Forty Bucks of Mediocre

It’s Labor Day Weekend, so I’m in Santa Clara playing bridge.  We’ve been here for 25 years or so, and have a few more left on our contract with the hotel–but now that Levi’s Stadium is up, we’ll have to find another place.  Cheapskate bridge players cannot compete with free spending NFL Fans.

Between sessions tonight, Mike wanted to go across the street to the Hilton for dinner.  They have a restaurant named La Fontana.  I know I wrote about it a few years back, and wasn’t impressed.  It’s gone downhill.

Tonight might not be fair, I suppose, because the restaurant was closed.  Closed except for the fact that it was open, if you wanted to eat in the bar.  Well, there were 3 television with sports on, so Micky thought this was the greatest idea since chocolate Tootsie rolls.

The first thing to mention is hotel diners are expensive.  The second thing is that they tend to be very corporate and not especially good.

We got our drink orders.  Linda had red wine, and instantly noticed that it was quite cold–the bottle evidently is kept in the refrigerator.  That isn’t something you do with red wine apparently.

We all had the house salad.  A large triangular plate full of the weeds I picked for 75¢ an hour when I was 12, but now they are “micorgreens”.  Still taste like weeds to me.  $8 for the plateful.

The hamburger was $18, which seems kind of outrageous.  I opted for the salmon burger, which was $19.  Big mistake.  I was hoping for a piece of fish, but got the ground up odds and ends of what they can’t sell, on a huge bun.  One bite convinced me to toss the top half and try eating it with a knife and fork.  Then I gave up on the bottom half and just ate the fish.  The plate was finished with a fruit medley, good pineapple and not so good honeydew.

Here’s the best thing–the waitress smelled like an angel flew by.  I don’t have a particularly sensitive nose, but I sure noticed that.

A plate of weeds, a salmon burger with cheap salmon and waaaaaay too much bread and not-ripe melon, plus tax and tip, set me back forty clams.  I notice on that the place get a 45% thumbs up–the worst I’ve ever seen.

If you ever hear Mike suggest the Hilton in Santa Clara again, please hit me upside the head and remind me that I hate the place.

La Fontana at the Hilton Santa Clara on Urbanspoon

You need to watch this tonight

One of the most famous photographs in American history, a migrant mother in a tent city in Nipomo, CA

One of the most famous photographs in American history, a migrant mother in a tent city in Nipomo, CA


There is a show tonight on PBS you don’t want to miss — American Masters: Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning.

Dorothea Lange remains one of the foremost American photographers.  Her work for the Farm Service Administration during the depression chronicles a time most would like to forget, but she brings a humanity to her subject that is irresistible.

The movie was created by Dyanna Taylor, an Emmy award winning film maker who is also Lange’s granddaughter.  Much of the research was provided by Elizabeth Partridge, the granddaughter of Imogen Cunningham, a contemporary of Dorothea’s and a great photographer in her own right.  

Dorothea was 24 and headed out to travel around the world with a girlfriend when their money was stolen in San Francisco and they had to stop and make a living.  She befriended Cunningham, opened her own photo studio, and the rest is history.

The movie is great–I kn\ow because the world premier was last Saturday at the Oakland Museum and I got lucky and snagged a couple of seats.  Dyanna and Elizabeth were there to answer questions after the show, and it was fascinating.

Much of the movie centers on the preparations for Dorothea to have the first one-woman show of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and we get to see her as artist and just as a person facing life’s greatest problem.

It’s on PBS tonight at 10 pm, and sure to be re-run many times.  Don’t miss it.

Get rich quick

Okay, maybe that isn’t quite true, but it’s a good headline.

I run a football pool every season.  Gail’s son Ross got me into it, so many of the players are from the Fresno area, but that’s hardly a requirement.

It’s a simple pool–it’s called Pick One.  Every week you pick one team, to win.  No point spread.  No odds.  They either win or they don’t. (A tie is a loss, your team has to WIN).  If you win, you stay in. If you lose, you watch the rest of the season from the sidelines.

The next week you do it again, but you can’t use a team twice.  That means that if you stay in long enough, you will have to pick some dogs to win, and that’s where it gets really interesting and challenging.

It costs $100 to enter, and the winner takes all, minus my administration fee.  Last year I wrote a check to the winner for more than $5000–there’s a real good reason to be in this thing.

I’d always like to make the pool bigger and more exciting.  If you have any questions, leave them in the comments. You can get in by sending me $100 before the first game on September 4, or even September 7 if you want to choose a Sunday game.  Mail to:

Chris Pisarra

3175 Teigland Road

Lafayette 94549

Pretty hot and tasty

That was a very cool acronym about 20 years ago–PHAT, pretty hot and tasty.  Leave it to me to be cool, just 20 years too late.

PHAT also describes dinner at Lemon Grass Bistro in Martinez, where we ate tonight with Jan and Keith Gunn.  Right on the revitalized Main Street, with outdoor dining available where the city has taken out parking spaces to Europeanize the area.

Lemon Grass is decorated with a great collection of art–it’s one of the nicer looking places we’ve been.

This is a very nicely decorated eatery.

This is a very nicely decorated eatery.The art is local.

The menu is varied, with Thai and Indian dishes. In an italian place I’ll always have the caprese, in a Thai restaurant you can count on the green papaya salad coming my way.

Green papaya salad with shrimp.

Green papaya salad with shrimp.

I enjoyed the salad, but wish it had more shredded goodness and less lettuce.

We ordered a variety of dishes to share–seafood combo, garlic fried rice, red curry pork and some spaghetti/shrimp dish. They were all good, all spicy, all cooked to perfection. This is part of my effort not to always order the same thing–I like Pad Thai and Yellow Curry anything, but need to expand my tastes.

I like this restaurant; they put out an excellent Thai iced tea. Service was as good as you can expect in a local, mid-price ethnic joint. Even the bus boy was first rate, carefully sorting and packing the leftovers so we each could take what we wanted.

I think about a third of all Thai restaurants are named Lemon Grass.  Another third are called Basil Leaf.  The cuisine is inventive, why are the names so un-creative?

Martinez isn’t the first place you think of for a night out, yet Main Street has undergone a bit of a renovation, and Lemon Grass Bistro is decidedly a good choice when you are in the mood for Thai.  Give it a shot.


Lemongrass Bistro on Urbanspoon

I could have watched all night

(L to R) Irene Lucio as Eliza Doolittle, L. Peter Callender as Col. Pickering, and Anthony Fusco as Henry Higgins in California Shakespeare Theater's production of Pygmalion, directed by Jonathan Moscone; photo by Kevin Berne.

(L to R) Irene Lucio as Eliza Doolittle, L. Peter Callender as Col. Pickering, and Anthony Fusco as Henry Higgins in California Shakespeare Theater’s production of Pygmalion, directed by Jonathan Moscone; photo by Kevin Berne.


Mother took me to see My Fair Lady when I was 12.  It was my first experience with live theater.

On my first trip to London, I got lucky and scored a rush ticket to Pygmalion, starring an astoundingly beautiful Diana Rigg.  I can still picture her, in the whitest ballgown imaginable, sitting on the sofa with a single tear coursing down her flawless cheek.

I got to see Rex Harrison as Professor Higgins on his last tour in the musical.

So you might say I’m pretty well versed in this particular piece of the dramatic canon, and you can take my word for it that Cal Shakes has done a fantastic job in its current revival of Pygmalion.  It is closing this weekend, so you better hurry up and get your tickets.

They have the A team performing.  When the supporting cast is L. Peter Callender (Col. Pickering) and James Carpenter (Alfred Doolittle), you know you’re in for a treat.  The entire cast is strong, right down to the stagehands in full period costume as they change the bare stage into Covent Garden, an office or a drawing room.

George Bernard Shaw was an early feminist: Pygmalion is a story of self-actualization.  Eliza (Irene Lucio) might be of low station in life, but she is making her own way unaided.  Her “lessons” with Professor Higgins (Anthony Fusco)  improve her station at the likely expense of her independence, but in the end she refuses to live in the shadow of Henry Higgins and stands on her own.  

When Lerner and Loewe made a musical out of the play, they changed the ending, making Eliza weaker and had her end up with Higgins.

The Cal Shakes interpretation by Director Jonathan Moscone takes a much more modern view, not only portraying Eliza as strong and self-sufficient, but drawing Higgins as a misanthropic, unpleasant, unlikeable, self-centered ass totally devoid of social skills–a caricature of a stereotype. He is accustomed to getting what he wants by walking all over people, and can’t understand how it can be that this “piece of squashed cabbage” he has turned into a pseudo-Duchess can refuse to knuckle under.

Higgins is controlled by his strong and wise mother (Sharon Lockwood), who sides with Eliza in a strong show of sisterhood and takes her in when she flees the Higgins household.  Even Higgins’ housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce (Catherine Castellanos) stands up to him constantly with feminist righteousness so he doesn’t run roughshod over Eliza.

Costumes, as always with Cal Shakes, are exquisite.  The minimalistic Cal Shakes outdoor stage becomes a fussy Victorian office with perfectly set decoration.

Over it all, what shines is the acting.  The seasoned professionals of the permanent cast bring such quality, such expertise, that everything they do, every small motion, every inflection is perfect in service of the script.  Nothing extra, nothing superfluous, no showboating, just solid professionalism.

You’ve only got a few more chances to see this show.  Don’t let them slip by you.


I have no timing

There’s a restaurant in Danville called Pete’s Brass Rail and Car Wash.  Because they are famous for all the different beers they carry, I wanted to see if they had one particular brand we had in Canada last month.  I just picked exactly the wrong day to go see.

We planned to meet up with Team Bandler and Team Munson.  Nobody told us that tonight was Hot August Nights in Danville–the main street was blocked off so dozens of car fanciers could show off their well-kept hot rods, and thousands of people could walk down the main drag and admire them. This means no place to park, this means that the restaurant is jammed beyond capacity, the double bill of disaster for a casual dinner with friends.

Nonetheless, we braved the traffic and plunged into the crowds.  I used my infallible parking karma to manifest a spot a block away.  Mike, Linda, Bob and Nancy were sitting on a low wall in front of the joint, waiting for our table.  Lots of waiting–it took almost an hour to get a spot for 6.

Time we put to good use checking out the beautiful cars, talking trash about other bridge players and noticing that the booth across the street selling a breathometer attachment for your smartphone was giving away beer can openers, so you can drink yourself right up to the legal limit.  Nice marketing touch there.

Eventually, we were shown to our table.  Pete’s is a very casual joint, specializing in burgers and beer.  We were the oldest people there by a wide margin.  The music is loud, the crowd is animated and the noise level is ghastly.

Then we notice that Bob had his sunglasses on at the table–the setting sun was bouncing off a window across the street and reflecting right into his eyes.  The good news is that the light was perfect  to make him look like a movie star.

He may start using this photo in his passport.

He may start using this photo in his passport.

On to the food.  We decided that if you provide huge portions of decent food for a good price, you’ll draw a crowd, which explains the mass of people here.  I ordered a Danville burger–1/2 pound of beef, avocado and sprouts (being very diet conscious, I had them hold the bacon), trade the regular fries for sweet potato fries.

Danville burger, hold the bacon.   Still enough calories to power a bulldozer.

Danville burger, hold the bacon. Still enough calories to power a bulldozer.

There were so many fries I had to commandeer a small plate to make room to assemble the burger.  It was cooked the way it was ordered, medium rare.  Absolutely worth the $12.

Gail is avoiding wheat these days, so she had a chili burger, hold the bun.

You can't see the large bowl of salad this comes with, just trust me.

You can’t see the large bowl of salad this comes with, just trust me.

Pete’s features about 20 beers on tap, constantly rotating among the vast sea of beer produced worldwide.  There is a hall of fame on the wall for people who have tasted many, many of them–our friend Randy Corr is closing in on having tasted 2000 different beers, but he says he can quit any time.  I had a glass of something with Naked in the name, and ordered an iced tea just to be safe. The beer was good but there wasn’t any nakedness involved and I probably preferred the iced tea anyway.

Service was incredibly fast for a joint so busy.  We all had more than enough to eat and enjoyed what we ordered.  The prices are more than reasonable.  I’d say the place is a winner if you don’t mind the noise and the wait for a table.

About the name—there is no brass rail.  There is no car wash.  There may or may not be anyone named Pete.  Don’t try to understand it, just go with the flow and have another beer.

Pete's Brass Rail & Car Wash on Urbanspoon

Saturday night blues

People do all sorts of things to try to raise money for the charities they support. One way is to offer to host a party, then sell tickets to it.  We have had a Spanish themed party a couple of times, where the “guests” pay $100 to the Ruth Bancroft Garden for the privilege of attending.

Saturday night, we went to the home of Dick and Kristen Hansen for the party they offered to benefit the Garden.  This one had an Avatar theme.

We were supposed to be excited, but in truth Gail and I were the last Americans who had not  seen the movie.  Not wanting to be completely ignorant of the meme, we rented it and spent Saturday afternoon watching the highest grossing picture of all time.  I can’t say we were impressed–it’s a 2 hour and 40 minute, $450 million cartoon. 

The party, though, was great.  Much better than the movie.

Now here is someone who loved the movie.  A little too much, I think.

Now here is someone who loved the movie. A little too much, I think.

A couple of people came in costume.

He claims the ears are his own.  Definitely saw the movie too many times.

He claims the ears are his own. Definitely saw the movie too many times.

You can guess which costume I liked the best.

You can guess which costume I liked the best.

The tables were set brilliantly:

There is a clear color trend here.

There is a clear color trend here.


Our hostess, Kristen Yanker-Hansen, with a couple of aliens.

Our hostess, Kristen Yanker-Hansen, with a couple of aliens.

Fittingly, the party was in the garden, which Kristen maintains magnificently. It was strangely cold for a Saturday night in August–even I had a jacket.  Fortunately, the food kept us a warm from the inside.  There was a buffet of appetizers, followed by quinoa salad, kale salad, lamb kabobs

The party turned out to have a dual purpose–it was Kirsten’s birthday, too.

Kirsten's friend Jan not only helped with the food but plays guitar and sang Happy Birthday, too.

Kirsten’s friend Jan not only helped with the food but plays guitar and sang Happy Birthday, too.

It wouldn’t be a proper Avatar party without an Ewa tree, so they built one, then we stood around and sang folk songs.  All very spiritual and community building, just like the movie.

Not quite like the movie, but awfully nice.

Not quite like the movie, but awfully nice.

The final analysis is that we had a wonderful time, ate a good dinner, spent an evening with friends and will never get back the 161 minutes we spent watching the movie.  Not a bad way to spend Saturday night.

Robin Williams

Robin Williams died today, at his own hand.  One of the great comic geniuses of all time was unable to amuse the demons of alcohol and drug abuse (my opinion only, of course, but that’s the benefit of being the guy doing the writing.)

Watching him live could make you laugh until you hurt; offstage he was pretty quiet and easy to talk to in the couple of times I met him.

Here is my favorite clip, I think it’s the funniest bit ever:


Doing the happy dance

Life is who you know.

I told Beth, the Travel Goddess, about my Facebook troubles. (Need to travel? She can help: Beth the Travel Goddess )

Beth runs with friends, and one of them is Jason Shellen, Google employee #603, happily retired at 40 and running with the girls in the morning.  He’s well connected, and “made a call”, and a couple of Tweets.  The chain of connections was activated, and the word spread through Facebook that there was an issue to be dealt with.

That day my blog, which usually gets about 35 hits a day, got 704, mostly from Facebook people.

I was mentioned (I’m @Chairman) in a number of tweets as one guy told the next about the situation.

Friday morning, I got a call from Matt, a leader on the Facebook Global Marketing Solutions Team.  He wasn’t there to just make nice, he had completely researched the issue, read my blog, read our website, knew the advertising history of our store and wanted to know, in detail, how this had happened, how Facebook had dealt with it, how they could prevent it from happening in the future.  This was a man genuinely concerned about the process, and a complete pleasure to deal with.  He also noted that a number of his staff were Berkeley grads, and Fat Slice was a good memory for them.  Great pizza solves many a problem.

Matt was interested in improving their response to customers.  While I doubt that cranky persons will be welcomed with open arms at the headquarters, I’ll bet it becomes much easier to  talk to a real person at FB on the phone.  The page where you place your ad will likely be changed to prevent clumsy non-techie types like me from doing whatever I did, or didn’t do, or should have done, in the first place.  This experience will make Facebook more user-friendly, which benefits everyone.

And the charges for the ad I didn’t want in the first place went away. Poof!  Life is good.

So from me to Beth to Jason, to Josh, to Sriram, to Anil, to Dave, to Matt and back to me, the connections of life brought about a happy resolution. Thank you to everyone for all your help and understanding.


Up close at the ballet

I’ve written about Company C Ballet twice a year for since I started Totally Unauthorized. They have provided quality modern dance with an innovative approach and never failed to entertain and enthrall us.

But art is a business, too, and Company C just wasn’t able to get enough backing and/or sell enough tickets.  They are going to have to restructure, remodel and redesign their business model. There will be no more performances at the Lesher, at least in the foreseeable  future. Not dead, but not in good shape, either.

Last Saturday, they put on a show for suckers people on their mailing list, held in their practice space, the Contra Costa Ballet Academy next to the Post Office on Broadway in Walnut Creek. It was an extraordinary experience.

Charles Anderson, Artistic Director of the company

Charles Anderson, Artistic Director of the company


Charles Anderson is the artistic director, founder, choreographer, chief, cook, and bottle washer  This is his baby, and he’s going to fight to keep it going.  For this event, he rounded up dancers and choreographers to provide an hour of very short pieces, some of which he had not seen himself, to be presented without sets or lighting within inches of the small, attentive crowd.

The sound system was a series of iPhones with the various musical pieces on them, plugged into a stereo.  Costuming was whatever could be found.

And it was fantastic. Many short pieces, too short for the stage, thrilled us all.

Sometimes, nothing is more expensive than “free”.  There was no charge for this event, but there was a strong pitch for donations.  One wealthy backer offered to match all donations up to $20,000, or so they said.  I always think this is just a scam to increase donations, and the donor is going to cough up the 20 grand in any case, but I may be too cynical.  In any event, checks were forthcoming; tickets would have been cheaper.

I’m including a slideshow of photos–I hope to have captured some of their grace and beauty, if not the motion.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


I hope Company C will be back, and I trust you will go see them when they are.  The Diablo Valley is made better by their grace and beauty.



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