Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Toothpaste Terrorist

You know how when you fly, you’re supposed to put all your toiletries in a little baggie? And how you’re not supposed to have more than four ounces of liquid or gel with you? And how you always think, “They can’t be serious?”

They are.

On the way to New Hampshire, I smuggled my five-ounce tube of toothpaste through security in a carry-on bag. But on the way home, going through Logan, I managed to get myself searched. I had missed my flight (yes, there’s a story there), so I was probably a little more nervous and shifty than usual at security. I also inadvertently put my computer on top of other belongings going through the X-ray machine, which apparently shows you to be not just a laptop newbie, but also a latent Al-Qaeda sympathizer.

They took my carry-ons and went behind a glass partition, where I could see a TSA lady pawing through my dirty clothes and turning my computer on and off. But it was my toiletry bag that attracted the most attention. I had obeyed the letter of the law by putting my gels and liquids in a baggie, but I hadn’t taken the baggie out and shown it to the security people. All this upset them enough, but what really sent them to DEFCON-3 was my over-sized toothpaste. I was given the choice of mailing the toothpaste home, throwing it away, or checking it. (For a second I thought the TSA lady was suggesting putting a little luggage tag on it and putting it on the plane like that.) Because I was in a hurry and flying standby, I surrendered the tube.

I wanted to stick around to see the bomb squad detonate my Colgate, but I had to hustle to my gate so I don’t know what happened to it.

A few days later, I saw the infamous sippy-cup video, and realized that I’d missed a chance to make a satisfying (and messy) scene. I’d probably still be in Boston if I’d done that, though, so I guess meek submission was the right action. Still, it’s hard to see how forbidding large quantities of toothpaste helps the struggle against those who hate our freedom and sparkling white teeth. Will we one day look back on the days when you could board an aircraft carrying a bottle of shampoo the way I marvel that there was once a time when you could fly without passing through a metal detector? Do the new rules make sense or is this just another example of the frightening power of the four-ounce plastic tube industry? Only time will tell. I do know one thing for sure, though:

I’m very happy I’ve been hoarding tiny hotel soaps and shampoos all these years.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Doing the Math

Airfare from SFO to Boston: $400 per person.

Rental car for the drive from Boston to Hanover: $21 per day.

New Dartmouth sweatshirt: $45.95.

Reconnecting with people who knew you when you were still in your teens: Priceless.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A Few of My Favorite Things

My very favorite thing, of course, was catching up with old friends. As I said, several were there, none of whom I see as often as I’d like. It was great to see who everyone has become, get to know spouses better, and meet children.

I also enjoyed visiting with my grunge-era, early-twenties self. I’ve read travelogues about returning to a place the writer knew at a much different life stage, and I imagined I’d learn a lot about how far I’d come by comparing my modern self to my collegiate self. And I did, but honestly, I also enjoyed the illusion that I still was my collegiate self. Scurrying across the green, bumping into friends at the Hop, hanging out with old roommates at ’tails…all these things were once so commonplace that it was possible to pretend that they still happened every day.

I’m not saying it’s healthy to live in the past, but I do think it’s a nice place to visit.

Other favorite moments:

  • Swimming in the river. I never do this at home. We don’t have any major rivers in the East Bay, and it just doesn’t get that hot here anyway.

  • Summer cloudburst. I was hoping for a full-blown thunderstorm, but even just a nice, warm summer rain was a good thing.

  • Eating an EBA’s chicken sandwich at midnight. It wasn’t the size of my face the way I remember (I guess nothing’s ever as big as it seemed when you were young), but it was just as good.

  • Rodent watch: Pipi and I took a walk by my old dorm, and Pipi swears she saw a beaver in the cemetery that’s next to it. There is a little brook running through there, so I’m inclined to believe her.

  • Bumping into one of my freshman-year roommates at lunch at the Bema. She remembered that the last time we saw each other was at a class gathering--also at the Bema--the day before we graduated. So here’s what I’m wondering: Does she think I’ve been up there all this time?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Dartmouth Undying

Reunion was a blast. I went knowing that at least one close friend would be attending, and was pleasantly surprised to find that two others decided to come at the last minute as well. I slept very little that weekend cramming in a lot of catching up.

Some things had changed in Hanover. I was shocked to find a Gap and a Dunkin’ Donuts on Main Street—I had understood that franchises in general and fast-food in particular were forbidden downtown, but I guess the place has loosened up slightly. A lot of the landmark buildings at the north end of campus have been torn down and replaced with new ones. I’m not usually one to embrace change, but I have to admit that these renovations are for the better. I won’t miss Kiewit, a squat, one-story concrete bunker of a computer center that supposedly could be retracted into the ground during a nuclear attack, or whatever that ugly tiled building was that we called “The Shower Tower.” (It really did look like a four-story public restroom.)

It was novel to exchange cell phone numbers with classmates—I didn’t know anyone with a mobile phone in college—and fun to meet spouses and kids. Dave and I joked that we wondered who all these middle-aged people were hanging around our class tent, but in fact, no one really looked shockingly different. (Dave himself may have spent the last 15 years in a hyperbaric chamber.) And Dartmouth hasn’t changed too dramatically, either. The major buildings are still there, my old house is the same as it ever was, and the Green looks just as it has since approximately the time of the American Revolution. At least one of my friends discovered that he can still open his mailbox at the Hop. Change comes very slowly to Hanover.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Don We Now Our Gay Apparel

I apologize for falling down on the job of blogging. It’s been a little crazy and something had to give.

First there was my trip to New Hampshire, which I promise I will post photos of soon. I got back much later than expected from that trip and I feel like I’m still catching up on lost sleep.

Then there was Pride. Gay Pride in San Francisco is a whole season, not unlike Christmas. Both the holidays and Pride involve lots of color, lots of socializing, numerous houseguests, and far too much eating and drinking. The only real difference is that you might get a sunburn at Pride. Aside from that, these two festive occasions are more similar than most people like to admit.

Highlights of Pride in San Francisco include a two-week-long gay and lesbian film festival and a women’s march through the Castro. The culmination is always a parade down Market Street, which every year gets bigger and bigger. I’ve never been able to make it through the whole parade as a spectator; it’s just too tiring. This year there were 197 contingents. I think I saw about 130 before I had to sit down in the shade somewhere.

For the past couple of years Pipi and I have watched the parade on TV, but this year I went with my sister. It’s not really her scene (frankly, I don’t think she even likes Christmas as much as I do), but we both had a really good time. It’s always fun to see a familiar thing through new eyes. Living in the Bay Area you can almost get used to the idea of men in dresses, women in motorcycle gangs, and pit bulls in tutus being walked by people wearing studded collars. So it’s good to be reminded that the things we take for granted here really are unusual, and need to be appreciated. Or at least respected. I personally don't totally understand, for example, why anyone would wear women's clothing when he doesn’t have to, because I sure don't, but I love that this fashion choice makes sense to some people. It’s this kind of thinking outside the size-12 box that makes the Bay Area great.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

This Just In

Pipi and I are back from New Hampshire. There will be more on that later. The short version: It was great! It was a beautiful June weekend and I had the chance to catch up with several friends I hadn’t seen in a long time.

Before I get into that, though, I wanted to report that the Dallas Morning News is running my Mongolia article in August. I’ll let you know, and post a link, as soon as I know exactly when it’s running.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Last-Minute Planning

My weekend trip to New Hampshire is coming together. Flights were reserved a while ago. I got a hotel room in Boston (actually, just outside) and a rental car. We’re set for accommodations on campus. We can stay in Northampton Sunday night and drive to Boston Monday afternoon since our flight is late in the day.

That’s everything important. Still, it’s amazing how many little things there are to remember to do before you’re really free to go somewhere. I never get used to this, although to be fair, I think there are more and more little hurdles these days.

Here is a partial list (I say “partial” because I’m sure I’m forgetting something) of things I have to remember to do before I leave Thursday morning:

  • Get directions from the rental-car place to the hotel.
  • Get directions from the hotel to downtown Boston, where I have a couple of meetings Friday morning.
  • Get directions to…virtually every destination in New England, including: downtown Boston to Interstate 89, Dartmouth to the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Vermont, Burlington to Northampton, and the Mass Pike to the car-rental return place. The Mapquest phenomenon is something I never used to have to deal with. And many normal people still don’t, but I was blessed with what my friend Sarah calls an “exciting sense of direction.” This is what most people call “not being able to find your way out of a paper bag.” So before I go anywhere, I spend a long session on a map site. It certainly beats the days of gas-station maps.
  • Reconfirm with my cat-sitter (Thanks, sis!)
  • Clean the cat box. I know someone is coming to clean the box for me, but I like to pretend that I’m cleaner than I am for the people I ask to clean up after me. Sort of like brushing my teeth before going to the dentist.
  • Laundry.
  • Stop the newspaper.
  • Charge up all my toys: cell phone, laptop, ipod, camera.
  • Lose 10 pounds. (This is a college reunion I’m going to, after all.)

Friday, June 08, 2007

Fun Fact

Lam-Toro is the name of an African King. It’s also the name of a 1992 album by Baaba Maal, one of the most popular musicians in Senegal.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Exploring the World One Entrée at a Time

Recently while walking in Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood, I found a West African restaurant on Telegraph Avenue called Lam-Toro. I didn’t have any idea what West African cuisine would be like, so I made a point of going as soon as possible.

Yesterday I went at lunchtime. Because of an evening class, I eat both lunch and dinner early on Wednesdays, so I got there at 11:45. The door was unlocked, but the waiter told me it would actually be another half hour until they were open.

A word about this waiter: If I were opening an African restaurant, and I were looking for ways to make it seem authentically African, I would pay whatever it took to hire this guy. He was a strikingly handsome man, tall, dark, and chiseled. He looked like Seal with better skin. He was wearing a long, colorful shirt that went to his knees and he had a great accent. (I’m not sure exactly what kind of accent it was. He spoke fluent English with me, high-school textbook French with a patron at the next table, and something I didn’t recognize with the other people who worked there.)

It turns out the restaurant is brand new, having only opened a few days before. In addition, someone in the family that owns the restaurant had had a car accident that morning, so they’d all been very late getting to work.

The result was the longest lunch I think I’ve ever had in the United States, and certainly my longest solo lunch ever. I waited over an hour for my food. I had time to write a text message (which takes me forever; I’m too old for IM fluency) to Pipi saying that I thought I might actually be a hostage.

If this were the perfect travelogue, lunch, when it finally came, would have been the best thing ever. I wouldn’t say that was exactly the case--the dish was a little greasy and over-salted. But I would still say it was worth the wait just because I finally had an idea of what West African cuisine is like.

The menu indicated that Lam-Toro is specifically a Senegalese restaurant. About half the dishes had French names. There was a lot of chicken on the menu, and also a lot of lamb. Most of the meat was served with either rice or couscous. There was a dish called fou-fou, which I’ve always wanted to try, but it was a Thursday special, and I was there Wednesday.

Unfortunately, at lunchtime you don’t get much of a choice of what to order. Much of the menu is only served at dinner, so there were really only two daily specials available to me. I had lamb chops with rice, the other choice being a fish stew. The chops were roasted with a lot of spices, and served with a sauce that was oily and full of onion. I liked it but it occurs to me that this place might be best for single people. Six hours and two brushings later I still had bad breath. The rice was delicious. It was salty and buttery, and had chunks of hard-boiled egg in it.

The beverage selection was a little exotic. Some kind of a ginger drink was available, but I chose to try bissap, which was described as a hibiscus juice. It tasted like a drink called Jamaica that I’ve had at Mexican restaurants, except that the Senegalese version has muddled mint in it, and it’s sweeter. (I overheard someone say that Senegal has the largest per-capita sugar consumption rate in Africa, but I have no idea if this is really true.)

The long and the short of it is that I’m glad I’ve had a taste of Senegalese cuisine. I would do it again, but I would go at dinnertime and have a snack first. I’d also wait a few weeks until the service issues settle down.

But I may need more of that rice very soon. I wonder if there’s another West African restaurant in Oakland?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Make Way for Goslings

For old times’ sake, I took a walk around Lake Merritt recently. This used to be my regular exercise before I started my Oakland exploration project.

While walking, I realized it’s gosling season. The baby geese are back in force around the lake. Normally, the Canada geese that live around Lake Merritt are kind of a nuisance. They’re noisy and messy, doing more to keep visitors off the grass than any warning sign ever could. But they do make charming little families. You’ll see an adult goose swimming, followed by a clutch of fuzzy yellow goslings in a line, with the other goose parent bringing up the rear to make sure no one gets lost. Even though these little fuzzballs grow up to be part of the overpopulation problem, they certainly are cute when they’re small.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Napa Outlets

Oh, one more fun thing about Napa: It has great outlet stores. I don’t consider myself a big shopper, but these stores are good for people who don’t think they’re into shopping. The selection skews toward practical, unpretentious brands, like J. Crew, Jockey, and Banana Republic. It’s easy to tell yourself you’re not shopping; you’re buying, because it’s all stuff you really need, like workout clothes and underwear, not $400 shoes or handbags that will be in Fashion Police in a few weeks.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Public Eavesdropping

“I just wanted to see some f---ing whales!”
-One wildlife lover to another at the Martinez Marina and Yacht club, Memorial Day, 2007.

Maybe you’d heard: There were some lost whales in the bay recently. They got as far as Sacramento, where they stayed for so long everyone began to wonder if they’d ever find their way to Alaska. By the weekend Pipi and I were in Napa, they had finally started heading toward the sea, and were splashing around Suisun Bay near the city of Martinez.

On the way back from the wine country, Pipi and I made a detour to the Martinez Yacht Club and Marina, which we’d seen on TV. There was a pretty good-sized crowd there—I guess we weren’t the only ones who’d seen the live broadcast from there that morning.

We could see helicopters hovering several miles away, so I think the whales were close, but we never did spot them. I don’t think they actually swam by the marina until the next day, so I’m glad Pipi and I didn’t stay until we got sunburned (or profane.)

We did see something else interesting in Martinez, a city I had never visited but which is quickly becoming the safari capital of the Bay Area. A family of beavers has made itself at home near the Amtrak station, and is not showing any signs of leaving. They have built a dam across what used to be tiny trickle of a creek downtown. It is now a 10-foot-deep stream.

We didn’t actually see the beavers, either. We did get a good look at the dam, though. That’s not something I see every day. These animals may have had the time for a mid-day nap during our visit, but they clearly were busy little beavers at some point.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Napa B&B

Pipi and I, anticipating that we might not want to drive all the way back to Oakland after a big dinner with wine, stayed at a Bed & Breakfast in the town of Napa, just north of the town center. It was called the Hillview Country Inn and it was everything I hoped it would be. The inn was once a mansion built by a doctor in 1900. There really was a little cat (two, actually, although we only saw one, and that one only briefly). Our room was exactly the kind of room you picture when you imagine a B&B. Every room had a theme; ours was the Rose Room. Lots of pictures of roses, and dried roses wrapped around the drapery hardware. The room had its own bath, which was nice. I’ll eat breakfast with strangers if I have to, but I really hate brushing my teeth with them.

There was a big common area with a small bar—guests are encouraged to help themselves to wine, beer, home-made apricot brandy, and after-dinner liquor. There were two huge jars of cookies on the coffee table, and everywhere I looked, a candy jar. “We like to keep folks happy here,” Al Hasenpusch, the innkeeper’s husband, told me.

Breakfast was a force to be reckoned with. There was sausage and egg, and grapefruit. This of course, would have been enough, but the centerpiece was what innkeeper Susie Hasenpusch called “24-hour French toast.” As best I can recall, bread was soaked overnight in a mixture of egg, milk, butter, cinnamon, corn syrup, and I think something else bad for you. Then it was baked like an upside-down cake.

I know what you’re thinking: You’re saying to yourself, “That sounds edible, but really, couldn't Susie have found a way to add some richness and sweetness? Susie is way ahead of you. Each chunk was served with a dollop of cherry pie filling on top.

It was amazing. Breakfast was served at 8:30 am. We all joked about skipping lunch, but for the first time in recent memory, I actually did. With just a few snacks, I made it all the way through to dinner.

(Pipi, who found a plastic bread-bag clip in her breakfast, wasn't quite as impressed with the experience as I was, but even she had to admit it beat the Motel 6.)