Live the Questions

Words of Torah, funny anecdotes about my students, rants about education policy, and observations on politics, progressive Judaism, activism, and culture will all make appearances on this blog. Each post will end with a question for the reader; please respond if you feel moved.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Make me feel good, rock 'n roll band, I'm your biggest fan

Stories from General Anna and Ruby K's California adventure

Saturday and Sunday:

The first day of our trip was harrowing, but in the end, our persistence was rewarded.

When we arrived at JFK for our flight, the airport was a madhouse. Folks whose flights had been cancelled for the past three days due to the winter storm + teachers and NYC students on the first day of vacation = mass chaos. It was somewhat like one of the movies I show for my course on genocide where a huge mass of refugees, their worldly possessions on their backs, are all desperately trying to escape their war-torn country. Except these were people trying to go skiing or to the Bahamas.

We did make our flight, which was held for an hour due to the chaos. As we were sprinting through the terminal towards our gate, I heard the faint strains of Chariots of Fire. During the flight we played an interactive trivia game with other passengers (on our touch screens). Ruby and I dominated several rounds, duking it out for first place, when some interloper from seat 31A joined the game and beat us both with his knowedge of obscure geographical locations.

When we arrived, we got our rental car and zipped North (that was my first "I'm not in Kansas anymore" moment; great views driving up the peninsula on 101) to my friend Teo's house, picked him up, and headed over to Golden Gate Park to meet my friend from college and her fiance. The weather was unseasonably warm-- in the high 60's-- and bright and sunny. We sat on the gorgeous lawn outside of the Conservatory of Flowers and then took a walk through Golden Gate park, past primeval--looking groves and ponds, a mini-rave with lots of stoned college students, the new Asian art museum, and a really cool fire-dancing performance which was accompanied by a fantastic drumming circle. Very California. We joked that we'd seen it all and could go home now. My college buddy is a professional ballroom dancer, and her fiance works at Google, so we enjoyed hearing about their respective professions (for very different reasons).

We returned to Teo's awesome apartment on Haight Street. He's not quite in Haight-Ashbury, but pretty close, and his apartment has a balcony with a great view of the cute gingerbread houses that dot the city. We put our bags down and relaxed for a minute or two before heading out in Teo's Prius (Priuses are so cool!) to Fisherman's Wharf for some seafood. We walked around Fisherman's Wharf, trying to settle on a restaurant and tourist-watching, and then ate at The Blue Mermaid.

Sunday we slept in and waited for Ruby's lost suitcase to arrive, which it finally did. Then, we were off to Haight Ashbury for brunch (mmmmm... banana walnut pancakes) and a trip to Amoeba, the largest independent record store I've ever been in. It had a fantastic selection, and we browsed and left with quite a nice stack of exciting new music. I strolled around the area, which is (predicably) filled with funky clothing stores, tattoo parlors, coffee shops, head shops, and other "countercultural" spots. It feels a little sad to me that the hippie counterculture has now become a mass marketing scheme for tourists, but if you don't think about it then it's still fun.

We drove down Lombard street (Teo is an intrepid driver and the hills do not phase him) and over to Coit Tower, which sits atop a hill overlooking the bay, both bridges, Alcatraz, Treasure Island, etc. It has phenomenal views as well as a whole set of communist WPA murals of various California industries on the bottom. We snapped lots of photos of the city. The weather has been fantastic so far, so we've been really lucky. We also walked over to Telegraph Hill in search of the famous parrots, but they had gone to roost elsewhere. The flowers are in full bloom, especially cherry blossoms, so just walking around the greenery was beautiful.

I insisted on a stop at Pier 39 to listen to the sea lions barking at each other. They had a photo exhibit showing how the local marine mammal folks save injured or sick sea lions. Although it's sad that they need these elaborate rescue schemes, it was pretty cool to see how it is done.

Then, we met up with a group of Ruby's college friends for dinner in Chinatown. It is the beginning of the lunar new year of the boar, so there were random firecracker blasts at various points, but other than that dinner was uneventful but yummy. I got to browse the poetry section at the City Lights bookstore and bought a few volumes of poety, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "Coney Island of the Mind" since it is his store, after all. Amiri Baraka is doing a reading there tomorrow, and I was a bit sad that we are missing it.

Monday and Tuesday:

The past two days have consisted mostly of looking at really beautiful views. We've taken two rolls of film in two days...

On Monday, we drove down to Monterey through rolling hills and farmland out of a Steinbeck novel. It is fantastic to see fields stretched out as far as the eye can see. We stopped in Gilroy, the garlic capital of California, to buy some garlic-themed products, including a garlic lolipop, which we have not tried yet.

We met up with NH3 and his wife J at their home and then drove downtown to the Monterey aquarium, where we marveled at the luminescent jellyfish, the giant, deformed-looking sunfish, and very wise-looking sturgeon. I even got a "guide to environmentally sound fish consumption" so now I know what to eat and what not to eat. Click here to see the guide-- it's great!

Then, we drove the scenic drive (it is actually called that) down the edge of the bay, stopping to ooh and ahh at huge cypress trees strategically placed at dramatic points on craggy seaside rocks. It was great to have the time to catch up with NH3 and J. NH3 is finishing up his thesis research on underwater submarine detection technology (it's pretty cool--something to do with focusing sound waves to do echolocation/ radar with them) and then moving back to Newport RI in the fall. They also have a very cute puppy, so we had a great time playing with him and taking turns trying to tire him out (it was impossible, however). As befits a Navy Puppy, he is extremely well-trained and has been a star student at puppy obedience school.

Tuesday morning, we headed out fairly early and drove into Big Sur on Highway 1. Of course, the views are absolutely phenomenal-- just breathtaking the entire way-- and we had to train ourselves not to stop at every single turnout to get out and take photos. We still have probably 20 pictures that are variations on the amazing coastline scenes.

We stopped at Andrew Morel state park and took a lovely short hike down to the beach area. We passed through a grove of cedar trees (they smelled good) and first noticed one, then, two monarch butterflies-- then, the whole grove exploded with butterflies! They were apparently roosting there on their migratory path. The beach was gorgeous and we just stood around and looked at the view before heading back to the car.

We had lunch at Nepenthe, a restaurant with perhaps the most amazing view of any restaurant I've ever been in, and a name to match. (Nepenthe is the magical liquor that makes you forget all of your troubles and stresses.) Huge hawks kept soaring overhead as we ate our burgers.

Then, we drove on to Hearst Castle, the summer home of William Randolph Hearst. Wow. The guy owned tapestries that had belonged to Louis XVI, decorated his walls with 14th century gothic choirstalls, imported the fragments of an ancient Roman temple to make the facade for his outdoor swimming pool, used gold-encrusted tiles on the floor of his indoor swimming pool, had an indoor movie theater which seated 90 people, created his own zoo on the property, and owned 45 miles of the California coastline at one point. The castle consists of the three "bungalows" (2000 square feet each) and the main house. It was a marvel of excess. He jumbled everything he had together with no respect for period or context-- a 16th century Spanish painting next to an Art Deco statue, etc. But it was fun to see. No one should ever be that rich.

In the realm of simpler pleasures, we drove to a spot on the coast where hundreds of elephant seals, harbor seals, and sea lions all hang out. The elephant seals are humongous-- some over 2 tons! The most impressive thing was the noise they all made-- they barked, roared, squealed, screamed, sang, yodeled, and made other noises I really can't describe. Hundreds of seals all talking to each other all at once was deafening.

Then, we drove to Cayucos, a little beach town, and spent the night here at a great B&B. Since we are not spending anything on lodging the other nights, we decided to splurge a little bit and stayed at a lovely one-- which we got a great deal on since it is off-season. We had a suite to ourselves, with a balcony and everything. The suite was sweet.

Wednesday and Thursday:

Our friend W successfully defended his dissertation yesterday and in return received a T shirt that says, "Trust me: I'm a doctor."

We arrived in San Diego yesterday at around noon to meet up with W's family and friends before the defense. We all got to watch his presentation on his research on interluken 1-beta and how it interacts with cell membranes. It had lots of colorful diagrams of spirally-looking proteins. That's really about all I can tell you about the contents, but apparently it was good enough for a PhD. We had a little reception for him afterwards and met some of his colleagues from his department. Then, the whole family descended on a Mexcian restaurant and celebrated with margaritas and enchiladas.

The day before yesterday, we woke up, took a brief walk on the beach at Cayucos, and settled in for our longest drive yet. We drove to Santa Barbara and stopped there for lunch and a quick tour of the Mission, which is supposed to be one of the largest and most beautiful on the central coast. I was pleasantly surprised by the positive attention in their exhibits given to the talents and cultural heritage that the Chumash Indians had BEFORE the Spaniards arrived. As always, my favorite part of the cloister was the garden. The main church was painted in bright rainbow colors and patterns and smelled of incense from that morning's Ash Wednesday service.

We drove on to Los Angeles, singing along on the way, and encountered some famous LA traffic. ( :We got to Santa Monica Pier by around 6pm and checked out the scene on the pier. The solar-powered rollercoaster was closed, much to my dismay, but we played games in the arcade for a few minutes (I won mad tickets at skee-ball) and then went to meet our friend M from the NHC. We met M at a fantastic Mexican restaurant where I had the best tamales I've had in a long time. My cousin J met us at the restaurant and we all caught up.

Ruby went off to see Houston Persons, a famous saxophonist, at a local jazz club, and I went with J to meet her boyfriend, who seemed cool in that chill California-style way. Ruby met up with us later that evening and we all chatted for a bit longer before we collapsed at J's.

Friday and Saturday:

We are getting gloomy because tomorrow we have to get back on a plane and return to the frozen north. Yesterday, we had a chance to check out Los Angeles. We hadn't yet met Ruby's friend's new fiance, who lives in the city of angels, so we arranged to have lunch in LA's farmer's market. While it bore no resemblance to an actual farmer's market (it was definitely the cleaned-up, fancy-schmancy Hollywood version) it offered many choices for food and a good place to meet up.

After scoping her out (and calling our friend to tell him that we approved) we walked over to the La Brea tar pits. According to the map I had, "Park La Brea" was in between the market and the tar pit museum, so I decided that it would be a lovely half hour walk through the park. Unfortunately, "Park La Brea" was an exclusive gated housing community, so we had to walk around the outside. Very LA.

The tar pits themselves were just smelly ponds, but the museum was very cool. They've found an incredible number and variety of fossils and preserved remains in the pits, and we got to see the skeletons of mammoths, sabretooth cats, giant sloths, camels, wolves, and all kinds of other crazy huge mammals that apparently used to roam southern California. One of my favorite parts of the museum was the lab and workroom, which had huge glass windows so that spectators could see the scientists cleaning and preserving the fossils. Ruby got very emotional about a diorama of a baby mammoth watching helplessly as its mother was sucked into the tar pit. It really made me happy that I wasn't alive when the sabretooth cats were hanging around.

Then, we drove up to Hollywood since neither of us had ever seen Grauman's Theater or the Walk of Fame. Frankly, we were underwhelmed. They were setting up the red carpet walk for the Academy Awards and it seemed like much ado about nothing. Other tourists were busy snapping photos of themselves walking on the red carpet. We did check out the foot and hand prints of our favorite actors. It was worth it to be able to say that we'd done it, but neither of us was impressed.

Then, we headed over to my friend JG's home for shabbat dinner with her and two other friends in town. She hosted us for a lovely and delicious dinner and we chatted about how to create incentives (especially monetary ones) for companies to do the right thing. JG is a social worker specializing in end-of-life and geriatric care, and I am always inspired by her work. We stayed up late catching up.

This morning, we headed back to San Diego-- our final long California drive-- and met up with Ruby's friend S. and her husband and new baby for lunch in Old Town San Diego, which is supposed to re-create the Mexican mission atmosphere of ...well... old San Diego. Then, we went with W&W (that was a lot of W's!) to the San Diego Zoo, and headed straight for the tapirs, much to my excitement. They were so cute! And they had a capybara as well. We enjoyed the well-designed zoo, and since we were there later in the afternoon, many of the animals were waking up from afternoon naps and getting active again.

Along with other friends of W&W's, we got food for dinner and sat at a picnic table at the beach to eat it. There were tons of stars out and the crashing of the waves was very relaxing, although we were freezing. ( : It was a good way to say goodbye to California...

Best story of the trip:
We were scheduled to leave SF for Monterey early on Monday morning so we could hang out with NH3 and his wife Monday afternoon. However, Ruby K decided that he wanted to return to Amoeba records to buy a couple of CDs for W&W, our San Diego hosts. When we arrived at Amoeba early Monday morning, it was closed.
Ruby poked his head into the door and motioned frantically to one of the clerks on the opening shift. The guy came over and asked, "Whaddaya want?" Ruby made his plea, insisting that he knew exactly which two CDs he wanted. The clerk looked skeptical, but asked, "Which two albums?" Ruby told him that he wanted The Coup's new record and another album. The clerk shrugged and walked toward the shelves, saying, "I'll see what I can do." At this point, another Amoeba worker scurried over to Ruby and said, "You know who that was, right?!?! That was The Coup's former guitarist!" Ruby got the CDs.