TV’s Sunday Best

Black and white photo of three women watching a small television, probably 1950 - 1960.Sunday is my favorite night for TV watching. That’s in part because I prep for it. I am generally well-rested and relaxed on Sunday evenings, after two days off work. I’ve spent time outdoors. To do’s like laundry, housecleaning and meal prep are checked off, and I can sit with a cup of tea or glass of wine in my hand, feeling accomplished and caught-up.

Really, though, it is quality programming that keeps me a Sunday night shut-in. Sunday has, at different points, been home to Mad Men, Homeland and NBC Sunday Night Football. And for the past few months, it has offered a buffet of anglophiliac delights on PBS.

Two favorites had their season finales last night: The Great British Baking Show, and Downton Abbey (Season Five).

A set photo from the Great British Baking ShowThe Great British Baking Show is exactly what it sounds like: a reality show in which 12 amateur British bakers compete by whipping up (pun intended) exotic creations, such as Kouign Amann, Schichttorte and Povitica, as well as standards like tea scones. Timing is always tight, and the judges are always uncompromising.

I scoffed initially, and ignored the first few episodes. What could be more boring than watching a bunch of people baking things – especially for someone like me, who is more partial to savory than to sweet? But the desserts were beautiful, and the contestants were so supportive of one another — if they were any nicer, it would have been called The Great CANADIAN Baking Show. One of the bakers, Martha, was just 17 years old and preparing for her A level exams while competing. When she fell behind during one of her final bakes, competitor Richard helped her finish in time.

So Shark Tank, it was not. It has been such a hit in the U.S., I expect we’ve not seen the last of The Great British Baking Show. Until then, bakers… ready, set, bake!

Next up: Downton Abbey. I’ve watched the show from the first episode, thus witnessing trials and tribulations of the Crawley family spanning decades. (For the past few seasons, those have felt like some long decades.) The plot often drives me nutty, but… I AM NOT A QUITTER. I know I should cut my losses and walk away, but just can’t shake the hope that the next episode will be better. (I blame Mad Men for this possibly false hope.)

Creator Julian Fellows is well-known for his adherence to historical details. Formal table settings and hemlines at the fictional Downton match the rigid requirements of the day, but social mores are all over the place. Lord Grantham freaks out if his tie is the wrong color at dinner, yet when daughter Edith has a baby out-of-wedlock, then “adopts” her from her foster family, he greets the news with a shrug better suited to Parenthood.

edith-marigold-downton-abbeyPoor Lady Edith. She was left at the altar by fiancé number one, then impregnated by fiancé number two, who was killed by Nazis before he could make an honest woman of her. Also, Poor Edith is sad because she has the meanest sister in all of England.

What is there to say about Lady Mary? This season, she cut her hair short, and took up the same cold, opportunistic ruthlessness she abandoned when she married Matthew. She juggled two suitors, tearing one (Lord Tony Gillingham) away from his betrothed, and sleeping with him… then deciding he was boring. What’s-her-name could keep him after all.

Mary even invited herself to their wedding!

And, she was mean to Poor Edith, who is a better mother to her fake foundling than Lady Mary will ever be to her legitimate, little…um… baby boy Crawley. (Just kidding, I know his name is George but that has a lot less panache than “Marigold”.)

Yes, Tony Gillingham was boring, but so was the other guy courting Mary, whose name really DOES escape me. He resembled Tony so much that I couldn’t keep the two straight. He went from potential second husband material, to a sidekick in Mary’s schemes to dump Tony, to… just… gone. Mary is not one to hang on the vine, though, and last night we were introduced to a third charming, dark-haired (naturally) man at a fancy shooting party. He likes Mary, and driving fast cars. I smell trouble.

This is all standard stuff at Downton. Hapless, mundane storylines run on and on, but they don’t resolve themselves in a satisfying way. They fizzle out, long after the audience ceases to care.

Lady Edith is pining for Marigold!

The village is building a war memorial!

Daisy likes reading!

Let’s just hope we’ve seen the last of the Bates family’s legal woes. Neither of them murdered anyone, OK? That storyline was the biggest, smelliest rotten tomato (or should I say toe-MAH-toe) of them all.

Downton returns in 2016, and despite my misgivings I’m sure I’ll be watching, if only to enjoy the sight of Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson flirting! Score one for the old folks!

For now, I’ll get my Sunday night “Masterpiece” fix from the much-hyped Grantchester. James Norton plays a dreamy country vicar named Sidney Chambers, who spends far too much time loitering at the local police station. He solves approximately one crime per week… but his sermons are usually crap, because he doesn’t have time to write a good one.

Also, he has the meanest housekeeper in all of England.


Bad Hair Day

Los Angeles Dodger closer Brian Wilson, August 2013
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports / Howard Smith

Occasionally when I encounter something new (new to me, at least), for days or weeks afterwards that thing will seem to randomly pop up everywhere — on TV, in news stories and in conversation. Eventually, it will feel like Kismet.

Sometimes it’s a buzzword, the newest one at my office being “unpack”, which apparently means to explain something in more detail, as in “can you please unpack that a little?”.  These days, I’m finding that at least one person uses that phrase in every meeting I attend.  And unfortunately, I attend a lot of meetings.

It can also be a book, a place or some piece of totally random news that folks keep bringing up as part of idle chit-chat.

“I was listening to NPR the other day, and someone was talking about these crazy crop circles…”

This week, the topic everywhere was… razors.  Specifically, companies that sell razors and razor blades in bulk, online.  I’m not surprised that they exist, although I have never heard anyone mention them before.  It’s probably economical, since men who shave every day go through a lot of razors.  And razors are small, so unlike toilet paper or diapers or gallon jugs of olive oil from Costco, it doesn’t take a lot of space to store a year’s worth.

Online razor retailers weren’t exactly newsworthy until… Brian Wilson, a.k.a. B. Weezie, also known as the Beard… and the former closer for the San Francisco Giants.  This week, co-founder and president of, Philip Masiello, offered the Weezer $1 million to shave off his beard — a sum equal to his recent one-year contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers (hiss).

Wilson turned him down, which is either brave or stupid.  I’ve not yet decided.  In fact, he kind of thumbed his nose at the idea by wearing a hideous scrunchy thing in his beard at his next outing.  What was that about?  It’s not like his beard is fly-away and lacks density.  It’s more like a garden hedge, and even in an F5 twister that thing is unwavering.

The day after Brian Wilson declined the offer to double his salary – and thereby failed to recapture his place among the world’s dreamiest baseball players — I attended a professional webinar about effective storytelling in advertising.  One of the examples provided to demonstrate how humor in advertising can generate engagement was from another razor retailer, which has a tagline of “Our Blades Are F***ing Great”.

So is this video.  If Brian Wilson had seen it, do you think he would have laughed… and then reached for his shaving cream?

One Man’s Junk…

Anthony WeinerI recently blogged about Milwaukie Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, and his 65-game suspension from professional baseball. I was unimpressed by Braun’s flimsy written statement, which fell well short of contrition.

The most disingenuous and manipulative part of the statement was the first line: “As I have acknowledged in the past, I am not perfect.”  Braun had not, in fact, ever made such a public acknowledgement, but what galled me more was the implication that if fans, teammates or the media were disillusioned by his behavior, they had no one to blame but themselves.  After all, he’d warned them that he was flawed, hadn’t he?

I was reminded of this self-serving position last week, when Anthony Weiner grudgingly acknowledged his most recent sexting scandal.  “As I have said in the past, these things that I did were wrong and hurtful to my wife, and caused us to go through challenges in our marriage that extended past my resignation from Congress.”

Such a careful parsing of words! What was it that extended beyond his resignation – the marital troubles, or “things” like posting lewd photos online?  Regardless, the inference was similar to Braun’s.  We can’t blame him since he warned us back in 2011 that more embarrassing facts could emerge.  (Did he? Am I the only one drawing a blank here?)

Well, now that that’s cleared up… we can all move on. Right? Please?

Anthony Weiner is like a child who makes up his own rules, just as he’s about to be tagged “it” on the playground.  “No WAY!  No fair, I’m SAFE!  I CALLED TIME OUT!”

Since the Weiner scandal broke, the former congressman has been quizzed about how many more digital paramours could come forward.  I’d argue that the tally ceased to matter once it was clear that he continued sexting AFTER his resignation from Congress, AFTER he claims to have entered therapy and WITHIN ONE WEEK of posing for People magazine with his wife and son, hinting about a mayoral run.  The guy is pathologically dishonest.

To me, the big story is… Weiner can’t even provide an ESTIMATE.  HE SAYS HE’S NOT SURE.  How is it possible not to know how many people you’ve been sexting with?  He’s either completely out of control, or so predisposed to lying that he still can’t bring himself to come completely clean.  Maybe he’s so deluded about his intellect and so ambitious to be mayor, he still thinks there is something to be gained by hedging.

I have been wondering how many men, when caught dead to rights in an indiscretion, get creative about the duration?  Once, a married male friend confided in me – out of the blue – that he’d been unfaithful to his wife years before. He claimed the affair lasted just three weeks.  Three weeks, I wondered?  How many men have affairs that last less than one month?

I later learned from mutual friends that the affair had in fact lasted months longer; he’d looked straight into my eyes, and lied about it.  I still scratch my head about this.  Why did he bother confessing — since I had never suspected and it was none of my business anyway – only to lowball how long his affair had lasted?  If his goal had been to get it off his chest, how much guilt can a half-truth alleviate?

Watching Weiner, I am reminded of John Edwards, and the public revelations of his affair with Rielle Hunter. Edwards also clung to his lies well past their expiration date. In her book Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life’s Adversities, his terminally ill wife Elizabeth wrote about the day he revised his account of his relationship with Hunter.  I paraphrase as follows:

“Honey, remember when I said it was just a one night stand, and that the baby isn’t mine?  Well, I wasn’t entirely honest.”

“OK, what part is true?”

“Um… none of it?”

The Weiner debacle has become so sad and tawdry, as a former New Yorker I have to avert my eyes.  Polls show him in fourth place among the mayoral candidates, and most voters say they wish he’d drop from the race.  He’s making videos, eluding to the City’s 9/11 fortitude as the reason he won’t bow out, and flexing his hipster vernacular as he describes how New Yorkers “roll”.  He’s even suggested that his still-burning shame will make him a better mayor.  (Don’t ask me, I don’t understand it either.)

“It’s not about me,” Weiner says. “It’s about the citizens of New York.”

Listen, there is an entire Wikipedia page devoted to Anthony Weiner’s sexting scandal, and that fact alone should preclude his candidacy for higher office, don’t you think?

No one really cares how many more of his BFFs are out there – even if he finally told the truth, we’re way past the point of believing.  If he is truly devoted to New Yorkers, the greatest gift he can give them is to unplug the Wi-Fi, step away from Instagram and maybe take an extended vacation to Pennsylvania Amish country.

I’ll even pitch in for bus fare.

Don’t Tread On Me

Don't Tread On Me cartoonJodie never sleeps ’cause there are always needles in the hay
She says that a girl needs a gun these days
Hey on account of all the rattlesnakes — Lloyd Cole, Neil Robert

That’s from one of my favorite songs from my college days: “Rattlesnakes” by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. It’s been stuck in my head for two days, since I encountered my first-ever rattler on a hike in Marin County, California.

It was quite a brush with danger for so early on a Saturday. I was on the back nine of my hike, so to speak, stumbling down the hill with my headphones on and not paying much attention to anything. The site of the snake sunning itself smack in the middle of the trail stopped me dead in my tracks. I saw the rattle, and knew my hike was going to take a little longer than expected.

Now, if you ask someone in the NRA’s leadership — Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, for example — he will claim I probably wished I’d had a gun right then. (That’s the same thing the NRA is saying about Aurora, Newtown and even Boston.)

Nothing could be further from the truth. I wished I had brought sunscreen, for sure. And my cell phone to capture the moment. I probably also could have used a very, very long stick and a sturdy burlap sack, but I never once wished I had a gun.

I didn’t need to blast the snake into teeny tiny bits with a semi-automatic firearm to make my point.  I made do with rocks scattered along the trail, which I threw at it David-vs.-Goliath style. Not enough to make it feel threatened, but just enough to be a nuisance that wasn’t worth sinking its fangs into. Eventually it slithered away.

No harm done.  I got an entertaining story — ripe for embellishment over time — that I can tell at parties.  I also got the benefit of a much-needed cardio boost from fear, and from sprinting past that snake in a rather embarrassing fashion.

I’m not kidding, once it was out of sight I flew through the rest of that hike.

And so it is that I now have a classic, blast-from-my-past song stuck in my head that keeps making me smile.  Maybe it’s stuck in your head now too, thanks to the power of suggestion.  If so… enjoy!

It’s ON, America

The Green Building at MIT
The Green Building at Boston’s MIT. (Photo: Matthew J. Lee / Globe Staff)

Thirty-six hours ago, Americans were reminded of a few things.  Obviously, and most painfully, we were reminded that no amount of security and vigilance can ensure our safety in the age of terror.

You may subscribe to the notion that nothing stops a bad guy with a gun, except a good guy with a gun.  (I do not agree, although that’s a subject for another blog post.)  But how do we stop a bad guy with a bomb?  Or two?  Sometimes we can, but on Monday in Boston we could not.

Today I’ve heard a few frustrated folks lament that an evil few can destroy the happiness and freedom of the many.  I don’t think that’s the lesson here.  Rather, the take-away message should be that there is more good in the world than bad.  As Patton Oswalt (!) so elegantly put it in a Facebook post that has now gone viral:

“We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We’d have eaten ourselves alive long ago…

When you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, ‘The good outnumber you, and we always will.’”

Much of that good has already been well chronicled this week, like the Boston Marathon runners, bystanders and volunteers who rushed toward Monday’s carnage as soon as it happened, rather than away from it.  Acts of courage and selflessness were everywhere, witnessed by helpless citizens of the world who could only tune in via social media and pray.

Twitter 1
By day’s end, Boston-area blood banks were fully stocked and thousands of residents had offered space in their homes to weary, terrified runners with nowhere else to go.

The New York Times suspended its pay meter (the tracking mechanism that prevents non-subscribers from reading more than a few online articles per month for free) to allow everyone access to news.

There were other acts of goodness, such as heretofore unseen restraint among most news outlets and social media users.  We were all urged to corroborate what we heard, before presenting it as fact.  Shocking tweets were challenged with, “What’s your source for that?”.  Many outlandish rumors sputtered and died under the weight of scrutiny.

The New York Post was the most glaring exception, exaggerating the number of casualties and claiming that a suspect was in custody within two hours.  The Twitter community rallied to bring the hammer DOWN on those hacks.

Twitter 2
Even President Obama was careful when addressing the stunned nation.  Some were frustrated that he avoided using the term “terrorism”.  I suppose it’s reassuring to label a heinous act, as a means of trying to understand it, but I was glad that the President chose not to influence the narrative by using loaded words when he lacked facts.

Once we catch whoever did this, feel free to label it however you like.

On a similar note, most Americans took a holiday from bipartisan bickering on Monday.  Let’s hope it’s an extended one.

Tweet 3
As always, sports proved a great distraction and rejuvenator for me.  Sports writers were especially respectful.  Despite the tragedy they had a job to do, but most showed sensitivity.  Hank Schulman, for example, tweeted this before sharing a link to his most recent blog post:

Tweet 5
Teams everywhere celebrated life and courage and community, and they did it with class.  The “United We Stand” banners at Yankee Stadium featuring the Red Sox logo?  Those choked me up almost as much as the Yanks playing Fenway favorite “Sweet Caroline” tonight, as fans laughed and sang along.  The resilient laughter – that’s what got to me.

In a way, sport is a great metaphor for the reaction to yesterday’s insanity.  America is complicated and messy.  Sometimes we behave badly, and fight ferociously amongst ourselves like a bunch of toddlers trapped in a room with only one toy.

At the end of the day, though, we’re a team.  If you attack one of us, you’re going to face the wrath of all of us.

Pity the evil person or persons who messed with my team.  We’re bringing our A game.  We will win, because the good guys always do.

Supplies and Demands

Kate Hudson
Kate Hudson

I ran an errand at lunch today, picking up ink cartridges for my home printer. It sounds simple, I know, but it was actually a fairly complex task requiring in-depth conversation with a young man behind the counter at Staples.

As we talked, I became aware of an unpleasant odor — like from those guys at the gym who repeatedly put their workout gear back into their lockers to re-wear until it ferments, and invariably gravitate to the treadmill next to mine. You know those guys. “I launder my gym clothes every 10 days, whether they need it or not!”

The owner of the odor was standing at the register to my left. She looked to be at least 50 years old, and was disheveled and carrying a stack of tattered folders and a paperback novel that would have looked at home in the discount bin of a used book store.

Without making eye contact with her clerk, she explained that she was Kate Hudson’s personal assistant. Ms. Hudson was back at the Sheraton Hotel in need of a large stack of office supplies. The implication was… she’d sent her assistant to pick them up, but had sent no money to pay for them.

My eyes were watering, and the lack of oxygen was impeding my concentration — but I needed to stick around to see where this was going. I tried to breathe through my mouth.

The clerk’s eyes were as big as silver dollars. He knew something wasn’t passing the smell test. (No pun intended.) “Does she have a Staples Rewards card?”

The customer was shocked — SHOCKED — at such impertinence. “Ms. Hudson is a billionaire Hollywood actress, she doesn’t need a DISCOUNT,” she sniffed. She just needed credit.

The “assistant” urged the clerk to call the Sheraton to confirm the story. This lady had all the chutzpah — but apparently not the cell phone — of a flashy Hollywood assistant.

The poor clerk, who couldn’t have been a day over 21, was paralyzed. Was he really supposed to call the Sheraton? By this time, there was a sizable queue forming of real customers waiting to pay.

A store manager eventually arrived. He informed the woman that she’d need to have the Sheraton telephone Staples to request credit. “We don’t do the calling,” he said.

Impasse. The customer glared at both men for a long while. What was she going to say?

“You think that men are superior to women, don’t you?”

SNAP! Every man behind the counter wore the expression I remember from a Season 3 Seinfeld episode, when Elaine challenges a fellow partygoer about wearing real fur. Danger! Danger!

On that note, I left the store. On my way out, I passed what I suspected was the woman’s shopping cart filled with all her earthly possessions, which of course made me feel a little sad and guilty for chuckling during the exchange.

Glue stickI don’t know how it all played out. I didn’t hear police sirens, so hopefully everything ended peacefully. I doubt that any office supplies changed hands.

However if you happen to encounter Kate Hudson, and she looks like she is in need of, say, post-it notes or a glue stick… maybe you could just give her the benefit of the doubt and share yours. She’s probably been pretty busy, recruiting a new personal assistant.

It’s Written All Over Your Facebook

Since its launch in 2004, many of us have developed a love/hate relationship with Facebook.

When I first signed up for the social networking service in around 2006, it served as a great mechanism for reconnecting with long-lost friends.  In particular, it helped me resurrect relationships from my days at University in Scotland, so I could meet up with former classmates when I travelled overseas.  Prior to signing up, all that legwork was, quite frankly, a chore.

I even used Facebook to reconnect with a friend from elementary school, who moved 2,000 miles away after the second grade.  That would not have happened otherwise.

Yet in some cases, I determined – as did many others – that I really don’t have a lot in common with some old friends from my distant past.  Our lives have taken different paths. Some of them have probably started hiding my posts (as I did theirs) while a few others have undoubtedly unfriended me.  Either way:  no offense intended/none taken.

In the past few years, I have settled into a pretty predictable, placid place on Facebook.  I occasionally add new friends, but the bulk of my interactions are with a group of 20 or so former classmates and colleagues I have worked with since I moved to the Bay Area.  I post to Facebook less frequently these days, and I comment less often on the posts of others.

I have also come to post fewer Instagram photos of alcoholic beverages, including exotic happy hour cocktails.  Eventually, one Manhattan looks pretty much the same as any other – regardless of the filter you choose.

Newer social media platforms have edged out Facebook for me, in certain circumstances.  For a running commentary during sporting events, I’m all about conversations with strangers on Twitter (much to the relief of friends who could care less about baseball or the NBA).  If a San Francisco Giants game goes to extra innings, my fingers fly.

Recently, I’ve noticed friends on Facebook getting a little riled about the posting habits of others, which has been fascinating.  Users seem to see this public forum as also very personal; if you post something one of your friends doesn’t like, you didn’t do it to your timeline… but to HIS newsfeed.

In the parlance of Facebook… it’s complicated.

Every Facebook member has his/her peeves.  Just before the sequester kicked in, a former colleague took issue with one of my shares making fun of Congress, by directing a jab at House Speaker John Boehner. While my intention was to express contempt for politicians on both sides of the aisle, I make no apologies for having shared plenty of left-leaning opinions on my timeline in the past.  It is, after all, MY TIMELINE.

I am happy to discuss politics with anyone if we can keep it friendly, but for me Facebook is not the place for heated debate.  It’s like conducting a shouting match at a dinner party, while the rest of the guests are trapped at the table until after the cheese course.  My motto for Facebook is… live and let live.  Believe it or not, since one or two Republicans have slipped past my complex Facebook screening model, even I am forced to do it from time to time.

Some of my friends get seriously ticked off at parents posting kid photos, and endless milestones, sports awards and academic achievements.  Maybe because I’m not a parent, this doesn’t bother me at all.  I actually like it.  My friends have some pretty amazing offspring, and I am forever trying to figure out how I can take even a little bit of credit for that.

I’m not a big fan of gaming results on Facebook.  I am honestly not terribly impressed that you beat your six-year-old at Scrabble, and I am a proud member of the Facebook group “I don’t care about your farm, or your fish, or your park, or your mafia!!”  But again, if you want to share that stuff I’m not going to call you out for it.  I may hide your posts after a while, though.

My biggest peeve is the thinly veiled ads asking for likes.  You know what I mean – the huge images of disfigured veterans or abused farm animals or white-haired grannies holding American flags.  The message is, “Like this if you are grateful for veterans/like animals/love your grandma”.

In other words, “I like this… and you should too or else everyone will think you are a very terrible person.”

If you check out these ads, they are often sponsored by dubious-sounding organizations — so if you like the photos, you are in fact liking these organizations.  For the kind, soft-hearted among us, I would just ask that you check out the sponsoring group before clicking that little thumbs-up icon, lest you wind up showing support for something you really don’t like very much at all.

Facebook is a tool that allows members to express themselves, and we should feel comfortable posting information that reflects who we are.  As in any other conversation, we all have a choice.  We can be tolerant of our friends, and turn a blind eye/deaf ear (either through selective reading, or the handy “hide” feature) when we disagree with them.

If that doesn’t work, maybe we aren’t really “friends” at all.  In that case… I think you know what to do.

Taking It To The Street

Like most Americans, I am aware that government – local, state and federal — is generally woefully ineffective.  In fact, it can make even the biggest behemoth of a company seem efficient and a streamlined by comparison.

I need not rely on reports of sequestration or budget battles to prove this point.  Rather… behold this week’s Middle Polk Neighborhood Association meeting (my first ever), devoted to a controversial proposed plan by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) to replace 20 blocks of metered parking on my street with bike lanes.

Polk Street is home to a diverse community of yuppies, young families and the elderly.  Aside from a couple of coffee chains, the businesses are diverse too – and strictly Mom & Pop.  What would their customers do without metered street parking for more than one mile?  How far could anyone be expected to lug a 25-pound bag of dog food from Bow Wow Meow pet grooming, or a hefty piece of art from Frame-O-Rama?

Stores all over the neighborhood have been displaying posters in their windows for months, so the meeting was mobbed, and local news crews were on hand to record it all.  While a few members of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition were in attendance, the majority of attendees were flatly against the bike lane plan.

Merchants — including the owners of FL!PP (“Fashionable Living In Petite Places”), Brownies Hardware, Nick’s Crispy Tacos and the Russian Hill Bookstore — spoke to the group about the potentially devastating impact to their businesses.  They were followed by several residents who voiced concerns, and others who advocated bikes over cars to help combat global warming,

A friend warned me that neighborhood meetings can bring the meanies and the crazies out of the woodwork, and she had a point.  A few folks booed speakers from the Bicycle Coalition at the top of their lungs, while one resident who was in favor of the bike lanes thoroughly patronized us all in response.  She told us we were being hysterical, because an absence of parking would have no impact on businesses.  She knew this because she “used to be an architect”.

Another attendee inexplicably distributed fliers about UN Agenda 21, “an action plan to inventory and control all land, all water, all minerals, all plants, all animals, all construction, all means of production, all information, all energy and all human beings in the world.”

Yeah OK, now can we get back to the topic of parking?

The biggest surprise wasn’t the colorful Middle Polk neighborhood characters, though; it was SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin who was also utterly unprepared for the conversation.

Reiskin showed up with a few PowerPoint slides featuring photos of happy bike riders, and pedestrians carrying shopping bags in front of Polk Street stores.  He mentioned four plans that the SFMTA was considering to help make a great street “even better”, but said he didn’t want to get into details of each plan.  An attendee asked him if he could at least talk about the two plans that had the biggest and smallest impact on parking.  Could he estimate the number of parking places that would be lost under each scenario?  Remarkably, he could not and the crowd was not impressed.

“I don’t actually have those figures with me.  I don’t know the numbers.”

Mr. Reiskin seems like a nice man, and he was brave to show up to the hostile meeting.  So I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt.  It’s possible he only found out about the event at the last minute, and had no time to prepare.  But, how could someone come to a meeting to discuss such a controversial recommendation, unable to offer details or answer any questions?  I kept picturing what would happen at my corporate office if I took this tack.

“Hey, I’d like to spend $500,000 of the company’s money to develop XYZ, although I’m a little unclear on how it will boost sales and revenues.”

I’d quickly find myself among the unemployed.

On the upside, the nearly 400 local activists who attended the meeting had a victory of sorts; the SFMTA has agreed to return to the drawing board to develop a solution that will encourage safe biking without drastic negative impacts to parking on Polk Street.

Let’s hope that when the next Middle Polk Neighborhood Association meeting is held, the plan will be more thoughtful and proponents will come better prepared to discuss it.

Until then, power to the people!

It’s Exciting Being a Viking!

My DNA Map

Last month I coughed up $129 and (no pun intended) approximately one tablespoon of saliva for the advancement of science — and an AncestryDNA™ test, which I was told would show the ethnic makeup of my DNA. It would also identify relations in’s DNA database who could potentially help me fill in any gaps in my painstakingly researched family tree.

The results validated what I suspected deep, deep in my heart. I AM A VIKING. That’s right, according to my DNA is 52% Scandinavian. 52%!

I’m also 24% Central European, 19% British Isles and 5% “other”. I’m interpreting “other” as genetic meaning ties to both Abraham Lincoln and Scandinavian royalty. (What?  Anything is possible.)

Joking aside, I never thought I had even a smidgen of Scandinavian in me, despite my pasty skin and red hair. I always considered myself Central European (German and Dutch) through and through, with a smattering of English and Irish thrown in. It matched my surname and family tree research, and it felt right too. I like fondue, schnitzel, spaetzle and strudel, as well as drinking beer from a large, boot-shaped glass. I primarily wear earth tones. (Take a walk around Berlin sometime, and you’ll see that the unofficial German national colors are brown and evergreen.)

Yet there was still something missing. I also love smorgasbords and Ikea Swedish meatballs.  Scandinavians do too!  And I have drunk my share of Akvavit (a traditional spirit produced in Scandinavia since the 15th century). Mystery solved!

I have traced no ancestors to Sweden, Norway or Denmark so I can only assume that any genetic link is to my Viking forefathers, who pillaged and marauded all over Europe, Asia and the North Atlantic islands from the late 8th to mid-11th centuries. At some point my war-weary tribe must have been bitten by the Bavarian bug, and decided to settle there. And who could blame them?

Eventually, one of them must have taken up the culinary arts. (Koch is German for “cook”.)

Aside from the relief I feel, knowing where my weird foodie tastes come from, I like that I now have a much better reason to visit Scandinavia and an indisputable connection to Mad Men’s Betty Draper Francis.  In season two Betty explained her profound sadness to a fellow rider at the stables:

“It’s just my people are Nordic.”

I laughed and laughed when she said that… but now it’s personal.  I guess it’s time to work on my profoundly sad, Betty Draper face and break out the schnapps.

An Off Season For Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey -- Mary, Matthew and babySeason three of Downton Abbey is finished, and I’m sad.  Oh not to worry, I’ll find another way to spend my Sunday evenings until Mad Men resumes on April 7 and Homeland returns… whenever.  Actually, I’ve got the blues because the show I once loved to dish about at the water cooler on Mondays has gone so decidedly downhill.

Downton’s season one was fantastic.  The writing was clever and there was some significance to the plot.  It was historical fiction on par with films like The Other Boleyn Girl or Chariots of Fire. When enjoyed with a big glass of wine, it allowed us to close out the weekend by learning a little something about post-Edwardian Britain, without trying too hard.

By midway through season two, though, Downton began to lose its way.  World War I was over and it seemed the writers didn’t have a clue where these characters were going.  Some plotlines rushed by so fast, if you blinked you might have missed them. (Spanish Flu Hits Downton!)  Others – like Daisy wearing a hair shirt over misleading William about her feelings for him — dragged on at a glacial pace.  If I close my eyes I can still hear her whine in her Yorkshire accent, protesting for the hundredth time a visit to William’s father at his farm:  “But I didn’t love him!  It would be dishonest!”

I hoped for better things from season three, but was disappointed.  It felt as if writers wrote each episode on the fly.  They killed off Lady Sybil, seemingly without a plan for her heartbroken husband Tom Branson.  He got a new set of tails and forged a warmer relationship with the family, but he remained not-of-the-manor-born.  There was so much they could have done with the former chauffeur, but in each episode Tom always felt like an afterthought.

In season three, we once again had laborious plotlines like Bates in prison.  Fans of the show knew he’d be released.  He wasn’t about to be shived at the hands of his mumbling, wacked-out cellmate – whose hatred of Bates was never adequately explained.   When Bates was finally sprung, the rationale was so flimsy we viewers collectively rolled our eyes.  Disgusted?  Yes, but also grateful to say good-bye to watching him wait in the chow line for his bowl of gruel.

I can see another such storyline on the horizon, with Lady Edith and her besotted editor.  He’s married.  His wife is in an asylum, and he can’t divorce her.  Resolving this could take some time.  Of course, that could be a good thing for Edith.  Once the Grantham girls get married, they usually get pregnant… and then somebody has to die.

In the last two seasons of Downton, writers introduced random maids and footmen, as if these grand old houses had a revolving staff.  OK, it made some sense pre- and post-WWI when young men were either leaving for, or returning from, battle.  But over time it seemed more like a lazy plot device.

Hey, we need more sex in this show.  Let’s introduce a pretty young housemaid for Lord Grantham to make clumsy passes at!

Hey, now that Sybil is dead we need to do something about mopey Tom Branson.  Let’s introduce an over-sexed new housemaid no one has ever seen before, to make not-so-clumsy passes at him!

What’s more, this was pre-organized labor right?  Weren’t servants a dime a dozen back then, as big estates like Downton toppled like dominoes?  Last night Edna purred and pranced around Tom, within spitting distance of Mrs. Hughes, and I wondered why on earth it was so hard to sack a useless housemaid?  It took nearly the entire two-hour episode, until at last Edna claimed she couldn’t complete her chores for the day because she had a lunch date with Branson in the local pub.  That did it.  I thought Carson would have a stroke.

Breathe deeply, Mr. Carson.  In through the nose and out through the mouth.

Writers also took to inexplicably introducing annual family traditions that viewers who had watched the show for more than 10 years (Downton years, that is) had never heard mentioned.  I am of course referring to the annual town vs. manor cricket match, which came out of NOWHERE.   An enormous fuss was made, yet we never even learned which team won.

Likewise, there was the heretofore unmentioned yearly journey to Duneagle Castle in Scotland, to visit “Shrimpy” and his shrew-wife Susan MacClare, Marchioness of Flintshire.  FLINTshire, I kid you not.  The name fits; she is a cross between Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, and Mrs. Danvers from the film Rebecca.

During so much of Downton Abbey’s season three, I was left asking myself… what was the point of all that?  Why do I care if Shrimpy and his wife — who I had never heard of until last night — don’t get along?  They are moving to India soon anyway.  If a justification for daughter Rose’s relocating to Downton was needed, wouldn’t that have been good enough?

I can’t say I’m sorry that Matthew’s character died last night.  He’s one of the better actors on the show, but his story was going nowhere — and his role as peacemaker between Edith and Mary, and Lord Grantham and Tom, would eventually have worn thin.  It wasn’t a surprise – we’d all read that Dan Stevens did not sign on for Season Four.  But I thought the final scene, with Mary holding her baby while waiting for Matthew to return to the hospital, was pretty poignant.

I’m also intrigued by the potential for mature romance between Matthew’s mother Isobel Crawley, and Dr. Clarkson.  Isobel gave Clarkson the brush off last night, but I get a whiff of perseverance from the good doctor – and she’ll need consolation over the loss of her only child.

Hopefully Downton Abbey’s writers will use this hiatus to breathe new life into a once-entertaining show.  I’m skeptical, but still there’s enough left to bring me back for season four.  Until then, nothing else to do but hope… and prepare for Mad Men.

Zou Bisou Bisou to you!