Friday, October 15, 2010

No longer at this address.

This blog is now closed. Please go to my new site:

Friday, June 18, 2010

10 More Underrated Pleasures

A few weeks back I wrote a post on underrated pleasures of life. These are the little things that help me slow down and appreciate life, no matter how fast paced it may get. Soon, I began noticing many more.

With that, here are 10 more underrated pleasures for your enjoyment:

1. Hand washing the dishes. I have a dishwasher, but there are times when I'd rather plunge my hands into warm, soapy water and do them myself. I don't rush through it. Instead, I focus on each dish and spend extra time ensuring that it's completely clean in a way that the dishwasher can't manage. There's something about holding up a wine glass and watching it catch the light that brings pleasure like nothing else.

2.  Sitting with a cup of coffee. Mornings in general are an underrated pleasure. No matter what time we have to get to work, many of us cut it too close to be able enjoy a few moments of silent contemplation before plunging into the rush of the day. I once got a yoga tape that included a "coffee asana." This involved holding the cup in both hands, deeply inhaling the rich aromas. Now that's my kind of yoga!

3. Dinner conversation with family. I read a horrifying statistic recently that said that only 30% of families have a sit down dinner together more than once a week. When I was a kid, we had dinner (or actually "supper") as a family every single night without fail. I guess I'm in a time warp, as this is still how my husband and I do it. It's like a punctuation mark at the end of each day.

4. Grocery shopping. There's shopping--the one most of us know too well, involving rushing down the aisle of the local Safeway and grabbing all of our usual, tried-and-true items--and then there's shopping. This is the one where you stop and take note of what you are buying, testing the weight of a cantaloupe, chatting with the butcher about the best cut of beef, and taking the time to ensure you've found the freshest sourdough baguette in the basket. To me, the difference is like night and day.

5. Sorting the recycling. Another "chore" that gets short shrift. Where I live, there are raccoons about, which means we can't put the garbage out the night before the truck arrives. If we do, the next morning we see our entire week's worth of trash strewn along the pavement. Instead, we rise early on Monday mornings and put all of it out then. I used to hate it. The smelly, fishy cat food cans, the soggy papers, the dirty recycling bins. Then one day I noticed how incredibly crisp the air is at that early hour. Fog drifts onto the street and mingles with the first sun rays of sun, turning every tree branch and rooftop luminous.

6. Clicking "no" to an invite. If you're like me, you get invited to a lot of random events through Facebook. Flattered, I often click the "maybe" button in the hope that somehow I'll fit in that extra networking event, birthday party, product release, handcar regatta, wine tasting or other meetup that I know full well isn't going to fit into my already packed schedule. The word "no" seems so final. But that's exactly what's right about doing it. Taking this step requires bravery, but in doing so, our world settles down. No more penciled-in, half-assed dates on the calendar. The joy of simplicity.

7. Listening to stuff. It's so tempting to wrap oneself in a cocoon of "chosen" sounds. In the car, we blast music or news. As we walk down the street, Pandora pipes our favorite tunes through iPhone earphones. Steve Jobs hath bestowed upon us this magical ability. But once in awhile, I decide to go the opposite way and let it all in. There's something anarchic and wild in the cacophony of street sounds. So much of what we call "noise pollution" can be music if we listen without judgment: the motorcycle engine rev as it blasts past us in traffic, the baby crying in the airplane, the click-click of a turnstile, the vroom of the bus. Even the tinny sounds issuing from others' earphones can be an accompaniment to one's day.

8. Sour food. Why is it that everything we eat and drink nowadays is judged by its level of sweetness? Maybe because sugar is added to so many products. Or perhaps we're all stuck in a perpetual childhood. Whatever the reason, it's rare, in the U.S. at least, to hear someone extol the wondrous sourness of something they just ate. But sour is one of the most basic tastes; our taste buds were specially designed to recognize it. To me, there's almost nothing better than biting into a slice of Meyer lemon, eating a spoonful of homemade yogurt, sipping a lemony soup, or eating one of those salty, sour Umeboshi plums they sell in Asian markets.

9. Doing something you're bad at. There's all kinds of reasons to pursue activities we are good at doing. Oftentimes, this is the key to success. But I've found immense pleasure in attempting stuff I'm bad at. I can't draw. I'm not a good dancer. As much as I love doing them, I pretty much suck at New York Times crossword puzzles. If you know you're bad at something, this gives you freedom. You can fall on your face. Make an utter fool of yourself. And if anyone criticizes, you can just laugh it off--you knew you were bad at it in the first place!

10. Board games. OK OK I can hear you saying now that I'm turning this post into little more than a nostalgia trip into days gone by when the kids played Monopoly while the grownups drank cocktails, puffed on their pipes and played whist around a rickety, card table covered in cheap baize. But to me, there's something amazing about playing a game that requires absolutely no mobile phone, PC, Macbook or other electronic involvement. Picking up that metal car with one's hand and moving it around the squares without punching a single button. Heaven.

What are your underrated pleasures of life? I'd be very interested to hear, so please feel free to leave them in the comments field.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Pollsters miss the point on the economy (and everything else)

This past weekend our household was contacted by Gallup for a poll they were conducting on the nation's sense of health and well being. At first, it was exciting. I'd never talked to a pollster before, and I happen to know that it's a small handful of Americans who are chosen to participate.

The young woman on the phone asked me a lot of questions. They were all about me and how I was feeling. Who wouldn't want that kind of call on a Sunday afternoon? It was like getting a free therapy session. The first question had an almost hypnotic effect on me.

"Imagine that your life is a stairway," she said, her tone low and melodious. "At the very top step is the best life you could be having, that's a 10. The bottom step is your worst life, a one. What step are you on?"

I didn't want to seem cocky, so I said "nine." I could see myself standing there, on the ninth step. One foot was already lifting and getting ready for the top of the stairs. As if reading my mind, the pollster asked me which step I saw myself headed towards.

"Ten!" I said, feeling the elation spread through me.

After that, things started to take a turn for the worse. It was like going back to elementary school. I was being quizzed. There were all sorts of questions designed to see if I felt squeezed financially. Then there were the rather intrusive health questions. How many days in the past week had I eaten five or more servings of fruits and vegetables? Had I exercised? How often? Was it for 30 minutes or longer?

I tried to explain that I hadn't expected to receive such a call, and so I had paid no attention to these details. She hid any disappointment she might have had. She asked a question that I could tell was considered a key indicator according to nice people at Gallup.

"Do you have enough time to get the things done that you need to do?"

A long pause ensued. This was, for me, an unanswerable question. If I said "yes," then that meant I  had bought into the presupposition that somehow time was an external factor over which I had no control. If I said "no," then that implied the same thing--only now I was admitting that time had taken such a toll on me that I was failing to keep up with its demands.

Either way, I was trapped. I would be accepting the belief--widely held in this culture, of course--that time is our enemy. It takes away our ability to get things done. How does it do this? Why, it runs out, of course! Like the hourglass in The Wizard of Oz, it drops, one blood red grain of sand at a time, until we have none left. We couldn't do those things that we wanted to do, because time took them away from us. Sneaky bugger.

But of course, this is completely wrong. It's a subjective belief, not an external reality. In fact, the more we believe that time is our problem, the more of a problem it becomes. As Professor Philip Zimbardo explains in this video, people in different cultures experience time in all kinds of ways. In the U.S., we are more "time crunched" than ever. His research found that Americans were admitting that they sacrificed friends, family and sleep in order to get more things done.

Here's the mindblowing part. They then asked people, "suppose you had an eight day week? What would you do with that extra day?" The answer? They would spend that time achieving more. Working harder. Not spending time with friends and family. Not even sleeping more.

There's yet another unexamined assumption buried in that pollster's innocent sounding question. It is the idea that there are things that I "need" to do.  Reasonable enough, on the surface. I'm a functioning member of society. I need to work, earn a living, take care of my home, take care of my family, and so on. But when you take a step back from it, there's a strong implication there that life is essentially made up of activities we just have to do. We're like walking lists, endlessly checking things off of ourselves and then adding more as we go.

Just as with the idea of time, this implies a victim mentality. I am robbed of choice. I don't choose to do things. I just do them, because I must. In fact, the question wouldn't work if they allowed for the presupposition that our lives are our own.

Imagine if she had asked: "do you have the time to do the things you choose to do?"

It sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? If I choose to do things, then of course I'll make time to do them. Otherwise, I wouldn't be choosing them in the first place. Here's a radical thought. What if we chose to do everything we did? What if all these things we say we "need" to do were just stuff we convinced ourselves we had to do? As Deepak Chopra once noted--the goal of our lives should be to do less and achieve more. Ultimately, the goal is to do nothing and achieve everything.

I'm not saying that Gallup is biased. Bias implies a certain angle on a topic. This runs far deeper than that. It reflects a widely held set of beliefs--a sort of complete wrapper around our culture--that separates us from our own lives, turning us into automatons who do nothing but run around doing, buying and running around some more (this time to achieve our proscribed 30-minutes, three times a week exercise). It's the ultimate victim mentality--about as far from the original American ideal of independence as you can get!

This very headset is actually what got us into the economic mess we're in now. If you look deeply enough, what really caused the recent downturn was the pressure to ensure that the economy continually grew at all costs. Every company had (and still has) to show "growth." Not depth. Not that it served some larger purpose. Just that it got bigger. And so the engines that run the economy had to keep figuring out ways to keep inflating this balloon. The result was that eventually, there was nowhere left to go. The balloon could not get larger. Instead, it popped. And so, Gallup is measuring the little scattered pieces that fell to the ground, never noticing that the balloon isn't us. It isn't even necessary. We'll all be fine without it. We might even be better.

Oh, and by the way, I did finally answer the question. I just couldn't bear to disappoint the lady from Gallup. I said "yes."

Friday, June 4, 2010

A spirited aptonym

By golly, I've found yet another brilliant aptonym--this in the world of wine and food blogging. I speak of Mr. Rick Bakas. Rick is the social media director at St. Supery Winery in the Napa Valley. He's been in branding and marketing for years, and recently he's become something of a social media celebrity. His book "Quick Bites: 75 Savory Tips for Social Media Success" is due out at the end of this month.

As some readers of this blog know, I'm particularly obsessed with the phenomenon of nominative determinism, also known as the "aptonym." This is when a person's name matches their personality or career choice. For example, Dennis Rodman's father, a known philanderer who married four times and had 27 children, is named Philander Rodman. (I don't know why, but that's still my favorite.) There are also many examples of doctors named Doctor, dentists named Tooth, attorneys called Sue, and so on.

Bacchus is the name of the Roman God of Wine. Rick notes on his blog that his family name was originally spelled that way, but his great-grandfather changed it to Bakas so that it would sound more American. The Greeks called this god Dionysus.

I've been following Rick on Twitter for some time now, enjoying his tweets about food, wine and social media commentary. For someone in a field known for its pleasure and relaxation, he seems to have the energy of ten people or more--continually posting videos, photos and other tidbits that pour out of him like an endless, bottomless jug. In Greek and Cretian myth, Dionysus (Bacchus) was half mortal and half god. The Greeks said he was fathered by none other than Zeus.

I got in touch with Rick on Twitter and asked him to comment. Did he get into wine because of his name? Had he ever thought of himself as a Roman god? He was surprised by the request but gamely responded with the following email:

"I didn’t get into the wine biz because of my name, it just happened. I was bit by the wine bug when I turned 21. That year, my parents opened a 1985 Stag’s Leap Cask 23 during the holidays. That was the first wine I had that had quality and age on it. The light bulb went off and I was hooked. Before that, any alcohol I drank came out of a hose connected to a keg in college.
 So I subscribed to every wine publication I could get my hands on and started learning and tasting everything. That led to my wine collection, that led to getting a job as a wine sales rep. Eventually I became a wine broker. 

If I had to recreate the path I’ve taken, I probably couldn’t reproduce it. It’s been a string of happy occurrences. As for my last name, it was actually spelled, 'Bacchus' but when my great-grandparents came to the U.S. In 1912 they Americanized the spelling (which is a bummer). They changed the spelling from Bacchus to Bakas."

He attached this--his version of the family crest:
Rick encouraged me to get in touch with Emily Wines, who is the Master Sommelier at Fifth Floor restaurant in San Francisco. That is truly the consummate definition of an aptonym par excellence. Emily Wines, and her job is to choose and serve... well, um... wines! Unfortunately I didn't hear back from Emily by press time, but all we can do is marvel at the total aptness of her name from afar.

Update!! We have heard from Emily Wines. She sends the following missive about her truly apt-o-nym:

"My name always comes up in my business. My getting into wine was a coincidence rather than being influenced by my name. Sometimes I think it opened doors as people remembered it though. People always comment on my name. It would seem that my name is Emily 'yes that really is her name' Wines. I usually joke about how if my last name were 'Beers,' I would be in a different career. I first got interested in wine by working in restaurants. As a server, I felt that if I knew more about what I was selling I would be a better waitress. Which is true -- however, as I started reading and exploring I got really hooked on the stories and cultures that inform wine as well as the beverage itself. I began doing side work in the restaurant to learn more which eventually led me to become a sommelier. I am the only person in my family in the wine business. In fact, growing up, my family rarely even drank wine! That has changed now, thanks to me. Now I can't get them off the stuff."

We raise a glass to both Emily and Rick.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Facebook was right about the "like" button

While the attention is still focused on Facebook and privacy, there has been far less talk about the change from "become a fan" to "like" for company and group pages. My first response to this was to "dislike" the whole idea. I know if I'm truly a fan. Liking is far more subjective and changeable. What if I'm sort of lukewarm? Is there a "meh" button? No, there is not.

There was also the torturous way that Facebook was treating the English language. Getting an email that reads something like, "John Major suggests you 'like' British Petroleum" is a skin-crawling experience for anyone who was raised to speak and write properly. He does? I do? This is nothing short of grammatical butchery--and who knows what new horror the folks at Facebook will present to us next.

There was also a certain creepiness factor. While I've been on the side of moderation on the whole Facebook privacy question, I'll admit I had a bad feeling about where this was going. It was clearly an attempt to gather more data for marketers--the larger plan being to spread the "like" button far and wide across the open Internets. This may benefit Facebook and its advertisers, but would it really help me?

In short, I was all ready to hate the whole "like" button idea.

Fast forward a few weeks. I am finding that when people suggest I "like" a company, product or group, I'm doing it. Click, click. I may not be a full-on fan of the thing, but I definitely like it. It's a lighter weight, less cumbersome option. This is exactly the reasoning behind the change, according to Facebook itself. And lo and behold, they were right. And while I'm still a lot less likely to "like" something outside of Facebook, every once in awhile, I do hit that button, and I do it gladly.

What do you think? Are you finding this option to be preferable, or do you miss becoming a "fan?" Or, are you so fed up with Facebook at this point that you don't even care?

Meanwhile, here is Betty White's view of Facebook, in case you haven't seen it (via B.L.Ochman):

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Why I'm not leaving Facebook

A lot of folks I know and respect are leaving Facebook right now. Their reasoning, as far as I can tell, is that Facebook has gone too far, and is violating their privacy in new and dangerous ways. And even among those who are staying put, there's a general feeling that Facebook is somehow controlling us and should be treated with suspicion.

At issue, chiefly, is the "Instant Personalization" update announced at the recent Facebook developer's conference, F8. This allows Facebook's partners to load your profile onto its sites automatically. I'm not sure why this is such a big deal, but apparently it is to a lot of people. Even Senator Chuck Schumer is getting into the act---he thinks that a good use of the public money is to complain about Facebook to the FTC.

I'm not completely unsympathetic. I do think that this really ought to have been an "opt in" rather than "opt out" feature-- especially considering how few Facebook users understand how to set privacy options. I probably would've opted into it if that had been the default. Instead, I opted out in protest.

Still and all, it's very similar to what a lot of us Facebook users have been doing all along with Facebook Connect. It's not clear exactly how (or even if) Facebook is actively sharing our data with its partners. If it were, I'm not sure I'd care much. Pandora already knows my musical preferences, because I deliberately told it what they were. That's the whole point of Pandora! I'm annoyed when it gets it wrong. And oh how I wish Yelp knew me better than it does. If it suggests one more time that I go to a crappy chain restaurant, I'm uninstalling the app. In short, if Facebook can help improve my experience, that's just dandy with me.

What we have on our hands here, then, is something psychological. We're hitting a dip in the hype cycle and getting panicky. Here is the tipoff--people are starting to talk about Mark Zuckerberg in emotional terms. The word "evil" is popping up. It reminds me of the way we used to talk about Bill Gates, before he got all warm and fuzzy. Over the past few months, the pressure has been building, especially in the media and among bloggers. Then, last week, Wired lost its mind, and went completely ballistic on Zuck's ass. Maybe this was a way to sell papers, but it sure seemed out of proportion to me.

My view, which parallels that of Robert Scoble and a handful of other brave souls who are trying to counteract the hype, is that I am not and never have been very concerned about privacy on Facebook. Why should I be? It's the Internet for goodness sakes. The public, open, free Internet that we all embraced with open arms--that we championed and cheered on for years and years.

And really, what am I sharing? A few pictures of my cats. A list of my previous jobs and education. Some nice family snaps. As a journalist, I've had a public online persona for 15 years. It's been a pain in the ass at times--like the time a pornbot got hold of my name (yes, first AND last), making every Google search for my name an exercise in porno linkbait. But overall, I've been very happy with these here Internets, and the ways they allow me to share who I am with the rest of the world. Like me or hate me, I "yam what I yam."

And, while I *wish* I could say that I'm special and unique in every way, I know that as far as anything Facebook could find out about me, I'm really not. I like certain types of music, enjoy some restaurants and not others ... big whoop. I don't share information that I wouldn't want the whole world to know. My address is kept private... although, remember the phone book? Remember how you could just look someone's name and address and phone number up? Well, it still exists. I do think that it's important to take sensible precautions. Don't announce that you're traveling, especially if you've left your house empty. Don't give too much information out about truly personal things in your life. And be careful about sharing when you're feeling vulnerable. It's fine to say you're having a bad day, but I do cringe when I see people talking about bad dates, or major relationship issues, or even serious problems they're having with housemates. This stuff is probably best left unsaid in a public forum.

And that is the point. Think of Facebook as a public place, not a private one. If you do, a lot of the fears about privacy disappear. Email should be private. Phone conversations should be private. Social networking, not so much.

Image: Pulled off Wired and messed with:

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Remembering the coast's Santa

I'm often the last to know when big news hits my local area, and so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised to hear that it's been nearly a year since one of Half Moon Bay's most beloved residents, Rod Schoenlank, passed away. Rod, who died of congestive heart failure on June 26, 2009, just before his 88th birthday, was one of the first people to befriend me when I arrived on the coastside four years ago. I was confused, scared and lost. I had come here for a job that turned out to be nothing like I'd imagined. After eight excruciating months I quit. I had no plan in mind, and found myself spending my days in a local cafe, scribbling down everything I saw and heard.

Some of these notes, I began turning into short essays with a vague notion of collecting them into a book. Then life picked up again, and all of it was forgotten, except Rod himself. He continued to have his daily "coffee klatsch," and whenever I went to the local cafe I was sure to see him, sitting there surrounded by his amazing friends. He always invited me to join them, and the conversations were never dull. He was like a heavy star, holding people together through the sheer gravity of his personality.

As the pace of my life increased, I had less and less time. I rarely stopped by the cafe. A niggling feeling at the back of my mind told me he must have died--he was getting into his late eighties, after all--but I never bothered to check. Today, something told me to run a search online. Sure enough, there was an item in the Half Moon Bay Review, along with links to some remembrances.

The best is a slide show that an intern at the Half Moon Bay Review did of him a few years ago. He quotes "Hamlet" in the seamless, unconscious way of someone who knew long sections of it by heart. He is shown on his boat, the Lao Tzu, moored in Princeton Harbor for two decades. He doesn't seem old. He never did. Rather, he seemed ageless. We all knew that he'd have to walk off the stage at some point. Yet, it seems impossible that there is now a world that no longer contains him. I felt a wave of shame that I was so careless as to lose track of him, until there was no longer someone to track.

If you have the patience, below find one of the essays I wrote after an early meeting with Rod. It's not about him--he's just another local character woven into the narrative. I preserved his and everyone else's anonymity. I named him "Gary Eagle," based on a story he told me that I've since forgotten--something to do with meeting a member of the Eagle clan in his travels. The dialogue and situation were taken directly from real life, with hardly a detail changed, and I think the part that features him does him some justice. I hope so.


Princeton Harbor on Half Moon Bay is only a half hour south of San Francisco, but it might as well be on the other side of the world. Here, fishermen sell live crab from their boats, sending customers off with long plastic bags stuffed with these heavy, reddish claw-snapping delicacies. They lug the bags back to their Audis and Mazdas, and as they drive home, the interiors of their vehicles fill with the briny scent of the bay.

Just beyond the line of fish and chip shops lies a maze of narrow streets named after the Ivy League and Seven Sisters universities and colleges of the northeast. My own alma mater, Vassar, is a small, ill-paved street that unexpectedly dead ends near a pile of ancient, rotted fish netting. Harvard Avenue, Yale Way and Amherst Streets all meander here and there, taking you past vacant lots, or lots piled high with rusted hulks of various sizes, shapes, and providences. Abandoned wooden boats lie on the grass, moored among weeds that grow over them like the rivulets that once surrounded them during their useful lives. Wildflowers grow everywhere, impervious to rusty Pabst Blue Ribbon cans and discarded styrofoam clam chowder bowls, left by careless visitors anxious to return to the warmth of Hayward or Redwood City, beyond the reach of the cold, cloying fog.

Much of the area is made up of warehouses. Many are signless, and when we first arrived I wondered if they were empty, until one weekend several put out sandwich boards on the highway, enticing us with promises of inexpensive records and brick-a-brac. When this happens, we discovered, crowds descend, snapping up flat screen televisions, children’s clothing, gold-plated platters, scented candles, plastic flowers and “Dora the Explorer” lunchboxes.

All through the summer, the air here is as thick and white as milk.
It hangs in front of your eyes and clings to your clothing until everything you own is perpetually damp and cold. If you stand on the shore next to Princeton Harbor, the sea looks like a billowing sheet, white from top to bottom, completely merged with the sky. Flocks of brown pelicans move as one entity, silently skimming the water. They don't seem to mind the fog. I never hear them complaining of soggy feathers; never hear them pronounce, grouchily, to their pelican spouse, "This is our new home by the beach?"

The human residents don’t talk about the fog much either. They seem to have steeled themselves. About the only time they mention it is to laugh at tourists who come here in the summer dressed in shorts, slathering sunscreen on their shivering children.

Those who are determined to meet the locals will eventually find their way to a cafĂ© across the street from the harbor, Cafe Classique. It is where everyone in the area goes, from the fisherman standing in their rubber boots to Mexican farm workers, to Silicon Valley engineers who live on the coast for their love of surfing or the sea. Standing in line, you move forward in fits and starts, feeling your way along as the ordered chaos dances around you. Mothers turn around and find the fathers of their children’s friends, stepping out of the line to greet them. There is talk of summer camp and carpools. Those on their way to work seem to forget themselves, stopping to chat for half an hour by the cream dispensers before glancing at their watches and making their reluctant way out, paper cup full of cooled coffee in hand.

Even on the coldest days, the locals swarm out to the deck, nursing warm mugs of coffee, or eating breakfast made from local eggs. One group of folks has been meeting here every morning at ten a.m. sharp for the past eighteen years. This is the "coffee klatsch," organized by Gary Eagle.

One morning I witnessed a conversation that I took to be fairly typical. Mr. John, a huge man wearing a battered leather cap and overalls was sitting at a small table by himself.

“Cats,” he announced, to no one in particular. “What’s wrong with them?”

“I got a few cats,” volunteered Sally, who sat at the coffee klatch table. “Sometimes, they tear up my sofa. But that’s okay because I hate my sofa. Reminds me of my ex-husband.”

“Which ex-husband?” asked Chip, who sat next to her.

“The fourth one,” she answered.

“Oh him,” said Chip, nodding.

Sally shared her raisin cake with Chip and the others at the table, who pounced on it like mice.

“Let me tell you something. I got a habit of keeping cats,” Mr. John went on. “Me and three Mexican guys. We call it our cat farm. It’s over by …” he paused, looking left and right, then continued, as if assured there were no spies, “…the yacht club. But it’s a totally secret place.”

“How many you got, Mr. John?” asked Doc.

“We’re up to twelve of them. So, let me ask you. Do you think it’s normal for a man to have that many cats?”

Doc didn’t eat the cake.
He’s very careful about sugar. A retired oral surgeon, he is single and always on the lookout. The women he dates complain that he treats them like the mouths of his former patients. As soon as they meet, he begins to drill into their pasts. He is sure he can be the one to uproot the decay and make it disappear for good. This drives them off, he knows, but he can’t stop himself.

“I don’t know, Mr. John. What’s normal or not?” asked Chip.

Chip lives in a boat in the harbor, but you rarely find him there. He’s usually housesitting or paying a friend with a house on dry land an extended visit. He doesn’t like water. He’s still not sure how he ended up owning a boat.

“A man can pick up a lot of bad habits. He can drink alcohol. He can smoke cigarettes. Hell, he can smoke crack,” Mr. John continued. “You stack those things up against cats, and I think you have to agree things are pretty good for me.”

“I had a beautiful gray dog once,” said Gary Eagle. “Now that I live on a boat, a dog’s not such a good companion. Boating life’s hard for a dog.”

A youthful eighty-six, Gary has a long, flowing white beard that makes him look like a slimmed-down Santa. His eyes twinkle and shine no matter what he is doing or saying. His face looks like it was ironed over and over, until some of the creases stayed put. Gary told me he was once the vice president of a steel company in Muskegee, Wisconsin. He keeps his old business card in his wallet to remind himself of what might have become of his life. At the height of his career, he walked out of his office, never to return.

Now Gary’s home is the Lao Tzu. He bought it two decades ago, and has managed to keep it going, despite plumbing problems, and an aging hull. Buying that boat was the best decision of his life, he tells you. The Lao Tzu shelters him through the seasons. At Christmastime, friends bring children’s stuffed animal toys to him. He gathers them on the deck of the Lao Tzu. The children arrive and he tells them to come on board and find the toy that "chooses them." To the kids, there is no doubt who he is.

A couple sat down near the regular’s table, where the topic of dogs was now in full swing. The pair were clearly not locals. It’s possible they were not even from San Francisco. Their faces were pinched, their posture as stiff as wood. Gary’s gaze fell on them, seeking their faces for a smile. The woman turned away, her cheeks going scarlet.

“You must be a regular here,” the man said, letting out a nervous laugh.

Gary laughed so hard he had to wipe a tear away.

“Oh, yes, you could say that. You could definitely say that.”

The couple spotted another empty table as far from the others as possible. They dived for it, all the while explaining themselves, as if talking to a child or a lunatic.

“This one is larger, see?” said the man. “And more comfortable.”

Gary smiled again, his eyes twinkling even more intensely than before. Santa.

The fog began to burn off, revealing sky and trees that had been shrouded. Children played on the sidewalk. An old black dog with white feet and a white nose meandered down the street. It stopped before crossing, looking out for left turners and hot rodders. Finding a large tree, it stood next to it as if taking up a sentry post. The wind picked up. A heavy, green branch above the dog fluttered jaggedly, up and down, up and down. This is not a place for those who want the easy life, I decided. Nor, is it a place for those who want to blend in and be forgotten. Even this dog is a local. And somehow, I think he knows it.