Yes, I know. You're supposed to write about your summer vacation just after you take it.
But what better time to recall the golden days of summer than on one of the coldest days of winter? It's as if you stored these memories precisely to warm you up when things are bleak.
I went to California last summer to join my high school classmates who were gathering at Yosemite National Park. I missed our 50th reunion the year before because I was in the hospital. I graduated from Shorewood High School, in Milwaukee, in 1960. Our class had less than 200 and we were surprisingly close. I have maintained ties with several of my classmates but this would be an opportunity to see others. About 30 of us came to this reunion. What was amazing was how quickly you recognized old friends despite the decades and how easily it was to resume relationships.
As for Yosemite, there is no way one can be prepared for its grandeur. Many years ago I interviewed the photographer Ansel Adams, whose photographs of its mountains are the image most of us carry around, especially if we have never been there. At the time I said his images conveyed what the earth must have been like the day after Creation. The Real Thing only reinforced this sense of Nature Unspoiled -- magnificent, overpowering, sublime. How miraculous, one thinks, that so many miles of inspiration have been preserved.
Before joining my classmates in Eden -- our youth together seems another kind of Eden -- I visited my late wife's cousin Taffy and her husband George Davis in Oakland. Shortly after my arrival Taffy, an accomplished classical pianist and teacher, took me downtown -- a fairly placid pre-Occupation downtown -- to sit in on a jazz class she takes. I was heartened to think that there is a jazz school thriving in a major city, quite an extensive one at that.
It seems another instance of the domestication of what was once a wild child. Many years ago i did a story about American jazz for "W," my then employer. Many of the older jazz musicians I talked to were a bit miffed at having to perform in concert halls before respectful well-dressed audiences. They missed the hubbub of the clubs where they got their start, where their music could not necessarily be heard above the chatter of the patrons. An exception was the dazzling violinist Stephane Grappelli, who never got over the fact that people would make small talk while his idol, Art Tatum, was playing.
The teacher of the jazz class had been born in Hungary. Yet when he sat at the piano he owned it. There was never a question that jazz, however American its origins, did not belong to him. By comparison, the students, though all very talented, had a kind of reticence about their playing, as if it were not part of their native birthright.
Taffy, George and I had dinner at Chez Panisse, which is a short drive from their oasis of a home in Oakland. Only then did I fully get the "message" of Alice Waters. I had not gotten it in her first cookbook 35 years ago because, it struck me at the time, there was too much prose, not enough lists of ingredients, especially odd ingredients that might make a basic dish taste unusual.
That was because the gospel she was spreading was that of learning to cook each ingredient to get the maximum taste out of it. This can only be done by understanding the nature of the ingredient, not by joining it with some clever seasoning. God knows how many pieces of salmon I have enjoyed in my life, but none brought out the full flavor of the fish as powerfully as the King Salmon at Chez Panisse. (The second tastiest piece of salmon in my experience was 52 years ago, when my family and I visited Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco -- but I loved that hunk of salmon with what I now see as "false consciousness," because it tasted as hearty as good steak.)
After Yosemite I spend some time in Middletown, CA, a small town an hour and a half north of San Francisco, where John Sullivan, one of the best editors I worked with at the New York Daily News, lives with his partner Joe Butler. They raise chickens and goats and I had several meals with the fresh eggs, cheese and milk that are "grown" in their backyard.
On our way to San Francisco John and I stopped at Sam's Holey Cow! Diner in Monte Rio, CA, where I had the Juicy Lucy Burger, where the cheese is enclosed in the meat and oozes out, a different approach to cuisine than Alice Waters', but in its own way just as satisfying.
I spent one day in San Francisco as a tourist. I enjoyed yummy lamb chops at John's Grill, a landmark restaurant associated with Sam Spade, the detective played by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. According to the menu, he too favored the lamb chops. John's is a reminder that restaurants years ago were often very self-consciously men's places, if only because restaurants downtown catered to a largely businessman clientele. The hardwood walls and old-fashioned light fixtures suggested a masculine esthetic you don't see much back home. (Even Keene's Chophouse, despite the pipes of historic clients on the ceiling, is more genteel than virile.)
For my day as a tourist I stayed at the Fairmont, one of America's grandest hotels, which opened a year after the earthquake of 1906. The lobby has a majestic quality. It is ornate in the manner of the Gilded Age, with lofty ceilings, marble pillars and walls, elegant palms, but the effect is tasteful and oddly soothing.
My last night in the West I spent at the San Francisco Opera, which was producing a refreshing version of "Das Rheingold," directed by Francesca Zambello, which I wrote about at the time. The next morning I had perfectly poached eggs in my room, looking out over the city coated in morning gold.
On this bitterly cold day these memories bring back the warmth of friendship, familial love and the wonders of the American West. Since much of the year after that was spent in and out of the hospital, these memories have special poignancy. I wish I were one of those people who, as the years go by, continue looking forward. Alas, I'm not. I thank you for your indulgence.