November 7, 2011

BBQ: San Francisco Style

   As with most of the residential districts in San Francisco, the Inner Richmond has multiple sub-neighborhoods. One of them, along Geary Boulevard, is a wide, heavily trafficked street populated by small businesses. Unattractive on its surface, it doesn't look like much of anything is going on from a food standpoint. It's a neighborhood that one usually just passes through.
   Like most people, my husband and I often travel by restaurants on the bus or in the car and say to one another, “That looks interesting. We should give it a try sometime.” And then we never do. Last week, however, we broke our dysfunctional pattern to try a place we have passed for over a year.
   It came about as I was cruising through the iDine website, looking for a member restaurant. (The best part of the program is that it encourages us to try restaurants we might never have noticed. Many have become our favorites.) Since I searched by my zip code, the program brought up restaurants close by our apartment. Right at the top of the list, was Roadside BBQ. Located on the corner of 2nd Avenue and Geary, this casual, small, and extraordinarily friendly restaurant is a welcome addition to the business-oriented area.

September 14, 2011

San Francisco Opera's "Heart of a Soldier"

Heart of a Soldier, The Twin Towers
Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.

Too Soon?

It is difficult to predict when it becomes appropriate to tackle artistically a tragedy like the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. At what point do the images and personal stories become history instead of a way to capitalize emotionally and financially on such a distressing moment? Equally important is the decision of how to depict these episodes — to decide how a work of art takes real-life incidents and transforms them into universal truths. Does the artist focus on the large-scale historical event, or does he choose to focus on the personal?
For its world premiere of Heart of a Soldier at San Francisco Opera, the creators chose to concentrate on the personal story of Morgan Stanley’s security head Rick Rescorla, whose actions led over 2,700 World Trade Center South Tower workers to safety, only to lose his own life when he reentered the building to search for stragglers. The opera focuses on his journey from childhood in Cornwall, England, to his role in the tragic events on 9/11. An exploration of a life that culminated in those heroic actions is a story worth examining.
Unfortunately, it was poorly told.
The libretto by Donna Di Novelli (based on the James B. Stewart book Heart of a Soldier) is all exposition — a linear docudrama that plays fast and loose with Rescorla’s biography — jumping episodically from Rescorla’s childhood idolization of Yanks in World War II, through his mercenary soldiering in Rhodesia, subsequent enlistment in the U.S. Army and service in Vietnam, to his first marriage — then inexplicably jumps to Rescorla at his job at the World Trade Center and second marriage, leaving a twenty-year gap in its wake. In the didactic and cliché-ridden script, all moments are given equivalent time and importance, and the audience is left wondering if events or the gaps in-between weighed equally in Rescorla’s character development and whether they occurred over three days, three minutes, or three years.

August 22, 2011

Casey's Cafe -- A Half Moon Bay Gem

   Even though we live in San Francisco, arguably one of the most livable cities in the U.S., there are times when we feel the need to hit the ZipCar lot and get out of town. Because we live in the far west side of the city, our easiest choices are to go north to the Wine Country or south toward the beach cities on the coast. If we have an entire day, we go north — the Napa/Sonoma/ Mendocino wineries are about one and a half to two hours away. However, if our time is more limited, and we still want to get a quick fix on a universe that isn't all paved with concrete, we head to Half Moon Bay — 28 miles and 30 to 45 minutes south along the Pacific Coast through forested hills and down some of the most beautiful coastline California has to offer.
   We usually take the road through the coastal town of Pacifica. From there, it's a short drive to Half Moon Bay and its historic downtown, where we check out some of the many shops and art galleries before choosing where we want to eat our lunch. (For those with more time, there are a number of pleasant bed-and-breakfasts specifically designed to help visitors unwind.)
   As a member of iDine, I always look to see if an iDine restaurant can be one of our choices. A new Half Moon Bay favorite is Casey's Café, located on Main Street in Zaballa Square. Specializing in lighter fare — omelet's, soups, salads, sandwiches, burgers, and enticing desserts — Casey's uses the fine local produce, artisan breads, and selects high-quality vendors for the varied menu items. Additionally, owner Casey has responded to her customers' requests by offering vegetarianvegan, and gluten free options. All of the beef used is hormone and additive free, and she makes a special effort to source organic produce whenever possible.

July 14, 2011

If Health Insurance Works in San Francisco ...

Today was one of those days that could have gone horribly wrong -- but didn't. 
 Our COBRA health insurance ran out. Very bad. However, we are fortunate to live in San Francisco, which in its progressive manner, has found a way to create a health insurance program for its citizens. Is it free? No. But the cost to each person is based on an indexed ability to pay. 

Because more people can see health care providers on a regular basis for preventive care, a great deal of the cost for the program is borne by a serious reduction in county hospital emergency room costs and by catching diseases in early stages, which is always less expensive. Oh, and there is a tremendous savings by completely eliminating insurance companies from the process. It's what Obamacare could have been, if the government had been brave and gutsy enough to bypass the insurance companies.

My husband and I have income; therefore, our participation amount is at the higher end of the spectrum. That's fine. We should contribute more, so that others who can't afford the cost still will have access to health care. But the charges are well within our ability to pay without having to resort to making cat food sandwiches on bargain white bread. Believe me, the COBRA premiums were high enough to make this a consideration (2/3 of our San Francisco rent).

So today, we enrolled in the Healthy San Francisco program. This was not a depressing public office that feeds folks into a grimy free clinic, but a pleasant (yet basic) business environment, where caring enrollment officers help people go through the process. We had a choice of providers and systems to join, selected one that suited our needs, and walked out an hour later knowing who our medical providers would be and our cost for the services. Efficient and pleasant. We are relieved and thrilled.

The intangible that comes from this is actually the most important thing -- peace of mind. The reduced worry frees us up to concentrate on job hunting and working on the family writing and publishing business. Thank you, San Francisco.

July 6, 2011

Clement Street: A Village Within a Village

    In April, I spoke about San Francisco being a collection of small villages. A reader suggested that I might make this into a series of sorts, and so I am going to run with the notion.

A Village Within a Village
    This time, we're exploring the Inner Richmond, home to many wonderful small stores and restaurants. Although there are many little areas within this village, one of the most pleasant is to be found on Clement Street, located in the area bound by Geary Boulevard on the south, California Street on the north, and between Arguello and Park Presidio Boulevards.
    Like most San Francisco neighborhoods, the Inner Richmond is short on chain stores, but long on independent businesses. Here you will find one of the cities finest used book stores, Green Apple Books, along with bakeries, cafés, bars, houseware and grocery stores, and about a gazillion restaurants. A good place to have a coffee, do a bit of shopping, and then have a lovely lunch, a late afternoon drink, or dinner.

It's a Party
    Spring is a very special time for our family. In one eight-day period, we celebrate my husband's birthday, our wedding anniversary, and my birthday. Any one of these is cause for a party, but all three at once is our excuse for an annual holiday. Of course, we check our budget before we plan anything. Some years we go all out — fancy hotel overnight stays, theater tickets, and gourmet dinners — and some years, the income stream only runs to delivery pizza and a movie rental. In fact, we've been know to have celebrations in truck stops and diners.
    This year, our "big" meal during celebration week was at the Clement Street Bar & Grill, a comfy, wood-paneled family-friendly restaurant that has been under the same ownership since 1982. Years ago, when we lived in the neighborhood, this was our "treat" restaurant after a long work week. Good drinks (very important), tasty food, and real mashed potatoes. For birthday week, we made our first visit in over 15 years — we were on a bit of a nostalgia tour.

April 7, 2011

San Francisco Pub Crawl: 3 Bars and a Taco Joint

    Foodie Heaven, Gateway to the Wine Country, Cultural Mecca — San Francisco is all this and more. It's a great town for taking in beautiful views, going for long walks in Golden Gate Park, or attending a conference or business meeting. You can spend all day negotiating with clients, but once you step outside for a break, it feels like vacation time.
    Usually, even the most packed business trip or holiday lets you enjoy some free time in the evening. You could take advantage of the many theater, music, and dance options (some of the best in the country), go to a movie (which you could do at home), or hang out in your room and order room service. Yeah, right.
    But what if you are in the mood to explore? Maybe even to have a little fun. Where do you go that isn't the typical tourist trap?
It's in the Neighborhoods
    Head out for one of the villages. San Francisco is a city of small towns within its own city limits. Tourists have heard of some of these villages — Chinatown, North Beach, The Castro, the Haight, Fisherman's Wharf — but many are a mystery to the average visitor. Each has its own flavor and cultural identity (sometimes a blend of several), attractions, restaurants, shops, and homes.
    Some are easily accessible; all have their charms. Hayes Valley encompasses the area surrounding the War Memorial Opera House and Davies Symphony Hall. It's trendy, the restaurants geared toward pre- and post-theater drinks and dining and boutique shopping.
    Ninth Avenue and Irving Street in the Inner Sunset is near the museums in Golden Gate Park, the University of San Francisco Medical Center, and a quickish hop to San Francisco State. Restaurants and bars tend toward the casual; the food, tends toward the very good.

March 29, 2011

Review: In the Blink of an Eye by Michael Waltrip

In the Blink of an Eye: Dale, Daytona, and the Day that Changed Everything

Michael Waltrip and Ellis Henican
Hyperion, 240 pp.

Most people, even those who do not follow NASCAR, have heard of the legendary Dale Earnhardt, winner of seven Winston Cup Series (now known as the Sprint Cup Series) championships. Often referred to as “The Intimidator,” many consider Earnhardt the greatest stock car racer the sport has produced. As with a lot of successful drivers, in addition to driving, he developed and ran his own racing team, Dale Earnhardt, Inc.
At the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR’s most celebrated event, Earnhardt team members, son Dale Jr. and Michael Waltrip, were racing each other for the win, while Earnhardt blocked potential challengers to the two. “I felt so lucky to be on his team,” says Waltrip. “I was driving for the man.… He was wildly aggressive and fiercely competitive. His driving style defined what our sport was all about.”
On the last lap, Earnhardt crashed, dying shortly thereafter. The race winner, Michael Waltrip, was celebrating in Victory Lane when he found out that he had lost one of his best friends even as he achieved one of the biggest successes of his racing career.
New York Times bestseller In the Blink of an Eye is the story of Waltrip’s journey of personal discovery as he dealt with this loss, as well as an account of how a guy from a small town in Kentucky ended up driving at the elite level in his chosen sport.
The Driver/Fan Connection
NASCAR fans are some of the most loyal and passionate of any sport. They truly identify with and develop a personal attachment to their idols, and their loyalty is expressed in many ways, including collecting memorabilia, wearing logo merchandise, and attending special track events designed to bring them close to their heroes. It also extends to advertiser support. Tony Stewart fans really do choose Office Depot over Staples, Jimmie Johnson fans patronize Lowe’s (of course Joey Logano fans go to competitor Home Depot), and Michael Waltrip fans shop at NAPA Auto Parts, rent household goods from Aaron’s, and stay at Best Western.
Every race week, fans travel long distances to camp out in tents, campers, and even converted school buses, to see their favorite drivers compete. Why? In one word — access. There is no other sport in the nation where the stars of the sport are encouraged, even required, to interact so frequently with their fans. Whether at regular team meetings or at the annual season-ending galas, team owners and NASCAR brass constantly reinforce that without the fans, the sport would be nothing. And it is taken to heart by the drivers who good-naturedly (mostly) participate in pre-race events, store appearances, and fan-related activity — without the usual no-access bubble maintained by the handlers of other celebrities. (A couple of weeks ago, Nationwide series driver champion Brad Keselowski even showed up at a fan campground with cases of his sponsor’s beer to share while he did an unscheduled meet-and-greet and kicked back with the crowd.)
Since race events usually start on Friday, fans also can buy special pre-race tickets to Neon Garage activities designed specifically to enhance fan involvement and where the fans can mingle with and watch as the drivers and crew ready the cars for practice, qualifying, and the race. Live entertainment and special concessions and souvenir stands often are part of the experience, and at some tracks, specially ticketed fans even have limited access to the trackside pits.
From this access, the fans become bonded with all the drivers.
So whether race fans loved him or hated him, they had some kind of relationship with Dale Earnhardt and were stunned by his loss. For his fans, Earnhardt was more like an extended family member than a racing icon. And his death was not a blow to only his fans; it was a huge blow to every racing enthusiast.
Back to Michael
As NASCAR fans know, two-time Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip is no shrinking violet. However, until now, he has been relatively silent about his feelings on what was both the best and worst day of his life. “[N]obody lived that day like I did,” he says. “Nobody could tell the story like I could. I felt like I owed that to the people who were still hurting. Every year they return to Daytona and feel that pain again.”
In the Blink of an Eye follows Waltrip’s journey from his start in go-karts to being only one of eight drivers to have won the Daytona 500 championship more than once, and one of only three drivers to make more than 1,000 NASCAR starts.
Today he owns Michael Waltrip Racing, a three-car NASCAR Sprint Cup racing team, is a part-time driver for the team, and a media celebrity, appearing regularly on Showtime’s This Week in NASCAR and other racing shows. He also writes a monthly column for NASCAR Illustrated.
On his way to the top Cup series, Waltrip won a lot of races at many levels. But until that 2001 day in Daytona, Waltrip had gone 462 NASCAR Cup races without a win. That’s a bit demoralizing no matter the circumstances, but Waltrip’s older brother Darrell was a three-time NASCAR Cup champion.
Like most drivers, Waltrip had worked with assorted race team owners at the various levels of NASCAR competition, including his brother Darrell, the famed Wood Brothers (car owners for current Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne), and for “The King,” Richard Petty. The 2001 Daytona 500 was his first race with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. “Winning the 500 is every NASCAR racer’s dream,” says Waltrip. “To join the list of names inscribed on the Harley J. Earl trophy makes you part of the sport’s elite.”
The Book
Because of its subject, this could be a somber exercise. It isn’t. Although Waltrip talks honestly about his family, his love for the sport, and how his life changed as he was coping with guilt and grief over Earnhardt’s death, he uses self-deprecating humor and his customary irreverence to lighten the tone. And throughout it all, Waltrip tells great background stories about the racing community, his more controversial moments, and the colorful racing personalities, past and present.
However, this isn’t just something about racing for race fans. This is an inspirational story about continuing to follow a dream, even when success is elusive. Through example, Waltrip illustrates that life doesn’t operate as a sit-com, where all the loose ends are tied up with a bow at the end of a half hour. He also freely admits to having help along the way and gives credit and thanks to those who aided him in achieving his goals, especially in the book’s dedication:
If not for Darrell, I never would have started dreaming.
If not for Richard, I might still be dreaming.
If not for Dale, I don’t believe my dreams would have ever come true.
The book is strongest, though, when it talks about Waltrip’s grieving process after Dale Earnhardt’s death and its effect on his career and personal life. Some fans might be unhappy that Waltrip glossed over some of the more controversial aspects of his career and the end of his long marriage. To do so, however, would likely have doubled the size of the book so it might be addressed more successfully in a future work.
He also is fortunate in his co-author Ellis Henican, who has helped to focus the book’s structure without losing Waltrip’s distinctive voice. It reads like a conversation, as if Waltrip were sharing a couple of brews with you as he tells his story. In the Blink of an Eye is engaging, candid and personal, obviously written from the heart.

[Originally published at California Literary Review, March 29, 2011.]

March 15, 2011

Running with the Big Dogs — Las Vegas, Nevada

    If you are a beer aficionado, a big element of planning for any business trip or vacation is to scope out where you can find a decent brew. Even though Las Vegas is a late-comer to the microbrew scene, each year finds new and varied offerings. One of the best of the Las Vegas brew purveyors — Big Dog’s Brewing Company — is an inviting pub located in one of the ubiquitous Las Vegas strip malls west of The Strip. I have to admit that this is one of our favorites — we've been regulars for a long time — and we're thrilled that it is now on the iDine program.
    Big Dog’s has a great combination of craft beer, good food, gaming, and retail. In keeping with its Las Vegas location, the bar/casino has a gaming license and is outfitted with state-of-the-art LCD multi-denominational gaming machines. Smoking and dining with the full menu is legally offered in the bar area; the dining room is reserved for nonsmoking patrons.
    Whether you want a place to hang out with friends and enjoy some local craft beers, are looking for a place to hit at 2:00 a.m. for a late-night snack, need a friendly place to have lunch or dinner with the family, or want to celebrate with other sports fans, be sure and schedule time for a visit.
The Beer 
    Brewing award-winning beers in Las Vegas since 1993, Big Dog’s is Las Vegas’ original brew pub. While the beer is brewed across town at the Draft House facility, the brews served up at this convenient Sahara Boulevard location are fresh and go down easy in the dry desert climate. The beers are brewed using an all-stainless-steel 15-barrel system that can produce up to 30 kegs of beer per batch. Around 25 different styles of brews are made throughout the year, ranging from light beer to a rich, dark Russian Imperial Stout. 

February 26, 2011

In Defense of the Corner Grocery Store

When you live in a suburb or a suburb-like city such as Las Vegas, Portland, or Los Angeles, you take for granted the wide range of supermarket availability.  Safeway, Vons, Kroger, Albertsons, Fred Meyer --- you usually have at least two or three of these within an easy drive of home. However, if you live in a city-city like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco, these hubs of grocery commerce are thin on the ground.

The Situation
   That doesn't mean they don't exist, but the numbers are few and, as these things usually go, inconvenient to your apartment or condo. Especially, as is often the case with city dwellers, if you don't have a car. Keep in mind that not having a car means:
   It often takes an hour or more to get to and from said supermarket on the bus. And in San Francisco, that can be $2.00 for each person coming and going;
   Your purchases are limited to what you can carry. This means no whole watermelons, large juice bottles, or 5lb. bags of anything;
   Travel time and temperature issues --- If it's a warm day and you have to take two buses (a common occurrence), kiss off buying frozen anything, especially ice cream.

January 31, 2011

Comfort Food in --- Las Vegas?

UNLV Campus in Winter
Photo by Jeff Speer
   When most people think of Las Vegas, rarely do they picture scenes of cold, rain, and snow. However, the city is located in a desert basin at 2,030 feet above sea level and winter temperatures, though usually mild in the day, often get chilly at night with lows dropping into the 30s. And, although snow is rare in the Las Vegas Valley floor, every few years, it gets more than a slight dusting — in December 2009, the city had a 3.6 inch snowfall.
    Without a doubt, this is the time of year, even in Las Vegas, to put away the salad tongs and pick up the soup ladle. Because nothing says “comfort food” like soup. Clear broths, creamy textures, or hearty combinations — soup is coziness in a bowl.

Elements Kitchen and Martini Bar
   Drive a couple of miles west of The Strip on Tropicana and you will come upon a nondescript strip mall just behind a gas station on Rainbow Boulevard. There you will find Elements Kitchen and Martini Bar (4950 S. Rainbow Blvd.), one of the nicest and friendliest small restaurants in a town known mostly for the grand and impersonal.

January 15, 2011

Ten Ways We Live Small

One-half of our living space

      We did it. Granted, we picked a pretty spendy place to live. San Francisco rents are expensive, so we now live in a studio apartment (we might go to a one-bedroom some day, but we aren't sure). Takes no time to clean (but no slacking --- no place to hide stuff). If we bring something in, we have to take something else out. We don't have a car. It's less expensive to rent one, take a bus or taxi, or use ZipCar. K. W. often goes to a coffee house to work (they have good WiFi and someone else makes the brew). Seems austere, but when we walk out our door, we have all of San Francisco for a living room. 
      Downsizing means you can live wherever you want. 

Here is how we are doing it:

The List
 1.   Most things have to have multiple uses (except for wall art --- it can just be art). Tables are desks, dining chairs are desk chairs, side tables are coffee tables and workspaces, the sofa is a bed, bookcases have storage baskets, the hand blender has attachments that turn it into a food processor and hand mixer, physical books are allowed in small quantities --- the rest is on the Kindle.
 2.  There is no room for major food or wine storage. So shopping is done more frequently. The end result is that everything is fresh, which is probably better for us.
3.    We each have a relatively small closet in the studio. My closet holds my clothes, household linens, and any stuff that needs moth protection. It's pretty organized thanks to one of those Joy Mangano closet systems --- those hangers really do make extra room, folks!
4.    My husband's closet holds his clothes, the wireless printer, office supplies, one bin of household files, electronic bits and pieces, and the all-important Tsar Nutcracker.
5.    We have a small closet down in the garage where we have our luggage and a couple of extra plastic bins for out-of-season clothes and extra linens. 

Outside Storage
      I do have to admit, we are still storing some things in a small outside storage unit, which we go through once a month. We have tossed more stuff, and are making some hard decisions about what we can keep. 
 6.     Each of us has about four boxes of books that we want access to, but don't need every day. There are large cooking pots not needed except on special occasions, holiday decorations, and personal records and files. And we have a large CD/DVD collection that will eventually migrate to another storage format. We are working on that.
 7.     We have chosen two beautiful pieces of furniture from our past life to keep --- a sideboard and chest of drawers. Our oak sideboard (a very small one) eventually will make it to the apartment. It's a beautiful piece of furniture and holds a lot of stuff for its size. Historically, it has been the repository for our entertaining items like wine glasses, cocktail paraphernalia and liquor, serving pieces, and "good" dishes. Since we like to have company, it gets to stay. The large chest of drawers will stay in storage until we decide whether our downsizing will permanently be a studio or a one-bedroom apartment.
 8.     In the next few months, we will cut in half what we have in storage. However, we have admitted to ourselves that we will probably have a small storage unit for the duration. It's less expensive than paying for a larger apartment to house things we only need infrequently. 

The Final Cut
        So, what are we keeping in the apartment? 
 9.    Computers, TV, stereo (duh!), art, rugs, sideboard, basic furniture, current bill files and receipts, small quantities of food, some office supplies, clothes in current use, and daily kitchen equipment.
10.   Each other. We remind ourselves that if we didn't love each other, no place would be big enough. However, since we do, no place is too small.

And, did I mention: We are living in SAN FRANCISCO!