Friday, April 15, 2011

Grateful Dead War stories: The Harmonic Convergence

Inspired by a recent post on by Oakland local, Blair Jackson, I've written one of my favorite Grateful Dead "war" stories from the road.  From 1986 - 1995 my wife Annetta and many other friends joined me in "grateful dead jet setting".  From Eugene to Berlin, Paris, Memphis, New York, Philadelphia and Las Vegas, the circus never stopped.

Here's my story of the weekend of August 14 - 16, 1987, in Telluride, Colorado.  The Grateful Dead had never played Telluride before or after this weekend in 1987.  Some "New Age" prognosticator had deemed this time, particularly the Sunday of the weekend, to be the time of "The Harmonic Convergence", so we all converged on Telluride in Southwest Colorado.

Telluride is at the base of a beautiful box canyon.

  •  What is particular toTelluride are several things: 
    • It's exclusive
    • It's expensive
    • Bill Graham had a place there
    • It's not necessarily open to hippies
All of these issues presented big challenges for the growing empire of Deadheads throughout the states by 1987.  When the Dead and Dylan played a series of 6 shows the month before, Bill Graham, the Dead's principal producer, and Grateful Dead Productions, warned "the ticketless masses" to stay away from Telluride if you didn't have a ticket.  The capacity was limited to 10,000 I believe, though I was never sure of how Bill Graham Presents counted...

We were fortunate to have tickets to see the Dead outside Denver at Red Rocks Ampitheatre - 1 of the most beautiful places in the world to see anything.

Our war stories are always happy ones: at Telluride in 87 we got to town Friday afternoon without a place to stay. Yes, we had sleeping bags & a tent in our car, but we're really not campers. On the road into town we met a woman who had a sign: room for the weekend! Right on. Her cottage about 3 blocks from the Town Park, where the Dead would play Saturday and Sunday in the afternoon,  was barely 2 bedrooms; there was no door for our bedroom - $200 for the weekend, a steal by Telluride prices - just an Indian bedspread. It made me think of Berkeley in 1967.  Our hostess, Laurel,  had a wonderful big dog, Burke, who liked us, so we were made in the shade. The $200 was her approximate winter heating cost, so we really made a positive impact on her life. It was the most romantic weekend - our second honeymoon, having been married August 2 the year before (and having missed Red Rocks, our intended first honeymoon in 86). Our time in Brokedown Palace as we lovingly called this place was one of the greatest honeymoons we've had.

Nothing compares to the wonder of the Dead road experiences.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Metaphysical License: I love Amma

On the urging of one of my co-workers, I thought I should write a short recap of some highlights of a visit with Amma almost a year and 1/2 ago.  I had written the majority of this in November, 2009 and just came upon it.  I hope to see Amma when she returns to the Bay Area in 2 months, and in re-reading this I feel ever closer to that moment.

Wednesday 11/12/09: Darshan with Amma. Visited Amma's ashram in San Ramon: for an evening public session to be hugged by the most huggable person in the world. I'm accompanied on this visit by 2 French young women who are staying with us for the Fall as exchange students in the Bay Area. One is an art student, the other a therapist. They are willing to leave home in the middle of the afternoon for a 6+ hour adventure barely 1/2 hour from our house in Oakland to experience Amma's darshan. Part of the experience, not unlike the prep for a Grateful Dead concert, is getting there early, standing in line, being in another line; another lineup, this time in a chair where you'll sit during the first 2 1/2 hours of her evening's event; carousing around her center's outer buildings, dining hall and large meeting hall; waiting; eating some wonderful Indian food and drinking Chai; buying stuff in the marketplace around the perimeter of the hall; getting in the spirit of being in a South Indian ashram, and marvelling at how devoted her followers are. I've come here 6 times over the last 7 1/2 years and every face I remember is doing the same volunteer task - handing out tickets for the lineup to get darshan; controlling the aisles from the left side or the right side of the stage; offering information about the evening's program; helping others find seating, food, comfort. Most of the volunteers are wearing some form of Indian dress in white; some with pashmina shawls; some in saris - both American and Indian women; many with other signs of Indian spirituality - like the small beautiful seeded bracelets of sandlewood or rosewood. They are a constant and devoted bunch.

The meeting room ressembles a country church with balcony space on both sides and the rear, and seating on the main floor, surrounded on one side by a marketplace for Amma's books, videos and other Indian trinkets, and with educational information tables on the other.

When Amma arrives with her entourage she's royally greeted.  She makes her way down the center aisle, touched every now and again by those she passes by, feted with flowers and arrives at the stage where she's surrounded on a raised dais by a goodly number of beautiful Indian children and some of her spiritual devotees. One devotee then tells a  story of his life since he's met Amma - how she helped him understand that the only real change is from within - and how he's taken on her teachings. He's adopted her positive attitude of loving all and everything and it works.

Next comes an hour of singing bajans - spiritual songs of praise - praise to Ganesh, Shiva, Krishna, Mother Divine, the mother of all. Amma seems almost in a trance singing along with these hymns in Malalayam, Sanskrit, and other Indian dialects. The text of each song is displayed on monitors and the message of each song is the same: one of unconditional devotion to God/Mother. Amma is the all loving mother.

Then comes a guided meditation led by one of her students called simply Swami, then Amma's darshan. People in the hall get a little ticket when they arrive which determines their place in the line to get hugged by Amma. When a ticket range (typically 40 per letter-number combination) is done, numbers & letters on 2 posts either side of the room, are advanced and now that bunch gets to line up to be hugged. Not just lined up, but sat in chairs where you get to play an advanced form of musical chairs always moving forward to the goal. When you are within a couple chairs of the Amma, one of the volunteers makes sure to take your belongings & stow them; another asks your native language; a third asks: "are you single or with some one" - so as to efficiently organize the seekers. Finally you are on your knees, sitting on your heals and just behind someone who is being hugged. You move forward and basically fall into Amma's lap as she then cradles your head and chants something in Malayalam in your right ear. She looks at you a couple of times, squeezes you tightly and makes you feel like you are the most loved person in the world. She releases you and gives you a Hershey kiss or some other sweet. You stumble away.

A year before I hadn't seen Amma for several years. I wasn't feeling very good about my work, my company, my well-being in general. Not out of desperation, but rather the goal to divest myself of a certain despair, I decided to visit Amma. I needed to remember what it felt like to be loved by my mother, and she gave me that loving attention.And I haven't looked back since.  In a few short moments in her arms all pain desists, all worry vanishes, all fear is dispelled.  I felt one and only one thing: the love of my mother, of life, of God.  All the same, undifferentiated. 

Remembering, I feel strongly compelled to cry:  from the first moment I saw her that night, each subsequent visit, and even now when I'm writing, tears well up in my eyes.  Tears of joy.  Mother is home.

Friday, April 01, 2011

The Proust Questionnaire

Vanity Fair, the magazine, upholds a tradition on its last printed page: the Proust questionnaire.  The Proust Questionnaire is a questionnaire about one's personality. Its name and modern popularity as a form of interview is owed to the responses given by the French writer Marcel Proust.

Your favorite virtue:  Kindness

Your favorite qualities in a man/woman: Smiles, softness, forgivingness, insight

Your chief characteristic: optimistic blue eyes

What do you appreciate the most in Your friends: tolerence, patience

Your main fault: too quick to judge, quick tongue

Your favourite occupation: helping others

Your idea of happiness: tennis @ the Surf & racquet club, 8 am

Your idea of misery: wet shoes, uninvited cold weather, bad manners

If not yourself, who would you be?  Gandhi

Where would you like to live? In the sun

Your favourite color and flower? Blue, hyacinth

Your favorite prose authors: Flaubert, Theroux

Your favorite poets: Catullus, Baudelaire

Your favorite heros in fiction: Julien Sorel, Asterix le Gaulois

Your favorite heroines in fiction: Helen of Troy, Aphrodite

Your favorite painters and composers: Francis Bacon, Satie

Your heroes in real life: Wavy Gravy, FF Coppola, Dylan

Your favorite heroines in real life: my female companions

What characters in history do you most dislike: Hitler

Your heroines in world history: Joan of Arc

Your favorite food and drink: Truffles, Bordeaux

Your favorite names: Cassandra, Alphonse, Igor

What I hate the most: bad judgement, greed

What military event do you admire the most: D-Day Landing, Omaha Beach, 6/6/1944

The reform I most admire: recycling, the green movement

The natural talent I'd like to be gifted with: play the piano

How I wish to die: in bed, calmly

What is Your present state of mind: inspired, thrilled, a little scared

Faults for which you have the most indulgence: people's tardiness

Your favorite motto:  " I'm not always right, but I've never been wrong"

Most coveted posession: good health

Most overrated: affluence

Favorite historical person: JFK

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Flowers do the trick

I always used to give Annetta grief when she prompted me to buy her or someone else flowers.  "Please, please, my dear, please: put the crowbar away.  I don't need the reminder, thank you very much", is what I would say and then either act on the request or non-confront it.  About 50/50.

Over time I got better at heeding the requests, either subtle or direct, and found that flowers, candy and attention did get the job done & make my life better.

So last week I had 2 inspired moments, and flowers sealed the deal with both.

I left my fanny pack in a woman's car a week & 1/2 ago during a morning "casual commuting" ride into San Francisco from Oakland.  Lucky for me I had a bunch of my business cards in the pack, and when the wonderful woman (thank you Kiko!) noticed my fanny pack, she immediately called me up.  Her office is just a few blocks away from mine and the next day I met her at lunchtime to pick it up.  When she called the night before I offered to take her out to lunch, but she demurred.  Well, I know I'll come up with some good idea, I thought, and slept on it.  The next noon en route to her office I passed by a sidewalk florist: tulips!  A beautiful bunch of tulips indeed.  So when I met her, I greeted her, thanked her for returning my pack and whipped this bouquet of flowers from behind my back.  She blushed, smiled and my day was made.

Last Saturday I had another chance to thank someone for her good suggestions and directions and was certain that flowers would do the trick.  Nicole, my optomotrist, is very friendly, kind and quite humble.  She recently had suggested I visit an opthomamologist to check my field of vision and I followed her suggestions.  The results proved negative - the distortions in my field of vision are hereditary, not caused by some nerve damage - and I was really happy both for the reassuring results and the strong suggestion Nicole made for me to visit this doctor.  So I visited her store on Saturday and was able to see her before she had any appointments.  This time I had two bouquets of tulips.  After I greeted and thanked her for her great recommendation, I handed her the flowers.  She was at a loss for words.  She profusely thanked me and gave me a great hug.  I'm her's for life.

Yes, my dear, flowers do the trick.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

me and music

Takes all kinds of music to get me happy.

Music from New Orleans makes me feel happy, Hawaiian music makes me wanna jump on a plane, and Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings makes me want to curl  up into a ball and cry.  Sometimes I listen to a Bob Dylan tune - like "Tangled up in Blue"  or "Shelter from the Storm" and think I'm the protaganist: I'm Dylan on the road, heading to another joint.  Listening to the Dead makes me remember, no long for, friends we never see anymore, or rarely.  My nostalgia is fleeting, though, not manic.  Listening to Eric Satie makes me want to time travel back 100 years to Paris. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Cafe at Chez Panisse

The Cafe at Chez Panisse has always held memories for me: it was the place where I took my wife-to-be on our first date on the afternoon of December 31, 1985; it was the place where I heard Fritz Streif, the cafe's host in the 80's, regale myself and others with tales of just having flown over the still smoldering Mount St. Helens in May of 81, barely a month after the cafe opened; in its former days, pre-renovation in 1981, it was also known as the cafe, but didn't have its own kitchen, pizza oven - it was just a wet bar & service area with a number of tables for overflow from the restaurant, as well as for lunch & drink throughout the day & night.  Most of all, I remember the after hours parties in the "cabinet particulier", a six seat private dining room off the east side of the room about where the host is found in the current cafe.

But little does this past history matter now.  The people I drank and caroused around with at that time now have different entertainments, as do I.  But every now and again I have the desire to eat at Chez Panisse.  Usually we go there in December near or on my birthday for a Monday night dinner downstairs. Or occasionally for an anniversary lunch if we're around at the end of the year.  But last Saturday I took my wife and two friends who had never been to Chez Panisse for lunch and was incredibly impressed. 

I've only photographed my entree and dessert, but these pictures should tell the story:

 Halibut with buerre blanc et legumes

Then dessert: a bittersweet mousse au chocolat

The appetizers were great; the Acme upstairs bread was super; the wine exquisite; the service and timing were perfect, and the company great.  It was like falling in love all over again.  Again.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Books and Music of 2011 so far

1.  Karl Hiaasen: Star Island -
Brutally funny, ironic, predictable if you are acquainted w/ his writings, and well worth the time. But I suggest you wait until it comes out in paperback.  Lindsay Lohan meets Lady Gaga's body double in the swamp!  Check it out!!  You won't stop laughing, smirking, or imagining who his model for Cherry is (oops I done did it again).

2.  Jennifer Egan: A Visit from the Goon Squad -

Intelligently written; great first chapter introducing a cleptomaniac heroine; some great character study. Parts of the story, however, become lax, lazy, boring and easily anticipated.  Maybe a little too much of the author's own life?  I don't know. But its  a good vacation read, though not a feel good story by any means.

3.  Leon Russell: "Retrospective"-
It's easy to forget the music of the 70's, and also easy to remember it once you start listening to this cd.
Insipred by the purchase of his new collaboration with Elton John, The Union, 
I've started to listen to Leon Russell again.  Both disks are superb. From the first track on The Union, "If it wasn't for bad" to the end, no weak spots, save perhaps "When love is dying" which is just a little too repetitive, slow and depressing.

4.  Professor Longhair: "No buts no maybes" -
Great liner notes accompany these 28 tracks from the most expressive of New Orleans and early rock and roll's greatest piano players.  The combination of barrelhouse piano, rhumba beats, simple and repetitive licks, and unintelligible lyrics (at moments) wonderfully crooned makes for a life long party.

Ubuntu: Food for Fun!

Sunday, February 19, after a wonderful day at Indian Springs Spa in Calistoga

including a beautiful couple of rainbows as seen from their pool near sunset, we went to Ubuntu in Napa for dinner.

Simplicity rules.  The three of us: Annetta, Lisa (my stepdaughter) and myself, chose the $35 3 course prix fixe dinner 

First: a shot glass of mushroom broth with 1 slice of an exotic mushroom, then a deconstructed salad of
beets, radishes and avocado:

with avocado bacon (that tasted like bacon, but wasn't).  Crispy bits of sorrel and kale too added to this dish. I enjoyed a glass of Three Clicks Savignon Blanc with the amuse and the first course.

The second course was David Little's potatoes (beautiful little ones):

baked in kraut ash with kraut mousse and broth revived my sense of taste entirely.  These potatoes and the saurkraut were live with spirit.  A glass of cabernet sauvignon, lion’s run, “mount george,” napa valley, 2006 accompanied the entree.

The desserts were playful and beautiful as well: Annetta and Lisa had this chocolate construction,

and I had the White Chocolate with Lemon cream and pistachio ice cream,

The service was friendly, informed and great.  The ambiance is a little noisy and somewhat busy - its not a huge room, maybe seats 65? - and the music wasn't my favorite, but little did that matter.  What counted was the tastes, the smells, the touch of real food served with passion and a real sense of fun!

We look forward to returning soon.  Ubuntu rocks!  They serve locally sourced food, slowly cooked, but not slowly served.  And they suffer little of the pretension of other 1 star restaurants in the Napa Valley.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Calida Junctura: impassioned conjunction

Yesterday while shopping for books and a cd in Berkeley, 2 students besides me found the two most precious and absurdly opposite books of the same title in the shelves.

They were:  Miles Davis," Miles to Go "

and Miley Cyrus, "Miles to go"


This instance of calida junctura is not an example of twins separated at birth!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Meeting Johnny Moss 1989 - 1991

I often wonder if the current World Series of Poker Champion knows who Johnny Moss was or his import on the modern game of poker. To refresh your history, please read Al Alverez' The Biggest Game in Town
for an idea of Vegas before the mega-casinos. Alvarez' book, serialized in part in 2 issues of the New Yorker (!) in 1982, inspired me to play local poker tournaments in Northern California and then venture to the WSOP in 1989 for a first time.

I was a lowball player, as that was the only poker (along with 5 card draw) allowed in California in the 1980's. At that time the WSOP had about 20 events, and regularly would draw in the California lowball players by scheduling a $1500 Ace-to-Five (with joker) tournament on Kentucky Derby day. Attendance was pretty good at that time - almost 200 for the 89 event, almost as many as entered the main event that year.

I came to Vegas the day before the event to get a feeling of Binion's and the action around the tournament area and was totally overwhelmed. Just the sound of all those chips clacking throughout the 50 or so tables on the casino floor was deafening. Twenty or more tables were taken by the day's tournament; the rest dedicated to ring games & a smaller area with maybe 6 tables devoted to one table satellites for the next day's event.

I just watched. It was a lot to take in, and I didn't want to miss a thing. I signed up & paid for the next day's tournament & circulated among the tables. I recognized a few players I knew from California and kept pretty much a low key image.

I was up early the next morning - didn't sleep much or very well - and headed for the coffee shop downstairs to get reoriented. When I got into the elevator was when I first saw the lizard eyes of Johnny Moss. We were the only ones in the elevator. It wasn't his face, posture or age that told me something about all the poker hands he'd seen, but his eyes.

 His look went through me: heavy-lidded, revealing nothing. He was in his 80's at that time and had won the lowball event the year before. I kindly nodded to him and went on my way when we reached the casino floor. But I could never forget his look - like a snake about to coil. Unrepentant. Poised.

I didn't do anything great that year: finished about 100th of 200, but wasn't discouraged. I was in Vegas the next year at the WSOP & met Mr. Moss. He was playing a limit Omaha hi-lo tournament and signing copies of his book, "Champion of Champions" which his wife was selling. I respectfully waited for a break and had him autograph the book. "Play draw, Greg, that's the game for you", and promptly signed my copy of his book.

Over the next few years I returned to Binions and the WSOP, and Mr. Moss was still a fixture. Maybe he was a dottering old man to some; someone's grandfather in polyester out for a good time; or maybe, seemingly just one of the old pensioners playing out his Social Security money before month's end. But every poker player at any event at Binion's at one time or other ran into Mr. Moss and his stare. He may have been old, but he still had a spark of life in him

In 1991 I played with him for about an hour during the Hall of Fame lowball event and had the chance to play a hand against him. I opened with a great draw: Ace, two, three, five,X and opened the pot for a raise. He was in the big blind and everyone passed. He reraised me to $300 (we were probably playing 100-200 at the time). I shuddered and called. No cards said Mr. Moss; "I'll take 1 please". He checked, and I looked at the Jack I drew. "Jack", I said with an audible sigh. He opened up his hand and it was a worse Jack - like Jack, 10, 9, 8 5. I won the pot. I beat Johnny Moss in a pot!! I promptly stood up and bowed towards him. "Thank you Mr. Moss."