Sunday, July 27, 2008


I've been visiting my sister and brother-in-law this weekend, which means I'm in Las Vegas. I haven't been anywhere near the Strip; they live way out in the southwest quadrant, more or less on the way to Pahrump. When they moved out here they had to dig their own well, and neighbors were scarce; now, the city has moved much closer. But they still have a big, cool house on 5 acres of desert, which they've landscaped (mostly; there is a moderate lawn) to look like, well, desert. They have a small patch of ground devoted to half a dozen or so rescued desert tortoises, in three sizes; their yard is inhabited by wild rabbits and tiny ground squirrels, and two mellow dogs.

As Vegas goes, it isn't too hot, for July - it's been running from 95 to 105 degrees. It's supposed to go up another 5 degrees next week, but I'll be home before then. The weather station says the humidity is 20%, which doesn't sound like much - I'm used to 55% or so - but with these temperatures it's pretty muggy. My sister says the normal humidity is 5%.
Even with 20% humidity I can't keep my lips moist. But it's peaceful out here; quiet (except for the overflights from McCarran), little traffic noise, and the nearest things to look at are the Red Rock mountains, west and a little north. And the dogs, rabbits, and tortoises.

Heat like this rearranges your priorities; I normally work out on Sunday morning, and I've done it here before (they have some gym equipment), but today it would have been like doing situps in a steam room. I gave up. And you don't
just go out for a walk in this heat. It doesn't cool down much at night either - at 8:30 this morning it was already 89 degrees outside.

It's a different world from Oakland, where half the time the sun doesn't burn off the fog bank until noon, and I wear sweaters in the house in the morning.

My sister and her husband love the desert. Myself, I wouldn't want to live in a climate where the failure of the air conditioning unit is a life-threatening event. But I don't mind visiting, and checking in with my sister, my brother-in-law, the dogs, the rabbits, and the tortoises.

Monday, July 21, 2008


This is too much. Things have gone too far.

I normally enjoy Leah Garchik's daily column in the San Francisco Chronicle; it reminds me that people are still really strange. Today, however, she published a snippet that set me right back on my heels. You can read the entire column (don't miss the Public Eavesdropping section at the bottom), but I'll quote the section that stopped me:

Thanks to Monty Sander for calling my attention to a Napa Valley Register report about the four-course meal catered by Meadowood, listing such ingredients as Belgian endive and Kettle chips. Caterers told that newspaper that dinner was in "sandwich form," because organizers felt silverware could "pose a potential security threat to the President."

Excuse me? Readers of this blog know that I have my opinions about President Bush, and they're not especially complimentary; but I did assume he was capable of using a knife and fork. (Still, this is the man who choked on a pretzel while watching a football game...)

Or did they fear that one of the guests at this extremely exclusive and high end entertainment would grab an olive fork and have at him? This level of official paranoia surpasses anything I've ever heard. If I remember the news reports, this was a Republican Party fundraiser; it was a room full of people who were willing to give money to the GOP. And yet they served finger food, because "organizers" were afraid to have silverware available.

This is beyond embarrassing. Let's tell the world that the President of the United States is afraid of forks. Did they also use paper plates and cups, lest someone should break a glass or a plate and attack the President with the shards?

And I haven't even begun to consider the weirdness of a menu including both Belgian endives and Kettle Chips...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


I can't say I remember the Fifties from when they happened; when they happened, I was in grammar school. I remember the nuclear duck-and-cover drills (yeah, right. Even at the age of 11 I thought that was pretty weird.); I remember everyone freaking out over Sputnik. But most of the current events I read about, I got from Scholastic magazine, or whatever it was.

Later, I began to read about the Cold War, and the Communists, and the loyalty oaths, and the Hollywood blacklists, and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Anyone else remember HUAC? And Joe McCarthy? I thought you did.

In those halcyon days, you didn't need any proof to destroy a man's career. All you needed was an accusation - "He's a Commie." (Do we hear echoes of the Salem witch trials? We should.) At that point, the principle that the accused is innocent until proven guilty went out the window, and the accused was in the impossible position of trying to prove a negative. "You're a Commie." "No, I'm not." "Yes, you are." And then what? Usually, the accused ... lost his job. And didn't get another.

I'm thinking about all this because of the appalling cover on the New Yorker, showing Michelle Obama in fatigues and an ammo belt, and Barack Obama in a turban and robe, doing what Fox News really did call a "terrorist fist-jab." (Note to Michelle: next time, do a high five.) No, I don't think the New Yorker really thinks Barack Obama is a Muslim terrorist. I also don't think the New Yorker staff devoted any thought to the fact that there's a small (I hope it's small) but visible group of uninformed people out there who really do think that Barack Obama is a Muslim terrorist. Or, at least, a Muslim. I heard one of them being interviewed on NPR, just the other day - a member of "Latinas for McCain."

I can't find it right now, but I read someone quoting BHO telling some idiot interviewer that it isn't an insult to call someone a Muslim; and I wanted to cheer. One of the things that encourages me about his campaign is the web site, - he's actually trying to fight the rumors about him with facts. Wotta concept: a Presidential candidate who thinks he can reason with the American people. I hope he's right.

What is it about us as a society, that makes us create some Awful Thing to fear, and then accuse people we don't like of being part of the
Awful Thing, so that they're in the position of having to prove - that they are innocent. Our legal system says, we have to prove the accused is guilty. But we don't believe it, or at least we don't act like we believe it. Witch. Royalist. Kraut (WWI). Nazi (WWII). Commie. And now - Muslim terrorist. (Disclaimer: there was no attempt to make this a complete list.) And once the accusation is raised, it's up to the accused to convince us, who already believe it, that we're wrong.

We'd be much nicer people if we didn't behave this way. And I don't think we'd be any less safe.

But next time - do a high five.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Tanker Contract

So - the contract for the Air Force's tanker plane is up for rebid? Despite already having been awarded twice, once to Boeing and once to Northrop Grumman/EADS?

Let's leave aside for a minute the issue of whether the Air Force can manage the business affairs of a hot dog stand in the park, and talk about this plane, for which they propose to spend $35 billion dollars. Why do they need this plane? (A question nobody ever seems to ask.)

The purpose of this plane is to allow mid-air refueling of other airplanes; it is a refueling tanker. Why do we need to refuel planes in mid-air? Isn't that dangerous, and can't they land to refuel?

There was a time when we thought we needed to refuel airplanes in mid-air; it was a long time ago. Back in the good old days of Mutually Assured Destruction, we kept bombers, loaded with nuclear missiles, in the air around the clock; this was so we would be able to retaliate against Russia (sorry, the U.S.S.R.; but a lot of us called it "Russia" just the same) in case it were somehow able to land a nuclear missile on an American city. Since these bombers were in the air around the clock, of course, refueling them in mid-air was a good idea; then they'd never have to land.

So - it's 2008. The U.S.S.R. is gone. Russia is still there, but it's more interested in selling natural gas to Europe, and bullying the neighbors, than in shooting nuclear missiles at the U.S. We've even spent a lot of the years between then and now, destroying nuclear weapons in Russia and here, by mutual agreement.

You tell me why we need to spend $35 billion we don't have on a new refueling tanker.

The Brown Moon

Driving home last night from a "summer sing-in" (I'll explain later), I saw a quarter moon in the sky, a waxing crescent. It was brown. The sky has been brown all week, too, because of all the fires in California; once or twice I've even smelled smoke, and I think the nearest fire is now around 100 miles away (the Basin Complex fire in Big Sur).

And it's only July. It's going to be a bad summer.

Oh, yes, "summer sing-in" - the Oakland Symphony Chorus, in which I sing second alto, does these for 6 weeks every summer. For a modest fee, you can show up at a local church on Tuesday night, borrow a score, and sing classical music, conducted by a professional conductor and accompanied by a pianist. Of course, if you own the score (some people do), you can bring your own copy. No auditions, and no requirement that you've ever sung the piece before; if you want to come and sight-read the Bach B Minor Mass (Tuesday August 5), go for it. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area and are interested, details are here. It's our 50th anniversary season and we'd love to have you.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Staying in Yellowstone

I'll tell you one thing you should not try to do, your first night staying at 7,800 feet. You should not try to sing. Yellowstone Lake Hotel has a pianist who tears off old favorites every evening in the lobby during the season. I went down the first night, and when she got to "I Left My Heart In San Francisco", I felt that the honor of the Bay Area required me to sing along, so I did. By the time I finished it, I was so dizzy I could barely stand. There isn't enough air in the air up there! And we'd spent a couple of days around 5,000 feet, to try to get acclimated; but with asthma, you just don't have the reserves...

There are places in Yellowstone where cell phones work - I saw a lot of people using cell phones at Old Faithful Lodge, although I never could get a signal - but Yellowstone Lake Hotel has no cell phone service. Zero, zilch, nada. No television, either; no ESPN in the bar there. People talk, or read, or play cards, or do jigsaw puzzles; I saw one couple with a folding Scrabble set. Or, you can just sit and look out the window; the scenery's pretty spectacular, after all.

Yellowstone Lake Hotel is a very nice, modern hotel (built in 1891, but thoroughly updated) and they keep it warm, which must cost them a fortune, because it doesn't, as I recall, have double pane windows! (Not that thoroughly updated...) We all became aware of that on Saturday afternoon when they blew out a transformer, and it took them until about 2 AM to get the power back on. For some reason about a third of the lights still worked; but no heat, and it was in the low thirties outdoors, and the lobby is a very large space with big windows on every wall, and glass doors. By the time dinner was over it was getting pretty nippy in the lobby.

Unfortunately, that was one of the nights we had dinner reservations at the Lake Hotel. We learned later that the Hotel kitchen, as you would expect, has gas ranges; but the exhaust hoods are all electric, and they, of course, were down. This happens occasionally during summer thunderstorms, and they have a limited menu that they cook outdoors on charcoal grills; but on this evening "outdoors" was around 32 degrees, so everything they cooked came to the table cold. On paper plates (no dishwasher). And you couldn't charge the meal to the room (no computer; the waiters were going nuts trying to keep track of the orders manually). The spinach and duck breast salad was pretty good even if the meat was cold; but I also ordered a grilled portobello mushroom cap. It came to the table entirely cold, and covered with soy sauce. I haven't been able to look a portobello mushroom in the eye since... It was really sad, because this is supposed to be the best kitchen in Yellowstone; but they weren't at their best. (We ate there 2 nights later and it was excellent.)

We were out and missed it, but I gather the power went out again Sunday morning during breakfast - and there was no coffee! A ghastly thought.

I assumed, going to a national park, that we'd be hiking, right? Wrong. We didn't have snow hiking equipment (although I had my trekking poles); but worse than snow is what happens when it thaws - cold, slushy mud. Furthermore, we got to Yellowstone much earlier than we anticipated - Yellowstone Lake had just thawed earlier that week, and the ranger-led hikes didn't begin for another week or two. So we spent most of our time driving around, and getting out for an occasional photograph or nature trail. In any case, I always have to be reminded that you can't just go out and hike in these parks because of the bears - you have to be in a group of at least 5, because no group of 5 or more has ever been attacked by bears. We saw bears, too, suitably far away. No solo hikes here.

You drive a lot in Yellowstone because the place is huge. I mentioned in my last post that it's 40 miles from Yellowstone Lake Village to Old Faithful. That's the short route. The long route is 60 miles, and all of both routes are entirely inside the park, and they're both in the southern half of it. We spent much of this trip in the southern half, going up and down the Hayden Valley looking for wildlife, with a couple of excursions to Canyon and Yellowstone Falls. We saw lots of bison, several elk, but no moose this time around. The bison think they own the road; they walk right down the yellow line. I'm not sure why, but I don't remember seeing any small ground mammals at Yellowstone - no squirrels, ground squirrels, or rabbits, just lots of birds (including, I regret to say, a record number of Canada geese) and the big critters.

We got up ungodly early on Sunday morning for a "photo safari" with one Doug Hilborn, and spent the morning wandering around in a van, looking for critters to photograph. I learned that the reason I rarely see any wildlife is that I don't get up early enough - at 8 o'clock in the morning the place is hopping with elk and bison, including babies - I'd never seen a bison calf before, they're much cuter than the adults. I only saw one elk calf, and it was a sad and sobering incident: they were away across the valley, and someone said there were wolves. We broke out the binoculars and found ourselves watching a small pack of wolves take down the elk calf - one minute it was there, and then the cow was chasing a black wolf down the hill and the calf was nowhere to be seen. The 2 wolves that weren't black were nowhere to be seen either, at least with my binoculars; I clearly saw their tails in the guide's spotting scope, but their camouflage is astounding. We also spent some time watching a grizzly and her yearling cub work on some kind of carcass - they were just over the crest of a hill from us and we couldn't see what they had, but we could see them stand up occasionally. There was a whole congregation lined up along the road with binoculars and telephoto lenses watching the bears. We did the customary visit to Artists' Point to photograph the astounding colors in the lower canyon of the Yellowstone, but the animals were what made
it great for me.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Vacation Weather

You normally assume, making your vacation reservations in February, that the weather in June will be good. We assumed that. And oh, my, were we wrong. The week before we left, my husband checked the Wyoming weather and said, "Wait a minute. There's 42 inches of snow still in Yellowstone." Wasn't it supposed to be summer by now? With this warning, I packed a sweater, a fleece pullover, and several long-sleeved shirts. And wool socks (a good call!).

It was raining when we got into Elko; the next morning when we left, it was raining even harder, and it was snowing maybe 500 feet above us. As we drove through the rain we could see the new snow accumulating on the hills above the town, below a very low cloud ceiling. It was an omen, but we didn't realize it. The rain (and a fiendish cross wind) chased us all the way across Utah (and through the Salt Lake City commute traffic; really bad timing!) to Brigham City.

The drive through Utah and Idaho into Wyoming was generally pretty; I especially liked Logan Canyon. With the bluff tops wreathed in cloud, and its limestone walls cracked into squared off sections and punctuated with pine trees, it looked like the model for a Japanese or Chinese woodblock print, just gorgeous. As we got to the Tetons, it began to rain seriously again, just as the roads deteriorated. Of course, since the speed limit in Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks is 45 MPH, the rain didn't delay us much.

The parking lot at Yellowstone Lake Hotel was slushy, with 4 foot high heaps of old snow, but the roads were clear and so was the sky, so we settled in and made an early dinner reservation for the Old Faithful Inn, the next night. Old Faithful is about 40 miles from the Lake, and the shortest route crosses the Continental Divide twice. We didn't think about that much, but as we began to climb Craig Pass, it started to snow; and then the snow started to stick; and then the snow started to stick to the road. By the time we got to Old Faithful, the ground was entirely covered and the snow was starting to pile up; and we began to wonder about getting back. We had our reservations, though, so in we went for dinner, shaking snow off.

Most of you know that I'm a native Californian; more, a native Bay Arean. Snow is not my thing. I was beginning to get pretty uncomfortable, especially when the folks at the Old Faithful Inn told us the Park Service had just closed the road over Craig Pass, and also one of the only other routes back to the Lake. But there we were, so we had dinner, which I spent peering out the window to see if it was still snowing. Around dessert, it did quit, and by then the word was that the Park Service was plowing the roads, so we went out and watched the geyser; and when we came back in and checked, they'd opened Craig Pass. So we got in the car and headed back to the Lake, before they changed their minds; and it started to snow again, and then the snow began sticking to the road again...

My husband did the driving; he grew up in Wisconsin, and snow doesn't bother him. He said later it wasn't that bad; but as I told him, he was in control. I was sitting in the passenger seat watching the visibility get worse by the minute, and I was pretty damn nervous. In the last couple of miles before we got to the Lake, we couldn't see the sides of the road; we were following a flat space in the snow, and a single pair of tire tracks from a car that can't have been more than 10 or 15 minutes ahead of us. I wasn't cold; I had plenty of layers on; but I kept wondering, if something did go wrong, how long it would take anybody to find us. There is no cell phone reception in that section of Yellowstone. I was amazingly glad to see that hotel.

I talked to at least one man, also staying at Yellowstone Lake Hotel, who had stayed overnight at Old Faithful rather than drive back - I hate to think what that cost him.

The next morning, they said the storm dropped two and a half inches of snow. On June 6.

That storm was actually the worst of it. It snowed several more times while we were in Yellowstone (and thawed twice, too), but never as much again. Snow covered fields make it much easier to spot wildlife; sporadic snowstorms make photography very iffy. (Take my advice: don't try to photograph a geyser going off in a snowstorm. Even with digital, it's not worth the effort.) But we also had some bright, sunny weather, which melted the new snow with amazing speed.

When we left the park on Tuesday morning, the park was snowy and covered with heavy clouds, but on the other side of the pass it was clear, sunny and windy. It was great weather for photographing the little herd of bighorn sheep right by the road (including 3 lambs), and the herd of bison (with seven calves!). We stayed in Bozeman, Montana that night, and the next morning we had to knock half an inch of snow off the car, but the snow wasn't sticking to the road, so on we went, over the Continental Divide again at Butte, and that was the last snow that fell on us. We saw plenty of snow in Glacier National Park but the weather was clear and windy.

We had one last "snow effect" - Jim hadn't bothered to check the status of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, in Glacier National Park. He'd planned to go into the park at West Glacier and take
Going-to-the-Sun Road across the park to Many Glaciers Lodge, where we were staying. Of course it'd be open; it's June. In Missoula, Montana, where we stayed a couple of days between national parks, we learned that the Going-to-the-Sun Road might reopen in July. Maybe. Late July. So we suddenly had to drive an extra 80 miles or so...

I just checked the road status:
Going-to-the-Sun Road is completely open, as of July 2. They don't say how long it's been open, or whether they got it clear in time for the scheduled 75th anniversary celebration on June 27. I guess it must be summer now.