Sunday, July 31, 2011

Music and Comedy - Two Shows in One Day

I got to watch two ladies in my life perform yesterday. One was my nearly three-year-old granddaughter, who made her stage debut in a production of Alice in Wonderland as a singing flower. Always a free spirit, she left the stage for a while, but returned to complete the number with a flourish.

The company featured some entertaining performances by older children and some teenagers, who kept the story and music flowing. I hadn't seen children's theatre in as long as I could remember, so it was a little nostalgic and the unevennesses were just part of the experience.

Any time spent with a grandchild is a treat. She had her parents and two of her three sets of grandparents there to witness it, so it was a real family event, too.

After this, my wife and I headed back to our neighborhood and took in a comedy show at the Englander in San Leandro that included my very funny friend Barbara Garber. She has been generating laughs since I met her many years ago, and has a way of taking her experiences and transforming them into hilarity. Her own laugh is funny in itself and helps set the mood.

Barbara has been working seriously on spending more time onstage--which I encourage for anyone who has been around awhile and wants to pursue their passion. I think she has what it takes to really make something of this.

As for my granddaughter, there's no way to know if she will develop an interest in musical theatre, but she has made the first step.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Gordon Lightfoot Day

I read yesterday about a movement in Canada to have an official Gordon Lightfoot Day. Dave Bidini, a Canadian musician, author, journalist, music aficionado and hockey fanatic, has posted an online petition you can even sign to propose it to the Canadian government. I'm not sure that American signatures will count (officially) but I did it anyway.

Having a Gordon Lightfoot Day makes a lot of sense to me, even as an American. Gordon, while not a number-one-on-the-survey hit generator for decades, has been a continuing--and touring--musician who embodies folk music in Canada.

His "If You Could Read My Mind" was the first big hit in America, and there were others, notably "Sundown" and "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." Since then--lots of albums (fewer in the 20th century)--but a continuing presence on the airwaves and in intimate convert venues.

I've been a fan since 1975, accumulating stacks of vinyl LPs, which are now replaced by CDs--which are then loaded into my iPod. I don't carry the complete works in my iPod, but I have all four of the first 1960's albums, when he was at his folkiest and Don Quixote, when he was in his prime.

One song that had a huge impact on Canadians was "Canadian Railroad Trilogy," which was a song of national celebration that came out in 1967--when Canada was celebrating its centennial. That in itself has put Lightfoot in a special place with Canadians. And--he was a native son, on the radio, someone who wasn't American or British.

Bidini has a book on Lightfoot coming out in October. Looking forward to reading that--and to hearing Gordon Lightfoot on my iPod periodically, too. And--maybe Gordon Lightfoot Day someday.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Captain America Kicks Booty - in 3D

Last night, my wife and I shared the 7:40 p.m. show with about a dozen other folks to see Captain America - the latest movie based on a Marvel Comics character. And, like the other Marvel movies, it did a great job of presenting the hero as complex, troubled, and, well, heroic.

Taking place nearly entirely during World War II, the story shows how skinny, sickly Steve Rogers wants only to serve and, thanks to amazing technology, ends up a superman. He fights an evil enemy who, ironically, owes his super powers to the same genius who created the Captain's. It's just one of the twists that keep you watching, despite what feels like a long run.

Of course, in the theaters today there are not only trailers for upcoming movies (I like these) but numerous promotions of TV shows (not a favorite, but makes some of them seem worth watching) and just plain ads too. It's like giant-screen TV. A trailer for the new, redone Spider-Man teases but then shows the date it will debut--July 3, 2012. That's a long lead time.

In any case, without giving away any of the plot, Steve Rogers survives the trials and personal tragedies that every Marvel character endures, but shows that he is truly heroic, and makes the sacrifices he must to save the day. His evil counterpart, the Red Skull, is the opposite. Remember, this is based on comic books. However, you can't help cheering the good guys and hissing the bad guys--but this shows once again that despite all the muscle, it's what's inside that counts.

Many comic moments relieve the intense action, including scenes with Tony Stark's (Iron Man) grandfather, who owns the high tech gadget market in 1940's America. Naturally, the devices explode and dials get turned up too high and fry their wiring. We laugh, but it gets the job done.

This was the 3D version, and I feel that this is both an amazing and an unnecessary technology. However, I also believe that it will become standard for all movies before too long.

We get to see Captain America next May as part of the Avengers. Can't wait.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Pick a Pair! Time for New Glasses

I've worn glasses since the first grade, so I've had a variety of pairs over the years. I've worn my most recent ones for quite a while now--rectangular semi-rimless models. That's about to change.

Glasses are an unusually personal accessory, in that if you need them, you need them all the time and they become part of your personality. While the wealthy and style conscious (Elton John comes to mind) can have a closet full to pick from, I normally select a set and have them for at least a few years before updating my look.

When I was a kid, there were few choices, and I didn't really care--as long as I could see. But, when John Lennon donned his famous little specs in 1967, suddenly I wanted those--and thought I'd be a much cooler guy when I had them. Well--I liked the look, for sure, but I'm not sure how much cooler I actually got with them on my face.

In the 1970's glasses got bigger. I remember my first big plastic pair, with glass lenses, weighing me down. Later, I went back to metal frames--and you can see them in photos I took for the Saturn brochure in summer of 1993.

Well, now that I have VPN to pay for part of the cost and my friend Gary Osias has opened his beautiful new Primary Eyecare facility, I went in last night to see what's cooking in the optical world.

For me, choosing frames is as much about how they fit on my face as it is dealing with my multiple layers of feelings about what a certain look means. The dark plastic frames that are popular (again) today tend to remind me of being a nerdy 12-year-old. As Evelyn, my skilled optician, told me, "Nerdy is cool now." How nice to know...

In any case, we started with a return to the John Lennon look--and I was surprised to see that those frames don't work for me anymore. The memories are great, but now they simply make me look old. Don't forget that those wire frames were Glenn Miller glasses too, and Harry Truman as well. We decide what makes something cool--the designs live on to become popular during their next revival.

After I dismissed returning to the little round metal kind, I was more open to suggestion. Evelyn brought out a dark plastic Gucci pair that I slipped on and was shocked--they actually looked good (although I had visions of my dad wearing them--or Phil Silvers. She took me over to the other optical folks for a second opinion. They liked them. Well, I go in for more measurements on Friday and I'll probably place the order then. I wanted something different--and it looks like I'm going to get it.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Kia Optima Hybrid--Beautiful but How Green?

I just finished up a very pleasant week with the new Kia Optima Hybrid. I'm impressed with it's overall quality, smoothness of operation, striking styling and roominess. I'm not sure I'm as excited about the fuel economy.

I earned 27.5 miles per gallon in about 400 miles of driving--much of it freeway at 65-70 mph. In my in-town driving, I did note some electric-only motoring (nice) but overall the car drives just like any other modern vehicle--nearly silent, ready to roll, neutral handling, and so on. You do feel a little of the switch from electric to gas under some circumstances, but it's not bothersome.

So what this mileage? The Optima Hybrid is comparable to the Toyota Camry Hybrid or Nissan Altima Hybrid--not the high mileage Prius. The EPA rates the Optima Hybrid at 35 City, 40 Highway. The Camry Hybrid is rated 31/35 (I got 31.5 mpg in a 2009 test car) and the Altima rates 33/33 (no real world numbers on that one yet). None of these cars claims the 50 mpg of a Prius so the Optima is sort of in the ballpark. I'd be interested to see how the numbers stack up over a longer test period.

The Greenhouse Gas scores from the EPA are all quite high--a good reason to drive a hybrid. The Optima gets 8 on both Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gas (out of 10). The other two both get a virtually equivalent 9/8.

Meanwhile, Kias continue to amaze overall. I just with this one did a little better at the gas pump.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Loving Learning Languages

My mind turns to language learning now that I have an opportunity at work to dust off my old Hebrew. I spent 10 months of 1974 in Israel, studying Hebrew half the day in a classroom and working on the kibbutz the rest of the day. After my six-month program, I stayed four more months as a volunteer, using the Hebrew I'd learned to run a granary and get to know the kibbutzniks (residents).

My foreign language study actually started with Hebrew--something that Jewish kids learn at least a little bit at home. But that Hebrew was prayers over bread and wine or Chanukah candles. In Israel, the language is alive. When I arrived I saw it splashed all over signs on buildings, on every newsrack, phone booth, and you heard it all around you. I absorbed the language by osmosis, supported by the classroom work.

I studied foreign languages in school: French in 7th grade, Spanish in 8th through 11th grade, and German in the 10th. I may have been the only kid at Concord High taking (and passing) two foreign languages in the same year!

In college I took a year of Japanese to fulfill my language requirement, along with a calligraphy class. I had dabbled in martial arts briefly and was fond of sushi, so it seemed like a good idea. I also hoped to meet a nice Asian girl (but never did). Interestingly, I did take the young woman who became my first wife to a Japanese Club party on our first date, so I guess it did help.

Since college, I've studied American Sign Language (ASL) for a few years through my job. I really enjoyed it, but the classes and tutoring I was taking were getting harder to manage, and, like every other language, it takes a long time to get enough proficiency to really enjoy speaking.

Except Hebrew--because of the immersion, I did have times when it felt natural. I can still hear some phrases in my head. But, I've forgotten a lot (I can hear the Hebrew words for this phrase in my head right now). With some Israelis at work now, I am going to dive back in.

Monday, July 25, 2011

My Copper Seeking Adventure

You may not know it, but the official "modern" material for the 22nd wedding anniversary is copper. So, I decided to go out in search of something appropriate for my wife--while she's out of town. It turned out to be more difficult than I expected--but also amusing.

I started at the big mall not too far from home, at Nordstrom. Earrings perhaps? None, but I chatted with two saleswomen for awhile. Then, off to Williams Sonoma. Would they have a little copper tool or cooking item? They did--but I decided against the $255 pasta-cooking pot. My wife doesn't really need or want it (I think). It was a bit over what I was seeking.

On through the mall, to Macy's. Nothing there in the jewelry department either, and there were no little jewelry merchants in the center courtyards offering anything cute. The Hawaiian jewelers had red gold items (they told me the red came from containing some copper). Nah--not quite. Hot Topic had lots of metal jewelry, but it was all piercing supplies--not copper there.

I decided to try Cost Plus World Market--they should have SOMETHING from some exotic place, right? Well, I enjoyed my time with the three young sales clerks who took me to the wind chimes section, where I found one items that looked like copper but was really copper-colored tin. I even scanned the wine department there for a winemaker with "copper" in their name. Zilch.

Undaunted, I headed over to Pier One Imports. The friendly clerk showed me metal items here and there, but we found nothing of copper there either. I began joking with people as this search got more difficult about buying some copper wire at the hardware store or perhaps some plumbing supplies.

I went to Barnes and Noble, and with the help of a willing clerk found a book called, "Easy and Elegant Beaded Copper Jewelry." Well, I guess I could buy it and make her something. Where would I get the copper wire for this project? The person at Pier One had referred me to Bed, Bath and Beyond, where I hit paydirt--sort of. Lela, the friendly sales associate (seeing a pattern here?) went online and found lots of vases, pots, etc. available to order. We did find three copper tea kettles available in another BB&B store 20 miles away and I considered going there. But I wasn't sure I really wanted to buy a tea kettle when we already have an electric one that works fine.

I considered visiting some street craftsmen on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.

I tried going online. has a huge selection of great earrings. But where could I find these in person? Now? I found a bunch on, too, so I decided I'd offer that to my wife when she returns. That--and the 1972 penny I got in my change at Starbucks. That's the only copper I brought home, but I did think about my wife all day--a good thing.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Wine, Tapas and New Orleans Jazz Satisfy Completely

Last night, I was looking for some action and decided to visit a small restaurant that was featuring a quartet. Based on not much more information than that, I drove to the warm center of San Leandro, California (just over the hill) and checked out The Vines Wine & Tapas, which sits right next to the popular Englander restaurant/bar/music venue.

Well, it turns out the quartet was Mike Slack's New Orleans Jazz Band, and they put on an energy-packed show worthy of Bourbon Street. Spun off from the larger San Francisco Feetwarmers, these guys filled the charming, brick-walled, wood-ceilinged venue at just the right volume and intensity to make it possible to talk with the friendly wait staff but at the same time motivate the crowd.

I sat by myself at a small table close to the band. A smiling waitress handed me a single-sheet menu filled with, naturally, wine and tapas offerings. Tapas are appetizers, meant to not distract from conversation in the Spanish cuisine, and they certainly didn't distract from the Jazz.

I ordered two items from the menu of about 27 selections. From the Cheese and Meat section I picked the Manchega cheese made from sheep's milk (creamy good, and it came with raisins, walnuts and slices of baguette. The other was the Garlic Shrimp from the Tapas listing. Delightfully rich, it was five luscious shrimp with garlic sauce on top of baguette slices. Be sure to see the complete menu by clicking the restaurant's link above.

Meanwhile, the band took a break and I was able to talk with them. It was Mike Slack, the leader, on cornet. He used four different mutes for a range of sounds, but always blew strong and true. Louis Armstrong is a major force in Dixieland Jazz and surely was an inspiration. Pete Main deftly handled the clarinet and saxophone, switching off as needed. He also blew strong and sweet, with a warm tone and quick fingers.

In the the rhythm section was Bill DeKuiper strumming a nice Gibson guitar. His chords kept things moving, and his solos were melodic and showed alacrity. I especially liked his Wes Montgomery style octaves. Carrying it all at the bottom was Tom Clark, playing a beautiful blonde string bass. He kept that baby moving throughout, and got plenty of shots at virtuosic solos too on the warm-toned gut strings. He told me he's played for 50 years and you can really tell. All four musicians blended together well, just like the delicious food on the small square and rectangular plates in front of me.

Songs included fast and slow numbers, including the traditional Just a Closer Walk, the Winin' Boy Blues, and a rousing "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" to close the show.

I picked a nice glass of 2007 Baileyana Pinot Noir from Edna Valley, California, which arrived in a large wineglass--the better to enjoy the nose. It was a recommendation from the wait staff. I was full from the food, but decided I'd better sample from the desserts too to make the evening complete. The lava cake with vanilla ice cream was perfect--the cake hot and softly melting in the middle with the ice cream a firm scoop. I came out even with alternating bites!

The entire meal was $33, including tax--quite reasonable. You could have one tapa and skip dessert and it would be downright inexpensive. The music was free, but of course I threw money in the tip jar and bought one of the group's CDs called West End Blues.

The band plans to return to the Vine in October, but you can check their schedule, and the Vines is always there Tuesday through Saturday from 4 to 10 p.m. at 135 Parrott Street in San Leandro.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Drive More Efficiently--Without Buying a New Car

My friend Chris just turned me on to a website that promotes something I've talked about for years--driving more efficiently. is an online community for fuel economy enthusiasts. It offers information, forums, blogs, and a "garage" where you can post information and photos of your car.

Using Ben Franklin's "a penny saved is a penny earned" philosophy, you can learn how to use less gas through smarter driving techniques, and also see some great examples of economical cars you can buy and drive that will help. This is not a community of hybrid enthusiasts--it's more for the guy nursing that old Saturn or Geo Metro along who wants to save some money--and perhaps the planet, too.

My friend Chris's 2009 Toyota Yaris (pictured) is a good example of a modern, inexpensive fuel saver. I drove one a few years ago and was impressed by its basic goodness. My current enthusiasm for non-hybrid economy drives is the Mazda2.

But go check out this website when you have a chance, even if you're driving a Suburban. Maybe they'll talk you into trading down--or at least show you how to pay a little less at the pump until you do.

Friday, July 22, 2011

I Love My Wife - 22 Years Today

Today is my 22nd wedding anniversary. And, for the first time in that time, my wife and I are in different places on this special day.

Nothing like absence to make you realize how much you miss your loved one's presence--and take it for granted. Because we support each other's independence as well as really like each other a lot, we will survive this time apart fine. We do our own thing much of the time at home. But it doesn't make the house feel any less empty without her in it.

Meeting my wife-to-be brought an end to two years of dating after divorcing my first wife. I was just about fed up with the whole process--until I met her. See my blog post of February 8th for the details, but I can tell you, it was one of, if not THE, most important day of my life. When I saw her and felt her warm, powerful energy, I knew I'd found the right one.

That's how you stay married for decades. It's not like a romance novel--it's better. And you don't melt into one mutual blob--you become more who you really are with the support of the other person. I may not have known that then but I do now.

Can't wait 'til Sunday night, when she's back with me.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


I've had a beard most of my adult life. It started with the optimistic dusting of hairs that I attempted right after high school. By 20 it was full. Since then, I've rarely shaved it, although it is normally trimmed close to my face and I shave my neck.

At 20, I liked the full face hair look--I thought it made me look more grown up, and more "cool." By then, Jerry Garcia had a beard (much thicker than mine--or most people's). John Lennon had a big bushy beard in 1969, but it's not a look that he is identified with.

Fidel Castro--now THAT'S someone we always associate with a beard. How about some of those 19th-century presidents? Big hairy clouds. The last 100 years--no.

Orthodox Jewish men are known for their beards--often quite unstylish. They fiddle with them while studying the Torah. I'm afraid that's what I would look like with a few years growth.

The latest beard news: Brian Wilson (no relation to the Beach Boys) of the San Francisco Giants. His hirsute face is the closest to Rutherford B. Hayes that we've seen in a while.

My problem now is that while the remaining hair on my head is "salt and pepper," the hair on my face is overwhelmingly salt these days. And at this point, looking older isn't that appealing, frankly.

The problem is, if I shave it off, it'll make me look younger, but my non-George Clooney chin will be exposed. I feel like I look naked without a beard. And, there's the maintenance issue. A three-day growth of gray isn't hip--it's homelessness.

Luckily I don't have to do anything right now, so I won't. But it crosses my mind--normally right after seeing myself in a mirror and registering the disconnect between what I observe and what I feel.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Love Those Forgotten Songs

The 5th Dimension are known for a few blockbuster hits, such as "Up, Up and Away" (1967) and Aquarius (1969). But what about Carpet Man from 1968? I just heard it today, and I don't think I can even remember it!

It's a Jimmy Webb composition, like Up, Up and Away, so it has a good pedigree, but just didn't spark the popular imagination.

What about Tomorrow by the Strawberry Alarm Clock--known for their Incense and Peppermints smash? That's a favorite of mine that you hardly ever hear. After wading through the Stones' Satisfaction you can hear "Dandelion" once in a while, with the Beatles singing backup.

That's the main incentive for lingering on SiriusXM Channel 6--the Sixties oldies channel.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Comic-Con Is Coming!

Once again, Comic-Con has arrived and will take over downtown San Diego starting this Wednesday night through the weekend. Unlike the last two years, however, I won't be there. I don't have a ticket--they are very hard to get this year.

My wife is going, though. She heads out early tomorrow morning, taking my son and his friend along. The two young men don't have tickets either, but will spend the time hanging out in San Diego, a favorite vacation spot. There's a lot that happens outside the Convention Center, too--much of it free--so they are expecting to have a great time.

Comic-Con, the world's largest comic/movie/graphic novel convention, has gotten so enormous that even the sprawling San Diego Convention Center is becoming a tight fit. They plan to move it to Anaheim in a few years, which will be a real hit to San Diego's downtown businesses and hotels. And San Diego is a nicer place to hang out, too. But--if it's this hard to get a ticket, they have to somehow find a way to accommodate everybody.

When I attended, I found myself talking with artists and graphic novel authors and artists much of the time. I'm less interested in the movies or the video games, but there is no shortage of entertainment just walking the hall, which feels like it's a mile long and a half mile wide.

It's fun outside the hall, when you may see a Klingon talking with Captain America and Hello Kitty at a streetcorner. Or, you can have a meal at Dick's Last Resort, where the specialty of the house is being insulted by the wait staff. They may even single you out and put an insulting (and possibly obscene) paper hat on you!

I'll miss the action, and also the preview of next year's new Spider-Man movie, but maybe, if I act quickly, I can get tickets for 2012.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Mazda5 - Like a Six-Passenger Miata

I've spent the last several days tooling around in the Mazda5, a unique mini minivan. It combines the sportiness of a compact sedan with six-passenger accommodations (three rows of two), dual sliding doors--and even has a manual transmission!

I took four friends with me to lunch last week and they rode just fine--as did the car--although one of them said the third row back cushion was a bit firm. I not only drove on freeways and around town but had a crack at some nice curvy two-lanes, including one evening in the dark for 17 miles, and I felt completely in control.

My colleague, who is expecting his second child soon, swooned over the compact size outside and grand accommodations inside. I think I've sold him one!

This size of vehicle is common in other countries, but for now, Mazda offers the only one of its kind here. Come 'n' get it!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Found the Farmer's Market

If I keep writing about food here it can be my "fourth half," after music, cars, and "other."

I was driving home from buying a doggie toothbrush and toothpaste at the Pet Food Express yesterday when I saw the Castro Valley Farmer's Market. Why not go grab some good-for-me food, I thought.

This Farmer's Market is not the largest in the world, but it does have a range of exciting options. I took home juicy, ripe peaches, plums, blackberries and strawberries, three freshly made (and frozen) chicken pot pies, a seriously healthful loaf of whole-wheat bread and a box of gorgeous brownies and blackberry squares. I gave the man with the steel drum a dollar for the pleasant ambiance. I might have grabbed some hummus but I'm the only one who likes it at home.

It really makes sense to eat these good things. I'll have to try to remember to come more often. The fresh produce puts Safeway's to shame. If I'm at all serious about working with the MyPlate eating suggestions I really need to.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Incredible: Modern Mandolin Quartet and Tim Weed

Tonight, I drove myself into the far reaches of Western Marin County to hear what I expected would be a fine evening of music. It turned out to be an amazing experience of virtuosity and warmth played to an appreciative audience.

The show, at the Dance Palace in Point Reyes Station, opened with Tim Weed, who is to regular banjo plucking what Beethoven's 9th Symphony is to Chopsticks. Even the great Flatt & Scruggs got nothing on this guy. The complex and classical passages that leap off his fingers wowed the crowd--including me. I have heard bluegrass picking and I've heard classical masterpieces. This lean, youthful looking man with a full head of white hair delivered both.

Tim played solo at first--including a fine Spanish style composition. He plays enough notes per minute for five people. He then called up his significant other, who played a wonderful Indian tamboura. It's the drone accompanyment heard in Indian classical music. Who knew that the humble banjo could sound like an Indian sarod? It was spellbinding.

Then, before turning over the show to the Modern Mandolin Quartet, Tim brought up Dana Rath, a founding member of that group and ace mandolinist, for a gorgeous duet.

Then, the Modern Mandolin Quartet settled in. They can play chamber music--because they replicate the normal string parts. Instead of two violins, a viola and a cello, they use two mandolins, a mandola and a mandocello (which looks about the size of a guitar). The group includes Dana Rath and Matt Flinner on mandolins, Paul Binkley on Mandola and guitar and Adam Roszkiewicz on mandocello and guitar. They formed in 1985 to introduce the mandolin family to more people and to commission new works for the instruments. They began recording in 1988. Many recordings have followed.

They performed a couple of incredible selections, then broke for a friendly intermission. That gave me a chance to acquire a CD of Tim's (he autographed it for me and we spoke for a couple minutes) and one of the quartet. It's from 2004, but they are going in to record a new one soon. It will include Dvorak's American Quartet, part of which the group set on fire in the second half of the program. That second set started with Bernstein's "Cool" and went on to include a few pieces that the group has played for many years, and the exquisite Pavanne by Gabriel Faure. They played the Flower Duet from Lakme--an opera--gorgeous!

At the end, they brought Tim back and they played some amazing Bill Monroe bluegrass music. Then, as an encore, Tim set them up in a "jam" that gave the show a triumphant finish.

The intimate venue meant you could meet and get to know the performers a bit. I will definitely follow these artists, and hope you will, too.

Friday, July 15, 2011

I Love/Hate McDonalds

I found myself in the drive-through line at my local McDonalds again last night. I was hungry and I wanted something quick. Also, I happen to love Quarter Pounders with Cheese (sorry) and my son likes the Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese so there I was.

I ordered apple pies for each of us, too. They're sinfully good for a mere 50 cents apiece.

Our local McDonald's was razed and rebuilt last year and is very fancy. It now offers a dual drive-though lane--a welcome addition. In any case, the woman in the little red Corolla was dawdling in front of me while two cars from the the other lane advanced to the pay window. I wondered how they could tell which lane your car was in if the cars didn't strictly alternate--and how they associated your order with you.

Well, the young woman at the pay window told and showed me. Turns out they photograph your car when you order and it appears in the corner of the screen when they're processing your check. And I thought they only shot your car at intersections and the bridge toll plaza.

If you had an identical silver Camry to the guy in the other lane, who knows how that might cause chaos, but sometimes they do ask, so that must be the backup plan. Maybe they look at license plates.

Gotta eat more vegetables.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

George Harrison - New Bio this Fall

The Beatles franchise will never die, even though two of the four members are long gone. I grew up with and have always loved the Fab Four, so I was happy to hear today that a George Harrison biography will appear on HBO this fall with new images and material, including interviews with the two surviving Beatles--Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.

I loved the Beatles as a group--their interaction and chemistry--even more than them as individuals. Yes, they are my personal heroes, true, but there was "something" (a George Harrison pun) about the four of them together that didn't work with them as single artists. There has been individual greatness from each - All Things Must Pass and Cloud Nine bracket George's career nicely; Ringo had some great 1970's hits (Photograph is my favorite of them); John had made a fine comeback with Double Fantasy before he was murdered in New York in 1980; and Paul, well, he keeps working, although his best material is probably long behind him. Just having him out there performing keeps the Beatles alive today.

I had a George period in 1968 when I selected his Richard Avedon poster for my wall. I was entranced by "Within You, Without You" from Sgt. Pepper's and his mystical qualities at the time.

In a slightly related note: Ron Grill, the lead singer of the Grass Roots, an iconic 1960's pop band, has died. He suffered a fall (no details provided) and was in a coma. He's been replaced in the 2011 touring version of the Grass Roots but it would be a little like seeing the Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger (unimaginable) or Creedence without John Fogerty (this has actually been done). Lots of neat little numbers from the band--Live for Today, Temptation Eyes and Midnight Confession are among my faves.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Food Pyramid Becomes MyPlate

It seems like we have a continuing battle between what (processed) food manufacturers and fast food restaurants want you to eat and what the U.S. Government recommends you consume. The USDA gave us the Food Pyramid--a novel concept that separated out consumables into neat, proportional sections, with a little piece at the top for the bad stuff that for most of us constitutes the major part of our diet.

Well, the pyramid is out and now it's MyPlate. Go check it out. The website is actually quite informative. It's not overly scientific but boils it down to filling half your plate with vegetables and fruit and the other half with grains and protein. Dairy constitutes one Micky Mouse ear on the plate. Seems straightforward enough, but unfortunately, we tend to think in terms of meals and snacks and not in generic food categories. Where do I put a McNugget? (probably in Protein, but not in the recommended category). Where does a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup go? (nowhere--somewhat unrealistically). Diet Coke? (you're kidding, right?).

Scanning the website did remind me that having a nice selection of fruit at home and on your desk at work is not only decorative but can direct your attention to better snacking than Milky Way bars and Doritos. I didn't see either of those items on the MyPlate. I will say that the USDA seems to know that it's an uphill battle getting people to "eat right" and is stressing the positive while not outright condemning the enemies - sugar, fat and salt. Actually, that would be my ideal food--chocolate-covered potato chips. A chocolate-enrobed sirloin?

Being informed and making a plan are two ways to get moving on better eating, and I don't believe that any of us really wants to overweight, have Diabetes, or die (today at least). So you may as well go visit the website and see what you can do to think a little more about what you eat. They talk about exercise, too. I didn't come away feeling chastised, but a little bit encouraged to try to improve my choices.

P.S.: Thanks, Brooke, for suggesting this topic.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

I'm Going Bowling!

Tonight, I'm going bowling with my company. This is the third company that I've worked for that's used this old fashioned all-American social activity/sport for employee bonding. I like it--but I never seem to go bowling except for these events.

I used to bowl annually with the Golden State Warriors when I worked there years ago. We had players, executives and regular employees all together--on mixed teams--and we got to know each other better. It was amazing how hard those big athletes pushed the ball down the lane--the pins flew!

I remember bowling on one of the very first days at my job at the biotech company I worked for a few years ago. The main thing was--I scored my best game ever that night--191. Normally I'm lucky to crack 100. Sadly, that may have been my high point in that job.

Now, my new company, Luidia, is taking us out as part of a week of sales training (for the salespeople--not me). It will be the same alley where I scored the 191. I'm looking forward to slipping on the funny shoes, drinking a Coke, and doing it again.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Lonesome Locomotive Rocks at the Milk Bar in S.F.

On a busy weekend of listening to music, I report in from last night's couple of hours of Lonesome Locomotive music at the Milk Bar on Haight Street, near Stanyan. My drummer, Tony, and I ventured to the historic Haight-Ashbury district and enjoyed the powerful and perfectly synched up sounds of the young band, which has been playing together a lot after forming last year.

My specific interests were hearing my friend Mike Meagher--the bassist, and he didn't disappoint. I also wanted to see the venue and meet the person who set up the musicians. I succeeded. Other band members include Michael Rosen, Brian Byrnes, Erin Cassidy, Steven Sparapani, and Kit Ruscoe. The vocal harmonies of Rosen and Byrnes were strong, Byrnes' leads evoked the Dead (at least two of the songs they played were by the seminal S.F. band). The drums were exactly right and played with enthusiasm (I saw at least one instance of baton-like stick flipping--a little flair).

The venue is long and narrow with the bar along the left, booths up front on the right (empty last night) and a cozy back room containing a small stage--about big enough for five people. In this case, Steven the cellist, when he joined in on a couple of numbers, took the left side of the L-shaped raised platform.

Besides enjoying the music and sampling the half dozen beer choices on tap, I met Amy, a young woman who spent much of the evening successfully rolling a hula hoop around her hips. A second woman joined her at times. We were served by an attractive traditionally tattooed and coifed female bartender.

The small crowd seemed happy to be there and the vibe was mellow. The Sunday Bluegrass schedule at the Milk Bar starts in midafternoon every Sunday, so Lonesome Locomotive were the third band to go on. We arrived just a little before their show. You could spend the day there--and I plan to show up earlier next time.

After a couple of beers over the two hours, we were hungry, so we visited Escape to New York and enjoyed pizza by the slice and Cokes. The perfect meal for 9:30 p.m. on a Sunday night! They had an autographed album by Elvis Costello on the wall.

Great Music with Barbwyre and Stadler Gibbons Band

What an incredible evening I had last night, listening to Barbwyre and Mike Stadler and Mary Gibbons with the Stadler Gibbons Band. It all happened at The High Street Station, an intimate restaurant and music venue in central Alameda, California.

Barbwyre (photo on left) opened, and got the evening moving with their "country funkgrass" sound (as described by master mandolinist (and guitarist) Dana Rath. Other fine players in Barbwyre include Jon Mitguard on pedal steel, dobro and guitar and Rob Wenig keeping the bottom moving perfectly with his beautiful Mike Tobias Design six-string electric bass.

Barbwyre features duet singing with Dana and Jon, but their instrumental pieces are especially tasty too. The trio feels seems very familiar with each other and appear to be enjoying themselves onstage. The sound was clear, clean, quick and never too loud. It feels like more than just three people playing, too--a remarkably full sound for a trio.

Jon Mitguard is an incredible pedal steel and dobro player, and we were fortunate that he is a part of both bands.

When the tall Mike Stadler and his diminutive singing partner Mary Gibbons (small in stature, big in fine voice) started their set, they brought in Chuck Irvin, with his warm upright bass playing. They played country, bluegrass, and even some vigorous Texas Swing. They added in a drummer ("from San Diego") who carried with him only a drumhead and brushes and it made a surprisingly huge impact on the rhythm.

I was especially happy to hear two songs by Hal Ketchum--a favorite performer of mine and my wife's, done in a lively way that maintained the original song but added special Mike and Mary (and Jon and Chuck) touches.

The High Street Station is a venue that seems to improve every time I go there. My band, Red Paint, has played a few pleasurable gigs there and the room has a nice, cozy, welcoming feel to it. And, you can get tasty fare, coffee and snacks, and beer and wine.

I was able to meet some of the musicians, especially my conversation with Barbwyre's Rob Wenig. I'll definitely be seeing them again--and highly recommend you check out the High Street Station soon. They have many acts coming through, and the cover charge is minimal for what you get.

Dana Rath, Barbwyre's virtuoso mandolinist, is also a founding member of the Modern Mandolin Quartet. Founded in 1985, they have recorded four albums. They will be playing with Tim Weed in Point Reyes, California on Friday, July 15th.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Read What You Aren't - A Clash of Kings

I'm a modern person, hooked up to cell phones, computers, cars, satellite radio. I shower every day. I am no soldier. I shop at Safeway. Nice, but nothing compared to the adventures and horrors of reading George R.R. Martin's amazing epic books.

At 1:45 a.m. last night, I finished A Clash of Kings--his 1,009-page second installment in the A Song of Fire and Ice saga. Whew. So much bloody fighting, grotesque battle scenes depicted in the kind of detail that only a book can provide. A movie shows you but a book tells you, and some details, by being described, let you fill in the grisly blanks. Severed limbs, spurting blood, crushed in heads on pikes, rapes, explosions, castle intrigue, main characters being killed... You never know what's coming next.

George likes to weave several stories into one book, so you hear about different members of the Stark family, other kings and other realms. You see the battle from the view of different commanders. Family members don't know whether their kin are dead or alive (but we do--well, most of the time). That's why I keep turning those pages. (My wife is reading them on her Nook reader).

So why am I eagerly anticipating the THIRD book? Well--it's nothing like real life--and it's safe. I didn't think I was that kind of guy, but I want to know what will happen to the surviving characters. George left things in the middle of a post-battle mess, a clever trick to get you to read the next installment.

It reminds me of the Harry Potterthon I did a couple of years ago--seven books over one summer. But this is MUCH more gruesome (well, those last couple of HP books were pretty graphic...).

When I was 10, I spent the summer reading baseball player biographies. This is different--but has the same effect. It takes you away. My life is full and things that are good, but there's nothing like a good read.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Motormouth! - Fast Talkin' DJs from the 60s - and Today

If you're of a certain age, you enjoy at least an occasional walk through yesteryear's happy memories. I have to confess that I take those strolls more often than I really should. I like the accidental quality of radio, where you wade patiently through the familiar and the popular for that moment of surprise when they play your favorite old song--or maybe one that you'd forgotten about.

Now I have an iPod so I can download whatever I want--and I have. But there are plenty more nuggets out there. Just today, I heard the beautiful Bowling Green by the Everly Brothers--their last song to get Top 40 airplay. That was 1967 -- you almost NEVER hear it.

Often, on afternoon drives home, I hear the crazy DJ that works that slot--Terry Motormouth Young, on Channel 6 on Sirius XM. The guy made a reputation for talking faster than anyone else. Now, he mumbles more and sometimes sounds a little lonely and even nutty, but he does conjure up the wild DJs of yore in between the songs. He also complains about being underpaid (satellite radio has been a money loser since it started) and being lonely while picking on his ex-wife. All well and good. That's entertainment.

He also likes to insert those boings, bongos and braking sounds that you'd hear in Hanna Barbara cartoons like the Flintstones, into some of the songs. Sometimes it's hilarious--often just annoying. But I still tune in to lift my spirits when I'm tired and driving in commute traffic.

The iPod plays my 2,533 songs in a perfect shuffle, but there's nobody stirring the pot. That's what these crazy DJs do, with their scrambled song contests, name that voice competitions, and historical brain teasers. It's fun.

Then, I'll switch to the Pulse, channel 10, for something from the last decade to clean out my brain. Or maybe to classical on Channel 76. My iPod can shuffle all these genres too.

Happy listening!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Guess Who Songs Prevail

I just heard No Time by the Guess Who again. What a great song--and it's just one of several that were big hits for the Canadian band from Winnipeg in the late 1960s and early 1970's.

I went and read a bit more about them on Wikipedia. The band actually formed in 1960, and didn't have big success until 1969, with These Eyes. How's that for patience? The odd name came from a marketing campaign that was trying to create buzz. The group's real name at the time? Chad Allan and the Expressions.

It's Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman that are the guys that are most associated with the group, which broke up in 1975. Interestingly, those two are out touring together again (as Bachman-Cummings), and the Guess Who have had some successful reunions over the years.

But it's those solid songs that live on. American Woman, No Sugar Tonight, Share the Land, Undun (the story of this mispelling is a riot. Apparently the guy taping the session wrote it down this way and they kept it). All these songs are happy moments on oldies radio.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Cars 2 - Great Auto Personalities--and a Musical Joke

It's not hard for me to imagine cars as characters--I've followed and identified them since I was a kid. Each make and model has a very distinct personality.

The Pixar geniuses have tapped into this again with Cars 2. Pixar always starts with a good story and adds the technical brilliance on top--as in Toy Story and others.

Cars 2 has an international feel, with British spy intrigue taking Lightning McQueen, Mater the rusty towtruck and others to foreign racetracks.

So much to tell, and I'm not going to even hint at the story or conclusion, but I have a few favorite aspects.

For one, the bad guys are "lemon cars," which, in this case, includes American Motors Gremlins and Pacers as well as Yugos. And while the mastermind of the bad stuff is kept a mystery until the end, the identified lead henchman is a Zundapp--a 1950's German microcar--complete with monacle!

One of my favorite scenes is in Italy, where a bunch of tiny, cute 500's -- old and brand new -- do a stage number together (see photo above). It's either a great tribute to the newly introduced 500 or some nifty product placement.

Musically, the sound track plays a little joke, because it features "You Might Say" by .... the Cars! It's covered very nicely by Weezer in this case, but it's the name of the group, not the subject, that's related to the movie.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Growing Up

What is the process of growing up? How do we successfully make the transition from children to adults? It can't be purely a matter of getting bigger and hairier. I'm wondering if 18 is the magic year when a young man begins to move toward becoming a man.

What can you do to move your child to the point where he or she takes responsibility for his or her actions? Is there a systematic way or does it just happen over time? Do some people never grow up? Are some people always feeling responsible for others? I have lots of questions and no good answers.

When your kid's in that zone between child and adult, what can you do to help her or him move forward? Hesitant to nag, can you end up being ineffectual? What's the right amount of guidance, encouragement, butt-kicking?

Of course, this line of thought assumes there is one way for everyone, and maybe that's the problem--everybody is a little different, and we all have our own set of imperfect parents.

For example, suppose I feel overdirected as a child, while also being neglected. As a parent, I then make sure my kid has lots of freedom. And what does he do? Enjoy it as long as he can--putting off the troubles of the real world as much as possible. Who wouldn't? Is there anything wrong with that?

Taking responsibility for one's actions creates a sense of purpose--a feeling of self control. It brings the ability to make choices that can create a big difference in your life. Can it be instilled, or must it be distilled--from experience? You have to find a way to realize that you don't have many options--until you take on the work of taking care of yourself.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Independence Day

Like many Americans today, I enjoy Independence Day (the 4th of July) as a day off. From a look at Wikipedia, that's been a tradition for centuries, and even John Adams (later our second president) predicted that this declaration of independence would be celebrated in the future (although he picked July 2nd, when the closed session approved independence rather than July 4th, the date on the document). Fireworks and public celebrations have been part of America's national holiday since the beginning, but the holiday has only been a paid Federal holiday since 1938.

I plan to view fireworks tonight--a traditional thing--and enjoy a barbecue with friends. But to make use of this extra day off, I'll go out and (finally) wash the car, too. Why not? It's expected to be in the 90's today where I live (don't forget the sunscreen).

Yesterday I participated in and enjoyed an all-afternoon party that featured three bands (including mine) that was, in a way, a true 4th of July style day (minus the fireworks).

Interesting--I just read that John Hancock's famous oversize signature on the Declaration of Independence wasn't upscaled intentionally to get King George's attention, like they told us in school. It's just that he was the first to sign the document--and there was only one person with him at the time. Apparently, the signers did so separately and not on the same day. He didn't think his signature was larger--it was just the way he signed things. So--that famous painting of them all in the room is no different from someone Photoshopping them into one photo today. It's a myth--a very nice one, but still not historically accurate.

Somehow, I don't think this "fact" will diminish the significance of the holiday, although I'm sure we are so different today from the signers that it hardly matters.

Happy Birthday, United States of America.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Cars and Music - 40 years ago

Test Driving Life combines my interest in music with my longtime association with cars. That means sometimes it's one and sometimes the other (or if I'm lucky, both). Or--sometimes it's something else--I call that stuff "the third half."

In any case, I woke up today knowing I had a one-hour set to play with Red Paint and remembered a time long ago, when I was starting out on my brief solo "minstrel" career. I was occasionally playing open mike nights at places like the Coffee Gallery in North Beach (San Francisco) but what came back to me was the several times I drove up to Stockton (1-1/2 hours away) to play at the Beauty and the Beast Coffee House. I have little 8-1/2 x 11 posters to prove it!

A guy I'd met locally in an extremely brief band association, Pat Kelley, called me and up I went. We were in our late teens, and he was living with his parents, but he had the garage apartment. That meant we were free to enjoy smoking some substances--I know that I remember little of those musical weekends today because I was not normal during much of them.

My plan was to sit on stage with my guitar and sing my songs. I enjoyed it immensely, but alas, the world was filled with "Bob Dylan's Understudies" back then and I was not exceptionally talented or driven.

Now--the car part. My sweet mother lent me her beautiful baby blue 1966 Dodge Dart convertible to drive to Stockton and back. I was pretty much recovered from my indulgence by the time I slipped behind the wheel on the way home (clear and sharp on the way up, of course). It was a joy to drive that car around with its quick-drop electric top. It had a three-speed manual transmission -- on the tree. What a beauty. Try finding one today.

That car is long gone, and my dream of a strumming and singing career had faded away by 1972. I went off to college instead. But I still remember something of Pat and the Beauty and the Beast Coffee House (and those lost weekends).

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Hybrid Trucks and Fascinating Truckdrivers

Yesterday, as I walked between the post office and my bank, I came upon a shiny new Pepsi delivery truck. Across its tall hood was the word "HYBRID." Apparently, Pepsi is using new hybrid diesel/electric heavy duty trucks from Freightliner. In this industrial application, the electric motor saves fuel and the regenerative braking prolongs brake life. Here's some information from another Pepsi distributor's hybrid efforts in central Florida.

It's a start. I wonder when the first all-electric industrial truck will make its debut--and who will make it?

The friendly truck driver, Javier, and I got into a conversation about the hybrid. Then, he noticed my music-themed tattoo, and we then talked about his ink--same place on the left arm--and he had more. Then we got into discussing music, and it turns out he's interested in Flamenco guitar. He's also, apparently, well read in philosophy. Never prejudge those around you! I didn't want to keep him from his work, as the end of the day was approaching so we parted ways. But here were two surprises in just a short time, and I had made a new friend, too.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Gimme a Head with Hair

After looking at a global crisis yesterday, today I turn my attention to a subject dear to my heart--hair.

I grew up in the 1960s, when we all started out with short haircuts and many of us grew substantial manes by the time the folks had cleaned up Yasgur's farm at Woodstock. My goal, at first, was to look like a Beatle, but my kinky Jewish hair looked more like a bush. So, that's what I had. It was long in the early 1970's, but by the end of that decade, it was trimmed way down.

I identified with youth, hippies, musicians, artists, cool people, and so on. I heard the anthem from the musical HAIR in my head, and was waiting for the positives vibes of the Age of Aquarius to begin.

Well, here I am approaching 60, and my hair has thinned a bit and lost a lot of its dark brown color too. As I play rock and roll (and classical) bass now, I'd like to have cool hair, too. I feel like I look like a businessman or a "straight" person now, despite a full (white) beard (that's another story).

The problem is, when it's too short, my hair loses its curl, so it isn't "fun" anymore.

But, at the same time, I don't want to bother with my hair and I really don't think about it much at all, until it's time for a haircut.

What to do about it?

Probably nothing. But I can't forget how much it meant once--as an identity with what I saw as a new way of life, with moving from nerdhood to coolness--with growing up. The symbolic value was more than any other. I didn't need it to keep warm and there was no ceremonial purpose to the longer hair.

Even the members of the Grateful Dead have shorter hair now. So what am I thinking about?