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.

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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.


Bearding the lion

There is no valet parking at Fat Slice

There is no valet parking at Fat Slice


We own a small pizza store, with just one location.  Since we’re 1 block from Sather Gate and have been there 28 years, we don’t advertise much.

However, we do have a Facebook page, and I regularly post a photo of the special of the day and some possibly witty words.  If it’s a big day or the pie is super-special, I sometimes pay Facebook $20 or even $30 to “promote” that particular post.  They have my credit card on file, it’s a few clicks from my phone and we’re all done.

Until this week, when Gail got the credit card bill and noticed some huge charges.  After considerable sleuthing about the complex, hard to understand, Facebook advertising pages, I figured out that they had decided that on May 27 I not only wanted to spend $20 to promote the Memorial Day post, but for some inexplicable reason I wanted to spend up to $50 a day forever to continue to promote it, and the bill is currently over $3,200.

Not having any intention of blowing three grand on an ad I don’t want, I tried to talk to Facebook.  Silly me.  You can look through the FB website for hours and not find a phone number.  I checked gethuman.com, a website that helps you cut through voice mail hell, and they have one number and say it is worthless–a recording that refers you back to the website.

So here is bad customer service taken to  it’s highest form–a huge multinational company you can only contact by email.  Email that is answered by machine, at that.

Not being one to give up, today I drove down to Palo Alto, planning on walking in the front door and trying to find a human to converse with.  Good try, no luck.

The Facebook campus is right off highway 84 at the eastern anchorage of the Dumbarton Bridge, you can’t miss it.  There are at least 19 buildings, not counting the Fitness Center.  Although many employees arrive by company bus, the parking lot is completely full.  The complimentary valet parking is a necessity–there are so many vendors, visitors, consultants and at least one cranky customer that the valets have double parked dozens of cars for lack of space.

Driving up to the valet, I said I wanted to go into the front door.  They told me I would need an appointment.  I said I’d have to call to do that, and there was no phone number.  Nicely circular system they have.

Eventually, I was allowed into some ancillary reception area, where an employee in a t-shirt, red sneakers and knee length pants said that “unfortunately, no one was available at present” to speak with me.  Now or ever, I would opine.

There is a customer support form, which I filled out with email address and phone number, they took a picture of my drivers license (in case the place blows up tonight I guess I’m on the suspects list), and promised a response within 72 hours.  Maybe they’ll be as good as their word.  Maybe not.

It’s a sad state of affairs when we have come from the era of ‘the customer is always right’ to this complete unapproachability, a corporation incommunicado.  Facebook reminds me of Lily Tomlin as Ernestine, the phone company operator.  “We don’t care, we don’t have to.”  It may work for the time being, but is this really a strategy for long term customer relations?

I find myself conflicted

We had lunch today in Palo Alto, after the water polo game, at a place called Coconuts Caribbean Restaurant and Bar. I loved it, I hated it, I’m completely of two minds about Coconuts.

The food is spectacular.  We started with guacamole, which is served with green plantain totopes. Deep fried banana thingies instead of corn chips. We ordered more totopes to scoop up the very good guac with, and they arrived so hot they burned my fingers.

The combination plate had my name on it–how often can I get curried goat and jerk chicken all at once?  The plate had two large scoops of fascinating dirty rice, a huge mound of the goat, two pieces of chicken and a salad.  All for $12.95.  This may be the bargain of the century.

So why am I so torn, if the food is so good?  Because the service is less than abysmal, maybe the worst I’ve ever had. Slow, inconsistent, careless, even bossy.  There was nothing right about it.

There were 8 of us at lunch, and the first meal hit the table almost 30 minutes before the last plate. Nobody ever came around to see if we were alright. A great meal was made unpleasant by the incompetent, lackadaisical staff. Not that this stopped them from adding 15% onto the bill for “service”.

I am left in the unpleasant position of telling you where to find great Caribbean food, but not being able to recommend the place.  Find a place that cares about the customers as much as they do the food.
Coconuts Caribbean Restaurant and Bar on Urbanspoon

Something new

If you are willing to live spontaneously, life is a continuing adventure.

We have friends who live in Malibu.  He’s American, she is Indonesian and we visited them once while they lived in Bali.  Today they called; their daughter was competing in the Junior Olympics Water Polo Championships, being held at Stanford.  Naturally, we piled into the car and headed off to see it.

Angie winning the tip-off

Angie winning the tip-off

Although they live in Malibu, Angie plays for Santa Barbara.  Her dad drives her the 90 minutes three times a week.  They do this because Santa Barbara is the best team in the nation, and Angie is good enough to play for the best.

Chasing down the ball.

Chasing down the ball.

These are 12 and under girls–next year she gets to move up to the 14 and under.

Look at those eye on the goal.

Look at those eye on the goal.

The game is short and fast.  There are 4 6-minute periods, and no jokes about the horses drowning.  There are 12 girls on the team, and seven of them are in the water at any one time.

The game we attended was the national Junior Olympics final.  Santa Barbara was playing the USC Trojans (which isn’t a college team, of course, but USC sponsors). The game was close, and Santa Barbara won 9-6.  Jubilation swept over the arena.

Angie and the team

Angie and the team

Wearing her gold medal.

Wearing her gold medal.

So we had an exciting time.  Our friend’s daughter won a national championship at 12, and is poised to stay on the team and win more. I learned something about water polo and got to take some fun photos.  Spontaneous is a good way to live.


Living High

Mike, Linda, Gail and I have a particular thing we enjoy–those revolving restaurants on top of high towers.  We’ve had some very interesting meals while slowly rotating in Vancouver, Seattle, Montreal, Toronto, Dallas, Louisville (OK, that didn’t really move, they just said it did) and a couple more I don’t remember.  So it was only fitting that last night we tried the Top of the World restaurant here in Las Vegas.

The restaurant, though well reviewed and recommended, sits atop the Stratosphere Casino, an 800 foot monstrosity that has never quite made it here. The tower/casino is well north of the big hotels on the Strip, and seem to be trying to raise tacky to an art form

I drove in, and headed for the valet line, parking behind a half dozen other cars.  Quite some time later, I noticed that there was nothing happening, so I backed out and just pulled my car up in the middle of the walkway and got out. This got the valets attention–he wasn’t pleased, but I gave him my keys and he had little choice but to take the car. Sometimes you just have to be proactive.

The other three had gone ahead, so I was left to my own devices to find the elevator to the restaurant. There are no signs in the casino, no way to find out where to go. You just wander and wander, vainly asking employees who vaguely wave off in the distance towards, perhaps, some entrance.

Circling around the entire place, passing (as management clearly planned) each and every one of the tacky, garish, gaudy stores selling tacky, garish, gaudy crap, I eventually stumbled upon the reception desk for dinner–and was ahead of the rest of my crowd. We joined up, and were led to “security”, where my tiny pocket knife was confiscated “for your safety and mine, sir”. Arrant stupidity is not limited to airports and the TSA.

Finally harmless enough to be allowed to eat, we went up to dinner, which is on the “106th” floor, but of course the building isn’t that tall, it’s just another marketing lie.

Enough of the whining.  How was the food?  Great.

The restaurant itself is beautiful–done in blues and whites, very modern and chic.  Our waiter was swift and competent. The view would be much more spectacular at night, when all of Vegas is lit up, but we had to get back to bridge so we were there in daylight–and the view was still wonderful.

A great bread basket is a good start.  Just look at this beauty:

That's some good baking going on.

That’s some good baking going on.

With bread comes butter, or some facsimile.  We got three concoctions–one with garlic, one with orange, one sort of plain.  Don’t try the orange one.

Making the butter fancy to class up the joint.

Making the butter fancy to class up the joint.

I started with my usual, caprese salad. This one came with incredibly ripe, perfect watermelon to go with the heirloom tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, toasted pistachios and a sherry vinaigrette dressing.

Heirloom tomato caprese salad with watermelon.

Heirloom tomato caprese salad with watermelon.

I’m a major connoisseur of caprese salads, and this one ranks with the very best. It’s more than large enough for two to split, but who would want to share something this good?

On to the entrees. I had the Scotch Salmon, with mango and green papaya slaw, pea guacamole and roasted jicama.

A most inventive salmon dish.

A most inventive salmon dish.

The mango green papaya slaw combined two of my favorite fruits, the salmon was perfectly cooked and the roasted jicama was like a healthy french fry dipped in pea guacamole, whatever that might be, but it tasted tangy and bright.

Gail had the smoked rack of lamb–which means I got a couple of chops, and they were, if not fantastic, certainly different. Lamb is rarely smoked, because it’s too delicate a flavor and easily overwhelmed, but I’ll certainly give the kitchen points for creativity. The accompanying ragout was another standout.

We also noticed that the steak knife they gave Gail was more than twice the size of my little pocket knife.  I wonder if anyone in management has ever considered how stupid, bureaucratic, incompetent and unthinking they must be to continue this insulting foolishness about “security”.

Smoked rack of lamb with bean, corn, pancetta and tomato ragout.

Smoked rack of lamb with bean, corn, pancetta and tomato ragout.

It is more than mildly disconcerting to look up from you dinner to see a body flying past the 100th floor windows, but that’s all part of the show here.  Would-be daredevils can get all suited up and hooked into a harness attached to stiff wires, then jump off a platform and “fall” safely to the ground.  If we had more time I would have tried it myself, maybe.

Jumping off an 800 foot tall tower just for the heck of it.

Jumping off an 800 foot tall tower just for the heck of it.

Dinner was very, very good. The Stratosphere makes it as hard and unpleasant as possible to get there, but the meal is worth the trek.  The good news is that once you find you way up, they tell you where the secret elevator is to get out easily, redeem you car and go back to playing bridge.

The Top of the World is pricey, which is pretty standard for revolving tourist traps. But I’ve paid more for less interesting, creative, sparkling food without a view. Just don’t bring a pocketknife, they might think you’re a terrorist, bent on hijacking the tower to Cuba.

Top of the World on Urbanspoon


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