My ten-day trip to California was shaping up as a COVID-challenging mash-up through the act of gatherings. Concerts with 1000’s of people, home stays with relatives, dining out, watching movies from genuine movie houses. But the day before I was to leave, things were not looking up in the illness department.
I began to feel a kind of uncomfortable heat that was paired with weariness. Was I coming down with something? The thermometer said I was, and in the morning before my late afternoon departure, I canceled a previous morning engagement and went back to bed, half expecting that I might need to cancel the California trip entirely. Thankfully, upon awakening, the temp was back to normal, I was feeling a bit stronger, and decided that the trip would go on.
The plan for the trip: Connect with lots of people, both individually and in large celebratory gatherings. Attend two symphonic concerts and one big birthday bash. Be a tourist and see some sights.
Friday the 2nd to Saturday the 3rd of December
Of course, I wanted to spend time with Zac and Vicky and hear about their recent excursion to Korea – Zac’s first meeting with his new in-laws and the ethnic homeland of his newly minted bride. On my trip’s first day, Zac picked me up at the airport, and we returned to their lovely little central Berkeley home. They prepared a delicious meal, we chatted for awhile and I hit the sleep button hard. The next day Zac and I went to The City by BART and Muni.
Zac makes an aesthetically flamboyant breakfast on my first morning in Berkeley, replete with Grossman’s lox from Santa Rosa, rosemary and tomatoes from their yard, and colorful dollops of some kind of goodness.
Our initial destination was lunch at the best Chinese dumpling house I had ever experienced, (http://www.dumplinghouse.us/ ) which was located in the Castro District. In addition to the tastes and smells of the food, the restaurant’s walls displayed expanded photo-portraits of the stunningly beautiful delectables we were prompted to consume. The physical space was just so right. Not stuffy or pretentious. Focused on excellence in food presentation. There was even a wall-mounted video loop that I found educational and aesthetically exciting, showing how the cooks made the marvelous, heated pastries.
After lunch we took in our first movie of the trip: “White Noise” directed by Noah Baumbach. Zac and I had listened to the original novel by Don DeLillo as a book-on-tape during one of our long-distance car trips together many, many years before. Neither of us felt that the movie – which was described as “the book which is impossible to turn into a movie” – was that great, but the connection to our historic father-son road trip had elevated the desire to see the flick – if only for nostalgic purposes. Later that evening, after returning to Berkeley, the three of us went through a slide show of their Korean visit that Vicky had organized while we were dumpling-ing and movie-ing in San Francisco.
Sunday the 4th of December
Zac’s connection to Berkeley, and his securing of the Managing Editor position at the online news site “Berkeleyside,” was at least somewhat assisted by his – and my – regular visits to the Berkeley Hills home of my uncle and aunt, Joe and Sarah Jaffe. We all became quite close with the elder Jaffes, and almost always paired our one- to two-week stays with visits to their eldest son Peter’s family. Peter became, 28 years ago, the Conductor and Musical Director of the Stockton Symphony, just an hour and a half drive from Berkeley. Peter and wife Janie have three children close to Zac’s age, and earlier this year Zac, Vicky, Jean and I attended one of their sons, Paul’s, wedding celebration to long-time flame and new wife Sophie. Peter and Janie too went to a wedding celebration of Zac and Vicky up in Washington State in July. Another P and J son, Adam, also recently got married to Katie in a COVID constricted ceremony. Their third son, James (more about him later), just announced his engagement to a lass from Omak, Washington. Folks seem to be stampeding to the altar these days! (https://www.omakstampede.org/). Oh heck, while in the same paragraph I might as well mention that my nephew Alex too is engaged… I’ll meet his fiancée in a few days.
I was happy to share the experience of watching Peter lead the orchestra with Zac and Vicky. Peter and Janie kindly secured our tickets for the Sunday matinee performance. Our visit to the Stockton Symphony’s holiday concert was particularly exciting as they would be performing a Hanukkah medley that Peter himself arranged. I had watched the medley performed by another of Peter’s orchestras online but had not seen it in person.
The concert hall was about 2/3rd full, as Peter announced that this was the biggest attendance since the start of the pandemic. (Pre-Covid the place was usually packed.) I enjoyed all the pieces, many of them traditional and delightful Christmas concoctions, with the added fun of “sing-a-long” written lyrics on a electronic banner above the stage. I’m a Jew who really loves to belt out carols! But I was especially moved to listen to and see his Symph-Hanukkah medley. I found myself teary-eyed as I thought of how proud my mother would have been to see her nephew take on the topic with such skill and power and sensitivity.
After the concert, we all went out to dinner at a local Greek Restaurant. As we were being shown to our seats, Peter was recognized by a couple of parties who spontaneously burst into applause. Imagine the thought of walking into rooms and people clapping for you! I’m sure that he has dealt with that before, but there also – and I am just projecting here – may be the additional joy and even relief people feel about finally, after years of pandemic constraints, being able to gather together and share music, art or… food.
Monday to Tuesday, December 5th to 6th
My cousin Roberta, whom we connected with during the Antolept (Jaffe) family reunion 5 years ago and have staying in touch with since, was to perform in the choir for the Santa Rosa Symphony’s production of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. She and her partner Stan graciously allowed me to stay with them for a couple of nights and got me a ticket to the symphony.
During the day before the concert, they took me out for wine tasting. This is, after all, Sonoma County. It’s what one does. As I was finishing my third glass from the flight we were drinking, I got a phone call. It was from my former colleague and State Parks commissioner Pat Lantz. She was about to get an award for her contributions to the Gig Harbor community and had questions about Talmudic interpretation as she was preparing her acceptance speech. I pointed out to her the desperation of her position that I would be the most Jewish person she knew, but that she was also in luck. I was sitting down with two folks who actually led Torah and Talmud sessions at their synagogue. I put my phone on speaker mode and the four of us engaged.
What followed with a discussion on Jewish ethics. The centrality of the concept of Tikkun Olam (repair of the world) and the moral teachings in Pirkei Avot (Chapters of our Fathers) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirkei_Avot were lead subjects. I unabashedly told Pat that she was an exemplar of those practices in her commitment to – and effectiveness in – advancing the public interest and protecting the natural world. My personal favorite PA quote, whenever I believe that the road ahead on any matter seems too long or steep: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.”
After a delicious sockeye salmon-led dinner prepared by Stan – who said it was the best salmon he ever made and I thought it was pretty terrific as well – we went off to the Green Music Center in Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center in Rohnert Park to attend the symphony. While Roberta went off to practice with the choir, Stan and I attended a pre-concert talk between a key soloist and the symphony musical director, Francesco Lecce-Chong. https://www.srsymphony.org/About/Artistic-Leadership/Francesco-Lecce-Chong,-Music-Director
Toward the end of the session, Lecce-Chong referenced Beethoven’s Ninth as “the most performed symphonic music in the world… by far.” While I certainly had heard/listened to the 9th a number of times, I realized that I may never have listened to the entire piece and certainly had never seen it performed in person.
Weill Hall, where the concert was performed, was a stunning, architectural showpiece of wooden grandeur. The audience fully filled the seats for this performance. The concert was split by an intermission; modern works in the first half, and the 9th in the second. I had no idea about the length of Beethoven’s final symphony which stretched over an hour. His magnum opus, written when he was essentially deaf, was originally performed, apparently, when he and another conductor both led the orchestra. The other conductor’s timing being the sole focus of the performers. Apparently, Beethoven was still swinging his arms after the final note.
Both during intermission and after the show, Stan quickly guided me to a special side room where oer d’oeuvres, sweets, and bubbly were served for those patrons who had given a bit extra to the symphony. I was receiving an undeservedly royal treatment, but, heck, the prawns WERE tasty.
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony performed by the Santa Rosa Symphony with several community choirs merged in for the full affect. Cousin Roberta is third from the right on the top row.
Wednesday, December 7
Late on Tuesday I received an email from my friend Katrina. We had planned to take a walk and have dinner the next day, but Katrina needed to cancel. So, I decided to have a day by myself in SF. Picked up a tuna wrap, orange and some limeade in Santa Rosa to eat either along the way or when I got to The City. Why limeade? – stay tuned – this will matter later – because it was a smaller container than the lemonade and less expensive than some of the other more processed drinks.
I drove to SF with the intention of filling the afternoon in the de Young Museum. As I entered Golden Gate Park I saw an unlimited time free parking space – this is a big deal in The City – across the street from the SF Botanical Garden. I decided immediately that a leafy stroll was meant to be and spent a good hour walking the paved and unpaved pathways of the gardens in the late autumn midday sunshine. The gardens were arranged by geography and chronology. There were the plants of Chile, South Africa, etc. There were the plants of progressive geologic eras (e.g., Eocene, Pleistocene). Flowers were abundant; what a wonderful change and exaltation from the dreariness of Western Washington’s dark-out Decembers.
I’m planning to go to South Africa in March to visit my dear cousins. I thought I’d get a head start on Cape Town’s Kirstenbosch by visiting the San Francisco Botanical Garden.
Off I walked to the de Young Museum, looked at the price, thought about my intention the next day to do SF MOMA and changed plans on the spot. After all, I was on my own, and any changes mattered to no one else but me.
Walking across a broad, palm tree, brick and water fountain sprinkled plaza between the de Young and the California Academy of Science, my new museum destination, I stopped to get a Polish dog and Coke from an outside vendor. I asked for hot mustard, onions, and sauerkraut to be heaped upon the dog, and chomped it down as I took in the view of the plaza, neighboring Ferris wheel and a series of strolling lovers.
Golden Gate Park’s palm plaza, Ferris wheel and nearby hotdog stand between the de Young Museum and California Academy of Sciences
I secured $3 off admission to the California Academy of Science because I “walked” to the museum (alternatively, a transit ride also got folks $3 off) and ended up spending the rest of a delightful afternoon taking in the history of primatological discovery, experiencing a San Francisco-style earthquake, exploring the biology of the coastal redwood forest tree tops, staring down brilliantly-colored tropical birds. and communing with aquaria denizens of the tropics.
California Academy of Science’s tropical conservatory. A couple of plumage show offs!
I was undecided whether to eat a dinner in SF or cross the Bay Bridge and eat somewhere in Berkeley. My intention was to return to Zac and Vicky’s after dinner. As an option I hadn’t previously considered, I texted San Franciscan James Jaffe, Peter’s son, and asked him “any plans for dinner tonight?” James is a cellist, who specializes in chamber music. To my happy surprise, he called me back and told me that he was managing a concert that evening and dinner would be tough to fit in. Of course, I asked if I could come and help him set up for the event, and we might have a chance to connect a bit before the concert. He quickly accepted.
After I got my own dinner at a fabulous fish fry café/seafood market near the Ocean, that James had previously recommended to me (https://www.hookfishco.com/), I drove out to The Haight to help James set up for the evening’s event. That event would combine chamber music (a string quartet) with three short science lectures by three different scientists. The topics were sound waves, light waves and water waves. The venue was, of course, labeled, “Wave” and James was a founder and leader in The Wave Chamber Music Collective, (https://wavecollectivespace.com/ ) a non-profit organization that promotes classical and contemporary music. James was not performing that evening, but he was co-managing the event.
As I entered the Wave, I was introduced to Christy, the other co-founder of the Collective, and told her I was there to help. She asked me to go across the street to pick up ice at the drug store, which I did. Then James and I needed to go across the street to a liqueur store to pick up various contents for the mixed punch they were concocting. The store didn’t have a sugared lime drink that was part of Christy’s recipe. “Hey, I have some limeade in the car which I haven’t opened yet. Perhaps that would help.”
We fetched the limeade, brought it to Christy and, TA DA, it was perfect!
As people started filling in the venue, I grabbed a corner of the couch in the back of the room, by the one toilet. Eventually, 40 or so people were crunched into the space (Fire Marshals don’t read this blog), most sitting on the floor, cross-legged. It was a 30-something crowd. I saw no one close to my age. Perhaps 20% were, along with me, wearing masks. Before the music started, the din of laugher and joy of discourse and huggings and kissings produced a mood of gaiety (in more ways than one – after all, this IS San Francisco!) and silliness.
Chamber music as it is meant to be played – in a very small chamber with a rapt audience.
Then the quartet started. Its first piece, of recent vintage, provided a surprising and inspiring range in the uses of the traditional string instruments. I love classical pieces and am always delighted and impressed by the power of the string quartet. But that first opus contained sounds I had never heard from those instruments. In addition to the traditional bowing and plucking, there was a surreal hissing created by covering the strings with hands paired with soft bowing. There was too wonderfully odd syncopation and stirring and surprising swings into different modes. When the music started, the audience’s merriment suddenly became a contemplative quiescence, and they all listened with an intensity and appreciation that was enhanced by the tiny space and packed house. The intimacy was thrilling. Oh, how we have missed this for our years of pandemic life! There were feelings upwelling in me both of joy and release from the burdens of isolation and worry about the risks I was taking for my own health and potential damage to others – after all, I was still having some symptoms of chest congestion and dry coughing.
When the quartet finished its first piece, on came the lecture about light waves. The mood instantly changed from reverent listening to collective intellectual guffawing. This was a smart crowd. Very smart. Next to me on the couch was a married couple; he a neuro-physicist doing cutting-edge research, she “in the tech field” working for a startup. He grew up in Bellevue, Washington (my hometown), she grew up in Mumbai. His friend and work colleague was the first scientist up in the comedy-science lectures. “Eric’s a funny guy,” my couchmate informed. “He’s like this at work too.”
The concert resumed, then was interspersed between more lectures and more music. A finale of classic Chopin elevated the room and had me near tears of bliss. After the music ended, and the chatting began, I was introduced by James to a young woman violist who told me of her own struggles to decide whether to drop her tech job in favor of concentrating on the music she loved to play. I thought about the remarkably high levels of talent that the musicians displayed, the joy of their extended will from their brain to their limbs to their instruments, in which they could produce, with a directness and seeming effortlessness, these complex and powerful sounds. And best of all, the wonder of doing that with others… having to do it with others… conjoining the skills and purposes for four people. How could any singular technical accomplishment compare with that sublime collaboration? How could the young friend of James not yearn for what must be a certain extasy of connection with others that has the potential to reach for a perfection of beauty and truth. If you have the chops, how can you not devote your life to making music?
James has filled his life with this stuff. Like his father, his mind is constantly hearing the world around him, taking it in with a growing wisdom and familiarity because he has the capacity to reproduce the sounds from his own talents and the talents of his eager collaborators.
After the concert/comedy science lectures, I drove home in the dark of a metropolitan night, across the Bay, back to my son and his bride.
Thursday, December 8
Every day, every moment on this trip has seemed to build on sets of hilarious and meaningful coincidences and remembrances. The day after James’ concert/lectures, I’m back in San Francisco. This time with my old city planning school colleague and friend Helen Burke. Helen was an elected official when we first met. The first woman and first self-avowed “environmentalist” on the board of the East Bay Municipal Utility District (East Bay MUD). We have stayed in touch over the more than 40 years since our departure from school, with Helen adding a focus on watercolor painting to her environmental planning and advocacy work avocations. We are off to SF MOMA to take in a special exhibition of “Diego Rivera’s America.” The great muralist and devoted communist engaged in his craft in multiple locations throughout Mexico, and in many US cities, including New York, Detroit, and, of course, San Francisco. Rivera called his America “from ice to ice” – the Artic to Patagonia.
Now, every time I think of Rivera, I also think of his wife Frida Kahlo, and then, in turn, think of the terrific movie “Frida” starring the sumptuous Mexican actress Salma Hayak.
Diego and Frida: Not all of Diego Rivera’s America exhibit is painted by Diego.
Later that evening, after driving back to the East Bay, picking up Zac and having a delicious Thai dinner, the three of us went to see the movie “She Said.” It focused on the New York Times journalistic duo, Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, tracking down victims of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual violence and seeking to make that story public. Salma Hayek famously told of her experience with Weinstein who would not let her produce “Frida” unless she participated as the titular character in a nude scene. Coincidence between SF MOMA exhibitory and “She Said?” Perhaps not, but things trigger connections with other things.
Friday, December 9
The deal was that I would not interrupt Zac and Vicky as they carried out their work responsibilities during midweek. The weekends we’d have together, but I would scatter otherwise. So, Friday would be my day to write, reminisce, and explore Berkeley on foot.
Bringing along my laptop, I walked over to Shattuck Avenue’s SenS Hotel Café – formerly called the French Hotel Café – where Uncle Joe spent many mornings for 20 years, drinking coffee, eating pastries, and shooting the breeze with the locals. Joe called it the “French Laundry” because that’s what it was before becoming a café. (Little did he know that “The French Laundry” in Napa County would become famous as an ultra-elite dining spot that got Governor Gavin Newsom in trouble during the pandemic for his attendance and obvious hypocrisy https://www.thomaskeller.com/tfl/menu ). The North Berkeley (formerly called the Gourmet Ghetto) café is now managed by Spanish-speaking staff. When I mentioned to the man serving me a latte and scone that my uncle had come here for decades, he pointed to a man sitting in the corner and said, “You ought to talk to that guy.”
Author and social observer Leonard “Lenny” Pitt holding forth at Shattuck Avenue’s French Hotel Café, where my Uncle Joe spent pleasant mornings drinking coffee, eating pastries, conversing about whatever, and playing/singing folk music for over 20 years.
“That guy” turned about to be Leonard “Lenny” Pitt. Lenny had been hanging out at the French Hotel Café for over 30 years. He is a published author of many books, including several on walks and architecture in Paris. (http://www.leonardpitt.com/.) Some wildly famous or talented old fart sitting in the corner is, of course, no surprise in Berkeley. Choose any restaurant in this town and just listen to those in the neighboring table casually reference their latest film, scientific breakthrough, or novel. There is a presumption of intellectual greatness in the town that comes mixed with one’s eggs over easy and hash browns. Zac runs into Michael Pollan on College Ave. Jean and I are eating with Helen at Saul’s as Robert Reich explains the latest deprivations of the Trump Administration to his acolytes at the table to the left (in more ways than one). It all comes with the territory.
So, I strike up a conversation with Lenny who is happy to engage. Turns out, he and other café denizens have just produced a book, “The French Hotel: Selected Writings of Café Habitués” which will have a big book opening party in 8 days. Lenny sells me an advanced copy for $10. “I can’t promise anything,” I tell him, “but I think covering the opening party in Berkeleyside would be a great article. I’ll tell my son Zac about it.”
I had already proudly told Lenny of my history with Sarah and Joe, Joe’s connection to the café and Zac’s connection to town and the news site. Lenny avidly read Berkeleyside and was pleased with the potential for promotion. He was also working on a video of the history of café patrons. He promised he’d send me the video when it was done, but showed me what he had so far – a 10-minute paeon to alter kockers hanging out. We exchanged email addresses.
I asked Lenny the obvious. “Did you know my uncle?” He asked me for a picture, and I was able to dredge one up from my unsorted online picture collection.
Turns out, Lenny didn’t recognize Joe, but he walked around the café until he found a long-timer who did. “She does remember him,” Lenny calmly told me. I was thrilled.
Lenny and I talked intermittently till he needed to leave. “I’m here seven days a week. Come by anytime.” I told him I’m leaving on Monday morning but will come back next time I’m in Berkeley.
The café closed at 2pm, and with the Lenny dialogs taking up a share of my time, my trip write-up had a long way to go (finishing it now, back home in Olympia). But the rain was holding off for the day, and the temperature was perfect for a long walk up to Sarah and Joe’s, over to Codornices Park, and down to the Euclid Ave Cal campus entrance.
Loudly marching and picketing at the entrance were about 50 graduate students. Music was blaring and bullhorns sang out the anthems of protest. I was watching the visual manifestation of a University of California systemwide strike by post-docs, grad students and student assistants calling for more money and better working conditions. It was/is the largest strike of post-secondary staff in the history of the world. Apparently, we are talking about 46,000 people.
Picketing the UC Berkeley campus as part of the largest academic strike in history.
I go up to a couple of strikers and ask if it is ok for me to walk across campus. I don’t cross picket lines – my parents would not be pleased. But I told them that I was only a former student of 40 years ago wanting to take a walk. The two strikers gave me the go ahead to cross campus and that’s what I did.
My tradition for those 40 years is to walk to my old Department of City and Regional Planning HQ and look at the class descriptions and syllabi on the wall. I kept up that tradition and paired it with a hello to the admin staff hanging around in the office. When you are an old man, they let you do that.
Saturday, December 10
Vicky needed the weekend to prepare for a major work task. She was required to prepare pages and pages of materials and two full presentations. Thus, Zac and I took off on a very wet and blustery day to the Lawrence Berkeley Hall of Science. I had been talking about the 1970 movie “Colossus: The Forbin Project” ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colossus:_The_Forbin_Project ) because some of the outside scenes were shot at the Lawrence Berkeley site. I remembered it as a silly movie but one I was excited to see again, at least for the architecture. However, when we got to the site, it turned out that the inside museum was only for young children. So instead, we went over Oakland’s Chabot Space and Science Center. Both of us were a bit disappointed in our experience there. Not as organized and systematic as I would have hoped and the inside temperature was COLD!
We returned to Vicky and then went out for a surprise gift to me – dinner at Chez Panisse. And as a surprise to them, Zac’s former apartment neighbor turned out to be the floor manager of the upstairs dining room where we ate. We got special treatment, including a family and friends discount and an extra dessert! Memorable meal indeed.
Vicky and Zac took me out to Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse.
Sunday, December 11th and 12th
As Vicky worked on her presentation, Zac and I took off for San Jose to Cousin Shirley’s 80’s birthday bash. Shirley and her genial and train-obsessed (and that’s a good thing!) husband Dan had spent a few days with Jean and me in Brooklyn during our March 2022 stay. We had also spent time in a couple of Antolept reunions, large and small, and there was a strong bond between us that formed. We enjoyed each other’s company. The highlight of this birthday event was hearing Shirley’s family and friends provide greater detail about her life, and to hear too from Shirley about her gratitudes and life perspectives. I actually love speeches of praise and fellowship and nostalgia. Especially when I don’t have to give them.
The birthday girl, Shirley Ann Lee, along with a couple of Farbers. Roberta and Stan are talking in the background with a man whom Roberta knew in her youth. Theirs was an unexpected encounter, as she hadn’t seen him for 60+ years.
After returning from San Jose we enjoyed another delicious home-cooked meal that we all participated in creating (I even made the hanger steak. I probably haven’t cooked a beef steak in over 20 years!). Then there was only one thing left to do to make the trip complete. Yup… had to watch Colossus: The Forbin Project! Computers taking over the world was all too contemporary an issue, but surprisingly, Zac liked the movie and saw certain ambiguities that felt insightful. And I still liked seeing the exterior of Lawrence Berkeley.
The next morning, I was picked up by my friends Ling-Yen and Jon and we had a delicious breakfast at the Oceanview Diner in Berkeley. (There is no ocean view from the diner, but the story of the area’s desire to not be gobbled up by Oakland was the antithesis of a meal and the basis for the name.) They are both artists and have carried on with owning and running Solano Press, an urban planning publishing company founded by my old university professor and friend Warren Jones. It is always a joy to see them, be it at their home in Point Arena, at one of their shows in the Bay Area, or during their travels to art festivals in Washington State. Ling-Yen and Jean share books to read, and her jewelry is unique and beautiful. If you are reading this, you should check out her web page and buy her work! https://ling-yendesigns.com/
Ling-Yen and Jon then drove me to the airport, and I was home in Olympia just a few hours later.
It was a trip packed with activities. With connections both intimate and grand. Everywhere I went, I observed both the mood of folks and, frankly, the % of them wearing masks. The answer on the latter was “not many.” The answer on the former was “pretty good.” People were wanting to live lives of connection. People were living such lives more and more. People were gathering again. Some more hesitantly than others. But a general easing of atmosphere was prevalent. At Shirley’s 80th, with almost everyone over 50 – and most closer to 80 – virtually no one was wearing a mask. Stan said, “this is the first event since the pandemic that we have gone to where we aren’t wearing a mask.” He said it with a sense of amazement. Amazed that he himself was doing so.
And thus we go forward. Traveling the world because we want to see people and places. Wearing masks, at times, keeping up with our vaccinations, and doing all the things we have always been told to do to get and stay healthy.
Just as this trip started with a bit of a cold, and had its moments of quiescence and chest congestion, it ended with some healing and health. Travel can do that for me. Gatherings are good.