Monday, February 28, 2011


The Barcelona Visitors Bureau can't be too happy about the film Biutiful, nominated for best foreign language film. I saw it in Murrietta last week - 2 1/2 hours of suffering, sadness, misery, cancer and death - dead children, weeping widows. Not exactly the Barcelona I saw as I was peering out from the dining rooms of great restaurants. Only once is a glimpse of La Sagrada Familia included in the bleak, gritty landscape the director chose to see through his camera.

This is a dark story of illegal immigration, corrupt policy, traffickers, drug dealing. Javier Bardeem plays Uxmal,  a middle man in the dark underbelly of the city, moving illegals from job to job, placating and bribing police, collecting and distributing money. A fascinating character, he is a psychic and "reads" the recently dead. He's dying of cancer, his estranged wife is a manic-depressive alcoholic drug addict (it doesn't get any worse) and he attempts pitifully to parent his two young children while juggling the threats and life and death dangers inherent in his work.

There are far too many stories introduced - the film is 2 1/2 hours long - and these relationships splash onto the screen and then just slide off. In most cases, you're happy the stories end before you can get engaged.

Just when you think it can't get any worse, it does.

Javier Bardeem's acting is fantastic as always. He seems to be particularly good at playing to suffering and misery. I read that he did "Eat, Pray, Love" directly after this film. What a relief it must have been to shed Uxmal, fly to Bali and the sun, cavorting with Julia Roberts for a couple of months. Like another planet. Even if the film they made is mediocre, the Bali interval must have served as a wonderful antidote.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mr. Watson and his ring

I'm yoked to Google. Steven Kingish thoughts of being subsumed into my Mac have flickered through my brain. Why? I'm reading Bill Bryson's book- At Home: A short history of private life. The book is full of bits of teaser information about interesting characters you must look up. Help, I can't stop.

For instance, Mr. Thomas A. Watson, Alexander Graham Bell's assistant and colleague. "During the seven years he worked for Bell, he secured sixty patents in his own name including the one for the distinctive ringing bell that was for decades an invariable part of every phone call made. Remarkably, before this, the only way to know if someone was trying to get through to you was to pick up the phone from time to time and see if anyone was there." Quote is from the Bryson book. 

Imagine a phone without a ring? How preposterous it seems - but then today's kids couldn't imagine a car without a remote control to lock and unlock it, to locate it in a parking lot, turn on the lights, turn on the car seat warmers and open the trunk.

Reading further I found that early phone calls did have a Watsonian sound associated with them. Before the bell there was Watson's buzzer and before that Watson's thumper, a kind of metal hammer. Neither was very satisfactory. It took the bell to pull everything all together.

Watson was able to retire rich at 27 and spend the rest of his life doing anything he wanted. He studied geology, earned a pHD, searched for gold, started a shipyard, converted to Islam, got interested in elocution and took up acting. Shakespearean roles were his forte and he performed many times at Stratford-upon-Avon.

I think Watson would be well pleased to hear the wide variety of ring tones, including the loud amplified classic telephone ring, his ring, coming from pockets and purses all over the world.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


A few jasmine blooms

Wall of jasmine ready to bloom

Friday morning, frost and fog

The angry fire stick

The huge jasmine started out in a 1 quart container about eight years ago. What a return on investment!
Our high water bills have made succulents look more and more attractive to me. I repotted some firestick last week and didn't realize that it contains a toxin that can cause serious reactions. A couple of hours after handling it, both hands were swollen and itchy red lesions appeared. I woke up in the middle of the night trying to scratch both hands at once. Don't touch these things without gloves!!
From the garden web:
Firestick succulent (Euphorbia tirucalli) is a showy plant that features a tangled mass of orange-red branches as thick as pencils, hence the name. Also called pencil cactus or pencil tree, it grows as an accent outdoor shrub or a container patio plant that spruces up the spot. The branches form a striking contrast against the background so the plant stands out and draws attention. The firestick contains a toxic white sap that causes serious skin allergies, which is why utmost care during handling is essential.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Five Guys - TMI

Five Guys opened recently in Temecula. It's a new-to-the-area burger joint, much celebrated nationally for it's excellent hamburgers and fries.  My nephew in St. George Utah, talks up the place and I've been reading about the chain's rapid growth in food trade journals. 

Five Guys has won many awards for "best" in a whole gamut of award categories. Some of the awards don't seem worthy of bragging about such as "Voted Favorite Place to Buy a Burger". What? They take the money so quickly? Would you call this "faint praise"?

In this market they're taking on In and Out but Five Guys is more expensive.  A small cheeseburger at with a regular order of french fries and a regular drink set me back over $9.00 and contributed 1500 calories to my daily intake (oh the joys of having disclosure on the menu).

The hamburger was in a word, splendid. Far superior to In and Out. Hand shaped, the burger is flavorful, juicy and crumbly, with the juiciness contained in the burger - no messy stuff running down your arms. The bun is extremely fresh and delicious. While yielding to the bite, like a fresh hamburger bun should, it stood up to the task of holding the sandwich together.

Condimenting is free. You can choose all, some or none: mayo, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, ketchup, mustard, relish, onions, jalapeno peppers, green peppers, A-1 sauce, Bar-B-Q sauce, hot sauce.  Making it "my way", I chose pickles, tomatoes, lettuce, mustard and grilled onions and the combo was excellent.

The heavily hyped fries were a disappointment. Made fresh every day on the premises, the potato variety and source is posted on a chalk board. Obviously they're trying to make this information significant in some way to the consumer. Fortunes have been made on subtle differences between french fries. If they can translate this info into increased rings on the cash register,  more power to them.

In my opinion,  the fries were over-cooked; too crisp, dry, stiff and too brown. At the level of cook (time and temperature)  applied, any subtle differences in potato flavor, due to origin on east or west slope are lost - at least on me.  I don't think the potatoes absorbed enough frying oil to create the optimum texture. I like my french fries a little bendable, a little greasy - but this is entirely a personal matter.  It's a good thing they offer malt vinegar (we Canadians love vinegar on our ff's) and you can pour a small cup and dip to your heart's content. Vinegar, such an inexpensive, ubiquitous flavor enhancer, can mask a lot of flavor deficiencies. Asians, wisely put vinegar on every table along with other worthy condiments. We undervalue the stuff in the western flavor world relegating too  much of it for cleaning our windows and other lowly and unmentionable duties.

The sound in Five Guys is ghastly - loud and screeching. For my hypersensitive/deafness combo, it was a killer. I had to wait inside for my order to come up and the sound made me unsteady - my gyroscope went into full panic mode.  With order in hand, I bolted out the door.  On the patio, the sound blaring from the tinny Radio Shack quality speakers was reduced yet at the table next to me, I could see people leaning into each other,  half screaming to be heard. "Energy!", shout the ambiance/acoustics experts when questioned about this level of sound; "Insanity!", say I when even the youngsters are screaming for mercy and business is bolting out the door. With my head swimming from the noise, I ate the hamburger quickly and after a couple of fries, tossed them out. No lingering.

If you try the place, plan to take the delicious burger out and find a nearby park where you can eat in peace*. Or eat in the car (ugh). Otherwise, take ear plugs and don't expect to talk to anyone.

* Eating in peace made me think about The Bucket, a tiny place in Eagle Rock we would brave for lunch when I worked at Lawry's California Center. Julio, at his range, and 9 stools. He acted like a nut case - I was never really bought his act. Most of his customers were bright kids from Occidental College eager for something different and he delivered it. You went in, stood up waiting for a stool to open up and then hoped he'd notice you and take your order.

Julio might give you a quick assessment and move you to the front of his order line or you could wait and wait. I never figured out a formula for getting to the front, but it was clear that wearing a suit was the kiss of death.  Customer service? If you dropped dead on his restaurant floor he'd scream at your corpse for being in his way. The nicest thing he ever said to me was "Close the f______ door, you're letting the flies in". Nice to see you again too Julio!! Real anger or feigned for show, the insults he'd throw around were mind boggling - yet the whole dining experience had a kind of sick allure. At the time,  I was eating/tasting all day; lunch was a sensory time-out for me - I didn't need the fuel. The Bucket experience was welcome break from my everyday reality.

As for the food, I remember The Bucket french fries as the best I've ever eaten. Julio never disclosed his potato source. He cooked them in an old beat up black pot over a gas flame on the back of his range, one order at a time. They were perfect, served smothered with his special outrageously over-done garlic sauce. Perfect -  even for a jaded and over-worked palate.

As I haven't thought of The Bucket for years, I googled it and found the following review on Chowhound circa 2007. Things have changed but it still sounds unique. The reviewer reports the fries as "underwhelming". The gauntlet's dropped; I'm making a Bucket run up to Eagle Rock to check it out.

The Bucket on Eagle Rock is still open and as great as ever, but the ambiance is far different now that founder Julio is gone.
The place used to seat only 9 and if you acted up, you got whacked with a whiffle ball bat. As a novice, I once asked for a knife to cut my double and Julio pulled a Noriega by producing a machete and proceeded to bang away on the counter like a maniac. Those were great days. If he was in a good mood you were treated to "seafood" - that meant lump crabmeat stuffed inside butterflied jumbo shrimp assembled in a baseball sized orb that was battered, fried and doused with his famous garlic sauce. If he was in a really good mood, you got chocolate cake and a nip of sherry (on the house) for dessert and he would break out his old WWII pics of he and his late wife. What an awesome guy.
You can still get all the favorites as Julio sold the recipes with the joint, and the new owners have built a patio that seats about 30 or so now. You can sit and enjoy football on the weekends and take a couple hours to work through appetizers a double or a couple singles and a pitcher or two. One of the best, right up there with Port-of-Call in New Orleans.
PS - Stay away from the underwhelming fries and save your appetite for the real stuff.

    Monday, February 14, 2011

    Midnight at the oasis

    Kissing a Bedouin at the Bagdad Cafe
    Today, the day for sweethearts, I recalled some of the really unusual kisses I've been lucky enough to receive or to give. Here's one of them. So it wasn't exactly "Midnight at the Oasis" - more like mid-afternoon and we were at the Bagdad cafe - sort of an oasis.  Granted, he wasn't a real guy, but there's a lot to be said for the strong, silent type. The setting was indisputably glorious and this is a close to kissing a Bedouin as I want to get. 

    The Bagdad Cafe is about 150 km from Iraq. Named after the film, it started as a rest stop for truck drivers hauling supplies through the desert to Iraq. Now it's an off-the-beaten path sort of weird tourist attraction. The stuffed guy is this desert's equivalent to a giant ball of string - designed to stop traffic and separate tourists from their moola. 

    Most of the Bedouin I encountered in Syria and Jordan were not as pasty in complexion as my guy above. He seems to have used too much sun block. Bedouin usually have lovely tan colored skin and many of the men still use Kohl on their eyes which gives them a dusky, heavy-lidded Rudolph Valentino look. In their own milieu, dashing across the desert on camels, jeeps or dune buggies, they bristle with virility.

    They're wonderful to admire from afar. 


    Sunday, February 13, 2011

    Puttin' on the Ritz

    20 large windows and 10 glass doors add up to a lot of window washing. A professional cleaning job sets me back about $300.00. As I need the exercise and today was another stunning day, I decided to save the money and clean the windows myself. A new product from Windex was the initial inspiration. The Outdoor "All-In-One" window washing tool: It's a pad thing attached by velcro to a swivel head on the end of a long pole. You're instructed to blast the windows with a hose, use the pad thing to clean the glass (up to 20 windows per pad) and then blast again. The sheeting action in the cleaning formula they claim, will result in non-streaky clean windows. I tried cleaning a set of windows and waited a while for the sun to shine through them. The windows were horrible, full of streaks and the dirt was still there.

    Disappointed and resigned to using $300 worth of elbow grease I rooted around in my cleaning closet where I have a number of window cleaning devices/schemes (I'm a sucker for these) and happened upon the Ritz Window Cloth no. 909.  Ritz has been around since 1892 " the quality name for household cleaning textiles", the label reads.  The graphics on the package lead me to believe it's something I bought at the hardware store.. not one bit glamorous. And the name "Window Cloth" is so homely and uninspired! There's a footnote which says "Cleans like Magic" and goes on to say "get instant sparkle on windows, mirrors and windshields". These are understatements -  but the claims probably motivated me to purchase the product OR it was a demo. I almost always buy demo'ed products - food, cleaning stuff - if I see it work with my own eyes or I connect on some level with the demonstrator, I'll usually part with the cash. I guess you'd call me an easy sell.

    This cloth is fantastic. As instructed, I wet it, wrung it out and used it to clean all the glass.  No streaks - just wiped down the window and used a lintless cloth to dry. Way better than Windex or any other glass cleaner spray-on I've tried. Best of all and almost unbelievable in these days of engineered obsolescence, they claim on the back, "good until the cloth itself is worn out!!" "You will surprised at how long it lasts". Well, Mr. Ritz, I'm both surprised and astonished. The last statement is "surely you will want to tell your friends about it".. I do, I do -  I am, I am.

    And the price? You can purchase the "Window Cloth" online for between $2.99 and $3.50 depending on the web site you choose-Kitchen Collection, The Kitchen Store and Amazon all carry them. I've reached the stage in life where I'd rather have one of these useful cloths as a gift than some silly bauble I'll never wear - so I'm buying 10 and hoping my friends and family feel the same way and will enjoy these Ritzy things as much as I have.

    "Puttin' on the Ritz" is a popular song written and published in 1921 by Irving Berlin and introduced by Harry Richman in the musical film Puttin' on the Ritz (1930). The title derives from the slang expression "putting on the Ritz," meaning to dress very fashionably. The expression was inspired by the swanky Ritz Hotel.

    Thursday, February 10, 2011


    I hoisted my golf clubs from the garage floor into the car trunk. Rrrrrrrip. The large handle ripped right off the bag, crumbling into dust, like the diaphragm in a virgin's medicine chest.

    Unused for five or six years, the fabric of the golf bag was simply rotting away from the clubs. Was this an omen? Undaunted and one handle short,  I headed down to San Luis Rey Downs for the Fallbrook Community Center senior golf lessons.

    After checking in the instructor told me to get my clubs. Reaching into the truck, I used the remaining smaller handle to lift the bag out of the car. Rrrrip! That handle went too! Now my poor old bag was short two handles with shredded fabric hanging off the sides;  the once jaunty pink color has faded to an unhealthy violet-beige and my clubs have an antique look, like me.

    Fortunately I made the right choice about my golf shoes. Tucked into the dark recesses of the golf bag, I'd forgotten about them. When the bag broke and I examined it a little closer, I discovered the shoes in one of the pockets sharing the space with old score cards, credit card slips and a bunch of tees. Exposing them to the light of day, I was struck by how ridiculous they look, with cut-out leather work in the toes, flaps and fringes. Awkward and stupid, they felt to me like big clown shoes even when they were au courant. My fellow class mates were wearing golf shoes, but they looked more like 2010 than 1995. My golf shoes were blaring the BeeGees and exposing me for the dinosaur I've become.  

    Two guys and five women in the class. All of us less flexible than we once were. When the group arose from a sitting position in slo-mo, you could almost hear the creaks. My objective? I hoped I could learn to hit the ball longer and straighter from the lessons.

    Nobody smelled like moth balls, but wafting back and forth in the firmament over our heads was the unmistakable aroma of Jim Beam. Somebodys joints needed a little more oiling than Vap-O-Rub could provide. It's hard for me to imagine trying to line a ball up or swinging at anything, under the influence, but you make exceptions to the rules the older you get. In fact, you forget about the rules altogether. No wonder there's so much hanky-panky in these senior residence places. 

    Our teacher told us that he's taught more than 37000 lessons. Needless to say, he doesn't golf in his spare time. Following one hour's worth of his instructions on grip, lining up and stance, I hit my first ball and was amazed that it went straight at the target -  sliceless!  I'm hooked (pardon the pun). Gonna buy some new shoes. 

    Monday, February 07, 2011


    Sylvia Bursztyn is no longer with us. For my entire adult life, attempting to solve the Sunday LA Times crossword has been a weekly ritual. Nancy, of the Banar sisters, noticed the note at the bottom of the Jan 9th puzzle stating that this puzzle would be Sylvia's last. Shocked, I've lost a love/hate relationship of decades. Her obit follows.

    Sylvia Bursztyn dies at 62; created Sunday crossword puzzles for the L.A. Times

    Bursztyn collaborated with her puzzle partner Barry Tunick on the newspaper's word game until his death in 2007, then continued on her own. During their long working relationship, they rarely met face to face.

    January 08, 2011|By Claire Noland, Los Angeles Times
    Sylvia Bursztyn, who parlayed her playful spirit and love of language into a 30-year career of creating devilishly clever Sunday crossword puzzles for the Los Angeles Times, has died. She was 62.
    Bursztyn was found dead at her Granada Hills home on Dec. 30. The Los Angeles County coroner ruled her death was from natural causes.
    Bursztyn collaborated with her puzzle partner Barry Tunick on The Times' word game from April 1980  until his death in 2007, then continued on her own. Their Puzzler first appeared in the Book Review, then moved to the Sunday magazine and finally landed in Sunday Calendar. Her last puzzle will appear this Sunday.
    Despite their long working relationship, Bursztyn and Tunick rarely met face to face. She would construct the grid and fill in the words according to the theme she had conceived, then send the game to Tunick, a high school English teacher from Culver City who would write the corresponding clues. They were known for their clever wordplay featuring puns and anagrams.
    Some of their favorite cryptic clues:
    Trapp family dog? The hound of music.
    Plain-wrap soap? Generic hospital.
    Proof the cat ate the canary? Down in the mouth.
    The puzzle makers explained how they met and how they worked together in their book "Crossword Crosstalk," published by Capra Press in 1988. Tunick, who in early 1980 already had a contract with The Times, was searching for a partner to divide the labor and to work more efficiently. He found Bursztyn, who was working as a legal secretary, through the National Puzzlers League. Since joining the organization a year earlier, she had been crafting verse word puzzles that ran in its monthly magazine.
    Not only did the duo have different puzzle duties, they also had divergent personalities. In "Crossword Crosstalk," which is written in a chatty, back-and-forth style between the partners, Tunick described how they pitched the publisher on the biographical section of the book: "Barry, the devil-may-care, two-fisted amiable zany … and Sylvia, the inscrutable mystery woman, the Greta Garbo (J.D. Salinger?) of Puzzledom."
    In the resulting chapter, Barry's section goes on for nearly five pages. Sylvia's entry reads thus: "Bursztyn's bio: She writes puzzles."
    By most accounts, that was a typical response from Bursztyn, who guarded the details of her life. Public records show she was born outside the United States on Oct. 3, 1948. Even her editors and those inside the puzzle-making world knew little about her.
    Sylvia and Barry's puzzles were close to perfect in my opinion - not too hard, not too easy, always clever. Solving usually involved a big satisfying AHA! derived from the pun detection. I don't know why - but "getting" those things is just the cat's meow. 

    Their puzzles had a California feel, quite different from the big Kahuna - the New York Sunday grid. Sylvia and Barry's blended a satisfying mix of pop culture questions stirred in with just enough literary, sports, movie and language stuff. It was a good Sunday when I cursed the two of them only to retract it all an hour or so later while lighting a cigarette and lounging in that unique post-crossword bliss for which there is no word.

    The Banar sisters collaborate on the puzzle and I love to hear them talk about their Sunday phone-solving sessions - it brings back memories of my own sister. She was a crossword whiz and I would call her when stuck. She'd unstick me and nick me in a sisterly way about not knowing the answer.

    Just for the fun of it, puzzlers keep useless trivia rattling around in their noggins: archaic words, roman numerals, obscure bits of geography and some beauties like "etui" a four letter wonder, slightly obscure with terrific ear. Pops up frequently in puzzles.

    The Banar sisters are the only people I know who can actually use the word "etui" in a sentence.  Not only that, I believe they own or have traded in etui's - bought and sold them on Etsy. I'm betting they're killer Scrabble players.

    Life goes on. Now we have the Merl Reagle puzzles on Sunday. Aptly described as a sadist, by Nancy, his puzzles are harder. We're going to learn a few things, like this Sunday's "raccoon's kin" - so handy to know for Fallbrookians. Can't count the number of times I could have used this very word.

    Thursday, February 03, 2011

    Book Club Meeting - February

    Our hostess chopping vegetables in her gorgeous kitchen

    Barb's delicious curry

    Lori's wonderful salad

    Roxannes hand is faster than the eye

    Rox and Beth digging in

    Discussing the issues

    A sample plateful
    The evening was chilly outside but toasty warm inside Susan's lovely home. Good company, good food and great conversation. 

    Most enjoyed reading One Amazing Thing by Chitra Divakaruni; some had reservations.  Beth Deutsch didn't like it and I thought the writing was awkward in places. We all enjoyed the literary device used to tell the story: victims of a disaster - nine random strangers who happen to be in the Indian consulate in San Francisco where they are trapped by an earthquake - are facing either rescue or death. To quell panic, they decide to each tell their "story".  

    Jane Ciabattari in her review for NPR puts it beautifully "Trapped strangers are transformed into a chorus of Scheherazades, offering up tales of loss and love, and betrayal and redemption, to illuminate the gathering darkness."

    Did they live or did they die? Most of the group fell on the "half full" side and thought they probably were rescued. A couple of us saw doom descending quickly on the very next page, if there were a next page.

    Smell-o-rama!! Our little group doesn't pretend to plumb any intellectual depth at these meetings. We plunge into the scatological (led by Beth C.) at any opportunity and a good one arose. Off the book topic, but on the subject of book clubs, we discussed what kinds of aromas Beth D. could create/capture and bottle to enhance a book reading experience for her grandson's book club. What a great idea to make the reading experience memorable! Proust and all that. The suggestions came fast and furiously.

    While driving home, I thought about what story I'd tell if I had to pick a final one. For years I've been struggling over my "last supper"; now a new gauntlet's dropped and the Scheherazade challenge is on in my brain.

    Next month's book: At Home: A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson.

    Tuesday, February 01, 2011

    Pass the sandwiches

    The grim reality of aging was rammed home again today as I visited the beauty salon to see if I could be rescued from bag-lady-hood once again. Sitting in front of those huge mirrors can be distressing but today was a positive experience. The beauty operator parted my hair down the middle and clipped it with two clips, one on either side of my head. I'd looked away while she completed this operation and when I glanced back at myself I burst into laughter because I looked just like Dagwood!! I guess that's why they call them "beauty operators".

    The young stylist/operator did not know who Dagwood was; I'm sure she thought I was half dotty sitting there, chortling away to myself. Viva la generation gap.

    At the Apple store earlier, I was getting help downloading a book. The young "genius" said, "Sometimes these apps stick. Let's try downloading something free - that will often unplug the system." She chose "Hurry Back to School". I told her I'd been dying to read that anyway. She laughed out loud..which really surprised me. With a young high-tech audience, such remarks usually fall on deaf ears. She came back with something really funny. I wanted to adopt her immediately.

    Image from Dagwood's Sandwich Shops
    Over the past few months I've felt I was beginning to look like Richard Burton. Things are looking up! If you had to choose between RB or Dagwood to spend the night with, who would you pick? The downside is that contemplation of my Dagwood countenance raised a mighty hunger in me.  I could hardly wait to get home, slap together a twenty layer sandwich, then take a nap on the couch. ZZZZZZZZZZZZ