Thursday, September 30, 2010

Culture with a Side of Tie Dye

Standing outside last night, waiting for my ride, I admired my blue and purple tie-dye socks. They look great with my sturdy Mary Janes (thick soles, padded toes) because so much of the socks show. A vision drifted through my mind’s eye, a vision of black Merrell pumps with a little heel, actual grown-up lady shoes. Not slut-on-a-stick shoes, to be sure, but grown up all the same, Merrell pumps with a little heel that I had found for 75 percent off at Dillard’s one fine July day.

Where are those shoes?

Not that my tie-dye socks would go all that well, but I could use shoes here like that from time to time. I gave away a lot of shoes before I moved, but surely I wouldn’t have parted  with Merrell pumps that had cost so little. Later, when I got home, I found the shoes in a box high in the closet. Once I had determined that I needed sturdy shoes, shoes with a strap, shoes that would get me on and off buses and trains, I must have stashed the Merrells up high.

I sit on buses and trains, making my way around San Francisco, and I look at shoes. Young women wear flip-flops and flirty sandals and grown-up lady shoes and stylish boots and yes, even slut-on-a-stick shoes. On the buses and the trains. Women my age wear sturdy shoes. I’m fine with that. But now, especially if I get a ride and lots of walking is not required, I can wear my Merrell pumps with the little heel. Maybe I’ll even pair them with some tie-dye socks. No one here cares what you wear – you are free to be yourself. Love that!

In truth, shoes have not been much on my mind this week. No – this is Theater Week for me, a culture spree. Tuesday night I saw “Compulsion” at the Berkeley Rep with Mandy Patinkin. On its way to Broadway, the show is based on the life of Meyer Levin, the man who helped get “The Diary of Anne Frank” published and who had a gentlemen’s agreement with her father, Otto Frank, to write Anne’s story for the stage. The agreement went sour, Levin grew bitter and lived much of the rest of his life in a litigious rage. Powerful stuff.

The cast -- three people, two of whom play several roles, was terrific, and it was great to see Patinkin in this meaty role, displaying so much emotional range. I am a fan. I’ve seen several of his concerts, the one-man shows and also a wonderful concert with Patti LuPone. I even met him once. Steven Woolf took me to a concert at Edison, and to the reception afterward. Steven said to Patinkin, “I’m Steve Woolf. I knew you at Juilliard.” Patinkin nodded in recognition and they spoke a moment. I was next. “Hi, I said. “Steve Woolf knew you at Juilliard and I know Steve. I am delighted to meet you!” Patinkin laughed.   

Last night I attended a performance by Word for Word, a performing arts company founded in 1993. The company stages works of fiction, old and new, with simple sets and full costumes, using the author’s words. All of them. If the line in the story reads, “Laura laughed merrily,” the actor laughs and adds, “Laura laughed merrily.” It not only works, it reveals depth in the text that a reader may miss.

Last night’s show was two stories from Elizabeth Strout’s book “Olive Kitteridge,” a series of stories about people’s lives in a small town in Maine. The buzz on the book has been great – it won a Pulitzer Prize – and I’ve been meaning to read it. The Word for Word actors brought the people to life beautifully, poignantly, acerbically. As they drew me into the action, I also found myself captivated by Strout’s writing, writing full of emotional honesty and wisdom. Kindle, here I come! I must read this book.

Tonight at A.C.T., I will see “Scapin,” Bill Irwin’s riff on Moliere’s play. In October 1992, I reviewed Irwin’s show at Edison Theatre for the Post-Dispatch: “After watching Bill Irwin perform, you walk out of the theater acutely aware of your knees and your feet and your elbows and your mouth. Irwin has great flexibility in all those spots, and your own body starts to mimic what you've just seen on stage,” I wrote. “Suddenly your mind snaps the rest of you back under control. You pout a minute, and then decide to go home and play with cooked spaghetti - something else you've just seen on stage.''  I’m looking forward to the show.  

I’m also looking forward to “Howl,” the new movie about Allen Ginsberg and the obscenity trial in 1957 that resulted after Lawrence Ferlinghetti published Ginsberg’s poem “Howl.” I’ve been enamored with the beat poets since college, and now I live where it all happened – must see this movie! (Bonus: St. Louisan Jon Hamm is in it.) In my book “Eating St. Louis: The Gateway City’s Unique Food Culture,” Jack Parker, longtime owner of O’Connell’s, tells a great story about Allen Ginsberg. If you missed it, here it is:

One cold night in February, deep in the mid-1960s, business was slow at O’Connell’s Irish Pub, then at 454 North Boyle Avenue in Gaslight Square. A total of twelve people had dropped in over a four-hour period. Then the door opened and in came Russell Durgin, a professor of English and drama at Country Day School.

He brought a friend—Allen Ginsberg.

Ginsberg (1926–1997), should you be unaware—and you shouldn’t—was a man of many facets, among them an iconoclastic poet and activist. The Allen Ginsberg Trust defines him this way: “Spiritual seeker, founding member of a major literary movement, champion of human and civil rights, photographer and songwriter, political gadfly, teacher and co-founder of a poetics school.”

“Durgin had befriended Ginsberg in New York a few years earlier,” recalls Jack Parker, longtime owner of O’Connell’s and now proprietor of Jack Parker’s Fine Art and Antiques, located above the tavern. “This was when the Bohemians were fading out in the Village, when City Lights Bookstore was big in San Francisco, when people were talking about Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—all that was going on,” says Parker.

“Ginsberg talked for a while about the old days in the Village. Then he sat down in front of the fireplace—we had a great fireplace—and took off his shoes. He sat in a lotus position, and he got out little bells, finger cymbals. And then—Allen Ginsberg recited from Howl.” (The famous first line goes: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness . . .”)

Parker pauses, remembering. He smiles. “It was a wonderful evening.”

Friday, September 24, 2010

Four Days, Four Poems

In Jonathan Franzen’s new novel “Freedom,” a character moves to a new city. He walks, exhilarated, through the streets. Franzen describes the character’s heightened sense of awareness like this: “Each encounter was like a poem he instantly memorized.”

I get that. I do that, too – take mental snapshots of new experiences, unexpected moments, here in San Francisco. Following are some of the snapshots, the poems, from this week.

Just got home from a hike to the Bonita Point Lighthouse in the Marin headlands, the entrance to San Francisco Bay. Once a month, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy holds a hike on the night of the full moon so participants may watch the sun set over the ocean and the moon rise over the city.

Wow – all this, and the night was downright balmy, with no wind and no fog! Everything about the evening was beautiful, though not as poetic as it might have been. The hike from the trailhead is just half a mile, on paved road, part of which is relatively steep. Up until this very morning, visitors who made the trek were allowed to cross a suspension bridge to the actual lighthouse and to stand there at the edge of the continent. This morning, the bridge was declared rusty and unsafe for passage, so instead we hung out just this side of the bridge, admittedly still quite close to the edge of the continent.

When we gathered in the parking lot – maybe 25 of us – a male red-tailed hawk (so I was told) was preening itself on top of an electrical pole. The bird’s mate was perched high in a tree not far away. After the hike, driving back to the main road from the trailhead, I saw six white-tailed deer and a morbidly obese raccoon. In between was the stunning sunset and moonrise.

Also, we heard a great tale about another tour group that emerged one sunny afternoon from a tunnel in the hillside near the lighthouse to find not one, not two, but 10 turkey vultures sitting in a row on a the fence that runs along the trail. One wag quipped, “Must have been a tour for seniors…”

Last night, I attended the infamous “Beach Blanket Babylon,” a musical review that pokes fun of local and national leaders and celebrities. The concept for the show dates back to 1974 and apparently it has garnered rave reviews ever since. (In 1983, Queen Elizabeth saw it, and she loved it.) Ten talented actors zip nonstop through outrageous song parodies and short skits, all while wearing outlandish wigs and high headgear that accentuates the musical barbs. I was lucky to be there with nine people celebrating the birthday of a friend, and we all laughed throughout the show. Fun!

Wednesday night was not fun – or funny. Here’s the background: Placido Domingo will sing the title role in “Cyrano de Bergerac” at the San Francisco Opera this season. No single seats are being sold for the run; you have to buy season tickets. Okay -- I selected a series of three shows and bought seats way up in the balcony, because I want to hear Domingo in person.

Wednesday evening I took the train to the Opera House, went to the free pre-show lecture and settled into my seat for the performance, which was Massenet’s “Werther.” Right away, I couldn’t hear very well. It was really warm, up there by the ceiling. I found the set annoying. And the story, set in Germany in the 1700s, struck me as silly.

During the pause between the first and second scene, I asked the guy sitting next to me – a longtime subscriber -- what he thought. “I can’t really hear them, and that’s unusual,” he said. He also agreed that it seemed unusually warm. And he laughed, nodding, when I said I thought the characters were all crazy. I left at intermission, and I was not alone.

By the time I got to the street, I was alone. I guess the others got into their cars and drove away. My plan was to catch a taxi. In the first 10 minutes, I saw only three taxis on the very busy street where I was standing in front of the opera house. I called a cab company and was told a cab would come get me. None did. After waiting 15 minutes, I called back. The taxi company put me on hold and never answered. I considered calling a family member to rescue me, but I have not previously flunked cab-catching. I have found taxis in the rain in New York City and in an ice storm in Washington, D.C. I was determined to find a cab – and after 15 more minutes of standing around, I did.  

The next day, Susan told me that it’s not unusual to have trouble getting a cab. The city, she said, does not issue enough taxi medallions, and that’s how current cab drivers like it. I don’t like it. This is an international city. Finding a taxi outside the opera house on a busy street should not be a challenge. Instead, cab drivers should be fighting over those who sneak out at intermission.

Another transportation dilemma – somewhat related – sprung up Tuesday night, when I attended my first meeting of the Bookworms Nature Book Club at the California Academy of Science, which is in Golden Gate Park. We read John McPhee’s excellent “Assembling California” (in the book, McPhee calls this area “lithospheric driftwood”) and the meeting was lively, just as meetings were with my old Friends of Tyson Nature Book Club.

I took two buses to get to the meeting, which was actually three bus rides from my apartment -- but I like walking to Cole Valley to catch a bus or train there, so I did. When I got to the museum, I asked the woman at the desk about taking a taxi home. “Cabs can’t find our back door here in the park, and our front door will be locked when you leave,” she said. “If you call for a taxi, you will wait at least 30 minutes – and that’s if they can find you.” (Foreshadowing!)

Resigned to taking three buses home – and a little uneasy about tromping round the park at night -- I walked to the stop with a fellow book club member whose car was parked just past the bus shelter. She offered to wait at the stop with me in the dark, deserted park, but a bus arrived seconds after we arrived. Good thing. The sign at the shelter noted that the next bus would arrive in 30 minutes.  Next month, I will drive to the meeting, and park in the park – though the Academy website warns that cars parked in the park are often vandalized. That risk beats dealing with a bus that rarely runs and taxis that aren’t available.
Franzen’s character learned, as have I, that not every encounter – or poem – is beautiful. Still, I love where I live and I even love that when I get on a bus or a train or the rapid transit system, I am never entirely sure that I will actually get where I am going. That’s exciting!

More on Franzen: His brother, Bob, was in my graduating class in 1966 at Webster Groves High School. We had over 600 people in the class, and I did not know Bob Franzen. However, Jonathan Franzen (Class of 1977) and I have something odd in common. We both are on the Webster Groves High School Wall of Fame (see Ever since I read Franzen’s “The Corrections,” I’ve been suggesting (half seriously) that Webster take me off the wall, as Franzen deserves a bigger space. He’s such a gifted writer and a compelling storyteller!

On that note, I am curling up with my Kindle and reading until I finish “Freedom.”  

Friday, September 17, 2010

Sweet September Vacation

Just finished a whirlwind three-and-a-half day vacation in my new home town. The occasion? A visit from Beth, one of the Five Favorite Female Friends. What did we do?

More to the point, what didn’t we do?

We didn’t do a lot of the common touristy things because Beth has been to San Francisco before, but we filled the time with adventures, misadventures and some good food along the way.

Before I summarize our itinerary, I have to say one huge highlight was collecting my lifetime national park pass, a privilege for people 62 and older. You pay $10 – and you have to pay in person, at a park – and then you get in free at most national parks, forests, refuges, monuments and recreation areas. Of course, I still help support the parks with my membership in the National parks Conservation Association (, but I am delighted to have my lifetime pass!

A word is also in order about an uncommon number of wildlife sightings -- and no, I am not referring to the gentleman who took a liking to Beth at a cafe we visited. The smallest creature we saw was a tiny snail hauling a beautiful green and white shell across a hiking trail. On the same trail, we saw three wooly worms (Pyrrharctia isabella), moths in their larval stage. These critters are said to predict winter weather, and Beth read the color bands as an indication of a mild winter. (Wait -- aren’t all winters in San Francisco mild?) We also saw a tiny lizard basking in a wee bit of sun, two bunnies and a six-point buck. Raptors wheeled overhead all the while. Later that day, we saw another deer – a doe – and a chipmunk.

Here’s a breakdown of our time together.  


  • Showed off the apartment and my spectacular view.

  • Walked to Cole Valley for a delicious Il Sol pizza at Bambino’s, which is run by a guy named Spiro.

  • Tapped on the window at my hair salon to show Lison, my stylist, how cool my hair looks in the new cut she crafted.

  • Walked to the Upper Haight to pop in and out of stores and enjoy the parade.

  • Took the Muni train to Ocean Beach to stand in awe of the sea.

  • Relaxed at the Java Beach Café -- it was cold, standing in awe on that dune!

  • Took the train and a bus home for a simple supper.


  • Stopped at Patricia and Joel’s house for a quick tour and to pick up a spare backpack and walking stick.

  • Drove to the Tennessee Valley Trail in Marin County.

  • Hiked 1.7 miles to the sea (we sat on a piece of driftwood, watching cormorants as they watched us) and back.

  • Stopped in downtown Mill Valley for coffee and a thick lemon cookie.

  • Shopped in some of the stores, including one with unusual merchandise from India. Impulse purchase: Rhubarb jam!

  • Drove to Muir Woods and meandered among thousand-year-old towering redwoods.

  • Headed for Stinson Beach, where we waved at the waves and enjoyed a wonderful garlic-festooned dinner at The Sand Dollar.

  • Made a U-turn to enjoy some frozen yogurt at Swirl in Mill Valley, where on Wednesdays if you guess the price of your yogurt (sold by the ounce), you get it free. That didn’t happen.

  • Relaxed back at the apartment and made plans for the next day.


  • Walked to Cole Valley to catch the train downtown to Gump’s, a home furnishings store founded in 1861 ( I’ve been buying things (small things) from Gump’s via catalog for 35 years, but had never been to the store.

  • Walked a few blocks to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to see the wonderful “Calder to Warhol” exhibit. People were lined up on the sidewalk to get in – on a Thursday morning!

  • Enjoyed beverages (including delicious pure apple juice) on the rooftop sculpture garden at SFMOMA.

  • Took the train to the Lower Haight, where we munched on rib tips at Memphis Minnie’s barbecue joint, a favorite of mine.

  • Stopped in some of the neighborhood boutiques and galleries. Oops! I bought a purse.

  • Took the train and a bus back home to get ready for dinner.

  • Joined Susan for wine, Smiling Noodles and ginger cake with pumpkin ice cream at Park Chow, which buys from local farms.

  • Susan took us on a spontaneous -- and hilarious -- tour of Golden Gate Park in the Dark, made all the more enchanting by thick fog. We couldn’t see a thing!  Highlights were a baseball game in progress in the Presidio in spite of the fog and another look at Robin Williams’ former home in Sea Cliff.

As I write this, Beth is on the plane, heading back to St. Louis with a locally grown Gravenstein apple in her purse. Memories are souvenirs, too, and I think she took home a lot of fond ones. As for me – what a great vacation! So glad to spend it with Beth.


Friday, September 10, 2010

Easy as A, B, C

A is for Allende (Isabel). B is for Beer (Blue Moon). C is for Cut (Hair).

Easy as A, B, C – whoa, I hear a Jackson Five tune coming on!

Here’s the scoop, starting at the very beginning. Isabel Allende, a favorite author of mine, spoke last night at the University of San Francisco’s Center for the Pacific Rim. She is on a book tour, promoting her latest novel, “Island Beneath the Sea.” Susan, my friend and Patricia’s mom, asked a few weeks ago if I wanted to go with her.

Oh yes! I am a longtime fan. Plus, I have reviewed a handful of Allende’s books for the Post-Dispatch, among them “'Ines of My Soul,” her account of the splendid life of conquistadora Ines Suarez, who helped found Chile. In that book, Allende writes that Suarez ponders life and death, musing, "I suspect in this life we are not going anywhere, and even less in haste; one merely follows a path, one step at a time, toward death."

This is what Suarez imagines when we reach that destination: "Death is not a hooded skeleton with empty eye sockets, as the priests tell us to frighten us, but a large, roly-poly woman with an opulent bosom and welcoming arms; a maternal angel."

Love that! After my review ran in the paper in November 2006, a radio station in Chicago called to say Allende would soon be appearing on an interview program and they wanted to read part of my review on the air. Was that okay with me? Sure, I said, but why not just fly me to Chicago so I could take part? They balked, and I did not get to hear the program, but I was honored nonetheless.

Last night, I sat on the aisle in the third row at Allende’s presentation. She is tiny, small in stature, made taller by slingback silver spike heels – this at 67! She wore a black skirt and top, with a sheer black jacket with maroon trim. Allende’s eyes are big, quick and intelligent, and a feisty sense of humor brings often unexpected remarks from her generous, smiling mouth. How wonderful to be in the presence of Isabel Allende at last! 

About Beer: For years after my father’s death from cirrhosis of the liver, I imposed a two-drink minimum on myself. Why? Because I have loved every alcoholic beverage I have ever tasted. Margaritas and dirty martinis and caipirinhas and frou-frou drinks and Irish whisky straight up and big red Zins at $12.50 a glass – bring ‘em on! Then after a Betrayal of the Body six years ago, I was put on a medication that is hard on the liver.

“Don’t drink,” said the doctor.

“Ever?” I asked.

“Okay, four times a year,” she said.

I cheated. For the past six years, I’ve been enjoying alcoholic beverages maybe eight times a year. Really – ask my friends. Early this week I met with my new doc in San Francisco. “We know more now,” he said. “You may have one drink a week with no cause for worry.”

“One a week? I couldn’t,” I said, appalled. Then I confessed a secret: Over the past three years, I’ve been bumming a taste here, a swallow there, of craft beers being enjoyed by friends, and have come to love unfiltered wheat beer. The doctor laughed and assured me that one beer a week was absolutely fine.

I just had one! A Blue Moon. I drank it with a tiny pepperoni pizza from Trader Joe’s. Pizza and beer – what a pleasure! I’ll still order a margarita or martini on my birthday, and once in awhile when out to dinner with friends, I’ll indulge in red wine. Other weeks, I’m exploring craft beers.

And now to C, the haircut. San Francisco weather – the damp fog and the rowdy wind – has not been nice to my hair. The humidity isn’t high enough to cause my naturally curly hair to spiral in on itself and look thick and lustrous, and every day, the wind has tried its best to pull out what curl I did have. I’ve been walking around with my usual short hair looking long, standing straight up, a la Christopher Walken or even Albert Einstein.

On Wednesday, I walked into my neighborhood salon and said to Lison, my stylist, “Last month I asked you to duplicate the cut I came in with. This time, I am asking you what you would do if this were your head.” I explained the problem. Lison proposed cutting it really short on the sides and in back, leaving some height on top.

“We could go for an asymmetrical look,” she said. “If you pull some of the hair in front straight across, it will curl on the other side of your forehead. You will look more contemporary, new, exciting.”

Me? Contemporary? New? Exciting? “Do it,” I said. She did, and my hair did just what she said it would, curling on my forehead like a single quotation mark. Now when the wind tosses my hair, it just looks ruffled and somehow fuller, instead of sticking straight out. It’s easy to live with. It’s fun. It’s cute. I like it!

I took the photo posted here, but my face looks really big because my arms are short and I couldn’t get the camera far enough away to shoot a really good picture. If you want to see my contemporary, new, exciting hair for yourself, just buy a plane ticket and come for a visit. Karen Duffy did, and we had a blast!

And that’s my ABCs for today.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Mid-Day at the Beach

Today in San Francisco, the sun was shining, the sky was blue, the fog was visiting another community, and a mid-day break was on the agenda. I took a bus to the beach.

Actually, it was a light rail train that glides along tracks in the center of the street. Sometimes, depending on the time of day, just one car does the job, but most of the time two, three or more cars are hooked together. When the train goes around corners, gliding and lurching, it resembles a giant centipede, with first one body part moving, then the next and then the next.

The trains are part of the San Francisco Municipal Railway, which was founded in 1912. The Muni boasts that it carries over 200 million customers per year, taking people where they need to go all day, every day, along 80 different routes. The Muni operates historic streetcars, diesel buses, alternative fuel vehicles, electric trolley coaches, cable cars and the light rail trains that run both above and below ground.

I walked seven blocks (all down hill)) to Cole Valley and caught the Outbound N train heading west to 48th Avenue, which is literally across the street from the Pacific Ocean. It takes awhile – 20 minutes or so -- to get from Cole Street to 48th, though the true distance is only about 3.5 miles. That’s okay. The Pacific Ocean does not check Google Calendar to see what time you will arrive. The Pacific Ocean does not care. Why should you?

When I boarded, the N was almost full. By the time we hit 40th Avenue, only six passengers remained. Acting in concert, as though we had rehearsed, we all rummaged in our respective backpacks and pulled out our hats when we reached 45th Avenue. At 48th, we disembarked and walked across the lower and upper sections of the Great Highway.

And there it was! Up a sandy hill, down the other side -- and there the ocean sparkled in the sun. I found a spot on the sand to spread my small towel and sat down, enjoying the sounds of the sea and the cool air. (People who brought bigger backpacks pulled out beach towels. I’ll do that next time.)

Sailboats glided along the horizon. Nine surfers rode the waves. In their wetsuits, off the boards, the surfers resembled curious seals bobbing in the water, sticking their heads up for a look around. On the beach, a young woman sunned in a bikini. A few yards away, an older man lay on his towel dressed in dark green Bermuda shorts, a long-sleeved plaid shirt and calf-high green socks. He had a blue towel draped over his face. Only his knees were displayed to the sun.

A mom played catch with her little boy. Two middle-aged men played catch with one another. One young couple tossed a Frisbee; another couple led a toddler to the edge of the sea, the little girl between them. Two teenage girls dug deep holes in the sand and then climbed in, laughing. A young woman pushed a stroller. A dozen people walked the beach with great seriousness of purpose. Four dogs, clearly thrilled to be out of the house, raced up and down the beach.

Not far behind me on the sand, a man got off his bike, spread a towel, sat down, opened his backpack and began to play a large wooden flute. As the wind carried the sounds across the beach, heads turned, one by one, to look back to see the source of the music. I sat, in my hat, listening to the waves and the flute music, thinking this was a terrific mid-day break.

Then I headed back up the hill, hot sand streaming through my sandals. The Java Beach Café has the great good fortune to be situated at 48th and Judah, right where the N train drops off passengers. I popped in for a sandwich. After lunch, I walked four blocks to visit a shop I’d read about in Sunset magazine and then got on the next train back to Cole Valley. There, I caught the bus that heads up the steep hill and stops right in front of my apartment.

Living in St. Louis, I used to like knowing I was just a 2.5-hour direct flight from Montego Bay. Now I can take a train to the beach -- in 20 minutes.