Monday, December 31, 2012

Out Building Snowmen

I have lived in San Francisco for just shy of 25 years, but every time I catch the United Airlines flight from SFO to Cleveland, Ohio, I still say I'm going home. Home to mom and dad, to the family members still living there, to longtime friends, to the old stomping grounds.

So what is it: Home? Is it 15401 Macauley Avenue, the tiny 3-bedroom/1 bathroom house where for 25 years my parents raised seven rambunctious children? Is it the elegantly modern ranch-style on Wonetta Parkway, bought and remodeled so my parents could live with grandma Big DeeDee after her husband died? Is it 1090 Orchard Park Drive in Rocky River, the house I now visit when I return to Ohio?

Home is 52+ years of memories new and old. It's found in much of the artwork strewn about my apartment in San Francisco. It's the jar of Turkish red pepper flakes in my kitchen cupboard. Home is enjoying that first morning cup of coffee with mom, she snuggled up in a lifelong procession of favorite bathrobes. Or the last and final cup of the day, which in her case can be 11:30 p.m. Home is the lingering sound of  my father shuffling out from the bedroom every morning and saying, like clockwork, as he takes in the scene at the kitchen table: "Computers, computers, computers..." Or watching as he walks about and turns off all the lights. It's teaching my Bay Area friends how to play Four Square 2,000 miles from where I first learned. Home is, most assuredly, the traditions with which I grew up. Home is grilled cheese sandwiches and stuffed cabbage, Greek walnut cake and sourdough waffles, English plum pudding and oxtail stew. A Canadian Club manhattan, no bitters and just a touch of cherry juice. My sister Anne's baklava and my sister Thea's raspberry ribbons, no matter where I happen to eat them. Home is the scent of freshly mowed grass the world over, of lilac bushes that perfume the air on a warm, still night. Home is violent summer thunderstorms and occasional tornado warnings, blizzards and heat waves. It's the breeze off Lake Erie, off all freshwater lakes. Fireflies, anywhere and everywhere. It's the sound of my brother Art's voice, calling from New York City on Christmas Day or any other day; an email video from Ed, my sister Susan's devoted husband, chronicling some new development in their son Matthew's continuing recovery from the tragedy that took her life. Home is white ducks as pets and purple living room walls. It's some of the most spectacular sunsets I've ever seen: fantastic finger paintings of blazing red and pink and orange. Home is the smile that lights my soul every time I think of Stephen, our youngest brother. Home is my 50 year old Christmas stocking with the sequin "P" on it, now tucked away for another year in a box in a closet in the City by the Bay.

Home is apparently where I go to build snowmen.

*  *  *

The logo I designed for my mom and her business partner Donna. CCX, as we fondly call it, was founded in 1986 and became northeast Ohio's largest holiday arts and craft fair. The two women owned and ran it for 25 years, then 2 years ago sold the whole shebang. (They never did use the logo.)

Snowman 2012, following a solid 3 inches the day after I arrived in Cleveland. It took me two hours and got so big I couldn't lift the abdomen section by myself. Luckily my niece Eleni and a friend came to the rescue. For days afterward my knees were sore, and my butt was too.

My sister Molly celebrating her 12-12-12 birthday, the last one this century. Her art teacher buddy Mike made the present; not sure what was inside, but I think it was some stuff he had borrowed from her.

Birthday dinner for Molly (12-12-58) and Thea (12-13-57) on the night I arrived: crispy butternut squash gnocchi with kale pesto, plus a hefty side of steamed broccoli and cauliflower.

A year+ reunion: Our band of four intrepid travelers to Quito, the Amazon and the Galapagos Islands in 2011.

Out to Lorain, Ohio, for my sister Anne's and her husband Itri's annual Christmas party on December 23, 2012.

Me and Anne, the hostess with the most-est. It's an intimate affair: 120 or so family, friends and acquaintances, including a slew of high school and college kids (present and past).

This year the three Navy Seals were in town from San Diego: Niko, Taner and Zach, obviously dressed in their finest west coast duds.

The shindig in full swing.

Anne in the basement, not for beer pong (although she did almost make her first and only throw) but to check on the shenanigans.

 Shenanigans like this.

 Nieces Samantha, Eleni, Stephanie and Allison.

Christmas Eve at mom and dad's house. For as long as I can remember the tradition has been New England fish "chowdah", prawn cocktail (we called them shrimp back when), smoked salmon with the fixins, sometimes oysters and crab, Christmas carols, Greek walnut cake and kourabiethes, and always a house full of love and good tidings.

George and Ginger Palmer at the start of the festivities (she with her 1940's era enamel colander).

Dad: the master of his smoked salmon domaine. Let's just say it's a complex affair.

The smoked salmon makes it's debut with Myia, Allison and Samantha.

The goods. And it was!

Sampling the 2012 New England fish chowdah: Eleni's boyfriend David, with my niece Myia. By the way, I made it this year, and with minimal angst as dad looked over my shoulder the entire time.

Niece Samantha with the veggie offering: endive spears and white bean schmoo, made with Olive Scene olive oil (of course), Turkish red pepper flakes, scallions, parsley and minced red pepper.

Dad and mom with his sister, my Aunt Ruthanne, a part of the Toledo contingent in town.

My mom's Christmas presents: hand made pottery from an art class she's taking. We all received one.

Christmas morning always finds us at sister Thea and hubby Pete Z's house in Cleveland Heights for coffee, presents and the traditional candied fruit roll.

And now that everyone's of age, mimosas.

Mom and Allison at the Zimmerman house.

Dad with his holiday favorite: the candied fruit roll. He now asks for it several times a year (over and over again); to no avail, tho, as Thea is in charge. And quite adept: It was the tastiest version I've ever had.

Christmas dinner with Itri, my sister Anne's husband, carving the traditional standing rib roast. Also on the holiday menu: Aunt Mimi's mashed potatoes, Uncle Pete's caramelized onions, crispy Brussels sprouts, saffron rolls, the traditional Green Mold of our youth (lime Jello, cream cheese, crushed pineapple and mini marshmallows), and Mrs. Fligner's delicious spinach casserole.

Nephew Kemal, mom, and a surprise bottle of 1978 Bordeaux: Chateau Mouton Rothschild. No idea where she got it or how long she's had it, but the wine was pretty darned tasty, and much older than most people at the table.

The morning after snowstorm #2: seven inches in seven hours on December 26, 2012.

A snowy hike in Rocky River Reservation, part of the Cleveland MetroParks.

My parent's neighbor Rosemary out doing her civic duty (for mom and dad).

Nighttime shot of the blizzard (almost) on 12/26, with Stevie's tree and the week old snowman/snow-shrimp/snow-larva/snow-alien.

Another shot of Snowman 2012, in better days.

*  *  *

Home, as they say, is where the heart is.
Happy New Year, each and every one!

Friday, September 7, 2012

So Not in Kansas Anymore

Or Ohio, for that matter.

*   *  *  *   *


Peter held open the door to the apartment building and let his two friends exit before him: first the woman and then the man. As the three of them stepped from the foyer out onto California Street the woman paused and looked back.

"Thanks, Hop Sing," she said over her shoulder.

Okay so it was not the most socially correct of comments, but as he rolled his eyes a brief smile lit up his face. San Francisco! he thought again, I can't believe I'm in San Francisco! Peter had recently relocated, you see, and was not two weeks off the plane from Cleveland, Ohio, staying with the couple and shacking out on their couch while he looked for an apartment in the City by the Bay, the city he would now call home. That whole apartment hunting endeavor would ultimately take a month - his friends insist it was three months - so he was paying off his debt to them by cleaning and doing laundry and running various errands. Or maybe not. Maybe that's what he was supposed to be doing, as without a job he was paying almost nothing in rent. Either way the inappropriate nickname was born, and stuck.

It was February, and Peter was about to celebrate his 28th birthday. The sky was blue and the air crisp, the sidewalks of lower Nob Hill buzzed with pedestrians, and the clang of a Cable Car slowly rumbled past toward Van Ness Avenue.

As the threesome started walking toward Hyde Street a taxi cab careened around the corner like a bat outta hell, and Peter, noticing the unsafe speed, remarked to his friends: "Holy shit! If I get killed in this city it's gonna be from a taxi going 60 mph or a Cable Car going 5 mph." The cabbie barely slowed to avoid an older woman shuffling across the street with her tiny lapdog, but as it did Peter looked into the cab, and lo and behold he recognized the driver from just the day before, when he had hailed one and chatted with the man. I'll be a son of a gun, he thought, it's the same driver!

Taxi cabs in Ohio are a rare sight, and Peter was still new to the whole concept. Good old-fashioned midwestern friendliness, however, is not. So he waved.

"What the fuck you doing?" his friend blurted. The taxi was already slowing down and pulling to the curb.

"Huh?...I was...he was the guy...the same...yesterday...What?" Suddenly realizing his faux-pas he again waved, this time with a gesture that meant a taxi service was not needed.

To this day Peter can't recall, but as the cab screeched away the driver may or may not have yelled "Asshole!" as he flipped them all the bird.

*   *  *  *   *


Peter unlocked the side door of the restaurant, the one on the alleyway, and let himself in through the kitchen. As he closed it behind him he smelled the tantalizing aroma of fresh coffee and heard his friend yell out from the bar: "Hey, Palmer! In here!"

It was early Sunday morning, and the two had worked the previous night: a very late one of slinging Cosmopolitans and shots of tequila and Rolling Rocks until they finally kicked everyone out at 2:00 a.m. After a thorough clean up and quick restock, and after a few drinks of their own to wind down, neither probably made it home to bed until the very wee hours. Thus it was with weary eyes and a slight hangover that they arrived so early. The bar was not usually open during the day save once a year, but today was the day: the Folsom Street Fair.

For those of you not in the know, the Folsom Street Fair is one of several that pop up in San Francisco throughout the summer months. There's the North Beach Fair, which celebrates the historic Italian neighborhood surrounding Washington Square Park; the upscale Union Street Fair, with its arty-schvartsy booths hawking designer goods and services to hoards of well-toned yuppies; the Haight Street fair, where crystals abound and thick clouds of marijuana smoke compete with the aroma from the food stalls; swanky Jazz on Fillmore; and the Castro Street Fair, where men and women walk hand-in-hand (men with men and women with women). But every 3rd Sunday in September, before the Castro welcomes the City with the final fair of the summer, the action heads South of Market, and the stretch of Folsom between 7th Street and 11th breaks out the leather chaps. The Folsom Street Fair, to put it plainly, celebrates alternative sexual freedom. Gay sexual freedom. And fetishism. Alternative gay sexual fetish freedom...How's that? Sure there's some heterosexual devotees, and these days many straight people attend, but be forewarned: during the fair the streets are chock full of...well, of some recreational proclivities that'll make select individuals of any persuasion do a double-take. Sights you or your children or your grandparents might not want to see.

Thousands do, though, which was why Peter and his coworker were back at it: cutting fruit for garnishes, wiping off the bar top and lighting candles. Putting the finishing touches on the place before they opened the front doors, before the crush of half-naked men and women, plus a few totally naked ones, drank themselves into a frenzy and tore the joint apart again.

By 11:00 a.m. the drink-slinging dynamic duo was ready for action, so they settled into the bar stools by the window to enjoy another cup of coffee and a bagel. Soon the cocktail servers and the bouncer would arrive. Soon the booths hawking free hugs and $5 whippings and $20 spiked dog collars would open for business, and the streets would fill with an artery-clogging mass of sweaty, leather-clad humanity: with sadists and masochists, with participants and gawkers, with the odd dominatrix in eight-inch, shiny black stilettos. And soon many of them would want a drink. For Peter and his friend it was the last opportunity for some peace and quiet until 7:00 p.m. when they could once again kick everyone out and batten down the hatches.

That respite was still several hundred margaritas away; now, however, was the time to let the sunshine in and embrace the madness, so Peter reached up and drew open the vintage venetian blinds. As he sat back down and lifted the bagel to his mouth his jaw dropped open, not in anticipation of a bite but because of the image that presented itself. With breakfast.

"Oh my god," he heard his friend chuckle.

Across the street, in front of the trendy laundromat-cum-café that was luckily closed for the day, a small crowd had gathered. In various states of dress they formed a quiet, respectful tableau. Respectful because the focus of their attention was the time honored creative process, and quiet except for the buzz of a chain saw. Art was being created, all right, and the artist was a strapping, bare-chested Michelangelo wielding said chain saw, carving an enormous pink ice sculpture: a pagan homage as old as mankind but as modern as the Levis and sturdy work boots he was wearing.

It was a five-foot tall penis, testicles included. Fully erect, and on a pedestal. The Folsom Street Fair was about to begin.

*   *  *  *   * 


Peter let the door of the hotel close softly behind him and stepped outside onto Post Street. Ah...fresh air, he thought.

Opening a restaurant, especially a big fancy restaurant, is intense work, and the previous two weeks of 15-hour days were starting to take their toll as the fateful day approached. Luckily Union Square, and a bit of sunshine, was a short walk from the daily grind, so throughout the day Peter would oftentimes take a few minutes to enjoy some decompression.

He had learned early on, much to his dismay, that Union Square was ground zero for panhandlers. Lots of 'em.

Now several years ago, after having moved from Cleveland to San Francisco, Peter had vowed, once the onslaught of homeless people and panhandlers and vagrant youths had reared their omnipresent and sometimes ugly head, that even if he had no money he would never just ignore them. He would always respond, even if it was to say, as it usually was, that he could not help out right now.

"Spare change?" Peter would smile politely and shake his head no.

With this acknowledgment some of the solicitors would set their sights on the next pedestrian, but many, an irksome amount of them, would persist. "Please, man, I need some help." Sorry, I can't right now. "Yo, sir...Wait a sec!" Not today. "C'mon buddy, gimme something!" And once they finally had moved on there was always another waiting in the wings. It was relentless.

One afternoon, as Peter was attempting to find some peace amid the nonstop request for money, the sob-story du jour, he tried a new approach, a new response. With it he apparently hit the jackpot, because, every time he uttered the words, the magic phrase would immediately send the intruder away.

"I'm sorry, but I'm just having some quiet time."

It was amazing! A stroke of genius! So much so that some of the people would actually apologize as they retreated. Quiet Time...Who knew it would be such an instant success? Until it wasn't.

Peter hadn't even made it to Union Square that day. He was sitting in a chair at the small sidewalk café a few doors down from the restaurant and was taking his first sips of coffee as the man walked (lurched) closer. With the request for money Peter broke out the miracle phrase: "I'm sorry, but I'm just having some quiet time."

The man went apeshit. Bonkers.

"QUIET TIME!" he suddenly screamed. Peter leapt to his feet as crazy closed in and continued. Spittle flew from the corners of his mouth as he bared his gnarly yellow teeth. "I've been having QUIET TIME for four-hundered years since you done stole me from Africa!"

The force of the verbal outcry hit him like a punch to the gut, and Peter stumbled backward. "I didn't steal you from anywhere," was all he could muster before he scurried back inside.

A few weeks later Peter was walking past Union Square on his way back to work, proudly sporting a new blazer he had recently purchased from The Gap. The journey from where the #30 Stockton bus let him off to the restaurant was less then four blocks, but in that four blocks a person could easily be solicited, sometimes harassed, several times. Sure enough, as he rounded the corner and entered the home stretch he saw what looked like the same homeless man - he of the Africa outburst - sitting on a milk crate, asking for handouts. Great, Peter thought, he we go again. The miracle phrase had been retired, so at the request for spare change he simply smiled and politely shook his head. Luckily the man let it go at that and pressed no further, but as Peter walked on he heard from behind him the following piece of mumbled advice: "You know that jacket's too big for you."

Fashion tips from the homeless. Who'd a thunk it?

*   *  *  *   *

So not in Ohio anymore.

Peace out, cyberhood.
Peter J. Palmer

Friday, August 17, 2012


On February 26, 1956, my mother Ginger and father George got hitched and, seeing as my older brother Art's birthday is a suspicious eight months after the date, apparently got right to work on the first of seven offspring. Together they spent their honeymoon not in Europe or Hawai'i or the South Seas or some other far-flung, exotic locale, but an hour west of Cleveland at a roadside attraction in Castalia, Ohio, known as The Blue Hole. The infamous, mysterious, supposedly fathomless Blue Hole.

From about 1925 to when it closed in the early 1990s, The Blue Hole was supposedly a well-known and very popular tourist attraction, drawing 150,000 or so newlyweds, vacationers, families, adventurers and good old-fashioned gawkers every year. "Ohio's Greatest Natural Wonder" it was touted: 75 or so feet in diameter, ringed with a wooden walkway, and reportedly - here's where it gets good - bottomless.

We grew up every so often hearing stories about the Blue Hole: mom and dad's honeymoon; the legendary crystalline water clarity and ethereal blue color; the strange absence of fish; the unknown depths that might, in the wisdom of the time, reach all the way to China; even an urban legend about a man who drowned in Lake Erie but whose corpse was found floating, days later, in the Blue Hole. As a young boy the image made my skin crawl, and the mere thought of the place filled my tender, developing mind with terror, with the stuff of nightmares. I would never visit The Blue Hole, and to this day still haven't, but back then whenever I contemplated the enigma I could feel the force of it sucking me down into the earth. Since then I've spent a whole bunch of time in the water - in lakes, in streams and in the ocean - and my imagination still gets the best of me. I prefer to see "the bottom."

Recently I found myself sitting around the kitchen table in Ohio with my mother and some assorted siblings, discussing the highlights from my first trip to Niagara Falls (awesome!), another popular honeymoon spot. I was in town for our annual family reunion, and as the chit-chat ping-ponged from the Falls to road trips to Lake Erie to honeymoons I remembered my parents and The Blue Hole. 

"So what's the deal?" I asked. "Nobody's ever measured how deep the damned thing is?" Decades of reported mystery and not one scientist or marine biologist or thrill-seeker has ever tried to plumb it's turquoise maw?

Shrugs all around, so I grabbed my iPhone and logged on to Wikipedia. The rest of the gang returned their attention to the bowl of Peter's chocolate and game of Quiddler we were enjoying. "There's got to be some sort of information online," I muttered.

Well, there sure was.

The Blue Hole is fed from and underground spring (surprise, surprise), thus the crystal clear hue and anoxic (oxygen-free) water that supports no fish life, and that spring issues forth an amazing 450,000 gallons of water per hour. The mesmerizing color comes from a mix of minerals, and sure enough early in it's history a swim was thought to have all sorts of curative powers. (Swim? I can feel my testicles withdraw and my skin erupt in goosebumps.) And now from the Wikipedia site: "Contrary to prevalent belief, the depth of the Blue Hole is not unknown, but has been sounded and found to be about forty-three to forty-five feet deep."

Can you hear the chirp of crickets?

Forty-five lousy feet! I have no idea what the survey cost once someone actually decided to measure the unmeasurable (perhaps the owners knew all along). I do, however, have two nephews currently enrolled in the Navy Seals program in San Diego, so my first thought was, and I said this aloud: "Hell you could have told Niko to dive in there, swim to the bottom and find out!"

Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and now The Blue Hole.

What's next?

Peter J. Palmer

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


We'll make this a quickie and get right to the meat of the matter: A few days ago I strayed, found myself in the arms of another, and it felt kinda good.

Those of you who know me know that my decision to do so was not taken lightly, as for two decades now I've been faithful to my one and only: the Oceanic Society. Yup, we're talking about the ocean, the Pacific Ocean specifically, and getting out on the ocean to commune with those fabulous beasts that call the ocean home.

My relationship with the non-profit, San Francisco-based Oceanic Society began way back in 1989, I think, and since then I've been signing up for their 8-hour, summertime, naturalist lead trips to the Farallon Islands and beyond pretty much like clockwork. I'm hopelessly hooked. Smitten. So in love with what they do and how they do it that sometimes I fork over the cash and hop on board twice a year.

Recently, however, my buddy Keith and I drove an hour and forty-five minutes south to the funky seaside settlement of Moss Landing, halfway between Santa Cruz and Monterey town. It's there one finds the departure point for Sanctuary Cruises, a small boat operation that, quite frankly, gets it done on Monterey Bay.

Like many of you, several weeks ago I'd started to read online and in the newspaper accounts of what we'll call Unparalleled Upwelling 2012 (please refer to my previous post for a refresher course on the marine phenomenon). Unlike many of you, tho, I immediately began to fantasize over the reported, and almost unprecedented, animal sightings in Monterey Bay: forty or so blue whales out there, scores of breaching and lunge-feeding humpbacks, fin whales, the occasional orca, enormous mola mola (ocean sunfish), a leatherback sea turtle, a basking shark. All hanging out on the surface because their food source was at the surface and all in sunny, calm conditions, allowing lucky landlubbers a superb opportunity to watch them do what they do do.

I've had my heart set on a Monterey Bay whale watch for a while now, but life in general and other high seas adventures in particular - you know who you are - had always (coitus) interrupted the master plan. This year, once I began to learn of the action down there, I knew the time was nigh.  Still, it took me two weeks to get my shit together and schedule the time to make it happen. I'm happy I did, but I should'a dropped everything and gone sooner.

After check-in and a safety briefing we slowly puttered out of the harbor, delighted with the lack of that pesky petroleum smell as Sanctuary is the only boat on the bay powered by biodiesel. Not twenty minutes into our sea voyage the boat suddenly slowed (always a good sign), veered right, and the captain picked up the loudspeaker: "We've got a leatherback turtle at 3 o'clock." Leatherbacks are the largest of the sea turtles, and they're rare. I'd never seen one before and had to stifle myself from actually jumping up and down. Instead I smacked Keith on the arm and quickly made my way to the side of the boat. Turned out to be a masquerading sea lion; a bit of a disappointment, but nonetheless our whole ocean-top tryst with Sanctuary was a blast. Highly recommended. The day was foggy but winds calm. Our boat and Captain Brian were able and accommodating, and Giancarlo, our young but versed naturalist for the day, was a hoot. Alas the big blues have unfortunately moved on for the time being, and we spotted none, nor any basking sharks. But there were humps (humpbacks) everywhere, spouting and fluking and even breaching very near the boat, several graceful black-footed albatross, plus harbor seals, bottle-nosed dolphins, sea otters, red-throated phalaropes, murres, pelicans, sooty shearwaters and the ubiquitous, noisy and acrobatic California sea lion.

It was a lovely affair, and I'll certainly head back down for one more romp on the water with Sanctuary before the 2012 season is history. You should as well, especially if a trip to the Farallones seems overwhelming: too long, too intense, the water and weather too unpredictable. Won't get to see the fabled islands, the Devil's Teeth as their called, but you'll no doubt have a grand day out on the mighty Pacific. The road trip to Moss Landing is a lovely one, the area is of course beautiful, the 4-hour trips are a worthwhile $50 (sometimes longer if everyone on board is in cahoots), and the undersea drop off (into submarine Monterey Canyon, where a lot of the action takes place) is much closer to shore than than it is off the Golden Gate. An added delight is the chance to observe lots of charming California sea otters on their home turf (so to speak), an animal you don't see on trips out of San Francisco.

I'll leave you with a link to the Sanctuary Cruises website, which contains all sorts of cool information about what they do, where they do it, and a Captain's Log that details recent trips and sightings, including those extraordinary couple of weeks in late June and early July 2012:

Oh...and one other website. Sanctuary may be my new mistress, my new secret paramour, but the Oceanic Society is still my main squeeze:

As promised, that's it. Outta here.

Peter J. Palmer

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Fickle Finger of Fog

What a gorgeous day today turned out to be!  Stunning, it was, especially the afternoon and evening hours.  Based on this morning, which was socked in, all day yesterday, which was so pea soup-thick with fog it felt like it was raining, and the past 10 days, which were (you got it) foggy and cold, I would’ a bet money on more of the same.  What do they say, though: “If you don’t like the weather in San Francisco, wait a couple hours.”  That’s right; we’re gonna talk about the weather.

“The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

The above one-liner is often attributed to Mark Twain, but its true origin is forever shrouded in mystery, much like the coast of northern California this July is shrouded in fog.  Lots and lots of fog.  For the final two weeks of June 2012, San Francisco basked in blue skies and above average temperatures (much of the rest of the county sizzled).  Then Mother Nature turned on the A/C.  When she did the mercury plummeted, the Golden Gate Bridge disappeared behind a wall of thick, puffy white, and Alcatraz was enveloped in a long, low arm of gray that stretched all the way to Berkeley and the Oakland Hills.  Like clockwork bands of tourists waiting for a cable car suddenly found themselves chilled to the bone.  You’d spot them huddled together in shivering masses at the corner of Bay and Mason or California and Van Ness - even worse at Chestnut and Laguna as they waited for the #28 MUNI bus to the bridge for a wet and windy walk across the span - no doubt lamenting their choice of sightseeing garb: shorts and tee-shirts instead of pants and a sweater (more like it sometimes…a parka).

Scientists classify fog into several different categories, the names dependant on how it was formed: radiation fog, advection fog, evaporation fog, upslope fog, freezing fog and ice fog.  The first two, radiation and advection, are the types we in the Bay Area know and love.  “Know” meaning deal with, and “love” meaning love/hate.

The following two paragraphs are from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website:

Radiation fog forms at night under clear skies with calm winds when heat absorbed by the earth’s surface during the day is radiated into space.  As the earth’s surface continues to cool, provided a deep enough layer of moist air is present near the ground, the humidity will reach 100% and fog will form.  Radiation fog varies in depth from 3 feet to about 1,000 feet, is always found at ground level and usually remains stationary.

Advection fog often looks like radiation fog and is also the result of condensation.  However, the condensation in this case is caused not by a reduction in surface temperature, but rather by the horizontal movement of warm moist air over a cold surface.  This means that advection fog can sometimes be distinguished from radiation fog by its horizontal motion along the ground.  Sea fogs are always advection fogs, because the oceans don’t radiate heat in the same way as land and so never cool sufficiently to produce radiation fog.  Fog forms at sea when warm air associated with a warm current drifts over a cold current and condensation takes place.  Sometimes such fogs are drawn inland by low pressure, as often occurs on the Pacific coast of North America.

Okay, I’m back.

Here in the Bay Area radiation fog is often called tule fog, named so after the tule grass of the California wetlands, and usually occurs inland during the fall and winter.  Our local advection fog is…well, it’s what we have now: big time summertime sea fog, or coastal fog.  Thank you, Mr. Pacific Ocean.

It may drive us crazy sometimes – the lack of sun, the wind, the damp and the cold - and we may long for the balmier climes that bless our inland brethren or those back east, but let’s face it: Life in San Francisco would be much different, maybe not as pleasant and certainly not as dramatic, without the fickle finger of fog.

First things first.  My apartment (and many like it) would probably come equipped with a humming, perhaps irritatingly noisy air conditioner.  At night it would be so god-awful hot I’d have to turn the contraption on, thus drowning out the mournful, hauntingly beautiful moan of the foghorn and the barking sea lions I sometimes hear as I fall asleep.  Next, we’d all have screens on our windows, which we don't need because the cool and the wind help keep mosquitoes and other pesky bugs at bay.  Finally, take away our iconic, usually brisk and blustery San Francisco sea air and after a month the city would turn stagnant, sticky, suffocating.  The pavement and the concrete would bake and before long certain parts of certain neighborhoods would smell…even worse than they do now.  Think of some of those urban centers back east during a prolonged heat spell (sorry New York City, but I’ve stayed with you in August).  Hell, then think of the winters.

Sure, during the summer months we might be able to regularly linger on Baker Beach without a blanket; brave the possible great white shark and swim at Stinson without a wet suit; more often enjoy a leisurely stroll on Ocean Beach without gloves, a scarf and a hat; even drive up and down the coast with the top down all the time.  We’d probably even witness more of those badass thunder and lightning storms (one of the things I miss about Ohio).  All this might seem a tantalizing scenario, but over time our unique and uniquely beautiful landscape would cease to be just that.  San Francisco is a great city, a world-class city, but it’s the surrounding wilderness and our close proximity to it, both terrestrial and aquatic, that seals the deal for me.

Big case in point.  The coast redwoods (sequoia sempervirens), the tallest trees in the world, absolutely adore the fog.  Probably wouldn’t thrive here without it.  The stately, handsome giants suck up most of their summertime moisture needs not through their roots from rain, but through their needles from the thick fog that collects in west-facing valleys open to the sea.  Without the 100" of yearly precipitation that fosters places like Muir Woods, Big Basin, Montgomery State Reserve and the Redwoods National Parks what else would disappear?  The western sword ferns that carpet a redwood forest floor, certainly; perhaps the Douglas fir, the redwood violet and trillium.  Probably much more.  Chop down a redwood forest and you're left with coastal scrub chaparral, fine in it's own right but nothing compared with an ecosystem practically endemic to California.

Our local cast of animal characters would be different as well, especially those that depend on the Pacific Ocean for food or call the big briny Home Sweet Home, because fog goes hand in hand with upwelling.  And upwelling, like summer in San Francisco, is way cool.

When seasonal winds on the California coast zip north to south, as they typically do during June, July and August, the earth’s rotation, in an example of what's known as the Coriolis effect, pushes surface water offshore.  To fill the void left behind, cold, nutrient rich water rises up from the depths, bringing with it all sorts of teeny-weenie phytoplankton, which blooms once it sees the light.  That’s upwelling, in a nutshell, but that’s not the end of the story.  Myriad forms of zooplankton follow the microscopic plant life; they chow down, also bloom, and present their calling card to the next creature up the food chain: a homely little crustacean called krill.  As upwelling continues the population of krill explodes, and with that explosion the table is set for a truly massive annual feeding frenzy that lasts through October.  Pelicans, grebes, cormorants, auklets, murres, phalaropes, puffins, black-footed albatross, sardines, herring, squid, salmon, tuna, harbor seals, sea lions, elephants seals, harbor porpoises, Dall’s porpoises, Risso’s dolphins, Pacific white-sided dolphins, killer whales, gray whales, humpbacks, fins and the big blues: they fly and flap and swim our way to feast on the abundance of food.  And not just a few: seabirds by the hundreds of thousands, whales by the hundreds!  As I write this there are reports of upwards of 40 blue whales hanging around Monterey Bay, with several others spotted out by the Farallon Islands.  Enormous pods of rampaging dolphins have already been seen, and humpbacks abound.  Yup, our part of the Pacific is amazingly fecund, especially during the summer (and especially this year, apparently).  If you’re into such things, and I am, there are few finer places on the planet to watch the show.  Fog is our friend.

And c’mon now, visually the F-word is oftentimes utterly enchanting - moody, changeable and alive, almost - and it usually never sticks around that long.  Couple of days at most (in the case of July 2012, a couple of weeks?), then the weather patterns change, the gloom retreats for a spell and the mercury rises to a (comparatively) balmy 64 or even (gasp!) 69 degrees.

The yin and yang of Mother Nature shall persist, though, just as it always does.  Sooner or later that first tentative whisper of fog will once again creep over the coastal hills, stretch a long, eager tentacle east across the center of the bay, and before long swallow the Golden Gate, partially or whole.  The temperature will nosedive 10 degrees; the foghorns blast to life.  Come afternoon the top of the Transamerica building and Coit Tower will no longer be visible, and by nightfall the entire city of San Francisco will be enveloped in a misty swirl of white and gray; a chilly wet that keeps the Buena Vista Café awash in tourists (and locals) craving a warm Irish coffee.  An eerie cloak that often makes me wonder if Jack the Ripper isn’t still alive and well and living in northern California, silently roaming the hills and alleyways of the City by the Bay.

I could go on, but it's now 7:00 in the evening, the wind has quieted, and it's just too beautiful outside.  In the Fort Mason District, where I live, the warmest part of the day, even.  I gotta get out for a nice long sunset walk by the bay while the gettin's good, before the you-know-what sneaks back into you-know-where for who knows how long.

Peter J. Palmer
July 2012

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Hurry Up and Wait - A Cautionary Tale

Sometimes I need to just slow the flock down.  Chill the hell out, forget about the "plan", and not worry so damn much.  Sometimes we all do, I suppose.  Such good advice: so easy to remember but so hard to implement on a daily basis.

Case in point.  My sister Molly and her good friend Mike recently came to San Francisco from Ohio, and while here they wanted to spend some time in Yosemite.

"Hell yeah I'll go to Yosemite with you!" I sputtered.

I’m crazy about Yosemite.  Freaking adore it.  And the prospect of taking two people who have never before been – watch their faces as they get that first glimpse of the world-renowned, glacier-carved valley, of the stately sequoias and jumbled granite rocks, of the crystal clear waters of the mighty Merced River; listen to their oohs and ahhs when the 3,000-foot face of El Capitan looms into view, when we reach the eastern end of the valley and voila…Half Dome! – the prospect of that makes me salivate like a pig in shit.  “Crack a fat,” as our friends Down Under might say.

Looking east into Yosemite Valley.

Bright and early on Thursday June 21st we hit the asphalt, reaching the valley around 10:30 a.m.  Once inside the park I took the wheel and leisurely drove the entire loop road once, allowing Molly and Mike an unfettered visual taste of the whole enchilada and the chance to decide where they wanted to spend the afternoon.  The campsite for our two-night stay was in Tuolumne Meadows up in the High Sierra, another hour and a half drive, so I figured we had until 5 p.m. or so to snoop around the valley, especially if we wanted to make Tuolumne in the soft orange and pink glow before sunset.  That was the plan, and I did.

Together we spent some time on the grassy meadow by Camp Curry, the one with the unobstructed, drop dead gorgeous view of Half Dome and North Dome.  We stocked up on ham and turkey sandwiches at Degnan’s Deli in Yosemite Village.  We walked the short trail to Bridal Veil Fall, which, along with Yosemite Falls, was the only one still running.  Finally we settled down for a quiet spell on the Merced River, on the sandy stretch beneath El Capitan.  The beach by the parking area was filled with what looked like a goodly amount of the 4 million tourists that visit Yosemite annually, but a brief five-minute walk along the shore led us to a more desirable stretch of river, one with a deep swimming hole and a big fat rock in the center for scaling, sunning, jumping and diving.  The water was chilly but oh-so refreshing in the valley heat.  It was peaceful: the whisper of the river, the pleasing rustle of trees, the distant peal of laughter, the noisy quack of ducks as they zipped by or, at one point, swam over to inspect our food supply.  It was, as it always is, absolutely lovely.

Mike and Molly, with Yosemite Falls.

Half Dome.

Several hours later and halfway up Tioga Road we passed the Porcupine Creek Trailhead, important to the story because it’s the start of the fabled hike to North Dome, which was on my radar.  I’ve done lots of hiking in the park – Yosemite Falls, Half Dome (twice), Illouette Falls, Indian Creek, May Lake, Dog Lake, Chilnualna Falls in Wawona, Lembert Dome, the Mist Trail up Vernal and Nevada Falls (several times) – and for some time had my eyes and heart set on North Dome.

From the trailhead the round trip hike is 9 miles or so, with an elevation change of 1,200 feet, some of it down but lots of it up, much of which is on the return trip.  A biggish hike anywhere, but this, remember, is at 8,000 feet above sea level.

On Friday morning I woke in the chilly mountain air, tumbled out of the SUV (Molly and Mike had the tent) and, with a cup of joe from Tuolumne Lodge and a McYosemite Muffin from the Tuolumne Grill, began my mental assault of North Dome.   The idea, at least in my mind, was to crank it out as quickly as possible and spend the remainder of the afternoon/evening relaxing on camp chairs by the side of the Tuolumne River, watching the sun set and light up the meadow, the various lofty domes and granite peaks of high country.  To achieve my master plan, however – and get back in time to find some food, because we had none, save a quickly disappearing mixed berry pie and a half bag of tortilla chips – I knew we were gonna have to motor: drive 45 minutes to the trailhead, get hiking, keep up a good steady pace on the tramp, not dawdle too long, and drive back to our campsite.  An ambitious undertaking, I know, but I had to have it ALL.

Somewhere a long time ago I remember reading that on flat terrain, and at sea level, the human being walks around 3.5 miles an hour.  In my diligent and more recent research for our Yosemite escapade I read that the hike to North Dome usually takes between 4 and 6 hours.  The former if you’re huffing through it all, the latter if you’re not.  Neither scenario took into account my sister Molly and her trusty sidekick Mike.

At the start of the hike.

I knew the pace would be slow(ish); that the elevation and mileage and ups and downs would take their toll.  Hell, I had even thought about scrapping the whole idea and finding a much less demanding but equally enjoyable adventure for our Friday, just to be able to spend the whole time together.  Deep in my soul - come hell or high water - I wanted North Dome.  Wanted it bad.

Nothing, however, prepared me for the actual hike.  The first mile took us 45 minutes, and that was all downhill.  45 minutes!  At that pace I figured it would take us, oh, I don’t know, 8 hours to complete the hike.  For a while I tried remain calm, tried to contain my frustration and remind myself that this was not an ordinary experience: I was with my sister Molly and our good family friend Mike, the three of us in Yosemite for Christ’s sake, tackling a hike I had dreamed of for some years.

“Peter,” Molly reassured me, several times, well before and during the actual hike, “if we get tired and decide not to go on, you can leave us and we’ll just sit by the trail and wait for you.”

So I left them behind.  I really did.

“You guys are never going to make it,” I muttered, then walked off.

The uphill to Indian Ridge soon had me huffing and puffing, but I loved it.  I was in my element, working up a healthy sweat and as I breathed in the sweet and clean mountain air, as I listened to the lovely silence of the forest and marveled at the vistas that got finer and more expansive as I climbed.

I finished the hike in four hours and forty-five minutes, and it was gorgeous: the trail, the surrounding wilderness and the actual view from North Dome!  Clouds Rest and several other 10,000’+ peaks reach skyward, Yosemite Valley twists and turns 3,000 feet below the exposed perch, and across a vertiginous expanse the face of Half Dome seems so close one might actually reach out and…hmmm.  Rein it in, Palmer.

View down to North Dome proper.
Beyond that last little hump is a 3,000' drop.

Half Dome, from half way down.

I didn’t linger long on the dome itself as my adult-onset vertigo started to rear its ugly head.  All that open space was softly calling my name, so I quickly started back up and back home.  On the return I expected to find Molly and Mike around every bend in the trail, hear their ever-present laughter before I saw them, but the miles went on and I never did.  I wanted to take the short spur trail to Indian Rock, Yosemite’s only natural arch, but I figured they must have been lounging at the car already, so I hoofed it back to the trailhead and found…an empty SUV.  Molly and Mike were nowhere around.

What the what?

So I waited.  I sat, I paced, I thought, I watched the sun dip ever closer toward the mountainous horizon, I worried, I got frustrated, I read the Yosemite paper and perused the park map, I hopped in the car and drove briefly up and down Tioga Road, thinking they might have walked off to explore, then I sat and waited some more.  I waited for over three hours!  I waited until finally a young couple trudged up the last incline, walked in my direction and asked, ”Are you Peter?”  After assuring them that I was, they quickly added: “Your sister Molly and Mike are about 20 minutes behind us.  They’re on the way.”

“Where did you find them?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“On North Dome.  We were just descending and they were on the way back up.  Told us about that cool shoe-like rock formation.”

Shoe…what shoe? I thought.  In my haste I didn’t really explore much, briefly relishing the view then retracing my steps.

Sure enough, before long I recognized the familiar shape of two incredibly slow slowpokes slowly plodding up the hill.  The time was 6:30 p.m.  It had taken them seven and a half hours.  I wanted to be mad, or upset, but I couldn’t.  Wasn’t their fault I had forged ahead, and that somehow we had missed each other on the trail.  That somehow turned out to be the fact that Molly and Mike confused the side-trail to Indian Rock as the one they needed to get to North Dome, so they took the detour and spent a lovely interlude beneath the singular (and from the photos I saw, beautiful) Yosemite natural arch.  Damn it!  While they were up there I probably zipped by on my way back to the trailhead.  Double damn it!

After the hike.

Food…we needed food.  After a brief celebration the three of us hopped into the car and quickly drove to Tenaya Lake for a plunge, then on to Tuolumne Lodge in hopes of snagging a table before they closed, if they had one (reservations are highly recommended, I had read).

“I can probably seat you in 45 minutes,” the kinda’ grungy but kinda’ handsome young nature boy-trail hiker-rock climber-park employee explained.  As I turned to tell Molly and Mike this, the family behind me in line walked up and cancelled their reservation.  Thus we were seated promptly and with plenty of time to spare enjoyed a surprisingly delicious (and not so surprisingly memorable) dinner: a huge green salad served communal style, individual bowls of minestrone soup, all three of us broiled Idaho trout and a glass of Kim Crawford sauvignon blanc.

I was confused and perplexed by my feelings, but, once again, I couldn’t be mad or frustrated or anything but pleased, because it all was my fault.  My fault for the impatience, for having some grand master plan set in concrete (or granite), for not just slowing the hell down and enjoying the day all three of us as one, whatever that day turned out to be.

And an extraordinary day it was.  An extraordinary trip!  My sister Molly and her buddy Mike and I went to Yosemite.  They loved it.  I loved it.  The weather was fantastic.  We swam in the Merced River.  It was their first time in the park and I got to show them around.  Watch them take in the mind-boggling splendor of it all.  The experience was awesome, and on top of it all we tackled the fabled, jaw-droppingly beautiful hike to North Dome, something I have been dying to do for a long, long time.

Just not together.

They made it!

*  *  *

"Chill and ill and dill."  That's a phrase from this West Indian guy I used to work with at Piccola Marina Café in Saint Thomas, USVI.  He was a line cook.  I was a server.

Remember it, Mr. Peter J. Palmer.

Friday, June 1, 2012

'Tis the Season

No, not the Holiday Season; that's still a few months away. It's whale watching season, my fellow ocean-loving mammals, so the time is right to start planning an excursion to the Farallon Islands! Read on and whet your appetite with the following notes from a superb voyage a few years back.

*  *  *

Oceanic Society Farallon Islands Trip
Sunday 09.14.2008

The Boat
Salty Lady: a good stable boat with a knowledgeable, wildlife-loving captain and crew.

The Weather
Calm, foggy and overcast for most of the day. At times almost no wind. Some beautiful, rolling swells and many vast areas of pure, still, glassy water. Great weather for an excursion to the Farallones.

The Animal Sightings
Harbor porpoise – lots
Besides the seal and the sea lion, usually the first marine mammal spotted outside the Golden Gate. A smaller, shy cetacean that swims close to shore and is seen in fleeting glances as it breaks the water’s surface. Dark brown-charcoal black: very graceful, very quick and quiet.

Dall’s porpoise – 12 to 15
We came upon two small pods, each one with 6 or so individuals. One group was enticed into a bow ride, so we got to hang over the front rail of the boat and watch them zip swiftly back and forth and surface and leap from the clear water three feet below our gaze. Extremely fast, agile and powerful swimmers: always a delight to see, especially when they co-operate with a playful bow ride.

Risso’s dolphin – 25 or so
Big dolphins, 10-12 feet in length, with a tall, straight dorsal fin and a blunt, rounded head, swimming slowly together in a large, extended pod at the surface. In the silence surrounding our boat we could hear their quick, sharp, exhale blows: a kind of dreamy, ricochet explosion of air as they surfaced, over and over. In a way they reminded me of killer whales, but smaller and of course a different color: like a pack of dogs on the hunt. I had seen only one lone Risso’s before, a fleeting glance, so this was a very cool encounter.

Humpback whale – 7
The most numerous and most acrobatic of the large baleen whales in the Gulf of the Farallones. Didn’t see the sheer numbers that other trips have recently, but we were treated to some beautiful, slow motion fluke shots as the whales sounded and got an all-too potent whiff of some nasty-ass whale breath.

Blue whale – 1
The largest creature to ever roam the Earth. A rare sighting, as in recent years they seem to be favoring other areas of California for their summertime feeding, and only the second individual seen by the captain this season. Hard to imagine their immense size by just seeing what appears above the water, but if this one were right next to our boat it probably would have dwarfed it by 20 feet. And they are, in the right light, a pale, silvery blue. I have not seen a blue whale out there since around 2003.

Fin whale – 1
The second largest creature in the world. An extremely rare sighting (especially right after the blue whale), the only time this season and the first one I have ever seen. A big whale: dark brown-charcoal in color, with a pronounced, tall, slightly sickle-shaped dorsal fin. An outstanding encounter, one that sent our Oceanic Society naturalist into a volley of obviously excited “oohs” and “ahs”.

California sea lion – lots
The noisy, acrobatic and gregarious poster child of the California coast. Barking, swimming, flipping, vaulting in and out of the water, you find them in the bay, in the open water, and huddled in a mass of brown blubber on the rocky shore of the Farallon Islands. Inquisitive and intelligent, they never fail to put on some kind of a show doing what they just, naturally, do.

Fur seal – 2
Like the brown pelican an environmental success story, as populations seem to be on the rebound. Found both of them floating on their backs, relaxing and warming up with their fins pointed skyward. Are they seals or sea lions?

Blue shark – 1
Very brief look at the tail and dorsal fin before it disappeared. Would love to get a good, sustained look at one (or even better, a bunch of them) in the water from the boat.

Moon jellyfish – lots
Drifting by in opalescent jellyfish mode: Look, ma…no hands!

Sea nettle – several
Burnt orange bodies with tentacles stretched out below.

Common murre – lots
Gray and white, small and low to the water: a comical, noisy, squawking swimmer and an abundant sight at the Farallones. Sometimes alone and sometimes found in large mats of adults and juveniles. Great swimmers and divers.

Cassin’s auklet – lots
Very small, cute, dark gray bird, at times seemingly better suited to swimming underwater than to flying. Usually so stuffed full of fish it can barely take flight, opting instead to just madly flap across the water or dive to get out of the way.

Brown pelican – lots
Doesn’t everyone love pelicans? Once so decimated by DDT that they are a miracle to see in such healthy numbers. So awkward on land, but such beautiful flyers; they use the sea level air currents to soar effortlessly inches above the water. On this trip we had one smart bird ride the boat’s air currents from behind. The bird repeated the performance several times, drafting the Salty Lady from the stern and right up the side of the boat, allowing us a charming and extraordinary close up view of a pelican in flight.

Double-crested cormorant – lots
Iconic, long-necked, black aquatic bird. Great divers and fishermen, they form beautiful vee-shaped formations, low on the surface, as they travel from the mainland out to sea and back.

Western grebe – several
Graceful, elegant slender-necked, white and light gray plumed aquatic birds. Very, very pretty.

Red phalarope – lots
Diminutive and fragile-looking birds with beautiful striped plumage and a slender neck, they seem too delicate to be out here in the wild and wonderful Pacific Ocean.

Tufted puffin – 2
Summed up perfectly by our naturalist when we spotted one bobbing comically on the water: people travel a long, long way to see this bird. Unfazed by the boatload of landlubbers as we circled round to get a very good look at the substantial, bright orange beak and tufted head feathers.

Sooty shearwater – several
Gull-like birds with handsome, charcoal-gray plumage: beautiful and graceful flyers, they love to soar just above the water’s surface.

Black-footed albatross – several
There was much excitement on board when we spotted these, one of the avid bird watchers “must see”. There are several species of albatross, but all are known for their exceedingly graceful flight, for their huge wingspan, and for their long distance travel. Oh, how I wish I could fly like the albatross.

The Verdict
A rock solid trip, especially since we had so many first time voyagers on board the Salty Lady. As someone who has been out more than two dozen times, the only thing I know for sure is that every trip is unique. This one was both a classic voyage (the humpbacks, the frolicking sea lions, the Dall’s porpoise) and a very special one (the smart, hitchhiking pelican, the bow-riding, the puffins, the albatross, the big pod of Risso’s, and the surprising blue and fin whales). The friendly weather kept any serious seasickness at bay. We encountered six species of cetacean, from one of the smallest to the two largest. Most of the humpbacks were sighted east of the Farallones, and although we didn’t get any feeding or breaching or close up visits I think everyone, especially with the blue and fin whale thrown in to boot, was very happy with the day’s outcome.

*  *  *

Shoot me a line if you want to be kept in the loop, and I'll let you know when we choose the date for the trip this year. Two trips this year, that is: I've decided to take one from Moss Landing as well. Never before been out on Monterey Bay, but I recently spoke with the captain at Sanctuary Cruises, a small boat operation that sounds just right: 5 hours at sea, 24 people max, a 13 year history of marine biologist and owner led trips, and from what I can tell good endorsements.

So come on now...It's June 1, 2012. The time is now, and the time is a-wasting.

Thar she blows, matey!
Peter J. Palmer