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Monday, November 26, 2007



infrared photograph of trees along the Tuolomne River in Modesto by A.E. GravesIt was another one of those gorgeous days that made me want to stay in the City, but it was also Thanksgiving, a good time to visit my parents.

My parents live in the town of Riverbank, California, a few hours away from San Francisco by car, and slightly longer by train. (Amtrak used to stop in Riverbank and a very old-fashioned, simple looking station stop, rather than in Modesto, the largest town in the area. Eventually, Modesto built a better station (this being quite relative), and the train started skipping the Riverbank stop. Vagrants moved into the tiny Riverbank building, and it was eventually burned to the ground. Now, when I take the train out to see my folks, they pick me up in Modesto.) They moved there about 14 years ago, after a struggle to sell my childhood home in a weak housing market. They sold the house and managed to get two (and for a time, three) separate, look-alike houses out in new developments in the Central Valley. They had sold the SF house, in part, to be able to live separately, yet somehow managed to purchase separate homes on the same block in Riverbank's River Cove development. For a time, my father moved into another house a town away, in Oakdale, but returned to Riverbank recently.

At the time they moved out of the City, they spoke of what 'my room' would look like when the houses were finished and they could move in. And I kept pointing out that I lived on my own in SF. Which did not deter them. It's nice that they wanted me to move with them. But... You know that saying about how you can take the girl out of the City, but you can't take the City out of the girl? It's wrong. You CAN NOT take the girl out of the City. Not if the girl is conscious. She will not go willingly.

My parents' ever-changing neighbors found their living arrangement to be a sign of (a) wealth, since my parents could mysteriously afford TWO $114k or so homes, and (b) peculiar. After my parents had been living there for some time, my mother introduced herself to a new neighbor who was just moving in and talking to the folks around her, seeking the gossip of her new block. She told my mother that she had just been informed that there was a married couple living separately on the block, their houses nearly (yet not quite) back to back, and that they had dug a secret passageway in between... Which made my mother laugh, because the story had to be about my folks. (Note: they do not have a secret passageway. Or a non-secret tunnel. Just so you know: they live separately because they do not get along very well.)

Even though they aren't very far away, I do not visit my parents very often. There are a few reasons for this. The main one is that their area becomes unbearably hot in summer. Wretchedly, praying-for-nightfall, shriveling up like a raisin hot. A college classmate of mine worked near Modesto, and ran a harvester all night, explaining that the grapes and other crops had to be harvested at night, because during the day, the workers would faint in the heat, and the machines would overheat and malfunction. You can imagine what that heat does to a native San Franciscan, whose maximum functional temperature is a mere 78. My earliest visit in summertime occurred during 112 degree weather. It was one of my last summer visits.

Also, I am not partial to the smell of fertilizer, natural or synthetic, and it appears to be a dominant regional fragrance. Also, I am allergic to... well, everything. During their first few years there, I would visit quite frequently, but was plagued by what I thought were weekend cases of the flu each time. Eventually, I figured out that it's grass seed and other things that are abundant there.

My parents aren't much hardier than I am: they've just adjusted their lifestyle to include cable television (Sci Fi!) and hiding indoors during daylight hours half of the year.

There is an oddness of visiting my parents in 'not-home.' When I visit, I am not going home. Home is HERE. Home is in the City by the Bay. When I visit, I am visiting my parents in their new houses, which is different. I feel sentimental about my dear parents, and my younger sister, and her sweet children... But I have no connection to the place where they live now aside from my visits. There are things that are familiar to me that they took with them from the City, but it's kind of like seeing your things on display in a museum: they've lost their context.

I have even had trouble photographing there. It took years before I could really get a camera out during my visit and point it at anything. I have lots of photos of my nieces, or my parents, but... they're all indoor photos. There was nothing outside that really attracted my attention. At night, I would step outside and look at the wide, starry sky, and marvel at how it stretched all the way from horizon to horizon... and then rush inside to avoid the mosquitoes. Or, I would walk around the development, and try to decide if there was any reason to photograph more than one of the houses, since they all looked alike...

Then my mother took me to Knight's Ferry. KF is a historic spot where people were able to safely cross the Stanislaus River back in the day. There is an old mill; the river, which is dammed about 7 times between the town and its headwaters, looks somewhat natural, in a lovely, rocky channel with deep pools; the river is surrounded by oak woodlands and pastures... It's just gorgeous. And it's especially gorgeous in infrared.

So I'm loosening up. I'm now dedicated to photographing the Stanislaus in the dozen or so parks run by the Army Corps of Engineers, who have apparently claimed the land downstream of their dams for public recreational purposes, which is novel. I've only photographed in three or so of the spots I'm interested in, and plan to explore more of them with my mother on future visits. (In temperate weather.) I can usually only photograph things I am sincerely interested in and/or have some affection for, so this is a pleasant sign that I'm forming a bond with their new home region.

My mom took us for a walk in the town of Modesto during this visit, along the Tuolumne River. The Tuolumne, whose Grand Canyon high in the Sierras is one of my favorite spots on the earth, is a completely different looking river by the time it reaches this section of the Central Valley, but there is a charming park along its banks which was nice to walk off some of our oversized meals in. And so, to even my surprise, I now have a set of the only photos I have ever taken in Modesto, California. I have never given Modesto much thought, aside from a brief analysis during a ride through town that involved comparing the number of fast food joints to the number of cardiac care facilities. But now I have visited a river I'm sentimentally attached to in town. Which gives the experience a strange context, but there it is.


Our Thanksgiving feast was great: a vegetarian lasagna (full of fresh spinach, fresh mushrooms, roasted sweet peppers, ricotta, and mozzarella, layered between pasta in a homemade sauce); a green salad with artichoke hearts; black and green olives; home made pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and Breyer's natural vanilla ice cream. My mother prepared everything and accepted little help in cleaning up, so it was luxurious for us.

We walked in a little park along the Stanislaus River after feasting, watched Transformers and Happy Feet, had more lasagna, went to bed... And woke up to my father preparing fried potatoes, pepper jack cheese omelets, and biscuits...

Then came the walk in Legion Park in Modesto. (Sights seen in passing: the Gallo Winery. The City-County Airport. A police action involving a public park and several police cars. Jacked-up trucks.) And then more pie, and ice cream.

Then we returned home, miraculously bypassing any sort of traffic jam in Tracy, to sleep away the afternoon while trying to digest all that food.

I really couldn't ask for more. Except perhaps to see my newest nephew, who is several months old. Or for my parents to move to a spa town, so I could spend every visit soaking in hot, gloriously sulphur-filled water. Or a million dollars and a pony. Oh, never mind - what I mean is, I had a pleasant visit.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)11:52 PM

Thursday, October 25, 2007


Another week of overeating.

I thought I had learned from my excesses two weeks ago, but I managed to make many of the same mistakes last week. This week is going much better, so I can pretend that I've broken the habit of overeating, and am just looking back into my foolish youth.


The week of the 15th looked something like this:

Monday: Afghan food for lunch (sauteed spinach, curried lentils, cauliflower and potatoes in a remarkable sauce, all over rice and with a small salad). I went out for drinks with some former colleagues of mine after work: I had three lemon drops (the vodka drinks, not the candies), some deep fried polenta, and a third of a thin-crust cheese and basil leaf pizza. Mmmmm. Lemon drops.

Tuesday: spanakopita for lunch with a small salad. Dinner out with friends at Naan & Curry included bitter melon with tomato in an unusually fabulous sauce, baighan bharta, lentils, saag aloo, rice, and garlic naan with chai. And we went across the street to Tart to Tart, where I had a scoop of sorbet. Wow. It's amazing my clothes fit.

Wednesday: a mediocre lunch of garlic eggplant with tofu over rice at a new place I wanted to try. Dinner was a plate of pasta at Pasta Pomodoro with a friend who dropped by the open house at my office.

Thursday: I had leftovers from the open house for lunch, along with some fun company at the communal tables in the office. I wasn't in a mood to cook dinner, so I took Steven out to Herbivore, which was understaffed, but the food was as fabulous as ever. Steven had the lemongrass noodles; I had the wasabi soba noodles, which were thin buckwheat noodles with grilled veggies, spinach and tofu in a mild wasabi sauce. Mmmmm. Wasabi. Oh, and a soju cocktail. Because.

Friday: I wound up going on a group outing to Pasta Pomodoro AGAIN with six colleagues at lunch time. At dinner time, I was still buying fabric for an ambitious costume, and Steven realized that he was quite hungry. We were at the Westlake Mall (which has received many makeovers since I was taken there as a child), and it was raining. After a quick walk down the relatively new row of restaurants on the center street (which was once pedestrians only), we chose to eat at Burger Meister. It sounds like a joke: two vegetarians walk into a burger joint... But they have Gardenburgers, Boca Burgers, grilled portobello "burgers," and a wide range of fries, sides, beers, desserts, etc. The fries were quite good, and Steven really enjoyed his shake, made with Mitchell's pumpkin ice cream. (Wow, I'm gaining weight all over again just WRITING about this meal....)

The weekend also contained excesses in the forms of eating out AND drinking lots of wine at a party, but I don't really want to admit to those events here and now.


posted by Arlene (Beth)8:03 PM

Saturday, October 13, 2007


A week of excessive eating.

Have you ever sat in a half-way filled bathtub, laying flat on your back with your knees bent, and wondered where all those... islands near your waist came from? I was wondering that last night. It was a pleasant bath, but I swear that more of my middle used to sink beneath the bathwater sea at that particular depth. It wasn't a nice revelation.

Looking back on the week, it really shouldn't be a surprise. I make fabulously healthy, satisfying food at home which I eat reasonable servings of, but when I eat OUT, I tend to choose rich dishes that come in large servings, and I tend to eat everything placed before me. This leads to trouble. Which is why this week expanded the territory of the islands I witnesses in the bathtub.

My meals out this week:

Monday: Lunch was a healthy "super roll" at Sara Deli (a Mediterranean place in the Emery Bay Public Market): lavash bread filled with roasted eggplant, tomatoes, lettuce, hummus, felafel, hot sauce, and a light dressing... which I got all down my shirt. It was a really good choice, and it came with a light salad, which was refreshing.

Dinner was a super vegetarian burrito from Pancho Villa (, made with refried black beans (lard free, of course), lettuce, tomatoes, guacamole, sour cream (oh-oh), rice, salsa, and cheese in a flour tortilla. Their burritos are remarkably tasty, consistent, and reliable. They are also really, really huge. As a concession to my large lunch, I only ate half of the burrito, and saved the rest for breakfast. Yes, lunch and dinner were both "super." Ha.

Tuesday: I had the second half of my super burrito for breakfast.

This made lunch even funnier: I attended a meeting with food catered from a Mexican place near the office. I had half a burrito here, too, but it wasn't very super: rice, pinto beans, and a salty mix of roasted veggies. I satisfied myself with lots of tortilla chips and guacamole, washed down with a very large strawberry agua fresca.

I think dinner was a plate of cheese tortellini, which Steven purchased and prepared. A day of heavy meals made by other people! That meant another night of not doing dishes. :-)

Wednesday: I attended another lunch meeting, which is odd - these may be the only two lunch meetings I've attended in months, and yet they came back to back. This one was catered by Extreme Pizza. I wound up having two types of veggie pizza (the Pandora's Box and the Drag It Through the Garden), both of which were extremely tasty. I also had a side salad with red lettuce, black olives, red onions, a hint of cheese, and a balsamic dressing.

Despite having all that food, I was hungry for dinner by the time I left the office. I abruptly developed an irrational craving for tempura, but couldn't bring myself to go to my usual omnivorous tempura place, where I wouldn't be able to drink the (fish-laden) miso soup. I managed on short notice to schedule a dinner out with my cousin at Chaya Vegetarian Japanese Restaurant on Valencia in SF. Chaya has an extremely long menu with a wide range of Japanese dishes that are familiar by type (sushi, soba, sukiyaki, etc.) but which are executed usually well, with a creative wide range of ingredients. Chaya is likely the best Japanese restaurant I have ever been to - and better still, absolutely every one of the nearly overwhelming, fabulous choices is VEGAN! We shared tasty veggie gyoza in a delicious sesame dipping sauce. My cousin had mixed veggies (cauliflower, lotus root, carrots, greens, etc.) over glass noodles in broth; I had eggplant stuffed with soybeans, tofu custard, and corn, all given a tempura treatment and then sliced open and presented in a sweet and salty sauce. It was unusual and really tasty. We also had delicious tea: Chaya has a great tea menu, which shouldn't be surprising, but I'm ALWAYS pleased with my selections there.

Thursday: Breads of India ( is a Berkeley restaurant (with a companion location in Oakland) that is famous for its naan and parathas, but which also serves a short menu of 8 or so lunch specials each day. My social group at work had been eager to try it, though we had trouble finding dates that worked for everyone. Eventually, we gave up, and four of us with open schedules went to have a stunning lunch with enormous servings of carefully prepared food. I ordered the vegetarian special, which meant that I would get to enjoy TWO of the vegetarian specials of the day. This meant a lot of food, though everyone's meals were enormous. In addition to chickpea whole wheat paratha, garlic naan, pilao rice,and a matching a yellow dal, I had an entree of garbanzo beans that were given a sort of felafel treatment, and served in a rich, deep-red gravy which included 22 spices AND a delicious tray of mixed veggies in a sweet, lighter mixed curry. There was also a salad, but I had no room to eat it.

At this point, you're not going to be surprised when I tell you that I also went out to dinner. Black Francis was playing at Cafe du Nord, and my social group's favorite sushi place, No Name Sushi (a.k.a. Yokoso Nippon, the name on the menu that no one seems to use), is just a block away. So, four of us went there before the show, with three of us being vegetarians. (No Name has an especially strong veggie sushi offering.) We ordered extensively from the hosomaki vegetables menu, which meant we received 16 small rolls (nori on the outside, classic sushi) of avocado maki (double order), horenso maki (steamed spinach with sesame seeds, double order), takuwan maki (pickled radish), nasu maki (pickled eggplant, which only I would eat)... There was also kappa maki (cucumber), shiitake maki (shiitake mushrooms), and a shiitaki hand roll that one of my colleagues got with the same hot sauce that is used for spicy tuna. I didn't pay much attention to the things the piscotarian in the group ordered, but it came on a separate tray, so I didn't have to pay much attention.

I also had a cocktail at the show. We didn't get to stay for the entire thing - Steven starts work at 6:30 a.m. this time of year - but we did get to hear some of the new songs, plus the older song "Cactus" which was more recently covered by David Bowie.

Friday:. For lunch I had a large "La Sorbonne" crepe at Mes Amis Creperie in the Emery Bay Public Market. It was a crepe (not the buckwheat kind I had in Paris, but the more conventional, bleached-wheat-and-egg kind) filled with crumbled mozzarella, fresh spinach, black olives, and diced tomatoes. I also ordered a side salad. The crepes aren't stuffed alarmingly full like they are in local breakfast eateries, but are instead more modestly sized (like they were in Paris), but very satisfying.

Dinner Friday had the potential for trauma: our phone line had gone down, and our DSL line went down at some point during the day, making it very difficult for me to figure out what the plan was for the four friends Steven planned to have over for dinner in the evening. I had e-mailed Steven a shopping list, since he got off work 3 hours before I did, so I figured he could gather the ingredients I needed before I arrived. That didn't happen. That stressed me out for a couple of reasons: there wasn't much in the house, and I pride myself on rather lavish food offerings, which would be impossible. Also, we were expecting a guest with an extreme wheat allergy, and everything I planned to make required the groceries Steven hadn't bought. And my back up plan, which was to have Thai food delivered from our favorite local place, wasn't possible with the phone down. (Pizza, which we could have ordered through the web, was off-limits because of its wheat.)

I arrived home to learn that Steven had done no shopping, and that both the DSL and phone remained completely down. I arrived about 40 minutes before our guests were supposed to arrive, and 10 minutes before the nearest market closed. It was a rather ridiculous scenario, and I felt rather helpless. Fate intervened in two ways: the allergic guest had canceled before I got home during a brief session of functioning DSL, and the other couple brought a ton of food!! So we had green spiral pasta in a chunky purchased sauce (which burned while staying warm in the oven, waiting for our guests; I should have instructed Steven on watching it more precisely), garlic-marinated olives, green olives with pimentos, fresh hot pepper strips (all items on hand), plus the items our guests brought: hummus and pita chips, guacamole with salsa on top, more olives, crisp banana chips, chocolate covered toasted edamame (soybeans), tortilla chips... Plus wine. We also had two kinds of ice cream in the house, which we had as dessert. And I cracked open the rum with pineapple in it that I've been aging for the last several months, and they helped me make a significant dent in it.


Remarkable, isn't it? It's remarkable that there were multiple islands, rather than one large one in the tub! (Or that I fit in the tub...) Many circumstances combined to make this such a face-stuffing week, but I am working on reducing that level of excess now that the weekend is here. Wish me luck!


posted by Arlene (Beth)10:02 PM

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