City and Carson City. I’ve always wanted to visit Bodie, a gold-mining ghost town nearby. (It’s on my Bay Area bucket list.) I’ll consider it a victory in self-restraint if I leave Nevada without a Ponderosa snow globe in my suitcase.

Until then, I’ll keep visiting the ranch from the comfort of my couch, and watching the Cartwrights tame the West, one guest star at a time.

Ponderosa map

What lies in store?

Pinocchio and Jiminy CricketIt’s a well-known fact that I am a terrible liar. Even little white ones make me blush and squirm and look away anxiously. Once, in high school English, our very stern teacher Mr. Scott kicked off class by checking in on the prior night’s assignment. He knew there had been a big test in U.S. History that morning, and set about trolling for signs my classmates and I had ditched our English reading to study for it.

He started out innocently enough, just a query or two about what we thought of the reading. The other students played it cool, because veteran teachers like Mr. Scott can smell fear.

I, on the other hand, felt my face burning and my eyes glancing upward to scrutinize every crack and cobweb on the schoolhouse ceiling. Mr. Scott pounced:

“I detect a distinct lack of eye contact from parts of the room. So let’s say you put you books on the floor, take out a clean sheet of paper and a pencil…”

Yep, it was a pop quiz… that I think most of us bombed. And I still blame myself for our collective downfall, because as I said I am a terrible liar.

As an adult, I periodically encounter folks who lie easily and often – and not just about harmless things, like whether the roast beef is too dry, or your jeans make you look fat. Sometimes I envy them a little, for the way they seem to sail through each day, skirting life’s many little frictions without a hint of remorse.

But if nothing else, the thought of having to come up with – and remember – all those little fibs is kind exhausting. And I wonder… what’s the point of being dishonest anyway, unless you have broken a law and are facing possible jail time? What’s the worst that can happen if you just tell the truth?

An example: Before a recent workout with my trainer, I was stretching on a big mat in the middle of my gym. Mornings are busy there and the mat can get pretty crowded, so I was a little vexed when a woman plopped down next to me and proceeded to text and surf the web on her phone. The only thing she was flexing was her thumbs, while taking up prime gym floor real estate.

Her trainer arrived, and as she stood up he asked her, “So, did you stretch out already?” She looked him square in the eye, and without missing a beat responded.


Whaaaaat? I was conflicted. I wondered why I can’t lie to my trainer like that, instead of spilling every diet and workout transgression as soon as she asks, “How are you today?” I also questioned the point of lying, since we pay our trainers to work with us. How much we put into (and get from) the partnership is entirely up to us. They get paid either way.

Most of all, though, I fought temptation to call her out, a la “The Princess Bride”. Am I the only person who fantasizes about this whenever I hear someone tell a WHOPPER?

the princess bride liar lying

The thing that stopped me was the knowledge that her stiff muscles were none of my business. Also, the fact that she could probably gouge my eyes out with those power-texting thumbs of hers.

I mean it, I saw them. Those were some champion, powerhouse thumbs.



Crowd watching movie in theatre, rear view

“Is it just me, or are they speaking Chinese?”

Crowd watching movie in theatre, rear view

This weekend was a long one in the United States, with many businesses closing Monday to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s an important holiday that can feel a little déjà vu-ish, falling so soon after Christmas and New Year’s Day. But we unlucky few who have to work on Presidents’ Day are desperate to make the most of it, because we won’t see another public three-day-weekend until Memorial Day in late May. (“Mon dieu,” gasp the French!)

Thanks to El Nino, I spent a lot of the weekend curled up on my sofa binge-watching football and Netflix – “Making a Murderer” and “House of Cards”. Today there was a break in the weather, just long enough for me to head downtown and catch a movie – “The Big Short”. That’s when things got kind of crazy/funny.

I knew something was up when I arrived in the theatre, and the screen was black. No ads, no previews. When the movie finally started, the studio name appeared… in Chinese characters. Then the production company… a Chinese name I didn’t recognize. Actors emerged, singing in a karaoke bar. There were subtitles.

Was it possible that a movie about the collapse of the U.S. mortgage securities market could only get backing from China? I read “The Big Short” a few years ago, and was racking my brain. Was there a Chinese character in the film? Someone who liked to sing sappy pop tunes in public? Neither scenario made sense.

Soon, other moviegoers started to whisper and giggle. Quite a few rushed to the exits, assuming they were in the wrong theatre. Eventually, the movie stopped and an usher arrived to apologize, they had accidentally queued up a Chinese language film called “Detective Chinatown” that was scheduled for later. The correct movie would start in a few minutes.

As the usher was leaving, one patron shouted out, “OK, but what about the previews???” I’m pretty sure he was serious. It was a very San Francisco thing to do. We go to the movies for the WHOLE cinematic experience, especially since some of us pay $30 just to park at the cinema. Plus, without previews how will we know which movies to expect next Christmas?

If “Detective Chinatown” is among the coming attractions, I think I’ll pass. When a “Variety” review starts with “A budding Chinese Sherlock Holmes meets his dumbass Watson in Bangkok…,” I know it is my time to rush for the exit.

Detective Chinatown movie poster

The Change Up

House Hunters International on HGTV, image of Paris
I am in the process of planning a trip to Belgium — hopefully full of frites, beer, and waffles slathered in chocolate. Last night, to “research” my destination, I dug deep into my nearly 40 recorded episodes of House Hunters International for inspiration. (As a perpetual renter in a city where property prices are INSANE, it’s the only HGTV show that doesn’t completely depress me.)

HHI follows an expat couple or family (usually American) as they navigate byzantine housing markets in some of the world’s most desirable and exotic cities. Participants present a local realtor with their wish lists and budget constraints, and in turn are shown just three properties from which they must choose.

A few things are almost inevitable:

  • Each adult in the equation will have a different wish list for his or her new home, and the biggest point of contention will be modern vs. quaint/historic/charming.
  • The house the participants left behind – usually in Texas or the Midwest — was big, with a spacious open kitchen central to their family and social lives. Mom/wife will cling to this ideal like grim death, refusing to entertain (pun intended) the notion that guests could gather and socialize in a dining or living room, adjacent to a tiny kitchen.
  • The old homestead will also have had a massive backyard, shielded from the prying eyes of nosey neighbors by mighty oaks or acres of cornfields.
  • “Home” will be less expensive than the destination city. I’ve yet to see participants from San Francisco. It’d be too boring to watch a couple high-fiving during a walkthrough, and giggling over how much money they’ll be saving in Hong Kong/Paris/Melbourne.
  • At least one property will feature a toilet that is separate from the bathroom. This will provoke confusion and/or consternation in my countrymen, accustomed to having several bathroom suites to choose from whenever nature calls.
  • Participants will plan for a constant stream of visitors, requiring a guest room and (if possible) a bathroom. “Yes it’s $200 over budget, but we can’t expect Great Aunt Gert to stay in a hotel if she comes!”
  • Nobody will be satisfied with the size of the fridge.

Mini European Style Refridgerator

Also certain: whichever property I say will win out, I will be wrong. I rarely pick the house that’s over budget – but some participants do. I say, more money spent on housing means less spent on gelato, shoes and train tickets.

The fact that no one follows my telepathic advice can be frustrating. What really chaps my hide, though, is watching people with the chance of a lifetime – an adventure in a beautiful, historic city like Brussels or Antwerp – fret because life will be DIFFERENT.

Because that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

If the fridge is tiny, you can hit the market daily and become great buddies with the lady who sells stinky cheese. And if your kitchen is too small for entertaining, invite friends over just for drinks.

If your kids’ rooms are smaller than in the US, I promise they won’t be scarred for life.

Besides, they should be running outside on the cobblestone streets, eating waffles slathered in chocolate – not hanging out in their bedrooms.

Change is good.

Fortune Cookie: Change is good

Fleet Week 2015, San Francisco Style


Every October, the San Francisco Bay Area celebrates Fleet Week — a highlight of which is (for most of us) the participation of the U.S Navy’s elite Blue Angels.

The above cartoon perfectly captures the conflict Bay Area citizens face each year, as we weigh the environmental and monetary costs of this enormous spectacle… with how unbelievably COOL it is when a lethal fighter jet buzzes your building.

“Hey, I can see the pilot’s helmet from down here!”

I think you can guess I’m pretty firmly in the right brain camp on this one.