Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Goodbye California

Now that the sun is shining, we are out of here. Two weeks of rain, and now clear skies and temps in the 70s. One of wettest springs in memory in the San Francisco Bay area. The average annual rainfall here is just shy of two feet, amost all of it November through March.

Winter rain isn't a big deal on the northern California coast. Folks do what they normally do, wet or dry. We lived three years in Vancouver, so we get it.

Maybe it's the winter rains that give California its character. And, individual character it does have. Individualism is celebrated everywhere. You see it in the architecture. Many of the homes, new and old, are custom built. There are few noticeable cookie-cutter subdivisions.

The best examples of individualism are seen in homes built in the steepest spots. One place, farther up the hill here in Orinda, is so short of flat land that they built the garage on top of the house. Cars parked in garages above living rooms or bedrooms are not uncommon here.

The hundreds of thousands of people scattered across these hills live in the shadows of a number of natural disasters. Wildfires in the summer dry season, landslides in the rainy season, and of course earthquakes. I sit typing now directly over the San Andreas fault.

It's easy to forget about these terrors because it is so pleasant here. I sit out in the backyard and look across the valley to Orinda village and listen to bells and chimes coming from Santa Maria church. It's a Spanish-style mission, as are many of the Catholic churches here, and they still have nuns in habits.

Behind me, way up on Grizzly Peak, is a stunning view of the entire Bay area. Down below to the right is Berkeley. Not many nuns in habits evident there, but lots of good bookstores and pubs.

One thing that strikes you on this side of the mountain is there are no huge malls and big box stores and chain eateries, in sight. Just wooded hills, with houses and towns where most of the shops and places to eat are small and owned by individuals. In some of these small towns even the original movie theatres stand in prominent spots, still operating.

Orinda's art-deco movie house opened 1941
Now that rains have ceased, people are outside. They have flocked to Lamorinda Reservoir where there is a three-mile walking trail, fishing and paddle boats for hire. You can imagine the activity that will be here when the hot weather arrives.

A sign along the walking trail tells me it definitely is time for me to leave. The sign is all about snakes that become active when the weather warms. There are rattlesnakes but the sign says they are seldom seen. Oh, yeah. Goodbye California.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Pit of Snarling Dogs

This truly is the spring of our discontent. The weather is abnormally cool and stormy compared with last year's abnormal warmth and winter's early end, in Ontario at least. Civil wars and uprisings in the Arab world. Disasters in Japan, and elsewhere. Economic uncertainty everywhere. 

Now this: A federal election that no one wants, or needs, except the politicians.

The sad truth is that the election will change nothing. The government might change, but little else will. The poor will remain, and likely increase in numbers. The middle class will continue to seek ways to overcome the burdens of rising costs and heavy taxation. The best off will continue to manipulate the system to become even more well off. The cultural gap between urban and country people will grow wider. The health care aneurysm will continue to swell until it finally ruptures.

Nothing will change until we cleanse ourselves of our vicious confrontational politics. Making the other guy look much worse than he really is -- through innuendo, spin and mind management -- has become more important than practising the arts of listening, thoughtful analysis and compromise in pursuit of common good.

The most important issue in this election is: How do we make the politicians understand and commit to doing what they are supposed to do. And that, for those who might have lost sight of it, is providing intelligent and decisive leadership without thoughts of personal gain or personal glory.

This election unfortunately is about keeping or obtaining power.

There is a possibility that fewer than 50 per cent of Canadians will vote in this election. The turnout in 2008 was only 59 per cent, and in the intervening three years more voters have become sickened by what they see of, and hear from, the politicians.

How could they not be sickened? Our politics here, and in the United States, have become a pit of snarling, backbiting dogs.

The nastiness of our so-called leaders is a national disgrace. The other day we had a senior Ignatieff adviser calling the prime minister "tin pot dictator." We have Conservative attack adds making Ignatieff look like a crazed person returning to Canada to rape and plunder.

Political rants from politicians and citizens have reached the level of hate mongering. Each time we denigrate someone, we denigrate ourselves and our system of government. Being honest and fair once was part of the Canadian identity. We lost much of that as we allowed our political discussions to sink to levels seen on the Jerry Springer Show.

Henry David Thoreau, the American essayist, wrote:

"Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it." (On the Duty of Civil Disobedience   1849).

The kind of Parliament we want, and need, we have not had for a long time in Canada. When they come knocking at the door this time, tell what we want. We are disgusted with them all and want our politicians working for the people through civil and intelligent discussion.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Beer at The Berkeley Bowl

So you think 99 bottles of beer on the wall is a big thing? You oughta see this place. Five refrigerated shelves seemingly running the length of a bowling alley. I pace it off: roughly 60 to 70 feet of five shelves filled with beers of every type.

One of the young ladies restocking the shelves notices me and instead of calling security, smiles and says: "You could come here every day for two years and you still wouldn't be able to drink it all."

Possibly not, but I have a couple golf buddies who would love to give it a try.

She tells me the shelves hold about 600 different beers. I didn't know there were that many beers in the world.

Long, Lovely Line of Beers at Berkeley Bowl West
The Berkeley Bowl is a grocery store; a very large grocery store. I'm not sure why we are here so soon after being to Costco. I guess it's because of the rain, ever present this past week. 

Berkeley Bowl West is a 140,000-square foot facility that includes a cafe, prep kitchen, modest wine tasting bar, warehouse and offices. It employs 250 employees, 60 of them working side by side in the main kitchen to turn out baked goods and ready-to-eat items, as well as cuisine for the cafe, which is large enough to hold a three-ring circus.

Grocer Glenn Yasuda and his wife, Diane, opened the first Berkeley Bowl in central Berkeley more than 30 years ago. It was a tiny place and they named it Berkeley Bowl because they set up shop in a former bowling alley. Now with the opening of BB West they have two.

You'll see on the shelves Big Bear Black Stout, Woodchuck Hard Cider, St. Peter's Sorgham Beer, Red Seal Ale, Hop Head Red, plus some of the more well-known brands. Some of the beer labels have only Chinese or Japanese lettering, so we're not sure what they are.

Off to one side is a special display of 64-ounce mini-kegs of Dead Guy Ale from Oregon. There have been some mornings in the long ago past when I woke up convinced that I had some of that.

Choice. That's what it's all about in the United States of America.

Why aren't we allowed to buy our beer, wine and liquor where we buy our groceries? C'mon Dalton, set the people free!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Dining Out at Costco

Wow, what a lunch. Started with a handful of almond mix, then went straight for the chili, followed by a Chinese-style salad. Then moved across the aisle to the pasta samples, then on to Aisle 3 for the Rocky Range chicken sausages and meatballs.

Sausage in one hand, meatball in the other, I was hotfooting it to the buffalo wings when I got a Blackberry poke from Diane.

"Incredible," she messaged. "These people really want you to eat." She was at a sushi booth which I hadn't found yet.

They really know how to feed you at Costco in the United States. I'm used to to the Canadian Costco stores where a few unsmiling ladies dish out microscopic food samples like crackers, trail mix and apple juice. You'll get your hand slapped if you come back for seconds, so sometimes when I'm really hungry I have to bring a stick-on mustache and a wig.

Here in California they encourage you to have seconds.

On our visit to Costco at Concord, just east of San Francisco, I hear the guy giving out pita bread pieces with Middle East spreads holler: "More ready here. C'mon and get it."

Food Sample Folks at Concord, CA Costco
There probably are two dozen food sample setups in this store, which appears to be the same size as the Barrie, ON store that I patronize. I wonder how anyone has time to shop. They are too busy eating.

"Here try to the meatballs too," says the guy at Rocky the Range chicken. He appears to be working alone, but most tables have three, or four or more workers preparing and setting out samples. There are few lineups for the best stuff because there is plenty of it being set out as fast as it is grabbed off the tables.

By the time I've hit the corn dogs, sushi, pretzel crackers and decadent dark chocolate with walnuts, I'm looking for the free Rolaids. There aren't any, so I wander into the back corner of the building where they aren't giving out any samples. This is where they have the liquor and wine.

There are rows of it stacked head high. Did you know that Costco has its own brand liquor and wine? I pick up a bottle of Kirkland Small Batch Kentucky bourbon. There's also Kirkland vodka and on and on. And I thought they just made their own batteries.

While browsing I bump into Russell, the wine products adviser who patrols the aisles chatting to folks, answering their questions and giving them tips on the wines. He is so tall that I get a stiff neck from talking up to him. It's worth it. He tells me that Costco is the world's largest seller of wine. Period. And, it is not all plonk like the Two Buck Chuck we used to buy at Trader Joe's. Some bottles are $20.

Russell has been really nice and I hate to leave without something. So I grab two bottles of Tractor Shed Red. It's a California wine made not too far from Concord. I figure it will be nice to have a glass or two when I pull my tractor from its shed for its spring oil change. Good way to celebrate spring.

Am-ur-ica. I love it!

Rocky Range sausages and meatballs

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Of Tims and Starbucks

The difference between Canadians and Americans is seen easily in how they take their coffee.

Travelling from Alliston to Toronto Airport the other day we passed several Tim Horton's coffee spots. It was 6 a.m. and cars were lined up in the drive-throughs at all of them . It is difficult to find a Timmies without at least one car at the window at any time of day or night. Getting a Tim's on the go is an integral part of Canadian life.

Today I'm sitting in Starbucks (Orinda, CA) having a latte and a piece of coffee cake (there was no toast). Folks are sitting at little tables with their coffee and laptops, smart phones and iPads. Some aren't wired but are chatting and reading magazines and newspapers.

Down here coffee still appears to be more of a social thing. In Canada, coffee is done mainly on the move. Go to a hockey rink and people are standing around with coffee cups in their hands. Peer into cars on the freeways and you'll see the drivers holding Timmies.

In large Canadian urban places, of course, you'll also find Starbucks packed with folks reading, communicating and computing. But that's a small number compared to those sipping a Tim's out on the highways.

I've never seen a drive-in coffee place here, or anywhere else in the U.S. that I can recall. They have drive-in liquor stores, so they must have a drive-in coffee place or two.

Whatever the coffee culture, it's certainly big business in both countries. There's a steady flow of customers into this village Starbucks. It can be difficult to get a seat at times. I guess that's why Starbucks reported almost $3 billion in revenues during the last quarter reported. Tim Hortons, with fewer outlets, and less international presence, had $2.5 billion total revenue for all four quarters in 2010.

Both coffee companies have been around roughly the same amount of time. Tim's got going 46 years ago (if you are Canadian you know that story inside out). Starbucks is celebrating its 40th anniversary, according to the stickers on the entry doors.

You can find Timmies in the U.S. There are 550 stores, a lot of them near the border. There are 3,000 stores in Canada.

Tim's has plans for more U.S, locations, so who knows, maybe the cultures will merge even more and I'll be able to drive up to a Tim's in Orinda and order a double-double.

Not a bad thought considering Starbucks prices. My latte and coffee cake cost me $5. I can get breakfast for that at my favourite breakfast spot: Old Mill Restaurant at Carnarvon in cottage country. 

Early morning coffee customers at Starbucks in Orinda

Thursday, March 17, 2011

At the Doggie Park

There's no coffee and cookies when I arrive at Rancho Laguna Park outside San Franscisco. I guess that's because none of the dogs gathered is celebrating a birthday. And, numbers are reduced today because it's cold (35F) and the early morning sun is losing the battle to break through the fog.

On warm mornings when more folks and dogs are out, and there's a canine birthday, free coffee and cookies are available thanks to some of the owners. On really special days in summer there sometimes is wine and cheese.

This is a really neat place. It's small park (8.4 acres) with a walking track and playground, some picnic tables and a grass area on which to romp and toss a Frisbee. The neatest part is how it is shared.

It's a regular park for families, but before 9 a.m. and for a while before dark, dogs are allowed to run here off leash. Water fountains, with the usual tap up above, also have taps near ground level for filling dog bowls, provided by some of the dog owners.

Dogs of all shapes and sizes gather with their owners (all shapes and sizes)  to run, play wrassle, and share some conversation. Some of the dogs, like my granddog Ozzie, are good at vocalization and actually do talk to each other.

There's lots of running and play fighting this morning because of the cold. The only guy sitting on the sidelines is Chester, who is one of those sausage dogs built low to the ground. He looks more cerebral than the others, not inclined to get out on the wet grass and mix it up with the other guys and girls.

One of the owners has brought a tennis racket for knocking out balls to chase. Another has a tossing hook that launches tennis balls across the park.

The best entertainment comes from Bella, a fox terrier who tears around after a red ball the size of a grapefruit. He refuses to let other dogs use it, and chases off any dog that tries.

Ozzie and Lucy, an Australian shepherd, spend most of their time play mauling each other. They are both young, met here as puppies and have become best play pals. Another pal, Zipper, won't be here for a while because he's off being neutered.

There's a bad scene just before play time is over. Mango, who's a bit of a miscreant, ran out of the park and into the street, taking three others, Ozzie included, with him. They all came back when called.

Obviously there is a strict poop-and-scoop policy here. Supplies of poop bags are found on posts, although many owners bring their own. Also, dogs are expected to be "well socialized." I get the impression that one who isn't would not be welcomed. Neither would his or her owner.

It shows. All the dogs get along, have fun and get plenty of needed exercise. The city of Moraga, which operates the park, spends almost nothing because of the dogs.

There's a lesson here: Good things can happen when people work together, and when government co-operates but doesn't try to micro-manage everyone's lives. The dogs set the tone here. There's little barking and lots of tail wagging.

That's what the world needs: More wag, less bark.

Gathering of the dogs at Rancho Laguna

Ozzie takes a drink at the fountain

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Shaman's Rock Says Hello

There's a new world spreading out there in front of us. A new world with myriad happenings and observations that deserve to be shared. I'm going to start sharing what I observe through this blog: On Shaman's Rock.

Shaman's Rock is a country place on a quiet lake in Ontario bush country. It also is a state of mind; a vision in which storytelling, shared observations and balanced reporting help to calm an angry and confused world.

There is a stillness at Shaman's Rock that encourages reflection. The world needs more reflection. More reflection helps bring balance in a society that is wired for quick hits.

But Shaman's Rock isn't the only place where one can observe and reflect. There's lots happening  elsewhere that deserves observation, reflection and reporting. Tomorrow, we are in California where there isn't much stillness, but there is a lot to observe and reflect upon.

Hope you will drop in to see what we are observing.