Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Uncritical Critic

I understand that the above wasn’t really a restaurant review. More like a restaurant fawning. And no, they didn’t put me up to it. I just really like food and find it hard to think or write critically about it.

I have the same issue with travel writing--I like most places, and the few destinations I haven’t cared for particularly I have at least found interesting anthropologically. I would never want to be responsible for giving a city a star rating, or writing about how a new museum is superficially entertaining, but derivative and decorated in last year’s colors.

Luckily, nobody expects travel writers to make value judgments about how good or bad a place is. Everyone likes a good travel disaster story, but nobody wants you to end it by concluding that it happened because the country is a half-baked mess that should be avoided at all costs. (Even if the disaster involved food poisoning.) It’s an interesting distinction between travel writing and food writing, two disciplines that otherwise have a lot of overlap.

So I went to Napa and I ate well and I didn’t spend a second worrying about whether or not there was any possible way the meal could have been better or more stylish. And in writing, I didn’t worry too much about whether or not anyone else would agree with me. I’ll let you all draw your own conclusions about whether or not Terra sounds good.

(But oh, my God, just go because now that I’ve thought about it, no, there isn’t any way dinner could have been better.)

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Terra, St. Helena

Terra turned out to be fantastic. Our innkeepers were impressed, calling Terra one of the best restaurants in the Napa Valley. I don’t know the scene well, but I don’t doubt the claim. The food was that good.

We had a little trouble finding it at first. St. Helena isn’t big; we found the street easily, and we knew the enormous Italianate stone edifice just had to be it. But there was no sign. We drove past it once and finally parked and investigated on foot. Persistence paid off. A notice printed on an 8x10 sheet of paper told us we were in the right place.

In the lobby we were pleasantly surprised by artwork that was modern, but ever so slightly naughty. That suggested that Terra is a place that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I think that’s the case. The main dining room was a little more sober, dark, with stone walls.

The food is described as Italian and French, but I thought there was an Asian influence as well. This could have been a weird or pretentious combination in lesser hands, but it worked here. I had a lobster/vegetable soup, sort of like minestrone with shellfish. My main course was cod, which I really only ordered for the shrimp dumplings it came with. (And because I was trying not to have cheese at all three courses--cheese dependence is a little bit of a problem with me.)

I’m glad I did. The fish was unbelievably good, maybe the best ever. (In Taiwan I once had a whole small fish steamed with garlic and ginger that was a challenger, but I had to pick it out of a tank myself. The knowledge that I had just played the angel of death gave the fish a guilty aftertaste.)

My cod was broiled in sake, and glazed with a slightly sweet, tangy sauce, like teriyaki. The dumplings were small, boiled, and delicious. The cheese plate afterward was to die for. Everyone else seemed happy with his or her dinner, too. My father was torn between spaghetti with tripe and veal cheeks with sweetbreads--a dilemma possibly only he could have—so there really was something for everyone on the menu. (He went with tripe) Hilary had lamb, and Pipi and my mother both had pork, which was amazingly tender and flavorful. Hilary taught us that you can almost always get ice cream at a restaurant if you ask nicely enough, even if it isn’t on the menu, which was valuable information.

Verdict: 10 thumbs up. (Well, there were five of us.)

Friday, May 25, 2007

Hillview Country Inn

For one dark moment, Pipi and I actually considered the Euro Spa again, reasoning that our expectations would be so low that we couldn’t possibly be disappointed. But it didn’t come to that. I found a room at a bed and breakfast in Napa that turned out to be quite reasonably priced.

I know not everyone likes B&Bs. There’s a very funny scene in the movie Flirting with Disaster where Ben Stiller’s wife tries to talk him into staying in one. He doesn’t want to do it; he says he hates them because, “The lady’s always boring, and there’s always some stupid cat you have to pretend to like.” His wife promises it won’t be like that, but of course, in the very next scene, he’s trying to check in while surreptitiously shooing a tabby away and ignoring the proprietress’ droning about the pre-Civil War history of the area.

I don’t mind at all. I do like cats, of course, and I’m a secret History Channel junkie. And there’s nothing not to like about free breakfast, so I’m extremely happy.

A big thank you to Pipi’s co-worker, Julie, for pointing us in this direction. None of the web sites I was looking at included B&Bs. Her suggestion that we look into the Beazley House B&B landed me at this site, which includes several wine country inns.

I’ll give the cat a little belly rub for you.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


Earlier I said that my next trip would be New Hampshire in June. Actually, a quick trip to Napa has come up. Pipi and I are meeting my parents and sister for dinner in St. Helena. We’re going to Terra, a place I’ve never been to.

Dinner is late, though, so we’ll spend the night. I am pleasantly surprised to find that it’s not that hard to get an affordable hotel room in Santa Rosa for Memorial Day weekend. I’m surprised because years ago, Pipi and I tried to plan a last-minute getaway to Calistoga for Memorial Day. The only room we could find was at a place called the Euro Spa, which we dubbed the “Euro Trash Spa.” It was clearly a re-purposed motel. The hot springs were just an aboveground Jacuzzi, and the on-staff masseuse lived in a trailer park.

The trick, I understand now, is to book a room in Santa Rosa, which for some reason has a lot of hotels for business travelers, and they tend to be empty on weekends. So that’s what we’re doing. It looks like it’s possible to stay for under $100, believe it or not.

Coming soon: review of Terra.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

New Reading Date

It looks like I’m going to be taking part in two readings for Best Women’s Travel Writing 2007. One is at Book Passage in August. The other one, which is just coming together, is at the Alexander Book Company in San Francisco (on Second Street, near Market). I don’t know when, exactly, but I think it’s sometime in June. I will, of course, keep you all posted when the details get worked out.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Spontaneous Recognition

My father called today to say that his trainer at the gym had seen my article—apparently he’s a loyal “My Word” reader—and put the names together. This is the first instance of what my Dad calls “spontaneous recognition” of this piece.

In other words, this is the first evidence I have that someone I didn’t specifically force to read the piece did so anyway.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Chronicle Article is Published

I had an article in the San Francisco Chronicle this past week. It appeared in the “My Word” section of the Sunday paper—that’s the last page of the Sunday magazine. It’s also online. If you missed it in real time, you can see it by clicking here.

I already got one e-mail from an acquaintance who’d seen it. I’m excited--this is possibly the biggest exposure I’ve gotten yet.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Next on the Itinerary

Two people happened to ask me today where in the world we’re headed next. The answer is: Hanover, New Hampshire. Pipi and I are going there in June for my college reunion. My 15th!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

If a Shrub Falls in the Forest….

During the winter I wrote about an incident where one of my neighbors killed himself on a day when hardly anyone was around. When something like this happens, it reminds me of the koan about whether or not a tree makes a sound if no one hears it fall.

Just call me an amplifier.

Today’s event wasn’t tragic at all, just silly.

Until yesterday there was a sad strip of shrubbery between my building and the one next door. Someone over-pruned it a few years ago, and since then, there has been very little green to the bushes, just dead twigs and gnarled roots. Sometimes garbage would accumulate in the branches. Last week, a black baseball cap appeared perched on top of the bushes, and I didn’t know what to do about it. It was a perfectly good hat that must have come off someone’s head, so I didn’t want to throw it away, but it looked ridiculous sitting there.

Yesterday a crew of guys with a big truck took care of the problem for me. They began sawing the bushes apart and clearing them out.

That part seemed to go well. Today has been a little weirder. They got the easy parts taken away, but late this morning, they had to remove the trunks and roots. This seemed to be too much for their tools, so they tied a rope to one trunk, and the other end to their truck. It took several accelerations, but finally the trunk exploded out of the ground like a loose tooth tied to a slamming door.

This worked so well they tried it with bigger sections of root, and persisted even through breaking a taillight and getting the rope wrapped around a wheel. Just a moment ago, though, I heard glass break and now they’re hacking the roots out of the ground with a pickaxe.

Soon they will have it all out, and will have swept up all the dirt and stray branch clippings. The neighbors will come home and notice the empty space between buildings, but they will have no idea how exactly it happened, and how it happily distracted me from work for about an hour.

And how lucky they are that their car windows are okay.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

An Interesting Find Close to Home

There are a lot of interesting things in and around Golden Gate Park. There are a couple of windmills, for one thing. And a herd of buffalo, and a very surreal museum coated in copper that’s going to slowly turn green. Oh, and a giant purple head. (Seriously, it’s like Easter Island on acid; it’s one of the scariest pieces of public art I’ve ever seen.)

Now there’s something else interesting just outside of the park, at Ocean Beach. It’s the bow of a shipwreck that poked itself up out of the sand last week.

It admittedly doesn’t make the most amazing photograph--although I’d like to say for the record that some pretentious guy with a tripod was hogging all the good angles while I was there today. But it’s pretty interesting nonetheless.

The story is that in 1878 a clipper ship called the King Phillip was anchored in open water not too far from shore. The weather was very rough and the anchor came loose, causing the ship to founder on the beach.

Nobody died in the wreck. There’s no treasure, either--the ship was leaving San Francisco empty, which is probably lucky because when full it usually carried guano to be used as fertilizer. (Well, at least looting wasn’t a problem.)

I don’t know why, but apparently the wreck was sold, stripped of its metal fittings, and then allowed to just sit there getting buried with sand and beach detritus. This section of beach does seem to attract a lot of stuff --walking south along the water, I got the sense I was getting close when I noticed an unusual amount of driftwood and garbage in the cove.

It’s said that the remains of the ship get uncovered every twenty years, but I’m not sure that’s true. I do know that the last time it was sighted was in 1983 after a very stormy winter. I don’t know if other apparitions are recorded.

I like that people seem to leave the wreckage alone, content to let it be a time capsule for the next generation. So if you go, please be gentle. Here’s a hint: It’s at the southern end of Ocean Beach, near Noriega Avenue. You can only see it at low tide. Do yourself a favor, and don’t park by the Beach Chalet like I did. It’s a long walk.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Reality Check

Today I took a walk in a part of town that was rougher than I expected. To play it safe, I probably won’t be going back there by myself—I’d hate to have a relapse of my ridiculous paranoia.

I was exploring a part of Oakland that’s a little further northwest than I’ve been before. It’s another neighborhood with some nice houses in disrepair, but the houses aren’t as nice as some I’ve seen, and by disrepair I don’t mean that the owner waited an extra summer to paint—I mean that they’re abandoned and slumping to one side. The grandest house of all I saw had all its windows broken and was up on a jack, waiting to be moved to a different part of town.

I walked for about a half an hour past liquor stores, storefront churches, graffiti, guys with shopping carts, and, most ominously, a couple of clusters of young men in parkas standing around doing nothing except looking like they were looking out for something. (Probably just their ride to band practice, but I couldn’t help imagining it was drug-related.)

Toward the end of the walk I found myself walking behind three people who all looked like they’d just stepped out of church—in 1965. The woman was wearing, I swear, a pillbox hat and a long blue cloth coat. The two men were also wearing long coats, Malcolm X-style fedoras, and bowties. They turned around when they heard me coming up behind them. For some reason, I thought of the scenes in the show Weeds where Halia’s Black Muslim boyfriend treats Mary Louise Parker so coldly. Great, I thought, they’re going to harangue me for being the white devil.

“Excuse me, Ma’am,” one of the men said, “May I give you something?”

I said, “Yes,” but thought, “Please not a diatribe, I have enough liberal guilt going on today.”

He handed me what turned out to be a Jehovah’s Witnesses pamphlet called “Will This World Survive?” (Bad news: no. Good news: The actual planet won’t be destroyed, just life as we know it.)

I thanked him weakly, more for not yelling at me than for giving me the flyer. “Can I ask you a favor?” he said.

Uh, oh. Shakedown. I nodded warily.

“Will you please have yourself a wonderful day?” he said.

And I did, to the extent that my smarting guilt over the whole situation allowed.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Why Me?

I’m not exactly sure why this person contacted me, of all Gekko members. So that’s a good question. But it’s partly explained by the fact that editorial is very new to the site, so writers have to register in the same way as photographers. I’m working on updating my profile so that it’s clear I’m a writer, but I guess those changes haven’t gone through yet.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

It Works!

I’ve signed up for sites sort of like Gekko before, where you can post content and hope someone buys it, but I’ve never had any luck with them. I haven’t sold anything through Gekko yet, either (it’s only been a few days!), but I did have an interesting experience this morning.

I found a message in my email box from another Gekko member asking if I happened to have any photos of indigenous Australians doing photogenic things. Apparently the writer wanted to contact me on behalf of a book publisher who needed these shots, and was hoping I could sell him some.

I wasn’t able to help much beyond recommending that he contact my photographer friend John (who probably doesn’t have any pictures like this either). Still, it’s good to know that this site, billed as a networking site, really does seem to be just that.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Gekko Images

Here’s an interesting web site that my photographer friend John found: It’s called Gekko Images. It started out as a stock photography site, but recently they’ve branched out into carrying editorial as well. The really interesting thing about the site is that it matches up writers and photographers who wouldn’t otherwise necessarily know each other.

The way it works is that I can post a story, and then browse the Gekko inventory to find photos that I think go with it. I attach them to my story and indicate the price at which I’d like to sell the piece. Meanwhile, the photographer has also attached a price to his or her images. If we’re lucky, an editor browsing the site will see my story and the pretty pictures and buy the whole package. Gekko takes care of paying both the photographer and me.

This is an ideal situation, and it’s a long way from happening. The text feature is still experimental. I have been able to upload articles, but I don’t think they’re visible to the public yet. Still, it’s a great idea and when it’s up and running, it will be a good way for authors and photographers to help each other.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


I hope I didn’t sound too negative yesterday. I actually have a higher tolerance for ruts then most people, and anyway, a rut with an 80s soundtrack can’t be all that bad.

I really do like working at home. People ask me all the time whether or not I do, and my standard response is, “Of course. It’s my home. There would be something wrong if I didn’t like it.” It’s just sometimes a surreal existence, that’s all. Which is another thing I don’t mind as much as some people would. Its beats working.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Groundhog Day

Working at home can be like this, I guess: Recently my sister, who is in cooking school, announced that she needed to practice making a few dishes, and since our parents were out of town, Pipi and I ended up being the guinea pigs. (By which I mean we ate so much all we could do afterward was loll around and make happy little squeaking noises.)

Dinner was amazing enough, and then for dessert Hilary served profiteroles with caramel sauce made from scratch. Somehow Pipi and I ended up with the leftover sauce, which we put to creative use over the next few days. We found that it was surprisingly good over some strawberries that we happened to have around.

After this discovery, I went and got more strawberries at Farmer Joe’s, because we had a lot of caramel left. It was a good grocery store run; the aisles weren’t too crowded, and Blondie’s “The Tide is High” was playing in the background. It was followed by “Don’t Dream it’s Over,” another great 80s song, and I remember rolling down the aisle humming and thinking I’d come at just the right time.

Two days later, we were out of strawberries again. So I headed over to Farmer Joe’s for some more. As I cruised the produce area, I heard “The Tide is High” playing, and I suddenly realized that I could predict the future--I knew exactly what song was going to come next. Sure enough, it was Crowded House.

I feel like I’m in a little bit of a rut. Working at home can be like this, I guess.

Friday, May 04, 2007

A-List Editor

I got an unexpected treat from the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine. I’ve known for a while that she was going to publish one of my pieces on May 20. We went back and forth on a few edits in a process that turned out to be very pleasant--she’s an easy editor to work with.

I figured that was the end of it, but recently she got in touch with me to show me what the piece would look like with the edits we talked about. She specifically asked me to let her know if there was anything I didn’t like—a nearly unprecedented editorial request. (I tried really hard to find something, but couldn’t.)

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Something You Don’t See Every Day

This isn’t west Oakland; this is central Oakland, on the north side of Lake Merritt. This picture shows something I think I’ve only seen one other time in my life (in Barcelona): A cathedral under construction.

It’s not every day you see a cathedral being built, so I’m fascinated by this process. Especially interesting is the fact that they seem to be building the roof first. Seems unconventional, but like I said, I’ve only seen one other incomplete cathedral, so it’s not for me to say what’s normal and what isn’t.

I’m trying not to be upset that this building seems to be coming along faster than the new Trader Joe’s we’ve been promised in my own neighborhood, but I read somewhere that patience is a virtue, so I’m trying to remain calm.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

And Another Thing

Here’s another nice thing I saw recently. Someone planted rose bushes in such a way that they have climbed up and obscured an ugly fence in front of a salvage yard full of old buses. This goes on for almost a whole block. The fence smells really sweet now, too.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

More West Oakland Treasures

West Oakland seems to be a neighborhood that has suffered terribly from the construction of the freeway system. 980 really cut a swathe through a formerly cohesive neighborhood. On the east side of it you have downtown Oakland, with Starbucks and skyscrapers, and on the other you have cute little houses like these. It’s a jarring change, and I doubt it looked like this before the freeway was there.

Not every home in West Oakland looks like these do, of course. Some are bigger, and some are falling apart. Some are brand-new condos. Some are high-rise apartment buildings. Many, though, are a lot like this: evidence of the day when the neighborhood was full of middle-class families, many African American, doing well for themselves. With the cost of homes going up all over, it will never quite be like this again, so it’s interesting to get a glimpse of what the streets must have looked like in the 1940s, when times were good.

One thing I do want to stress: I don’t mean to make it sound like gentrification is an unmitigated disaster for West Oakland. For one thing, it’s barely begun. For another, rising home prices mean that some families can finally think about making a profit from properties they’ve owned for years, but couldn’t give away until now. I really think the freeway did the place a much bigger disservice, cutting it off from downtown and creating an instant wrong-side-of-the-tracks situation.