Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Cali, Day 13, San Francisco

"This has been the perfect summer!" I've said more than once to the girls when some coincidence, like their day camp bus breaking down and bringing them home just five minutes after I rushed in late from the store, worked in our favor. I know full well my perception is skewed to the good this year, thanks to a confluence of chemicals (Mommy's) and maturation (the girls' and, well, Mommy's) and positive imagery (more about that later), but what's the harm in a little private hyperbole?

But really, could you design a more perfect couple of days than the first two we spent as a family in San Fran?

Like most mornings in this unfamiliar time zone, I woke Thursday before Randy and the girls and like most mornings in these beautiful and unfamiliar places, I tied on running shoes as quietly as I could and snuck out the door to go throw myself at a sprint into the newness.

One mile from Ghiradelli Square to the art deco Coit Tower wreathed in fog. Tai chi octogenarians kicking their legs up in the air to waist height made me vow to pick up their practice and be as lively in my retirement.

(Which brings up the question of the strange problem of the stay-at-home-mom's vacation. "The beach is beautiful and all," I told Randy a few Friday nights ago, "but that's where I go on a work day with the kids. You know what I find really relaxing? Meeting my friend Kerry at the gym and talking about teaching and books as fast as we can in the couple of hours we've got, rar-rar-rar-rar," my hands making chatting motions at each other, "and then rushing home and I'm all ahhh."

(And dear husband, who works with grown-ups all day, and who would be the recipient of all my rar-rar-rar Relaxation on this trip, said the equivalent of "Hm."

(Actually, he wasn't the sole recipient - we've had great visits with old friends in Cali: Jim Rodney and Greg Grubbs in LA, Scott Cotner the daredevil skier and Coachella fire-statue constructor and his fiancĂ©e Kendra last night at the Top of the Mark, along with dear Young Koo, who apparently had my husband singing "Don't Go Chasing Waterfalls" at karaoke after I took the girls home - haven't heard the whole story yet. And there was a beautiful afternoon and evening in Carmel Valley with dear old friends Nadene and Jim Dermody and their whipsmart sixth-grader Declan. Jim's mad for Steinbeck and during the five years he was my department head at Gordon Tech in Chicago, he'd spend every summer in Monterey and come back lamenting Illinois's miserable winters. We all had a bit of a crush on him, he was such a kind, funny, soft-spoken but fiercely loyal boss. I thought he was entrenched at GT after thirty-something years of dutiful service, but he fell in love with his new hire Nadene the band director and they ran off to Salinas to make their dreams come true. Now Nadene is the principal and superintendent at the Lagunita School that Steinbeck wrote of in The Red Pony. Jim's going to celebrate 45 years in teaching soon, Declan is a charmer and my heart's about to bust with happiness for them all.

(Over dinner I told Jim and Nadene I had renewed my teaching certificate and started applying for substitute jobs in our district. Nadene offered me a job on the spot. Now all I need is the eleven years before our youngest graduates New Trier and to get Randy on board and California! Here we come again! For good this time.)

Back to my walk. The path down off Telegraph Hill is down twisty and steep flights of wooden and rock and then concrete steps, past sweet and neat cottages and wild gardens. A starbursty type of purplish-blue allium is in flower right now. An impossible cliff face to my right as the steps cease near the Levi's offices.

A waterfront run past piers and the Alcatraz ferry that we will not take because two mere weeks out was insufficient planning. Giant sculptures, the Ferry building, antique restored electric streetcars from Boston and Illinois and Italy remind me of the one named Desire.

Back at the hotel, a quick shower, I cannot cannot dress myself in the warm brown cords I brought, just cannot share the tourist look, so one of my recycled dresses from Santa Monica and tights and we hop in a cab. The sun is out.

"MOMA," I tell the cab driver and he drops us off at a street corner with a line of young and pretty people waiting to get their names on the list for brunch. I'm looking around for the museum while Randy is realizing the diner is called "Momma's." So the rest of the day we're making up misheard cabbie instructions, "Sir, I said The Fairmont, not The Bare Mount!"

Cindy Sherman has a fabulous show at our realized destination. The girls are into it. Their favorite photo subject has been themselves since Dad got them the little digital cameras the day before we left. There's a collection on the theme of theatricality with odd set pieces and short films the girls like - two men dressed in a rat and a panda bear costume traipsing around Swiss landscapes and a woman with an empty laundry detergent bottle taped to her face throwing paint at herself.

"My next Halloween costume," I whisper to the girls.

"Mom, no, that's so embarrassing!" My seven year old is growing up.

Fortifying snacks at the museum cafe (what a city! vegan soup everywhere!) Another cab ride across town to the Exploritorium in the magnificent Palace of Fine Arts, whose design is from the Pan-Pacific Exposition, but whose concrete construction out of molds from the original dates only from the sixties. Inside, hundreds of hands-on exhibits on physics and chemistry and optics and astronomy and chaos systems keep the girls and Randy and me enthralled. Fantastic. My favorite? Watching a minutely calibrated scale measure the fading weight of a tiny beaker of water as evaporation occurs! Whoa!

We just scratched the surface when hunger hit so on to the Embarcadero and the Ferry Building, a mall for foodies, where Acme Bread Company, Cowgirl Creamery and lots of other yum yum vendors tempt us. We have lunch at the Market Bar, then I buy some stone fruit and at Miette, some candy, macarons and two six-inch cake pans, one with a rounded top, another with a dropout bottom, for family birthday cakes.

We take one of the antique streetcars home, crowded and less pretty inside than on the outside, but I am entertained by the kid next to me on his cell phone and his story about meeting a Spanish girl and going to prayer meeting with her, not understanding a word, but sharing "the feeling of it."

I need to get out of the squish on the streetcar so we get off at Pier 39 and do touristy stuff for a couple of hours - oogle sea lions and a sword juggler, giggle our way through a mirror maze, play antique games at the Musee Mechanique.

We have dinner at Bistro Boudin after I quiz one of the bakers about their original starter (yes, it's only water, flour and salt; the naturally occurring yeast comes from the unique wet and cold conditions of the region; no, they don't use additional yeast; and yes, the starter is from the original - that was saved in a bucket from the 1906 post-earthquake fire!)

The next day we would cross the Golden Gate Bridge, have a retro lunch at the waterfront institution The Spinnaker in Sausalito, Ooo and Aah at the neighborhoods of house boats, cavort on beautiful Muir Beach, and explore WW2 era bunkers on a cliff. Mia will spy a woodpecker. A perfect couple of days? Just about.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Cali, Day 8, Big Sur

I'm nestled in the warm sand at the top of a steep bare dune at the point where a carpet of gorsey-heathery flowering succulents takes over the slope. Mia and Nora leap, run and roll down the hill below me, laughing. Above and behind me the shrubs stretch up to the bluest sky.

Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur-Pfeiffer State Park. How did we get here? There's a geographical answer and a narrative one and they both feel like adventures. The road to the beach is a single lane through a ferny redwood valley. Randy hugged the side of the road as we squeaked past cars going out. The turnoff has no sign and we missed it and almost missed it again after three different sets of directions and a warning from a sunburned guy at the gas station, "There's a line of thirty cars waiting for spaces in the lot. You better rethink it."

I will not be denied.

"Worth it!" I called to Randy when we emerged from the shady path onto the beach. The rocky stream we'd been following empties into a brackish pond in the dunes, deep enough for boys to swim. Over the strand, thrilling waves crash. Rock island fortresses lie just off shore and we squeal at the waves breaking through the natural arches at their base. A magical place.

We follow the curvy beach around a promentory to another long stretch facing west.

Globs and tangled blobs of ropey greeny-gold seaweed huddle on the sand. Mermaid hair. Nora picks up the kind with a cylindrical tube attached to a veiny leaf and uses it to draw pictures in the wet sand. "It's a pen!" There are thin white strands like dental floss and long grassy clumps and my favorite, huge hookah pipes with a round bulb bigger than your fist on the end.

At the end of the beach, where the flat sandy floor meets a steep rock face, we find another riparian valley lined with cypress. We step out of the sun, away from the roar of the surf. It's quiet and the sand is cool and soft under my feet. I see a path up through the trees and scramble up rocks in my flipflops. A ray of light from the afternon sun lights the way. The view at the top is lovely but I most loved the journey, climbing in the path of light through the forest toward the clifftop.

What are you going to spend your life remembering? What are you going to spend your precious time and energy noticing? I want this afternoon forever.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Cali, Day 7, Madonna Inn

The Madonna Inn, in San Luis Obisbo, should not work. It is the kind of place that I would expect people to describe, "Oh, you should have seen it in its heyday. The rooms were lovely and unique, the restaurants had great service and fabulous food and there was even a big band on weekends that played "Brazil" and "Tenderly" and couples would come from all over to dance. Real dancing, too, with actual steps. And the pool had a 45 foot waterfall coming down the mountain. And the waitresses at the Copper Cafe wore starched uniforms, the cakes were mile high and there was pink sugar shakers on every table."

That's what they're supposed to say, followed by a lament about how run down it's become and these kids today, they don't care about nothin'.

But I'm finding myself saying only the good stuff, dancing a tango with Nora on the crowded dance floor, scarfing a big ol' piece of Pink Champagne cake and gaping at how nice our "Fox and Hound" suite is. Yes, there are decorative rifles in the wall and an excess of hunter green and pattern, pattern everywhere, but it's also clean and fun, like the ottoman done up in fake fur and plaid.

And there is that smell in the air, that clean smell that the air took on somewhere outside of Santa Barbara, when the plant life overcomes the dominance of the internal combustibles and each breath feels like an inhalation of something clean and scrubbed and delicious.

"This is my favorite place we've been so far," says Mia, a paper rose as big as a dinner plate over her head. "I want to come back here for my tenth birthday!"

I'll post pictures later when I figure out how to make Blogger and my iPhone talk to each other.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

California, Day 4, Santa Monica

"Look, Mom! Another man in his robe!"

He's the second gray-haired guy we've seen walking thus around the lobby of the Lowes. Entitled studio execs? Midwestern tourists embedding themselves in LA casual? Or just lifelong Angelenos who live the easy vibe?

Then there are the barefoot girls in bikinis walking around who make me think of John Updike's "A & P" and from there I must go to "Hello (bing) there, you (gung) hap-py pee-pul (splat!)"

A trapeze course on the beach below our window gives us a show, men swinging against the afternoon sun, grabbing ring to ring to ring in wide spiraling orbits.

We rented two tandum bikes this morning, per dear friend Kate's suggestion, and wobbled our way to Venice. Found a couple of picture-perfect streets lined with bouganville, wild gardenia and sweet shingled cottages. Had lunch under the arches of the Sidewalk Cafe in the last of the Venitian-style buildings put up by Abbot Kinney at the turn of the century. Next door was Small World Books, one of those beautiful endangered species of indpendent bookstores with crowded aisles, hand-written recommendations and  a sleeping tabby in the biography section. We got maps and some new Mo Willems and old Jon Muth but had to stop when my backpack reached capacity. Need to throw out some of those theme park flyers.

I've got nothing against Legoland where we spent much of yesterday, well, except for the sexist marketing and the weapons-toting characters, but what do you expect, Cindy? The "factory tour" exhibit made it clear everything there has a Plastic origin. I give them points for being Danish but after visiting three theme parks in two days, my appreciation of the Disney attention to detail is renewed yet again. The workers meticulously pruning trees at our hotel, the guy touching up the scuff marks on the teacup-shaped armchairs in the lobby, the button on our bedside table that turned on a hidden light display of fireworks in the castle scene on our headboard, the Fastpass system that takes us to the front of lines as a reward for merely planning ahead, I love it all.

Not that they have every kink worked out - at our Blue Bayou dinner, despite a lovely ersatz setting under Chinese lanterns and a faux moon occasionally hidden by light projected clouds, three different eager but confused waiters appeared at out table, including one who asked if we were ready for our check before the food arrived. I quibble.

I felt an earthquake last night. It shook the bed a moment or two, long enough to make a widow cry, remembering the way he used to crawl in next to her.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Cali, Day 2

A beautiful moment when the fog lifts. The snatch of blue sky behind shreds of morning grey turns from promise into the endless sunshine of a southern California day.

Woke early early, time change early and ran barefoot on Laguna Beach, a fleet light-breathed run, feeling very alive. Sea foam at my feet as soft as cool cream. Feeling a dear connection to another beach on the same ocean eight hundred miles south. Feeling ready to forgive a dear spouse's drunken anger last night because my desire to sleep butted up against his need to witness Curiosity. The easy forgiveness spurred by a dinner last night in a place called The Top Of The World where the view is forever and the amiable party included divorced couples and their new partners, their children, friends, hors d'oeuvres-stealing dogs and a general air of good will, grace and gratitude. Bygones were bygones and let it be so the rest of this trip via our small Camry and its annoyingly user unfriendly GPS.