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.

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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.

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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.

Saturday morning at the barber shop 

Five chairs, five barbers, six guys sitting waiting. Two guys outside sitting on the back of a pick up truck smoking. Another 8 names on the sign up chalkboard, who may or may not return before I get called.

This is the Walnut Creek Barber Shop and Shave Parlor. Not too many places to get a shave these days, or men taking the opportunity. Just a steady stream of young and old getting cleaned up for the weekend.

Gail has a schedule and a system. She goes to see Eric for her hair, and makes her next appointment before she leaves. I wait until I look in the mirror and decide I need to get a cut, then spend a week or three forgetting until I’m dreadfully shaggy.  Then I have to wait because this place doesn’t take appointments.

My grandfather was a barber, so I have some genetic attraction to the rituals and artifacts of the tonsorial trade.  The time I spend here is a friendly, masculine, semi-anonymous respite while still being productive.  Shaggy is not a good look on me.

Only one woman in here, bringing her 5 year old son. She sends him up to the barber with her phone which has a photo of how the kid shoud look.  The barber places the booster seat across the arms of his chair and goes to work. I don’t think there’s a lollipop in his future the way it used to be. Lollipops have gone the way of Bay Rum after a haircut.

The chatter is a constant flow of sports commentary and male persiflage. Clients are welcome to join the egalitarian conversation.  Waiting mothers are almost always silent. In Walnut Creek, at least, there isn’t much talk of politics these days.

There is a bar in the back of the shop where you can pour yourself a shot of booze if you like. Can’t say that I’ve ever seen anyone availing themselves of the chance.

My turn comes and I climb into the chair, telling the barber that I want my hair to be a “4”, which seems to be some unit of measurement I’ve only recently heard about.  The world changes and I never get the memo.

12 minutes later, I’m shorn and tidied.  My eyebrows no longer are look like Andy Rooney’s, a straight razor has given me a clean line around the back of my neck and I’m ready for trouble.

No senior discount on Saturday–everybody pays the same $25.  It costs $65 to get the dog groomed, so I guess it’s a bargain.  I leave a decent tip and head home.  Saturday mornings can be just fine.


Miracles of modern medicine

Monday, 7:45 am

I have to be at Kaiser Hospital by 8:15.  Today is the day I have my gall bladder removed.

Last month I spent 5 days in Kaiser with acute pancreatitis, a result of a gall stone blocking the system up.  They would ordinarily have removed the gall bladder then, but I had to wait 6 weeks because I am still on blood thinners from having a stent installed in February.  The older you get, the more complicated things are.

I tried to get Uber to take me, but they said there were no cars available, so I tried Lyft.  That was difficult because their software couldn’t find Kaiser Hospital.  I ended up just putting in a nearby address and then telling the driver the truth.


Shanaz, who has 13 brothers and sisters.

The Lyft driver showed up in a neatly kept Prius and we arrived at Kaiser right on time.  That was the last time anything went according to schedule.


Into the office for the paperwork.  Sign consent forms.   Refuse to let them take my cell phone.  I’ve left my wallet, watch and rings at home so I have no valuables for them to lock up.  Pay the $250 copay–first things first.  Get sent to the waiting room.  Get called from the waiting room, shown to a cubicle and told to put all my clothes in the bag. There is a system for everything here–even the bag for your clothes is part of a formal, numbered, bar-coded system.


I don’t know why I would want to go to their website, but there it is.


I’m in a bed, dressed in the usual absurd hospital gown, answering endless questions.  the nurses say I’m to have a “lap choly”, short for laparoscopic cholecystectomy.  I love those long medical words you can practically chew.


No, I don’t drink.

No, I don’t smoke.

Yes, I took my pills this morning.

No, I don’t have dentures.

Yes, I wear contact lenses, but not today.

And a thousand more.  Much of modern nursing consists of reading lists of questions and entering the answers into a computer. Each nurse has her own computer workstation, battery powered, that she pushes from cubicle to cubicle adding to the immense data base that is modern medicine.

Somebody comes by and starts an IV in my hand.  She does an amazing job, sticking me painlessly with a huge needle in the back of my hand.


An IV, a wrist band with lots of way to ID me and two different bar codes.  The red one says I’m allergic to some medicine I had once, 15 years ago.

9:45 am

Waiting.   I’m ready.  The nurse is ready.  The hospital, not so much.   They’re still working on the previous patient.


Still waiting.


They’ve finished in the OR, sort of, but they’re having problems getting the patient to wake up.  One of the nurses told me that, but she shouldn’t have.  Patient confidentiality is taken very seriously here.  More on this subject later.


My doctor shows up



Dr. Yilmaz-Gonzales

She’s finally gotten out of the OR from the previous surgery, and comes by to make sure I’m OK, aware of what is about to happen and capable of giving informed consent.

Next up is the anesthesiologist, Dr. Krisman.


She’s really serious, with lots of life or death questions.  I asked about the patients they had trouble waking up, and her eyes turned to fire as she wanted to know who told me that.  I wasn’t about to get anyone else into trouble, so I didn’t tell, but she was clearly upset that any level of confidentiality had been breached.

Still more questions, and it turned out I had not followed instructions properly about which medications to take the day of surgery.  Many phone call and conferences later, it was decided that they would go through with the operation as long as I recognized the grave danger I was in.  Realizing that they medicos invariably overstate that sort of thing, and that they simply would refuse to operate if it was seriously dangerous, I said yes. Still, I had to take the medicines I had forgotten and wait yet another hour to begin.


I get wheeled into the OR.  Scoot across to an impossibly narrow table.  They start the anesthetic.


I wake up in recovery.  Bob Munson, saint that he is, has volunteered to bring me home, although he expected to be doing that 5 hour earlier.  He didn’t have to wait around: the hospital called him when it was time.


I’m home.  A little sore, but no big deal.  I have 4 small incisions on my belly where they cut space to insert their instruments and do the job.  No particular restrictions on what I can eat, just try to avoid great exertion and lifting of heavy objects.

Half a century ago, when my mother had this same operation, they cut her from stem to stern and she spent 2 weeks in the hospital recovering.  If not for the delays, this would have taken 3 hours, I’m already mostly recovered and the shock to my system is vastly smaller (and safer).  Our health care system is seriously flawed, but when it works, it works great.

Third time may not be the charm

Restaurants come and go.  There is no business riskier to get into, yet there seems to be an endless stream of entrepreneurs willing to give it a go.

Dinner last night at Sunol Ridge on Locust in Walnut Creek.   This is the third incarnation we have seen in this specific location, and may not be the last.

The facility is quite attractive, dark and cool with lots of wood and modern decor. There is a bar in front with 36 craft beers on tap, dramatic lighting and sufficient sound dampening that the place isn’t too loud.

Sunol Ridge styles itself as a “gastropub”, whatever that means.  Probably something to do with all the different beers and wines they purvey and a hearty menu.  Since I don’t drink I don’t have anything to say about the alcohol choices, but there is plenty here if you like that sort of thing.

Four of us at dinner, and three chose exactly the same meal: the tomato and stone fruit gazpacho and the stuffed branzino.  Gail had the rib eye steak, but that’s because she wanted something to take home to the very spoiled dog.

The gazpacho was much spicier than I would ever have imagined, which pretty well obliterated any flavor from the stone fruit.  Ramping up the spice in the food makes it more macho, but that isn’t really my main goal in fine dining.

The branzino, on the other hand, was interesting as all get out.


A whole fish, mostly deboned (I found a few lurkers), stuffed with tiny tomatoes, cipolini, summer squash and who knows what else.  The accompanying roasted carrots were superb dipped in the dish of oil and garlic, which I also drizzled over the fish.  I liked this dish, lots.

Gail’s steak looked good to me, but she said it was not as medium rare as one would expect.

So we finished our fine meals.  And sat there.  And sat there, dirty dishes in front of us. It was an absurdly hot Sunday night, and the place was not crowded at all.  Nonetheless, it took ages before our plates were cleared.

I was undoubtedly cranky at this point, but being asked twice if we wanted dessert, when I had said the first time we were ready for the check, did not make me think more kindly of the operation.  I felt like she was more interested in selling more than in providing quality service.  Sunol Ridge is not McDonalds, they shouldn’t push the upsell the same way.

Yet again, it’s the service that makes or breaks a restaurant.  I like the food here, the ambiance is pleasant, I’ll bet it’s great for a beer lover (if Mamula ever comes to visit I know where to take him).  Still,  if I’m not to try the fourth new restaurant in this location, they need to pick up their service game.  Plates need to be cleared promptly and customers must not be nagged to buy more.  You’d think this was the easy part of food service management, but you’d be wrong. Virtually every restaurant that fails does so because of the service and the customer experience or other staff problems.  It’s much easier to cook good food than to get it to the customer properly.


An Even Trade

Quite some years ago, Gail and I were wandering through an art fair in Union Square and stumbled upon the above sculpture by James Moore.  Crafted from solid steel, we were immediately taken with it and proceeded to negotiate and bring it home.

James became a friend, and last month we went to see his open studio in San Jose.  While we were there, I found another piece we liked, and that seemed quite appropriate as we await the birth of Gail’s first great-grandchild.


The only problem is that James loves this piece, and had no intention of selling it.

Art is not only about money.  Artists frequently fall in love with something they have created and want to keep it for their personal collection.  Fortunately for us, we had something better than money to offer him.  Gail suggested we could trade straight across for the original piece, and James assented.  We have agreed that in a year or two we may change back again, so that we can both enjoy both works.

James delivered the new work the next week, and stayed to lunch.  Because he is a lifelong vegan, I made a cold carrot soup.  There is something intriguing about cold soups; they are filling and refreshing at the same time.

My price for lunch was that he had to sit for me in my photo studio.  Here is what our friend looks like.





Collecting art has brought us a number of new friends, and we’re happy that James Moore is one of them.