The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

“I have been looking on, this evening, at a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas Tree. The tree was planted in the middle of a great round table, and towered high above their heads. It was brilliantly lighted by a multitude of little tapers; and everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects.” ~ Charles Dickens

Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away, back to his own fireside and his quiet home! ~ Charles Dickens

“Christmas isn’t a season. It’s a feeling.” ~Edna Ferber

I wonder if Edna Ferber had Charles Dickens in mind when that thought came to her. Is there any one person who felt and expressed Christmas as did Dickens? Jesus may have invented Christmas, in a manner of speaking, but it was Dickens who revived it from its doldrums of early 19th century England when the holiday was sputtering like a wet yule log. Charles Dickens, breathed life back into Christmas and in the process influenced the celebration of Christmas to this day.

Dickens wove tales that carry the reader from the gloom of a bitter cold winter to the glow of a holiday gathering; the scent of evergreen, cinnamon and citrus. Reading a Dickens Christmas tale is like being served a snifter of holiday congeniality; a steaming mug of Christmas spirit to warm the cold hand before soothing the belly and the spirit. He chills the reader on a cold London street and then guides him to a warm Christmas hearth. His words of generosity and goodwill sing like the sweet refrain of a choir. In his stories live the spirits of redemption, hope, fellowship, joy and charity.

For decades Dickens has visited me at Christmas. As a child I watched cartoon and film versions of A Christmas Carol. A Christmas Carol has always sung to me. Nearly every December I pull out my worn copy and travel back to Victorian London to visit with Scrooge, the Cratchits, Fred and the ghosts of Christmas.

It was 47 years ago that my then girlfriend Denise and I discovered The Dickens Christmas Faire, held on weekends at the Cow Palace Exhibition Halls in San Francisco. The Dickens Faire transforms the dank halls into the lanes of Victorian London, complete with shops, music halls, pubs, a Fezziwig dance party and purveyors of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, meat pies, bangers and roasted chestnuts all washed down with ales, hot toddies, mulled wine or gin. The following year we went again, this time in period costume. I wore a waistcoat and Denise squeezed carefully into my Mustang wearing a hoop skirt.

Below: The Dickens Christmas Faire

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It’s the thirtieth day of November. We’re on the back side of autumn and moving headlong into winter. I could just as easily have phrased it as being on the home stretch but that assumes something pleasant at the end, a finish line, a goal. Autumn doesn’t captivate me like it does others. I find no promise in a season that augurs colder, shorter, wetter days. Autumn is a cold appetizer for the colder main dish of winter and a longing for the desserts of spring and summer. What could possibly be encouraging about the season that portends, as the poem describes, “the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan” and an earth “hard as iron” and “water like a stone?”

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Ah! On Thanksgiving day….
When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more,
And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before.
What moistens the lips and what brightens the eye?
What calls back the past, like the rich pumpkin pie?
~John Greenleaf Whittier

It’s Thanksgiving today and we’re not celebrating. Well, that isn’t completely true and in admitting to a small distortion don’t take me for either a politician or a lawyer. While I’ll admit to some occasional inaccuracies and a few tactical fibs and who among is guiltless in that regard, I try with some success, not to be an unapologetic prevaricator.

To set the record straight, our family feast is done on the day following Thanksgiving. That’s the day better known as Black Friday, that loathsome day when Americans engage in a feeding frenzy of profligate shopping that includes traffic jams, road rage, parking lot rage and in store rage, all over game consoles, televisions, computers and other assorted gadgets that one wouldn’t be otherwise interested in but for being marked down 10%. Black Friday is the chief representative of all that’s wrong with the holiday season. It’s business and corporate greed hiding in the Trojan horse of holiday generosity.

Legend has us believing that the term was conceived to describe the first day of retailers operating in the black (at profit) after being in the red (below profit) all year. The term was actually coined in the 1950’s by the Philadelphia Police Department to describe the mayhem created by shoppers flooding the city. For the cops it was a mandatory day of long shifts, traffic jams, shoplifters and pickpockets.

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It’s chilly today. Let me qualify that, it’s in the low 50’s, which for me is chilly. I realize that I’ll get no sympathy from those who are bundling up to go out in the snow. When I took a trip to the San Francisco Botanical Garden it was an unseasonably hot day. The Giants were still not hopelessly out of the pennant race and summer vacation was still in the planning stage. Seems like ages ago.

I’m not really an autumn person and I’m REALLY not a winter person so to try to warm myself up a bit here’s a return to the San Francisco Botanical Garden and some intimate shots of some of its beauty.

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It’s a rare day when Lexi and I don’t spend an hour or so on one of the local recreation paths. Usually it’s a morning run along the shores of nearby San Pablo Bay. If I’m too lazy to run then we take a long afternoon walk. I used to take her to the dog park to frolic with her doggy friends, Bear, Jessi and Max. That’s until she adopted the misconception that rolling in poop is a good idea. A few baths later and she’s been banned for life from the dog park; or at least until she learns that poop rolling is socially unacceptable (currently a work in progress).

It’s been during our outings that I noticed a spike in the number of Siberian Huskies, many of them doing what they were bred for, pulling things, usually a struggling owner at the other end of a groaning leash. For over a year I wondered, what it is with Huskies that all of a sudden they’re as popular as baby sharks, which are apparently all the rage these days.

One day I mentioned to my son that you can’t turn a corner without seeing a person being hauled down the street by a Siberian. He responded that Huskies have become canine celebrities because they’ve become TV celebrities on the series Game of Thrones. I’m one of those oddities who hasn’t watched a single second of Game of Thrones but I’ve since come to learn that one of the most lovable and popular of the show’s characters is the direwolf (Canis dirus) portrayed as a loyal and protective companion to the protagonists.

The direwolf once a real creature has been extinct for 10,000 years posing something of a dilemma for the show’s producers in need of some direwolves. Given the severe dearth of an extinct animal the producers needed a dog to play the part. Enter the Northern Inuit dog, a breed that bears an uncanny resemblance to a wolf.

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Northern Inuit Dog

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Part of our first day in Montreal was spent strolling up and down the aisles of Marche Jean Talon, a public market located in the city’s Little Italy district. Window shopping; I can take it or leave it. That is unless we’re at a farmer’s market. Then I’m all in, as I was when we went to the Jean Talon Public Market.

Jean Talon is a gastronomic playland, an amusement park that excites all the senses; the vibrant colors of flowers, pungent perfume of the cheesemonger, the crunch of a crusty loaf of bread, the warmth of a cup of cappuccino cradled in you palm and a myriad of tastes, from the sweet maple syrup candies to a savory crepe of mushrooms, bechamel, ham, and cheese.

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Opened in 1933, Marche Jean Talon is one of Montreal’s oldest public markets.

Below: Colorful bouquets and plants offered by the flower merchants. 

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When you enter the gates of the San Francisco Botanical Garden you exit the urban turbulence of the city. It’s acres of quiet paths, manicured lawns and gardens with over 9000 different plants from around the world. It’s Eden in the city; Eden that is without a naked couple discussing the pros and cons of eating apples. It is San Francisco though so there’s a better than even chance that you might run across a naked couple.

This edition of Friday Fotos focuses on the San Francisco Botanical Gardens with a green theme.

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This is mining country. One hundred and sixty years ago people came from around the world prospecting for riches from the earth – silver, tons of it, millions of dollars worth, lay beneath the rolling Virginia Range. The mines, except for the ones that are open for tours are all shut down but the lure of mining still attracts people from around the world. It isn’t the ore, it’s the lore; of history and frontier America. Within the city limits of Virginia City there are two mines that offer tours; interesting and informative.

Gold Hill

For a feel of history untarnished a two or three minute drive south of Virginia City brings you to Gold Hill. Gold Hill was never touched by the celluloid fame of movies and television like Virginia City so the tourists have more or less just blown it off. While Virginia City is full of history, a walk down C Street still feels like a walk through Disneyland’s Frontierland. Standing on C Street in front of the year round Christmas store sipping on your walkaway bloody Mary you can try and get the feel of a 19th century mining town but no matter how much vodka you’ve absorbed the place won’t let you fully absorb 1800’s America.  Not Gold Hill though. Gold Hill feels old, a place lost in another place that doesn’t necessarily want to catch up. No souvenir shops, no cocktails to go and no staged gunfights.

Don’t expect anything breathtaking in Gold Hill. Gold Hill requires the visitor to put in the effort to take in its aura. If you want to be force fed history go back to Virginia City. If you want to meditate on the past and feel it then drop in on Gold Hill. Find a place to park and walk past the old brick post office and then follow the slope from the old Gold Hill Hotel. Just beyond the hotel you run into the remnants of the Yellow Jacket Mine. Further up is the headframe of the New Yellow Jacket mine that was dug in 1876 to an eventual depth of 3,000 feet. Here in the company of a band of wild horses you can spirit yourself away to 19th century Nevada without the distractions of t-shirt shops and the Trump-O- Mobile just up the hill.

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The headframe of the New Yellow Jacket Mine located above the town of Gold Hill. To the left of the ladder is fencing installed to keep the overly curious out of the mine entrance.

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“Having been in the restaurant business, our job in the restaurant business is to be responsible for our customers’ happiness. It’s the nature of the hospitality business. You need to take care of people. You take care of customers above all others. Customers are your lifeblood.” ~ Andrew Zimmern

It almost never fails that a trip, long or short, manages to produce at least one of those, “we’ll look back someday and laugh about it,” moments. Consider the time that an airline ticketing agent booked Cora and I out of Portland, Oregon instead of Portland, Maine where we just happened to be. We still look back on that one but we haven’t reached the laughing stage yet. And so it was that lunch at a little cafe in Virginia City, Nevada provided us with another of those moments. This one managed to produce laughs before we’d even digested our food.

We arrived in the little silver mining town of Virginia City, Nevada, mid-afternoon of an autumn Saturday, eager to stroll the town and soak in the mining and wild west history. Before the fun though there are those customary duties to see to when you pull into your destination. Those are the mundanities of travel; finding your accommodations, made easier in these modern times by Google; checking in, inspecting the room and then emptying the car of anything that can be stolen in a smash and grab, also made easier during these modern times because modern day thieves brazenly eschew the bothersome formality of stealth. Why go through the time and trouble of picking a lock when a brick through the window is so much quicker and easier? After all, time lost is larceny lost. 

The Virginia City Inn is a quaint little single level motel on the edge of town. It’s a no frills place with simply furnished rooms, each with a different historical theme. We were assigned the Miner’s Room, decorated with some paintings of 19th century miners and a few pieces of mining implements. 

At the Virginia City Inn you won’t be getting a spa, plush robes or marble counters. There are no little little bars of frou frou soap or mini bottles of designer lotions that you can stash in your bag to put in that little basket sitting in your bathroom at home (C’mon, you know you do it). The Virginia City Inn doesn’t provide a complimentary breakfast buffet like you get at the chain motels; single serve boxes of Sugar Frosted Flakes, mini yogurts resting in an ice bucket, hard bagels and scrambled eggs that look suspiciously like molded rubber.

The innkeeper at The Virginia City Inn is a friendly, hospitable and helpful guy who seems to take pride in his place and just wants to make an honest buck while making you feel at home. His is a simple, non-corporate, old school, family owned motel that provides a comfy bed, a fair sized flat screen and the comfort of knowing that you aren’t sharing your bed with creepy crawlers. It’s the kind of nostalgic place that helped shape the lore of Route 66. We checked in and then went foraging for lunch. It was at lunch that we were served a heaping helping of the “unforgettable moment.”

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The Virginia City Inn

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The Icon

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For someone like me who’s had a lifelong fascination with the American West it was an enduring site; a look back at a scene that was surely played out time and again over a century ago in places like Deadwood, Tombstone or Dodge City. This time it was right in front of me in Virginia City, Nevada a former mining town with its own wild west credentials. While photographing the cemetery I saw, just downslope, a wild horse wandering among the decaying gravestones, stopping occasionally to graze on the yellow and gray patchwork of brittle sagebrush.

I wasn’t in love with the shot that presented itself from where I stood. Even with my long lens the lighting was far less than ideal. I needed to be on the other side of the horse, and hopefully closer. The photographer’s dilemma of taking a chance with the sure shot that I had or get greedy and try to position myself for a better one. There was the possibility of that frameable photo or of the horse moving on and taking the opportunity along with him. I opted for greed and took a long circle around the horse, managing to get within about 20 yards of the animal, still ambling around the gravestones.  The horse continued to graze pausing now and then to glance at me as if making sure that I wasn’t intruding into his no fly zone. At times I wonder if these horses have it in their minds to patiently tolerate we humans before deciding that they’ve given us enough of an audience before trotting away; “Hurry up and get your picture taking done.” I got some shots that I’m not entirely thrilled with but still they are iconic, calling up a uniquely American story. IMG_2000-2

Below: This trio of horses meandered through the cemetery grazing on the sagebrush. Note the wound (common on mustangs) on the left side of the black horse.

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