Monday, June 29, 2009

Pan-Asian Soba Noodle Soup

I love Asian soups ... all of them. Never met one that I haven't totally enjoyed. I could eat Vietnamese pho every day, and likely never get tired of it. Starts with a rich beef broth, served over flat rice noodles, with a garnish of sliced jalapeno, Thai basil, and bean sprouts, topped with a squeeze of lime and a spritz of Sriacha hot sauce. I wrote a whole blog piece on it a few months ago, and the feedback has been amazing. If you live where you can get pho, consider yourself lucky. I live on the San Francisco peninsula, and in some areas there is literally a pho shop on every corner. But our other house is Central Oregon, and there's one Vietnamese pho restaurant in the entire county.

Thai soups are another favorite. The classic coconut milk and lemon grass concoctions are phenomenal. Chinese sweet and sour, won ton, egg drop, and sizzling rice soups are all awesome. Just as the salsa is a common barometer of what your meal's going to taste like in a Mexican restaurant, the sweet & sour soup serves a similar function in a Chinese restaurant. If it's great, you're probably in for a treat for the entire meal.

I believe soups are a state of mind (a phrase I stole from author Kathleen Flinn, but it's absolutely true). There aren't a lot of rules, and once you know your way around a stock pot, all's fair, assuming you think through the flavor combinations. Last night's soup was going to be based around a package of buckwheat Soba noodles that I'd picked up over the weekend at a shop in The Ferry Building, on San Francisco's Embarcadero. It would be chicken based, with non fat chicken broth and Better Than Bouillon chicken broth concentrate, the combination of which makes for a rich tasty base. I commonly use a white onion with this variety of soup, which I slice wafer thin and soak in cold water for 30 minutes, before adding it to the stock pot. This is a technique that comes from making pho, and makes for a less pungent onion that cooks faster in the broth. Cilantro and basil for flavor, a chunk of chopped ginger, as well as a teaspoon each of red and green curry paste. The combination of the two makes for a richer taste and it's an acceptable "hot." I also used a can of water chestnuts because it sounded like a good idea. No other spices, no salt or pepper, no soy sauce, just what's listed below. I used chicken and chicken broth(s), but the other flavors in the soup would probably lend themselves to a more vegan variety, should you desire.

1 lb chicken boneless skinless chicken breast
1/2 bunch of cilantro, chopped
1/2 bunch of basil, chopped
1 medium white onion, sliced in half, then very thinly sliced
small (1 x 2") piece of ginger, peeled, chopped fine
small can of water chestnuts, drained
49 oz can of Swanson's fat-free chicken stock, plus a can of water
1 tablespoon of "Better Than Bouillon" chicken stock concentrate
1 teaspoon each of red and green Thai curry paste

Package of buckwheat Soba Noodles
Garnishes of sliced jalapeno, limes, Sriacha hot pepper sauce.

Marinate the chicken for an hour with an Indian tandoori spice (if you have some ... lemon pepper, a light curry powder, paprika, or plain salt and pepper works fine)

Soak the sliced onion in cold water for 30 minutes

Cook the chicken in a frying pan, 'til it's still a little pink in the middle. Chop into 1/2" chunks

In a medium stock pot, bring the stock, concentrate, and can of water to a rolling boil over medium high heat
Add the chicken chunks, ginger, curry pastes, return to a boil
Add cilantro, basil, water chestnuts, return to a boil
Drain the water from the soaking onion, add to the pot, lower the heat and bring to a simmer

Cook the noodles
Preparing Soba noodles is like many things in life ... very easy, when you know how to do it. I use my pasta pot with the colander insert, which makes draining and rinsing them easy. Boil 8 cups of water, add the noodles and return to a boil. When the water gets close to boiling over, add another cup of cold water, return to a boil, simmer 5 minutes, drain and rinse with cold water.

Serve the noodles in a soup bowl, ladle soup on top, provide garnishes and toppings. Great stuff, works well for leftovers, lo-cal, virtually no fat, major flavors.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sunday BBQ

First ingredient for any Sunday barbeque ... and this one was no exception ... martinis.
My preference is Tanqueray 10, but Sapphire works magic too. To answer the highly debatable question of gin vs. vodka, I have this to say: Gin is a classic martini, there's no denying. My friend John and I will fight to the death over this seemingly simple point. It's the way God intended (I asked her, trust me on this one). But you'll notice from the picture that I've already deviated from the "classic" by adding a twist of lemon to the mix, vs. the traditional olive(s). I don't do olives, ever, for any reason, and in the case of a martini ... it's my gin, and I'll put whatever I want in it. Vodka martinis are awesome. I prefer to think of it as a mood thing, vs. one liquor over the other. Belvedere and Grey Goose make for wonderful martinis. Up, with a twist ... But for today's festivities, Bombay Sapphire was a total hit.

Tonight we were graced with a visit from friends Howie and Angela. I've known Howie since seventh grade, when we attended Ben Franklin Junior High School together in Daly City. We were casual friends in Jr. and High school, but have become the best of friends over the past 15 years or so. Howie and I are members of the "Weasels," which is a group of about 15 of us who've known each other since grammar school, and get together a few times a year. I'm not going to explain how the name "weasels" came about ... send me an email if you're dying to know. Howie and I live ten minutes apart so I get to see more of him. We're also both certifiable "car nuts," meaning we've spent way too much money and time on four wheeled toys over the years. When we moved to Bend in 2005, I discovered that there was not an Acura dealer in the area, and the front wheel drive on my beautiful blue TL was totally out of place in the ice and snow of Central Oregon. Howie's one of my very best friends, and I had no hesitation selling him the Acura. As much as I hated parting with it, much like a Great Dane that you just can't move into a 600 square foot studio apartment with, as much as you love the beast ... it went to a perfect home. And it still lives there.

Angela is a friend from massage school days. We met and immediately bonded in our Fundamentals of Massage class on 4/4/04 (tough to forget anniversary date). Angela's one of our core group of friends, and has been so since we met her. She, Rebecca and Nicole have made 3 trips to visit in Bend ... a record among our buddies. And one of the pluses of living in the Bay Area again is having her nearby and able to come over for impromptu barbeques like this one. Angela brought "mookies" for us tonight, which she and her mom America made earlier in the day. These are the most incredible oatmeal'ish cookies on the planet. They're so good and so rich that I simply don't want to know what's in them, or I would either make them for myself, or not eat them after finding out all the bad stuff in them.
My original dinner thought was a pan of lasagna, per Howie's suggestion. WolffDen 10 is coming up in September, and I think I'm going to do lasagna for the 15 of us, so I thought maybe I'd break it in tonight. But since it was just shy of 100 degrees out, I couldn't fathom spending that much time doing prep work, and the though of having the oven on that long wasn't appealing either!
So ... I opted for some beautiful NY steaks from the wonderful Lunardi's Market down the street. Lunardi's is painfully close to a Draeger's or Andronico's in quality and gourmet snob level, but slightly more approachable for those of us who can't afford a Bentley or Porsche Turbo. French fries compliments of Ore-Ida, cole slaw that garnered much praise, and a nice collection of reds from Paso Robles rounded out a great meal with the very best of company.

Appetizers - smoked gouda, brie, water crackers (plain and cracked pepper)

Chipotle Rubbit NY Steaks.
Marinated for 4 hours in: My "Rubbit" rub, which is: 2 parts each of paprika, salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, Coleman's dry mustard, 1 part each generic dried Italian seasoning, 1/2 part cayenne pepper, plus a sprinkling of real chipotle powder, extra salt.

TDF Cole Slaw (TDF=To Die For, he says humbly)
Shredded 1/2 heads of white and purple cabbage
2 carrots, shredded, cut into matchsticks
2 ribs of celery, chopped
1/2 cup of dried unsalted peanuts
1/2 a small white onion, chopped
tablespoon of celery seed
1/2 teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper to taste

Cole Slaw Dressing:
2 tablespoons of light Best Foods mayo
2 tablespoons of fat free sour cream
2 tablespoons of light brown sugar
1/4 - 1/2 cup of white vinegar (to taste, your call)

Ore-Ida Steak Fries
Too hot today to do these from scratch - Ore-Ida does them perfect!

Did I mention it was hot today? Angela's mom's famous "Mookies." Killer cookies.

The Atlanta Girls

Before buying the house in Bend, we came very close to moving to the Atlanta area. Specifically up around Roswell or Alpharetta, both of which are about 25 miles north of the city of Atlanta. And while there are many compelling reasons to live in the beautiful state of Georgia, the big "draw" was a few awesome ladies (and their significant others) who I'd met in my years in telecom in the Silicon Valley.

The connection came about via audio conferencing services, which many of you understand, but some may not. Essentially, it's a way to bridge anywhere from a few to a few hundred callers on a single conference call. In the "early days" it was just audio, but it's evolved into a very complex business that features document sharing, controlling other users' desktops, audio, video and web combinations, etc. It's an incredible tool, and the bigger companies like Premiere Conferencing and WebEx have become huge leaders in the field.

The first of the Atlanta girls was a nice young lady named Stella. I received a "cold call" from her, pitching a new conferencing service that would outperform and undercut anything we were using. I was managing telecom and networks at Pure Software at the time, and by pure coincidence, I needed the service, and I knew we were paying too much for what we'd been using. So we scheduled a meeting, and Stella came into the conference room like a whirlwind, launched into her pitch, undercut the competition while offering better services, no contract or annual commit level - just try the service and we'll take it from there. Ok? Fine ... now let's go to lunch. My recollection is that we went to the Lion and Compass in Sunnyvale. Stella had done her homework - for a first time visitor to the area, she'd scoped out the restaurants and picked one of the hottest spots for lunchtime networking in the Silicon Valley. Very, very personable, which was something I'd find with all of the Atlanta girls, who I'd meet subsequently.

I didn't know it at the time, but the "support" group that would answer the phones at Stella's company would actually become some of my best friends in the next couple of years. As it turns out, the people answering the phones were a few of the founders of the company, and would go on to build and sell off several more similar companies over the years. Names like "Marlene, Karen, and Carolyn" would make recurring appearances on the other end of the phone, but I had no idea that they were the company owners.

I tend to take good vendors with me from company to company, and so it was with Stella's conferencing services. Pure was bought by Rational, and her account immediately quadrupled. When I moved to Cisco, I brought the service to them as well. Cisco had their own internal conferencing bridges so it wasn't a huge deal for Stella, but I'm sure it helped pay the bills back in Roswell. She was a single mom, and accounts like Rational Software and Cisco Systems are real nice feathers in your proverbial bonnet.

When I left Cisco and went to work for Network Appliance (now Netapp), I fully intended to bring Stella's services with me. But a mere week into my tenure there, a co-worker arranged a conference with who she described as a pesty salesperson who'd been bugging them about handling their conferencing business. I agreed to the meeting, fully expecting to listen to the pitch, and send her on her merry way. This was my first meeting with Donna, who was with a newly-formed conference company that had great rates, attractive contract provisions, and they had a secret weapon ... they had Donna. We became fast friends, and it wasn't long until I discovered that this "new company" had the same lineage as Stella's old company ... same founders, same inside support people, only better rates ... and Donna.

My main inside contact was a wonderful lady named Marlene. She's one of the primary reasons that the companies they formed did so well. Customer service is a rare commodity, and Marlene and her "girls" are the best I've ever run across, and I deal with a lot of vendors.
Verneata, Karen, Carolyn, Donna, Marlene

About a year into the relationship with Donna, Marlene, Karen, Verneata and Carolyn, they all decided to come out to the west coast for a little trip to the wine country. We arranged to meet them in the gift shop at Silver Oak, one of our favorites. The first meeting with them was magic. It was like we'd been friends for decades. Wonderful women, excellent husbands and significant others, and the day couldn't have been better. A few of our local friends joined us as well, and it turned out to be a very memorable one. We ended up visiting several wineries, and ended up at Tra Vigne in St. Helena for a late lunch, early dinner. This was the third and last time I'll eat at this restaurant, which has a huge following and for some mysterious reason, a great reputation. I've had three experiences with terrible service, mediocre food, and ridiculous prices. Never again. But spending the day with these ladies and our friends was nothing short of magical.

My job allowed me to visit Atlanta (among other places around the country) several times a year. I'd always time my visits around a weekend, so I could spend time with the Atlanta girls. I managed to attend a couple of their company parties, a phenomenal grand opening of their new office complex (which was a weekend-long event), and always had a phenomenal time. A couple "firsts" on this trip were sweet tea and peach cobbler. You have to go to the south for both of these, to get the real deal. I did, had them many times since, and it represents a couple of the unmistakably southern things that I came to love.

We actually made a couple trips where we spent entire days with realtors, as we were seriously considering a move there. Houses like the one picture here, cost about half what they do in the Silicon Valley. It ended up being a lot farther east than we wanted to venture, but Roswell and Alpharetta are spectacular, and the people we met are some of the nicest I've ever encountered.

I don't get to see these girls too often since we moved to Oregon, and many have left the business and gone on to other successful ventures. We had a rare treat recently when Carolyn (the founder of several of the companies I mentioned) was in California on business. She emailed and asked if we were available. Being "available" was never in question ... the only question was what would I cook for her and her co-worker from Phoenix? Carolyn confirmed that they're both extremely "non-picky" and anything I made would be fine. I'm accustomed to some very picky eaters (all cooks are), so it's a treat when I get to "play."

Dinner for Carolyn went like this:
- Loin lamb chops marinated in olive oil, garlic, and fresh rosemary, cooked on the BBQ.
- Alaskan scallops dusted in cornmeal, quick fried, and served with chipotle aioli.
- Risotto with brown Italian mushrooms, arugula, white wine, and parmesan cheese.
- Salad of mixed greens, Mandarin oranges, and a light balsamic vinaigrette.
- And a multitude of great Paso Robles wines, which has become my new fave.

Of course I took advantage of Twitter and Facebook and made all of the Atlanta girls jealous by posting the meal contents. I suspect I'll see a few more of them in the future!

I adore these women, and keep in contact with several of them, unfortunately not with all of them. I hate losing track of people, and regardless of whether they still see one-another, I need to track the rest of them down. But Carolyn, Marlene, and Donna and I have always stayed in close contact, and I "hear" from several of them via Facebook as well. So I know they're out there, just involved in their lives and families, which is a good thing. They all know I'm thinking about them, and how much I care about them.

Our friend Trudy asked Carolyn an interesting question at Tra Vigne in St. Helena. Quite simply, she asked "what's it mean to be a Southern lady?" Carolyn replied, "We are ladies, we say y'all, we say I'm "fixin'" to do something, and we're proud to be Southern." Couldn't say it any better. They're all ladies, they're my friends, and I love every one of them.
~~~ And a big HAPPY BIRTHDAY Donna! ~~~

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Few Rules of the Road

A recent weekend trip to Central Oregon got me thinking about drivers, driving, and in some cases some laws that need to be passed, enforced, bent (I'll explain), and in some cases should be severely punishable by international law.

Knock on wood, but I traditionally don't get tickets. Several reasons for this, including the fact that I'm somewhat responsible in the first place, don't want my insurance raised, would never think of jeopardizing the precious cargo who are riding along with me, and I've learned my lesson from several youthful experiences.

My last speeding ticket was incurred at the tender age of 19, driving across the San Francisco Bay Bridge in my little orange '65 VW (which was named Humphrey). I was pulled over and tagged for going 53 MPH in a 50 zone. Really. I took it to court, pleaded with Judge Janet Akins (who I'll never forget), and was told this ... "Young man, let me put it to you like this ... if everyone on the bridge is going 90 and you're going 51, the officer is within his rights to pull you over. I find you guilty, that will be forty-eight dollars." Followed by the classic gavel on the desk. Apparently Judge Akins taught me a lesson, because I've managed to make it through several decades of driving a good many fast cars, and have yet to receive another speeding ticket. Two BMW's, an Audi S4, a Boxster, a Corvette, Infiniti, Grand Prix GTP ... you get the picture. No tix. Don't give them a reason to pull you over.

I used to work for Cala Foods in San Francisco, and all the employees were required to park in the street in spaces with parking meters. The meters required a quarter per hour, which is of course not always possible when you're working. I would sometimes go four or five days without a parking ticket, and other days would yield two in a single day. Over the 3 1/2 years I worked there, I managed to amass several thousands of dollars in tickets, which I refused to pay. San Francisco County has an interesting philosophy with these ... if they catch you, they'll take you to jail. But if you can avoid paying them for (about) three years, the system tosses them out. But it also means that you can't renew your license, since the tickets show up. Therefore ... I drove with an expired license for a couple years, waiting for my bazillion tickets to be bounced from the county's computers. Don't give them ANY reason to pull you over!

I try to be a good driver, follow the rules, perform random acts of kindness on the road, and generally keep my proverbial nose clean. So it totally irks me when other people don't do their part. Bad drive
rs are a universal thing ... California doesn't have any exclusivity in this area, they're everywhere. Boston drivers are legendary (and usually admit it), New York is a zoo, Atlanta has gotten horrendous with traffic and consequently there are more troublesome drivers there, and our home turf in Bend is not immune despite being such a small community.

The speed limit in Central Oregon is 55 on the "freeways," and a ridiculous 45 MPH on the new Parkway that parallels 3rd Street, which was the old way of traversing north-south Bend. And it's a great source of revenue for the local and State gendarmes, who will begrudgingly give you 5 MPH over the limit, but 10's pushing it and you're probably begging for a citation. Local cops ride BMW 1200 RT's and drive white cars ... some with light bars, some without. The State Troopers drive very non-distinct dark blue Crown Vic's for the most part, but it's not unusual to see them in various SUV's, Dodge Chargers, etc. Our trek through a stretch of Highway 5 in Northern California last week, uncovered a similar pattern for the state's infamous "CHP's." They're now driving everything, and it's incredibly difficult to spot them. And as much as I try to stay within the laws of the road, when you're driving 500+ miles between homes in two states, you can't always strictly obey all the posted limits. And of course you just might run into a cop like the one who tagged me for three miles over the limit on the bridge, and the subsequent judge who enforced it. I equate cops to rattlesnakes ... you might be able to go for miles and miles and not see one, but you know they're out there and will nail you when you least expect it. Plan on a certain amount per square mile and keep your eyes peeled.

New Rules of the Road ... Proposal 1

This brings me to my first proposal for a new law. I firmly feel that this should be an international law, issued by and enforced through the World Court in The Hague in Holland. I think every cop car on the planet should be black and white, with a clearly visible light rack on the roof. No exceptions. Period. Black bodied, white roofed Ford Crown Victorias, clearly marked on both front doors with their local jurisdiction's seal, no hidden lights, nothing sneaky, no variations anywhere. They're pros, and they should give us at least a fighting chance. Adept drivers can pick out Crown Vic headlights and taillights at night, but there's no way we can identify all of the light patterns on every vehicle out there. Play fair, paint 'em black and white, put big lights on 'em, be done with it.

The weekend trip to Bend took us over several toll bridges in both directions. Most of the California bridges collect tolls in one direction only now, which makes sense and speeds up traffic. This isn't the case everywhere, particularly on toll roads, like the ones that are common in New England and other parts of the East Coast. The best solution for anyone who drives bridges and toll roads with regularity is to purchase some kind of bulk pass. In California, it's called "Fastrack," and it requires that a device be placed on your dash or windshield, and you pay to have it activated. This kind of device lets you drive in the Fastrack lane and avoid slowing down and paying a toll. Great idea, everyone should use 'em if you do a lot of bridge or toll road driving.

But everyone doesn't, and to compound the pain of slowing down and paying your toll, a good many people don't think ahead and get their money ready. Everyone who crosses a toll bridge knows there's going to be a toll, and they should have the posted amount ready, way before they get to the tollbooth. If you're driving the 95 toll route down the New Jersey Turnpike, you're well aware that there's a cost involved. The words "toll road" should be a giveaway. This brings me to ...

New Rules of the Road ... Proposal 2

Maybe it was just my luck of the draw on this trip, but it seems that at least
one of the people in front of me at every tollbooth on this trip, had to fumble for their money at the tollbooth. These things are backing up traffic by definition, as they're put there in the middle of passing cars to collect money from you. Don't compound the mess by not having your four dollars IN HAND when you get up to the tollbooth window! My proposal is this: If you don't have your money in hand at the toll booth, you'll be fined $1000, receive a "point" on your license (technically it's not a moving violation, but it's my law and I'll do what I want with it), and you'll be required to pull into a waiting area to the side of the road, where you'll be required to sit in your car with the engine turned off for 2 hours. I'd venture a guess that nobody will ever forget to dig their money out of their pockets again, and likely will have it ready several miles in advance of the many signs that warn you of the upcoming toll road.

With all the driving I do, there are some things that just jump out at you. Generalizations, patterns, stereotypes and behaviors that can be observed virtually anywhere. Inside crowded urban areas, out in the country, or on a long stretch of interstate ... doesn't matter, they're out there, and unfortunately a lot of the stereotypes are right on the level. God forbid that I offend anyone, but the first observation stems from the type of car a person drives. Obviously, there are people who for one reason or another are stuck with the car they're driving. Everyone's not fortunate enough to have a dream car or even a remotely "fun" car at his or her disposal. I'm what the car magazines would term a "driving enthusiast," meaning I love cars that handle well, look nice, and generally perform better than average. I look for windy roads, love to open it up now and then, enjoy compliments on what I drive, etc. And when I see someone up ahead in a new Prius (which will be covered separately later), or something like a base model Kia or Corolla, a rock-stock Mitsubishi Galant or Mazda 3, a Mercury Marauder or Lincoln Navigator, a Hummer, or any car made in France or Yugoslavia, I'm suspecting they don't fall into the "enthusiast" category. These cars are a means to get from point A to B, to work and back, to the soccer game with the kids, or to the local WalMart to pick up a few loaves of white Wonder Bread, Velveeta cheese product, and a half gallon of Best Foods mayonnaise for a gourmet lunch.

The problem arises when a non-spirited driver thinks they own the road. The afore-mentioned Central Oregon freeways with their posted 55 MPH limit is a good example. If you're not going to go the speed that traffic is going, pull over. Their belief that "I'm going 55 and that's the posted limit" doesn't cut it. Everyone goes 5 or 10 MPH over the limit ... it's ok, you won't get a ticket (unless you're me, and you're 19, and it's not your day). If you have 14 cars behind you, many of which have drivers who are clearly gesturing at you in a very un-ladylike way, you need to pull over or speed up. It's not your road, you don't have the right to cruise at a sub-limit speed if there's anyone else on the road that may want to get around you.

New Rules of the Road ... Proposal 3

This brings me to my third proposal. I believe there should be a nationally accessible toll free number to report slow pokes that won't get out of the way. The number would be pre-programmed into every cell phone, to avoid the necessity of dialing while you're driving (see below). Hold down the nine on the touch pad, an operator comes online, and you tell them the idiot's car license number. The penalty for the offending driver would be yet another $1000 fine for the first offense, and confiscation of their license
and their boring car with the second offense.

My final rant is regarding cell phones, which I feel should be abolished from the planet, except for absolute emergency use. I've never done a text message in my life, and wouldn't know how to send or receive one. I send and receive email on my cell, as it's part of my job, but I don't "text" (like that's a legitimate verb), and if the device were to go away completely, I'd be a happy camper. I've worked as a telecom manager for many years, for some very large Silicon Valley companies. Consequently, I've come to hate phones. And I humbly (yet correctly) feel that phones in cars are pretty much unnecessary, but at the very least they should be Bluetooth hands-free devices only. California passed a law over a year ago, that hands-free are the only permitted devices in a car. And then they brilliantly tacked on a whopping $20 fine for the first offense, and even this is rarely enforced. Make it hurt, guys!

It's become painfully easy to spot people on the phone in the car. You can see them out there a quarter mile away, swerving, speeding up and slowing down, not signaling to change lanes, etc. It's become a very valid stereotype ... "Hey, look at that car up there ... let me go out on a limb and say I bet they're on the phone!" And I'm always right. Always. Hang up the phone, drive the car. It's not the end of the world. The call will wait.

New Rules of the Road ... Proposal 4

This one's real simple ... If you're caught holding a phone in the car, and either dialing, talking, or God-forbid
texting, your car and phone are confiscated on the spot, and you lose your license for five years. Harsh? Too bad. Buy a hands-free device or pull off the road. Get over it. And a corollary to this law is if you're caught on the phone while changing lanes or exiting the freeway without signaling to do so, you'll incur an additional penalty of a month of hard labor at a large farm in California's Central Valley in mid-summer. And you have to wear a ski parka and long pants all day long.

Any combination of the above would of course simply be compounded:

- Cops in "sneaky cars" who are caught talking on the phone lose their jobs, the car gets donated to a needy family, and they receive the regular penalty for the phone use. They'll also be required to completely eat the phone. Chew slowly, beware of small plastic pieces.

- People caught talking on the phone and fumbling for their money at a tollbooth, causing traffic to back up behind them? All applicable fines and the drivers in the first three cars behind the offender get to punch them in the stomach. If it happens to be on a bridge, they get to go for a swim, too.

- And any cop caught in an unmarked patrol car, talking on a cell phone, and holding up traffic will be immediately turned over to the Turkish government for special processing.

- And finally, any driver doing any of the above in a Prius, including driving in the fast lane of any road for any reason, will lose their car, home, job, and bank account, in addition to being turned over to the Turkish government for the afore-mentioned special processing. There's simply no excuse for these cars on the road, and they seem to encourage an attitude of superiority among drivers that you'd never see in any other car. You're not better than everyone else simply because your car gets better mileage. It's a ridiculous car. Sell it, donate it, let it be crushed into scrap metal, but keep it out of my way.

And as a reward for those of us who don't get tickets, don't cause or get into accidents, enjoy driving fun cars on windy roads, always have our money out at a toll booth, and think cell phones should be abolished, will have all insurance and registration fees waived indefinitely, as long as they continue to be the wonderful people they surely are.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

A Life of Drums

I've played drums and percussion for as long as I can remember. I've taken a stab at guitar and bass from time to time, but the drums are second nature to me. My first encounter was a gift of a set of bongo drums when I was about eight or nine. I was always into music, so it was only natural that I'd start banging away on the bongos (like a chimpan-zee, says Mark Knopfler in "Money For Nothing") to my favorite toons on the radio. I had a little plastic plug-in AM radio for during the day, and a little six dollar transistor radio that I'd hide under the covers with, and listen to all the hot songs of the day on KYA. And it just seemed like a natural thing to play to these on the drums.

Devara Williams and Hanka Kent were my fifth and sixth grade teachers at Thomas Edison grammar school in Daly City. Prior to these two teachers, all teachers' first names were "Miss or Mrs." I remember these first names because they were so unique, but the two of them were like night and day. Miss Williams was an absolute knockout of a blonde (an important factor in a teacher for any fifth grade boy), who ultimately left teaching to marry a sailor, we heard. Miss Kent was a very proper Polish woman who spoke somewhat broken English, but was an excellent teacher. Not the knockout that Miss Williams was, but a great teacher. I was in the school's glee club, which meant I got to do something other than the regular mundane class work for a couple afternoons a week. It was here where I first did any kind of performing on a stage, in the form of both singing (which I do very poorly) and playing bongo and conga drums, for the Spring and Christmas school presentations.

An interesting note here is that I've never had anything resembling stage fright, even at the age of eight, when about 20 of us would take the stage of the multi-purpose room and sing and play a few instruments for a group of gracious and understanding parents and siblings. For me, it's always been easy to get up on a stage and play. Dancing in a group of 10 (or 100) people scares me to death (because I don't know how to dance), but performing is a breeze. I actually really enjoy it, and I'm well aware of how lucky I am in this regard. A good many actors and musicians absolutely dread live performances. Tales of people getting physically ill before going on stage are abundant. Not me, I love it.

At the age of twelve, I had the best Christmas ever. I'd gotten the usual bikes and toys over the years, but this would be the year that would top them all. We'd all opened up our presents (all, meaning yours truly and the five younger sisters, and mom and dad), and then my dad handed me the key to the family car (a 1962 blue Plymouth Valiant station wagon, with a push button automatic trans). He said there might be something in the back of the car for me. The big box held a small but ultimately significant gift from my parents ... my first drum set. The little set of Sears drums included a bass drum, snare, mounted tom, and a little cymbal on a straight stand that stuck up from the top of the bass. No throne, no ride, crash, hi-hat, no floor tom ... we're talking very basic. But man was I thrilled.

My little drum set lived in the downstairs makeshift room that my dad and grandfather had stapled together for me. We lived in a three bedroom, 1200 sq. ft. house in the San Francisco suburb of Daly City, made famous by Pete Seeger's rendition of Malvina Reynolds' "Little Boxes". When baby sister number 5 arrived, it was time to expand into the garage for the oldest son. But this provided a great little studio where I could bang away on the drums for hours on end. I'd put 45 RPM records (the ones with the big hole in the middle) on my little Decca "hi-fi," and crank it up as loud as it would go, and play to my favorite songs. Much to my father's dismay, I never opted for any formal training. I've learned what flams and paradiddles are through process of osmosis over the years, but never actually learned rudiments or how to read music. My argument was that Buddy Rich didn't either, so why should I. In retrospect, I wish I'd taken some lessons and learned the basics, and I highly recommend this for any aspiring Ringo's out there.

Over the next couple years, I added a couple cymbals, a hi-hat and a floor tom to the set, so it sort of "looked" complete, although the quality was just not there. But it got me through a couple years with my first band, The Underground Balloon Corps (my dad gets credit for the name), with Bill Wilmes on lead guitar and Russ Kerger on keys. Bill played a beautiful Gibson ES-335 guitar and Russ had a Wurlitzer electronic piano. I had my crappy little Sears drum set, but made the best of it.

Upon joining the Psychedelic Web, I got to experience a real drum set. The band's drummer had gone in the Army and left his set of Slingerland blue marine pearl drums behind. So for the next year or so, I was able to play the Slingerlands, and got spoiled rotten. Bob Hess on keys, Tim Pappas on lead guitar, Marty Cloonan on bass, and "Big Al" Walden on vocals. This band rocked, and we played lots and lots of gigs through high school.

The Slingerlands would ultimately be returned to their rightful owner, and the Sears had just been beaten to death, so I had to find a way to buy some drums. My first "real" set was a red marble swirl set of Ludwigs. I bought them from the former drummer for Butch Wax and the Glass Packs, and they came with lots of extras ... cowbells, cymbals, throne, percussion devices, etc. Very fun set. Not the newest or best in the Ludwig line (that would come later), but a quantum leap beyond what I was using.

The next set was a real nice set of Ludwigs, which I bought from Drum World in San Francisco. It was a new Ludwig Hollywood outfit, and was my first new set, and also the first with two mounted toms (high toms, we call them). Nice gold sparkle, Remo Weather Master heads, real cymbal stands, and some fairly decent Zildjian cymbals. Good stuff. Amazingly, this was a set that I ended up playing solo for a few years, and I don't believe it saw much work in a band. I bought it after my stint at San Diego State, and pretty much used them as a practice set, but no band work. Kind of a shame in retrospect, as they were beautiful looking and sounding drums.

I kept these Ludwigs for a number of years, but ended up selling them for the same reason(s) I've sold many sets over the years ... too loud to play in an apartment, take up too much room, or I needed the money for something else (like a car payment or rent). So I sold the Hollywood set, and my "drumming" for the next few years would be limited to a pair of Regal Tip 5B's and a hard rubber practice pad. I had a few opportunities to "sit in" with friends and bands, and took every opportunity to play on anything set up in a music store, but my next drum set would actually be over a decade away. It was also during this period (my "Chico" days) when I got my first taste of electronic drums. Our local music store had a set of Simmons set up, and it totally opened up a new horizon for me.

Enter the age of electronics, and my first set of Rolands ... a TD-7 kit that consisted of a bunch of rubber pads for drum and cymbal triggering, foot controllers for the hi-hat and kick, and a portable rack to mount them on. I had finally reached nirvana ... they were a ball to play, had hudreds of sounds, and I could put headphones on and not disturb anyone around me. Life was beautiful for the drummer, once again. I used the Rolands for a couple years, playing in both work bands and outside bands. They got the job done, but lacked the depth of a real drum set in a larger room or outside venue.

Then came my first set of Premiers, a five-piece Cabria set from Starving Musician in Mountain View. I'd always had a soft spot in my heart for Premiers, since Keith Moon played them and I idolized him for years. I'd been a staunch Beach Boys fan, well into the "British Invasion" era, but everything changed the first time I saw Keith perform on the old Shindig show. Drumming would never be the same for me. I instantly went from a "keep the beat" drummer to wanting to play "lead drums." Unfortunately, this is generally not what your band mates want you to do, and I'm sure it was less than ideal for several of the bands I played in. Oh well.

I was playing in several bands and really enjoying the Premiers, but I missed the flexibility, ease of transporting, and ability to play with headphones that the Rolands offered. This was all solved when they released the Roland TD-10 V-Drums. Very different technology and electronics, and it was a real drum set in every way. The mesh heads were a major improvement over the old hard rubber ones, although the cymbals were still a generation behind. The TD-10's were awesome, and I pretty much played them every day. They got me through several years of bands, lots of live gigs, and thousands of hours of enjoyment.

But ... I was making a few bucks at this time, and ran across a deal I couldn't pass up. Some poor soul who needed the money, was selling a pristine condition set of Premier Signia Marquis drums, complete with a Gibraltar rack, cymbals, accessories, etc. Top of the line set, flawless condition, mine. The drums were awesome, although the 8-ply maple shells made them a bear to move around and set up and tear down. I added a bunch of Zildjian A-Custom cymbals, replaced the rack with a bigger one, bought mics and a mixer so I could run them through the P.A., and they totally rocked. Both the Premiers and the Rolands moved with us to Bend, OR, and both of them got lots of use in my little makeshift "studio" in the garage. Big house, no neighbors next door for the first 18 months, and I totally took advantage of it. I played them every day and made LOTS of noise.

But a new acoustic set caught my attention, and I ended up selling both the Rolands and the Premiers. A notes here; Yes, I buy and sell a lot of drums and accessories, but I've never lost any money on any of my music equipment. I research the best prices, and when it comes time to sell them I get all my money back (or more), and have had the use of top equipment for a couple years in the process. No regrets. The new set was made by Tama, a brand I'd always drooled over, and one that many of my favorite drummers played. I couldn't (and can't) afford DW's, so Tama is a good alternative. The set I bought was a Superstar Hyperdrive XL Custom, six piece (two high toms, two floor toms), in a beautiful dark red finish with black nickel plated hardware. Gorgeous drums, easy to transport, killer sound.

But once again, my environment dictated what was practical, over what I liked. We moved back to San Jose into a tiny apartment, and the Tama's had a REAL big loud sound. So once again, I sold them and went back to an improved version of the Roland V-Drums, this time a "V-Session" kit. Same number of drums, but they now had V-Cymbals, which are a tremendous improvement over the rubber pads. And they're red with a red rack, which is better than the white drums and black rack of the first set. I've played these in a couple of bands, lots of live settings, and continue to play them every day. Nothing wrong with them, they're in perfect condition, and will likely meet the needs of the most demanding of drummers.

But as I write this, they're on Craigslist and are about to be replaced by yet another electronic set, the new Yamaha DTExtreme III Special. New electronic technology, new pads, an awesome rack to mount them on, and they play like a dream. And an interesting thought comes with this set ... something I've never thought or said before. This could be my last drum set. It seems to finally have everything that I'm looking for in an instrument. Beautiful, thoroughly modern, flexible, top of the line components, upgradeable electronics, durable, etc. It could actually be the set that outlives its owner (which hopefully is still a long way away!).

I love playing drums. I do it for myself primarily, although I love live performing and take any opportunity to play with a band. But I'm quite content putting on headphones and attempting to play to my favorite songs, much as I did when I was twelve, on the Sears set. And what do I play to? Everything. It's relaxing to play to basic rock and roll songs, but much more challenging and rewarding when I can pull off a close copy of something that Neil Peart or Bill Bruford does. So I "push myself" by playing to Rush, Yes, King Crimson or Genesis, and relax with some Pink Floyd or Alanis Morissette. I've played with a six piece set, varying numbers of cymbals, and dual bass pedals for the past 25 years, so it's always a workout. I'd argue that the cardio benefits are right up there with some of the more strenuous exercise programs. You're working all your muscles, all at the same time. But it's always fun, sometimes leaving you elated, other times frustrated, but I love it and will play as long as my arms and legs hold out.

On stage with The Spamtones, playing the Premier Signia Marquis.
Guitar-types will note some VERY nice toys in the rack
Washburn and Taylor acoustics, a real Hofner bass, Gibson SG,
Rickenbacker 360/12, and a Steinberger 6-string.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


While lingering somewhere between the dreaming and planning stages for a potential vacation this summer, I began thinking of the other vacations I've had over the years, and specifically the ones that were in "cabins," of one sort or another.  Friends and avid readers know that I came from a big family, with five younger sisters.  We didn't have a whole heck of a lot of money growing up - my dad commonly worked two jobs, and my mom was either pursuing her continuing education or working (or both) from the time I was at Ben Franklin Junior High School, through my college years.  Essentially, not an easy task keeping food on the table, a roof over our many heads, and presentable clothes on us, and vacations were a luxury that we totally appreciated. 

We didn't have vacations every year like many of our friends' families did.  There was a string of years in my later grammar school / early junior high days when we were pretty consistent with visits to Russian River, but otherwise the "annual" vacation was more like every two or three years.  And it seems that we always stayed in a cabin of some variety.  A small, one or two-room place that would fit the family, and my mom and her friends could cook.  

Clear Lake and Mt. Konocti

My earliest recollection of a vacation was a couple day stay in a small cabin in Clear Lake, which for you non-Californians is a big lake in Lake County that resides in the shadow of Mt. Konocti, a 4300 foot long-dormant volcano.  I was probably no more than three or four, and remember very little about the cabin, and way too much about my first experience with the lake.  I recall the lake and what seemed to be waves being quite daunting.  It's a huge lake, and I imagine the wind kicked up just enough to cause some mini-breakers to roll onto the beach.  And I wanted no part of the water, waves, or swimming.  This of course would change over the next few years, but for this little three year old (although I was never "little"), it didn't leave a good impression.  

Felton and Ben Lomond

From ages five through eleven I spent much of my summer break time at my grandparents' house(s), first in San Mateo, then in Bonnie Doon in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and then in the house in Felton.  The latter house was on whimsically named Lazywoods Road, and was halfway between Felton and Ben Lomond, and about 10 miles out of Santa Cruz up scenic, redwood-lined Highway 9.  The house was in fact a glorified cabin itself, so I supposed it's in keeping with the "cabin" theme here.  A couple of bedrooms, small kitchen, living room, and a deck overlooking the meandering San Lorenzo River.  Best friends Christy and Nancy Murray lived next door, and the three of us would spend long summer days swimming in the river behind the house or at the dam in Ben Lomond, or bugging an old Irish gentleman named Pat Farley for a ride in his rowboat.  I remember summers at the house on Lazywoods as being some of the most carefree and pure fun that I've ever experienced.  

Several times a week we got to go to the "dam" in Ben Lomond, which was essentially a good sized swimming area created by damming up the San Lorenzo River.  There was a nice little beach, a concession stand, and one of the coolest thing this six year old ever saw ... a rope that you would hang onto and swing out over the river, and drop into the cool water.  This entailed swimming across the river first, climbing up a dirt bank, waiting in a line of varying size over the course of the day, holding on to one of the big knots in the thick rope, and lettin' her rip out over the dammed up San Lorenzo.  I've done this a million times for sure ... and of course I never exaggerate!    Once or twice a week they held a kids' dance in a little area next to the concession stand.  And since we were in fact kids, we'd do things like the Bunny Hop and the Hokey Pokey, and would have a great time doing so.  

At age 16, on this same little "beach" at the Ben Lomond dam, my friend Marty and I were walking along and he said "hey, there's Char!"  Charlane was named after her parents Charlie and Jane, and we became fast friends.  So it was on this little stretch of sand where I loved swinging out onto the river 10 years earlier, where I met another great friend who I still see occasionally to this day ... and the "cabin" reference is this ... her parents owned the first cabin up the hill beyond the concession stand.  Right off the beach, right there in Ben Lomond.  Marty and I would always stop in when we were in the area on surfing trips, visiting our friend Char, commonly accompanied by her best friend Sue.  Good times.  Many years back.  

Russian River - Guerneville

Back to grammar school and another cabin or two.  Russian River is a meandering stream that flows through Napa and Sonoma counties, and it can be counted on to experience major flooding about every ten years, much to the dismay of the residents of Guerneville.  Guerneville (it's pronounced "gurn-ville,"  not "gurney-ville," which is a dead giveaway that you're not from the area.  Like "Frisco," the locals resent it).  This area is near and dear to my heart for several reasons.  My paternal grandfather's side of the family are all from the Guerneville and Sebastopol areas, and their history there literally goes back well over a hundred years.  My grandfather built a hunting lodge in nearby Cazadero called "Milerick's," and hunted and fished the area for decades.  Our genealogy is also documented in a book called "Patriarch of the Valley, the story of my great-great-great (I think that's the right number of greats!) grandfather Isaac Sullivan."  One of my sisters stumbled on it while researching our family history in Sebastopol, where there's a Sullivan graveyard on Sullivan Avenue.  Amazing discoveries for sure.  We had no idea.
Our first couple Russian River vacations were spent in a little cabin at Johnson's Beach Resort, which is near the bridge that takes you over the river and into Guerneville.  Great little beach, and the resort hasn't changed much in the last forty years (or likely much longer).  

Among my fond recollections of Johnson's stays, was my afternoon treks into town.  My mom would put "the girls" down for mid-day naps, and she and her friends who were staying in neighboring cabins would all get together and play bridge.  My mom lived for bridge, and was by all accounts, an expert at it.  I was probably 8 or 9 at the time, and naptime for the girls meant I got some time alone, and usually spent it walking into town, checking out the shops along main street.  

The highlight of my daily walk would be a visit to a little ice cream parlor in the middle of town, where I'd either have a root beer float or a several-scoop ice cream cone.  The floats were awesome.  Lyon's root beer, a couple scoops of vanilla ice cream, served in frozen glass mugs with a big handle, which were retrieved from the ice cream freezer in front of the counter.  And the cones were fantastic.  My recollection is that the first scoop was a dime, and subsequent scoops were a nickel apiece.  For a quarter, you could purchase a four scoop balancing act of a cone, and do your best to eat if before it melted in the summer sun.  I got very good at this.  

The cabins at Johnson's, as well as the one we stayed at for a couple years at Guernewood Park, were very rustic, small, cramped, efficiencies of sorts.  A bedroom for my mom (my dad would visit on the weekends, and worked during the week), another room for my sisters, and I'd sleep in a little cubby somewhere ... off the kitchen, in the living room, or wherever there was a cot or make shift bed.  I wasn't picky ... we cherished our vacation time at Russian River.  

Guernewood Park was a mile out of town.  This meant that my mid-day trek took a little longer, but certainly didn't stop me from walking into town for my ice cream or Lyon's float.  I had also started surfing by this time, so I got to bring my home made board up with me, and this provided a paddleboard for the river.  They actually rented paddleboards for a couple bucks a day, but my sleek 9'7" board was of course the envy of the beach (in my little mind anyway).  I also recall falling head-over-heels with a cute little brunette one summer, and was very disappointed when she wasn't there the following year.  Such is life at 12 or 13 years old.  

One of my mom's staple dinners was tacos.  Easy to do in mass quantities, everyone loved 'em, and they were an inexpensive way to feed a group of hungry ladies and kids.  These were always "communal" vacations where several of my mom's friends would rent nearby cabins, and meals were commonly shared ventures.  My mom's tacos consisted of corn tortillas fried in oil (she fried everything), a spoonful of cheap ground beef, some diced tomato, shredded yellow cheese, lettuce, and taco sauce.  Not exactly what I'd serve guests today, but for a group of hungry kids on vacation, it was an awesome dinner.  I could probably down about 10 of these, prompting my mom to coin the phrase "El Lardo" for her butterball son.  

I love staying in cabins.  Hotels are fine and I certainly welcome a nice stay in a luxurious room, but there's something about a cabin in the country, or at the beach, that just does it.  I've stayed at the Plumas Pines Resort at Lake Almanor many times, and absolutely love it.  The cabins at the Cambria Pines Lodge are far superior to the more luxurious guest rooms in the hotel.  It's essentially only a place to sleep, relax, and maybe cook a meal in a small kitchen, but the idea of a wooden framed cabin just seems to offer a level of privacy and individuality that you don't get in a high rise hotel or even a condo.

Post Ranch Inn - Big Sur
A few years ago, we were treated to the ultimate cabin for four straight years, compliments of our wonderful friends Dave and Trudy.  The "cabin" was one of the cliff houses at the Post Ranch Inn, called the Ocean House.  It overlooked the Pacific Ocean at Big Sur, arguably one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline anywhere.  I defy anyone to name a better sunset patrol spot than Post Ranch or the deck at nearby restaurant Nepenthe (try an Ambrosia burger and a split of champagne, and claim your vantage point on the deck ... early).  

Post Ranch Inn is an amazingly idyllic spot, the likes of which I haven't seen anywhere else in the world.  It's ridiculously expensive and worth every penny.  Above the clouds (rumor has it they "pay" for their weather), overlooking the Pacific where you commonly see migrating whales, it's a small piece of heaven on earth.  The Sierra Mar restaurant provides world class dining, the wine list is amazing (ask for the big list if you're daring), and once again, the sunsets are nothing short of amazing.  

And the "cabins" at Post Ranch are once again small, cozy efficiencies built into the hillside.  They are specifically designed to "blend" into the surroundings, as opposed to sticking out like a sore thumb on the cliff.  There are no TV's, just a satellite radio that generally provides Enya and New-Age type music, which is a perfect fit.  The tub and shower overlook the Pacific, and make it difficult to not linger for awhile.  The deck is a perfect spot to watch for passing whales, and reflect on the world around you.  This is of course ideally done with a glass of wine and your favorite companion to enjoy it with you.  A couple days of this will totally revitalize you.  Any tensions that you started out with are completely gone after a day.  By day two, you're on the upswing side of a whole new lease on life.  If you can afford it, do it.  You've earned it and you won't be sorry for the investment in this special time away from the rest of the world. 

So I'm back to this year's vacation planning.  Hmmm ... early candidates included another trip to Maui (always a good choice - don't miss a dinner at Mama's Fish House if you go), maybe a beach in Mexico somewhere, or maybe ... just maybe ... a more local jaunt that will include a couple cabins.  I'm thinking we'll start at a Cambria Pines Inn "cabin" for the first few nights, then move inland to a Solvang cabin for a couple nights.  Multiple wine countries, lots of coastal viewing opportunities, some quality "pool time," some nice meals, and the not-to-be-missed authentic Danish cookies in one of the many Solvang bakeries.  Get a couple buckets of them, they never go to waste.  

So the executive decision has been made ... we're heading off to a couple cabins, and all that Central California has to offer.  Done.