Friday, May 30, 2008

Fogged In

As I mentioned yesterday, my Frommer’s guide said that 95% of visitors to Yosemite never leave the valley. Having finally been to the park, I realize that’s not as sad as it sounds. The valley is a big place, and it’s where the big sights are, including Half Dome, El Capitan, and Yosemite Falls. It’s also where most of the dining and non-camping lodging options in the park are located.

Still, I don’t like the idea of acting like 95% of any group, so Pipi and I made an effort to head off the beaten path at least once. On Monday, we learned that the road to the Glacier Point lookout had just opened, so we drove up there, feeling virtuous for having gotten wind of this bit of news.

The drive was beautiful, and I don’t regret taking it. The road climbs over 3,000 feet through the woods, with spectacular views. There was a lot of snow by the side of the road, which I enjoyed seeing as well.

Once we got to the top, though, at an elevation of 7,2000 feet, we couldn’t see a thing. Glacier Point was smack in the middle of a cloud, which is its own kind of charming, but left the famous view of the valley almost entirely to the imagination. Every few minutes the wind would blow some of the thicker mist out of the way, and we could catch an eerie glimpse of mountains across the way, or get a flash of the valley floor. I really don’t regret the trip. The atmospheric fog added something to the landscape that you wouldn’t get on a brilliantly clear day. It was just one of those experiences where you have to adjust your expectations.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Yosemite Valley

We are back from a long weekend at Yosemite National Park. The park is every bit as beautiful as I hoped, though it did look slightly different from what I imagined. For one thing, it’s in color. All those Ansel Adams photographs I’ve seen seemed to suggest otherwise.

Also, the weather wasn’t great. It was cool with occasional drizzle and constant mist. That might not sound nice, but it gave the park the look of a Chinese landscape painting, which I really liked. It was a great weekend, full of family and good food. Some really nice things happened and although, like 95% of park visitors, I barely left the Valley, I feel like I had a good introduction to the park.

Here are some more photos.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Welcome to Summer

I’m finding it hard to believe that it’s Memorial Day weekend already, but it is. Pipi and I are leaving in the morning for Yosemite National Park. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never been there before, but I am looking forward to it a lot. We’ll be back Tuesday, so I may miss a day or two blogging. Photos when we return.

Happy long weekend, everyone!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A New Record

I got rejected by Curve Magazine yesterday in what may be record time—I didn’t clock it, but no more than five minutes could have passed between my sending the email and getting a rejection from an editor. (She said she read it and liked it…..)

Still, it’s better in some ways than being left hanging. At least now I know for sure it’s okay to start looking for other outlets.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Overcoming Inertia

On Friday I was tempted to clean up my Thursday gay marriage blog posting and send it out for publication.

But I was also tempted to take a walk, go pick up a book I ordered in San Francisco, and/or watch Ellen DeGeneres announce her engagement to Portia DiRossi on TV.

Early in the afternoon I got a sweet email from my father, who had seen the posting and urged me to try to get it published. This made me realize that I needed to wait until Friday evening for my weekend to begin just like everyone else. I spent the afternoon polishing the piece, giving it a real introduction and tightening up the writing. (And correcting a misspelling Pipi found. That was embarrassing.) I sent it to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Advocate.

That may seem like an unlikely lineup ("One of these things is not like the other….”), but the Christian Science Monitor did publish me once before. They run an essay every day, and their web site says they welcome differing points of view, so I took them at their word.

The Christian Science Monitor got back to me very quickly. The editor said the piece was a little too topical for the Home Forum. I don’t think she meant this euphemistically because she offered to personally forward it to the Op-Ed person—which she did. I got a similar response from the Chronicle—my story is now with the Insight section editor there.

No word yet from either of these new editors, or from the Advocate. As always, I will keep you posted. And I’ll keep trying other publications as well.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Another Unusual Souvenir

These are the dyed scales of a fish called the gar. A gar is a scary-looking primordial armored fish that can grow up to nine feet long. A website I found describes them as “America’s toughest sport fish for one hundred million years.” Not only do they put up a ferocious fight in the water, but once you get a gar in your boat, it’s said that the only sure way to keep it from thrashing and attacking with its sharp teeth is to shoot it.

I realize that sounds apocryphal—people really discharge firearms inside their own boats?—but Pipi and I did get the guy who sold us these scales to confirm it. Possibly this story of indestructibility is a rural myth winkingly passed along to impressionable Yankee girls. I don’t know. In the spirit of good fun I’m going to choose to believe it, but you don’t have to.

In any case, as if Louisiana didn’t have enough trouble with alligators and poisonous snakes, the swamps are full of these gilled dinosaurs. There are, however, those who appreciate them. There is a lot to admire about the gar’s longevity, its brute strength, and the fish’s importance to the Native American tribes of Louisiana. The gar are sort of the bison of the bayou—not only is the meat edible, but other parts are salvaged as well. Scales like these, for instance, were used as small arrowheads.

I am pretty sure the guy was joking, though, when he said the pastel colors are an old Indian tradition.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Big Nerd in the Big Easy

Here’s a souvenir of New Orleans that not everyone would bother seeking out: A silver dollar minted in the Crescent City.

There are only a few cities in the country where it’s possible to bring home locally made money. Denver and Philadelphia are the only places where it’s easy—regular-issue coins are still minted there, so you can find souvenirs in your change. In San Francisco, you can buy a current proof set for not too much more than face value, and in West Point, you can purchase a modern commemorative coin that won’t be too expensive.

But New Orleans is harder. That mint shut down in 1909, so any coins made there are collectors’ items. Luckily, they’re not all that rare. This coin caught my eye in a shop window on Royal Street in the French Quarter. There was a whole box of them set out as bait for people like me.

There are several other cities that have extinct mints: Carson City, Nevada; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Dahlonega, Georgia. One day I will get to these places and complete my complete my compulsive coin-collecting tour of the United States.

(New Orleans mint mark is an O, found between and a little bit above the letters "D" and "O" in "Dollar.")

Friday, May 16, 2008

Main Line Clubs

Here is a photo of a member of yet another New Orleans social group. (Pipi swears she saw a billboard advertising a fraternity while we were there—New Orleans takes its clubs very seriously.) I originally assumed this guy was a slightly less flamboyant Mardi Gras Indian, but he’s not. He’s part of a “main line” club called the Original C.T.C. steppers.

The term “main line” originally referred to the core group of participants in a parade—the family of the deceased at a funeral, for example. There would be a second line, too; this would be made up of people who weren’t quite as close to the deceased. The second line often got pretty big as the parade went on attracting spectators from the neighborhood, but the main line was the main attraction.

Now the term usually refers to musical social aid & pleasure clubs. A few mainline clubs were scheduled to march during Jazz Fest and I was lucky enough to catch this performance of the Original C.T.C. Steppers, a relatively new group. Without even understanding the tradition, I became a temporary second liner as I scampered along with a large group of other photographers, trying to get a shot of this colorfully dressed man.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Not Strictly Related, But….

….Since it’s all I’ve been able to think about, I’m going to write about today’s big news: The California State Supreme Court just legalized gay marriage.

Early this afternoon I went to City Hall in San Francisco, hoping to crash what I expected to be a big party. My first thought when I arrived there was, “How cute; all the broadcasters in the city came down to get hitched to their partners.” Because the first thing I noticed was a huge number of news trucks parked around Civic Center Plaza. There were generators and cables all over the sidewalk, and unhappy men lugging cameras around looking for something to film. (It’s 96 degrees in San Francisco today.) Everywhere there was a puddle of shade there was a miserable looking TV reporter in a dark suit drinking water and trying not to have a makeup meltdown before his or her next stand-up spot.

What I didn’t see much of were gay couples celebrating. The scene was nothing like what I expected, which was something along the lines of the sea of tuxedoes and white dresses paired with Doc Martins I saw on the news several years ago after the mayor of San Francisco briefly declared gay marriage legal, but before the courts annulled every last one.

I realized, however, that this lack of exuberance somehow mirrored my own mood. If you had asked me a few weeks, even a few days ago, how I would feel if gay marriage were legalized, I would have guessed that I’d be ecstatic. But today, I feel strangely subdued, and it’s not just the heat.

I feel like I did when the Rex Sox won the World Series in 2004--another thing I never thought would happen in my lifetime. During the playoffs four years ago, it was incredibly exciting to think the cursed Sox actually had a chance to have something good happen to them, and when they beat the Yankees in the league championship series, I was thrilled.

But when the last out of the anticlimactic World Series was safely in Mientkiewicz’s glove, I didn’t feel euphoria. I just felt relief that they hadn’t blown the play, a routine toss to first base eerily reminiscent of the Bill Buckner between-the-legs error that doomed the Red Sox in 1986.

The plays were so similar in everything but outcome that I got mad all over again. I was happy that my team had finally gotten what in my mind they richly deserved. But I also had a fresh bout of righteous anger over having had this prize dangled in front of me once before, only to have it yanked away.

And that’s how I feel today. Relieved that no cringe-inducing gaffe occurred; that the state Supreme Court didn’t mess up. And a little angry. That old voice from 2004 is again whispering in my ear, “This is nice, but shouldn’t it have happened a long time ago?”

I’ll get over it and find my way to gratitude. I’m already on the way. Heading home from City Hall, I ran into an acquaintance who had just gotten an appointment to marry her partner. She will probably always remember today as the day she got engaged (or at least set a date), and she was radiating sunlight. It was good to see someone be a bigger person than I and go straight to the joyful part of the ruling.

I’m sure I’ll be getting a slew of wedding invitations in the coming weeks from friends rushing to the altar ahead of any possible November referendum. These weddings will be especially joyous occasions for not having had the spontaneity planned out of them over the course of months, and because they will, against all odds, result in actual marriage certificates for people who never thought they’d hold a real one in their hands. All this will also help bring me around to a purer form of happiness

I do understand that it’s a beautiful thing that gays and lesbians are finally being offered places at the table—especially if that table is the head table at a wedding banquet. But forgive me if I have to take a moment to feel indignant about the years we had to sit with the kids and the weird drunk uncles no one likes. That kind of slight takes a little time to get over.

Probably I’ll feel more gracious when the heat breaks.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Mardi Gras Indians

Here’s a tradition we just don’t have in the Bay Area: In New Orleans, people dress up as Indians and parade around in feathered outfits.

Not just anyone does this, though. These so-called Mardi-Gras Indians are exclusively African-American. My understanding is that these parades take place with the blessing of the Native American community, because the outfits are adopted in recognition of the fact that both blacks and Indians were treated as second-class citizens in New Orleans, excluded from white traditions like Mardi Gras krewes. It’s also said that the southern African-American collective memory has not forgotten that escaped slaves often were sheltered by Native American tribes, though why this gratitude would be expressed in feathers is not entirely clear. As with a lot of New Orleans legends and traditions, the truth is almost certainly lost to time.

Today Mardi Gras Indian groups are social clubs whose organization mirrors mostly white krewes. Krewes are ruled by kings and queens and named after Greek mythological figures; Mardi Gras Indian tribes have chiefs and are named after local landmarks. At Mardi Gras, tribes dress in colorful, feathery, beaded outfits that weigh 50 pounds and chase each other around the neighborhood in ritualized mock confrontations with dancing and chanting. (Interestingly, the song Iko Iko is about this kind of encounter—the lyrics make a little more sense knowing this, but not a lot.)

Unfortunately, Mardi Gras was long over by the time we got to New Orleans, so we didn’t get to see a real parade. But some tribes did march at Jazz Fest. Pipi and I have half a mind to go to Mardi Gras one year so that we can see this for ourselves. In the Bay Area, you do sometimes get people in feathered outfits, but they’re usually just expressing their appreciation of Cher, and you hardly ever get enough in once place for a parade.

This woman is a part of a tribe called the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Rhythm Section.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


As I’ve said, I really don’t like crowds, but one fun thing about being among a throng of people is that I almost always see a few funny t-shirts. The jazz festival crowd didn’t disappoint. Here are a few that I saw, some of which I think you would only see in New Orleans.

Here I am. Now what were your other two wishes?
You used to be my type, but I got help.
I like girls who like girls—worn by a man.
Real men marry doctors—worn by a woman.
Louisiana: third-world and proud of it.
I took my Chevy to the levee but the levee was gone.

In addition, two airplanes with banners were circling the fairgrounds on the last day of the festival. One towed a flag saying “Shell: Hear the music and fix the coast U broke.” (A reference to the fact that many think Shell Oil’s environmental practices made Katrina’s impact worse.) The other was advertising Larry Flint’s Hustler Club. Think the two pilots waved to each other whenever their loops brought them close?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Jazz Fest

We didn’t actually go to New Orleans just to eat. We went to see the 2008 Jazz & Heritage Festival. We were there for four days of the festival but only attended two—one day off was planned, and we declared ourselves rained out another morning. (The festival goes on rain or shine but Pipi and I make no such promises, so we went sightseeing instead.)

Two days is actually just about perfect, I think. I have a limited tolerance for crowds, so a third day might have been too much humanity. And there was a lot of really great music packing into those two days. We saw Richard Thompson twice, once on a main stage and once being interviewed at a small venue (pictured). Stevie Wonder played, and we saw some of his set. It almost didn’t feel like a live show, because he was about a quarter of a mile away from where we were, but it counts. We saw quite a bit of zydeco, some gospel, and discovered the John Butler trio, who were billed as a blues act. Keb’ Mo’ played. The Neville Brothers closed the festival for the first time since before Hurricane Katrina. Apparently they stayed away from New Orleans long enough that some were starting to call them the Never Brothers, but all seemed to be forgiven at the show, which went on for about an hour longer than scheduled.

The one thing we didn’t see all that much of was jazz. We listened to some ragtime while waiting out a squall in the Preservation Hall tent, but that was about it. They may have to rename the festival at some point, because as in New Orleans itself, there are so many different genres of music represented.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Where You Eat?

The second thing everyone asks me—and this says as much about my friends and me as it does about New Orleans, is, “What did you eat?”

Our best meal by far was at a restaurant called Upperline, in the Garden District. Pipi and I both opted for a tasting menu, which was a great idea because of the variety of things we got to try. The first course was two kinds of soups, a gumbo and a turtle soup. Yes, real turtle soup. The turtle meat looked and tasted like ground beef. There was also a duck etoufee with corn cakes. Dessert was a choice of pecan pie, which I had, or bread pudding (a New Orleans obsession), which Pipi tried.

The entrée was roast duck with peach sauce. I did worry that this would be too much duck, but it wasn’t. I had forgotten how good duck can be. It was served with fried green tomatoes and a shrimp remoulade. Photos unfortunately make diner look like a plate with three kinds of brown on it. They don’t begin to do it justice, and neither do words, so you’ll just have to believe me that it was fantastic. (Now you know why I’m not a food writer.) The duck was juicy without being greasy. The tomato was fried to the point of being soft and hot, but not soggily breaded like an onion ring, and the bread pudding, never my favorite dessert, came with a rich, toasty caramel sauce that took it to a new realm.

The beautiful thing about New Orleans is that it’s one of those cities where you can eat well at any price. We both had lots of yummy cheap things at the Jazz festival. Highlights included a great jerk chicken (our Frommer’s guide described New Orleans as the northernmost city in the Caribbean, which made perfect sense to us), a key lime tart, and a spinach-artichoke casserole. I know that sounds boring, but southerners know how to add enough salt and fat to anything to make it decadent. One other discovery was the New Orleans snowball. It’s shaved ice with flavored syrup and condensed milk. It tastes more like Hong Kong than the Deep South, but it’s great on a hot day. And better for you than ice cream, we told ourselves as we tried to ignore the server draining a can of Borden’s on mine.

We also went to a fascinating restaurant in Metarie called Deanie's Seafood Bucktown USA. It was an enormous family restaurant with acres of tables and lots of kids running around. (It didn’t help that the official soft drink of New Orleans appears to be Barq’s, the only root beer I know of with caffeine.) Walking in, I was afraid the place would be an Applebee’s or Olive Garden sort of place, with huge servings of bland, mediocre food. The only thing I was right about was the huge servings. The food was pretty good, and almost everything on the menu seemed exotic from my California perspective. You could get crawfish any which way (I had etoufee) and almost everything seemed to include shrimp, which seems to be the food of the people in Louisiana. In fact, we didn’t get the sense that there was anything at all unusual about taking a station wagon full of kids to eat massive plates of shellfish. Pipi says she left the restaurant feeling like she better understood what regular people eat in New Orleans, and I agree. I can’t help but think how disappointed Louisianans must be when they frequent diners in other states.

In case you missed it the first time, New Orleans photos are here.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Back From New Orleans

The first thing everyone asks me is, “How is New Orleans doing?”

It’s hard for me to answer that because I didn’t know it well before Hurricane Katrina, and of course still don’t. One thing I can say is that the infrastructure is still surprisingly debilitated. There are still whole neighborhoods where hardly anybody lives, where many houses are boarded up or just abandoned, and where the shopping plazas are empty shells. It’s a vicious cycle—who wants to live in a neighborhood with no grocery stores? Who wants to rebuild a grocery store where nobody lives? I can see that it takes time to break out of a cycle like that, but I am a little surprised that more developers haven’t stepped in to make it happen. (I think that’s okay—recovery should happen organically, when people are ready to come home. I’m just surprised, is all.)

One other thing that surprised me is that signs of flood damage are everywhere. I had expected that after two and a half years, people would have moved to put the tragedy behind them by covering up as many visual reminders as they could. But I think that some of these scars are in fact proudly preserved.

When I say that I’m thinking mostly of the X marks that were spray-painted on virtually every residential building in the city in the days and weeks after the flood. Many are still visible. I understand that nobody is going to repaint an abandoned house, but some inhabited homes still have the marks. The home near the fairgrounds pictured above, for example, is definitely lived in (by an older woman I saw rocking on the porch) and otherwise maintained. But the owner still hasn’t painted over the Red Cross graffiti next to her door.

The Xs, by the way, tell very interesting and often horrifying stories. For one thing, if you imagine them being drawn by someone sitting in a boat floating by, you can get an idea of how high the water was. In this case, the boat wouldn’t have been in deep water when the rescuers came by, but look at the date (always in the top quadrant): September 9. That’s 11 days after the storm hit, and more than a week after the flood.

The left-hand side of the X is where rescue crews leave some kind of identifying mark, almost always involving the state they came from—someone from California seems to have looked at this house.

The bottom section is for a body count, the right-hand side usually notes anything else alarming found on site, like gas leaks, animal carcasses, or vicious dogs. Here, though, the story is relatively happy. No bodies were found, and the only warning note, “1 SIP,” stands for “One Sheltering in Place.” That just means that one person chose to stay in the flooded home. A later note, dated Sep. 28, asks that any would-be rescuers not take the pets away, and an addendum elaborates that if anyone finds the house empty, it’s just because the owner is out for a stroll with her dogs.

I’ll say one thing for New Orleans: It may be falling apart physically, woefully mis-managed, and abandoned by a third of its population. But the people who do live there? They’re as tough as nails.

Here’s a link to some of my New Orleans photos.