Blue Apron Journey, Week 1

April 27, 2015

Week 1, Meal 1 (4/22/15)

Almond-Crusted Cod with Snap Peas & Radish-Red Quinoa Salad

Inspired by the posts of friends, I signed up for the Blue Apron meal kit delivery service. I don’t cook, but I can follow directions and assemble kits so I thought I’d give it a shot. My first attempt didn’t look much like the picture (because I forgot to refer to it before I shoveled the food onto the plate), but it tasted pretty darned good. Rich (my husband) concurs, and trust me, he wouldn’t hesitate to tell me otherwise. I only suffered one injury (need a little more practice with the zester), which isn’t bad considering I repeatedly tempted fate with knives and hot olive oil.

Week1Meal1 Almond-Crusted Cod

But damn, what to do with all of the packaging? Definitely not earth-friendly, which is ironic because today is Earth Day. Shipping box? Recycle. Ice packs? Reuse and Freecycle or donate after the first week or two. But what about all of the little plastic zip-lock bags? And the huge foil insulated bag? I finally found the Blue Apron recycling guide. Not perfect, but better than nothing.

Week 1, Meal 2 (4/24/15)

Spring Casserole with Fennel, Asparagus, and Golden Raisins

Until about an hour ago, I had never cooked a casserole, had no idea what fennel was (let alone that it is disturbingly reminiscent of “Wilson” from Castaway), and didn’t know that béchamel sauce was even a thing. But here it is, the before and after pic of tonight’s Spring Casserole with fennel, asparagus, and golden raisins (in béchamel sauce).

2015-04-24 Spring Casserole1
2015-04-24 Spring Casserole2

Spousal Responses (after taking the obligatory and safe half-portion):

  1. Hm, I took the first bite in the kitchen assuming it would need more salt. It doesn’t.
  2. Damn, I’m glad there’s more.”

Week 1, Meal 3 (4/26/15)

Sweet and Sour Vegetable Stir-Fry with Radishes, Bok Choy, and Pink Rice

I want to summarize the results of week 1.

  1. Aside from lack of passion, there are many reasons I don’t cook: (a) I have no imagination for ingredients and no idea what to do with them; (b) I don’t want to buy a 16-oz bottle of X because a recipe calls for 1 tsp; (c) I’m terrible at planning, making decisions, and shopping – grab ‘n go at Trader Joe’s or Oliver’s is so much easier. Blue Apron probably won’t overcome my overall apathy for learning this skill, but it has addressed the other problems I mentioned.
  2. We’re expanding our food horizons. In addition to the fennel example I posted earlier this week, we have this: Rich and I both hate radishes. Raw, that is. Until this week, neither of us had any clue that they were good for anything other than garnish or things to pick out of your salad. Now I know how to cook them, and surprise, we like them!
  3. Tonight, I learned how to recover from mistakes. Mistake #1: When step 1 of the recipe is to simply cook rice, just use the rice cooker so you don’t have to worry about that timing while you prepare the rest of the meal; Mistake #2: 1/2-cup isn’t the same as 1/4 cup (time to fix those glasses), especially when you’re adding the ponzu/cornstarch/water mix to the final phase of the stir-fry. Solution: throw the excess stir-fry goop into the rice that wasn’t quite timed right and turn it on High.
  4. Inspired by a friend’s question, we are not only keeping the recipe cards, we are rating them so that we can decide which ones are worth repeating in the future.

Here is tonight’s triumph:

2015-04-26 Sweet and Sour Vegetable Stir-Fry1
2015-04-26 Sweet and Sour Vegetable Stir-Fry2

Week 1 Wrap-up

  • I cooked
  • It was good
  • I’m looking forward to Week 2

Frances B. Newman, January 14, 1915 – June 11, 2008

January 13, 2015

Several friends have asked me to publish the eulogy I delivered at my mom’s memorial in September of 2008. Today, on what would have been her 100th birthday, I have finally done it – embellished with a few choice photographs (click to expand the thumbnails). I have also produced a labor-of-love DVD for people who couldn’t be there, complete with video of all the speakers, photos by my friend Eileen Gayle, and music, which was so important in her life. If you’d like a copy of the DVD, please contact me directly or let me know in a Comment.


FBN Memorial

Although Memorial Celebrations are inherently sad affairs, I have learned to appreciate and even look forward to them. And not so much for the obvious reasons–closure, saying goodbye, or even just a decent excuse to raise a glass. For me, the unexpected value is getting to know people in ways that just aren’t possible during their lifetimes. No matter how broad or deep a relationship, we’re still constrained by our own perspectives and can never know anybody the way others do. I first experienced this at Frank’s [my father’s] Memorial in 1996, and have since approached all such events with the same positive attitude and expectations. Thanks to our speakers today, as well as others who will step up during the Open Remarks, I am well on my way to exceeding those expectations today.

My longtime friend Peter Sorenson wrote this when he received the news: “Frannie possessed a rare and endearing combo of being fully present and available in the moment, but at the same time, being staunchly in control of her own reality. She graciously allowed us to be guests in this reality. With age and maturity, I have come to appreciate how important and highly evolved these two qualities of character truly are.”

As her youngest and only living child, I will now do my best to give you a glimpse into my view of her staunchly-controlled reality. But please understand my limitations. After all, I was constrained by the dynamics of the parent/child relationship, and remember, since I was born when she was 43, I only actually knew her for the second half of her life.

Anti-Aging Policy

Aging was not a part of Frannie’s reality. Instead, she established a strict Anti-Aging Policy, which served her pretty well for most of her 93 years. She didn’t rely on creams and potions or surgery, nor did she exercise regularly or maintain a particularly healthy lifestyle. Instead, she adhered to three basic principles:

  1. Principle #1: Deny (to yourself and others) that aging is happening at all. How many here didn’t really know her age until after June 11? She guarded this secret vigorously, and entrusted all who were close to her to do the same – she didn’t even really want anybody to know that she was two years older than Frank. Protecting this information occasionally caused some internal conflict between privacy and frugality, another of her strongest characteristics. For example, when she was commuting to her job in the city, she carried two different BART tickets – a blue one to use when she traveled with others, and a green one to use when nobody she cared about was looking. In the last year, when she could no longer deny to herself what was happening, she stood firm in her refusal to let others see it, which is why she discouraged visitors during her illness. I know many of you were affected by her position, so I hope you now understand that it wasn’t personal, she just wasn’t willing to expose her new reality.
  2. Principle #2: Avoid modifying your life and activities. Closely tied to Principle #1, anybody who paid attention during the last couple of decades saw very little change in what Fran did. She didn’t believe in growing old gracefully, she simply avoided the idea of growing old. She worked, traveled, sang, partied and entertained. She remained in the family home, and for better or worse, she drove her car until a month before she got sick. Places like “Senior Centers”, “Retirement Communities” and “Assisted Living” belonged in other people’s realities, not hers.
  3. Principle #3: Stay true to your contemporaries, but ensure a continual flow of young people. Her success in this area is demonstrated by the crowd in this room today. When I was planning this event, my advisors suggested that I might need a bigger limo, assuming a large crowd of old people needing to be shuttled. I chuckled because I knew differently. Many of us didn’t even realize our roles in this component of her Anti-Aging Policy.

As I continue with my story, you’ll soon see how she engineered her reality and the major themes of her life to support these three Principles. It seems to have been pretty successful, so maybe we can all learn a little from her in this respect.


FBN Memorial.004

Music was a constant thread in Frannie’s life. She originally met Frank at the Mask and Dagger Revue, where a single piano pla

yer (Frank) served as the “orchestra”. She was committed to instilling a love for music in her kids and endeavored to teach us all piano from an early age. She hauled us off to the symphony, ballet, musicals and jazz concerts to expand our musical tastes and passion beyond children’s songs and top 40 hits. She shuttled each of us to instrument lessons, band and orchestra rehearsals, and all varieties of performances. She sent us to Cazadero Music Camp every summer. In retrospect, I’m not so sure that was an entirely altruistic move since she and Frank always managed to schedule a marvelous adventure out of the country during those multi-week sessions. I guess they considered the City of Berkeley to be a suitable baby-sitter.

But more than any other aspect of music, she loved to sing. My earliest memories include her singing to me and teaching me a wide variety of songs – I doubt there were many 5-year-olds in 1963 who could confidently render such ditties as Irving Berlin’s “Oh How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning” and “Tell Me Pretty Maiden” (from the operetta Floradora), both penned in the early part of the 20th century.

She looked forward every holiday season to hosting the “Christmas Sing” and neighborhood caroling parties at our home, always improvising the Alto harmony to enhance the crowd of singers, most of whom were locked on the melody.

At a more public level she sang with the Oakland Symphony Chorus in the 60s and 70s. In 1973, she found a home with the Berkeley University Chorus, where she remained a fixture for 33 years. I’m sure that her decision to switch was heavily influenced by the difference in the average age of the two groups – taking us back to Principle #3 of the Anti-Aging Policy: surround yourself with young people. In the fall of 2006, at the age of 91, she decided not to rejoin the Chorus, conceding that she didn’t have the stamina to stand up through rehearsals and concerts. I pointed out that they would undoubtedly make accommodations for her to sit, but her unwillingness to consider that option led me to understand that this was actually a graceful way to avoid facing the fact (or worse, having it pointed out) that her voice was no longer what it once was. She loved nearly everything about singing with these groups, with one notable exception: Auditions, which she detested without reservation or apology. Auditions fell into the same category of necessary evils as root canals, colonoscopies and income tax preparation. For the last few years, the Director of the chorus, Marika Kuzma [also a speaker], graciously waived Fran’s auditions, a concession to her tenure for which she was (and I remain) eternally grateful.


FBN Memorial.090In 1970, Fran began searching for something new to help distract her from the tragedy of Ralph’s [my closest brother] death. I was twelve and presumed to be self-sufficient – I was a decidedly precocious kid, so this wasn’t a big stretch. She was 55 at the time, an age when most people are planning their retirement. Not only did she decide to rejoin the workforce, but to make it even more interesting, she took on the task of helping to define and develop an embryonic profession, “Paralegal”. With support from a close family friend, John Page Austin, a senior partner at Morrison-Foerster, she embarked on what would eventually be a 28-year career, ending with her retirement just 10 years ago at the age of 83. I guess she finally decided she needed a spend a little more time doing more important things, like traveling. I always wondered if she might have exaggerated her involvement in defining the Paralegal role, until I recently uncovered a memo she wrote that does exactly that [displayed at the Memorial].

Art Shartsis [also a speaker] has done a fine of job of portraying her career, so I don’t need to say much more, except to point out how important it was to her. The office provided a constant touchstone of distraction and support through various personal losses, and it also served as a key component of Principle #3 of her Anti-Aging Policy, with a wonderful crew of younger colleagues and a self-refreshing pool of new Associates.

Echo Lake

FBN Memorial.054Echo Lake wasn’t so much a part of her life, as an integral part of her being. I don’t even know where to start. Do I begin in the 1930s, with her stories of paddling the canoe down to the chalet alone to pick up a beau who had traveled from Tahoe, then paddling him back to cabin, then back down to the chalet (because of course, he couldn’t possibly spend the night), and then back to the cabin alone? And that apparently she did this regardless of the wind conditions, which as far as I can tell, used to change directions randomly in the 30s so that she somehow always ended up paddling upwind? Or do I somehow try to summarize eight decades of activities with family and friends, including hiking, canoeing, waterskiing, swimming, sailing, fishing, oiling the deck, and in the early part of the season, snow sliding?

FBN Memorial.064Or maybe I should just fast-forward ahead to 1999, when at the age of 84, she hiked with Mary Lou Peterson and me up to the Echo Peak ridge for a final look at the stunning view of Lake Tahoe and Mt. Tallac.

Highlights include the frequent productions of the Echo Lake Playhouse, in which a variety show of skits and vignettes was presented from behind the curtain that bisected the tiny log cabin, all conceived, written, cast, and directed by Fran, and performed by various kids from the family and neighboring cabins to an appreciative audience of indulgent adults.

She also loved the pre-season Echo Lakes Association dinners, where she was a frequent winner of the “stand-up/sit-down” contest. This game begins with all of the guests standing, and then sitting down as the “number of years at Echo” is called out and incrementally increased. The result is a spotlight on the last one standing, the one who has been at the lake the longest. In this isolated case, her competitive spirit and desire to win overrode the paradox presented by Principle #1 of the Anti-Aging Policy, and she conveniently ignored the other guests’ ability to do the math.

Her final trip to the lake was last summer [2007] on the Fourth of July, just before she was hospitalized for the first time. I’m thankful that she never had to endure a summer of being unable to make it up to the lake.


Fiji, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, and Russia. Alaska, San Diego (3 times), Ensenada, Vancouver Island, East Coast (3 times), Canyonlands Utah. The Amazon, the Danube, the Columbia, and the Mississippi (twice). For most people, this would be a dream list for a lifetime of travel. But remarkably, this list of trips reflects her travelogue after she turned 80. If I go back before that, we would be here all day.

She thrived on travel, mostly with Frank of course. As a career citizen of the world, Frank was a frequent traveler to new and sometimes exotic locations. Frannie leveraged that brilliantly for several decades, frequently accompanying him to meetings, seminars and conferences all over the world – China, Japan, Austria, Macedonia, Greece, to name a few, and of course, Switzerland.

holly dirndl1

Frannie’s Austrian dirndl.

She and Frank loved to integrate with the locals. Frannie frequently acquired and donned traditional garb, adding a level of interest during the trips, but also resulting in an almost endless supply of material for various costume parties. One example is her authentic Austrian dirndl, procured in 1954, which she dusted off one year for a Halloween party at Shartsis. I more recently appropriated the dirndl for a Sing-along Sound of Music party I hosted at my house last December.

She and Frank were proud of a trick they used for convincing even the shyest of local kids to pose for photos – she carried a Polaroid camera so she could hand over an instant picture for them to keep. The kids were universally thrilled – some had never even seen a photo of themselves. This broke through all of their inhibitions, freeing Frank to take the “take-home’ candid shots with the Konica SLR.

FBN Memorial.160After Frank died in 1996, she adapted quickly, cultivating new travel companions – Allan Viguers, Dick Johnston, Dorothy Clements, Francoise Debreu, as well as me and Rich. One of my most memorable trips with Frannie involved an 8-day tour of the Canyonlands of Southwest Utah in 1997. She was 82. The three of us traveled in our full-size pickup with a camper, towing a motorcycle trailer. We planned all of our overnight stops at RV parks that also featured motels – we stayed in the camper and she got a room. She embraced all aspects of this trip, including two Virgin River experiences: a lazy ride in an inner tube, and a ½-mile wade up the river in Zion Canyon.

Her travels also frequently incorporated her interest in her ancestors and family history.

  • In San Diego, we found the downtown address where her parents lived (now a vacant lot with a view of the airport) and visited the Historical Society, uncovering a photo of the 1902 “Normal School” faculty, numbering 9 and including her father.
  • In Barrington RI, we identified the church where her grandfather was pastor and performed the marriage ceremony of her parents in 1900.
  • In Manhattan, we took the subway to the apartment that they shared while Frank was doing post-graduate studies at Columbia (and where Bob was born), and in Cambridge, we stopped by the house they rented while Frank was a visiting professor at Harvard.
  • In Utah, we explored the Geneology Library, uncovering a family history book on the Greenwoods, a branch of her family tree about which she knew very little. To her great delight, we also validated the family lore that the Dismukes family name was actually an Americanization of the French, Desmeaux.
  • In Ireland, she and Frank explored the homeland of his Dillon ancestors. This quest was memorialized in a display she prepared for his memorial in 1996.


Fran thrived on tradition. She absorbed cultural traditions and also created her own. The nature was not as important as the concept – she held equal enthusiasm for holiday gatherings, birthdays (other than her own), costume parties, any sort of reunion, and other annualized events with family and friends.

FBN Memorial.084At the core of several of her annual events were “The Crew“ – the Austins, the Goodins, and the Helmholz’s, as well as others I didn’t know as well. Three times a year, for as long as I can remember, the Crew had gatherings that trumped all other plans, except maybe a trip to a foreign land. The annual New Year’s ski trip at the Helmholz/Austin cabin, named “Old Shoe” to reflect how comfortable it was. The summer “birthday party” at Echo Lake, acknowledging Frank and Marion Goodin’s July birthdays. The October trip to the Austin Ranch in the Gold Country. After Old Shoe was sold, the New Year’s trip shifted to the Ahwani Lodge in Yosemite, and later scaled back to a dinner gathering at a local restaurant, with the hosting duties rotating through the Crew year to year. The Echo trip dissolved as fewer and fewer were able to make the trek. But the Austin Ranch trip endured, albeit with dwindling numbers, until the passing of Betty Austin in 2006.

Reunions – it seemed that every year, she would announce that she was headed for some sort of reunion – Stanford, Dartmouth, Boalt Hall. In 2001, she even went to a gathering marking the 75th year of The Peninsula School, the progressive private elementary school she attended in Palo Alto in the 1920s. I have no doubt she would have attended last weekend’s Boalt Hall Alumni weekend had she been around.

FBN Memorial.140The Faculty Club holds a special place in Newman family traditions. Many significant Newman parties have happened here, including weddings, anniversary parties, and yes, memorials (I believe this one makes three). She frequently relied on the hospitality of the Kerr Dining Hall to host lunches and dinners before concerts and for various other occasions. And of course, there was the Faculty Holiday Party, at which she hosted many tables of friends over the years. To double the impact, she actually reserved tables for two consecutive nights. When over-subscription caused the Faculty Club to crack down on this practice and limit members to one table, she simply recruited a member friend to make the booking for her, in exchange for a guaranteed seat at the table. I, on the other hand, was always asked to leave both dates open but never had a guaranteed seat – instead, Rich and I were expected to show up as designated chair-fillers in case one or more of the confirmed guests fell through at the last minute.

FBN Memorial.120Holiday gatherings with family were precious to her, especially Thanksgiving. This holiday, with its long weekend, gave us the opportunity to reconnect with cousins who are scattered all over Northern California (many of whom are here today). We’ve had wonderful Thanksgiving dinners in Carmichael, Woodland, Chico and Fort Bragg. She cooked her last turkey in 2000, when she hosted an assorted crew of Newman women (Dorothy, Anna, Ellie and myself) at the Orinda house.

Acknowledgements and Closing

I never dreamed that I would be able to stand up and deliver this tribute. I’ve spent the last several years gearing up for the complete collapse I was sure to experience when I lost Mom, the last of my immediate family. But that isn’t what happened. I miss her terribly, but I can’t quite figure out how to mourn her death when she had such a long and full and rich life. The script I had written in my head had her living forever. But since that’s not possible, I think she did the next best thing – she lived fully until her body just couldn’t keep up any longer.

I’d like to thank all of our speakers, each of whom had a distinct and important influence in her life. In addition, there are a few people I need to give special thanks to today, for their role in helping to preserve Fran’s dignity and my sanity during the past 15 months.

Richard Johnston [also a speaker] was Fran’s loving companion for the last several years of her life. He visited her nearly every day that she was confined to the hospital and nursing homes, bringing not only support and friendly conversation (and her mail), but also a copy of the Chronicle so she could continue to do her daily crossword puzzle.

Joan Miura spent countless hours at the house in Orinda, sorting and organizing and labeling and moving things around so that Fran could safely return home after her first hospitalization.

Barbara Wilcox provided invaluable medical guidance and oversight. She was a frequent drop-in at both the house and the nursing home to review Fran’s medication list and to ensure she was being treated appropriately. And at the end, she was with me at the hospital to help guide me through the decisions that a daughter should never have to make.

Sarah Johnson has been my backstop all year, available on a moment’s notice for anything I needed in the North Bay while I was in the East Bay with Fran. And she was instrumental in the success of this event – she provided a sounding board for every detail, and she spent hours digitally scanning nearly 200 photos to develop the slide show.

And of course Rich, who when not in Colorado helping his own aging mother, provided limitless support and comfort, and also took on every “honey-do” task I presented him without hesitation or complaint, including hand-folding all 200 of the programs you hold in your hands.

Thank you all for joining us today.

DUH, of course we should pay state sales tax on internet purchases

September 20, 2011

I am 100% opposed to any effort to continue our ridiculous exemption from CA Sales Tax on internet purchases. There, I’ve said it out loud. Our state and local municipalities are on the verge of financial collapse, and nobody seems to be dealing with the impact of sales tax revenue losses on that trend. There are only two solutions: decrease spending or increase revenue. We’ve cut about as much as we can cut. We’re already 47th in the nation in per-student education spending – do we really want to hit bottom?

Am I part of the problem?

You bet. Yes, I buy from Amazon (and others). And yes, I have enjoyed the absurd windfall of an ongoing 8+% discount by doing so. And yes, I have ignored the stern admonishment from my CPA that I am obligated to declare all of those purchases as “Use Tax” on my CA Income Tax return. Here is the link that describes my obligation – what a convoluted piece of crap:

Why do I think I/we should pay?

I shop from my couch – in California. My purchases are delivered to my doorstep – in California. I enjoy the use of most of these items – in California. I don’t know or care where the orders are processed or where the items come from. How are these NOT sales-taxable events? How does this activity differ from driving 1/2-mile to (insert local store name here) and buying something to bring home and use? It doesn’t, and any attempt to differentiate the two is pure rationalization.

Why do I not declare these purchases on my 540?

The legislature should have seen this coming at least a decade ago and gotten on top of it. It’s not my job to help them sort out their lack of vision. If their “solution” is to put the onus on me and the Franchise Tax Board through my 540 return, then I would assert that the merchants in CA should no longer be required to collect sales tax either. We should all be equally bound by the honor system. But since the law requires brick-and-mortar merchants in CA to deal with this collection burden on behalf of the State Board of Equalization, the legislature should require nothing less of the internet merchants who do business in CA. I repeat, not my job.

What about Amazon’s threat to abandon California buyers if we implement an internet sales tax?

Seriously? According to the 2010 census, California represents 12% of the nation’s population. Do you really think that Amazon is going to give up that market? Sure, they’ll lose some of their competitive edge (against local businesses) if they have to collect sales tax. But realistically, all we’re really talking about is a little programmer time to adjust their software and a slight adjustment to the FTE count in their accounting department to file the returns with the FTB. Their threat is as much crap as the current CA sales tax law.

What about the local merchants?

I would hope that a fair sales tax will help local merchants to some extent, as compared to the current ridiculous state of affairs. But to keep my business, the local merchants will still have to stay on their toes to be competitive. I’m unapologetically lazy and unless I have an immediate need, shopping from my couch and having the product show up at my door will usually win.

 Do you really want to avoid Sales Tax?

You can’t have your cake and eat it too. If you don’t want to pay so much sales tax, then you ought to do one of three things:

1. Move to a state that doesn’t have it.

2. Stop complaining about the condition of our infrastructure and educational system.

3. Actively promote legislative alternatives for either increased revenues (which I would argue includes fair sales tax) or reduced expenses.

If you’re not willing to do one of those three things, then you need to SHUT UP about the current internet sales tax proposals and stop harrassing me when I show up at the County Fair or Wal-Mart or wherever you are lobbying that day when your unrealistic and pathetic life happens to converge with mine.

 The Real Scam: Use Tax

Here’s the dirty little secret about Sales Tax – it’s actually called “Sales and Use Tax”. Which, IMHO, is a total load of crap. Here’s how it affects you:

1. If you buy a used washing machine from Craig’s List, you are legally required to pay “Use” tax on that purchase by reporting it on your state Income Tax return. Really? Has anybody ever actually done that? Why not? Because either you don’t even know that you’re supposed to (because it’s so illogical and absurd), or you know in your heart that it’s double taxation and a load of crap. BUT:

2. If you buy a used car, the DMV charges you “Use” tax when you register it. Why? Because they are a government agency and have been empowered and entitled to do so. How many of you have colluded to defraud the state of this bullshit revenue, either as a buyer or a seller, by “agreeing” on a false selling price that you know you can get away with? I know I have, on both sides of that equation. Why is it such a scam? Because it’s so capricious. If I buy a new car and keep it until it dies, I pay the Sales & Use Tax once – through the dealer. But if I sell it after a year and the next buyer does the same (and so on and so on), the state could collect multiple “Use” taxes in that same car’s lifetime. And the only way the state gets away with it is that they have their own agency (the DMV) that is empowered with collecting.

 My Naive Conclusion

If we all paid our fair share of the Sales Tax, regardless of the “source” of our purchases, perhaps we could (a) avoid the financial collapse of our state and our education system and (b) repeal the DMV-enabled scam called “Use” tax on vehicles.

“Art of the Accompanist”, a book by Mike Greensill

February 6, 2011

My father, Frank C. Newman, was an amateur accompanist for most of his life. He used his talent on the piano to support himself through college, arrange and accompany dozens of Boalt Hall faculty skits, and host boisterous Christmas sings at our family home in Orinda.

As a result of some crazy twists of fate and circumstance in the late ’70s, my mother became friends with Wesla Whitfield, who is widely-acclaimed as one of the great cabaret singers of our time and master of the Great American Songbook. Through her performances, my father found himself mesmerized by her accomplished accompanist, Mike Greensill. The friendship between the four of them grew (and eventually extended to me as well), and in 1986, my father had the honor of officiating their marriage ceremony. (As an aside, I think that performing weddings for friends and family, including my own, was his favorite legacy of his time as a judge.)

My father often said that Mike was the best arranger and accompanist he had ever encountered, with an uncanny sense of subtlety, timing, and intuitiveness. The world seems to agree, because the Mike Greensill Trio (both with and without Wesla on stage) is an established presence on not only the local jazz scene, but in New York as well. In addition, Mike is the resident piano player on Sedge Thomson’s weekly Public Radio show to the world, West Coast Live.

Art of the AccompanistMike’s latest ambition is to share the tricks of his trade with the music world by writing a book – “Art of the Accompanist”, subtitled “A Practical Guide for the Jazz / Cabaret Piano Player.” Though I love music and played a little when I was younger, I am not the target audience so I didn’t think it would be of much interest to me. But because of my father’s connection and my friendship with Mike, I explored a little further.

He has published the first chapter on-line as a sample so I read it. It is terrific. Far from being just a “how-to” book for students, it’s a primer in music appreciation for fans. His engaging personality shines through in his writing, and he includes anecdotes and quotes from legendary performers which adds a delightful a touch of music history. He has managed to express (in very readable prose) some of the practical theory behind the nuance that so impressed my father. You needn’t be an accompanist to enjoy this book, although I concede that it might not be quite as readable without some music background.

The book will be published both in hard copy and digital formats. As illustrated in the sample, Mike is taking full advantage of digital enhancements by including recorded examples with associated images. This technology adds a richness that is simply amazing.

The book is self-funded, which means that there is no big publishing house fronting the costs. Mike is taking time away from his performing schedule to pour his energy into this project. As such, he is reaching out to backers to help support the project, using Kickstarter, a unique online funding platform for the creative arts.

I encourage you to take a moment to read the sample chapter and review the proposal and videos on his Kickstarter page. My father would have loved this book and I will be contributing to this project in his honor. I hope you can too. Either way, I will update this post when the book is actually published.

Adventures of a Silver Spoon

July 11, 2010

The story of the Silver Spoon is the stuff of family legend, a saga spanning two generations and two significant wars. I had almost forgotten about this chapter of my family’s history, until Wendy Vogelgesang, current caretaker of my family home in Orinda, unearthed the evidence in a bedroom closet. She photographed the spoon and the supporting documents – which include a letter written by my maternal grandfather and a rubbing of the spoon itself with explanatory notes.

Here, for your historical viewing pleasure, is the whole story.

PG&E gets to send ME money!

April 29, 2010

I am eternally indebted to Assemblyman Jared Huffman, who just happens to represent my district (Marin and Southern Sonoma County). I don’t honestly remember if I voted for him in the last election, but I guarantee I will vote for him if he runs for reelection. Why? Because he sponsored AB 920: the California Solar Surplus Act of 2009. If you don’t have solar power in California and never intend to, you can stop reading now. But if you are thinking about installing or expanding a system, or if you think you might have overbuilt the one you have, Mr. Huffman is your hero.

Thanks to AB920, people in California will have even more incentive to install significant solar power systems on their homes, because they will be compensated fairly (instead of not at all) for net excess generation over a 12-month period. This bill eliminates a perverse feeling (one that I have felt) that we’d rather waste electricity than to give any away to PG&E (for them to sell).

Until AB920 came along, private solar generation remained a hard sell and somewhat of a balancing act. There are significant incentives to help offset the cost of installation – rebates from the state, substantial (30%, no cap) income tax credits from the Feds (thanks to Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009), unsecured loans from Sonoma County (although I opted for the home equity avenue because I’m one of the lucky ones that still has some – equity, that is). The sticking point was the mathematics game of designing a system that would generate “just enough” electrons. In our case, that was complicated by the fact that we were doing energy-saving home improvements at the same time, which made our historical data fairly worthless. With this new law (which was signed by Governor Schwarzenegger in October), that is no longer as much of an issue.

Under the previous rules, if I overbuild my system (which I probably did, and not at a trivial cost) and generate more than I use (which I probably will), PG&E would just take the excess for free (thank you very much) and then turn around and sell it at retail rates to other customers (like you!).

I have a sense of responsibility to the earth, but not to PG&E’s bottom line. I was already trying to figure out ways to use up my projected excess – perhaps buying a plug-in car (like the Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf), which don’t exist yet. But in the meantime, I had stopped worrying about leaving lights on. This bill will bring me back to a more responsible position of conservation because I will be fairly compensated for my excess electrons.

The amount is still to be determined by the CPUC, but in a recent letter I received from PG&E, they’re proposing 8.1 cents per kWh. They claim that “represents a proxy for the market value of the power”. I figure that is a low water mark, and the CPUC will probably negotiate it up. Either way, anything more than zero cents per kWh is better than what we had before.

The Irony of Energy

January 20, 2010

We are all doing our best to endure the great storm of 2010, as evidenced by Facebook posts that refer to monstrous wind, grape-sized hail, nearby condo fires caused by lightning strikes, flooded yards and outbuildings, highway closures all over the state, tornado warnings (huh?), filling sandbags, and record lows in barometric pressure. We’ve done remarkably well on our little hill in northwest Petaluma – so far, all I have to complain about is bored dogs, muddy carpets, and a fairly tense commute to work this morning.

So I thought I’d reach a little farther and ponder the Irony of Energy.  We have been affected by this phenomenon in two ways – too much gas and too little sun. Our Energy story over the past 8 years is Murphy’s Law exemplified.

The Propane Paradox

The first year we moved to the country, a storm like this knocked out our power for well over a week. Our house is 100% electrically-powered, so this was a pretty big deal. For you city folks, when one depends on a well as one’s water source, electricity to run the well is a fundamental requirement (or the toilets don’t get flushed).  Thus, we were smugly delighted that the house had come equipped with a stand-by generator. The secondary benefit was that the refrigerator and a few lights/outlets are also wired into the bypass circuit panel, so the food doesn’t spoil and the TV and computer can easily be powered by an extension cord to the bathroom.

However, the previous owner apparently did not see the value of a permanent propane supply, instead relying on an ancient 25-gallon portable tank as the fuel source. During that extended outage, we quickly learned the truth about the three adjectives describing that tank:

  1. 25-gallons of propane lasts about 18 hours when powering a house generator 24/7.
  2. Said ‘portable’ tank weighs about 150 pounds, and is thus quite challenging to transport to the local filling station, especially in a storm.
  3. By ‘ancient’, I mean equipped with a no-longer-legal filler valve, which meant we had to (a) choose a filling station where we were personal friends with the CFO, and (b) slip an extra bill to the guy doing the filling.

I lost track of how many times we loaded that damned tank into the truck in the rain, headed out to the [to-remain-nameless] filling station, bribed the guy to fill it, and dragged it out of the truck and across the yard to hook it back up. But it was enough that when we repaved the driveway, we also had the contractor dig and plumb a trench and pour a concrete slab, all in hopes of installing a more permanent solution.

We quickly learned that a permanent propane tank was a considerable extravagance for our house because the stand-by generator was the ONLY consumer of gas on the property. Here’s how the propane companies work: if you can demonstrate consistent usage with a one or more ‘systems’ (stove, water heater, central heating, dryer, etc.), they will rent you the tank for a nominal annual fee and rely on the refills for their profit. Not us, we were stuck buying the big ugly thing outright. So when my mother asked me a few years later, “What do you want for your birthday?”, the answer was immediate – a propane tank! Thanks, Mom!

The 250-gallon tank was installed and filled exactly four years ago in January 2006. Since then, I doubt that our combined power outages have exceeded 24 hours. At this point, the tank exists to support the weekly automated generator self-tests, and the occasional power outage when some fool takes out a power pole on Stony Point Road. At last check, the gauge still showed 80% from the initial filling.

So this is my first 2010 offering to Murphy’s Law. I shudder to think what meteorological nightmares might have occurred had we not installed this tank. All of you in Southern Sonoma County, indeed perhaps all of Northern California, should thank me now. But I can’t help wishing that this 2010 storm of the century had caused more of an electrical impact on my house so I could feel justified about installing that tank.

The Photo-Voltaic Puzzle

Late in 2009, we decided to install a significant solar-energy system. We were motivated by our electrical usage (remember, our house is 100% electrically-powered – bad for the propane but good for the PV system), and we were further pushed by the alternative energy incentives included in Obama’s Economic Stimulus Package of 2009. Seriously, a 30% tax credit against the cost? How do we ignore that?

We spent much of the fall researching options, getting bids, selecting a contractor, getting a new roof, watching panels get installed. Fast-forward to January 5, the date the system went live. We were SO excited! We have 44-235W panels, two 5000W inverters, our entire roof faces the south, and we live in California, for gawd’s sake. Now’s the time for the meter to begin spinning backwards, right?

And so we move to our second 2010 offering to Murphy’s Law. Because in the two weeks since the system was officially turned on, we have had nothing but inland tulle fog that was pushed west by a freakish pressure inversion on the coast, and now the worst winter storm the area has seen since the invention of the wheel (or thereabouts). By our latest calculations, I think we have generated enough energy to power our house for about a nano-second.

So that is my current storm story  – the Irony of Energy in my little microcosm of the world – too much of what I don’t need and not enough of what I want. I’m trying to do the right thing for my carbon footprint, but so far, it isn’t quite working out as I’d planned.