The Best Books I Read in 2019

I listen to most books these days, but some of the books to the right of Frosty I actually read.

I eagerly anticipate this time of the year when the year’s best reads are published. I don’t compare the books I read with the writers/editors choices since most of the books I read (or listen to) in a calendar year are published in other years, I use these lists as books to consider reading next year or later.

With that said, here are my favorite reads of 2019, with only four of the titles published in the last twelve months (and one of them originally released about 1000 years ago). The list is in no specific order except for separating nonfiction from fiction; however, the first three or four titles in Nonfiction are my top reads of the year.

NONFICTION

Most books I read/listen to in a given year are nonfiction and of these titles, my favorite are political. It is a hangup of mine that I wish I could shake, but to repeat a popular term, I am a political junkie.

We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement by Ryan Grim, 2019

This should be essential reading for all progressives. The Intercept‘s Ryan Grim tells the 30-year story of a popular movement that started with Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Collision and has culminated in the rise of Bernie Sanders into the national conscience and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s meteoric rise into American politics (who may have coined the name of the book: “We’ve got people. They’ve got money”). Grim expertly shows how Ocasio-Cortez did not grow out of a vacuum but is part of a movement that’s time may have come. If I had to pick my favorite read of the year (regardless of when it was published), it would be this one! Note to audio book listeners: Chapter 16 is a mess, but after I contacted the author via Twitter, he sent me a clean recording of the problem chapter. For audio book enthusiasts, note that reader, Sean W. Stewart must have recorded the book on his back porch—you can hear birds tweeting in the background!

Ryan Grim talks about the genesis his book.

Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World by Rutger Bregman, 2017

If Grim’s book is my favorite read of 2019, “Utopia for Realists” comes in a close second. The same goes for the authors: Grim is as gracious as he is knowledgeable. Equally, Rutger Bregman, a Dutch historian, journalist, and author is a brilliant thinker who is not afraid to tell it like it is, even when surrounded by multimillionaires and billionaires. If you haven’t seen him dressing down of the elite during the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland, click here. It is a thing to behold! He has become one of the champions of universal basic income or UBI. Check out his 2017 Ted Talk. His book–that came out the same year–tackles that idea in detail as well as the 15-hour workweek, and open borders. He wasn’t convincing about the 15-hour workweek. I vaguely remember him writing about how John Maynard Keynes brought it up in the depths of the Great Depression, but reducing the workweek (without reducing pay) in America is an idea which time has come.

On Fire: The Case for the Green New Deal by Naomi Klein, 2019

Naomi Klein is quite possibly the most significant thinker of our times. I once read someone saying Klein is the next Noam Chomsky. An absurd statement. Chomsky is Chomsky, and Klein is Klein. Still, the idea that the Canadian author, journalist, and activist has risen to the heights of a Chomsky is an achievement. She is absolutely essential.

“On Fire” is a continuation of one of her masterpieces, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate.” It reports from the front lines of the people and ideas that are looking for solutions like The Green New Deal. It is not as thorough and as in-depth as “This Changes Everything,” but I think it is meant to be a companion piece to it. Worth a read!

Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by William Pollan, 2008

Pollan’s manifesto is: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Of course, when he says “food,” he is not referring to Twinkies, Snickers, all processed foods. There are 64 Food Rules in the book. Each rule is simple, and its explanation is only about a page long. For being a tiny book, it is deceptively dense in wisdom. I’ve been trying to lose weight, and this book has helped, though “Food Rules” is not, by definition a diet book, but rather a guide on how to eat right.

What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States by Dave Zirin, 2005

For some time now, my son has been trying to get my wife and me to read “Welcome to the Terrordome,” written by someone named “Check D,” a wrapper my son apparently likes. He hasn’t been successful, but on a long car trip, he had me cornered. I finally looked up the title and found out the book is actually written by The Nation Magazine‘s sports editor Dave Zirin. (Chuck D, turned out to write the Forward.) As a long-time reader of The Nation and a one-time listener to Zirin’s podcast, “The Edge of Sports,” I knew and appreciated Zirin. So I ended up ordering the book, and in the meantime, Zirin’s previous book, “What’s My Name, Fool?” was available in audio, so I started listening to that. I was not disappointed.

“What’s My Name, Fool?” (a refrain Muhammad Ali asked his competitors who insisted on calling him by his “slave” name, Cassius Clay) is about the confluence of sports and politics. The book’s main topics are Ali and his fight for dignity against a white establishment, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ expression of Black Power and racism 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City and how the two continued to fight after the blowback. Zirin also compassionately expressed the other side of when George Foreman waved a small U.S. flag after winning his gold medal in boxing during those same Olympic Games. Zirin covers Jackie Robinson and the racism he had to face every day when playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the long-term effect that had on the ballplayer’s life. Other topics include the plantation mentality of the multi-billion-dollar NCAA, the Billy Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs match, and other issues. I’m glad my son, indirectly pointed me to this book. Perhaps n 2020, I’ll read “Welcome to the Terrordome,” which, if the critics are correct, is a sequel to “What’s My Name, Fool?”

Lightly: How to Live a Simple, Sceren, Stress-Free Life by Francine Jay, 2019

I don’t read very many self-help books, but I have read a couple of books on minimalism: the elegant “Goodbye Things” by Fumio Sasaki, and my first book on the subject, “Everything That Remains” by Joshua Fields Millburn, but “Lightly” is the first book that doubles as a field guide. That is, it is part theory, part “how-to” manual that someone like Marie Kondo might appreciate. It has been a while since reading the Sasaki and Millburn books, but I believe what I really love about Jay’s beautiful book is how she addresses global issues. While the other authors focus mostly on personal issues, Jay also talks about the importance of reducing your carbon footprint.

The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future by Andrew Yang, 2018

I like Yang, even if he is against minimum wage (a deal-breaker if he wants my vote). He has some good ideas: his “Freedom Dividend” (read: UBI. No better yet, read Rutger Bregman’s “Utopia for Realists,” mentioned above). His idea on how to pay for the $1k a month to every adult American is refreshing, but I prefer Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s better. Yang doesn’t seem to want to ruffle the elite’s feathers—he believes the Fourth Industrial Revolution is coming like a runaway train, and there’s nothing we can do about it, but take the $1k and deal with it. He does a great job here explaining how the Fourth Industrial Revolution (automation and artificial intelligence (AI)) is going to make a lot of blue-collar and even some white-collar jobs obsolete, but, as I recall, he offers few solutions besides a monthly check to remove some of the sting and the way he will pay for his “Freedom Dividend”—implementing a European-style Value Added Tax. (A tax that is placed on all products whenever value is added at each stage of the supply chain.)

Since I’m a socialist, I don’t think we should just roll over and let Big Tech and corporations steal all these jobs. AI and automation should be for the benefit of labor, not for the board of directors and shareholders. AI and automation should work to reduce the workweek, not the paycheck. Still, there are a lot of great ideas in this book. It’s worth a read.

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean, 2017

Just when I thought how the radical right took control of America, my friend at work handed me this hardbound bomb. I was ignorant enough to think the attack on the liberal gains of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society started with the Powell Memorandum in 1972. The Powell Memo was indeed destructive, but that was only one volley and Powell played a minor roll in the rise of neoliberalism in America. There was a far bigger player in this successful dismantling of the social programs and institutions that even Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon accepted as established. His name was James McGill Buchanan Jr.

“Democracy in Chains” is an explosive expose of the radical right’s most successful attempt at destroying labor unions replacing them with Right to Work laws, privatizing public education, privatizing the prison systems, hobbling health care, replacing pensions with 401k plans, launching multiple attempts to privatize Social Security, keeping as many of us as possible out of the voting booth, and, in general, disenfranchising the middle class. MacLean does an excellent job of revealing the hidden political establishment behind far-right foundations thought to be started by billionaires like the Koch Brothers. Buchanan stands head and shoulders above highly visible thinkers like Milton Friedman, Richard Fink, Friedrich Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises.

The most fascinating thing I found about this book is Buchanan, and his like-minded thinkers attack “democracy” in favor of “freedom.” I’ve never heard of democracy referred to as a dirty word in America until reading this book. Too, the term “freedom” has the convenient definition as something that benefits wealthy white men–a greater opportunity for the rich to get richer and for everyone else (especially poor people of color) to remain disenfranchised. The Nation awarded “Democracy in Chains” Most Valuable Book of 2017. It deserves the accolade.

Nancy MacLean talks about how she came up with “Democracy in Chains.”

Revolution of the Soul: Awaken to Love Through Raw Truth, Radical Healing, and Conscious Action by Seane Corn, 2019

I should take it easy on the political books and podcasts. I didn’t know who to kill after reading “Democracy in Chains”–maybe start with me? I always feel better reading/listening to works like “Revolution of the Soul.” Seane Corn is a singular yoga teacher and this is an excellent read for being her first–part memoir, part the kind of instruction Corn’s followers have come to expect from her.

Her publisher, Sounds True writes, “Seane’s real purpose is to guide us into a deep, gut-level understanding of our highest Self through yoga philosophy and other tools for emotional healing – not just as abstract ideas but as embodied, fully felt wisdom. Why? To spark a ‘revolution of the soul’ in each of us so we can awaken to our purpose and become true agents of change. Seane writes, ‘When we heal the fractured parts of ourselves and learn to love who we are and the journey we’ve embarked upon we will see that same tender humanity in all souls. This is the revolution of the soul.'”

Each chapter of this memoir includes practical tools from the author: instructions on the chakra system, pranayamas, healing, forgiveness, the subtle body, and more. Not into yoga? Perhaps this book isn’t for you. What can I say? It’s my blog.

Heart of a Lion: A Lone Cat’s Walk Across America by William Stolzenburg, 2016

The author traces the steps of an embattled mountain lion from the Black Hills of North Dakota, across the Great Plains, through the Midwest to Connecticut’s Gold Coast–a two-year odyssey. It’s a fascinating and, at least for me, tragic tale of how we are slowing killing off some of our most majestic mammals due to human encroachment and misunderstanding. Goodreads.com calls it “a testament to the resilience of nature, and a test of humanity’s willingness to live again beside the ultimate symbol of wildness.” I couldn’t have said it better.

The Hidden Life of Wolves by Jim Dutcher, Jamie Dutcher, James Manfill, 2013 and The Wisdom of Wolves: Lessons from the Sawtooth Pack by Jim Dutcher, Jamie Dutcher, James Manfill, 2018

This was the first year I ever started reading about wild cats and dogs. First, I read “Heart of a Lion” then I read “The Hidden Life of Wolves” followed by the he beautiful pictorial “The Wisdom of Wolves.” I came away with a similar feeling had had when a read books on sharks after seeing the film “Jaws”: how misunderstood these predators are.

What was especially fascinating about the Dutcher books is how the couple and Manfill were able to become accepted in the Sawtooth Pack in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. (At one point Jamie Dutcher is allowed into a she-wolf’s den after after she has given birth to pups!) The products of this kind of acceptance is an excellent study on how wolves live and some absolutely stunning photography.

America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America by Jim Wallis, 2016

“Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Wallis writes, “America’s problem with race has deep roots, with the country’s foundation tied to the near extermination of one race of people and the enslavement of another. Racism is truly our nation’s original sin. It’s time we right this unacceptable wrong.” I have read Wallis’ books and editorials for years in his Sojourners Magazine–a Christian progressive monthly.

In “America’s Original Sin,” Wallis tells of how he was driven away from his faith by a church that didn’t want to address the problems of racism in the 1960’s. He turned to working with civil rights groups. He returned to the church when he found a faith that commands racial justice. “Yet as recent tragedies confirm” he writes, “we continue to suffer from the legacy of racism. The old patterns of white privilege are colliding with the changing demographics of a diverse nation.”

Jim Wallis on his 2016 book.

FICTION

I probably read one book of fiction for every three nonfiction books, but after reading each of these books I felt I was missing out.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth, 1987

Roth won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for this masterful work of loss and distrust recounted by a family friend during a high school reunion and spans about fifty years, starting in the early 20th century where Seymour “Swede” Levov’s father starts a profitable glove manufacturing business and continues through the idyllic 50’s when the son, All-American college star, Swede Levov, and his trophy wife, Dawn, watch their seemingly perfect life, with their daughter, slowly unravel through the tumultuous ’60s. For me, it is one of the most heartbreaking yet compelling books I have ever read, and the first book I have read by the lauded Philip Roth.

Ohio by Stephen Markley, 2018

Shortly after Philip Roth, one of the most significant figures in American letters died, Stephen Markley publishes his first novel. I’m not trying to claim Markley has taken Roth’s mantle, I’m only saying “Ohio” is worthy of a master’s offspring. “Ohio” is a brutally vivid story of a community in the rust belt where the American Dream is all but dead, and the opioid epidemic is in full swing. Told from the perspective of four former classmates who return home after the untimely death of a friend in Iraq. The four return on the same night, with different motives and none of their homecomings, go as planned. The novel ends with a terrifying act of violence, the culmination of a set of lives that have been destroyed by abuse, drug addiction, hatred, war and poverty.

Vox by Christina Dalcher, 2018

Something like a fundamental Christian theocracy takes over the U.S. government and begins to roll back liberties–especially for women and young girls. On the day, the government decrees that women are allowed to speak no more than 100 words a day. At first, Dr. Jean McClellan thinks this will pass, but it doesn’t. She, her daughter, and all females have a counter fascinated to their wrists to monitor and govern their speech. Soon, women lose their jobs, girls are no longer taught to read or write in school. A moment comes when McClellan can step up and do something about this injustice. This is no “Handmaiden’s Tale,” one reader commented, but “Vox” is clearly not trying to be that story. It is more subtle and, in a way, that makes “Vox” more terrifying.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, 2014

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.…”

Nope, that wasn’t a spoiler, that’s how the book starts, and it is because of this setup that everything that follows so tragic. Lydia is torn between the demands of her mother and the different expectations of her father while her own desires ans aspirations are ignored. Thus paving the way to the established climax.

The structure, while not completely novel, is executed expertly. “Everything I Never Told You” is a moving story of a Chinese American family living in a small town in 1970’s Ohio. It is a moving story about a family divided by cultures, gender, and generations.

Purity by Jonathan Franzen, 2015

Pip (Purity) Tyler, a young woman, straddled with college debt and a burning question: who is her father. Her eccentric mother knows but won’t tell her. She fled from him before Pip was born, changed her name, and retired to live in anonymity in the woods of Northern California. Pip begins an internship with the Sunlight Project, the organization founded by the famous and charismatic German leaker, Andreas Wolf (fashioned after Julian Assange). Pip moves to Bolivia, where the Sunlight Project is based, with the hope of being able to use hacker technology to discover her father’s identity.

I enjoyed the odd sexual tension between Pip and Andreas, the dark secrets revealed in intimacy, and the betrail. Like Franzen’s previous book, “Freedom,” the pacing might be slow at first, but the story picks up momentum and is well worth sticking with it.

Jonathan Franzen talks about his latest novel “Purity.”

Beowulf by Unknown, between the 8th and the early 11th century (Okay, the version I read was transcribed by Francis Barton Gummere and translated by Seamus Heaney)

I try to read a piece of classic literature a year. I’ve been meaning to read Beowulf for years. In the meantime I have seen the The Lord of the Rings, based on J.R.R. I try to read a piece of classic literature a year. I’ve been meaning to read Beowulf for years. In the meantime, I have seen The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. Reading Beowulf, I see where he got his inspiration. It is one of the most essential works in old English literature and can take credit for a lot of European works from Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” operas to “Game of Thrones.”

The story is set in Scandinavia. Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid The story is set in Scandinavia. Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, who has been under attack by a monster known as Grendel, and much gallantry is displayed. After reading the epic poem, I bought and enjoyed Santiago Garcia and David Rubin’s large-format graphic novel version of the seminal piece of Old English lit. It was a nice encore.

Burger Patch and Scooter Parts

Burger Patch and my perpetual (failing) diet

This blog started out in part to investigate hamburgers from Sacramento restaurants, bar & grills, and food trucks. That part didn’t last–dieting got in the way. I’ve been trying to lose weight and to cut back (way back) on beef and dairy. This is in part for my health and also for ecological reasons. “Livestock farming has a vast environmental footprint. It contributes to land and water degradation, biodiversity loss acid rain, and deforestation. Nowhere is the impact more apparent than climate change—livestock farming contributes 18 percent of humans produce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.” (Source: “Five Ways the Meat on Your Plate is Killing the Planet” from The Conversation.com) The other part of the original project—checking out local scooter culture, scooter clubs, and run and rallies–was actually a much bigger failure. I’m a reclusive guy, so I didn’t know what I was thinking trying to rub elbows with fellow scooterists. I always ended up in the corner alone during meetups, rallies, and runs. Anyway, scooterists drink like fish–I’m, for the most part, a teetotaler. In the end, I guess I was just excited I had a scooter and initially, couldn’t be happy with just the ride.

Anyway, I don’t miss Royal Bastard Scooter Club events, and I especially don’t mind riding clear of the Vespa Club of Sacramento. The dieting part is far more challenging. And as far as beef and dairy goes–I’ve been far more successful in cutting back on beef than avoiding dairy. (Me likey Half & Half in the morning joe and cheese on just about everything.) One little victory on the cutting back on beef and all other animal-based food, for that matter, is drinking Huel shakes for weekday lunches. I started out drinking the environmentally-friendly shakes for both breakfast and lunch at work. I wrote about it here. Alas, that didn’t last long, but I am back on track, when it comes to most lunches during the work week. I am also interested in vegetarian and vegan alternatives to dairy and all kinds of meat. I still love hamburgers, but often choose a restaurant’s veggie burger alternative to the beef burger. (I know it’s blasphemy from the guy who started this blog writing about Squeezeburgers and Fatboys.) When I started seeing ads for a place called Burger Patch, I wrote down the address without reading the whole advertisement. A week later, I had my poor vegetarian-curious son driving me around Midtown Sacramento, trying to find the phantom place. As it turned out, Burger Patch had no established address at that time but had pop-up events in different locations for about the first two years. I didn’t know that at the time and just gave up–until recently. Last August, Burger Patch opened a brick & mortar joint at 2301 K Street. It took me a while, but I finally checked this place out.

Patch Burger alternative hamburger offers are “Patch Burger,” “Double Patch Burger,” and the “BBQ Patch Burger.” (I know, they’ve got to do something with those names. In that context, they sound less to do with a garden and more to do with how you fix a flat on your bike.) They also offer three alternative chicken items called “Chick’n”: “The Ranch,” the “Crispy BBQ Ranch” (I’ll be back to check out that last one.) and “chick’n” tenders option called “A Bunch.” I ordered the “Patch Burger” and added “Hickory Smoked Strips”–there alternative to bacon. (As if there ever could be an alternative to bacon.)

But I digress.

I also switched out their standard bun for “Pushkin’s GF Bun,” just because I was curious what gluten-free bread tastes like. The bun is from the locally famous Pushkin’s Bakery, a wheat/gluten and dairy-free bakery here in the Sacramento Area. When I asked for the Pushkin’s GF Bun, the young woman taking my order asked if I had an intolerance to gluten. When I said, “Alas, I can eat anything, and that’s my problem,” she laughed, but I followed with why she asked. She said something to do with cross-contamination. Presumably, my order would have been handled with special care if I would have answered in the affirmative, but I didn’t need the special treatment and there was a line forming behind me, anyway.

The instance reminded me of when I used to take my dinner breaks with my work partner, Dawna, at the nearby McDonald’s back in the mid-1980s. I initially thought she agreed with my and our co-worker, Bobby, on Mickey Dee’s because it was the fastest place to get our food. (We only had 30-minute find a restaurant, order, eat, and get back to the grind.) Dawna would order her Big Mac without ketchup and her fries without salt. The kitchen–designed to make food in advance to serve more customers in less time–came to a screeching halt to make a fresh Big Mac and drop a special basket of fries in the fryer just for Dawna. She would watch the minimum-wage workers like a hawk preparing her food special to ensure they made it to her specifications and made them fresh. This alone was annoying–it’s fast food, for fucks sake, Dawna! But after she got her dinner, she proceeded to salt up her fries and squirted ketchup on her burger. I suppose I could have had the folks at Burger Patch dawn their hazmat suits to make my burger special, while the line behind me got longer, but I only wanted to find out what a gluten-free hamburger bun tastes like. I liked it.

I also ordered a “Shovel of Spuds.” One hundred percent vegan, fried in non-GMO rice oil. The “house blend” of herbs they finish the fries off with making this one of the best orders of fries I have had in quite a while. Vegan or not, fries are fries, fatso, but I can’t help myself. Speaking of fatso, I had a Vanilla Bean, “Earth Quake Shake.” This vegan shake is made with cashew, soy, and almond kinds of alternative milk, and is the equal to most dairy-based shakes I have had. It is also 100 percent vegan and also not a low-calorie item, just a feel-good-about-yourself-and-the-planet shake. And that’s the thing about vegetarian and vegan foods–just a walk through the isles of the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-Op and you can see this shit isn’t exactly Jenny Craig.

But how did the burger taste, Jockomo?

I thought the tomato, and the lettuce tasted fresh, the grilled onions and the melted cheese also added to the burger’s good taste, but the Hickory Smoked Strips simply do not replace bacon, but what are you going to do? I’m trying to live a little cleaner and reduce my carbon footprint. I’m trying, Greta, really I am, but it is hard. The Hickory Smoked Strips are optional, so I suggest you skip them. The Patch Burger also comes with “Patch Sauce”–a slightly spicy version of Thousand Island Dressing. The little bit of heat gives it the burger a distinctive taste. Strangely, the Beyond Burger patty was dry.

What should I expect, the patty to have the consistency of a beef patty? I guess so, I’m at a hamburger joint, right? The only other beef (eh-hm) I had with the burger is how the whole thing fell apart about halfway into eating it. I’m not talking about how a bun will disintegrate while you’re eating a burger due to a combination of a poor bun, too much sauce, and a juicy patty. There weren’t any juices, and the Patch Sauce and the melted cheese didn’t seem to contribute to the breakdown. Was this an end-user issue? Maybe. Only a return visit will determine that. I think it was the patty’s dryness that was the main reason for the breakdown.

How does the Patch Burger compare to Burger King’s “Impossible Whopper”?

Well, aside from all the elements around the Impossible Foods patty, I liked it over the Patch Burger’s Beyond Meat patty, but everything else about the Patch Burger was superior to Burger King’s meatless offering. Too, Burger Patch’s Shovel of Spuds and milkshake were better than Burger King’s, by far. Also, if you check out head-to-head taste tests on YouTube, you’ll see it is–for the most part–a tossup when it comes to taste and juiciness, so I’m betting someone was asleep at the grill when my burger was being prepared.

A final note about the Burger Patch. Make sure to check out their excellent website: https://www.theburgerpatch.com/ They have promising items, not on the limited take-out menu. Also, if you’re a progressive like me, you’ll appreciate their commitment to sustainability. Also, take a look at their Patch Match page where each month, Burger Patch selects a charity and donates a portion of every burger sold. Another reason to patronize this burger joint. If I was rating burgers like I used to, I would give them a pass and try a Patch Burger a second time. Who knows, maybe they will have changed the burger’s name by then!

scooter repairs

It was tune-up time for my Vespa GT 200 L. Which means taking my ride into the shop. I have no idea how to work on engines short of filling them up with gas and adding/changing the oil. This job required more work, so I took my Vespino to Scooter City. Mike, the mechanic, said it would take an afternoon to complete, but when I told him to check a growling noise I experience most times I accelerate from an idle that put a question mark at the end of the estimated time of completion.

This sound was not consistent: I would hear it, and then it faded away, and other times, I wouldn’t hear it at all. I reported this to my old mechanic. He slapped a strip of duct tape across the front of the frame and the center panel because I assumed the sound was coming from the front of the scooter instead of the engine. The tape didn’t stop the growling. I put up with that sound for a few years—crossing my fingers all the way.

Me working on my ride with a torque wrench. Ha! Just kidding! I lifted this from the good folks at ScooterWest.com, but the scooter is my model and my Portofino green color. Check out the drive belt. I’ve seen one of those up close! What or where the “Bellville nut” nut is, is a complete mystery to me.

The source of the growling (or what might have been the source) ended up being significant, and I was glad I told Mike about it. When he opened up the crankcase, he found dust, rust, and severe wear. Ultimately, the drive belt, rollers, guides, the o ring, the Bellville nut, idler pulley, and pulley bolt had to be replaced. What are these parts, and how do they work in the Vespa GT 200’s Leader engine? Short of the drive belt, I don’t know. That’s why I pay a mechanic. As per law, the shop gave me the replaced parts, and I could tell there was some serious wear—the drive belt looked like it would snap at any time and the idler pulley (I think that’s what it was) sounded as if it was the primary noisemaker, and when I tried to spin it with my fingers, the sound it made was as if it would break any moment. The bag of worn parts was a photo op missed, but, as usual, whenever a mechanic gives me the replaced parts, I always play with the shit as if I have some idea how the stuff works, then leave it on the counter asking the shop to dispose of the bag of junk.

Out of the garage, my Vespa felt tight and smooth, but a day later, the growling came back, but it was a faint sound, and it wasn’t as frequent. I have no idea what all of this means. Maybe I should have been a master mechanic like my old man, or the late venerated Vespa sage, Rolf Soltau. Nah, I am sure it will be alright. Anyway, I’ve mastered the art of operating my Vespino with fingers crossed on both hands!

Ha, what do you know! I went to ScooterWest.com and this was on their home page–my drive belt!

Observations from the Mat #5: Practicing with a hot yoga teacher

I’ve been practicing yoga for over five years. At that time I started, I am happy to report I was not one of those guys who “checked out” women while practicing yoga. I was too busy trying to nail my asanas (yoga poses) to think about nailing the pretty lady in front of me. Anyway, at my old age, just the thought now makes me cringe; the attractive fellow students with the leggings are young enough to be my daughter. Unfortunately, there’s a first for everything.

I was starting a new class with a teacher of whom I have never worked. When she walked into the studio, the first thing I noticed besides the standard leggings many women wear in yoga classes was her top. She wore something similar to a camisole rather than the conventional crop top or other types of exercise shirt that revealed more of her dark skin the most tops. I’m guessing there was a camisole under the thing that looked like a camisole since there were two sets of spaghetti straps on her shoulders. One would expect a thicker bra strap, but it wasn’t. Jesus! Stop looking at the teacher’s brown shoulders, Jack! Okay, I don’t know what to call the outer camisole thingy. I felt creepy skulking around Forever 21, Spanx, and Saks of Fifth Avenue websites getting the proper names for “leggings” and “crop top” but never see the kind of top this 40ish-year-old woman was wearing. Just know that it looked like a camisole, okay, and it was delicate–not the kind of stuff you usually see women in during practice.

So, she’s got this exotic name to go with the dark bare shoulders. Another thing, she walks in with her hair down–way down. Black, curly hair that she wears in front of her. She smiles a toothy, but a cute smile that betrays the name, the top, and now hair. She walks over to one of the mirrored walls and puts her hair up. I could use this time to meditate like Patrick across from me. Frickin’ perfect Patrick with his perfect young body and his superior asanas. Must he roll out his mat across the room from mine and remind me how he can stick a pose better than me? Why does that bother me now–that kind of comparison crap hasn’t bugged me for years?

She turns to the few people in the class and introduces herself. Soledad. Damn, even the name is sexy or at least exotic. We all say, hi. She asks me if I attend other yoga classes here. I say two, with Heather. I then babble on about why the few early birds have our mats in this current configuration–an idea Heather started. She gives me that cute if incongruous smile and says something like she might be changing this up later. I feel like an ass. She didn’t ask about how the mats were set up, so why did I offer up this worthless piece of information. I look down and notice her feet. Can feet be sexy, or am I now attributing everything (sans the smile) to her general sexiness? I Check her left finger. Not married. (Be advised, I do this to everyone: women and men/attractive and not so attractive. It’s a weird tic, and no, I’m not bi.)

She rolls out her mat in the center of the room close to mine. From a standing position, she crosses her feet, then bends her legs until her rear quietly lands on her mat in Easy Pose without the use of her hands–they have been in Namaste the whole time. (Challenge and explanation to any readers who didn’t get that last sentence: While standing, cross your feet. Now sit on the ground while keeping the palms of your hands together as if you were praying, “Please God, preserve my tailbone!) I didn’t notice this graceful move until she was on the mat. I was too busy looking at her hair and shoulders. Damn it, Jack! You’re not here to check out females. She then starts to talk to us about what she hopes we will get out of this class. It seems like she is looking at me a lot as she tries to make eye contact with everyone. I doubt she spends a second longer looking at me and my lazy eye more than anyone else, including Perfect Patrick, it’s just that she has these big, beautiful, dark eyes.

When she’s looking and someone besides me, I can’t help but fixate on her top. I don’t mean her bust, I mean the thing she’s wearing. I examine the delicate straps until she swings her face towards mine again. Then I look away, embarrassed. This is horrible! I never do this shit in yoga. My other two teachers–Heather and Brenda–are both attractive, but besides that observation, I am all business with them–none of this stealing glances shit. I have quickly become one of the guys women talk about in funny YouTube videos–the guys who attend classes only to check out attractive women and their tight yoga clothes. I swear that is not me, at least not until now.

There was that one yoga teacher I practiced under for a short time. I forgot her name. She was also beautiful in an exotic way, but I didn’t get all worked up over her looks. It was a good class. She taught Yin yoga (a type of yoga where postures are held for a more extended time than most yoga practices). Even during Savasana, when she would walk around during this cool-down period and administered shoulder massages and finish us off with aromatherapy–a delicate rub of eucalyptus oil between the eyes–the Ajna chakra, I couldn’t say I was aroused only emotionally stimulated. Soledad is a different story, and it’s distracting and embarrassing.

I like to come to my yoga classes early. I have a spot, and I want to claim it. I roll out my mat, set up my blocks, and place a blanket at the back of the carpet where I sit and attempt to meditate until the teacher arrives. I am not as early for Soledad’s class as I am for Heather’s due to church on Sundays, but on one day, we skipped service, and I got to the club about as early as I do on the other days. When I got to the studio, I noticed the double doors were closed, and music was coming from the studio; it sounded like–Astor Piazzolla? When I opened the door a crack, Soledad was dancing an Argentine tango with a man. She was wearing the same top she practices in during our yoga classes, but she was also wearing a flowing skirt.

Before I could think up some romantic engagement between the two, Soledad stopped the music coming from her phone, gently criticized the man–who seemed about ten years her minor, then re-started the tango. I tried my hand at tango, but I wasn’t very good at it, and I knew it. Suddenly, a woman came into my narrow view. She gently cuts in, leaving the man out. At this point, Soledad and woman embraced in a salon-style dance pose, and after Soledad restarts the music, the new couple begins to dance. At the time, I realized my yoga teacher was instructing a couple in Argentine tango. Just then, as I’m starting to feel like a peeping Tom, I heard someone say from behind me, “Excuse me.” I backed up, embarrassed, and a fellow yoga student walked through the door. Soledad smiled at the woman who walked into the studio and rolled out her mat. Soledad then saw me, smiled, and said welcome. She then told the couple whom she was dancing with that she was about to teach a yoga class and that they would talk soon.

Before the yoga class started, Soledad removed her skirt (or is that thing called a wrap? I’m not looking that up!) revealing her leggings and explained to the class that she was teaching a couple how to tango for their wedding reception. The next Sunday, my exotic yoga teacher wore regular yoga clothes. Presumably, the young couple completed their lessons. My teacher’s clothes were more typical. Unfortunately, my web search results are anything, but. Thanks, Google Search Engine Marketing! Now every time I perform a Google search, I get ads for camisoles on the sidebar!

Maybe it was the change of clothing, or I just got used to the new teacher and her natural sexiness. She still comes to class with all that beautiful black curly hair draped over her chest, but after she puts it up in a Marge Simpson bun, it is no longer obtrusive. Still, I felt pretty creepy over my thoughts when I was recently reminded of Bikram Choudhury. Choudhury is the infamous hot yoga guru who, in 2013, was hit with several lawsuits alleging sexual harassment, sexual assault. Some of these allegations are explained–at times–painfully in the Netflix documentary “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator.” See the trailer below.

For those who don’t have Netflix, but do have HBO there was an article from the previously aired sports show “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.” Check out Choudhury doing his best Donald Trump impression!

How clueless the privileged are

I like David Doel’s The Rational National. It is my favorite channel on YouTube.com. (Though I have to admit, lately I am watching more and more of The Hill’s Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti insightful Rising.especially as the Democratic Primaries approach. The clip below is from TYT’s No Filter with the excellent Ana Kasparian. Here she interviews Doel about a recent piece he did on Meghan McCain’s foolish criticism of the Medicare for All issue. I know it seems better to ignore McCain and The View, but as long as nearly three million people tune in to the show every weekday, these kinds of stupid comments–especially coming from someone of privilege–need to be exposed.

Imagine Trump, but without the money

I ran across this the trailer to the film “Mister America” while reading Louis Proyect’s blog and was fascinated with this satirical performance piece by the actor/comedian/writer/musician Tim Heidecker. Heidecker plays a variation of himself, eschewing a character name. Proyect likens the performance to something similar to the late Andy Kaufman and it is easy to see the similarities.

Heidecker (I’m referring to the character) decides to run for District Attorney in San Bernardino County, California, though he isn’t a lawyer, doesn’t live in the county, and was prosecuted for the murder of 18 people who bought toxic e-cigarettes from him at a music festival he organized. He’s not in jail due to a mistrial. Still, he wants to get back at the DA that almost sent him to prison by challenging him in an election.

Planet-Cancelling Headphones

Ethan was walking to the office and was listening to a podcast: “Global Meltdown.” He loved his new noise-cancelling headphones. They made everything around him seem insignificant. The world is coming to an end! That Swedish girl is right, and no one is listening to her, except Ethan, Ethan was all ears. Behind him, a driver was unloading Red Bull from a truck when he fell off the ramp, spilling cases of the drink all over the street. Ethan didn’t hear the crash nor the sound of the exploding cans as the carbon dioxide gas released into the atmosphere.

My Short Love Affair with Music

1975, Rio Americano High School’s AV Room: Born to Run
It was late in the fall of my junior year in high school. I must have been roaming the halls during a period where I had dropped out of a course. The dropped class was most likely Ceramics where I spend nearly the whole semester flirting with Sandy, a big girl–the only kind who would flirt back. The teacher warned me to drop out, or he would give me an “F” for not submitting enough fired work. (Let it be known that Sandy was just as unproductive as I was. She claimed she would be receiving a passing grade solely on the fact that she was the younger sister of the teacher’s protégé.)

It was during one of these “open periods” when I ran into Marc. Marc and I were not close, but we both knew Jesse–a close friend of mine. Marc invited me into the high school’s AV Room. I never gave much thought to the students who worked pushing around the large video players and TVs on black carts and who setup overhead projectors in classrooms for teachers. I thought it seemed like a boring class if AV was considered a class.

The AV Room was chalked with overhead projectors, large CRT TVs and big video players on black carts with white “SJUSD” (San Juan Unified School District) stenciled on them. I vaguely remember one of the VHS players on a table with the cassette caddie out, pieces and tools lying around it. One thing I wasn’t expecting to find in the room was an old couch. Marc invited me to sit down while he walked over to a receiver with a turntable build into it with the same ubiquitous SJUSD sprayed on it. He pressed a lever on it and a few seconds later, over the crackle in the speakers, the drum roll of what I later found out to be “Born to Run” started. I’ve never heard this music before. It was very different from The Beatles, Bad Company, Chicago, and Aerosmith albums I had in my modest collection of scratchy LPs. It sounded both old and new at the same time. When I asked Marc what band this was, he said “Springsteen,” flipping the album cover onto the couch next to me as if to say, “Here, see for yourself.” I would later look back on this as a teaching moment lost. If I were Marc, I would tell him all that I knew about Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. But Marc just said the artist’s last name in a dispassionate tone. He didn’t answer my follow-up questions with any depth or enthusiasm, either. It was just an album to him–good enough to bring to school (if it was his) and play.

The guy on the cover looked more masculine than any rock and roller I have ever seen (with the exception of the guys on my brother’s Bachman-Turner Overdrive album). His hair wasn’t down over his shoulders like John Lennon or Steven Tyler, but long enough. He wore a leather jacket–something I always wanted but felt I would look stupid in one. To use a current idiom: “He rocked that jacket.” He had a more serious-looking guitar than most rockers–no flames or sunburst finish. It meant business. He wore the “axe” with absolute confidence–as if he was born with that chunk of wood, wire, and nobs on him. I took guitar lessons in my freshman year and–just like Ceramics–I ended up dropping out. Last, but not least, he wore a warm smile for the guy he was leaning on–Clarence “Big Man” Clemons. It was as if he was sharing a private joke with the Big Man. I didn’t have a friend I could lean on as Bruce seemed to have with his saxophonist. Bruce Springsteen was everything I was not but wanted to be, and his sound–at least to my untrained ears–was unique and very macho.

Marc said something about the bell ringing and having to go to the next class. If I felt I could talk him into it, I would have asked if I could lock up behind him and listen to the entire record. Anyway, I was doomed to drop out of the next period I was supposed to attend. Another thing, this album had printed lyrics! It was the first time I ever saw lyrics on an album. (I would later discover my sister’s copy of The Beatle’s 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had lyrics printed on the back of the album, but that was the only album I ever knew about that predates Born to Run.) Printing the words to the songs was a validation of the artist’s seriousness–the words were right in front of the listener. It was a confident, no-bullshit move for its time, I would think later.It was an entirely new experience in listening to music, and I wanted more of this stuff. Over the years, I would tire of the album, especially the title track, due in part to playing the hell out of it and hearing it on the radio. (I would never tire of “Thunder Road” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.”) I believed I was on my third copy of Born to Run when I traded it and all my other records in for classical Compact Discs (CDs). Looking back on my eleven years of listening to rock music, I am sure Born to Run was not my favorite. Still, I played no other vinyl more than that album. It was the gateway to a short, but intense time of music appreciation and criticism.

This post is about my brief love affair with music: my hero-worshiping of a lovable guy from New Jersey, my obsession with LP collecting, my interest in reading, and writing about music, late-night skanking with a college buddy and a local band. This post is also about mosh pits, flying loogies, and a skating rink-turned hallowed concert hall where this blogger saw two unforgettable concerts. This post is also about listening to music, sometimes at the expense of friends, family, and wait staff. Finally, this humble post is about leaving all this stuff behind.

1976/77, Disposable income and Tower Records: Becoming an avid record collector

Before my first regular job at Taco Bell, I rarely had any money to buy vinyl. There was lawn-mowing money, but that opportunity dried up after I became allergic to cut grass. There were occasional jobs at my father’s shop, but that didn’t happen very often. Also, when my dad paid me, I rarely spent my money on records. The Christmas season always brought with it Tower Records gift certificates. The yellow and red money order-sized card stock bills seemed to me kind of like the golden tickets in “Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” Not only was it free tender, but it also freed me up from the decision of what stuff I was going to buy with them–either music or books. Not only was it free tender, but it also freed me up from the decision of what stuff I was going to buy with them–either music or books. I can remember when I was around twelve when my big sister–trying in vain to talk me into buying The Rolling Stones compilation album Through the Past, Darkly. She had designs on listening to the Stones’ record. I ended up using my certificate on The Beatles’ Abbey Road. Both of these LPs were in the New Releases section. That makes this event occurring in 1969-70. The Beatles were still a band (if only on paper).

With 1976 came a driver’s license, a car, and my Taco Bell job and with the regular paycheck–disposable income. I also had a few friends who liked rock music. Collecting records started slowly: Boz Scaggs’ Silk Degrees, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ debut album, Bad Company’s first two records, Boston’s debut album, Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak. I also enjoyed a lot of the stuff my friends listened to, and I didn’t listen to music at the interpretive level. I was more interested in soaring guitars, bad-ass drum solos, and androgynous screamers like Steven Tyler. It was all very white, hard-rockin’ stuff. Then there were peers’ “suggestions,” like when this loud-mouthed bully at school hassled me for going on about how cool Dark Side of the Moon was. He said something like, “Pink Floyd hasn’t done shit since Meddle.” I took a chance on this jerk’s suggestion. (This wasn’t the same as blowing a golden ticket I only got in December–I now had the cash to take chances on an asshole’s opinion.) After only a few spins of Meddle, I filed it next to my other two Pink Floyd records (the other being the exceptional Wish You Were Here). I didn’t like it much, but by 1978 or 1979, I was playing the hell out of Meddle. Around that time, I would pick up Animals I enjoy that as well. Imagine my disappointment after playing The Wall a few times! I found it to be full of itself (save for the monumental “Comfortably Numb”). By the time I sold off all my LPs, I still hated the album.

1978, Winterland: The Sex Pistols, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
In late 1977 I got a job at Florsheim Shoes where I was reacquainted with an old childhood friend, Rick, who was the manager. We became best friends. On January 14 of 1978, we were working in the shop, and he said something like, “Hey man, let’s go see The Sex Pistols. They are playing at Winterland tonight!” The only thing I knew about The Sex Pistols was that they were called a “punk” band. I hadn’t heard one note of punk music. (Of course, my idea of punk was very narrow at the time; I assumed it was purely a British phenomenon. I was unaware it was around when I was sitting in the Rio AV room having my mind blown.) We hopped in my VW Scirocco, stopped by a convenience store where Rick bought a bottle of Bacardi 151 and a six-pack of Dr. Pepper.

As we flew across the Yolo Bypass on our way to San Francisco, Rick handed me a can of Dr. Pepper to drink halfway down. Then he filled the half-drained can with 151 and started drinking. The next day at work, I couldn’t stop talking about the concert. The flying bottles, the guitar that sounded like a DC 10 was about to crash into the building, the faint obscenities the crowd hurled at the stage and this Johnnie Rotten guy sending them right back to the crowd amplified, and that moving, jumping mass of humanity directly in front of the stage was nothing I ever experienced before.

I recall Rick writing the evening off as some aberration, but I kept thinking about how different the music was. At the time, I couldn’t articulate my feelings–that it was an insurrection from the status quo. The status quo being bands like The Who–the guys that sang, “I hope I die before I get old.” This stuff pushed the boundaries even farther than The Who and Led Zeppelin. Rick drank so much that the evening was a blur to him. But my ears were opened and still ringing. I had to check out this punk thing. It was a hell of a lot badder than Bad Company or Badfinger!

After The Sex Pistols concert, Rick turned me onto Rolling Stone magazine as well as the popular culture critic Greil Marcus. It was at this time I started collecting records in earnest: two or maybe even three a week. I had a method: I’d buy a relatively new release that sounded good on the radio or got a favorable review in Rolling Stone magazine. (Back then it would have been albums like The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls or The Clash’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope.) I’d also buy a classic I had read about e.g., Elvis’ Sun Sessions, Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On and What’s Going On, “The Harder They Come” soundtrack or Velvet Underground and Nico’s debut album. My carefully selected record assortment grew to the point I needed a bigger container for my music, then another big box, then another. And to match the ballooning size of my music reserve was my insufferable, superior opinion of the music.

Another friend I had around this time was Matt, an affable guy who, unlike Rick, wasn’t arrogant or judgmental. Looking back on my friendship with Matt, I realize I was quite the backstabber. Matt liked bands like REO Speedwagon, Styx, and Journey. He also liked The Bee Gees and to be fair, so did I. I had Main Course and the soundtrack to “Saturday Night Fever,” but I didn’t play them much. Also, I wouldn’t be caught dead with a Styx or “Oreo Speedcookie” album in my collection! So like a piece of shit, I criticized Matt’s taste of music to Rick. Looking back on it now, Rick could be cruel and judgmental towards me like he was towards Matt and our other friends. Matt was always warm and accepting. I fancied myself a burgeoning rock critic and would soon start submitting music reviews for my college paper, but my ego was way ahead of my chops. While I was adventurous when it came to music outside the mainstream. I listened to (bands like The New York Dolls, Robert Johnson, Parliament-Funkadelic, Howlin Wolf, Hank Williams, Sr., Run-DMC, and Phil Ochs. I wasn’t very adventurous when it came to mainstream, Top 40 stuff. Admittedly, that was my Achilles Heel as a professional critic. Maybe I would have found something redeemable in a band like Styx. I’ll never know now, but I want to duck and cover my precious ears whenever I hear the opening bars of “Lady.”

In December of 1978, Rick told me Bruce Springsteen was playing at Winterland. Bill Graham was closing the old concert hall that was best known for The Band’s final concert (immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s film “The Last Waltz.” Springsteen agreed to swing back around from his Darkness on the Edge of Town tour to honor the place with what ended up to be two concerts. I think I was so into punk/New Wave at the time that I hadn’t got around to buying the new Springsteen LP despite how much I loved Born to Run.

As Rick and I made our way to Winterland, we were booze-free, thankfully. What happened in that run-down old skating rink on the night of December 16, 1978, was the greatest concert–by far–I would ever experience. As it turned out the night before the band put in a performance so incredible to the fans and writers that were in attendance that it has become a part of rock legend. It also didn’t hurt the the bootleg of that night was supposed to be one of the greatest live recordings in all of rock history. I didn’t see that one, but for me the next night’s performance nearly ruined concert-going for me–nothing ever came close to it.

I am sure I bought Darkness on the Edge of Town the next day and played it nearly every day for the longest stretch. The album—even with its flaws– became my all-time favorite record (until I discovered The Clash’s 1977 debut album a year or so later). Whatever it was, I couldn’t stop listening to or reading about Bruce Springsteen. Even after I abandoned rock music I still–even to this day have a YouTube channel of the artist to see what’s up with him.

1980 and beyond: listening to, reading and writing about music
After Darkness on the Edge of Town, I became more secluded than I was before. This is significant since I was always a loner and a daydreamer–lost in my own thoughts. Now I spent hours nearly every day listening intently to music at the expense of everything else. My family and friends could attest to my wandering off from conversations. Think of a millennial looking down at their smartphone at the expense of what’s going on around them. Now remove the gadget in their hand. That was me–staring at the ground in front of my shoes. Now a song could become my smartphone–making me break entirely off from everything around me. I have always been a loner and have shopped, seen films, and ate out alone far more times than with company. So this kind of activity on the outside was nothing new. Now, suddenly hearing Sam Cooke singing “A Change Is Gonna Come” could snap me out of the rare one-on-conversations I might have in a public place.

Another byproduct of all this record collecting and interpretive listening was my interest in reading about popular music. I became absorbed in popular culture, 60s counter-culture, Elvis, Dylan, and the stuff that came before them. I also became interested in popular music criticism. I read Greil Marcus’ brilliant “Mystery Train,” Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons radical “The Boy Looked at Johnny,” and perused guides like “The Rolling Stone Record Guide.” I also thoroughly read Robert Christgau’s “Rock Albums of the Seventies.” I read almost the entire 480-page guide to get the hang of the critic’s style, which I never achieved. Part of the impetus for spending time reading about music was, of course, to get suggestions on more albums to buy (as expressed earlier). Another reason was to develop a critic’s parlance or an authoritative voice when it came to conveying my opinions on

songs, albums, concerts, artists. I picked this up from my friend Rick. I admired how he could carry a conversation about music with authority even when talking about a band he liked and I didn’t. I wanted to speak that way. I also wanted to write the way critics wrote. I had followed Rick to American River College’s newspaper The Beaver (Now The Current) where I ultimately became the Entertainment Editor. I was now going to concerts by The Talking Heads, Devo, The B-52s, and Iggy Pop, to name only a few–many of them on the college’s dime, and writing reviews of the performances. I also wrote record reviews for the campus newspaper. I struggled to express myself but never achieved my goal of being a professional music critic.

One thing I didn’t struggle with was my self-indulgence. When my father brought home the first Macintosh I cataloged my record collection with it. Soon after finishing my inventory I would rate each album using “The Rolling Stone Record Guide” five-star rating system. A few years after that I would dump the computer–for some reason–and catalog my swelling collection by hand, now using my own ten-point rating system. Both the computer-generated and handwritten inventories are lost to time.

1981, CSUS and around town: Following Mod Philo with Nolan
Shortly after I transferred from American River College to California State University, Sacramento (CSUS), I joined the campus newspaper (The Hornet). It was there that I met Nolan. Nolan and I had one specific thing in common: we loved ska, especially The English Beat. We also liked The Specials, but I wasn’t crazy about the other ska bands. Nolan loved them all: The Selecter, Madness, and the god-awful Bad Manners. Nolan told me about a local ska group called Mod Philo (presumably short for Modern Philosophy, whatever that means). I remember going with Nolan to one of their gigs.

My hopes were not set high. I was attending many punk concerts that had such headliners as X, Black Flag, and The Blasters. They were all outstanding, but the local bands that opened for them were laughably bad. I figured Mod Philo would be the ska versions this local punk groups. When I finally saw them, I was impressed. I got this feeling whenever we saw them that these guys would land a recording deal. We went to many of their shows where we would “skank.” I couldn’t tell you how to skank now, but I recall skanking all over the place while listening to Mod Philo back in 1981. The great thing is, like slam dancing, you didn’t have to ask someone to dance with you. At twenty-five, I rarely dated and was hopelessly intimidated by the opposite sex. So, I loved that I could skank with myself and not look like a loser–everyone seemed to dance with no one in particular!

I’m not sure how many Mod Philo shows Nolan, and I attended. I think we were in the basement of a house in Midtown Sacramento skanking to Mod Philo when Nolan yelled to me that the band is selling an EP. I was too busy skanking to look into how I could buy this record, but I planned to purchase

one that night or soon after, but something happened that night that changed my whole opinion of the band or at least the vocalist, Paul Clark. Near the end of their set, I saw Clark picked up a guitar for what would be their last number of the night. I skanked around and noticed Clark wasn’t playing the instrument. When the set was over, I asked Nolan what was with Clark and the guitar. Nolan smiled and just said, “I don’t know.” (Nolan knew more about the band than I did.) Before I could ask him where I could buy the EP, I just had to ask if Clark knew how to play the guitar. Nolan smiled and said no. I replied to him that I thought that was a lame gesture. Nolan smiled as if he knew, but didn’t care. It was a great gig. But the fake guitar shit bugged me. It was as if Clark wasn’t a serious musician. That was it for my relationship with Mod Philo, though I am sure the band made out fine without “The Critic,” Jack Keaton. I miss Nolan, though. I believe he’s an attorney doing pro bono work for college students at CSUS, but that’s just what an outdated Facebook page says. At any rate, it was a short, but sweet time skanking to some good local music.

1980-1984, Galactica 2000/Second Level/Club Can’t Tell and two kinds of heatwaves
Through the early- and mid-80s, I continued collecting new and old/classic records as well as albums that were critically acclaimed but were dark horses when it came to viability and sales. (How many readers can say they listened to Graham Parker’s Howlin’ Wind and Heat Treatment? With little doubt two of the best albums to come out of the 70s and utterly ignored by everyone except the critics and people who read the critics.) What I remember about this time better than the albums were the concerts. A few punk rock enthusiasts who used to work at the Tower Theatre with me turned me on to a local club at 15th and K Streets–now the Capitol Garage restaurant. Galactica 2000 was an old disco club-turned punk palace. Think of it as the Ace of Spades of the 80s, but with an big spinning disco ball in the middle twirling over the mosh pit. Because New Wave was–well–new, even the best bands (or at least the most popular) in this genre played in small markets like Sacramento. Incredible bands like X, Black Flag, The Blasters, X-Ray Spex, Gang of Four, The English Beat, The Germs, Public Image LTD, The Talking Heads, Devo, The B-52s all played small venues in Sacramento and neighboring Davis.

I rarely attended any concerts that weren’t punk, new wave, or alternative during this period and I’m not sure why. One non-alternative rock concert I couldn’t pass up was a Motown revue at Hughes Stadium sometime in the early 80s. It was a sunny day when I sat down around the 20-yard line to watch a series of gray-haired and balding legends do their best to bring us all back to the Golden Age of Motown. We all got to see The Four Tops, Martha & the Vandellas, and, I think, The Temptations and Gladys Knight & the Pips. Missing were two of my favorite groups: Smokey Robinson with/without the Miracles and Diana Ross with/without the Supremes. Unfortunately, the most memorable thing about the concert was that I failed to bring sunblock or a hat for my balding head. So while Martha Reeves twenty years after recording “Heat Wave” still blew the doors off of Linda Ronstadt’s cover, my scalp had a heatwave all of its own. My dome was so severely burned that it had blisters.

One of the last shows I attended at s Club Can’t Tell venue was Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers. I covered the show for The Hornet. I had seen some rough groups at The Second Level (nee Galactica 2000) and had come to expect rocking shows. While I knew Richman had changed his act since his proto-punk debut, I guess I expected something beyond the G-rated style he had adopted since retooling the once seminal band. Now I was watching a group that was inadvertently featuring Richman’s toddler son walking precariously on the stage to music that sounded like it was composed, arranged, and performed for him–the audience was an afterthought. When I interviewed Richman after the show, I asked him why he no longer played songs from his first album The Modern Lovers. Richman said he still did, but never ‘Pablo Picasso,'” checking to see if his son was within earshot then finishing, “because it has the word ‘asshole’ in it.” Looking back on it now, with the toe-headed cutie tottering around the cables and (presumably) Richman’s wife frequently pulling junior off the stage while the band plunked away, it seemed like an absurd coda to my Club Can’t Tell days. At the time, though, I was hoping for more “Roadrunner” and less “Dodge Veg-O-Matic.”

Symphonies 3 and 4 down, only 1, and 2, and 5-9 to go.

1985, The Completist: Beethoven and the beginning of the end
In the fall of 1985 my girlfriend, Judi, bought me a couple of classical CDs. They were Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonic Orchestra’s recordings of some Beethoven’s Symphonies; I think Nos. 3 & 4 and 7 & 8. Before hearing one note from either of these recordings, nae before I began the arduous task of removing the rapping from the poorly designed jewel case (I should have stuck with vinyl!), I remember thinking when was I going to go out and complete the set: 1, 2, 5, 6, and 9. “I can’t help it, I’m anal,” as Alvy Singer’s character said in “Annie Hall,” or maybe a better way of saying it is that I am a completist. About eight years previous–when I started buying Beatles albums–I spent my taco-stuffing paychecks buying up the twice as expensive British EMI recordings of The Beatles albums from the import section of my Tower Records. No way was I going to buy the chopped up, Capitol Records versions of the early Beatles albums. They weren’t the original Beatles albums (at least not until Rubber Soul onward). So I felt compelled to collect all nine Beethoven symphonies. Later, this completist thing would drive me to purchase all nine Mahler symphonies, all four Brahms symphonies, and other full sets of music. Thankfully, for my wallet, the completist thing was not a complete obsession. I only bought about four or five of the Mozart symphonies, but then there were complete piano concerto series of big-name composers to buy, same with Violin concertos. I purchased all of Beethoven’s String Quartets: all three periods–hours of listening. The music was so intense–especially the late period of quartets–that I barely scratched the surface of them. As with Beethoven’s monumental Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 the last period of string quartets were composed when Beethoven was stone deaf. And I thought it was miraculous that a blind man could create such works of genius as Innervisions, Talking Book, and Fulfillingness’ First’s Finale.

It was around this time my good friend Jimmy began inviting me to Sacramento Symphony (now the Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera) concerts. Since Jimmy had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, he bought two season tickets for the worst seats in the house to ensure that no one would sit near him and add to his anxiety. So he offered me the other ticket as long as I sat somewhere else in the empty upper balcony. It was up in the nosebleeds where I was introduced to many classical works without me having to shell out a shekel.

Judi’s occasional classical CD gifts and Jimmy’s free classical concert tickets ended up being an unintentional conversion therapy from a die-hard worshiper of Springsteen and The Clash to an enthusiast of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Mahler, and indirectly, the Minimalist masters (Philip Glass, John Adams, Steve Reich, etc.). I didn’t know it at the time, but in September of that year, I saw one of my last rock concerts. A bunch of guys from work bought tickets to see Springsteen at the Oakland Alameda Coliseum. We were on the second deck between home and third base. The stage was in center field. The intimacy I felt during the Winterland concert wasn’t present here. Bruce put on a good show, but I knew it wasn’t that magical to my friend Gerry when he commented after the show, that it wasn’t as good as the Kenny Loggins concert he saw recently. (Kenny fucking Loggins?!) Shortly after the Springsteen show, I was at the Unitarian Universality church on Sierra Blvd listening to some incredible 20th Century chamber music performed by the Kronos Quartet, a group I liked so much that I went out and bought nearly their entire catalog. The conversion was in full swing.

I don’t remember the cat at now-defunct Records, only the smell of mildew.

1986 and Beyond: “The Standard Repertoire,” Jazz, and the mystery case of the Swordfishtrombones album
I was still single and dating Judi when, in early 1986, I traded in my entire curated collection of well over 400 albums of rock, soul, country, and folk vinyl for store credit at Records–a now-defunct used vinyl, CD, and video store on K Street here in Sacramento. I would use the store credit for building my classical music collection. At first, I exchanged in piecemeal and then later by the cases. I recall asking the store owner, Ed Hartman, for the use of his hand truck as I started trading LPs for credit en masse. Hartman was impressed by how I kept my vinyl in such pristine condition. He stopped examining my vinyl after the first dozen or so. I proudly told him all the records were in the same excellent shape save for an out-of-print copy of The Kinks Greatest Hits (1966). At the time I bought it, it was the only album I could get that had all the early great songs without all the shit that usually comes on Kinks albums.

I can’t give the reader a logical reason why I decided to trade in all my once-cherished album collection. Rock & roll didn’t break my heart or betray me. It didn’t laugh at my penis size or tell me it was leaving me for another listener. For that matter, classical music didn’t seduce me into dumping all my rock albums. I could have kept all those albums and continued what my girlfriend started–buying classical CDs and maybe a rock album from time to time. (I shudder to think of how many recordings I would have right now if I kept all my records and continued to buy albums. While I am sure married life would have slowed my acquisition pace, I still think my house would look like a used record store. I’m reminded of Rob Gordon’s record collection in one of my all-time favorite films, “High Fidelity.”

Who knows if I would have as many albums as Rob Gordon.

Even if I kept buying popular, classical, and jazz albums, it would be at a significantly slower pace. Also, my wife and I occasionally thin out our books, which we accumulate at a fast pace even though I usually listen to audiobooks and she often reads books from a her Kindle. It would make sense we would pare down the music collection every once in a while. Still, I haven’t answered the Sixty-four Dollar Question: why did I decide to end a relationship I was so passionate about only a year or two previous. The answer is lost on time. What I got in exchange for all my old LPs was a new albeit shorter-lived new passion. Besides classical music, I also bought books on classical music, started listening to the local PBS classical station, and, just like with rock music, I became interested in what the critics had to say. I religiously listened to The Record Shelf with Jim Svejda. I became enamored with listening and collecting classical music. I was also hell-bent on buying up titles from the “Standard Repertoire.” The Standard Repertoire is a body of work that varies depending on which person you ask. Generally, it contains the best works from famous composers (J.S. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, etc.). It also includes outstanding works by some “one-hit wonders,” to borrow a pop music idiom. (Though I doubt Karl Orff would like to be referred to as a “one-hit wonder,” his Carmina Burana is a widely acknowledged masterpiece, while is other work never reached that critical success.) It is what the above word “best” means that makes the Standard Repertoire seem at times arbitrary: all of the Beethoven symphonies are pretty much bolted down, but some sticklers would have only Nos. 3, 5, 6, 7, and 9 in the pantheon.

Just like my fictitious alter-ego Rob Gordon, I’m obsessed with lists. The Standard Repertoire was made for someone like me.

Then there are the actual recordings–the various interpretations of, say, Beethoven’s 9th–some great, some good, some horrible. Mozart’s catalog is immense, and it is virtually impossible to get critics to agree on which specific recordings of, say, his Symphony 41 in C major, k 551 is the current best recording. And don’t get me started on the whole “period instruments” thing. I quickly found out–no matter how full of shit I was as a “rock critic”–this stuff was far too dynamic, far too sophisticated, and intelligent for me to just switch tracks from “Louie, Louie” to “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” without, what felt like, a degree in music theory. But I didn’t know all of this at the time I started collecting classical music. Who knows, maybe I would have stuck with classical music (or jazz for that matter) if I didn’t dive into the stuff as if I thought I was going to understand it like I understood rock music. What I mean is, when I was collecting rock LP’s, I patronized a used record store on Douglas Blvd in Roseville, California. I think the owner saw through my arrogance when we would have a friendly argument about The Grateful Dead (I didn’t like the band, he loved them). The same goes for The Clash (I thought their debut album was the greatest rock album of all time, he thought of the band as just another punk band). The thing that annoyed him was how I tried to over-analyze music. He would smile and say something like, “Just listen to it, man!” Years later, when I was struggling to understand classical music the same way I thought I understood rock music, his words would come back to me. I finally relented. I should have done so years ago.

A short time after selling off all my LPs I broke up with Judi and started dating Carol, the woman who I would marry about a year later. She was disappointed that the man she knew as a friend (the guy who had hundreds of rock albums), now only had classical music CDs. I had become a bit of a wannabe classical music expert, lamely attempting to “Name That Tune” whenever the opening bars of a familiar symphony or concerto came over the radio. “Ah, Mozart’s ‘Horn Concerto No. 1.'” Then, about ten minutes later, long after Carol forgot I was talking about the music on the radio (that’s if she was ever listening to me in the first place), “No wait, that’s ‘Horn Concerto No. 3.’ Yeah, I knew it was an odd number.” Or maybe the concerto would finish, and I’d find out it wasn’t a Mozart piece at all. No need to be humble about this gaffe, Carol stopped listening to me minutes ago. She didn’t mind the classical music I played in her apartment; she just missed the old rock and roll maven.

The stories behind many of the rock concerts I told her about had comedic elements that I used as a way to court my mate. There was the time Dee Dee Ramone nearly crushed my hand. Then there was the time the Dead Kennedys opened for The Clash and singer Jello Biafra dove into the mosh pit where the crowd of unruly punks stripped him naked only to have the roadies pull him out in time to finish the song buck naked. And the time Iggy Pop hocking a big green loogie into a UC Davis crowd and it landing on some preppy’s cardigan in front of me, where it stayed the whole performance inches from his face. I love describing the look on my friend Paul’s face (who listens only to musicals) the night I took him to see the band Fear. His jaw dropped on seeing the mosh pit, and the dumb opening acts with their monotonous music. Then the main act with the band’s long-haired biker-sized roadies flanking the stage, catching punks attempting to stage dive and tossing them like dolls off the sides of the stage where there were no soft bodies to break their falls, just instrument trunks, mic stands, and the unforgiving cement floor. And, finally, serenading my love by the retelling of The Sex Pistols concert. Some of these stories I still whip out from time to time, and my wife to this day continues to laugh at them. Good marital bonding stuff, even after 30 years. There’s no stage diving at a chamber music performance, no loogie hocking by the conductor or concertmaster during an orchestral piece. Besides listening to traditional classical music and tuning into The Record Shelf every Sunday, I was also listening to a lot of minimalist music. This stuff didn’t go over with the girlfriend/fiancé/wife. Shortly after our wedding, I stopped going to classical performances. A few years after that, I ended my pursuit of buying classical music. I was doing the domestic thing with her and her child, now my step-son, Peter.

A good start for anyone who wants to sample jazz.

I still listened to music. Now it was jazz, but my purchasing and collecting recordings were not in the same spirit as classical, which was nowhere near as passionate as my collecting of rock music. Also, unlike rock and classical I never attended a jazz concert. In films the performances were always in bars, which isn’t my scene. I’m sure I could have attended concerts, but I was losing interest so fast that I never looked into seeing any artists. I liked John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Bennie Goodman, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, and some others. Full disclosure: some of these artists and a lot of others not listed were in compilation albums like Ken Burns Jazz (the soundtrack to the excellent PBS documentary) and The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. Right out of the gate, I was getting into compilations, and I wasn’t even embarrassed. Also, I wasn’t reading about jazz like I tried to learn with classical music, and I voraciously read about popular music. It was as if I knew I wasn’t going to be interested in jazz very long: I wasn’t investing in the time, money, or passion as I did the other forms of music. Then again, maybe it was the wise words of the used record store owner coming back to me.

Tom Waits meets Trout Mask Replica with album art reminiscent of Tod Browning’s “Freaks.” I guess I liked this album, if only I could remember it.

Sometime in the late 1980s, I was rummaging through some stuff I had at my parent’s house when I found two rock LPs I never got around to trading in Springsteen Live 1975/1985 and Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones. The Springsteen box set was a gift–I didn’t ask for it, and–except for the powerful cover of The Temptations’ “War”–I didn’t play it much. I rarely used my turntable by the time I received the Springsteen live collection. The existence of the Waits record in this near-empty box perplexed me, though. It may have been the last popular music album I ever purchased before cutting completely over to classical, but I could barely remember buying it and listening to it. Also, I knew I didn’t have any other titles by Waits in my long-gone collection so; to buy this album so late in the game was strange. Swordfishtrombones was probably the climatic milestone to a decade of loud music, hopes & dreams, late nights, and vinyl, plenty of vinyl. If my guess is correct, it was a strange coda to my popular music record collecting considering I wasn’t a fan of Waits. I’m not sure what my first album was. Perhaps it was the Abbey Road album I disappointed my sister by buying, but I’m almost certain Swordfishtrombones was my last. At the time I found the album, I no longer had a turntable so I couldn’t play the songs for clues to why I bought it. The best guess I have now is how critics compare this album to the better works of Captain Beefheart–an artist I liked.

Married life brought rock music back into my life if only a little and indirectly. Carol bought me Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love in 1986. She also bought us tickets for a U2 concert the same year at the Oakland Alameda Coliseum. I figured that this show would be the last rock concert I would ever attend, but it wasn’t. Nor would the Waits album technically be the last rock album I would buy. Carol would tire of the classical music and jazz I was getting into. She wanted some rock music in our new house. I had been out of the popular music scene for so long that I needed help with what albums to buy. I asked my friend and fellow blogger, Chip, for some help. He suggested I buy Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend and Lenny Kravitz’ Let Love Rule. About ten years after those purchases, I installed the relatively new iTunes onto the family’s new computer. I was purchasing rock music again, but this wasn’t a complete revival. Most of the time, I was buying nice-sounding elevator music. I just didn’t care that that much about the stuff as I did fifteen years ago. Also, the old rock and roll “critic” had some misgivings of the iTunes concept: buying singles from albums that were meant to be played in album format. It was as if Apple had created a big Compilation Album Making Machine. Steve Jobs admitted as much in the authorized biography by Walter Isaacson, where he enjoyed hacking up Dylan albums in creating his own mix (with not a cut from Empire Burlesque, as readers of the bio know all too well). Though maybe it would be more generous to call iTunes a Mixed Tape Maker. (Everyone loves mixed tapes, right?) But I didn’t care anymore. I, for the most part, wasn’t listening to the music–it was now just ambiance. These days, if I purposefully listen to music at all, it is usually rock or folk on Pandora at work. I know there are much better apps out there than Pandora. That’s how much I don’t care. Still, I can thank Pandora and Springsteen’s YouTube channel for enticing me to buy, via iTunes alas, Springsteen’s The Rising and We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions albums and watching the cringe-worthy “Springsteen & I,” the fascinating “The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town,” and his nearly bloodless Broadway show on Netflix. I guess the new “Western Stars” is next, but I’m not sure when I’ll get around to seeing it. I’m not the fan I used to be.

Recently, I attended two shows in my post-rock or post-music days. I saw an excellent Springsteen concert at the Oracle Arena in 2012 and a respectable if not inspiring Black Flag concert the following year at the local Ace of Spades with my 23 year-old son, (who kept muttering in wonder, “I can’t believe I’m at a Black Flag concert with my dad”). I didn’t pursue tickets for either of these shows. They, figuratively, landed in my lap. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have attended either event. The funny thing is while writing and rewriting this post I starting looking into local live classical music–the Sacramento Philharmonic and the Sacramento Chamber Music Society. I’m also looking into the Kronos Quartet hoping–probably in vain–to see if/when they are touring near the Sacramento area. I don’t know how long this feeling will last, though.                                     

Today, Oblivion Comics & Coffee: coffee and trying not to care about what comes over the speakers
I’m having my morning coffee at Oblivion Comics & Coffee one of my current haunts, an ingenious combination of a comic book store and coffee house. I like graphic novels, but for the most part, my tastes are eclectic–too eclectic for this store that mostly sells superhero titles. But I order the graphic novels that interest me through this store after I have discovered them online. As for the coffee, I’d prefer to drink the higher quality, Fair Trade stuff down the street at Temple Roasters, but this place is right across the street from my job. My taste in coffee and espresso is not as discriminating as I wish it to be.

I’m in my 60s and decades past the time I took rock music so seriously, but there are still remnants of the old snob. (At my age, maybe the appropriate noun is “grouch.”) Earlier this place played an inventive cover of an 80s song I recognized, but couldn’t name. No matter, I think to myself, these days the only things I listen to are political podcasts and audiobooks. Then I hear “More Than a Feeling” from Boston’s debut album. An album I acknowledged to be excellent, but I grew to hate by the early 80s due to radio saturation. I haven’t heard it in years except here, where management plays it too much. (If they’ve played it twice in a week that’s too much for me.) It’s as if I’m back in the 80s again. That’s what I get for hanging out here so much. Why don’t they play a Van Morrison album like “Astral Weeks,” “Moondance,” or my favorite, “Into the Music?” (Yeah, I know, they’re all old ones.) How about “Tempted” by Squeeze or what about some Los Lobos! I was reminded what a fun song “Last Night I Got Loaded” is when I was watching “Bull Durham” for what seemed like the millionth time the other night. Shut-up, Jack, you old crank. You haven’t been passionate about music in thirty years, why should you give a shit, anyway. Oh no! Now its Foreigner’s “Jukebox Heroes.” Come back Styx; all is forgiven!

Williamson on The Rubin Report

For all the Marianne Williamson naysayers, who claim she’s a political lightweight, a spiritual leader who has no business in politics, check out Williamson schooling conservative pundit Dave Rubin in this hour-long interview on his show, The Rubin Report. There are some truly golden moments here where the “hot grandma,” as someone reduced her during the first Democratic Debates, schools the once comedian and ex-liberal.

The Centrists cannot hold

Assuming Trump isn’t ran out of office on a rail before November 3, 2020, some serious decisions have to be made on who is going to run against him. Chances are we won’t be hearing of any fed up group of Republicans running through the West Wing with a long piece of timbre while the Grand Old Party (GOP) controls the upper house. It is morbidly fascinated how the GOP carries this vulgarian’s water. What will they say when their constituents have had enough of Trump and the voters will finally move them to act after going along with his dubious actions all this time? In the meantime, all we have is satire as in the bitterly humorous Saturday Night Live faux-film trailer The TBD Story. If Trump goes he will most likely be voted out of office in 2020 and that will be a harder task than some think.

In the meantime, the minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour for at least ten years, we need to re-tool our health care system—either by plugging up the holes in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or moving to a Medicare for All solution. We are in five wars in the Middle East and Africa, we need to address climate change, clean up our electoral system, and get money out of politics to name only a few of the many serious challenges. There are some who believe that in order to defeat the sitting president these issues will have to be placed on the back burner go with a more moderate candidate.

Or maybe not.

With the exception of top-polling Biden, most of the Democratic candidates have platforms that are more to the Left than in any other time since the 1960s. It’s too early to tell, but maybe we are seeing the beginning of the end of the centrist Democrat. If you miss the Biden elephant (err donkey) in the room, it looks like the popular Democrats are beginning to lean to the Left. Maybe it is time for a change–I mean real change. But as I said, it’s too early to tell right now. Regardless of how things are right now, presidential elections are always both exciting and frustrating we also have a Republican who is challenging the president. Bill Weld could win if the Right ever finds the courage to stand up to Trump, which doesn’t look like that will happen since it would initially hurt the party. 

So here is the list in quasi-alphabetical order. I gave each of my favorite candidates a *. While Bernie currently has my vote, I’m using my coveted splat, to separate the good (or great) from the rest of the meh-to-ugh herd. These aren’t predictions just a very brief evaluations of the current contenders. I also gave these candidates Greenpeace’s rating on their plans to address climate change. (BTW, both Trump and Weld got F grades from the environmental organization.)

Here are my main picks.

Joe Biden
Then again, maybe my title is bullshit. Since declaring his candidacy, Biden has threatened to kill all chances of getting someone on the Democratic ticket that will promise any substantive change in Washington. Either Sanders or Warren could still prevail, but the centrist’s hope of a 2016 do-over is alive and well with Joe in the race.

Moderates believe that Biden has the best chance of pulling some of Trump’s votes away, though that is debatable. Just because Biden was Obama’s Vice President (VP) doesn’t necessarily mean the people voted for Obama then switched to Trump will now vote for Biden. It is true how it didn’t take some people long after Trump’s win to start pining over the good old days of the Obama years. Or as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) said in an interview on Yahoo News Skullduggery TV, “There’s an emotional element to that…But I don’t want to go back. I want to go forward.” Joe is a throwback to the perceived good-ole-days of Obama. Biden still believes in the ACA despite the corporate-friendly’s less than perfect success rate that stranded 30,000 Americans from health care.

Joe wouldn’t be on the top portion of this list if it weren’t for his popularity. He should be in the afterthoughts with Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and Tim Ryan. The most significant reason Biden has a good chance is brand recognition. Of course, like everyone else in the horse race, history may catch up with the career politician from Delaware. Every candidate has some bad history to deal with, but Biden is a career neoliberal politician–there’s plenty of shit:

  • His pro-corporate voting record in the Senate
  • His tough-on-crime legislation that has resulted in more severe sentencing on African Americans and Latinos than Whites
  • His horrible handling of Anita Hill questioning during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings
  • His hawkish voting record including his votes on the Iraq War

All of that makes his shoulder rubs and hair smelling seem petty–at least for now.

It’s no surprise that Joe received a D- from Greenpeace on plans to address climate change.

Steve Bullock
Governor of Montana successfully expanded Medicare in his state and is also pro-LGBTQ rights and pro-choice which shouldn’t be a big deal considering he’s a Democrat, but he’s done this and has been reelected in a Red state that Trump won in 2016 by 20 points. Never mind the Bullock, he failed to make on to the first Democratic Debates on June 26 and 27.

While he thinks he is a pro-environment governor, Greenpeace thinks differently, giving him a D on his Greenpeace report card. Ouch!

Pete Buttigieg
Mayor Pete is a likable guy who had virtually no name recognition when he began his campaign. Now Buttigieg polls in the top five of the Dems. The Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, initially comes off as a very friendly and bright candidate. He claims to be a great admirer of Bernie Sanders, but he’s more complex, with plenty of contradictions and recently he gave in to big-money contributions and his past actions aren’t as friendly as his smile and demeanor and smile express. After he graduated from Oxford with a Rhodes scholarship the Sanders admirer, spend three years working for the controversial consulting firm of McKinsey & Company that helped the brutal Saudi Arabia regime and pharmaceutical companies like horrible Purdue Pharma push pain killers like OxyContin. His views on higher education are very different from someone like Sanders. His views on Israel and Palestine further separate him from the progressive wing of the party and his anti-Iranian comments are not what the Dems need–at least not what the Dems this side of Obama would desire. Buttigieg, like everyone else who is polling well at this point (except for Sanders and Biden) has jumped on a modified Medicare for all bandwagon, liking a single payer option while Sanders is still for the most ambitious version and Biden sticking with the ACA (at least for now). Buttigieg is not that great in my humble option, but the Democrats could do a lot worse. (Biden and all the candidates in the lower half of this post, for instance.)

Mayor Pete received a lowly C from Greenpeace on plans to address climate change.

Julian Castro
Obama’s former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Castro’s says the three main planks to his platform are establishing a humane immigration policy that also entails revamping immigration enforcement by breaking up Immigration and Customs Enforcement, adopting universal health care, and aggressively addressing climate change.

Greenpeace gave Castro a lowly D+ score. Shame!

Bill de Blasio * (?)
I was proofreading this post when I heard of Mayor de Blasio’s entry into the 2020 Presidential race. Prepping this post for publishing and de Blasio still doesn’t have his platform out for America to see, just this self-serving, but accurate (to the best of my knowledge) campaign ad. The ad says more about what de Blasio has done as a mayor than what he would do as a president. I have followed NYC’s mayors from Rudy Giuliani’s response to 9/11 (and downhill from there), through the Stop & Frisk years of Michael Bloomberg, and what I interpreted has far superior leadership of the current mayor. The only reason why I place the question mark after the * is because while I’m impressive with de Blasio the Mayor de Blasio the Presidential Candidate hasn’t provided the voters with a campaign platform.

The Mayor announced after Greenpeace submitted their questionnaire to candidates on plans to address climate change.

Tulsi Gabbard (nearly a *)
It took me a while to find a website where Tulsi has laid out an aggressive platform, but her campaign wants you to check out a new website which doesn’t have her platform unless I’m blind. (Is she backing out of some of her campaign promises already?) While I can understand that Tulsi is behind Harris and Buttigieg in the polls–they have a certain star quality even if they have serious flaws—it is depressing to see that the promising Congresswoman from Hawaii is not keeping up with the likes of O’Rourke, Booker, Klobuchar, Castro, and Hickenlooper. This is a bad sign for the much better candidate. She has more political courage than nearly all of the candidates polling better than she does. For instance, she has said that Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange’s charges should be dropped, and Edward Snowden should be pardoned. She explained, “There is not an actual channel for whistleblowers like them to bring forward information that exposes egregious abuses of our constitutional rights and liberties, period.” Regardless of what you think of these actors, it takes guts to make these statements ahead of virtually everyone else.

I would love to give her a *, but I have concerns about Gabbard. Her views are, at times, anti-Arabic and often pro-strongman. Though her comments on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad are well known, thought out, and refreshing, as is her stand against regime-change wars, her admiration for brutes like Abdel Fattah el-Cisi of Egypt and Narendra Modi of India should give the voter pause. What’s worse, her perceived anti-Islamic stance have garnished her the unwanted support of the KKK and some other hate and fringe groups. There is also the issue of her views on LGBTQ rights. Gabbard opposed civil unions and same-sex marriage until the early 2000s. This was due to her Christian upbringing. She has been for same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights since the mid-2000s. Finally, while most of her money comes from individual contributions, she has taken Big Pharma contributions. This may be why her Medicare-for-all stance is not as progressive as other candidates are.

In 2016, Gabbard, who was a co-chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), criticized Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz decision to hold only six debates during the 2016 Democratic Party primary season rather than the usual 12-16. Many progressives, Bernie supporters, and politicos saw this as more of a coronation of Hillary Rodham Clinton (HRC) by the DNC instead of a fair primary season. Gabbard resigned her post at the DNC in protest of the committee’s perceived unfair support of HRC and openly endorsed Sanders. She also was on the right side of Standing Rock—taking her place with the Native Americans and other protesters facing off against the militarized police and their water cannons. Elizabeth Warren only came out with objections to these injustices long after the dust had settled and it was politically safe to do so.

Sadly, she only received a B from Greenpeace on plans to address climate change.

Mike Gravel *
Mike Gravel has been in the fight against war and supports social justice longer than Bernie has! Gravel isn’t putting a lot of effort into this campaign. I think he’s only in the race to mix things up—to keep candidates honest by offering the best policies and then to compare them to others. He also didn’t make it to the first Democratic Debates on June 26 and 27, which is a shame. He would have challenged a lot of the biggest bullshitters like Biden, Booker, and Harris.

I would suggest we all follow Mike on Twitter @MikeGravel. His critiques of the other candidates, especially centrists, are spot on and, at times, quite funny. Here’s one from early June, “In a time when the global fight is between progressivism and fascism, history will not look kindly on those who declared themselves ‘moderates.'”

Greenpeace didn’t give Gravel a grade.

Kamala Harris
Despite her desperate attempts to let us all know she is Black (playing Tupac at book signings, dancing to Cardi B, using Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday the day to announce her run for the presidency.), Harris’ record with black Californians when she was Attorney General (AG) isn’t something very soulful. Harris is one of the better bets for the Democratic nominations. She may sound kinder, gentler now, but she wasn’t a progressive when she was California’s AG. Check her record. Besides her lock ‘em up approach in California, she’s a run of the mill centrist Democrat cut from HRC cloth. Her idea of giving a tax refund of $6000 to families making less than $100k a year and a refund of $3000 to individuals making less than $50k a year is a backward approach to solving poverty. Also, this plan doesn’t address folks who are unemployed or retired.

Tut-tut, Harris only received a C- from Greenpeace on plans to address climate change.

Jay Inslee
Inslee seems like a one-plank candidate, but it’s the right one: climate change. His campaign website doesn’t betray that rather myopic approach to running a presidential bid. As he told Dave Roberts of Vox, “I believe there is one central, defining, existential-with-a-capital-E threat to the future of the nation: climate change. It is clear that it will only be defeated if the United States shows leadership. And that will only happen if the US President makes it a clear priority — the number one, foremost, paramount goal of the next administration.”

Jay gets the highest grade out of all the presidential hopefuls from Greenpeace on plans to address climate change: an A-.

Bernie Sanders *
Bernie announced on February 19 and in 24 hours raised $6 million blowing the rest of the pack away. He also led the pack in the polls until Biden announced. He’s popular enough to get targeted for being too old (remember the press going after both Bernie and HRC last time?), a socialist (Yawn), and his base (they were too young to know better or the “Bernie Bros” were a bunch of misogynists). These days the press is going after his wealth (I guess being a rich Democratic Socialist is hypocrisy) sometimes throwing in some All-American antisemitism too! (He’s rich and stingy, folks and we all know what that means, wink, wink.)

Bernie has a comprehensive and detailed platform. As we have heard many times on TV and on YouTube, if you are paying attention, Bernie is for higher taxes on the 1% including raising the Estate Tax for multi-millionaires. He has a robust foreign policy platform—something he was criticized for lacking during his last presidential bid, Sanders hired Matt Duss, a foreign policy wonk who has filled in any gaps his previous presidential bid had.

Sanders is not perfect; he voted for Bill Clinton’s devastating Crime Bill though, is on record as being very critical of it up until he voted for the thing. Some of his floor votes having to do with our endless wars in the Middle East were dubious. For instance, he has criticized drone attacks on their ineffectiveness rather than their use. There’s plenty of other stuff to criticize him on, but he still is the best bet here unless you want to vote for Gravel or wait for an excellent third party candidate to throw away your vote on while feeling good about yourself.

In his latest book Where We Go From Here, Sanders correctly explains that while the U.S. has two major political parties when it comes to domestic issues it really only has one party when it comes to foreign policy. I’ve been studying this for years and it was vindicating to read it in an American politician’s letters. It’s interesting to note that part of Sanders’ success is that he has evolved from a time when he referred to both the Democrats and Republicans as “the ruling party.” When he first elected it to Congress in 1991, he was known as a political outsider and renegade. Consequently, he couldn’t get on a committee seat. I read somewhere (not in any of the Sanders books I have read) that Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank told him to “stop pissing in the punch bowl” (or something to that affect). Sanders mellowed out and finally struck a balance. He was then able to quorum with the Democrats and has grown in popularity ever since.

Much to my surprise, Bernie received only a B+ from Greenpeace on plans to address climate change.

Elizabeth Warren *
Warren isn’t a progressive, as she and most Democrats call themselves these days. (I believe the only Democrats running for president that are progressive are Gabbard, Gravel, Sanders, Williamson, and maybe de Blasio.) I still like her. She is probably the least favorite/most practical vote of the candidates I have given the treasured *. If it boiled down to Biden, Warren, and anybody else except for Bernie, I would betray my progressive allegiance and cast my vote for Liz.

In fact, Warren is far from a progressive. In Jacobin, writer Shawn Gude once compared Warren with Sanders: “Warren is a regulator at heart who believes that capitalism works well as long as fair competition exists; Sanders is a class-conscious tribune who sees capitalism as fundamentally unjust.” This is why I would always choose Sanders over Warren, but the senior Senator from Massachusetts is a decent person, a good lawmaker, and if Bernie doesn’t make it I think she is my candidate. Her campaign website is thorough though her views on war, intel, and security make me think she’s been hanging out with Diane Feinstein too much!

Warren received a B from Greenpeace on plans to address climate change.

Marianne Williamson *
Williamson is a terrific spiritual counselor, author, and activist who has helped and mentored countless people, including celebrities like Oprah Winfrey. I have listened to her speak many times dealing with matters of the heart, spirit, and love. Since she began her campaign, I have heard her talk politics, and I am impressed, but not entirely surprised. She has been an activist most of her life–working with the HIV/AIDS community, women’s advocacy, as well as fighting poverty and hunger. Check out where she stands on the issues. In my view, she would be better than almost all of the candidates listed here and she holds her own in tough TV interviews. Of course, she doesn’t stand a chance, though don’t tell that to my yoga teacher! She thinks she’s the answer to Trump. She deserves a place at the debates, but she might not meet the DNC’s new criteria for either of the upcoming debates. We will see.

I was surprised to see that Greenpeace gave Williamson only a C on plans to address climate change.

Andrew Yang *
I firmly believe Andrew Yang is a candidate that needs to be heard by more people. He is by far the most thought-provoking candidate on the 2020 campaign trail. (Noticed I didn’t say the best.) The Democratic Leadership in Iowa said he has the “most detailed and comprehensive set of policy proposals we’ve ever seen at this stage in the campaign” and it even dwarfs Sanders and Warren’s policy page in depth and breath.

If nothing else, Yang has provided us with the best quote from any candidate in this election cycle:

“The opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math.”

Too, he has the best anti-Trump campaign merch: A black baseball cap with the word “MATH” on it standing for “Make America THink” but I think it also implies “look at the data—don’t listen to the rhetoric.” While I like to think that most candidates are trying to reach Trump’s base, if at least to try to appeal to their rational side, Yang’s cap comes off as a “fuck you” to them. If I’m right, he will not reach the ex-Obama supporters who voted for Trump in 2016.

Yang calls himself the first nerd to run for president, and he just might be, but don’t be taken in by his charm. Looking at his proposed polices means some severe sacrifices to be made and chances to be taken. Adopting Yang’s ideas is in some ways abandoning Sanders’—many of them have become hard-won DNC policy objectives. Where Sanders says, “we have to fight for the little guy,” Yang almost suggests throwing in the towel. It’s what he wants to do with this growing amount of displaced workers that I find so fascinating. Where Sanders believes we can bring jobs back in one form or another via something like national works programs as in FDR’s New Deal or Rep. AOC/Sen. Ed Markey’s Green New Deal, Yang believes the jobs are going and will not return—at least in their original form. He refers to this as “The Great Displacement” in his book The War on Normal People.

Automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are destined to replace truck drivers, assembly line workers, distribution line workers, fast food workers; as well as many educated, white collar workers like call center workers, radiologists and other medical staff, even investment advisers and no political movement will be able to stop this product of The Fourth Industrial Revolution which we are on the cusp of right now. Re-educating workers—something Sanders and others believe in–has a horrible success record, Yang claims. In his book, he treats automation and AI as our destiny, and that is where Universal Basic Income (UBI) comes in, what he calls the “Freedom Dividend,” giving it a political spin. If you don’t have the time or inclination to read Yang’s data-heavy book, check him out on YouTube.com. Many countries in European and around the world have implemented UBI with success, and Alaska has had a form of UBI in place since 1982.

Yang’s Freedom Dividend would place $1000 in the pockets of all adult Americans every month. It doesn’t matter if you have not participating in the workforce for years or you are David Koch–everyone gets the Freedom Dividend each month. Yang isn’t the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. While he says he’ll fight for your Freedom Dividend, he won’t “Fight for $15.” In fact, Yang doesn’t believe in a minimum wage—your Freedom Dividend will pick up the slack while freeing up business owners to determine how much you are worth an hour. Hmm. His ideas have garnered him a patchwork of followers comprised of progressives, libertarians, socially-conscience Republicans, and yes, math nerds.

Another main plank to Yang’s comprehensive platform is Value-Added Tax (or VAT). VAT is what would finance for UBI. Also, if VAT is implemented it would be an unavoidable tax, everyone pays; from the manufacturer to the distributor, to the seller, and ultimately the buyer and that includes many corporations that currently dodge taxes like Amazon. View the short video above to see how VAT generates revenue. Many countries around the world successfully employ VAT.

Yang is for a conservative variation of a single payer health system. He has had an up-close experience with our byzantine health care system working as a VP of the software startup, MMF Systems, Inc. So, his experience with health care in America is unique on why we need to change our health care system especially because he sees so many jobs disappearing and with those jobs, many will lose their health benefits.

Before my oldest son got me to check out Andrew Yang and his Freedom Dividend idea, I read Rutger Bregman’s brilliant Utopia for Realists. The Dutch historian’s little masterpiece covers the history and benefits of UBI (as well as ideas on reduced work hours and open borders). I have attempted to reach Bregman for his thoughts on the only U.S. presidential candidate who is pushing for UBI, I haven’t heard word back, but I am sure the Dutchman and the candidate disagree on far more things than they agree on. As I recall Bregman stresses how UBI can fight poverty as well as the depression that often comes with long-term joblessness. I believe in $15 an hour minimum wage, labor working with businesses when integrating automation and AI, and instituting UBI (having VAT pay for it). Let’s be honest, $1000 a month to someone who is gainfully employed would be great–it would allow for more recreation time and the spending would stimulate the economy. To the unemployed, $1000 would be a helping hand. Also, to a homemaker or a single mom (Yang often references his wife who works at home and doesn’t get a dime for it) $1000 would give the homemaker more free time. Though I know Bernie Sanders is not a fan of UBI, I think UBI would benefit Sanders’ and other candidates’ platforms.

Here’s a Marxist reply to UBI as a replacement for lost jobs due to automation and AI. Note: If you don’t want to watch the whole program skip to the 19:25 mark where Professor Richard Wolff gets to the solution.

Despite Yang’s impressive proposed policies, Greenpeace only gave him a lowly D+.

Finally, there are these boring candidates:

Michael Bennet
Bennet’s campaign page reads like a middle school civics text book–something your parents would approve of, but with a conservative approach to our health care problem and our climate change challenge. We could do better.

Cory Booker
The once heroic mayor of Newark, NJ, is now someone I wish would just go away. He–like everyone in this sad grouping has been bought by corporate America.

John Delaney
Delaney is a boring centrist who sounds similar to Biden: uninspiring, suggesting half-measures, and seems to be focus solely on beating Trump. He deserved being booed for a solid minute at the California Democratic Convention after telling the crowd that Medicare for All is neither good policy nor politics. He’s another multi-millionaire politician protecting his Big Pharma backers. Next.

Kirsten Gillibrand
Senator Gillibrand fancies herself a progressive. Oy! She used to be a Blue Dog Democrat when she was in the House, which is to say she sucked. If she really is a progressive, she’s a shitty one–taking all that money from Wall Street and big law firms. Pass.

John Hickenlooper
The guy with the last name you just can’t imagine the word “President” in front of without laughing is another boring centrist that that once compared Sanders to Stalin. He deserved the boos he received at the California Democratic Convention like Delaney. The only thing interesting about him is his surname.

Amy Klobuchar
She’s famous enough for Grammarly to correct my failed attempt at spelling her name and there are some other interesting things about the U.S. Senator from Minnesota, but it is quite a tell when Republicans like this Democrat. She’s known to be a pragmatist—having a good relationship with Republicans as well as neoliberal Democrats (not including some staffers, I understand). This reminds me of Obama, and we all know how that turned out.

Wayne Messam
His “Change Can’t Wait” commercial is stylistic and the tagline sound familiar. There’s not much more I can say about him other than he didn’t make the debate cut.

Seth Moulton
This guy didn’t make it on to the debate stage either. I sure sign he won’t be a round very long. The only thing good I can say about Moulton was something he said to a reporter from Intelligencer when the reporter commented that Joe Biden is the “most foreign-policy forward person in the race” and “the one with the most legislative and executive experience” Moulton shot back, “I think it’s time for the generation that went to Iraq and Afghanistan to replace the generation that sent us there.” Aside from that, he mainly spouts more uninspiring centrist tripe. Next.

To whoever stands on Beto’s left during the debates: watch out for those lateral gesticulations!.

Beto O’Rourke
Barack Obama told David Axelrod on the podcast “The Axel Files” about his one-on-one meeting with O’Rourke, “He’s Barack Obama, but white.” Not the ringing endorsement you might want, especially when O’Rourke came into the race with no platform, telling his audiences he was looking for ideas. Beto doesn’t fill me with much–if any–confidence. I liked him better when he was trying to take Ted Cruz’s seat because anybody would be better than Ted Cruz would. Just like when he was in the House of Representatives, he is still taking corporate money, so it is no surprise that O’Rourke is backing Medicare for America.–the medical industrial complex’s answer to the rising popularity of Medicare for All. I’m sticking with Bernie’s plan. Hey Beto, if you run against Ted in 2024 I’ll throw more money your way.

Tim Ryan
There’s not much to say about Congressman Ryan representing Ohio other than he makes me sleepy just listening to him. He appears to have no fresh ideas. I was surprised he is in the first round of debates.

Eric Swalwell
Swalwell is the guy who has promised he would choose a female as a running mate if he were nominated. Good for you, Eric!

Then there are the Third Parties and Independents
In 2000 I was one of the spoilers that helped George W. Bush win the presidency by voting for Ralph Nader. Well, not really, but I pissed some people off when, after the election, I told them I voted for the Green Party Candidate. In 2012, I cast a “protest” vote for Jill Stein. In both cases, my votes had no affect except to make me feel good.

It’s too early (for me at least) to pick any obvious candidates from a third party that I would want to win, and I get to vote for someone that makes me feel good–like Ralph Nader. Instead, I get the feeling that, like in 2016, I’m going to be holding my nose and voting for an unpopular Democrat in 2020. Looking at the long list on the Ballotpedia site I found such Independent and Nonpartisan presidential hopefuls as “Sexy Vegan,” “Seven the Dog,” “Internet Beef,” and representing the “Ace Party,” “Voice Over Pete.”

One thing is for sure, there’s one person (besides Trump, of course) who I definitely won’t be voting for…

Howard Schultz (What is the antithesis of an *?)
With candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the field, there is a chance we can have a candidate with a progressive tax system. Enter Howard Schultz, the billionaire coffee magnate and ex-NBA team spoiled-sport owner that promises to protect our limousine tax code, not improve our horrible health care system, just make things better than they are with Trump. His campaign should be called “Let them drink lattes!” So far, the only “campaign” promise he has made is to ensure that the tax dreams of lawmakers like AOC, Warren, and Sanders are nothing more than that. His stalled campaign only harps on how horrible Trump is and that the two-party system is broke. Stop the presses, boys, Howie has a revelation! Recently, people close to him have explained his silence: business-friendly Biden is now in the race. If Biden is not nominated, Schultz may run as an Independent, possibly siphoning off some votes that might go to a Sanders or a Warren. That is making some progressive politicos like Mike Figueredo (below) very angry.

So there you have the candidates–well, at least the ones with name recognition. Of course, some of these may drop out before the debates start, and even more before the convention. But would if it comes down to Biden? I mean, look at the field? The majority of the candidates would throw their support to Biden over Sanders. Maybe this is why I can see most Democrats holding their collective nose and “voting sensible.” I guess my Yeats pun would “fall apart.” (Okay, I’ll stop.)

While the Democratic Party seems to be moving to the left, the specter of four more years of Trump governs that forward motion. And that is truly depressing. It’s too early to tell at this point, but the prospect of a truly liberal and anti-neoliberal party is almost enough to make jump for joy, but it’s too early for the streamers, balloons, party hats, and horns.

I’ll leave the last word about moving forward in American politics to a Dutchman.

Saigon, Nha Trang, Hanoi, and Beijing in a few pix

My wife and I spent two weeks in Vietnam and China recently. Below are some images from the trip. The main part of the vacation was in Vietnam. The time in Beijing was a stop off on the way home to visit with our son, his beautiful wife and their adorable two daughters.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

There is almost no semblance of traffic control in Vietnam: no traffic lights (except for the very rare ones on large streets); there are no crosswalks nor indicators for pedestrian crossings. Scooters outnumber cars and trucks 10 to 1. It is controlled chaos. Pedestrians cross streets when it looks safe and the scooters ride around the pedestrians like water around river rocks. Even the sidewalks weren’t safe. Scooterists helped themselves to use what we take for granted as walkways part of the road as well as scooter parking spaces. As fun as the three cities we visited in Vietnam, it took a toll on us. We were exhausted each night when made it back to our hotel. The weather had us in shorts and all I could think of is getting clipped in the calf, chin, or Achilles’s heal by a scooter’s foot peg.

Ho Chi Minh City Museum
Inside the City Museum
Captured U.S. equipment (Bell HU-1 “Huey” and a Northrop F5) outside the museum
Captured Huey
I forgot what this exhibit is about. I’m guessing it is an example of a National Liberation Front rally (aka the Viet Cong.).
Me ‘n Uncle Ho at the Central Post Office
Statue of Minh in front of the Hồ Chí Minh City People’s Committee

My first authentic banh mi. I was worried about eating pork due to African Swine Fever which hit Vietnam back in 2017. Still, I ate pork three times in first two days. I worried about drinking water. This was remedied by always drinking bottled water (assuming the local bottlers were properly filtering their product), and I worried about drinking any iced drinks since it was highly likely the ice came from non-filtered water. As it turned out I drank four drinks with ice in them. So much for being cautious.

We took a Mekong Delta tour where we visited the Tho Xa My Phong; Vinh Trang Pagoda, drank coconut juice right from a coconut with lunch–just like an obvious tourist. We also watched caramel candy being made, visited beehives, and a honey bottling operation.

Buddhist monastery
A failed attempt at messaging a friend in front of a pagoda
Our ride
“Ride the snake…
the snake is long.”

The following day we visited the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Garden. We skipped the animals. Too depressing. We toured the Palace of Reunification where–before Saigon fell–the building used to house the South Vietnamese President.

Before we set out for another day I watched a little of the Red Sox’ season opener.
Saigon Zoo and Botanical Garden.
People etched their names on leaves. Why?
In front of Reunification Palace. This used to be the South Vietnamese Presidential Palace.
Another Huey–this on the Reunification Palace roof
S. Vietnam’s prez had a sweet crib, including a theater!

Nha Trang

Nha Trang is an international vacation spot where English takes a rumble seat to Russian. In fact, most of the non-Vietnamese we heard was Russian. This goes back to the Soviet Union days where Soviets vacationed above the 17th Parallel. After the reunification, Russians started vacationing further south. In some ways, this is their Mexico–a relatively close, cheap, and warm place to kick it. A lot of cigarettes are sold here, sometimes via “cigarette girls” walking the streets. Russians obviously didn’t get the memo on the health hazards of smoking. Russians can pick people like us out–holding hands while crossing the street, sometimes frozen in the middle of the street in fear. One Russian snapped at us mid-crossing, “Cross with confidence!”

Our next stop was the beach resort Nha Trang. This is a view from our hotel balcony.
The first time I ever eaten pho. Messy.
Go ahead, guys, park your rides right in the restaurant.
A lot of seafood
Try crossing the street, I dare ya.
That’s okay, fellas, you can park your scoots on the sidewalk. We’ll walk around.
All restaurants that had menus offered Cyrillic translations
More grilled sea food.
Some stuff just didn’t look appetizing.
Cigarettes–mainly for the Russian customers.
More seafood
… and even more seafood
Yeah, I ate gray meat all right.

These are common images. People sitting or lying on their scooters. The guy on the left is one of many Grab riders–Asia’s answer to Uber. There are supposed to be Grab taxis, but all we saw were scooters. The picture on the right was taken in Saigon.

I was enjoying vacation so much I forgot politics and political podcasts and just deleted my alerts. As of this posting, I’m still not listening to most of them. It feels nice. The whole time we were in Vietnam and Beijing Sacramento was experiencing some serious rainfall. I’m glad we got the rain and even happier that I dodged it.

A word about Vietnam (and as I would find out later) Beijing napkins. They don’t offer very big ones–very skimpy ones, to be honest. However, every meal comes with a wet nap. I would open them right away and place them on my lap which was awkward–especially when we were in Saigon and Nha Trang since I wore shorts and could feel my shorts getting damp as I ate.

Hanoi

The first 24 hours in Hanoi were fun. Our hotel was near St. Joseph’s Cathedral. I had hot and iced Vietnamese coffee quite often while I was Vietnam. The fourth and fifth images below are from a walking street food tour we took on the second night. The pho was good, but I didn’t feel well after eating the meat in it. For our last stop we had Vietnamese coffee with a whisked egg yolk in it. It was the best coffee I had the whole trip, but thinks didn’t feel so good in my gut by this time. A couple of hours later I was tossing everything up I had that day and then some. I spend our last day in Vietnam retching and praying this all would be over by the time I got to the airport. It was, but that was a horrible 24 hours.

St. Joseph’s Cathedral located in the old quarter of Hanoi. This was taken from our hotel room.
I drank a lot of coffee in Vietnam, but after I got sick I stopped.I have only had a couple of cups in the last three weeks. I don’t blame coffee for becoming violently ill, but the naturally acid taste reminds me of that night. I’ve been drinking tea ever since.
Was this the culprit?
I really hope it wasn’t this. I really want to try Vietnamese Egg Coffee (or Cà Phê Trứng) again.

Beijing

On our first night in Beijing we saw people throwing paper on little fires on the sidewalk. The next day and throughout the rest of our stay, we saw these chalk circles on the sidewalk–sites where the burning events occurred. Peter said people were burning fake money (Joss paper). It had something to do with sending the money up to their recently departed, I think. Peter said to not step inside any of the many circles we would come across. We obliged.
Family portrait: the artist portrayed Peter as Chinese!
Bin Man and baby Zora. We didn’t see enough of Peter’s beautiful bride. She was on a project at work much of the time.
The Chinese like to feed you and Bin Man and Peter were gracious hosts.
Peter and Alanis.
Grandpa with his daughter and granddaughters.
ZiZi, the very cute and obedient family dog.

Here are more of Alanis. (I guess the secret is out, I’m a proud grandfather.) The last one is of Alanis and Grandpa, Bin Man’s father.

Only a couple of things left to do before leaving Beijing for home:

Leave a note for my friend Dave from Tienanmen Square and . . .
dub my eldest granddaughter China’s No. 1 Oakland A’s fan.

Funny thing is, Peter had a concern about me walking around Tiananmen Square with a sheet of paper with words on it–as if it could be interpreted as a protest sign to someone of authority that doesn’t read English. Seconds after raising the harmless sign for the picture, I was confronted by someone from–I think–the People’s Liberation Army, but he just wanted me to move along and was quite polite about it. I shuddered later thinking it could have been someone pushing me into a paddy wagon!

More room on the way back. Us fat guys need it!