Sunday, December 6, 2009

Let's not kid ourselves.

In 1950, the United States beat England in the group stage of the World Cup, 1:0. Sixty years will have passed when the same two countries again face each other in the world's biggest sporting event. But anyone who seriously believes that England is seeking revenge for that defeat is probably still woozy from the aftereffects of the drugs used by the space aliens during the rectal probe.

The English squad that year was made up entirely of professional footballers from clubs that, even then, had storied histories behind them: Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, Chelsea, Portsmouth, Blackburn, the Arsenal and, of course, Liverpool. The American squad featured players from Simkins-Ford Soccer Club, Harmarville, Brookhatton, McMahon and Ponta Delgada. In their first matches, England cruised to victory over Chile, while the US got thumped by Spain. The stage was set for the game that later commentators and people trying to sell books and movies called The Miracle On Grass. It was, from the sound of it, a one-sided spectacle featuring a capable US goal keeper and an unlucky English offense.

But it was 60 years ago. The US and England have played each other a few times since, albeit never in a match with any meaning, and England has won every time. As a proud fan of the US national team, I'm thrilled to see our guys qualify in style for the great tournament. I know what they can do, and I know what they have done. And as a regular viewer of English Premier League matches, I know pretty well the capability of the English national team.

Odds are, when the teams leave the pitch at Royal Bafokeng next June, England will have won its opening match. There's a chance that the US could win the game, but it would be an upset -- not as big an upset as in 1950, but an upset nonetheless. While I hope for that, I also just pray that the US team that shows up in South Africa bears greater resemblance to the team that was there last summer than to the team that wandered through Germany in 2006.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Other People's Pet Peeves

Whilst perusing the current issue of Consumer Reports, I found this insightful tidbit in their report on "Top Gripes: What bugs America Most" (January 2010, page 7):

When we crunched the numbers further, more eye-openers were revealed:
Residents of densely populated urban areas were more annoyed than rural residents by unscooped dog poop.

Wow. Who'd'a ever have thunk it.

Separated At Birth?

Is it my imagination, or does Bob Bradley, the coach of the United States' men's national soccer team, look just like Lord Voldemort?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Champions. Huh. (2)

In my very first post on this blog, I commented (disparagingly, of course) on the silliness of calling a fourth-place team "Champions" while the clear class of a league is lumped in with the losers. That seems to be the theme of the year in football (meaning, of course, real football, not that N.F.L. variety where you run for a few seconds and then discuss things).

I refer, of course, to last night's MLS Cup Final match between the Los Angeles Galaxy (a team that finished tied for first in the West, with 48 points -- 12 wins, 12 draws, 6 losses) and Real Salt Lake (which finished fifth out of eight, with 40 points -- 11 wins, 7 draws, and 12 losses). Because RSL managed to score a single goal during the match, and did a trifle better in the inevitable penalty shootout, they get to pretend they are actual champions of something; while the Galaxy, which did pretty well all season long, and better than all but one of the teams it's grouped with, are also-rans, no better than the other teams in the minds of those who care about football.

The MLS result isn't quite as egregious as the WPS playoff system; at least MLS is divided -- needlessly, in my opinion -- into two conferences, and teams from one conference don't play teams in the other conference as often as they do teams in their own conference; so the team that wins the conference may or may not be the best team in the league that year. Having two conferences necessitates a single playoff match, between the two winners, to determine a champion. Greed necessitates a prolonged playoff season, making the regular season almost meaningless. A team can struggle all season long, as RSL did, squeak into the playoffs by the skin of their soccer balls, and get themselves together mentally just in time to beat a few teams that were marginally better through the regular season. And if they are the last team standing after this unnecessary exercise, then they get to be referred to as 2009 Champions for all time.

Apologists for this income-oriented determination of rankings will point out that surviving the regular season in sufficient shape to qualify for the playoffs, however low their status at that point, is a triumph sufficient unto itself. Well, that's fine. Let them comfort themselves with the thought that they survived and, eventually, triumphed, while other teams, who actually won more games than they lost, fell by the way. Let them put a little embroidered star or trophy on their uniforms next season, and let them charge a heftier fee for sponsorships. Let them put their trophy in their brand-new glass case out in whatever Salt Lake suburb they call home. Let them call themselves Champions.

Those of us who know, know better.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Just One More Bit of Evidence of the Decline of Our Civilization

I like to take long road trips in a convertible. My little mid-life-crisis car now has over 100,000 miles on it (it had about 30,000 when I got it, maybe four years ago), and although I suspect that, with a little care, it will go another hundred thousand, I've started thinking about what to get as a replacement. Since I've no intention of buying a new car, I figure that any car that's brand-new now will be about the right vintage when I do go to buy; so new convertibles are what I've been looking at.

And I've noticed that almost all convertibles fall into two categories: (1) those that are too small, or ugly, or commonplace, or unreliable -- in short, those that are too wrong for me; and (2) those that have convertible tops that recede into the trunk for that smooth flush line look.

My car's top, when it's down, rests in a well behind the useless back seat. It sticks up above the line of the body, and I have a leather cover that snaps into place to protect it from the elements. A minor inconvenience, having to get out of the car to cover or uncover the top, but it forms a traditional convertible hump and looks, I think, pretty damn sharp. (The picture above is of a friend of mine in a similar car; mine's the one next to, but this is the best picture I have to illustrate how the top looks when down.)

Similar new models, though, have tops that fold completely into the body. The result is a straight, smooth line from front to back. The body of the car is pudgier than mine, and looks heavier, like it will soon need fat pants. It's purely a stylistic choice by the designers, done because the convertibles made by Jaguar's competitors have all gone to that look.

I've looked at those competitors' convertibles, thinking maybe one of them would be my next road car. In all of them, what remains of the trunk is useless. It's so small, a single medium suitcase may not fit.

This is fatal, as far as I'm concerned. I don't travel particularly heavy, but I do take a small suitcase, my computer, my speed bag and tripod, audiobooks, maps and guidebooks, plus a cooler in the back seat. If anyone travels with me, more stuff goes along as well. Almost none of that stuff would fit in the residual trunk of a new Jaguar, BMW, or Mercedes convertible. And no matter how sharp the thing looks zipping down the road, it does me no good if I have to leave everything at home or pull a trailer.

So: the upshot of this is that market forces, as read by automotive designers, value appearance over practicality to excess. We are one small step closer to barbarian invasions and the Apocalypse. I can only hope that, by then, the new Camaro will be available in a convertible.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Chicken In Every Pot, or, How Tyson Saves The World

Abel's Diner, in Garden Ridge, a suburb just up I-35 from San Antonio, is a bustling place at lunch time. It's good enough to be full throughout the middle of the day, even though it's hard to get to (you have to go a couple of miles past it on the freeway, then double back on the access road almost all the way); and good enough to draw me in, all the way from 281 and Thousand Oaks, about 15 miles away.

I was sitting there with my friend Rick, and overheard the waitress ask the man at the next table whether he wanted white or dark meat for his fried chicken. That reminded me of a report I'd heard on the radio, maybe two years ago, about how dark meat commands a premium price in Asia, the way white meat does here. And that got me to thinking about starving people in Africa.

The difficulty of life in sub-Saharan Africa has been a recurring theme in my head ever since I got a glimpse of it for myself, a year or two ago. Poverty, hunger, corruption and marauding are the Four Horsemen of their particular apocalypse, and all the mealy-mouthed good intentions of the West (and now, the East) for the past hundred years have done little to stanch the flow of misery. Prosperity, where it exists at all, seems limited to exclusive elites -- the white farmers in the Union of South Africa and Rhodesia, when those entities existed; corrupt politicians and their cronies; bureaucrats who feed on the crumbs that fall from the table of the powerful; warlords and their minions; and a few businessmen who have insinuated themselves between, on the one hand, the wealthy foreign companies who want to appear magnanimous to their home audiences, and, on the other, said corrupt politicians and warlords.

And then for some reason I thought, What would happen if somebody plopped a gigantic chicken farm down in some poor spot in Africa?

There would, of course, be some construction jobs that came from the project, but the benefits of that would be brief, and most of the benefits would likely be siphoned off to the Corrupt. A giant chicken farm à la Tyson would provide some low-skill jobs locally, but that wouldn't have a major impact. Management would probably be foreigners, at least at first, but gradually locals would acquire the skills needed for such an operation. And there would be distribution jobs to be done, getting the slaughtered, plucked, and cleaned birds to local markets; that, at least, would require a fairly large network of people, since markets in Africa are not like your HEB or Carrefour or Piggly-Wiggly; they're open-air, small-scale things like your great-grandmother went to in The Old Country: specialized, disparate, time-consuming. Since there is no electricity that can be relied on, shops can't keep quantities of goods beyond what they can sell in a day or two, and consumers can't buy more than a day or two's worth of groceries (if they can afford even that).

But imagine what would happen if suddenly economies of scale on a gigantic scale were to be applied to chicken-farming in Africa. Prices for chickens (and eggs) would drop, sometimes slowly, sometimes precipitately, as the Giant Chicken Farm entered local markets. Local farmers would be unable to compete, and while that may upset the relatively few who sell their birds, for most people it would simply mean that they would be able to buy chicken instead of raising it themselves. (Yes, the taste of the chicken would suffer just as it has done in this country, but starving people who must lay out relatively large portions of their meagre resources for protien would, I'm guessing, prefer bland-but-cheap chicken to the tasty-but-dear birds that now are available to those who can afford them; for most, it boils down to a choice between bland chicken or no chicken.) The pretty hens that are presently a sort of status symbol for the Man On the Street throughout the so-called Developing World would become less valuable, and people who now spend a great deal of precious time and money buying, raising and guarding those birds would be able to devote their attention to other things. They might start a business ... or at least form interest groups that would force governments across the continent (and elsewhere) to streamline the ridiculous rules, and remove the ridiculous obstacles that now require so much effort to start even the simplest business.
(We Americans don't know how good we've got it. You want to start a business? You call the Secretary of State and register the name, call the IRS for a tax number, open a bank account and get a telephone number, and you're in business. Maybe you need a license, if you're doing something particularly regulated, like serving food or cutting hair or trading stocks and shares, or practicing law; but generally speaking, if you want to sell cellphones or cosmetics or tourist souvenirs in this country, it takes you a day to start up. In the poor parts of the world, it takes you months.)

There would be difficulties to deal with, of course: there would be palms to cross as every government official at every level who could possibly exert any sort of pressure would expect a bribe; although the threat to move the project to a neighbouring district or country would go a long way in minimizing that.  There would be a need for reliable power, meaning the construction of a generating plant -- which in turn could provide power to the surrounding district, thereby raising the local standard of living and opening up the possibility of other power-hungry businesses in the area. There would be transportation issues, but the people I've observed over there are pretty resourceful about getting around over what passes for roads. And a boost in local prosperity would bring pressure to improve the roads, while the greater prosperity would also make some greater local resources available for that. (And I don't mean building superhighways with large earth-moving machinery; there is plenty of human labour that could use a series of good road construction project.)

I suspect that the operation would turn a profit within a year or two, and would recover its investment in the course of five or six years. I may be wrong: after all, I'm no economist. But this I believe: the people of sub-Saharan Africa would benefit far more from small local-effect investment projects like a chicken farm than they do from the large graft-inducing oil and mineral investments that are, basically, all their national governments seem to care about.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

How to Control Executive Compensation

To return to a previous sore point:

I'm sorry to say that I think Mr Obama's "Pay Czar" is making a hash of a response to the controversy over executive compensation. He has come up with a complicated scheme that will reduce pay for a few overpaid and probably undeserving executives (after all, they were the ones who caused the whole economic meltdown, they and their ilk). The scheme will end up in court, and after a long and costly series of trials and appeals, it'll be voided by the Supremes. It will cost us all a lot of wasted time and money, and accomplish nothing.

The problem -- the real problem -- is not that a couple of hundred honchos in bailed-out companies have exorbitant pay packages. The real problem is that large-company executives in general have exorbitant pay packages, while the rank and file people are stagnating economically, causing the gap between the rich and the rest of us to grow wider and wider, which in turn undermines the working and middle classes, who are the guarantors of the success of our democratic system of government.

The stress point in the popular media appears to be that our constitutional system of limited government prevents the government from regulating executive compensation.

Oh, pooh. Congress is perfectly capable of regulating executive compensation, and of doing it in a way that's in keeping with our present concept of "limited" government.  And it can do it in a way that is manifestly fair, in that it treats everyone the same, regardless of how much bail-out money their companies get.

Executive compensation is deductible as a business expense; there are some minor and essentially meaningless limitations on that, but basically every dollar the company pays out to every employee, executive or otherwise, is a dollar it doesn't get taxed on.

So all the Congress has to do is limit the tax deduction for compensation. I'm pretty sure Congress doesn't want to discourage companies from paying all those millions of middle- and upper-middle-class managers and union workers who are the foundation of their constituencies; nor would I. But it's a simple matter to take a self-adjusting figure, like the poverty line or the national median income or the national average income, and change the tax law so that any compensation to any individual (in whatever form) that exceeds a stated percentage of the chosen self-adjusting figure -- in my mind, 250% of the national median income seems about right -- would not be deductible from the company's taxable income.

So AIG and Goldman, Sachs are still perfectly free to pay their worthless executives exorbitant figures for ruining the entire economy of the country; they just don't get the rest of us to pay for part of it, in the form of lower corporate taxes.

It's really that simple.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Those Crafty Europeans

The surprising gift of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama last week raises certain concerns about what our friends across the pond are up to. Since, as he modestly acknowledged in his response to the announcement, the Big O has done nothing yet to deserve the award, three possibilities come to mind to explain just what those Norsemen are up to.

First, there is the possibility that the award is meant as a slap at the previous administration. Personally, I think somebody should've slapped W in the face while he was in office, along about 2002, and woken him up to the vile and festering corruption of all the principles he purports to hold dear: freedom, equality, the rule of law, and so on. His administration, which began in an atmosphere of promise, of a refreshed sense of responsibility and decency, went, in eight years, from tragedy to embarrassment to disaster: political, diplomatic, fiscal, moral, and finally economic. Maybe his daddy should've taken him to one side and delivered a Gibbs-slap to the back of the head. Well, too late now. Thank God and George Washington.

The sort of inimical creeping corruption of the Bush years seems always to result whenever licentious greed or overweening pride dresses in Vestal robes. The doors to the temple are shut, for public consumption, while the corruptors enter through the privy, and foul deeds are done in the name of whatever Noble Principle seems most at risk at the time. In Bush's time, it was Security. The 9/11 attack was one of the few vile acts of that era for which W cannot be blamed; but his administration's excessive response to that attack distracted, and continues to distract, the American public from miners digging under the foundations of our liberties. When a scratching in the earth is heard, Public Safety is trotted out, shown round the village, and taken back to the castle.

The Europeans, I have to admit, were less hornswoggled during the W era than we Americans, myself included. Less threatened by the attack on the Twin Towers, they, rightly it turns out, were not as taken in by his administration's pose as Defenders of Liberty. And so now that he is gone, the gift of the prize to his successor, for no reason other than that he is not W, may be intended as a slap at Bush and his late, unlamented regime.


Second, it may be nothing more than a grand gesture intended to encourage the sort of traditional diplomacy Mr Obama seems to have initiated. Barely nine months after his inauguration, the diplomatic climate around the world seems to be recovering nicely from the frothiness generated by W's my-way-or-the-highway approach. Peace has not come, to be sure, but we seem now to be approaching a time when progress might be made by consensus. A Nobel Peace Prize seems a somewhat extravagant attaboy, but given the turmoil Bush caused among Europe's chattering class, one can see how it might be viewed as the least they can do.


The third possibility, and the one I put the most credence in, is that the Nobel committee just wants to book Obama to speak. Can't blame 'em for that; he's the best orator we've had in our rent-house on Pennsylvania Avenue since Jack and Jackie. Considering the calibre of people we've gone for in the dozen intervening elections, that's damning with faint praise, but you've got to admit: it's nice having a guy who can speak with an elegant cadence while using three-syllable words, and convey the impression that he actually knows what they mean.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

New York, New York

I think we should re-introduce wolves into Central Park. This will give many of those northeastern liberal types, who long to dream of wolves howling in the wild, a wonderful object lesson on the value of local control over political issues.

Plus, as everyone knows, if the wolves can make it there, they can make it anywhere.

Friday, October 9, 2009

And now, the rest of the story...

I know, I know, I haven't posted anything about the end of the San Diego trip. Well, I've been busy.

We got up Thursday morning, packed and loaded and checked out. We only managed to squeeze everything into the car, including Jeff, by putting a couple of suitcases in the back seat. It's amazing how much stuff we had to have for ten days' travel: on the way back I spoke with a couple from Illinois at a rest area in New Mexico. They had been in California for two weeks. They were driving a Saturn Sky. It has almost no trunk. They had three tiny duffel bags and two pairs of tennis shoes. (They also said it was a very comfortable car to ride in. Amazing.) And here we were, with a suitcase I could barely lift into the trunk, a second suitcase of the maximum carry-on dimensions, an ice chest, a computer, a camera bag, a tripod, seven audiobooks, half a dozen plastic bags containing purchases and dirty laundry, plus all the bags Nancy & Jeff took -- four, I think, plus computers and backpack. I don't really remember, but they had about as much as we did. Anyway, it was a lot. Almost too much. But we got it all in.

We went first to the Air & Space museum at Balboa Park. I found it disappointing. A not-very-extensive collection, and almost all of it reproductions, because a fire in 1988 destroyed almost their entire collection. They've spent millions reproducing as much of it as they could, probably enough to feed all the starving children in at least one third world country from 1988 to today, and they've ended up with an inventory of copies. I will file this away, along with the Teddy Roosevelt National Historic Site in Buffalo (see the July 3 entry in the September post, "The Trip to Maine"), for a future reflection on our unbridled willingness to preserve, regardless of cost, every trivial reminder of our glorious past. (I also thought the museum was not very well organized, and that their efforts at "interactive" exhibits was unimaginative and hackneyed. Maybe that's just another consequence of their spending all their money to reproduce a dozen burnt World War I airplanes. I don't know.)

That two-hour visit completed our planned whirlwind tour of San Diego, and we hopped back in the car ... well, okay, we crammed ourselves back in the car and headed up the road toward the Mouse Kingdom. We made one stop, for a tour of Mission San Juan de Capistrano. It seems much larger than the earlier Mission San Diego, and except for the great church, destroyed by a combination of earthquake and restoration efforts (involving gunpowder), this mission compound is in as good a state of (restored) repair.

Notice that I don't carp about the cost of it; I don't know how much it took to bring the old place back into presentable condition. It may have been worth the cost, and lacking evidence to the contrary, I will give the Mission the benefit of the doubt. Plus, they have not tried to completely restore the place to its original condition, which would undoubtedly have been a frightful expense. Instead, they have left parts in a state of decay, preserved to prevent further delapidation, and used models and descriptions to convey how it would have looked in the day. And frankly, the dramatic ruins of the great stone church, which rival anything I saw in Rome, convey a sense of grandeur beyond what a duplicate could achieve.

We checked into our hotel in Costa Mesa and spent a couple of hours decompressing before heading out to look for dinner. We thought we'd just head up Harbor Boulevard and pick a nice place for a margarita and a good meal, out of the many hundreds of such places that Orange County has to offer. After about ten miles of nothing but fast food and industrial wasteland, we finally called on Nancy's hand-held electronic device. Ah, technology! The first place it sent us to was closed; the next was out of business. We finally located a Coco's (sort of a West-Coast Shoney's) and had a thorougly mediocre meal, before crashing for the night. I was too tired, at that point, to write anything.

The next morning we were off to Disneyland. It had been well-established, by then, that Jeff and I were only along because Nancy and Sherry consider Disneyland to be the ultima thule of amusement parks, a sort of paradise: there is but one god, Disney, and Mickey is his prophet. Or profit. Their attitude toward the place is as inflexibly devout as that of any Waco mother of six Southern Baptists toward the literal Bible. I've never seen Nancy so animated, and while Sherry was a little more reserved, she was no less eager to attend the shrine. Jeff and I, by contrast, talked about the things we weren't seeing. Hollywood. Movie studios. Museums.

All the things that are so enjoyable at Disneyland are there. The Indiana Jones ride is still the best, though the Pirates of the Caribbean ride has been upgraded a lot to conform to the hit movies. Captain Jack Sparrow appears throughout, and there's a story loosely told that sort of makes sense in the context of the films. I guess I've finally outgrown the little cars ("Autopia"), especially now that you can't ram the car in front of you anymore. It's just no fun to ride anymore. And the Haunted Mansion -- what a disappointment that is, all revised to hawk the Tim Burton movie, The Nightmare Before Christmas. I never thought I wanted to see it; now I know that for sure. The big round exhibition in Tomorrowland is a joke: all the futuristic technology it shows is so Last-Century. But the Star Wars ride is as good as ever, and, surprisingly, Michael Jackson no longer appears in the Magic Kingdom ... I wonder why?

There was never any doubt that we would be at the park until the last Roman candle popped and sputtered away. I was done long before that, and spent the last two hours or so getting back to, and waiting in, the car. I came this close to not going back on Saturday for the California Adventure.

Buuuuuuut ... well, the next morning I was thinking, if I dropped them off at Disneyland and went off on my own, I know what'll happen: I'll spend all day in traffic, looking for someplace that'll turn out to be a bore, or I'll go around taking photographs that turn out overexposed or underexposed or blurry or just plain boring. So I went along to California Adventure.

I shouldn't have to tell anyone who knows me that I was prepared to hate the place. We Texans, let's be honest, are jealous of California, which is the only state that can really compare with our own. Every state has beautiful spots, even Nebraska -- I know, I saw one there once, about 20 years ago. Maybe it was Kansas; hard to tell the difference. And some individual places are drop-dead gorgeous, like Yellowstone and Grand Tetons and the Shenendoah and the Adirondacks and Katahdin. And of course the most beautiful countryside in the entire nation, probably in the entire world, is that largely-empty slab of ground between I-40 and I-70, in Arizona and Utah: Escalante-Grand Staircase, Zion, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Arches National Monument, the Petrified Forest, the Painted Desert, Wupatki ... and that other place, what's it called? Oh, yeah, the Grand Canyon. But on a state-wide scale, only California can really best Texas for scenic beauty and variety. The drawback in each case is, that California is full of Californians, and Texas is full of Texans. I know my own preference in the matter, but not all will agree. So be it.

To return to my point, I was prepared to dislike a place that celebrated California unabashedly. I was pleasantly surprised, and yes, relieved, to find that I actually enjoyed it. First of all, there's this ride called Soarin', where you get strapped into a gigantic row of seats that mimics a hang-glider, and you're treated to a seven- or eight-minute-long film, with music and scents added, that appears to have been filmed from an actual hang-glider. You're close enough to the ground to see the kayaker flip you the bird as you whoosh by overhead. You get to see fabulous views of Napa Valley and the northern coast and the Golden Gate and Palm Springs and all kinds of other beautiful places, mountains and desert and forest and fields and waters, and you pretty much feel like you're actually there. (Try to sit in the front row; otherwise the dangling feet of other park-goers can be a distraction). It actually made me want to try hang-gliding. A moment's reflection at the appropriate juncture about my fear of heights should prevent that actually happening.

But that set the stage for the day, and put me in an infinitely lighter mood. Plus, California Adventure wasn't nearly as crowded as Disneyland, and the weather was a little nicer that day than the day before. We went to see the Alladin show -- a live-action version of the movie, but well done in a large, comfortable theater, and every bit as enjoyable, especially since they just summarized all that dreary part near the end when the evil Vizier has the lamp.
I won't go through all the details; sufficient to say that we did everything there was to do, and I enjoyed every minute of it, especially since the lines weren't very long and I didn't puke after the roller coaster. (Not that I've ever puked after a roller coaster, but I've wanted to.)

We shut the place down, even enjoying the fireworks show from across the plaza in Disneyland, without having to put up with the crowds in there.
But, now, having said how much I enjoyed California Adventure, I will also say -- listen to this, Sherry -- that was my last trip to Disneyland. I've done it twice now, and that's enough for me. I'm not going back. Ever.

Up next morning, pack and load and zip down to San Diego to drop people off at the airport. I'd intended to drop off Nancy & Jeff, then have lunch with Sherry before she flew out a couple of hours later; but she wanted to spend that time with her sister -- I don't know why, she sees her at least once a year -- so I dropped her off too and headed up to Las Vegas. (Turns out that, once they got into the airport, they were in different "pods" and couldn't sit with each other, so Sherry felt that she had not chosen wisely.)

Meanwhile, I drove up and had dinner with my former law partner Curtis and his wife at one of those all-you-can-eat uberbuffets on the Strip in Las Vegas, then crashed for the night in a disappointingly ordinary room at one of those over-the-top hotels where you have to walk like a mile from the parking lot, or pay some pimply-faced valet twenty bucks. Me, I don't like paying twenty bucks for a hotel room. Up early and off for my Lincoln County diversion, thinking how useless this County Quest of mine is, and quelle surprise, Lincoln County is in the Great Basin, which, it turns out, is not an empty arid desert devoid of beauty, but an empty arid desert throbbing with beauty.

But it's nothing, compared to the beauty of southern Utah, from Zion to Glen Canyon and beyond. It just killed me to be driving a well-paved winding mountain road through some of the most stunning scenery in the land, in a sedan, but it was better than not driving it at all. I suppose. I stopped a half a dozen times to take pictures, at a small stream crossing, a cliff face, Zion Overlook, Glen Canyon, and across the Little Colorado River as you come down out of the mountains, and to linger, enjoying the sights and sounds.

After three days in Paradise (well, okay, Disneyland and Las Vegas) I was entitled to one night in Hell, so I checked into the Days Inn Flagstaff West in Flagstaff, Arizona. The next night, in Plainview, Texas, I couldn't wait to write a review of that experience for Travelocity. I had planned to link to that review, but it's not posted yet. Anyway, the place sucked: couldn't get on line, lousy service, no lights, the toilet seat wouldn't stay up, everything was unplugged (and I wasn't about to move the furniture), the heater didn't heat, the electronic door lock was finicky... the place sucked.

From there it was out across New Mexico and down through Texas, listening to a couple of really good audiobooks (Jeffrey Archer's latest, Paths of Glory, and an amusing little murder mystery called Crouching Buzzard, Leaping Loon, by Donna Anderson).
I call the picture above "unintended irony."

And so, I am home.

A selection from the pictures for this last part of the trip is here.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Speaking of county matters...

I used to have a 10-key adding machine with a printout. I no longer have that, and the only calculators I have readily available are tiny and at least a little tempermental. So when I say that there are 3,097 counties in the country, that number may be off. (If anyone wants to supply me with a more accurate count, I'd be grateful, but be forewarned: I have found a number of different figures on the internet, so apparently I'm not the only person who is electromathematically challenged.)

As I've probably told everyone I know, at some point or another, I intend to visit every county in the country before I die. Most people seem to take this as some sort of Quest, when in fact it's nothing more than an excuse for wandering around in places I've never been and have no real reason to go to. This is what my life has become. Sad, maybe even a little pathetic, but there it is. I try to present it as a vaguely romantic journey of discovery, but even I don't buy that. And let's face it, I don't really expect to get to all of them. The two remaining counties in Massachusetts, for example, are islands that are reached only by expensive ferries. The counties in Alaska will require an airplane, and the counties in Hawaii a boat or helicopter. I doubt I'll go to that much trouble, unless of course some enterprising travel-service company decides to sponsor my travel. No sign of that on the horizon.

Anyway, yesterday morning, I took a detour on leaving Las Vegas, and drove through Lincoln County, Nevada, thereby visiting the last remaining county in that state. I have now been to every county in Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Texas was a big deal -- that's 254 counties and most of them aren't all that big. Arizona was easy: even though it's a large state, the counties are also huge, and I go there a lot. Nevada is also is a very large state, with large counties, but I knew that the only way I'd ever get to Lincoln County was with a long, long diversion, since there's nothing to speak of within hundreds of miles of there (except Las Vegas ... come to think of it, there's nothing to speak of within hundreds of miles of there). New Jersey has a surprisingly large number of counties, but my trip to Maine last summer gave me the chance to fill in that map with one drive up the coast from Cape May to Newark. Louisiana was the second state filled in, with a wander around some reservoir on the Sabine River back in 2005 or 2006. (That wander, incidentally, took me by the only international boundary marker in the United States: the old stone that once marked the border between the United States and the Republic of Texas.) Delaware, which only has 3 counties and one road, was the first state filled in, way back in 1997 on a trip with my son to visit colleges he was considering up north. That trip is also memorable for providing me with an introduction to scrapple, a popular local dish best described as baked fat. I filled in Connecticut and Rhode Island on that trip as well: Rhode Island on purpose, Connecticut accidentally, because I was sitting around with Steve in New York, having changed my plans on a whim. If you want to know more about that, see my long post entitled "The Trip to Maine." It's down around the 4th week of the trip.

But I digress. That diversion to visit Lincoln County, Nevada also required that I go through two more counties in southern Utah -- beautiful, beautiful country that I will likely go back to -- so as this latest trip winds down, I have now been to 1,945 of those 3,097 counties.

I doubt any of you care, and neither do I, really, but somebody asked. They were probably just being polite.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Those Catholics. Gotta Love 'Em

Before I forget and hit CTRL-C or something, a selection of the pictures from today (i.e., the better ones) are already organized, captioned, and posted. It's all so much easier, now that I've figured out how to put in links like that.

We got out of here really, really early by our standards. It was something like 9:45. That's later than we left here yesterday, but beyond that we don't agree on any of our recent transitional history. Just one of those insignificant things people can discuss, and disagree about, without rancor, to fill the long, otherwise silent elevator ride to the parking garage.

I was heading south on Mission Bay Boulevard, our usual route to the center of all the action here in San Diego, when it occurred to me that I didn't really know where we were going; we'd discussed so many things, but always in kind of a tentative way, like everything was mere suggestion and no actual decisions need be taken. Once we arrived at a consensus, we consulted the map and eventually tracked down Mission San Diego, out by Qualcomm Stadium. So we headed out there, and found it after only two tries and possibly one illegal turn, by the H&R Block Hair Salon.

San Diego was the first Spanish mission in California, founded in response to a perceived threat from the Russians, who apparently were following otters down the Pacific Coast. You'll recall that, 250 years ago, it didn't take much to establish a claim to vast areas of real estate. A few trappers who hail from Moscow, wandering around alone, and voila! you have title to millions of prime acres. This, of course, was before the lawyers and realtors got involved. Nowadays, I think, it would be much more difficult for me to claim I own all of California on the strength of three car trips here in a decade; but it seems that, had I but driven here in the 1760s, instead of waiting for the roads to be paved, I could afford a second home on the beach, and maybe a high-definition TV.

Anyway: San Diego, like many Spanish missions, was not an instant hit. It was originally put downstream by the Presidio, but, well, let's say the Spanish soldiers and the local indians rubbed each other the wrong way. So after about five years, the head guy, Father Jayme, moved the mission a few miles upstream to its present location. (Father Serra, who had founded the mission, had gone off to open a branch office in Monterey.) Father J seems not to have been the best pastor in some respect, because a year and a half after moving to the suburbs, the locals clubbed him to death and burned the mission to the ground. Which did them no good, of course, as there were other Franciscan priests to take his place. Father J is considered California's first Christian martyr; that may be, or maybe he is California's first really bad PR guy.

So you're thinking, maybe, that the title of this blog relates to that incident? Not at all what I had in mind when I named it, in advance of actually writing it. (Usually I do it the other way around.)

But I digress.

When the Mexicans won their independence from the Spanish, the Church was one of the big losers. Eventually, the nationalization of church property reached this remote outpost of empire, and the Mission property was set aside to be divided up among the indians. In fact, it and all the rest of California (and Mexico) went to cronies and relatives of high officials in one of the more corrupt régimes in North American history. These people, the cream of Mexican society, became the group known as the californios, who were dispossessed in turn when the US took over after the Mexican War in the 1840s. It's hard to feel sympathy for anybody in the sorry tale of California history. Sadly, Zorro was not a real person.

Eventually (in 1862), the US government gave part of the property back to the church. By then, it was in pretty sad shape; between abandonment and earthquake and pilfering by neighbours, there was only a facade and one room left standing. But it got rebuilt, and has been an operating parish church for well over a hundred years now, and is in pretty good shape for being so old.

Our next stop was Presidio Park, where the mission had originally been set up. There are no visible remains of the original buildings there. They were built of adobe, and after a local retail magnate donated the property to the city (after having built the dramatic Serra Museum on the crest of the hill), the decaying ruins were covered over with five feet of dirt to prevent further destruction, until a way can be found to preserve them. I learned this in conversation with a local history teacher, who was there hiding from a group of 90 schoolchildren who were about to descend on the Serra Museum after fortifying themselves with lunch. A quick walkabout and a short drive through the neighbourhood above the Presidio, and we ourselves went for similar fortification at Fred's, in Old Town. An unwise choice, and that's all I need to say about that.

The rest of the afternoon was spent puttering around in Old Town State Park, touring the various buildings -- some reconstructions, some original, all modified over the centuries -- filling our minds with interesting tidbits of San Diego history, like the novel Ramona (which figures perversely in the area's history) and shopping, shopping, shopping. Jeff and I discussed the Machado-y-Stewart house, a largeish adobe building built by a corporal at the Presidio early in the city's history. He wondered at its size, rather large for a mere corporal, no matter how many kids he had. But I pointed out how close the freeway was, and the train tracks, and theorized that he could only afford it because it was such a crappy location. Jeff seemed unconvinced.

It was Nancy's turn to cook tonight, so we had to stop at Ralph's for some chicken, but after running off to the beach with Sherry for a while, she managed a very good meal despite the primitive state of our kitchen.

I did laundry. Woo.

Just Another Gorgeous Day in Paradise

Jeff got a phone call as we were leaving the condo this morning, and ended up staying home all day, working. Now there's a man who needs to learn how to take a vacation.

We headed down to Balboa Park. I went to the Automotive Museum; Nancy and Sherry went in for a while but got bored pretty quickly and went on to some gardens or something. We met up later and went to lunch in Hillcrest, at a funky-trendy Mexican place on University Avenue. Nancy got mashed potato tacos, while I ordered a plate that was 3 of one thing and 3 of another; it seemed to be 6 small chicken flautas. I don't remember what Sherry got, but she must've liked it, because she didn't share, while Nancy and I swapped portions. It was all pretty tasty, although the tostadas could've been fresher, and they had a salsa bar with a dozen or so different concoctions to try.

Then it was back to the park, to see the Old Globe Theatre, which turned out not to be a replica of the original; just a round concert hall with a vaguely Elizabethan facade. After that, I went to the Museum of Art, on the off chance that it might actually contain some art, while Nancy and Sherry did some more garden-grazing. They seem to have encountered a lot of orchids and ferns.

The art museum was like art museums everywhere: a lot of valueless and  therefore easily-obtainable modern crap, a few minor works by famous names, and some travelling exhibits of fair to middling stuff by artists whose copyrights are still extant, and whose work is beyond the reach of the middling museums: in this case, lesser works by Picasso, Miró, and Calder. There were, however, some interesting exhibits on art restoration, including a longish and detailed video presentation on the restoration of  a 14th-Century Italian icon, and a slide presentation on the restoration of a painting of David with Goliath's head. And of course, the building was nice, and I was surprised to see that you were allowed to take pictures, except where the label of a work had a little camera with a line through it.

I met up with Sherry and Nancy at the San Diego Historical Society's uninteresting and unimaginative museum of local history, and we went for coffee at the Urban Grind -- not because of the nonexistent connection to my hangout back home, but because it's the only local coffee shop I know of. Then we came home and made dinner (pork tenderlion with pineapple, and fresh broccoli), and played that stupid Five-Crowns card game until we could none of us keep our eyes open.

Meanwhile, there was actually a breeze off the sea for about half an hour earlier this evening. It's cooled down some; maybe it was in the mid-80s today, but it didn't seem like it. It's probably about 70 now. Very nice. Very nice.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

After the dolphins finished their show in the surf just off our condo, we took turns not being ready to go. When we finally got to the car it was well after 10AM. I stopped at Lucky Donuts down the street, because we've been talking about donuts ever since we got here, and I just couldn't take it any longer. I had a piedra (which was much better than at La Superior back home) and a sourdough (which was much better than at HEB).

We spent the rest of the day at the world-famous San Diego Zoo. The place is about 100 acres, but seems much larger. It's also a botanical garden, so we spent almost as much time admiring the landscaping as the animals. The parking lot outside was nearly full, but the crowds were not large; the only waits we had were for the guided tour at the very beginning, and to see the giant pandas. By about 3pm it felt like we were the only people there, as all the visitors who had arrived earlier than us had taken their squalling brats and gone to the ice-cream shop, or whatever.

If I had to complain -- and of course, I do -- the only things I can think of to criticize are the prices ($4.20 for a soft drink!), the cages which, in some places, made it very difficult to get halfway decent pictures (I don't know what they can do about that; probably nothing), and their nannyish no-smoking policy. I'm sorry, I understand the "danger" of second-hand smoke, but there are plenty of areas in the zoo where smokers can be set apart to eliminate entirely the grave risk we pose to others. Banning smoking outright in a wide-open area like that is morally (and probably legally) wrong. The only rational reason for it is that those people who are making the rules don't like to see it done, even from a distance, which puts them in the same class as people who object to gay guys holding hands on the street.

Anyway: back to the zoo. We took so many pictures that I'm going to have to put up a separate album for them; I'll post the link when it's done.

Afterwards, we went for dinner to a restaurant that my friend Rick saw featured on the Food Network, the Blue Water Fish Market and Grill. We got there just in time: the line was back to the door by the time our food arrived, and that's not counting the large party of elderly people from Houston who had reserved several tables in the patio; they just had one person go through the line to place all their orders.

Jeff had blackened mahi mahi on the salad, which he thought very highly of. He took about half of it home with him, but it didn't survive until the morning light. Nancy had the grilled shrimp plate with a garlic butter sauce that she says was really good. Sherry had a calamari sandwich, also "really good" -- I can't get these people to be more descriptive in their praise -- with a lemon butter marinade. I had two fish tacos, one with mahi mahi, which was a little on the bland side, and one with shrimp, which was excellent. They were served on corn tortillas, which seems normal to me, although everyone else's experience is that fish tacos are usually on flour. I don't really get them often enough to know, but I don't recall ever having one served on flour.
Blue Water Seafood Market & Grill on Urbanspoon

Back at the condo, we made reservations for our stay in Anaheim starting Thursday. It only took us an hour and a half to decide that the best deal was the one we had found after about 3 minutes on line.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Photos posted

A selection of photographs from the first week of this trip is now available online at

This morning there was a school of dolphins playing just off the shore from our condo. What a sight!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

I had as lief the towncrier spoke my lines

(Hamlet, Act III, scene 2)

Nancy, Jeff and Sherry are playing some card game called "Five Crowns" while I write this recapitulation of our Sunday excursion.

It began with a drive to Imperial Beach, the town near the Mexican border where Jeff and Nancy lived for a few months when they were first married and Jeff was a newly commissioned Naval officer. We located the building they had lived in, and then got lost looking for the Tijuana River Estuary Wildlife Refuge that Sherry and I had stumbled on last Thursday. Was it Thursday? It's so hard to keep the days straight on vacation.

Anyway, after a few false starts we found it, and went for a stroll, but since by then it was noon, there wasn't a lot of wildlife about. A few thousand tiny crabs darting from hole to hole on a stream bank; some hummingbirds and egrets and such. Nothing remarkable, but all in all a pleasant way to kill an hour or so until it was time to head up the road to Coronado, where we had tickets waiting for us for the 13th Annual Free Coronado Shakespeare's production of Hamlet.

It being community theater, I wasn't expecting much, and I wasn't entirely disappointed. The scenery was sparse, the staging was straightforward, and the dialogue was "modernized" by leaving out most of the "thee's" and "thine's". Some of the more arcane words were rendered into modern English, and most of those changes were barely noticable; but I did take some umbrage at the change from the elegant (and fully comprehensible) line, "I am myself indifferent honest," to "I'm fairly honest myself."  A couple of the performances were creditable, notably Martin White as Claudius and Eva Kvaas as Gertrude. I found it hard to believe that even a small town like Coronado, lying as it does just a couple of miles from the nation's 9th largest city, couldn't find a few more reasonably competent actors, but they did manage to find a guy who could remember almost all of Hamlet's lines. A balding, 40-something ham named Terence J. Burke, who shot the words out as though, if he slowed down to think about them, he would forget which one followed which. I thought it somewhat ironic that he got to deliver the Bard's famous lines on how an actor should deliver his lines:

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,
as many of your players do, I had as lief the
town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air
too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently;
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it
offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to
very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who
for the most part are capable of nothing but
inexplicable dumbshows and noise: I would have such
a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant; it
out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.

And this guy was physically so unsuited to the role that I was surprised to find, when I consulted the program after the show, that he was not, in fact, the producer, and his name does not appear in the lists of Playhouse Foundations members and donors. He looked like Ted Danson, not as Sam Malone in Cheers, but as John Becker in Becker.

Still, it takes more than wooden acting and overwrought emoting to ruin one of Shakespeare's biggest hits, and we all had a great time. And, as Sherry said, the price was right.

We drove a few blocks to visit, first, the Glorietta Bay Inn, where Nancy had once stayed, and then the Hotel del Coronado, a famous local landmark. The Glorietta Bay Inn was originally built as the home of the Spreckles family, one of the area's richest. Built in 1904, the house is not overlarge but is very elegantly appointed, with wood carvings and chandeliers that were the height of fashion for the time, and that have stood the all-important test of time.

One of Mr Spreckles's investments was in the Hotel del Coronado, built 15 years before his home. He financed the original developers, but when they went bust he ended up with controlling interest; although he kept one of them on as project manager. I guess he must've thought the other one was the problem.

I'm sure everyone has seen pictures of the Hotel Del, as they call it around here. Its 12-sided lobby building with the pointed red roof is practically the paradigmatic landmark for San Diego. The place has had its ups and downs, but right now it's on the up, and has been restored to a state of great elegance and seems to be a profitable business. It has a well-tended beach, extensive grounds and gardens, and all the toniest shops. It's not as old as the Menger, but is much larger, more fortuitous in its location, and more flamboyant in its grandeur. It's a Destination.

We drove back to San Diego, crossing the big bridge at sunset, and were home in time for margaritas and a dinner of arroz con pollo and zucchini. Which turned out very well, if I do say so myself.

Saturday's goings-on

I've noticed something unexpected about this place: there isn't any wind. Every other shoreline I've ever been on has almost constant wind, caused, I believe, by the ability of air to move without restriction across large expanses of water. But the palm trees out on the beach are motionless; my cigarette ash from Thursday afternoon lies unmolested on the balcony; the bit of litter someone dropped on the esplanade Friday morning has been stepped on and sniffed at by dogs and otherwise ignored for two days. There's no scent of salt water in the air. It's a little eerie.

Saturday was Jeff's birthday. I went the whole day without teasing him about getting old, because I feel sorry for people who are aging while I remain forever forty-nine.

We watched the tail end of the Portsmouth-Everton match on TV and took a walk up the shoreline as far as Tourmaline Surf Park, a small bay which, I guess, has reliably good waves. I've noticed that surfing is as popular with aging baby-boomers as with Gen-X'ers, but there seem to be very few younger people out on the water. This is a disappointment, because the attraction to me is being able to watch the hot young bodies and reminisce about when I was that age, and more or less fit. (I never really was that fit, except in those memories, denied to me here by all those fifty-something men and women -- mostly men; I'd say 20-to-1 -- dragging their sorry asses up the beach, and standing in small groups on the shore, talking about the surgeries they and their friends have had.)

Our first destination for the day was the USS Midway, the big aircraft carrier that was retired to San Diego harbor as a museum. I missed the driveway, so we turned into Tuna Harbor Park, the next pier on the shoreline, and took some pictures of the statues celebrating the great Allied victory in World War II. Then we went to the carrier. It almost turned out to be our only destination; we spent much longer touring the ship than we expected, and I still had to skip the last third of the tour.

The ship is, of course, huge. By naval standards (according to Jeff, who spent time on a destroyer), it's quite roomy, but seems to have been built for short, skinny people. Perhaps not coincidentally, all the servicemen in the hundreds of old photos on the walls are short and skinny. The officers are a little heftier, but still on the short side.

When I was in my teens, I gave some thought to joining the Navy. Someone with more sense talked me out of it, and after seeing the galleys and laundry rooms on that ship, I'm glad they did. Because I know that that's where I would have done my time. Jeff assures me that the engine room would have been worse, but this doesn't make me any less sure that I made the right choice in bypassing the service as a career.

I suppose it's natural to compare the Midway to the Lexington, the older, smaller carrier moored in Corpus Christi. The Lex is more interesting to me as an artifact of history, as it actually served the glorious cause in World War II: the Lex is a bloodied spear, where the Midway is a laurel wreath. But the people in charge of the Midway have done a much better job at making the tour interesting, informative and educational. Maybe the Lex's layout doesn't lend itself to the sort of self-guided tour available on the Midway, but I'm inclined to think that the real difference is in funding: the Midway is moored in a big Navy town, and a wealthy one at that, while the Lex is moored in a smallish, out-of-the-way city with little Navy history.

Once we tore ourselves away from the ship, we rushed across the harbor to get to Cabrillo National Monument before it closed at 5pm. There's a beautiful view from there, and we got our National Park Passport stamp (the most important thing), but since the monument is on a nuclear submarine base, everybody gets thrown out at closing time. Another stupid post-9/11 panic measure. The fog rolled in, obscuring the lighthouse on the point, then hiding the point itself. There was a ceremony taking place at the statue of Señor Cabrillo, celebrating the 467th anniversary of his landing to claim California for Spain, and when that was over, the rangers politely asked everyone to return to their cars. We drove home, fixed dinner (Nancy cooked southwestern mac & cheese, one of my favourite recipes. Yummy.) Afterwards we took Jeff out for birthday ice cream, then came back and played cards until no one could keep their eyes open.

Another good day.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Friday in the park


The fog rolled back out to sea as quickly as it had rolled in, leaving behind a sky as clear and blue as the finish on a clean Jaguar.

(I just wanted to work the car in somehow; I miss it.)

Well, the sky really was that blue. Bluer, even.

We spent the morning negotiating our plans for the week: where we wanted to go, when we wanted to go there, who was going to cook when. Who'd've known it could take four reasonable people with no hidden agendas so long to decide? It's just because there are so many things we want to do. Most of them overlap, and those are the things we'll end up doing.

At a certain point I decided that I'd said all I needed to say, so I went and showered and then drove down the street to the grocery store, and did our shopping while the others hashed out the details. On returning to the apartment, I did a little online research and found that getting to Black's Beach was not worth the effort. Black's is a beach that, according to what I'd read, has three attributes that interested me greatly: (1) it is a "semi-official" nude beach; (2) it has spectacular cliffs that drop dramatically down to the narrow strand, providing some of the most majestic scenery in southern California; and (3) there is a gliderport at the top of the cliffs, and from the beach you can watch people hang-gliding off the cliffs.

I'll leave it to you to determine which two of those three really interest me.

Having ruled out Black's, I also called about the free performances of "Hamlet" that are put on every year out in Coronado. We have decided to make Sunday our Peninsular Day, doing all the stuff we want to do out on the so-called Island. We now have reservations for the performance that day, which unfortunately is a matinee. It would have been much more convenient if it came toward the end of the day, in an evening performance.

After lunch -- yes, it took that long to work out the schedule for the week -- we headed over to Balboa Park to buy our seven-day passes. There are so many things we want to see and do in that park that, even though we won't be going there every day, it works out cheaper to get that. Having our tickets burning in our hot little hands, we immediately went on a trawl through the Model Railroad Museum, which closes early and, we figured, wouldn't take all that much time.

Could've easily spent another hour in there. The layouts in various guages are incredible; some take up two large rooms. They're all works-in-progress, being put together in fantastic detail -- as in the picture at right, of a bum by a campfire under a trestle -- by members of the local model railroading clubs, which have about 300 members. They strive to accurately represent actual rail lines in southern California at various points in history. 

It was too late by the time we finished for another museum, so after a few minutes relaxing in the plaza outside, we headed for coffee at the Urban Grind, a coffee shop on Park Boulevard that the owner of Timo's, my hangout back home, recommended. It turns out that his friends, Richard and Charlotte, no longer own the place, but it was still very good. (Another café, which used to be next door and was also owned by a friend of Tim's, is no longer there.)

It was too late to get to Cabrillo National Monument before it closed, so we decided to spend the evening exploring the Gaslamp District. After finding a parking place in a garage at the farther end of the area, we walked all the way up to Broadway, browsing the shop windows and stopping only in the Beverley Hills Motor Car Company showroom, where they had a car exactly like mine for sale (the only difference being that it was a 2003 model, while mine's a 2002, and its interior had been renovated, and its wheels weren't chromed), along with a Rolls, a 1954 Jaguar XK-120, and a couple of dozen other nice cars, mostly classics; a couple of reproductions and a poorly-restored '57 Chevy kept the collection from being truly extraordinary.

The area is full of interesting and cheap restaurants: Indian, Afghan, Thai, Irish, Italian, American, Persian, Greek, Turkish, Lebanese, Spanish. We passed by all of those, and settled instead into a sidewalk table at a more upscale Italian place called (I think) Panevino, where I was gratified to find that the waiters were actually Italian, not transplants from Brooklyn. I passed our waiter on the way to wash my hands, and in a glance he took in the text of my T-shirt (il mio amico imaginario ha bisogno di una bevanda) and was joking about it when I got back to the table. Paesan! The food was outstanding -- Jeff and I had shrimp stuffed with shrimp, Sherry had eggplant ravioli, and Nancy had ... I don't remember what. We each had a glass of good Italian wine that was significantly cheaper than the same American varieties. Afterwards we strolled the streets a while longer, then headed home. A good day.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Big Brother Shops at Ralph's

Grocery shoppers in San Diego are getting ripped off.

I've just come from doing our krogering for the week at a Ralph's Market near this condo, and am of course aghast at the prices charged here. Everyplace I've ever been, prices on groceries seem at least a little higher than we pay in San Antonio (with certain local exceptions, of course); but the prices here are royally exorbitant.

I won't go into details, as that would be tedious, and even my best friends don't want to know exactly how much more a can of coffee is here than there. But what really gripes me is the "card savings prices." If you get a Ralph's Rewards card (and I did: it was free, and let them collect all the data on my shopping habits that they want) you get big big savings on many many items.

Now, I don't believe for a minute that Ralph's is taking a loss on those prices; even with the Rewards card, the prices are higher than we pay at home. So what that tells me is how valuable the store considers the detailed spending patterns it can glean from their computer banks. It also tells me that Ralph's is really soaking anybody who doesn't have a Rewards card, figuring that they don't shop there regularly anyway, and so won't provide a reliable source of sales.

So I'm leaving the little key-fob card on the condo key rings, in the hopes that future tenants of this place will earn me big big rewards with their purchases of coffee and breakfast cereal.

San Diego, Day 1

We spent Thursday morning getting oriented. From our hotel, we drove through the neighbourhoods between Old Town and downtown; then across the impressive Coronado Bay Bridge to what's called North Island, although it isn't an island but the wide end of a long, narrow peninsula. The knob end of it is taken up by a naval base; south of that is the town of Coronado. Farther south the town's newer areas take the form of high-rise (and, let's be honest, architecturally unpleasant) condominiums in bulk. This part is called the "Silver Strand." Below that, the peninsula narrows to the point where it's basically a beach on the ocean side, the road, and a beach on the bay side.

Much of the beach is reserved for military use; Navy Seals were out early, training there, and the attendant at the state beach nestled in between the Navy beaches said he had heard the concussive sound of shells exploding around daybreak. All we saw was some bright pink smoke coming from an enclosure by the side of the road. The water here, according to him, is about 70 degrees in summer and 55 in winter. Brrr.

Near where the peninsula connects to the mainland, we came across a wildlife preserve at the Tijuana River Estuary. The Visitor's Center wasn't open that early, but we walked around the trails in the immediate area, spying a rich assortment of birds, lizards, insects and mammals (mostly rabbits). There was unusual plant life -- well, unusual to me, anyway -- and on the far side of the reserve was a line of condominiums; beyond that was a dark layer of sky that I took to be smog. But by the time we got back toward the visitor's center, the smog had become fog, and was rolling -- literally, rolling -- across the estuary.

We picked up Interstate 5 -- oh, pardon me: The 5 -- and took it back up to San Diego. We went into Balboa Park, not stopping at the many museums -- we'll spend some time exploring some in the coming week. The Museum of Man is in a building that looks like it used to be a church for wealthy parishioners. There's also an Air and Space Museum and an Automotive Museum, both of which interest me, and I think I saw a Museum of Natural History. And of course there's the famous San Diego Zoo. From there we drove down to the Gaslamp District to see what that was all about. It's kind of like Deep Ellum, but with taller buildings and a greater concentration of toney restaurants and boutiques.

We drove out to our condo, to see how far it is from the airport -- only about 15 minutes, and right on the shore -- but we couldn't check in until 3pm. So we headed back down to pick up Nancy and Jeff.

San Diego Airport is strung out in a line along the shore opposite Harbor Island. There's no cellphone waiting lot, but then there is a park along the shore just across the road from the terminals. It's called Spanish Landing Park, presumably because it's where the settlers landed when Spain decided to plug a settlement into California to keep it from the British and Russians in the 1790s (the nascent United States was no threat at that time, still recovering from the exertions of the Revolutionary War). Sherry thought the sign said "Spanish Language Park," so that's what it's become in our little group.

While we were waiting for them to arrive, I mentioned to Sherry that I'd read that San Diego is one of the ten richest cities in the country, according to Forbes Magazine (maybe it was Forbes; I don't really recall). Just as I said that, an old man went by pushing a bicycle piled high with old clothes, and I realized that, in just half a day in San Diego, and most of that in the car, I'd seen more homeless people and panhandlers than in the last year or two back home. I don't know why that would be, unless it's that San Antonio has either a better support system, keeping them off the streets (or at least dressing them up in white shirts and slacks and giving them those white buckets to collect "donations" in) or no support system at all, causing them all to move west to San Diego.

If I really cared either way, I'd probably look into it. But I don't: as long as they don't bother me, let them do as they wish.

Well, Jeff had a conference call to handle for work, so we picked up Nancy and left him in the airline's lounge. The three of us drove back to Old Town for a light lunch at the Livingroom Cafe, which has a wide patio out front. We were there for two hours or so, then we made a short foray to a few shops. The Mexican Restaurant where Sherry and I had eaten on Wednesday night had blown-glass lamps from a shop on Harney Street; some of them looked artful so I wanted to see the shop. A very small shop, maybe 20 feet wide and 40 feet deep; the back portion was given over to the glass ovens and work area; the front area was crammed full of glass. The vases and gewgaws were unimpressive, uninspired, derivative. But the hanging lamps were nicer than I think I've seen anywhere. All the same basic shapes, and the hardware is off the shelf, but the colours and patterns have an appeal about them that puts them well above the run of the mill stuff you'd see at, say, Wimberley Glass.

From there we drove out to the condo and checked in. There are three low towers in this development: two on the shore side and one larger one on the street side. We're in the one on the street side, but on the top floor and facing the ocean, which we can see between the other two buildings. There's no air conditioning so we're leaving all the windows open.

After downloading our luggage (I don't know how we're going to get everything into the car for the trip to Los Angeles and back next week; it barely fit without Jeff), we drove back to the airport and collected Jeff, then went looking for a coffee shop run by a couple of friends of Tim, who has Timo's Coffee Shop on San Pedro, my hangout back home. It's called the Urban Grind, on Park Boulevard. We found it, but they don't serve food after about 3pm, so we decided to head out to Cabrillo National Monument on Loma Point, hoping to catch the sunset with a view of the city. Sadly, Cabrillo N.M is in a naval base and closes at 5pm, so we couldn't get there (Jeff thinks that if we are at Cabrillo at closing time, we can stay on there, so we might see the sunset from there yet), but the guard at the gate told us how to get to Sunset Cliffs, about a mile north of there. We headed over that way, and as we came over the rise to see the road dropping steeply down to the shore, we saw a thick fog bank below, with the sun low in the sky just above it. The cliffs were shrouded in fog, so we went back up to the spot where we'd first seen the fog and watched the sunset from there. It was beautiful to see.

From there, we made a tour of the steak houses located by the GPS program in Nancy's palm pilot. The third one, Kelly's, was where we settled, and had a very nice meal: Food, 4 chili peppers; Ambience, 4 chili peppers; Service, 5 chili peppers; Value, 4 chili peppers. By then it was fairly late and we were all well drained by the day, so after a quick foray into the supermarket for breakfast fixins, we crashed. The fog was thick and we could see nothing of the water from our apartment, but could hear the waves breaking on the wide beach below. It's still foggy this morning, but it's thinned enough that I can see the waves and the early surfers and joggers passing by.