History in my back yard.

We’re going to Antarctica in January, and I have to be in good enough shape to get in and out of the Zodiaks that take you ashore, and then walk along the snow fields.  Even a world class procrastinator like me knows better than to leave that for the last 2 weeks, so today I got a cortisone shot in my bad knee and took off on a walk with the dog.

Looking for a place to stretch my legs, I found a park I’d never heard of with something really special–an airmail arrow from the 1920’s.  Before electronic navigation, there were hundreds of great big arrows on the ground guiding air mail pilots on routes from the east coast to the west.  They were accompanied by lighted beacons, but those are long gone.  The concrete lives on in a few hundred sites around the US.


The two arrows point to the LA–Seattle route (left) and the San Francisco–Chicago route

The park is at the end of Bacon Drive in Walnut Creek, a part of the city I’d never seen before. It wasn’t a long walk, about 1/2 mile.  But I think it was about 4,500 feet of vertical rise.  At least that’s the way it seemed.

The airmail marker was something I had long wanted to see, and never realized there was on right in our backyard.


The squares seem to indicate the approach to the arrow.

Being on top of the hill gave me a great view of Walnut Creek and the 24/680 interchange, down to Danville.  Visibility wasn’t great, due to smoke in the air from the fires.  Turning towards the North, I could see mostly to the Martinez refineries.


A very welcome bench to rest on.  Claudia didn’t need any rest.

There was something interesting on the ground–a ton of compressed gas containers.  CO2?  Nitrous Oxide?  If young people are coming up here to get high, they’re sure willing to put a lot of work into it.


Having caught my breath, it was time to walk back, which seemed to entail another 4500 vertical foot climb.  Maybe that was just my impression.

Claudia raced to the end of the trail, ignoring all calls to come back.  Then she waited politely for me to stagger up and drive her home.

Finding the arrow satisfied a long held wish.  I need to take lots more walks before our trip, are there any other interesting places to stroll around here, preferably much, much flatter?


Good news from Napa


Many trees survived when the grass burned through quickly

Our friends Harry and Mike live at Green Valley Ranch, on the east side of Napa and smack dab in the Atlas fire.  They left their home at 3 a.m. last Monday when the fires started, then snuck back on Tuesday morning and stayed to fight for their home.

For the next 36 hours they chopped down trees, cleared brush and used the water from the tank they installed a few years ago to protect against emergencies.


The water tank that supplied their efforts.

They got lucky when a Cal Fire helicopter saw them and dropped a full load of water on the house, then came right back and dropped another on burning trees near the building.


What is left of the front yard.  The sculpture on its side is coming to our house.

The first night they had no sleep, never stopping their efforts.  The second night they set the alarm every 20 minutes to get up and check for flare up, hot spots and any other dangers.

Finally, the fires died out.  They had saved their home.  Harry and Mike live in a small compound with 4 homes situated around a common cookhouse—zoning allows only 1 kitchen for each 250 acres, so their homes have no kitchen.  (Mike and Harry found a loophole allowing a “mother-in-law” unit, so they have a small kitchen).

The others were not so lucky.  All the homes, and the cookhouse, burned to the ground.


A panoramic view of the other buildings, all destroyed.

Gail and I drove up there Saturday, but the police wouldn’t let us get near.  On Sunday, we tried again.  This time the CHP officer guarding the road said we could only go up if someone came down to vouch for us. Cell service is spotty at best, but we called Harry and come down and got us in.


Gail, Michael and Harry.  We brought the Champagne to celebrate.

The boys still have no power, save a small generator.  No running water.  They cook in the outdoor kitchen Harry created, over an open fire.

The pond behind their home is still busy with egrets, herons and ducks.  They came back as soon as the smoke cleared.  In this shot, you can see the hill across the pond, where the fire raced through all the underbrush and some of the smaller trees.


Life at the ranch will never be the same, but nobody was hurt, none of the cattle were lost, buildings can be rebuilt.  In a few days there will be water and power, and life will go on.

Not wanting to overstay our welcome, we said goodbye.  I drove around the ranch some to get more photos.

The barn was built in the 1800’s, so the wood was tinder dry.  It went up in a flash, and left the remnants of a tractor on view.


Here is what remains of a phone pole:


Fire retardant is dropped from planes as large as a 747. It’s dyed red so they know where it has been applied, and works as a fertilizer to help regrow the area after the fire to prevent erosion.


A streak of fire retardant across the trees.

We met this fine gentleman riding around the ranch looking for hotspots.


There are fire crews here from all of the western states, working tirelessly to put out the more than 20 major fires plaguing northern California.

I have been stunned by the capriciousness of the fire.  You can see here how it was on one side of the road and not the other:

untitled-12And here how it burned a narrow path up a hill:


And somehow it burned three quarters of a canoe:


Our friend Tom Flesher lives in the Pavillion House, and you can see the fire burned right up to the building, which was unscathed.  They lost the well pump house and other out buildings, but the main structure was safe:


Driving down the hill towards home, we met another fire crew.


I had to know where Daisy Mountain is, and found out they had come from North Phoeniz, AZ.  That’s a long drive in a fire truck that only goes 55 miles an hour, but they were here to serve and still smiling.  I’ve never met a fireman I didn’t like.  We made sure to thank them for coming.

In Napa, we passed “Incident Central”, a huge RV area that was being used as the base of operations.  I noticed this:


Many hundreds of tiny tents, where the exhausted firefighters could get some sleep.  All that hard work and they didn’t even get a real bed, for there were no beds to be had.  On another part of the facility were hundreds of fire trucks and support vehicles parked, and this was towards the end of the emergency.

Napa is safe.  Santa Rosa is still burning, but the fires are largely contained.  We were happy to see these signs in town, and echo the sentiment.

World Wide Photo Walk

Every year, on the second Saturday of October, Scott Kelby runs the World Wide Photo Walk, where photographers from all over the globe get together to take a walk and find photos.  It’s free, but people contribute a few bucks to the Springs of Hope orphanage in Kenya.  I’ve been wanting to do this for years, and today the stars aligned and I got my chance.

This morning, 14 of us, 7 women, 7 men, met at Camera West, the upscale camera store on South Main.  They have a Leica Store, one of very few in the world factory designed to showcase the crown jewel of the camera world.  The Leica is the Faberge egg of cameras, as beautiful to look at as it is perfect to shoot with.  Way, way out of my price range, as well as my ability range.  Nice to look at, though.

The walk was led by Richard Herzog, a longtime professional who also works for Camera West and teaches. He had mapped out a simple route around downtown Walnut Creek and off we went.

As soon as we got down to the street, people started shooting.  Every flower, every brick, tree leaf, geometric pattern on a sidewalk bench.  None of this interests me, but to each his own.   I occupied myself shooting the shooters, imagining a newspaper article titled “Downtown invaded by doofuses with cameras”.

While everyone else was looking for architectural, botanical or geometric items to photograph, I was looking for interesting people.


One lone man on the second floor, watching the people watching him.

There was a man standing on the sidewalk chanting/praying/raving in Arabic and English.  I recognized “Allahu Akbar”, the rest could well have been gibberish.  Or not.


Laurie and Carol saw this man, but were too polite to approach him.

So I walked up and said “Good day.  Mind if I take your picture?”


Some people are just made to photograph; it would be a crime to ignore them.


I saw this woman walking and noticed her dress.  A block later she crossed our path again, and I had to get her portrait and talk to her.

She is the Reverend Mother Josephine Hendy C Robertson, Matriarch of the Miskitu Nation. They are an indigenous native/African/Creole group in Central America fighting for independence from Nicaragua.  She wasn’t looking for money, just support for her cause.  You meet the most interesting people when you just talk to them.


Still walking, we met the character of the day:


Love Love.  That’s her name.

A homeless guy, with a dog in a trailer behind his bicycle.  And the dog has a hat and shades.  Not something I could pass up.

The homeless guy had a tale of woe, which he mumbled far too fast for me to follow.  The upshot of it was that he starts a job in the Petco Warehouse next week, and hopes to get his life together.  I hope he does, too.

I said I don’t have any interest in the geometrics that others were so diligently shooting, but one wall piqued my interest:


This is a building just off Main Street, with steel walls that have rusted beautifully.

Then we found some trees that had been “yarn bombed” by a local knitting group. Kind of an interesting,  giving, peaceful enterprise.

Still on the lookout for people, I liked the angles of a little girl dancing in place as her mom had a coffee.


Something about these two women attracted me.


We wound around to the rear of Va de Vi where they have a huge koi pond, with a magnificent collection of fish.  I don’t need pictures of fish.  Apparently I am alone in this.


On a beautiful Saturday, there was a good crowd enjoying lunch al fresco; that was worth reaching for the camera.


To sum up, it was a delightful day of walking around, actually seeing things I had merely looked at over the years, meeting some decidedly different and intriguing people and make a few new friends.  To put the words into a picture, here are three of the walkers checking out each other’s work:



It just keeps getting better

11 Years we’ve been subscribing to Smuin Ballet, and it just keeps getting better.

We went last Friday to Lesher Center with Mike and Linda, introducing them to our favorite local performing company.  As usual, we were left awed by the perfection of artists.

The second act was titled Requiem for a Rose, choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, who just happened to be sitting right behind us along with Celia Fushille, the Artistic Director and Amy London, the Ballet Master.  We really like the seats we have.

Requiem for a Rose is a beautiful piece, with both the males and females dressed in red skirts, no shirts for the men and pale nude tops for the women.  They were practically indistinguishable from each other, except for one woman with long flowing blond hair, a blue leotard and a bright red rose in her mouth.  The music was from Franz Schubert.

The piece is clearly moving and evocative, but I can’t say I much understood it.  Then Celia, the Artistic Director, was walking back to her seat and I asked her to explain it to Mike. (Easier to claim he need help than to admit I was at sea).  She did so, then MIcky asked why they hadn’t put that in the program.  The manager in his personality never takes a day off.

Today, the Smuin set out an email to subscribers discussing the creation of Requiem for a Rose.  Watch it and see why we love modern dance and the Smuin Ballet so much.



I’m Chris, and I’m a phone addict

So Sunday we drove down to Santa Cruz to spend 4 nights in our favorite rental house, right on the beach.  Kids, grand kids and the great-grandson would all be there for a few days of kicking back and having fun.s

Stopping at Safeway before we got to the house, I reached for my phone.

No phone.

I had left it on my desk at home.

How would I survive for 4 days without it?

I tried, God knows I tried.  But not 10 minutes would go by before somebody wanted to know the capital of Kirgystan or the dinner menu at Shadowbrook or the atomic weight of Cesium and I’d be reaching for my indispensable connection to the universe, and it wasn’t there.

Gail couldn’t take it.  I looked so forlorn, and didn’t have the answer to everything as I usually do–my phone and I know everything,  By myself, I don’t know much at all.

She told me to go get it.  I resisted–it’ seems really stupid to drive 3 hours just retrieve my favorite toy.  Then I gave in.

So Sunday night I drove 162 miles round trip to go home, pick up my precious and return. The drive home was tough–lots of traffic and the radio reception is bad in the Santa Cruz mountains.  The return trip had no traffic, and, armed with my iPhone, I had great podcast to listen to.

So I admit it.  I’m hooked.  I’ve got an iPhone on my back.  I’m completely powerless in the face of my compulsion to be connected to Facebook and Google at all times.  No 12 step program can save me.  Soon I’ll be hanging out on Skid Row, begging for a few more megabytes of data.  It’s a sad story.

A Song as Old as Time

Danny and Linda Friedman decided to make a party last Sunday–they invited friends to have a picnic dinner and see a show at the Woodminster Theater in Oakland.  Maybe because I’ve known Linda since the 7th grade, I made the list.  Gail was invited too, but she had too much fun this afternoon when  great-grandson Silas came to brunch, trailing his entire entourage of parents, grand-parents and friends.

(Silas isn’t much of a guest since all he eats is the homemade his mom makes.  We still went through almost 2 dozen eggs, 2 pounds of bacon, many packages of fruit, 2 pounds of sausage and two packages of English muffins.  Gail had a right to be worn out.)

Arriving early at the amphitheater, we scored a nice picnic table out of the glaring sun.  It was another hot day; none of us need the coats/sweaters/sweatshirts we had reflexively packed.

Danny and Linda provided the picnic, and did a spectacular job, to the extent of bringing real plates.  I was impressed.


Grapes and brie for a starter.

We had two kinds of roasted chicken, fruit salad, regular salad, beets, mac and cheese, the best loaf of store-bought bread I’ve ever had (Whole Foods rosemary and sea salt ciabatta), flavored sparkly water, diet Coke (which all good hosts provide), red wine, white wine, brownies Danny made and raspberry sorbet.  It was a feast.

Stuffed to the gills, we staggered down the stairs to our seats.  Woodminster is an outdoor stadium type theater, with steeply banked seats facing the setting sun and a broad stage built to hold large casts in spectacular performances.


The view from our picnic table, before the theater filled up.

Beauty and the Beast is not exactly heavy theater, but it’s enjoyable and entertaining. There were many children in the audience, including a few young girls in princess dresses.  What a great way to introduce the theater to your kids/grandkids.

This production has a cast of over 40 members, mostly talented volunteers.  There were 8 paid Equity members,  I was surprised to see that the female lead, Jennifer Alexis Mitchell, is not an Equity member although she is clearly a working professional who has played Snow White in Beach Blanket Babylon.


With so many children in the audience, it seemed acceptable and appropriate to boo the villain and cheer the hero, ooh and aah at the lush and lavish costumes and magnificent production numbers.  The evening turned magical with the sky darkening, bringing out the colors of the stage.


Late in the second act, the curse is lifted and the Beast turns into a handsome prince–and the actor. Adam Maggio,  who has been trapped in a huge, ugly mask is set free to win the hearts of the audience with his good look and huge, deep voice.

The villains are vanquished, the beautiful girl marries the handsome prince, the household servants are released from their spells and everyone lives happily ever after.  We all went home with a smile on our faces and a warm feeling in our tummies from the great picnic.  Thanks, Danny and Linda.

Workin’ at the dog wash blues

I’m a city boy, born in Brooklyn.  Not a lot of wild animals running around Bay Ridge.

But I live here now, and have to deal with the fauna of wildest Lafayette.  That’s mostly not too hard, except that last night Claudia, the perfect pup, got a little too close to a skunk.  I don’t think she got the full-on spray, but she sure smelled skunky this morning and something had to be done.

A trip to Petco Express got me a bottle of Stinky Dog Shampoo, then they asked if I was going to wash the dog there–turns out they have a pet wash onsite, with sinks, blow driers, aprons, towels, waterproof collars and leashes fixed to the wall.  Much easier than trying to corral the pup in the kitchen sink and then dry her with Gail’s blower.  How could I resist?

claudiabath (1)

No idea what’s going to happen.

claudiabath (2)

Getting wet so we can get started

Now we add the shampoo and start the big scrub a dub dub.

Scrubbed clean, there is major rinsing to be done.  When Claudia is completely soaked we notice that we have a lot less dog than we think we do–that’s one scrawny pooch under all that fur.

claudiabath (6)

There is some serious shaking happening to get rid of all that water, then I attack with the towels.  She’s starting to look a bit more normal, but there’s a long way to go.


The dog wash has a very strong blower, pushing out tons of warm air.  You don’t hold the blower 6 inches back like you do with your own hair dryer, you hold it right up close and blow like hell.  The dog’s fur is think and seems to have sopped up a gallon of water.  She doesn’t particularly want to stand still for this procedure, so you’re drying a leg one second and her chest the next, then her ears, then back to this leg and around and around until, finally, she comes out clean and dry and fluffy and soft.

This process isn’t cheap–the skunk shampoo is $15 and so is the use of the dog wash.  Puppies are damned expensive, but cute enough to justify the expense.

claudiabath (11)

The Long Journey Home


(l to r) Lamont Thompson as Great Grand Daddy Deus plays chess with Aldo Billingslea as Great Grand Paw Sidin, while Dawn L. Troupe, Omozé Idehenre, and Safiya Fredericks look on in Marcus Gardley’s black odyssey directed by Eric Ting at California Shakespeare Theater; photo by Kevin Berne

I read The Odyssey in 7th or 8th grade English class. Poor Ulysses spends 20 years roaming the world, fighting sirens, storms and one-eyed monsters while trying to get home to his wife who is struggling to fend off suitors and maintain her chastity while keeping the flames of hope alive that he will return.  Eventually he returns and everyone lives happily ever after.  Or at least that’s what I remember.

Now a brilliant young Oakland playwright, Marcus Gardley, has used those same plot lines and overlaid a story of the black experience in America, devising a combination that produces a stunning work of art, Black Odyssey.  We saw it Sunday at Cal Shakes in Orinda, and you should, too.

This is a masterful production, directed by Eric Ting, that blends the structure of a Greek tragedy with modern day racial politics. Ulysses Lincoln (J. Alphonse Nicholson) is a US soldier washed overboard on the trip home from Afghanistan, considered dead by the Army but not by Nella Pell (Omozé Idehenre), his eternally faithful wife and the mother of his child, Malachai (Michael Curry).   His path is strewn with obstacles by Great Grandpaw Sidin (Aldo Billingslea) who is holding a grudge because Ulysses killed his son in Afghanistan. Ulysses is protected by Great Grand Daddy Deus (Lamont Thompson), so Great Grandpaw is going after the son Ulysses has never seen, Malachai.

The journey is more important then the destination, as Ulysses faces difficulties and decisions that mirror the black diaspora in America.  I think I’ll stop trying to describe the plot, and concentrate on meanings.

We think we live in a post-racial, non-segregated society, but look around the next time you have dinner out.  How many non-white faces do you see?  I have often wondered if the fine restaurants of the Bay Area had “Whites (and Asians) Only” signs that I just can’t see.  The events in Charlottesville 10 days ago show the deep racism still existing in much of the country, and the acceptance of it that reaches all the way to the White House.

The author, Marcus Gardley,  was born and raised in Oakland, and loves the city.  This play is set in the Acorn projects, with so many local references Gail and I both wondered if there was any way the play could ever travel to New York.  Gardley is a poet as well, and the rhythm and word play of the dialogue is brilliant.

Black Odyssey doesn’t promise or provide answers to these problems, it exists to shine a light on life and love and black and white and the meaning of existence.  You have to provide your own answers.

The play runs for 2 more weeks, and I sure hope you go see it.  This is what good theater is supposed to be.

Meet Silas Briggs


Silas Ross Briggs

Gail has a daughter, Kate.

Kate has a daughter, Chloe.

Chloe just had a baby, Silas Ross Briggs.  That makes me a great-grandfather. Ish.

Last week we went up to Tacoma for the day to meet the new little feller.  He’s cute.  Of course all babies are cute, but this one is cuter. Doesn’t cry, doesn’t fuss, just eats, sleeps and poops.  The perfect baby.


Gail had to hold him, lots. That’s what great-grandmothers are for.  When she was ready to put him down, it was my turn.  Holding babies is something I’m really good at.

I had to have a photo of the 4 generations together.


Kate, Chloe, Gail and Silas

We all went out for a fine dinner on the waterfront, then took the late flight home.  Can’t beat a day like that.

The Difference a Day Makes

Yesterday I had a cataract removed from my right eye.  Sooner or later this will happen to everyone–it is one of the joys of modern medicine that the poor vision/blindness that once affected virtually everyone as they aged is now solved with a 15 minute operation.

Kaiser has quite a system set up for cranking people through.  From leaving the house to return was a few minutes under 3 hours.  Their facility in Martinez is a friendly, courteous, well-oiled, very careful assembly line of optical care.  Their obsession on being correct extended to the ophthalmologist writing his initials over my RIGHT eye to ensure operating on the correct one.


Dr. Daniel Levinsohn’s inscription to ensure accuracy

They rolled me into the OR.  Once again, the doctor announced to the team my name, Kaiser number, the reason for the operation and the fact that it was the RIGHT eye.  Every single team member had to respond “I agree” before they could proceed.  There are no mistakes in this process.

15 minutes later, they rolled me back. My eye was covered with a clear plastic patch, just to keep accidents from happening.  Even at that point, I could see!! The improvement was immediate and dramatic.

A few minutes later we were on our way home, as I marveled at the things I could now see.  Over the course of the next week, the doctor tell me that my vision will continue to improve.  I no longer need a contact lens in my right eye.

With the aid of photoshop, I’ve tried to come up with a way to describe the effects of having, then not having, a cataract.

This is approximately what I can see out of my left eye, which I have been using for everything for months.


This is what things looked like out of my right eye up until Wednesday morning:


That’s pretty bad.  I couldn’t read with just this eye.  Driving at night was distinctly unpleasant.

Here’s what I see now with my right eye and the new lens:


Just magnificent.

It will be a year or three before my left eye deteriorates enough for me to have the same surgery on it.  You don’t often hear people say they are looking forward to an operation, but I can’t wait.