February 19th, 2012

Ok, this is a little embarrassing, but I have a fantasy that I’d like to confess to you: From time to time, over the years, I’ve dreamed, a bit, about becoming a stand-up comic. It’s so great, so powerful, what comics do. The best ones can get people laughing at the most awkward, and even painful, parts of life, diving right down into the ugliness and coming back with a smirk. Not to get too mushy, but, really, the role they play in society, I think, should not be understated.

And then, complicating my fantasy a little more, egging me on, if you will, these comic geniuses have a habit of portraying themselves as hapless losers. To take them literally is to get the idea that stand-up comedians, in general, are a band of alcoholic nitwits barely keeping it together long enough to get to the next club. And even though I know that what I’m impressed with is their razor sharp intelligence, plus timing, plus years of practice, still some part of me is fooled into this, the deadliest of all thoughts: “Well, if that guy can do it, so can I.”

Well, friends, if any of you out there shares this secret fantasy of mine, our president did us a big favor in his state of the union speech a couple of weeks ago. Whatever your political affiliation, we all have to agree that President Obama is one of the great orators of our time. No? And yet there was that spilled milk joke that flopped out like Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction. Lesson? It’s not as easy as it looks to get on stage and tell a joke.

I invite you, now, to take this newfound respect to Rooster T Feathers, our friendly neighborhood comedy club. As always, our guests get in free, and you even get a free drink!

February 18th, 2012

Before I get into this month’s day trip recommendation, I have to acknowledge that I’m kind of on a kick. I am loving Oakland lately. A couple of months ago I encouraged all of you to just strike out and visit Oakland in a broad sort of way, but I feel unsatisfied and now want to start singling out my favorite places. This is only my second time talking to you about Oakland, so it’s still a little early to be too worried about redundancy, but the problem is that I can’t see this being the last time either.

At least, I can say, my enthusiasm has some validation and my desire to write more has some justification. The New York Times recently ranked Oakland #5 on its list of 45 places to go in 2012. Even better, it was right between London and Tokyo! Which is great and well deserved, but then they would have you rush up there to go, for example, to a restaurant called Boot & Shoe Service, which, yes, has a very fancy pedigree and is chock full of the hippest people in the Bay, but, as restaurant experiences go, is pretty unspecial.

The place I want to tell you to go instead, I have to warn you, is not very cool at all. There will be no hipsters at the Lake Chalet. It’s more the kind of a place that families go on special occasions, kind of a classic “nice” restaurant. So why should I single it out for you here? A few reasons. One is that the lake in its name is Lake Merritt, which is sort of unstoppably lovely, and there are very few seats that don’t have a view. Second, a staff that is genuinely friendly, almost conspiratorially friendly. And, finally, crazy as it seems to put this last, the food is super super tasty. I had such an easy good time at this restaurant. I felt comfortable and charmed in a way that is somehow unique to Oakland, different from the generic trendiness of a place like Boot & Shoe Service, whose aim seems to be successfully imitating the feeling of being in Brooklyn or Berlin.

I guess, as recommendations go, this one could send you off to either place, depending on what you’re looking for. Me, I’ll be at the Lake Chalet. Maybe I’ll see you there.

February 17th, 2012

One thing that I’ve learned from working at this hotel is that the people who work the graveyard shift are not dull. It makes sense, I guess. It would take a major imaginative shift to decide to work all night and sleep during the day, totally reversing all the patterns set up by biology and society. You would have to really be the kind of person who could let go of normal in order to find the life you were meant to have.

Dennis, our graveyard bellman, is no exception. Dennis came to the mighty Silicon Valley from Texas, fresh out of college, with a degree in bio-chemical engineering, because this is where you’re supposed to go with that kind of degree. But there was a recession hitting and, anyway, he hadn’t really liked getting the degree and wasn’t looking forward to the work it would bring him. So he got a job as a club promoter and then, because he had all this free time and was getting antsy, he enrolled at the Art Institute. It was around this time that he came to us, needing to pay for art school, but not having time for another job. The graveyard shift was appealing because it didn’t interfere at all with his school schedule. But it turned out that almost entirely scheduling sleep out of his life was unsustainable and so he went on hiatus from art school, just shy of a degree. He’ll go back, he says, but when I asked him how soon he told me, instead, about how he had just been certified to teach English abroad and is about to apply for a position in Thailand. He can stay anywhere from 6 months to 2 years.

I, personally, am so impressed with people like Dennis. He’s drifting a bit, sure, but he’s also taking dramatic chances in his search for what he wants from the world. I love and envy this. If you get a chance, say hi to him before he’s gone.

February 16th, 2012

And finally, after what seems like years and years of resistance, I’ve capitulated. I’m watching Mad Men. It’s pretty entertaining, for sure, but, seriously, how much of that is an exaggeration? Sexual harassment and gender politics aside, can we talk about the drinking? Not that I hadn’t heard of martini lunches before, my own father says they used to be a regular part of his life, but somehow I always assumed that that maybe happened once a year or something. What I’m learning from Mad Men is that it’s possible that not only was my father not overstating anything, but that it’s maybe even also possible that his version of business practice was of the small town variety.

It’s different now. Being intoxicated at work is not nearly so acceptable these days. We eat sandwiches for lunch and wash it down with a bottle of water, or a nice, fresh carrot beet juice. We feel clear when we go back to the office, ready for many more hours of work. But what if we long for a little midday indulgence? Well, not so long ago my brother took me to a little place that is maybe what we need. It’s called Rose International Market and what it basically is, is a Middle Eastern grocery store. I know that doesn’t sound so good, but hear me out. This little grocery store, tucked away on a quiet Sunnyvale street, is grilling meat to order. You can get it on a plate or in a sandwich. All versions come with a variety of fresh herbs, and all the seating is outdoors. Maybe this is it, maybe this is modern decadence. This is clean, fresh, delicious food, not bogged down by the guilt of oil, fat or sugar, eaten under the clear California sky. You can come here and feel removed, you can relax completely in your lunch hour. It may even be more fun than drinking three martinis and spending the rest of the day trying not to fall asleep or embarrass yourself.

February 15th, 2012

I’ve found an opportunity, for those of us who think we may need it, to learn a little bit about wine, and I’d like to share it with you. Because, here’s the thing, there are different ways to ferment wine. Some of you probably know this already; even I maybe already knew it, though it’s always been a very abstract idea to me. There’s the traditional way: oak barrels, the way the Californians learned from the French and the French learned from God. And now there is the modern way, stainless steel and cement tanks, surely more efficient, more scientifically quantifiable. But as far as the actual glass of wine in your hand, what is gained and what is lost with these modern innovations?

Well, Mer Soleil can help us to figure that out for ourselves. You see, Mer Soleil makes two wines and two wines only, both Chardonnay, both from the same grapes. The only difference is that one is aged in traditional oak barrels, the other in the modern steel and concrete contraptions. I just learned this and I, for one, am kind of excited to try the two side by side and see what each tastes like. And our bar is the perfect place to conduct this little experiment, seeing as how all the wine is complimentary for our guests between 5 and 7 every night. There aren’t maybe so many places in your life where you can as easily sit with a glass of wine in each hand, just trying them out. At least, there aren’t many in mine.