Sunday, December 31, 2006

Captain Marbles and Christmas in San Driego

The first question Marvin asked me when I entered his palatial home in San Diego was: “Is yours as big as mine?”

He pointed to the humongous T.V. set in his living room. I already knew that he had 7 T.V. sets in his house. (And three of the rooms had an Elvis theme.) In fact, there was one just opposite this room, setting off the collectibles in his faux foyer. I often found his wife watching T.V. there in the mornings.

“How big is yours?” I asked, playing the game. “53 inches,” he remarked proudly. “Naw,” I answered, “Mine’s only 41.” He seemed rather pleased.

And without asking, he put on the first DVD of the Doo Wop shows, PBS specials that showed fifties’ artists performing as they are now. And that’s how my 2006 Christmas visit began.

I hadn’t been back for Christmas since Mom died in 2000. Actually, she passed away on Christmas day. I flew down two days later to start the sale of the house in Coronado. There was a lot to do.

And somehow there’s been a lot to do since. But on this short visit, five days, I promised my brother I’d come visit.

On the second night there, I attended his 66th birthday party at the Eagles. I picked up Rick after he got off work; thankfully he knew where the Eagles hall was. When we walked in, it was easy to recognize that I didn’t know a soul besides Marvin, Marvin’s wife, and Ricky. In fact, I didn’t even know the songs that the two bands played. Occasionally, or I should say “rarely,” the bands would go into English lyrics and play some ‘50’s song everyone recognized, like “Lil Darlin’.” And at that point, everyone would jump up and dance. But when the Captain told me they’d be playing oldies but goldies, I didn’t realize they’d be Tijuana oldies. I didn’t recognize most of the tunes.

But Captain Marbles sure enjoyed it. He sang two songs while we were there, and I understand he sang two songs after we left around 9:30. “Blue Christmas” was one song he sang, and it seemed to go on for about 5 minutes, 5 minutes of “decorations of red on a green Christmas tree….” I know Elvis sang other Christmas songs. You’d never know it by current record play.

The Captain wore a black Stetson hat and a black leather “Texas Hold ‘Em” jacket, both from Vegas. He was easy to spot, and ran around all night long saying hello to everyone. I have no idea where he gets the energy. And when the band resembling Los Lobos would play a song he recognized, he’d leap up and do some version of a modern twist.

I felt bad that I hadn’t brought my camera to record the birthday party. I did get a photo of me and him on my cell phone, though, and sent it to a few friends, those who know the Captain by reputation.

During the rest of the time, we squeezed a lot in. Ricky, Joel and I went to Disneyland, just for the day, and mostly for Joel. I got to visit Rick at his new job at the Coronado Senior Center, and a fine place it is. Marvin, Rick and I played the game of Life, a game I haven’t played in about 30 years. It’s amazing what you can do with a convertible and a couple of stick kids.

And I watched more Doo-Wop. We must’ve watched over 12 hours of those DVDs. It’s so weird to see people like that lead singer of the Fleetwoods singing “Mr. Blue.” He’s balding, he’s got a paunch, but he’s still got that sweet tenor voice. He’s older. How weird.

We’re older. But still connecting, somehow. Even if our T.V. screens don’t match.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Swimming in the Jewish Pool

The Beit Din for my conversion consisted of two of my congregational rabbis and the third was the director of education.

I prepared for the questions like an interview. Here is a list of questions I thought they’d ask, complete with the image of a 1,000-watt light bulb trained on my perspiring face:

1. What’s your favorite story in the Torah? Or, in a slightly different take, with which character did you identify? My favorite story? That’s a little tough, as Torah study has only introduced me to a few, and they’re in Judges. And most of what I found were pictures of human weakness, not people I admire, although there are qualities I admire in these very human characters. I chose Miriam for this anticipated question.

Did they ask this? No.

2. What would your house look like on Shabbat? Or, conversely, and I have to say I love this one, what would your house be like to a blind man or woman if they’re entering your house on Shabbat? I really thought about this one a lot, and, kind of after the thought, tried to make my home resemble this mental dream.

Did they ask this? No.

3. What do you like about Judaism, and what do think you dislike about it?
The answer to the first part of this one is in my essay as to why I chose to make this journey, so I didn’t really have to prepare for this one.

Did they ask this? In a way. The second part of the question was reformed to: What issue concerning Judaism do you struggle with? Is there anything you’ll miss?

My answer to the first concerned Jews fighting Jews. I will never understand that. And the second was: Christmas music. One of the rabbis, hysterically, agreed with me, not that he missed it but that there was an incessant song in his brain this morning that wouldn’t go away.

That’s pretty much what I prepared for. I had several questions about my story, how I came to Judaism. One particularly pointed question about passion, where my passion lay. There were other questions, but the rest is a blur.

Speaking of the Jewish pool, let me make one point about the mikveh: it was not at all how I pictured. The rabbi is nowhere near you, as the stairs leading down go away from her. But it was warm and pardon me for saying this, very womb-like.

Was I nervous about the court? A little. I tried to focus on the three of them, engaging them in an enjoyable conversation and not make my answers too long. I think I failed on the passion one. Too much passion.

I think when I go to synagogue in the future I look forward to a discussion very much like my beit din. An engagement of minds and exploration of ideas. Only this time, I’ll be a member of the club and not nervous at all.

The Star of David

I had been preparing for this moment for about 15 months. I started looking for a program to help me learn about Jewish stuff in August 2005. I finally got frustrated and leaned on family friend Dawn to point the way to an Introduction to Judaism class, which, after weeks of waiting, started earnestly in October.

I never got close to many of my fellow Intro students. For one thing, most of them were couples. For another thing, each person had a different story: some were there to look into conversion because part of the couple was Jewish; many were doing it for their kids, to find out what their kids were learning in Jewish or Hebrew school. I think this class was beyond just the curious due to the cost and the length. The class was almost 6 months long, spread out over two synagogues in the East Bay and four rabbis (actually six at final count). Out of over 30 students at the first class, only 12 or so attended the last few classes.

I learned a lot in Intro. I was probably the only person who did all the readings. Come to think of it, that's probably not true: Tracy, who later became a friend when I would see him over and over at the same Sinai functions, absorbed everything like a youthful sponge even though he is the teacher of prepubescents during the day. And Scott, that mysterious man who showed up in a suit each time, talked as if he knew what was going on. The rest, I believe, tried to float on what the rabbi told them, and most of them were quick enough and clever enough to gather it all in.

Not me. I needed all the help I could get.

After Intro, I went through about two months of trying to find a rabbi. After one false move, I asked Rabbi Mates-Muchin, whom I had seen in a couple of Intro classes, and whose outlook was definitely Reform but not Kooky, to help me on this path and she graciously agreed. I don't know if you've noticed, but some of the rabbis kind of define "alternative." They're rather weird and like oddly put-together services. And I guess that's good for some but not for me. I don't want conservative or orthodox (although those are certainly interesting pursuits); I want modern, realistic Reform, something that makes sense to me and helps me live every day. And that's what I got.

I also got a really structured approach. (I can hear George calling, "And that's what you want!") She gave me a syllabus she constructed -- complete with questions to be answered, vocabulary lists, and an extensive but specific reading list (from 5 main books). Every three weeks or so we would meet and go over the questions I didn't understand. Quite often there would be a word I didn't understand (like "bris" vs. "brit" -- I'll never forget THAT discussion). And we would wend our way through the entire year so that I could experience the different events and holidays.

I have to stick in here that, well, I wonder if people set up meetings with the rabbis and don't make it through the whole year. You persevere, you keep going. You do the homework because to do otherwise would be insulting to the rabbi. I never missed one, and I was never late. I think you have to show your earnestness that way. And their time is so valuable and limited.

And throughout that process, I had a different kind of supervision. Every week Dawn and I would go walking around Lake Merritt and I checked in with her. I suspect she was checking in on me, but she's so low-pressure that I never felt it. And she would occasionally invite me over for shabbat dinner so that I could taste it and feel it. That really is the only way to do these practices -- you can't pick it up out of a book. And Intro can't teach you everything.

The hardest thing, I think, was learning the blessings and the songs. I still only have the basics of those down, so I will certainly continue.

My beit din was Wednesday, November 29th. On Saturday, December 2nd, I stood in front of the congregation and held the Torah. MY Torah. And gave a speech.

Today, one day after everything was over and I was beginning to come down from the high, a guy stopped me at the Montclair open-air food fair, shook my hand, and said congratulations. I recognized him as the president of the congregation. How nice of him to notice me and to take time to offer his congratulations. And he put me right back on that high for a few seconds.

I will begin wearing the Star of David necklace that Val gave me as a present for successfully completing this part of the journey. I feel I've earned it.

Today I am a Jew.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Just Tell Me When I Can Sit Down

"Do you have a hatchet?"

Those were Jamie's first words to me as he entered my house on Thanksgiving morning. Not, I thought, a great sign for tandem cooking.

It turns out he needed the hatchet to cut up the hickory chips to make them manageable for the smoker. (And, no, I do not have a hatchet.) But somehow he made do even though the little suckers kept catching fire.

I started out a little earlier, at 9 am, when I made the three pumpkin pies. Yes, they turned out great -- even the crust! Well, that's a slight exaggeration, as the same problems were present (not enough moisture, not enough dough), but it was highly edible. And the secret ingredient I apparently forgot in my dry run on Tuesday (evaporated milk) was very much present that morning and the pies turned out wonderfully.

We did have a couple of missteps along the way. I think one should expect them. The worst one was that the turkey was still partially frozen inside. He put it in hot water in the sink, discovered he had left the seasonings for the turkey in the condo and ran off to get them. In the meantime, I started peeling spuds.

That all being said, it all turned out WONDERFULLY! The turkey was a great flavor, nice and moist - way to go, Hatchet Man! The cranberries were fresh and cooked until they popped, and sweetened with Splenda. The stuffing was nice and crisp (thanks to the added butter on top). And the beans were a bit of a revelation, cooked with orange peel for a slight orangey flavor, al dente.

The menu was thus:

Smoked turkey
stuffing made from stuffing mix (but with sauteed-added celery and onion)
cranberry relish (from fresh cranberries)
mashed potatoes
biscuits (storebought ready-to-cook)
green beans - fresh with orange peel added
Pumpkin pie with homemade whipped cream

The mashed potatoes were the only real "problem" once we warmed up the turkey. I didn't have time to mash them, so Jamie took over and did a masterful job, adding cream and butter along the way. I think in the future, as much as I love potatoes, I'm going to leave these out: they're too much of a burden, and so tough to keep warm.

I told everybody we would eat at 3 pm which meant 5 pm, and, by golly, we ate at 4:30!! Terrific timing! Thanks to our in-tandem cooking, great communication, and the fact that you don't get upset when some things go wrong, it was a wonderful effort very much appreciated by those who joined us for the feast.

My feet hurt at the end from standing so many hours. My mother warned me such things would happen. I don't think, however, she expected I would ever, ever have that problem from cooking a Thanksgiving meal!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

My Kingdom for a Pie (Crust)

I made my 2nd homemade pie crust today, the morning of Thanksgiving. I am not overwhelmingly pleased.

My 1st attempt was two days ago (see photo). I made two batches of pie crust dough, as I just can't get the thing moist enough. I don't want to handle it too much, as I know it'll turn tough. I happened to use both, though, in the one pie I made (half the recipe for the filling), because I couldn't get the pie dough to stretch all the way. So I used the less moist one to fill in the gaps.

It didn't help that I had to use a wine bottle as a roller. (If you have to ask, it was red.)

In the meantime, I received my wooden roller and silicon baking sheet in the mail, and I was ready for this morning.

I tried again today, only I took a two-pronged approach. I wanted 3 pies, so I did the from-scratch dough again. Still had the same problem -- not moist enough, not enough dough, it wouldn't stretch, etc. However, I also bought some Betty Crocker pie crust mix, added cold water and worked with that. Now, that was moist enough but it still didn't spread enough for two pies. It could be that I'm not rolling it thin enough, but I don't want to handle it too much.

The pie dough stuck to the rolling pin like it was its momma. I kept putting flour on the pin, but the non-stick effect wouldn't last for long. And although the silicon sheet was supposedly non-stick, the dough stuck to the sheet and I couldn't get the enlarged disc off of it. Geez.

Man, cleaning up was tough! The dough stuck to everything -- bowl, rolling pin, fingers -- like glue. Come to think of it, I should've used some for my remodel several months ago. It's a good thing I cleaned up right away, because clumps of it would still be on the floor when I sold the place.

The truth is in the pie. I'll know this evening whether any of the experiments turned out well.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Sizzlin' Sunday

At around noon I put down the two Sunday papers, stared at one of the four clocks I have in my living room, and decided it was time to get dressed and go to lunch.

I thought about where to go. I thought about going to Chili's; it's newly installed at Bay Fair Mall, right next to the movie theatre. But when I thought about the Sizzler in Washington Square/San Leandro, and the fact that they have great iced tea, I knew I wanted to go there. The Chili's menu is better, more inventive, but, well, sometimes routine is really nice.

So I grabbed the rest of the paper, mailed my shipment at the nearby post office, and sauntered into Sizzler. I had to wait behind people who don't go to Sizzler by routine and who had to think about what they wanted to eat. It's a slow process, but I know that and I have patience. Darlene, my favorite waitress, spots me, asks me where I'm going to sit, and I point to a booth on the left (as always) in front of the T.V. set. It has plenty of light for the newspaper, and the Raiders game is on T.V. She puts the cheesebread and extra napkins there before I can get to the front of the line.

I had my seat and was glancing at another pitiful come-from-ahead loss by the Raiders when Darlene came by to pick up my ticket and tray. I asked her how she was doing. She said fine, then hesitated and told me that a week ago, she fell down her stairs and cracked two ribs. It seems that there's nothing to be done much about cracked or broken ribs, so the ER people wrapped her and sent her on her way. She told me with a foolish smile on her face that she came to work the next day.

Aren't these the true heroes of our day? The women who live by themselves, and make their own lives and sometimes suffer for it? (She was moving boxes out of one of the upstairs room, and tripped on her pajamas.) And then go to work the very next day?

You don't make much money as a Sizzler waitress. I remember saying that once about a decade ago to my friend Rick, and he informed me that his daughter had done very well as a waitress at Sizzler. Perhaps it does depend on the waitress or waiter here, but think about it. There is a great opportunity not to tip at all at such a restaurant. You carry your own tray to your table. If you're only getting the salad bar, which these days costs a minimum of $10 a person if a drink is involved, there's a tendency to think you're doing all the work yourself. Never mind that, even in that case, the wait staff is bringing you extra napkins, cheese bread, extra plates, extra drinks, etc. I have seen many a table bare of change when the group leaves.

I don't tip according to price. I tip according to the type of service I get there. It's $1.00 for minimal service. It's $2 if they do something nice for me. And it's $3 or more if they go beyond, more around a holiday.

It was more today. Darlene is one of the best wait people I have ever seen. And she's serving me, making me feel good, while she's in pain. She's one of my heroes.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

He had it comin'...

I have begun going back to local theatre. Oh, I'm not ready to totally embrace the genre with chest-crushing exuberance, but I have put the elbow in the water. High prices and a fairly long trip mean that I've become more selective.

Which is why I found myself at Kander & Ebb & Fosse's Chicago the Musical a week ago. This is the second production I've seen of Chicago locally. (And why do they insist on putting "the Musical" on the tail end of this donkey? Although I must admit, one friend asked me why they're still touring without Peter Cetera.) The first was only two years ago. I thoroughly loved it both times, although I admit Billy the lawyer is a bit weak in this later production. I enjoyed watching hipster Huey Lewis, but never for one minute thought he'd be able to get anybody out of a murder rap.

The set-up is a real gas. In 1920's Chicago, where ethics have been replaced by easy liquor, we find Roxie being accused (and rightly so) of murder, and it's up to Billy and the easily-swayed justice/media system (did I just link those two together?) to get her off. Lots of thrilling songs, and the spectacularly staged sequence in Cell Block Tango, about the women who been done wrong singing about the men they did wrong to, lights up the stage. I heartily recommend the stage production over the movie.

Today I entered a much more somber affair, Doubt, the local production of the Broadway play. Lest you be put off by the rather colorless and Catholic advertisements, nothing should stop you from seeing this production. First of all, it's only 90 minutes. No intermissions. No reason to get up from an hour of semi-boredom, as in the case of most theatrical productions, and wonder if you should slip out quietly. Nope, you're in it for the whole thing. It's funny, it's sparse (both in sets and cast), and it's magnificent. Cherry Jones has won two Tonys in her Broadway career; she won the latest for Sister Aloysius in Doubt last year.

The story is centralized around Sister Aloysius, who is as sure as can be about everything. She knows her role as principal of a Catholic school in 1964 in the Bronx. She knows what the young Sister James (Lisa Joyce) is going to say, cutting off her sentences before she can finish them. And she knows what she doesn't like about Father Flynn (Chris McGarry). His fingernails are too long. His sermons aren't black and white enough. He's too male.

Doubt leads us down several paths, some of them familiar and some of them uncomfortable. It should be at the top of your theatre-going list.

I also bought tickets for the City Arts & Lecture show of Linda Hunt interviewing Cherry Jones in two weeks. I had a tough time finding a seat. It might be that people were buying tickets because of Linda Hunt, as Ms. Jones is less well known. But sooner or later the world will tell of her talent. No doubt.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A Pollish Joke

I hesitated to vote yesterday.

I never got my absentee ballot, or I would have voted weeks ago. It may have been because I changed my box number at my mailing address, and sent the change card in too late. At any rate, my polling place was written on the card I sent I didn't even know where to go.

But one of the ads I received in the mail, you know, the ones that tell you how to vote, told me where my polling place was. So on Tuesday morning at about 10:30, I went to a high school just north of the Oakland/San Leandro border.

The high school was easy enough to find, but there was only street parking. Curious, I thought, for a polling place. I found a place to park, and walked up to Auditorium "B". I discovered that each side of the auditorium had a table full of volunteers. I picked the one to the right...

...only to be sent to the one on the left because they couldn't find my name. When I got to the one on the left, the young man put down his ringing cell phone (that was nice of him), and tried to find my name. Again, it wasn't there. So they tried to send me to the other side of the room...

When I explained that they didn't have my name either, and that I never received my absentee ballot, the guy all the way at the end of the table took charge, and offered me a provisional ballot. All right! I thought it was interesting that I filled out the outside of the envelope but nobody asked for my driver's license to compare the information.

I went over to the voting booth, which had nothing in it. I took a ball point pen and filled in the 30 or so arrows in order to indicate my choices. I realized that, in my special circumstance, I wouldn't be using an automatic polling booth, but where were they? As I was leaving, the guy In Charge pointed to the only booth with a machine in it. "I don't think anybody's going to use that today," he said sadly. I found out later that most California precincts were using paper ballots because these electronic machines can be tampered with.

I read today about some people who voted at unusual places around San Francisco and Alameda counties. One was an actual firing range. The photo in today's paper showed some guy voting on his paper ballot with posters just above his head of how to properly hold your rifle.

I think I'll stick to the high school with no parking.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The New Adventures of Captain Marbles: Welcome to the Matrix

You can see the changes on the street. A drunken man asleep next to Slots-a-Fun, blocking the sidewalk. A huge, fenced vacant lot where the Westward Ho used to be. Pieces of conversations started by seniors, mentioning casinos that no longer exist, like the Thunderbird.

I checked into the 48-year old Stardust on Thursday night, knowing that the casino/hotel only had a few more days before it, too, was demolished. My brother Marvin, aka Captain Marbles (a nickname from the same era), had comped me a huge suite at the old hotel.

The room was larger than my living room, my office, my den, and my two bathrooms combined. When I told him that, the Captain said to himself, “I never got anything like that,” and insisted on coming up to take a look.

We spent the last World Series game in that room, watching LaRussa’s Cardinals take it all. During one break, he started looking for the second bathroom. “There is only one bathroom,” I said, “but it’s humongous.” He replied that their suite at the Rincon had two bathrooms, and was at least 1800 square feet. It was terrifically humongous.

As we left to go back downstairs to the casino, he told me to take all the samples of shampoo and soap before I checked out the next day. And Kleenex.

The point of this trip was to fly in to Vegas to see my brother. He had just recovered from a bout with colon cancer, and pronounced himself cured after an experimental treatment with a new powerful drug. However, it wasn’t the treatment that left him weak on Las Vegas Boulevard this October evening. It was advancing age, a number of health problems that had taken its toll, and the fact that his sedentary lifestyle doesn’t easily accommodate walking on the Strip from casino to casino, like we used to.

So, we only stuck to a few places. He and his wife stayed at the Riviera (in a slot tournament package), I stayed at the Stardust.

When I met them at the Stardust, we immediately crossed the street and went back to their casino, the Riviera. I think the Captain likes the Riviera because it evokes memories of Dean Martin and the Rat Pack. It has that feel to it. It’s a lot larger than the Westward Ho used to be, however, and so we kept getting lost in it.

We talked about dinner that night. Marbles informed me that I couldn’t have dinner with them, though, because they got a big, free steak dinner and a show with their package. However, what he didn’t realize was that the suite he comped me came with $100 in free meals….a day. So I ate my steak dinner in the Stardust café.

I watched him play Texas Hold ‘Em at the Riviera poker tables, right in front of the elevator to their room. The buy-in was only $45. He suggested I join him, but I really don’t know how to play. He replied that he had learned everything there was to know about Texas Hold ‘Em from video poker and from internet gambling sites, so he felt confident. He had to wait, however, for someone else to show up at the table before they could get started. He won the first few hands, but grew frustrated with the table rules. The rules on raises were quite stifling, he complained to the Asian woman dealing the cards. Can’t you change them? He wanted a higher limit. Apparently the Riviera insists that the first raise is $2, the second and further raises are $4. The Captain couldn’t fake or scare anybody out that way. He eventually lost his buy-in, but went on to tournament Texas Hold ‘Em. The rules, apparently, were different there; I think he longed for the limited raises of the previous game. He only lasted an hour in the tournament.

In the meantime, I found several penny slots that I enjoyed playing. And I found some Reel ‘Em In games – the fishie game is my favorite. I discovered this game in the early ‘90’s, I think it was – the first slot machine that enticed me. The first video-game-type slot machine. The first bonus round I had ever seen. But these slots were nickel machines, which was okay, but they were ticketless, which meant I had to either put buckets of nickels into play, or wait until I won over 1,000 coins to cash out (so that I wouldn’t have to handle the dirty coins).

On the first night, when I said goodbye to the Cap’n and his wife and wandered back to the Stardust, I discovered an entire bank of gold: five Reel ‘Em In Slot machines in the Stardust! These machines had the latest technology, and featured FOUR different bonus rounds. The only complaint I have of these machines is the music. It’s not as catchy as the earlier versions. But the earlier bonus rounds had no variation. So these new machines were slot heaven. And they were penny slots! Which means I could play 15 lines at 1 cent each (although usually I went up to 2 cents).

When I’m playing those games, I have no idea what time it is. I don’t even care if I lose. I just enjoy playing them.

I also discovered Cops and Donuts, a slot game I played sparingly before. But when Leon pulled me over for speeding, told me “Hold on there, Starship Captain!” and asked for my excuse, I was hooked. I also liked it when Chip ate all the donuts at the donut shop during the other bonus round. Fantastic.

Las Vegas with Captain Marbles is like The Matrix. On the one hand, there’s reality. Ooh, we don’t like that so much. Our conversation takes us to the casinos of old, when Sammy, Frank and Dean played to packed houses and might join us at the tables at midnight for a little gambling of their own. We look around and there are few of those old casinos left. The cab driver told us that young people like the new ones best. “But those kids don’t have any money!” exclaimed the Captain. You tell ‘em. So, the seniors, the ones with money and the ones without so much, gather at the older casinos still, huddle together, waiting for the end of their favorite places to play.

The Matrix of Las Vegas is also where Captain Marbles is the high roller, and where the casinos treat him with the proper respect for being so. They comp his rooms. Invite him to slot and poker tournaments. Give him free steak dinners. Even give his sister free steak dinners.

The good side of the Matrix for me lies within these slot machines. Where I can dip my fishing pole into another lake, if I’m lucky, and fish for that whopper with the Canadian mounted police hat on. Or hope Chip can eat enough donuts to take me to a higher plane. Or wait for Frank the dog in Men in Black to lead me to where those aliens are in the MIB game.

In the meantime, the cocktail waitresses would bring me whipped cream-frothed pina coladas as my fingers hit the “play again” key. They didn’t show any emotion about being out of a job in two days, on Monday. I wondered how they were going to cope. But wondering took me out of the Matrix, an unpleasant place to be, and Las Vegas is more about delivering the magic trick than telling us how it’s done, or how the magician will pay his or her bills tomorrow.

The Stardust closed down a day after I checked out. All of its furnishings, everything – except for its slot machines – will go up for public auction on Wednesday. One more gone. Many more are scheduled for demolition. The Captain finds out the gossip from the casino operators he befriends as he plays his high-stake games. After all, many of the workers from the closed Westward Ho went to the Riviera. And, I suppose, many of the Stardust people will do likewise.

I’ve come back to the other side of the Matrix. To reality. To be honest, it’s easier living here. Until I make another trip back to see Captain Marbles. It really is his home.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Shared Newspaper

The guy came up to me at the Mammography Center at Kaiser, leaned over and said, boldly, "Is that your newspaper?" "Yes," I said, as I was squirting Systane into my eye. "Can I read your Sports section?" he said again.

"I'm sorry," I replied, "but I'm reading it." I hate it when men do that to me, assume I'm not going to read the Sports section because I'm a woman. There it was, lying there pristinely, the Oakland Tribune sports section. I hadn't even opened it yet.

"Mr. Jackson," the nurse then called from the counter, "you're in the wrong section." "Damn!" he said, and he shuffled off.

Hey, I can't blame people in Oakland for wanting to read the sports section. It ain't about the Oakland Raiders, or the San Francisco 49ers, two non-entities who are so bad that they're having discussions like, "Gee, if the Raiders' offense played the Raiders' defense, do you think anyone would win?" Nope, it's all about the Oakland Athletics, who finished their season by winning the ALCS, smashing the Twins, but losing the Division Series, being smashed by the Tigers.

The A's have just unceremoniously dropped their manager, Ken Macha, not really blaming him for the lack of oomph at the end, but, rather, blaming him for not saying hi to the back-up catcher.

And now there's a lot of speculation about who will take his place. The waiter at the Montclair Egg Kitchen this morning asked me about it today. "Do you think it's Wash? Lache? How about Geren?" I like all those guys, I replied. What an exciting time in baseball -- ironic, isn't it, that the exciting time happens days AFTER the season is over?

I was on the last bit of my newspaper when the lady sitting across from me in the Optometry section of Kaiser asked me, "Is that your paper?"

Monday, October 16, 2006

The End of the 2006 Season - Not with a Bang but with a Whimper

I dreamed last night that I was in the A's locker room in Detroit, pad in hand, shoulder to shoulder with 100 other journalists, trying to get a sound bite from Milton Bradley.

He wasn't talking, and no wonder. The A's had just been swept, 4 games to Zero, by the Detroit Tigers. The A's were only 4 games removed from going to the World Series.

It ended sadly, it ended badly. There's no other way to describe it. If they had won one game, but they lost all four, looking like they were totally bewildered by the Tigers' pitching staff, our starters wondering what happened.

There is still the absolutely wonderful regular season of 2006 to look back on, a marvelous memory that will carry us into Spring Training 2007.

But for now, I'm just sad. Sad for players like Milton, who played his heart out. Sad for the fans, who dream about interviewing the players in a distant locker room, one last time.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Oakland A's vs. Detroit Tigers - Game Two

I stayed home last night and watched the 2nd game on T.V. this time. Aaron and Cheryl went to the game.

I text-messaged Aaron before the game that Blue Moon Odom, that old-time A's pitcher who threw a shutout to the Tigers in 1972, would be throwing out the first pitch. He had never heard of him. I did not know at the time that Cory Lidle had died in an unbelievably tragic plane crash in New York City. The Coliseum had a moment of silence for Cory, for his memory. I remember being distraught when they traded Cory away from the A's, knowing that we had a fearless young pitcher there. How very sad.

Did Lidle's death throw off the A's players? I don't know. I doubt it. As Eric Chavez cited in a local newspaper, he couldn't get 9-11 out of his head when he had to play soon afterwards, but this he could push to the side of his mind and concentrate on playing. Yes, he missed a ball that would ordinarily have been his (but not an error). But who knows.

It was a tough game, hard fought. Every time the A's scored, the Tigers came right back to put points on the board. Their pitching staff throws some heavy heat, and our bats, save Bradley and Kotsay, could not keep up. Frank Thomas, our Big Hurt, left 6 men stranded on the bases, including the last at-bat of the game when he popped up. We found ourselves on the other side of the dash, 8-5. It was exciting up to the end.

Very sad. Still, the death of Cory Lidle puts some of this into perspective. It's just a game, made sadder when we lose a valiant player. Cory had just played his last game, for the Yankees during last Saturday's playoff.

On Thursday we'll continue in the cold, dark nights of Detroit. Rich Harden will throw his 98-mile-an-hour fastball, if it doesn't freeze before it gets to the plate.

I can't wait.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The A's Are in the PostSeason!!

And not only are they in the Postseason, at the time I'm writing this they defeated the Minnesota Twins to go to the American League Championship Series (ALCS) for the first time in 14 years!!

I am overjoyed except for the fact that I went to the first game of that series last night against the Detroit Tigers....and it wasn't a rip-roaring time.

Let's start with the fans. Only 35,000 attended (with 1,000 people walking around seatless...just imagine that...) which made for plenty of room to walk, well, for the most part, and get hot dogs and stuff. But the 35,000 who attended are not the greatest fans in the world. Many of them seemed to be newbies, people who just come out for the rah-rah part of it and don't know the team or the stadium.

For instance, the guy in front of me was booing Barry Zito in the 2nd inning. Booing him!! And he had an A's cap on! Just who is your team, buddy?! And the group behind me was grousing because they spent $75 a ticket and expected more. They left in the 7th inning.

The guy immediately behind me tapped me on the shoulder at about the 3rd inning to inform me that he had just spilled his beer on my jacket and my seat. That was nice of him... (One thing I've never understood: why do men insist on having their beers in their hands when they're on their feet, cheering? Why not just put it in the cup holder and wait until you're stable and sitting before you reach for it? I know the answer to this: they can't bear to be parted from their adult beverage.)

Barry's pitches at that point weren't fooling anyone and we were behind 2 - 0. The next inning we were behind 5-0. But our bats and our defense couldn't pull us out of that 4th inning deficit.

Milton Bradley and Jay Payton produced an RBI, but that was it. Our hit total was in the double digits, but we couldn't string enough of 'em together. And, I'm sorry to have to say this, but Mark Ellis would've turned two!! Instead, D'Angelo Jimenez, his replacement, made an error and initially looked a little hapless.

In baseball there's always tomorrow. There aren't too many tomorrows left, however, with Kenny Rogers waiting to pitch Game 3.

But we still had a good time. Jamie drove up from Santa Cruz to join me. And it's the ALCS!! Only four teams left!! It was grand seeing the red, white and blue bunting, and the players toeing the foul lines as they're introduced. I love it!!!!

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Most Holy of Days

I told my friend last week that I was going down to Lake Merritt to throw bread crumbs into the water, and watch my sins float away.

She stared at me for a moment and finally replied, "Is that some kind of Jewish thing?"

Yes, it is. And tonight is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. We transgressors will gather at the Paramount and listen to Kol Nidre, a Jewish prayer recited in the synagogue at the beginning of the evening service on Yom Kippur. According to Wikipedia, the latest of my Jewish resources, "It is written in Aramaic, not Hebrew. Its name is taken from the opening words, meaning 'All vows'".

This is my second High Holy Days. This time it's with music. I intend to be blown away.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Vroom, Vroom

I sold the Acura!

It took me exactly 3 weeks, as opposed to the 6 weeks it took me to sell the Camry 5 years ago.

The secret to selling? Well, according to the buyers, it was a combination of things:

(1) I posted on Craig's List;
(2) I sold to a buyer who had 3 other Acuras;
(3) I had maintenance records.

The buyer told me she'd been looking for two-and-a-half months, looking for a car that she would drive after making sure her daughters each had their own (used) Acura. She fell in love with it, telling me that, despite the dents on the outside, she could tell it was well taken care of because of the condition of the inside.

However, with some hindsight, I should've bitten the bullet and fixed the dents on the side. People were really put off by that, talking about how much money it would cost to fix it. Gee, the car is 8 years old; you'd expect SOME problems. But, like most eBay buyers, they wanted a perfect car costing less than half the worth.

I found an honest buyer who appreciated an honest seller. Tonight I celebrate!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Scammed on Craig's List

When you're selling a used car, the craziest things can happen.

I know this because when I sold my Camry 5 years ago, the nightmares keep coming back. The incessant phone calls. The lowballers. The guys who just liked to talk cars and have you answer all the questions you already answered in the ad. The guys who can't remember which car this is even though they're calling you. The woman who wanted the car for her daughter but didn't bring her daughter to drive the car and so couldn't think of buying it.

These people are crazy.

So, here I am, 5 years later, selling my beautiful 1998 Acura RL. Well, it was beautiful before the dent in the side. I refused to have it fixed, mostly because I was convinced there would be another, and another...

Somebody, I don't remember who, suggested I post the ad on Craig's List, as that's where all the people in their 20's and 30's in the Bay Area are going to look for EVERYthing. So, I posted the ad Saturday night, hoping I'd get a snag for Sunday, and on Sunday the car broke down.

But I got two emails right away. One from Patrick Autos, which sounded like a dealership (which meant to me that I might be asking too little...), and the other from a woman asking me to call her husband when I was ready to show it.

Patrick Autos was very insistent, emails asking me what my bottom price was and where was the car. I answered "6500," and the following is the response I got:

"Thanks for the email. Well, I want to use this medium to inform you that the price was accepted by me and I hope that everything is okay with it. I will be sending you a cashier's check or money order for $13,000 which will cover buying and shipping to my location.

"So as soon as payment gets to you, you are required to deduct the cost of your item, which is $6500, and you will also deduct another $100 for removing the advert off the net and send the balance to my carrier via any international money transfer firm around you for him to be able to offset shipping charges.

"After payment has reached you and balance sent back to him, my agent will come for inspection/pick-up. Confirm name and address check will be made out to and delivered to."

OhmiGod!!! A scam!!!!

My God, I mean, I've received phishing emails just like everybody else on the 'net, but NEVER something as blatant as this! And how do I know this is a scam, personally directed at me and my car? Good 'ol Craig's List warned me. In fact, right after I posted my ad on CL, I got a warning that described EXACTLY what these people would try to do!! Don't accept any sales long distance, they said, and then described the same scenario -- sending a check or money order for a gross amount over the sales price, throwing in an exhorbitant amount to cover administrative costs, you know, to appeal to those of us who are greedy. And they don't want the car -- they just want the money you will send back to them before you discover that the "cashier's check" will never clear.

I'm not greedy. I just want to get rid of this damned but beautiful car.

Craig's List told me not to answer Patrick Autos email, but I did -- with a simple, "Sorry, cash and in person only."

I have someone coming over tomorrow to look at the car. I try to be as honest as I can, disclosing everything. I hope they're the same, unlike Patrick Autos.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

One Car Down...

While driving the Acura back from dinner tonight, it stopped. In the middle of Estudillo. I managed to power it over to the side of the road, as the power steering quit and turning the wheel was like moving it through thick mud.

So there I was, stuck in the right turn lane. And in the bus lane, I wryly noted. I called Triple A and reported the problem; they said they'd send a tow truck within 40 minutes. 10 minutes later, a bus pulled right up to my bumper, seemingly ignoring the hazard lights I had put on. I explained to the bus driver through her open doors what was happening, but that didn't stop her from giving me a piece of her mind, especially after she realized she'd have to back the bus up. Oh, she didn't like that. Believe me, lady, I'd move it if I could.

The tow truck arrived. However, he had put off one other driver to pick me up because I was blocking cars AND a bus, so we went over to the San Leandro library, found the car....and waited, The driver was nowhere around. He appeared 5 minutes later, which was longer than it took to give his battery a charge.

15 minutes later, the tow truck dragged my car to my house and parked it there. Tomorrow morning I'll be calling AAA again, asking them to tow it to the Acura dealership.

The timing on this is weird. The car went down right after I had posted a for sale email on Craig's List. But a week after I brought my new Honda Accord north. Good vs. bad. Awesome.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

It's All in the Stew

It was a cold summery day in Oakland. Time for .... stew!

I got the recipe from Ina Garten, who hosts the Barefoot Contessa food show. Everybody else worships Bobby Flay or Emeril on Food Network. But Ina cooks -- and looks -- like the kind of cook you want in your home. She loves food and it shows.

So, anyway, she had a beef stew recipe that called for the chuck to be marinated in a good red wine, like cabernet sauvignon. I couldn't resist.

So, I got 2 pounds of good looking chuck from the butcher at the Piedmont Grocery, and I went to work. The secret to this one, I think, is the marinade but also the fact that you saute the meat, and THEN dump the veggies in.

I made some mistakes along the way, like not cutting the potatoes and onions up enough, but that's the beauty of cooking for myself. I get to try it out, figure out what I did wrong, and hope I don't repeat the same mistakes next time.

The only down thing about this recipe is that it takes about 5 hours to make! So don't put it together while you're hungry!

So, picture this: A glass of red wine, eating my homemade beef stew (and incidentally, dropping it all over my shirt), and then watching the end of Season One's Battlestar Galactica. Stew, wine, and Cylons. It doesn't get much better than that....except if my sweetie had been sitting beside me on the couch.

But when she is, I'll have this killer stew all ready for her!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Jews are at the Ballpark

Last week, I happily went with Dawn to Jewish Heritage night at the San Francisco Giants. We received a nifty Giants hat that said "Giants" in Hebrew.

I sent Rick a photo of AT&T Park from the 3rd deck. I've never been on the 3rd deck. I didn't dare move. He called at once, and asked me who I was there with. "60 Jews!!" I screamed into the phone.

The Jumbo Tron displayed several images of Jews with funny things coming out of their mouths. And during the 7th inning stretch, a rabbi blew a shofar! I'm not sure what he was playing...Take Me Out to the Ballgame was a good bet, though.

Wow!! I will definitely go next year! That is, if I hear about it.

Someone else in the crowd said, the A's would never do this. Well, we'll just have to make sure the A's know such things are possible, and that a few of us would go and fill up their Plaza level.

Jews love baseball, too, you know.

New Wasp Report

I just got home after being a week and a half away. I knew my wasp traps would continue to work once I left. That's the beauty of such things: they first work on the scent of the hamburger but then. once the hamburger is rotten, the new wasp bodies serve as the fresh meat. Insidious.

So, upon arriving home, I leaped from my trusty vehicle to take a look at the numbers of wasps congregating in the trap in the front of the house. I counted 25, but then lost count. I still see a body (dead? alive?) near the nest, and it's still warm out, so the wasps still think it's summer.

Traps, keep doing your thing...

Friday, August 25, 2006

Wasp Watch - "You can check in any time you want..."

With Jamie's help, I put up a Wasp Trap in the back, tied to the gutter and near the original Wasp Nest he found for me. Then, we put up a Wasp Trap in the front, off to the side of the house, also tied to the gutter.

This was all due to Dawn's suggestion when I said to her, I still see them out there.... They're massing...

Also at her suggestion, I put a ball of raw hamburger in each trap. This was in addition to the scented cotton ball we prepared for each.

The next day I ran out to get the paper, and was drawn to the trap. Five wasps were in there! Most were already dead, but one soul couldn't get out and was circling near the air holes at the top.

The back trap had nearly as much activity. However, in the four days they've been up, there's not nearly the activity in the back as in the front. As of this morning (August 25th), I counted at least 15 wasp bodies in the front! I think there're only 6 or 7 in the back. Wow!!

I will wait until winter is assuredly here, and throw the traps and their prey in the trash. Then, come spring, I will follow Val's advice and put the traps a bit farther away from the entrances to the house. That'll work for the back, but I'm not sure about the front, as I think they're attracted to the scents of the garbage cans. The cans are rather near the trap as it is now, making it perhaps even more effective.

But for now, until winter....Wasp Watch continues!!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


There have been signs, rising up into my consciousness, telling me that I'm old. They're hard, getting harder, to ignore.

-- Whenever I shop at Safeway these days, and I finish payment, the helpful cashier always asks me, "Do you need help out?" The last time this happened, I looked balefully at the two plums and small carton of milk I had purchased, and said, almost spat, "No." I thought to myself, Do I look like I need help out?? "Thank you," I meekly said out loud to the cashier.

-- Two weeks ago, I noticed that my local Sizzler in San Leandro changed their age limit from 55 to 62 for their Senior meals. That means I can no longer order any of the Senior meals, which are really a good deal. Not only do you get the little steak with rice for less money than the regulars, you also get a free salad bar added on. But I'm not yet 62, so I stopped ordering it. (I think I slipped once, before I noticed the change, and ordered it by mistake; the difference was about 2 minutes. I left the difference in tip.) However, the cashiers are STILL giving me the senior meal! Without my asking for it! The mere mention of the words "Hibachi chicken" seems to get me the chicken, the rice, AND the salad bar plate! Not every time, but often.

-- Nobody questions me or sneers at me when I sit on the BART benches for seniors/disabled.

-- I still like Star Trek.

-- I went to a Temescal cafe the other day. Aaron and his new company's members were having a meeting. I stayed out of the meeting, waiting for it to be over, and sat comfortably at a table, reading my two newspapers. (Sports sections first, of course.) After about 15 minutes of reading about Chavez and company, and sipping my Earl Grey, I looked up and glanced around at the crowd. All were youngish, most 25 and younger. Three had computers, as the cafe advertised "Free Wi-Fi!" The cafe even boasts two stand-alone, humongous computers with internet connection, for a price. In fact, those godzillas nearly took up a quarter of the cafe. But I was the only one with a newspaper. The only one! Nobody in their twenties seems to read newspapers. While I get a lot of my news from the internet (mostly yahoo!), I still get a real external physical feeling of comfort from holding the pages of a full, long page filled with inky revelations.

Yes, there are some signs, staring me in the face. I try to counter such signs. I try to keep up my walking. I figure nobody can be old if they can walk 3 miles in one hour. I also try to keep up with the latest trends. I may not understand what they really are and what their real impact is, but at least I'll know about them.

I take comfort in all of that, but I'm still watching for signs.

A Stinging Revelation

Jamie came in one day from a moment on the deck to tell me that he had found a wasp's nest.

"No!!!" was my instinctive reaction.

I am not afraid of bugs. Cockroaches, ants, spiders. I don't care that much for them, mind you, but their mere presence doesn't elicit fear. Wasps, bees (and flying ants, truth be told) are different. Those little devils have given me some miserable days, dating back to my childhood years in Hayward and Coronado.

So, when Jamie told me about the hanging nest, right above the deck and next to my bedroom, I went through 30 seconds of panic. And then he said: "Oh, I can get a broom and a can of Raid and take care of it..."

"No!!!" was my instinctive reaction. Again.

I called an exterminator. For $180 for about 5 minutes work, the man on the other end of the phone told me apologetically, they'll take care of the problem. And avoid a trip to the hospital for helpful James.

The guy agreed with me when he showed up the next day. "Spray some Raid on that nest, and they'd go right for him," he said, shaking his head dolefully. Instead, he brought in a few simple tools and went at the nest. Standing on the raised platform leading from my bedroom to the deck, he sprayed the nest briefly with Wasp Freeze, a can, he said, that was available at Home Depot.

Then he poked the nest with a stick, it fell down onto the deck, and, with large, long rubber gloves, he loaded the nest and its remains into a box, a little cardboard coffin.

The nest was about 6 inches long, I'd say. You actually couldn't see it from the deck unless you got almost right up under it, as it was under the overhang. Oh, I took all the photos from inside the house. I did get close enough to see it all, standing on the deck looking up, but every time I did, I got the heebiejeebies. (Is that one word?)

The exterminator said it was a pretty big one. Oh?? I said, holding my panic down forcefully. He replied, "Well, yeah, except if you compare it to the one I found in some family's attic that one time. It was about 6-feet long. It had been growing there for years. They never went up there..." he reported, as his eyes glazed over, no doubt reliving those heroic days. "It took me a couple of days, but I got 'em," he said proudly.

He took the remains of the nest out to his truck, but on the way, he spotted more nests. Three of them. They were smaller, but they were there under the eves of the front of the house. He sprayed them, too, and dragged them down. Then, with his rubber gloves, he picked up the nests as well as the lifeless wasps that had fallen from the nest. "If I'm charging you this much for so little work, at least I can pick them up."

Gee, what a lucrative business. Five minutes or so, most of it spent on paperwork. Maybe I could....No!!! Geez. There's that panic rising up in me again. Especially with the image of a six-foot tall nest. Ouch!

Thursday, May 04, 2006

A Retiree's Dilemma

Life is created from interesting choices.

Today I had a tough one, and until the moment came for me to leave, I didn't know what I was going to do.

A retiree's life is full of tough choices. Today, I had tickets to two events: an all-Mozart program by the San Francisco Symphony at 2 pm today (Thursday), or a day game at the Oakland Coliseum. I had only one ticket for each: I was going by myself. I never have a problem doing that.

I added up the points. The A's played the Cleveland Indians for the first time last night. It was a close 4-3 game, Indians, in the 3rd inning last night when I had to leave the Crogan's T.V. set to sit down and have dinner with Aaron and Molly. We talked baseball much of the night, so that was okay. I was DVR'ing the game, so I sat down with a half glass of wine to watch the rest when I got home at 11 pm, only to find that the Indians blew the A's out of the water for the rest of the game, scoring 9 runs in one of the later innings.

So, did I really want to watch the hit-happy Indians whomp up on the A's one more time? No, not really. And the weather report said it'll be overcast in the morning, just like yesterday. Yet, I looked out this morning, and saw a glimpse of sun...

The symphony looked good. I am reading a biography of Mozart these days, and since this is the 250th anniversary of Wolfie's birthday, the San Francisco Symphony has had notable Mozart-themed productions throughout 2006, and this was going to be a stellar one.

But I had another symphony performance on Sunday afternoon. I could afford to miss this one.

Whoops, that argument won't work, as I have another A's game on the weekend, too, this time on Saturday. It's Nick Swisher bobblehead day. Gotta grab a quick Torah study and get out to the Coliseum to collect my goateed bobblehead.

So, which one? Which one would you attend?

I didn't know what I was going to do until I was getting dressed this morning. I found myself slipping into my blue jeans, denim, NOT symphony clothes but definitely baseball gear. Okay, it's baseball. I looked around in wonderment. Yeah, this feels right.

As I headed into the stadium, I called on my cell phone to the symphony box office and donated back my ticket. That way, I get a tax deduction and the symphony gets to fill the seat.

As I settled into my seat in the perfect Section 126 on an overcast but pleasant day in Oakland, I saw first pitch. Kirk Saarloos, starting for injured Rich Harden, had a shaky beginning, but closed out the top of the 1st without a score from the Tribe. By the end of the bottom of the first, the A's led, 5 to nothing. Wow.

It was a great day for A's hitters and pitchers, with some creative defense thrown in by Bobby Crosby and error-free Mark Ellis. The final score was 14 - 3, Oakland Athletics. I had definitely made the right choice.

Sometimes the choices in life are tough, especially if you have two great possibilities in your day. May we all have those wonderful options in our lives, every day.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

She'll Sing if She Wants to...

She leaned over her seat toward where I was sitting behind her and asked, “So, have you ever seen her before?”

We were sitting in the La Brava theatre on 24th Street in San Francisco, waiting for the Lesley Gore concert to start. I explained that I had seen Lesley once before – and I had just remembered this while eating in the café next door in the previous hour – in a singer-packed review about 30 years ago. She had sung about 3 songs, including two I’m sure she would perform again that night.

Lesley Gore started her career 44 years ago when she met 30-year-old Quincy Jones. One of the best parts of tonight’s concert was when she talked about those old days, when Q gave her advice (“always try to create something in the recording studio you can duplicate on stage later”) and took her to shows featuring the old-time great singers like Peggy Lee. Little did they know that the song they both produced that day, “It’s My Party,” would be number one in six weeks, and would start two legends.

Ann, the woman in the seat in row CC ahead of me, introduced me to Jim and his mother, who were sitting right next to me. Jim told me that he put his mother in the seat but that meant that his boyfriend, Mark, had to sit wayyy in the back. He said this wistfully as he waved to Mark. I took the opportunity to explain to Jim that my girlfriend couldn’t make it to the show, pointing to the jacket on the empty seat, and invited him to bring Mark down to sit next to him. I moved over as Jim excitedly waved Mark to come on down.

I’m not that unselfish, or altruistic. But Jim and Mark are “brothers,” in the Trish sense of the word, and Mark was a brother in the Pam sense. So it seemed like a good idea.

And I found myself sitting next to a too-young-to-remember-the-old-days enthusiastic fan who knew all of her new songs off her CD. He told me they were really good, and true enough, it turned out he was right.

When Lesley came on stage to warm applause, she explained that she would be interspersing the songs from her new album in with the oldies – no, not oldies, as she patiently and humorously explained to us, but rather, “classic hits.” I found, much to my amazement, that the new songs were memorable, with touching lyrics, and most were written by Ms. Gore herself.

If you can believe this, Lesley Gore is 60 years old. SIXTY! I actually thought she was older than that, as I remember buying some of her singles while my family visited Grandma in Pensacola one summer in the early '60's. The 45s were warped by the time I got them home from the sun-baked south, but that didn’t stop me from playing “Maybe I Know” over and over and over on the record player my Dad set up in my room.

Lesley’s voice is huskier, and all the songs seemed to be pitched a little too high for her. Several songs were slowed down, a fact I found disappointing in all but one instance. “Sunshine and Lollipops” was a not-very-good song with an even worse arrangement 30 years ago, and could only be helped by a new tempo and arrangement. But it was tough hearing favorite “Maybe I Know” even slightly different; it’s tough hearing change at work.

Her back-up group was acquired in a garage in San Diego, or so it seemed in the beginning of the set. The bass, drums and guitar overpowered her voice, making it difficult to hear the lyrics. (Of course, who needs the lyrics to “That’s the Way Boys Are,” as I could sing it in my sleep. And the lyrics aren’t exactly Leonard Cohen. But I would have liked to have heard the words of the new songs.) However, two-thirds of the way through the concert, somebody finally figured out the sound mix, and her voice came through stronger. It seems that only the guitar should’ve stayed in the garage; the other band members were adept enough to keep pace with these beloved songs.

I hate going into San Francisco. I hate driving into parts I don’t know. I hate looking for parking, and so went two hours early. I hate sitting next to strangers with whom I have nothing in common. But this experience was different. I got to visit a sliver, just for a moment, of my junior high school days when I was beginning to know and appreciate rock and roll, and feel the wonderfulness of that period of time in my life. I got to sit next to other true fans, some of whom actually lived during that same period. And I got to “meet” Lesley Gore, an idol from the early days. Still, it was a shock: she’s older with definite signs of age in her face, shorter than I imagined, hair differently styled, and just, well, different than the album covers. Change is disturbing.

I didn’t stay to actually meet her during her CD signing in the lobby. As I skipped past the hundreds lingering there, I felt a nice glow from the whole experience. I don’t want to be a few feet from her and face the changes. I’ll listen to the new songs when I get home. But then I’ll put on the old stuff, and feel “You Don’t Own Me” the way it was meant to be felt.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The All-You-Can Eat Buffet, Except....

“Alex, I’d like Kashrut for $100, please.”

“An interesting choice, Linda. All right. You’re looking at a delicious piece of albacore. Side by side on your plate is a small piece of sirloin steak. Can you enjoy your meal as an observant Jew?”

“No, of course not,” I said. “If fish and meat are eaten together as described, there would be a health danger.”

“Correct!” Exclaimed Alex. “You have the board.”

As the other contestants sneered at me, I picked “Kashrut for $200, please.”

“As you know, the higher you go in monetary amount, the more difficult the questions become.

“In order to kasher a steak knife, you rinse it in hot water. True or false?”


“Yes, Linda.”

“No. You have to stick it in the ground 10 times.”

“Hmmm….may we have the judges’ ruling on this? Yes, that would be acceptable. $200 to Linda.”

Kashrut is not an obsession, but it’s definitely an item of interest for me, especially around Pesach. I have learned that Passover is the most sacred of holidays. Things you used to get away with any other day of the year, including the High Holy Days, just won’t cut it during Pesach. For instance, if you’re going to purchase salt (without iodine, of course), it’s best to do it before the week of Passover.

If I thought jumping into Judaism was like landing on Mars, and the words are definitely Martian, the kosher issue puts it into another dimension for me. I can visit, but gosh, forces of nature just pull me back.

I’ve heard a lot of different reasons, rationalizations perhaps, for the reason for kosher. As near as I can figure out, it’s simply because such rules and restrictions set Jews apart from all others. This is our tribe, that’s yours. Some of these rules might have had a basis in health concerns, but not most and certainly not all. They just are.

“Alex, Kashrut for $300, please.”

“All right, let’s see how you do on this one. You’re on vacation in Italy. You’ve got a Slurpee on your right, and Rocky Road Ice Cream on your left. Is this kosher?”


“Yes, Linda, you of the fast fingers. What is your answer?”

“Alex, I eat slurpees and Rocky Road ice cream all the time. Of course they’re all right.”

“I’m sorry,” Alex said with a sad look on his face. “That’s incorrect. If the slurpee is not from the U.S., it’s not kosher. And if the Rocky Road ice cream was made by Walgreen’s, it also is not kosher. That’s $300 from Linda, which gives her a total of Zero.”

Obviously I have a long way to go in understanding this kashrut thing. I thought it was such a simple thing until I went to a three-hour class on the subject, and discovered that three hours doesn’t even begin to cover the permutations. I had hoped to get some clarity on the issues involved: that was my basic goal. I succeeded somewhat.

This week I set about clearing out my kitchen of all hametz (leavened bread) materials. I thought the task would be easy. Crackers? Bread? Gone. But then I discovered that it also includes non-kosher wine. I don’t have any kosher wine. So I boxed up all the possibilities (including two bottles of nice champagne) and will store it in a place that I will not call my own for a week.

But I still have some questions about some of the things that are still in my house. I figure that this, my first year, is a great crucible.

Am I playing at this? I think I am just being Reform. I am trying the practices to see which ones make sense to me, which ones I can absorb and make a part of my identity. I think that’s the definition of Reform.

If there are any rabbis out there, or rabbis-to-be, and I’ve made any errors, please let me know. Oh, and while you’re at it, I have a few more questions for you about food supplements, bags of flour, and PopSecret popcorn, stuff that's still in my cupboard.

I never did get to Kashrut for $500. Too tough. And I doubt if I ever will.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Spring Training 2006: The Big Hurt Shows Up Big

On my 4th and last day of this short visit to Spring Training, I went to a terrific ballgame in spectacular seats at Phoenix Muni. I finally see what the other fans like about this stadium. It normally reminds me too much of McAfee (Oakland Coliseum) in that there’s too much foul territory, the players are too far away from the fans, etc. But today I was sitting in box seats in back of the Athletics’ dugout. Today I was up-close-and-personal to the field and the players.

And it was quite a game! Danny Haren was pitching for the A’s. His 2nd pitch was hit for a solid single, and every inning he seemed to have one man on base, causing Swisher to play close to the bag, but that was it. One homerun was the Rockies’ scoring, ‘cause that’s all they could get; they didn’t even come close to scoring again.

And we got to see Frank Thomas in an A’s uniform in his first official spring training game. Wow. I thought Vladimir Guerrero filled out a uniform. Marco Scutaro could fit inside one of Frank’s sleeves. This guy is the Hulk, and you can see why he’s called the Big Hurt.

After stretching a bit and running and chatting amiably with the other players, Frank casually walked over to the sideline where I was sitting and started signing autographs, just like that. Whoa!! All of a sudden, there were kids of all ages climbing over me to get to the fence. (I was one row back.) That wasn’t pleasant, but it was certainly understandable. The Hurt is here, he’s happy to be here, and he’s saying his first hello to the fans. Awesome.

And he didn’t disappoint on the field, either. His second at bat, he hit a shot so high, so fast, that I didn’t even see it clear the right-field fence. But it did. It certainly looked like his injuries were just memories.

This wasn’t a hitfest. It would seem the A’s are having problems hitting except that they’re making contact. And the split squad game yesterday was a 20-run rout in their favor – but this was the game I didn’t see, the one in Peoria. Eric Chavez is Oh-fer in his last 16 at bats. But he’s making good contact so I don’t think we should worry.

Nick Swisher hit a homerun, his second in two days. Jay Payton, who seems relegated to only part-time work, also hit a homerun. (I’m a real Payton fan. I think this guy breathes baseball, and has the talent to back up his swagger.) Those three runs were the only runs the A’s scored. The Rockies also scored their only run on the long ball. It was, outside of these homeruns, another pitchers’ duel, with both pitchers performing well.

I knew I had to leave early, but the game was running so fast that I was able to stay until the 7th inning. I found the rental car facility easily, driving down Van Buren all the way until 24th street, and then making a right. Took me right there. The plane ride, however, was the trip from (and to) hell. I’m thinking with all the time I invest in going to the airport, that shaves 3 hours off a 10-hour trip. I am thinking that, if I do this again next year, I’m driving. No more schlepping luggage to three different gates in an hour.

But before I leave, thanks to Candi again for organizing these trips for us. For spectacular seats. For her patience. After all, we seniors are rather grumpy at times, especially if we don’t get our beans.

Spring Training 2006: The Case of the Missing BBQ

Friday night, the game was at night at Phoenix Municipal. I got to the parking lot at 4:45 pm, 15 minutes before the gates to the park opened. I bought a new spring training hat in the shop (open from the outside). When the gates opened, I moseyed over to the BBQ, held in a fenced-off grassy area over by left field.

The folks at the BBQ were very friendly. We kind of had to be, as we all had to share the limited number of tables. As soon as others joined me, the gentleman with the old A’s cap in front of me immediately started in, telling me about the site where the Oakland Coliseum is today. “I worked for EBMUD back then. EBMUD sold that spot to the Oakland A’s back in 1966.” I don’t remember much about what he told me; there was so much noise around with the Boosters talking and the music from the live band next door, it was hard to hear. Something about the Coliseum’s lower levels being below 22 feet sea level.

The woman next to me – I’m guessing she was close to 80, as her husband will celebrate that mark in a year – told me she keeps score for every A’s game, even the away games. “I do it over the radio,” she said proudly. “Whenever my family wants to give me gifts, I tell them to give me score cards. You know, it takes 7 books to get through an entire year.”

When our table got up to go through the BBQ line, we were disappointed. They were out of beans. They were out of potato chips, mustard, catsup -- well, most things except for hot dogs and hamburgers. The seniors were starting to get angry (as angry as they get, murmurring in the crowd). The server when I was up there was murmurring, too -- about how much seniors eat. "The beans are all gone," he said, shaking his head and talking to nobody in particular. "These people -- they eat too many beans." Candi worked with the caterer, who promised to come up with more food in a hurry (but not beans, because, as we know, "the beans are all gone"). Finally the A's coordinator came up to talk with her. He explained to her that they hadn't expected to run out of food only halfway through the line. "Hey, these people can eat!" she told me later that she explained it all to him. "Have you ever seen my mother at a banquet? She brings her own doggie bag." She said she didn't want to piss off these people and lose the Boosters' $18 tickets and all the other perks they give us, so she tread lightly. The servers finally brought over all the brownies and grapes from the A's pre-game meal, but by then almost all of us had gone to the game. (The food was available from the A's because the players had to go to the game, too!)

I must admit that I left every game early, either because I was too hot, too tired, or I had to go to the airport (twice). Every time it looked like I was leaving, the people around me would frown and question me. While spring training urges a laidback attitude, apparently that doesn’t apply to attending the games. I would arrive two hours early before every game to be assured of parking and observe the players on the field as they loosened up, but I didn’t get any points for that among this tough crowd.

On this particular night (Friday), pitcher Barry Zito, the ace of the A's squad, did not look sharp. He gave up hit after hit. While it's hard to tell if Barry was working on something, it's tough not to be worried that Uncle Charlie (his nasty curveball) is suddenly hittable.

On Saturday morning, after my friend Val flew in to join me in one game for Spring Training, we drove to Hohokam for the A's vs. the Cubs. Hohokam Park is in Mesa, Arizona, a good 10 miles southeast of Phoenix. I’m sure there’s lots to see in Mesa, but when you’re standing in the stadium there, there doesn’t seem to be anything surrounding the place for miles. Just brownish-red mesas and blue skies. The park itself is 9 years old, has a little underground passageway behind the grandstand, a cool place to shop for souvenirs. And almost all the souvenirs were Cubs-related. LOTS of Cubbie fans strolling around. And you’d never know this was a spring training game, a game where not much mattered. The Cubs fans were out in their colors, and cheering on their team. The Cubs ended up winning this game, 1 – 0, in a pitching duel.

Rich Harden of the Oakland A’s looked particularly sharp, giving way in the fifth inning for Jay Witasick. Rich’s pitches were rarely even hit; very few balls had to be fielded. The A’s hitters couldn’t do much against the Cubs pitcher, flailing away at breaking ball pitches or trying to catch up to a steaming fastball.

I did get my first glimpse of Milton Bradley. Milton took his whacks, but ended up walking most of the time. That showed me that he wasn’t above the A’s philosophy, and as long as he could get on base, even in spring training when he’s working on his swing, he’d be satisfied. Marco Scutaro put in his first appearance since his injury (in the four days I have been in Phoenix), and looked fine. Bobby Kielty appears to be over his injury as well, and, although he didn’t get any hits, he did flag down a few tough fly balls.

Spring Training 2006: Watch Freddie Run

I mentioned that last night was a real treat for the Oakland A’s Booster Club, as we had Robert Buan and Freddie Bynum to talk to us. Robert, of course, is the silver-tongued announcer who gave away the cars last year and who runs Extra Innings after every A’s broadcast. He introduced player Freddie Bynum, and urged Freddie to answer his questions and ours.

Freddie grew up in North Carolina. He had no intention of going to college at all, figuring he’d join his father in factory work, but his grandmother offered him college. “I could go and not have to pay for anything. So….I went to college,” he said quietly as we all laughed. “While I was there, I discovered they had baseball. Might as well play as long as it’s there. I ended up paying for my years of school with scholarships.”

Freddie is a 26-year-old minor leaguer who has run out of options. If the A’s don’t pick him for The Show this time around, someone else can. And that would really hurt. Especially since Freddie isn’t making it easy for the Powers That Be to let him go. He’s batting close to .400 in the games he’s been in; it’s almost like the Athletics are trying to showcase this young player for other teams, or let him prove what he can prove.

Robert asked Freddie, “If the A’s picked you up, do you think you’d continue to steal bases? After all, they’ve had this philosophy for years which discourages base stealing.” Freddie thought a moment, and answered, “I’m thinking not.” When he heard a lot of disappointed groans, he continued that management wouldn’t want to leave the bases open for the A’s power hitters, as opposing pitchers would just walk them. But maybe at certain times he’d be allowed to steal, he mused.

This young man is out of North Carolina, soft spoken but full of confidence. “I don’t worry about what I can’t control,” he said more than once about what the A’s would do about his options. As he told the Boosters that night, “But I can tell you one thing. I’m going to try to take someone’s job.”

Looking at his production and the fact that a few of the regulars are injured (e.g., Kielty), I’m predicting right now that Bynum will be on the roster on April 2nd when the rosters have to be in. The A’s may not want to play Freddie full-time, but he’s lightning in a bottle, and I don’t think they’ll give him up for nary a whisper.

Spring Training 2006: The Super Halo & the Ample-Butt Women

It was an early wake-up to catch the flight to Phoenix. And the flight itself was rather miserable. It was pretty much sold out, and although I had an aisle seat, my neighbor was overweight and, once seated, she had no place to put appendages within that narrow America West seat. Luckily (for both of us, I think), I understand her predicament. We managed to overlap territory without much drama.

But the 6 am flight was a good way to go, as I could get in, rent my car at the new central facility, get lost a few times and then finally find the Embassy Suites, all before making my way to the ballpark. The hotel is only a few miles from the airport, but, I swear, it takes me at least half an hour to get to it.

I checked in early and headed out with ample directions to Temple Diablo Stadium. I have no idea why it’s called “Diablo” if it’s the home of the Angels. It’s a nice, small park, but the parking is still limited. I arrived at 11:45 for a 1 pm game, and I was shunted off to the third parking lot behind the outfield.

Tempe Diablo Stadium is the home of the Angels, and holds over 10,000 if you count the 2,500 on the lawn. This day all the seats were filled, but the lawn wasn’t quite. At $8 for my just-off-third-base seat, four rows from the fence, it seemed like a great deal.

By the time the game started, however, the sun had already started to cook the back of my neck. I had put sunscreen on before I left the hotel room, and put some more on in the 3rd inning, but I still felt hot. So I left the seat in the 5th and went to the covered area where the concessions were. “Seat?” Huh. They were marked numbers on a continuous bench. As the woman next to me couldn’t find area for her husband and son between us ample-butt women, she suggested I move to the end of the row. I got kind of stubborn – and how silly this seems now – as I didn’t want to be stuck if people showed up with those tickets. Nobody ever did, but the Boosters area did fill up a bit as that late bus pulled up. So her husband started a baseball conversation with his neighbor, and her son disappeared into the concession stands for several innings. And everything worked out.

It was weird to see Angels superstar Vladimir Guerrero show up, at least half an hour after the other Angels players had started working out. He’s twice as big as an ordinary player. I took several photos of him as he stretched on the sidelines and got ready to play. I saw our new shortstop Antonio Perez come up to talk to Vlad during this routine. When Vladdy made two rare errors in the outfield later on in the game, the 40’s-ish A’s fan next to me hooted and hollered. “How many millions per error is that?” he cackled, continuing to mispronounce “Vlad” as “Vald.” Those superstars are never going to get a break.

The A’s threw Triple A pitcher Danny Meyer out there, who went 5 innings. He looked just fine until the Angels hit back-to-back homeruns against him – one by Vladdy, a shot that cleared the entire stadium. The A’s bats looked pretty solid to me, but a Booster senior that evening remarked that the A’s went 4 innings without a hit and wondered when they were going to wake up. But spring training is a mixed bag, a mixture of veterans who are just loosening up and up-and-comers who are trying to impress, and you’re not going to get perfect games.

One of those up-and-comers is Freddie Bynum, an infielder who seems to be playing the outfield a lot. Freddie went 2 for 6 in today’s game of 10 innings, and stole two bases as well. Much to our delight, Freddie turned up at the Booster Banquet that night, introduced by Robert Buan, one of the A’s announcers. When I asked how he remained so consistent at the plate and what was his approach, he mumbled a bunch of usual rhetoric, but then finally threw in, “And I look for that fastball.” More about Freddie later.

I discovered that the Friday game is the only night game of the season at Phoenix Municipal. It’s preceded by a Booster Club BBQ by the left field at 5 pm. Since parking fills up quickly, it’ll be good to get out there early anyway. But I have no idea what I’m going to do in the afternoon. I had looked at the Giants game in Scottsdale, but it was sold out. I guess I’ll just try to stay cool.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Coronation of George

I answered my cell phone in a hushed whisper. It was Rick, talking about George's retirement party, a usual topic these days. "What's that screaming in the background?" he asked. The musicians are warming up, I replied. I'm at the symphony.

I have tickets for a plethora of events this year at Davies Hall, the magnificent home of the San Francisco Symphony. Today was Mozart's Coronation Mass. It's Mozart's 250th birthday this year, you see. Except that he only lived to see year number 35. Amazing that his work has been revered for so long.

Mozart composed this Coronation Mass for Easter Sunday in 1779. Since it's widely known he tended to compose on schedule (meaning, he waited until the last minute before he would finish), it's likely he finished the work only days before it was scheduled to be performed in the Salzburg Cathedral.

According to the program notes (Playbill, March 2006), "most of Mozart's Masses are of the Missa brevis (Short Mass) variety." As he described to a friend in a letter in 1776, "A Mass with all its parts -- the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Credo, the Epistle sonata, the Offertory or motet, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei -- must not last longer than three-quarters of an hour; this applies even to the most solemn Mass said by the Archibishop himself."

Applause for guest conductor Martin Haselbock, and we get under way. As Haselbock throws his arms out in boomerang effect, the musicians start. And Perfection begins.

But even in such heavenly company the mind drifts. In true Joycean style, uncontrollable and without punctuation, thoughts hurtled about at the speed of light, faster than sound.

George's retirement party. God, he's asked millions. Everyone he's ever met, clearly anyone he ever worked with in 35 years. Our little restaurant room isn't large enough. The Coliseum wouldn't be large enough. I wonder if I can get out of town before anyone notices...

Kyrie eleison.
Gloria in excelsis Deo. Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.

The 217-member choir shouts its praise to God in voluptuous harmony. I wonder why there are so many women in the choir. Couldn't they get any men?

George is driving us to drink. I won't drink at all during the party. I'll drink afterwards. I'll share a drink with Rick, or two or three. I sure hope our presentation is funny.

Credo! Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem, factorem coeli et terrae, visibilium omnium et invisibilium.

The four guest soloists step up and begin. Three of them may just as well sit down and stare at the audience. The soprano voice of Cristine Brandes rises above the rest, hovers, and takes us on its angelic journey. She's incredible. I wonder if she speaks everyday Italian?

Maybe if we just have a cocktail party. But we have all that food. They have to sit down to eat the food. There aren't enough chairs. How are we going to squeeze...

Nostras deprecationes ne despicias in neccessitatibus nostris! Sed a periculis cunctis libera nos semper.
Benedictus! Benedictus!

Some of those choir members are paid. Most are volunteers. I wonder which ones?

Agnus Dei! Qui tollis peccata mundi miserere nobis.

O Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.

I have witnessed, in my short life, some true perfect moments. This was one. I listened to Haydn just a moment ago, and he rarely took chances, risks, except in retirement. But Mozart lived for the risks, reached for the golden ring, each and every time. Everything he did was for the first time. And over 200 years later, we're still here, listening.

A full 45 minutes later, I applauded this exquisite performance by the San Francisco Symphony and its Choir. Five minutes later, I was walking towards BART, stepping deftly to avoid the three-foot tall women in my way, leaning on their canes and their bent-over men, as they move away from Davies Hall. The average age at these matinees is one click over The Golden Girls. They, like me, like to experience their music in the light of day.

A few moments in my life that have been Perfect. The Coronation Mass. A no-hitter. That chicken piccata at Francesco's. That retirement party for George.

Well, the last remains to be seen. In two short weeks. If we survive.

O Lamb of God....have mercy upon us....

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Remodel Hell: One More Thing...

I'll bet contractors hate hearing that, "while you're in there, one more thing I'd like you to do is..."

I don't like doing that. I don't like adding on. First, it's pretty stupid, often happens after they've already sealed up the hole. Secondly, it's very expensive.

However....this time I had to do it. I discovered I didn't have enough outlets in the small (now smaller) middle room, so I asked Ernie if he could send his electrician (a different one than the last two times, please?) out to do the job. He said it would only take about two hours.

So Dave arrived this morning, asked me all kinds of questions I wasn't good in answering. And then he broke open the switch box (there goes the new plaster!! Groan...) to figure it all out. He looked at the crawl space under the house, re-emerged and said the job was probably going to take a day.

No, no, I said. I have a cleaning crew showing up in an hour. We had better re-schedule.

But Ernie drove up just then, came in, and showed him there was already a dedicated line to the new bathroom that he could feed off to supply electrical power to the new fourplex. So Dave rolled with it, smiled, and said, Hey, we'll be out of here in two hours!

Thank God for Ernie. Again. Ernie also told me he discussed it with Dave Martinez, the owner, and they decided they wouldn't charge me for the last go-round (not this one) with the electrician and the plasterer. Just materials. How nice is that?

So today it's finished....let me say that again...The two-month five-month remodel is FINISHED!!!

I gotta go now....I've got the cleaners coming in a few minutes! Cleaning up for the party on Sunday!!


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Remodel Hell - The Final Inspection

We failed the last electrical inspection, or as Ernie said, "Two out of three ain't bad." It's bad when you still have one to go.

So a week later -- today -- we had another inspector come out. Ernie was running around buying breaker switches and bringing in a new smoke detector for the bedroom, showing up at 8:05 am to get a head start on it all, to clean up after the electrician. (That electrician showed up about an hour after Ernie left, last Tuesday, and spent less than half an hour....doing what, I don't know. He refused to ground the loose wires or put in the code-required breakers.) The inspector came while I was at the dentist's, but we did the hidden key thing, and he got in and let the inspector in for a good result.

So, that's it, right? Well.... No. Ernie was nice enough to notice that the plaster surrounding the old switchbox in the den is all broken up (because of the electrician pounding on it to break it free from the wall), and promised to send his plasterer out to pave it over. "It's too big a job for me and my tools," he said, apologetically.

I also mentioned that I need some more electrical sockets in the middle room, my new office. He said he'd try to get an electrician out there, if not tomorrow, then soon. We didn't want to confuse the electrical inspection by including a couple of new sockets! Oh, noooo.

But....WE PASSED INSPECTION!! WE PASSED INSPECTION!! So in my mind, this darned project is DONE!

The End of Remodel Hell Party is scheduled for Sunday!