Text Trail. 2006 - 2007. ~mike gradziel.
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Also read from 2001-2002, 2002-2003, 2003-2004, 2004-2005, 2005-2006, 2007-2008, 2008-2010, 2011-2012, and 2013-2015.
Fourteen hours of flying brought me home to red and gold autumn leaves and chilly weather, nothing like the dry desert or hot rainforest. After our first ten days traveling from Buenos Aires to the big waterfall at Iguazu and then to the colorful desert northwest near Salta, the second half of our trip took us southward to wine country and then to the base of the highest Andean peaks. We wandered empty dirt roads shaded by weeping willows, sycamores, and mulberry trees, enjoying a vista of snow-streaked rugged peaks. Meltwater from the mountains thundered by in a muddy river. Water diverted into open channels running throughout the town fed the giant trees and green fields; if not for irrigation, there would be nothing but sand and stones. A series of long bus rides took us across the country to Rosario, a hot steamy city on a slow brown river traveled by great ocean ships. Back in Buenos Aires for three days, we explored more neighborhoods and took the subway to trendy Palermo, where we stayed our first night, for a second look with new perspective. Against the rest of the city, Palermo is a nice neighborhood of shops and restaurants. Against the rest of the country - the part we saw, at least - it's a paradise like no other.
Northwest Argentina is partly lush rainforest, partly a high desert plain occupied by llamas and overshadowed by the towering peaks of the Andes mountians, and partly a desert landscape splashed with vivid hues of red, gold, gray, purple, and green. In Argentina, they know how to grill steak: Thick, juicy, and in gigantic portions. In addition to seeking out good eats in Buenos Aires and exploring the desert northwest near Salta, Joy and I flew to Iguazu on the border with Paraguay to see the big waterfall there and watch monkeys in the rainforest. Now we´re going south through wine country, enjoying the scenery and trying to stuff more and more colorful weavings, books, and other purchases into our formerly compact backpacks...
Until two weeks ago, I considered giant yellow slugs as big as sausages to be creatures of fiction. Then I went walking with Joy and Hsun-Tzu and Doug in a redwood forest and saw two of these slimy animals making their way among the fallen leaves. This just proves the obvious: that alien life forms could already be among us, unbeknownst to my sheltered knowledge of the animal kingdom. I was up north again to visit Doug and of course Joy and to have a look around Stanford University, in particular Paul's lab of quasi-alien walking robotic animals made of machined aluminum. In the lab next door, they're making mechanical geckos. Giant yellow slugs can climb walls just like geckos, but they are decidedly un-mechanical with no distinct moving parts so for the moment I envision keeping any future research I might do at Stanford confined to machines resembling more traditional walking creatures.
Saturday evening we went to a performance of Beethoven's 7th symphony and some pieces by Bach and Strauss, at the Walt Disney concert hall downtown. The building is a Los Angeles icon, covered in stainless steel panels and shaped with angles and curves making a distinctive shape. There are tours of the interior but they do not show the main auditorium because it's constantly in use for performance or rehearsal. We mainly went to see the room, which has no traditional rectangular geometry except for little things like doorways, but the performance was nice - we had fun figuring out how the stage worked (it was terraced during use but moved to become flat for easy set-up of chairs and music stands for the various pieces, and part of it had been customized to accommodate extra bass players for the 7th symphony). Afterward we went to one of the iconic fine dining restaurants in LA, Patina, a super-expensive foodie type of place where they push your chairs in for you, elect to give a white or a black napkin depending on what tone of clothing you are wearing, and offer tiny food on spacious plates designed for a fine tasting experience. This meant that our appetizers and dessert had dozens of ingredients that really went well together, arranged so we could explore the flavors. For example, one plate - a wide bowl, actually - had a shallow ring or groove near the bottom to form a bowl within a bowl, so the main food could go in the center and a light cucumber sauce could sit in the groove separately but nearby for easy dipping. They include textures as well as flavors in the dining palette - tiny crisp wafers of potato pancake sat atop my miniature stuffed pasta appetizer. Guests at another table ordered something that had to be assembled table-side, I'm guessing from the looks of it because it had something crispy set under something juicy. $80 with tax & tip got us two appetizers and two desserts, without drinks. A full dinner would be a big expense!
For a change from the upscale farmer's market I usually visit on Saturday mornings, I drove to East LA where the massive Los Angeles wholesale produce market sprawls across several blocks. In contrast to the farmer's market's neat booths crowded with well-to-do shoppers, the LA produce district is littered with stinking rubbish and waste. Homeless people sleep on sidewalks or trundle around with shopping carts looking for wood shipping pallets they can sell for $3 apiece. The language spoken is Spanish and in many ways it feels like Mexico, with music blasting from streetside speakers, hot tortillas sizzling on griddles, and shops selling tortilla presses, orange juicers, dried chilis, and those elaborate paper decorations used for holiday celebrations. Most operations take place in long warehouses with loading docks on both sides; produce from all over the world makes transit through from container to truck. Some distributors sell smaller quantities to buyers who pull up in pickup trucks; for a few dollars I could have bought a case of fruit but the varieties were all just what I'd find at a grocery store - bland, unripe, mass-produced crops. No doubt there was food there for hundreds of thousands of people - but not me, for I hurried home to shop in the relative comfort of my favorite discount markets. On the way I drove over the river to see if - and yes, it might be possible - someone could actually land a learjet on the sixth street bridge.
Angel Island is in a perfect position for defending San Francisco Bay. It also proved suitable many years ago for immigration and quarantine, and last weekend it was perfect for Joy's company picnic. We took a ferry out under cover of fog that made Alcatraz seem sinister and gloomy as we passed, but the sun emerged by the time we arrived at Angel Island, ate a big meal, and rented bicycles to ride around the island. Naturally, the island has fantastic views of the city, the bay, Berkeley, Tiburon, and the Golden Gate.
Before temperatures soared to over a hundred degrees in Pasadena, Joy and I departed by early morning ferry bound for Catalina Island. The picturesque village of Avalon was teeming with weekend visitors, many of them crowding into breakfast cafes or staking claims on the beach. We picked up hiking permits and hurried inland, eager to ascend to a clifftop western viewpoint three miles distant, but right away it became clear that the cool air at the coast did not extend far into the hills. After two miles the idea of snorkeling became more favorable than the idea of climbing to a western view and we turned back, content to enjoy a beautiful eastern panorama of brown hills, blue water, and towering thunderclouds that had formed over the San Bernardino mountains on the mainland. Back down in Avalon we stowed our packs in lockers and waded into the sea to pursue schools of orange and blue fish through the kelp. But there I suffered the opposite extreme: without a wesuit, ten minutes in the swaying kelp was all I could enjoy. Having restored balance between hot and cold, we retreated to the waterfront to eat ice cream cones and read and watch the sun sink low.
Last time in San Francisco we went to a tiki bar cleverly disguised in an unassuming hotel, complete with a 50-foot long pool of water on which the band floated in a boat with a thatched roof, and into which periodid thunder storms poured rain accompanied by flashes of light and rumbles of thunder from speakers throughout the room. The masts and rails of an authentic wooden sailing ship from the 1800s framed the dance floor, and our drinks arrived in tribal pots which we huddled around with slender straws eighteen inches long, drinking together. This time my visit was a little more tame: I visited Tom & Pat, for the first time in eleven years, to visit and introduce Joy and learn all about the fruit trees that Tom is working on at his orchards in Davis. There at the university all sorts of new fruits are being coaxed from the offspring of trees grown in distant corners of the planet. Later, we drove to Joy's parents' house and traded some peaches and figs for yellow beans and zucchini.
At 4:00 in the morning I awakened to muffled urgent chatter outside in the trees and gradually became convinced that small animals needed help, perhaps through some universal parenting instinct that persisted through my attempts to ignore the sounds and muffle them with pillows. Wondering what the neighbors might think if they noticed me, I ventured outside barefoot wearing my headlamp and was startled at first to hear an intense rustling drawing rapidly nearer through the trees, coming straight at me. Green eyes reflected the light from my headlamp but then halted beyond a chain link fence. Sure enough, three baby raccoons were trapped in the trash dumpster, which had been emptied recently leaving walls too high for the youngsters to climb. I heard a hiss suddenly and glanced up to see a large adult raccoon above me, ready to spring onto my head it seemed. From the garage I brought a piece of 2x4 lumber and eased it into the dumpster to make a ramp, keeping my eyes on the fearless big raccoon and watching for the slightest hint of motion. Once the ramp was in place, all three baby raccoons clambered up and out of the dumpster. As curious as ever, they took some time and coaxing from big raccoon to jump across to the adjacent grapevine and scamper down to the ground. Other mundane but strangely exciting recent happenings include my discovery of a large green tomato hidden away in the foliage of the tomato plants growing on my deck. I'd thought there were none, because the deck is too shady and the planters too small.
I made fresh guacamole on the curiously smooth grassy lawn of the Getty Center gardens while the first concert of the summer music series was starting and the sun was sinking behind hills to the west. Once the avocadoes were sliced and the onion and tomatoes were chopped I suddenly noticed the paths of young children veering closer to our blanket. A toddler lurched up and almost toppled into the bag of chips. The parents seemed attracted too; I squeezed a lemon and sprinkled cayenne pepper into the mix and set out our snacks. Then the music started and the lawn became crowded and darkness fell and we moved up to a terrace by one of the stages. Inside the main lobby, an artist had created a colossal sculpture that looked like something you'd find in pond water, enlarged a million times. It played organ music, deep belching tones powered by air pressure. On Wednesday I flew to Boulder, Colorado for the last big meeting at our subcontractor there. I visited Grandma and Grandpa and Pat & Jeff, and thoroughly enjoyed watching thunderstorms. Not having weather in Los Angeles seems to me sort of like living in a world without music. Then, without warning, it rained this morning in Pasadena.
Our salmon was caught at the surface off Salt Point. The fisherman hefted one of his smallest fish, a nine-pounder, out of the icebox and onto a scale on his boat at Half Moon Bay. For $20 we had food for days! Joy and I stocked up on vegetables at the farmers market, then set out to fillet the fish (harder than I thought it would be) and prepare a variety of fish dishes for lunch and dinner. Later, at the ceramics studio, I learned how to throw clay bowls. Turning clay is so different from turning metal or wood - it bends around your hand and tools and behaves in its own way. Sunday we watched elephant seals sleep at Ano Nuevo beach. Like giant garden slugs, the tubular dark creatures strewn on the beach weren't the prettiest animals around but they were comical nonetheless, snoozing upside down in lapping waves indifferent to the water rushing over them. At lengths of twelve feet, the giants are mostly fearless and don't mind visitors peering from cordoned pathways nearby. Offshore, at the abandoned lighthouse keeper's home, sea lions and birds have moved in and have made themselves comfortable in the hallways and bedrooms. I saw a photo of the domesticated sea creatures comically peering out from their house.
Eight pounds of fresh berries are stacked in my refrigerator, even after Joy took four pounds home and we ate several pounds more. Berry picking only comes around once a year, so there's reason for excess. No store sells strawberries red and juicy all the way through - they bruise far too easily for commercial transport. And at one fifth or less of the grocer's price, pick-your-own can sustain berry fantasies like fistfuls of berries eaten in single gulps, half-and-half cereal and berries at breakfast, or dinner plate sized crepes hot off the skillet packed with dollops of vanilla-scented whipped cream and loaded with raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and slivers of strawberry. We ate these things this weekend as well as delectable pieces of tender juicy piglet, who was barbecued seaside over hot hardwood coals on Saturday afternoon. Relaxing in the sun at Dockweiler beach, I watched airplane after airplane take off from LAX and carve a swath through the wispy coastal clouds like a ski boat cutting a wake. Tendrils of cloud torn apart by a vee-shaped bow wave then rushed backwards in the jet wake, curling in like the breakers churning foam on the sand. These empty blue trails through white clouds persisted for minutes, like roads plowed clear of a heavy snow. Some planes even made rainbows in the low sun as water vapor was condensed in the low pressure above their wings.
Presented with the opportunity to see what lay behind the hulking mass of rock that blocks the splendid view north of Mt. Langley in the California Sierras, I happily accepted one of Stephanie's extra hiking permits and packed my pretzels and soup. Climbing to the top of Mount Whitney would be a fine way to spend a weekend. But a new regulation is in place this year: thousands of pounds of poo previously lifted from mountain camps by helicopter must now be marched out one by one, in compact plastic bags packed with high-tech kitty litter that does little to subdue ominous odors in the event that a pack-o-poo is left out in the sun for too long. This great misfortune is brought upon backpackers by the sheer number of their companions who ascend the mountain every summer - sixteen thousand per season. These hordes call from all over the world (but mostly from California) to seek the ultimate prize in the great pastime of walking among mountains: a snapshot photograph atop the tallest rock on the swath of Earth between Canada and Mexico. Yes, there one can find pretty rock crags and the usual wildflowers, but the hills and lakes aren't nearly as nice as the peaceful, lightly traveled valleys to the north and south ...and west. Almost anywhere else in the High Sierras, lovely campsites lack suspicious smells and seldom bear the battering of tired feet. Go climb if you must, but if you can manage, try one of the nearby peaks with better views, fewer people, and the same lack of oxygen.
Along the American River near Placerville, I searched in vain for gold nuggets. I think the '49-ers took them all. We did have a nice swim in the swift current, though; Joy and I met Mitch & Heather there last Saturday after they rafted down almost twenty miles of rapids. I'd have loved to do the same, but getting to the put-in early in the morning would have been too hard, what with Joy flying in from Atlanta the night before and my late flight up from Burbank. Instead we relaxed at our campsite and later roasted marshmallows over a blazing fire. In the morning, after a visit to the museum at Sutter's Mill, we set out to visit Joy's parents and unload them of many pounds of cherries. The refrigerator was packed full of them and buckets more sat nearby - all from just three trees! Back in Pasadena, the cherries long gone, my tomato plants are struggling to find sunshine. It's nice to have shade trees, but tomatoes really need full sun. Maybe this compromise will save me from getting four hundred pounds of fruit come August.
It was an epic journey through New York and Massachusetts, though not quite on the scale of our drive along the Eastern Sierras a month earlier. After an immense Salvadoran dinner in West LA with Berto, Joanna, and Sean I flew to Chicago to meet Joy. We continued to Rochester mid-morning and drove to my Grandparents house where thousands of dandelions, yellow goldfinches, orange orioles, red cardinals, and green grass all conspired to make Los Angeles look dull. While we wandered on the lawn at sunset, fox cubs played in the field and their mother barked from a hedge row. The next morning we drove five hours to see my parents, arriving in time for a short walk and a tasty meal. After dark we crept out to the pond with a lamp to look for spring peepers, minute frogs with big voices that hurt our ears as hundreds of calls tore the air in unison. Morning brought stacks of pancakes and a drive back into New York to Oneonta to see Robin, Jose, and Molly & Leia. We visited dogs in the park and the girls found fossils along a creek, but too soon we had to leave to get to Ithaca to see Lisa and chat over dinner. The sky was soaked in colors as we drove back to Geneva, stopping along the way to see a lovely waterfall, to photograph a particular tree I remembered from a visit years ago, and to ask a road crew what they were doing with hundreds of plugs stuck in the ground and connected by orange cables strung mile after mile along the road. They also had a huge lumbering machine that looked like four trucks chained together, something that might sputter and lurch out of a junkyard and did not belong on a pretty lakeside drive. But there's natural gas under the shale; to find it, the sputtering machine can put down a big foot and shake the ground so hard that the compression waves travel kilometers straight down, scattering in telltale patterns read by the miles of geophones plugged into the green grass.
California's Eastern Sierra highway tempts the southern metropolis with mountains, lakes, and a whole lot of desert. Prepared drivers can hunt down dozens of interesting things along the way: twisted lava formations and dunes of red and black cinders, impressive rocky canyons and craters and dry lakes, bubbling hot springs with fantastic views of snowy mountains, salty lakes filled with birds and interesting rock formations, groves of ancient pine trees, and rugged valleys with azure pools and sometimes splashes of wildflowers or brilliant orange autumn leaves. There are also military bases with interesting airplanes, restaurants and shops in desert towns or at trendy Mammoth Mountain, historical sites and museums, lakes full of fish, and nearby parks like Death Valley and Yosemite. Joy and I drove almost 800 miles last weekend, making our way up to Mono Lake and back over the course of two days, and we hardly got started on my list of things to see along the way.
Flaming balls of hot blue vaporized grape accompanied by an intense humming sound that rattled the door of my microwave oven kept me entertained for hours last weekend. This all started when I absent-mindedly loaded a metal bowl of leftover pork chops into the microwave and cooked it for two minutes. Nothing happened, and the food didn't get warm, so while eating my cold food I pondered the physics of my mistake. Metal isn't supposed to go in the microwave, but just to be sure I placed a bit of aluminum foil on the turntable and cooked it on high. The microwave instantly buzzed like a swarm of bees and intense flashes of light sputtered from a glowing blue cloud within, making my kitchen look like a scene from Big Trouble in Little China. It was spectacular, though after a few seconds I was left with hardened shreds of molten aluminum breaking chips out of my glass microwave tray. Of course this all made sense: my thick stainless steel bowl shielded microwaves from the food within but didn't heat up much because its thickness and low electrical conductivity kept eddy current heating to a minimum, and its rounded surfaces didn't throw charge. The unlucky aluminum foil was just the opposite: conductive, sharp-edged, and too light for its own good. The grapes were unlucky too: with a diameter just right for making a fine little antenna for the chamber's energy to focus through, arcing commenced immediately through a cloud of steam and in short order I was nurturing a ball of vaporized grape. This was plasma, which conducts electricity and stays in a glowing ball of blue flames if trapped under a drinking glass. All this is of course bad for the microwave, which will overheat if it can't warm up water like it's supposed to do, but by the end of the weekend I'd learned more about microwave ovens, electromagnetism, and high frequency electricity than I ever did in a lecture at college.
Tuesday around midnight Mike and I realized we were in New Jersey. The trouble was, we weren't supposed to be anywhere near New Jersey - though after our discovery it suddenly made more sense that a few miles back we had crossed a large bridge and collected a toll ticket for the New Jersey Turnpike. The sky was cloudy so I had absolutely no idea which way North was and even if I'd known, exit from the turnpike was possible only every five or ten miles and most exits just merged onto other divided highways with no way off for miles and miles more. By good fortune, we soon came upon a rest area and selected a map of Pennsylvania from a rack at the gas station. We needed to be in a little town deep in the forest of Pennsylvania in time to get some sleep before an early morning meeting, and though the night was young in California, we were not in California - or Pennsylvania. We didn't know where we were, or how we got there, and neither did the two girls at the gas station checkout: they couldn't read a map, and I don't speak Thai. I still have suspicions that all this had something to do with big, juicy burgers with applewood smoked bacon and melted cheese and tender morsels of deep fried onions. Everything after the juicy applewood part is a little hazy in my memory, but I distinctly remember turning right per the instruction of a giant green highway sign that said "476 North." Two hours post-burgers we were back on course and three hours post-burgers I was finally settled into a giant heap of pillows, eyeing the hot tub in my room while wishing I had an extra two hours while Mike, in his room down the hall, cursed our travel agent, his room's feeble heater, and the dilapidated shower with peeling plastic.
At the Griffith Park Observatory, exhibits are rich with references to JPL. Movies show clips of our spacecraft and even the shuttle bus had a video screen with lengthy commetary about NASA-JPL. It seems that JPL casts a longer shadow than I expect; after all, it doesn't seem glamorous or even cutting-edge when I bicycle in to work and sit down at my desk to attack the day's agenda. Joy was visiting; after four or five hours spent exploring the newly renovated Observatory (crews actually propped up the building and completely re-did and expanded the underground section, finally leaving the outside looking no different than before) we took a walk down Hollywood Boulevard and then drove back to Pasadena to check out a top-rated Italian restaurant tucked away on a side street near Old Town. Trattoria Tre Venezie is a special place: It is small, so I know the chef sees almost everything that leaves the kitchen bound for my table. Its wine list is impressive but beverages go further: the chef himself brews a variety of dry sodas and elixirs. Lastly, every dish is made to order and presented with reference to the traditional, regional cuisines that inspired it and the fresh ("farmer's market") ingredients it's made from. Our waiter had to dash back to the kitchen to see if they had the fish I'd ordered: the chef doesn't buy any more than he knows will sell out. We noticed two more things dropped off the menu as we dined - and the dinner crowd was thin that evening. Towards the end of the evening I overheard a neighboring couple chatting with their server about how their meal hadn't been quite the same as it had on an earlier visit - "inconsistent," they said. That started me thinking: I wonder if this expectation of consistency is a new thing, brought about by modern manufacturing and chemical technology that all but guarantees that every tortilla chip, slice of cheese, or can of soup will be identical to those that came before it. If the chef at Tre Venezie makes serving an exquisite meal his first priority, pushing to second place the desire to make the meal similar to past preparations, then he and I agree on the basic foundation of the art. Like a good bottle of wine, or a pleasing floral arrangement, a meal is to be enjoyed exactly as it is and for only as long as it lasts. Thereafter, if a second round is in order, one should go exploring through the variations of depth and color, of taste and smell and texture, that repetition will reveal - all without any expectation of an identical experience.
Four hours north of San Francisco thick green grass has sprung up from the hills and explosions of magenta flowers have emerged on gray and green shrubbery. Patches of yellow were splashed around especially in the fields of boulders thrown out from Lassen Peak when it erupted about 90 years ago. Joy and Doug and Hsun-tzu and I snowshoed to a ridgetop in Lassen, making the most of the season's last few feet of snow while sweating in the hot sun. Sulfur steam wafted from boiling pits in the ground at one place along the trail. That evening, after hefty barbecue sandwiches at a diner in Red Bluff, we played cards at a bar & grill until the nightlife became too serious for my muddy boots with laces untied, Joy's yoga pants and pink fleece, and Doug's curiously mismatched shoes. Sunday we drove to Shasta Dam, a concrete monolith shrouded in a heavy gray cloud that together with the streaked, lichen-covered concrete and dead silence of the place suggested something ominous was about to happen. We walked a short loop around a peninsula past turquoise water, wildflowers, bright red rocky shoreline, and fresh green grass before driving the long road back. I flew south Monday morning: it feels strange to commute 400 miles to work and then drive 4 miles home for dinner.
Seeking to bake pretzels like those wonderful soft golden brown twists one can buy fresh at pretzel stands, I located a recipe and got to work. It turns out, however, that there's much more to a pretzel than an occasional cook like myself would suspect. Before baking, pretzels are boiled in lye water: this alkalai solution aids the browning of the pretzel later when it's baked, and conveniently, the baking process neutralizes the alkalai. Bagels benefit from similar treatment. In both cases, boiling before baking creates the characteristic firm smooth skin by altering starch molecules in the bread. The Germans and Polish figured all this out somehow. I can do the boiling part at home, but substituting baking soda - as directed my my recipes - for lye didn't quite do the trick. For now, I'll be content to go downtown to the pretzel shop rather than bake my own. This pretzel-baking came about because Sean and I were puzzled by the rapid tarnishing of silver in our apartment. I had two identical silver chains: one stayed in my apartment, and the other went to Joy's. Mine tarnished, and hers didn't. More recently, new, shiny silver-plated machine nuts from a project at work became tarnished (yes, loyal taxpayer, we in the aerospace business enjoy silver-plating those fasteners you buy for us. Silver is an excellent anti-galling compound). We easily removed the tarnish by setting the silver on aluminum foil and pouring a hot baking soda solution over it to take the sulfide off the silver and apply it to the aluminum instead (there it is again: sodium bicarbonate at work!). This isn't always good for jewelry with stones, but for everything else you should never use any other polishing method. This one leaves all the silver intact and is entirely effortless. Having at least temporarily reversed the tarnishing, I set out to find out why it appeared in the first place. The most likely reason: Los Angeles smog, laden with sulfur dioxide and casting a brown pall over the landscape all year long. It's the same stuff that causes acid rain, and I'm breathing it right now.
A week ago Joy and Doug and I went on a whale watch from Half Moon Bay, having rescheduled after the first attempt that was cancelled by high winds. This time the sea was calm, which means four to six foot swells each perfectly capable of rocking the boat enough to make our stomachs queasy when the bow wasn't pointed into the waves. That happened most often when we were watching whales, so it was an acceptable compromise. We saw sea otters and a dolphin and four gray whales; the whale spouts were visible a half mile away in the clear air. I flew to Boulder a few days later for a business meeting. Joy followed on Thursday evening and we set out to explore Pearl Street before heading into the mountains to snowshoe a short loop through the trees at ten thousand feet. After dinner at the rustic and romantic Twin Owls restaurant where portions were so enormous we couldn't finish our roast duck and elk and freshly baked bread we retreated to the luxurious warmth of our private hot tub at the Dripping Springs Bed & breakfast. In the morning snow was falling as we drove back into Rocky Mountain National Park and ventured off into the woods where in three inches of fresh powder we saw all sorts of animal tracks, a white rabbit, and several squirrels. Saturday night we returned to Boulder to visit Grandma and Grandpa, Pat and Jeff and the kids, and even Uncle John who drove all the way from Kansas.
My neck was stiff from looking out the window continuously for an hour on my flight back from San Francisco a week ago. The weather was perfectly clear, I was flying during the day, and every detail of the land below was visible. I spotted Joy's apartment building and admired the city and the Golden Gate and Half Moon Bay, where we'd browsed shops and galleries and discovered a fantastic sandwich shop on Sunday. We planned to go on a whale watch cruise but high winds had whipped up the sea and we had to reschedule. Out at the beach, the wind was so strong it made my ears hurt. Sea foam churned up by the heavy surf washed ashore in foot-thick mats that were promptly torn apart by the wind; chunks of foam tumbled across the sand like big blocks of broken styrofoam. The same wind had cleared out all dusty air so as my flight descended into Burbank I noticed for the first time an area of mountains in Los Padres National Forest northeast of Ojai. There's a condor sanctuary up there, and deep canyons and dramatic ridges of layered rock. I printed some maps and set out the following weekend with Sean, Joanna, Michael, and Kristin with the goal of making it to a ridgetop to see the ocean and Channel Islands. On Saturday morning we set out upstream, climbing over boulders and following some short sections of washed-out trail to a fantastic swimming hole with high cliffs for jumping - one 80 feet high, which people do jump from though the landing pool is narrow. We saw fossil shells and lush green hollows lined with maidenhair ferns and crumbling black clay boulders that had shattered in the dry heat. The East Fork of Santa Paula Canyon ended after five miles in a wet clay gully recently carved from the hillside by storms in 2005. The landscape was wild looking: trees were uprooted and broken in half and freshly broken rock shone brilliantly in the sun. A nearly impenetrable wall of tangled brush blocked the canyon rim. I think the Sespe River might be a better approach to the ridge top; there's more bare rock and less shrubbery on the east side.
Over the holidays this year I read the book Travels by Michael Crichton. The guy has a fantastic imagination: he dreamed up Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain and Sphere and Congo but Travels is a collection of more personal essays about his days at Harvard Medical School, various unrelated personal vacations to places like Jamaica, Bangkok, New Guinea, Pakistan, and East Africa, and some peculiar accounts of psychedelic experiences like talking cacti and body energy fields. Though clearly a soapbox for over-inflated adventure stories and social banter, the book was an interesting read because I felt that Crichton must have some depth to his thoughts and stories to risk putting them and his reputation into widely distributed print and have both the book and reputation persist since 1988, the year of publication. With this thought, I found the brief chapter on the bending of spoons and other metal tableware with one's "mind energy" to be particularly unnerving. Intent on finding out for myself what would make a group of ordinary people gather to bend spoons at a "psychokinesis party" and not have this lead to either mass denial or jubilant mainstream adoption of such powers, I was delighted to discover that the same guy mentioned in the book would be hosting a party not far away in a month and a half. At the Goodwill store I bought an assortment of old stainless steel flatware and on the appointed evening I made the drive across Los Angeles, thinking as I waited in traffic about the risks of taking my cell phone inside with me. Surely delicate circuit board traces would be far more prone to damage than dining utensils but no one had mentioned any such concerns and it was making me very skeptical already. Resolving to keep careful watch over other people's cell phones and my own wallet, I crept into the lobby and took a seat to wait for the ballroom doors to open. A group of people slowly gathered, moms and kids, folks wearing black leather, retired couples, men and women, young and old. Most of them seemed normal enough but in conversation no one made any sort of introduction. I was trying to act open and friendly and not at all skeptical and I think most of them were too. Once we got started there were about eighty people sitting on hotel chairs circled around a heap of ordinary metal forks and spoons, obediently following the instructions to select a spoon, ask if it would bend, tell it to bend, and then wait for it to get soft. Shouting, silliness, and showing off was encouraged. We all wanted our spoon to bend first.
Two friends seated behind me seemed a little flustered. They were true believers and they'd spent all day at the hypnosis convention, but they weren't having any luck melting metal by sheer willpower alone. The kids, on the other hand, had gotten the hang of it right away. The guy to right muttered to someone else "...yeah but I think I just bent it myself." It looked as if his wife had dragged him along. People marveled at how the spoons were getting warm where they rubbed them. We were told we could try buckling the bowl of a silver plated spoon once we'd bent five ordinary utensils so after a little while I went ahead and bent my spoons like everyone else was doing and got myself a silver spoon. A few people had bent these already and I'd noticed that the bowls were quite a lot thinner than the steel spoons. The bowl of mine bent quite easily. No one had any luck with the heavy steel rods or with bending forks by mind power alone, just by looking at them - like in the movie The Matrix. My bent spoons were indistinguishable from all the examples our host had brought along, and the things I felt were just as predicted: sure enough, when held and rubbed for a while the spoon got warm, just like my fingers. Sure enough, when excited and shouting and wanting to be the first to bend something, I wasn't paying much attention to how hard I pushed on the spoon. Once a bend is started, the spoon is weakened where bent and it continues to bend easily - feeling soft - until bent all the way around or twisted enough that thicker parts of the spoon start to bend or twist so the moment arm is reduced, all making bending more difficult - something that supposedly happens when the mind energy dissipates. Strain hardening causes the metal to be very difficult to un-bend. I slipped away mid-way through the mind-bending of forks, which required forks from a special box and silent concentration. The silence was getting uncomfortable because it seemed like lots of people were just trying to be polite by then. These forks looked normal but one set had been carefully straightened to have uniform curvature; placed alongside most other forks would look slightly bent.
I'm not discounting the power of the mind. Amazing and even unnatural things are probably possible. But PK-parties are contrived exercises; it's not difficult at all to bend flatware by hand even without mystical powers and I think everyone there did it all by themselves. Happy with my lessons on social interaction and satisfied that Crichton had put a heavy dose of his usual fiction into the book, I still wondered why people would defend the idea of bending spoons with mind energy. The reason must have something to do with the reason we all wanted to be the first in the group to bend a spoon: Everyone wants to lay claim to something, to make a great accomplishment and have people know about it. That's why Crichton's adventure stories were padded and filtered so only the romantic and dangerous bits remained. That's also why he held so tightly to his spiel about mind energy. The game is all about convincing people that you know something they don't or can do something they can't, regardless of reality, and I bet most folks went home from the party and told their friends something special happened that night with the spoons. Most except for me, that is, but I suspect you'll be more impressed with my follow-up on a paperback novel than on my spoon bending skills so even I have something to gain.
Home for the last couple of weekends, I've had the opportunity to catch up on some woodworking projects and cook a few good meals, something that I seldom have time for during the work-week. Sometimes at the grocery store I find something new and bring it home to try out. Last weekend the special treat of choice was raw milk: unpasteurized, un-homogenized, and not legal for sale in many states due to the fair chance that harmful microbes could be lurking beneath the layer of cream that's risen to the top of the bottle, this simple beverage is consumed by nutrition-conscious foodies and people who live on dairy farms. Interesting side fact; where sale of raw milk isn't bottled, people have devised a clever work-around: customers buy a share of the farmer's cow and get the milk as part-owners. The law can't stop you from drinking milk from your own cow! But, getting back to the story: I arranged a blind taste test of fresh raw milk against pasteurized whole milk. The trouble was, of the five people present at my apartment only I was willing to try it. The difference is difficult to describe with adjectives; "grassy" is the best I can do. Perhaps a hint of cow-farm-ness. Not as chalky, yellower, smoother; the cream alone also didn't taste like I expected cream to taste either. Most of the milk then went into a pot for scalding and custard-making. The next food-of-choice was two pounds of littleneck clams. Intending to make chowder for lunch, I bought clams and then looked up a recipe. The instructions said I should feed the clams cornmeal in a saltwater bath for three to twelve hours, so lunch became dinner. The creatures didn't even open their shells once! So much for my kindness to provide a last meal. Into the pot they went; I was hungry. Then I noticed that the cookbook suggested aging the chowder overnight to develop its flavor before eating! I omitted this step, but dinner was excellent. The latest new food is okra, which I spotted at the produce market this past weekend. I've never cooked okra before. The pods look like they might grow on the same plants that dragon fruit come from, prehistoric things that might have the capacity to move like animals when you're not watching.
I awoke on Monday morning under a bedsheet, two blankets, a patchwork quilt, my Kenyan wool throw, and a large brown wooly sheep skin that once grazed on a hilltop over Dunedin, New Zealand. The house had been gradually getting colder because we hadn't used the heater during night after night of unusually cold weather. I wasn't even sure that it would work, but it was fifty degrees at the third floor and even colder down below and water came from the tap chilled as if refrigerated so I tinkered with the thermostat for a while until the heat came on. This isn't normal weather for Southern California, but aside from being concerned about having to wear a hat around the house I was elated. There was frost on the grass and snow close by in the mountains! Sunday I went to the snow, climbing to the top of Mt. Baldy ten thousand feet bove Los Angeles where intermittent gusts of wind blew wisps of cloud overhead and kicked up grains of ice. That peak is a full day walk on short winter days and the sun was setting as we drove home.
From my window seat, it looked as if muted orange light from within the earth was soaking through the ground, pooling in lowlands and making the Los Angeles basin appear like a top-crusted berry pie or a sheet of paper set on a wet table. Bands of clouds divided the horizon into shades of gray and shook American Airlines 873 intermittently as it flew through them. Down on the ground, it turned out that quite a few other folks were also trying to get to Pasadena, some just going home like me but many arriving to see the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl game the next day. We half-heartedly brought in the New Year standing wearily at the curb watching traffic pass and waiting for a shuttle van with more room. Spending the holidays at home was nice, though it seemed eerily like Thanksgiving rather than Christmas probably because I hadn't been home for Christmas in three years - and, there was no snow on the ground. Congratulations to my Mom's parents on 60 years of marriage! We celebrated that last week with all the family.
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