Sunday, November 25, 2007


On Thanksgiving morning, I checked out of the motel early. Any idea I had of having breakfast at some nostalgic location fell through due to the passage of time. For example, while I had thought I might have breakfast at Ken’s House of Pancakes, I discovered that Ken was now dead and the House of Pancakes was now a seafood restaurant. Other choices had similar fates. So I left Palo Alto and crossed over the Bay via the Dumbarton Bridge. I don’t particularly care for the East Bay (just endless San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose suburban sprawl) so this portion of the trip was just “slogging north” to get to my sister’s. It wasn’t until I had completed the counter-clockwise circumabulation of the northeastern portion of the bay (across the Carquinez Strait with its $4.00 toll) and approached Vallejo, could I exit this region by turning right at the Napa and Sonoma turn-off and enter into Wine Country on Highway 20.

Pretty soon, driving through Napa, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, Calistoga, everything was amazingly beautiful. My heart has a yearning for lovely agricultural regions and while this area is mainly devoted to wine, probably my least favorite thing to drink, one can’t help but be overcome by the shaded lanes of immense spreading trees, rolling hills covered in neatly planted and tended grapevines, and impressive stone-built wine estates. It’s more like the Loire than it is typical California.

While I had never been down this route before, I understood that normally there would be quite a lot of activity, such as busloads of people going wine-tasting from one estate to another, but as this was Thanksgiving Day, virtually everything was closed. It seemed that there were hardly any cars on the road and therefore it was quiet and peaceful and other-worldly.

I amused myself over thoughts about how such a culture (indeed, such a snobbery) had built up around the growing and fermentation of this one particular fruit. Nobody cares where their orange or apple juice comes from, for example, but with grapes fermented into wine, the tastes can be narrowed down to particular geographical locations, years, varietals, and vintners. It’s not something I ever got into much beyond “probably shouldn’t have red wine with fish”. Maybe I should come back here to this region for a vacation, stay in one of their lovely country resorts, go tasting from winery to winery, and come away learning something.

Seeing how it looked like everything was closed, I was kicking myself for rushing so quickly through the Bay Area without having stopped for breakfast when there were so many choices. However, I lucked out in Calistoga (where for sure I would like to go back and stay in one of their hot spring spas) and found a cute and quaint café that was open for Thanksgiving Day. The waitress seemed none too happy about having to work that day, but my hungry self verbally expressed my sincere appreciation that they were open and after my meal, I gave her a 25% tip.

A little after Middletown, the landscape changed from sheltered agricultural valley to mountainous and the road rose up out of Napa County into Lake County. This, too, was beautiful country, with spreading oak trees and isolated mountain cabins. Around one of the corners, a highway patrolman hid in a nook off the road, hoping to catch speeders, or perhaps just to take a nap. He, like the waitress, had had to work on Thanksgiving. One of the things I was thankful for was that I had this little vacation to enjoy.

Ultimately, I arrived at the little town of Clearlake, itself, and then began to follow my sister’s detailed step-by-step instructions so that I could find her lakeshore house (the kind of directions where you have to reset your odometer to help you count miles between visual landmarks).

My sister, negatively conditioned by some of her snobby friends (who feel that if it isn’t at least Lake Tahoe, it isn’t worth a visit), self-deprecatingly apologized for the town as being “seedy”, but the one place I have been that it reminded me of was the little village near Cook’s Bay on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia. I wouldn’t describe Moorea, one of the loveliest spots on planet Earth, as “seedy”.

My sister had also always apologized that her lake house was “small”. Well, I suppose if you are thinking of the multi-million-dollar houses springing up all over the place in our former “home town” of Atherton, this house on the lake might be considered small. For example, it only has two bedrooms so that my niece and nephew have to share. But I don’t hear them complaining; they have cozy bunkbeds and the two are quite into closeness, anyway. This is their weekend getaway house, so they might even be happy with a sleeping bag on the floor (which was my own accommodation!).

No, the house is wonderful and beautifully decorated with gorgeous furniture and wonderful art on the walls and appropriate sculptures of pelicans, egrets, cranes, and fish. Much of the art is actually depicting the lakes region of Italy and Switzerland (Lake Como, the town of Bellagio, and so on) and yet looks perfectly at home on these walls. The clear water of the lake spreads out in a fascinating complication of shore and cove below your feet, and across the waters of this particular bay or cove you can see two matched “Teton” mountains and when the sun begins to set and golden light skims across the water’s surface, golden fireflies of light can be seen coming from the houses across the lake.

Naturally in a house like this there is a lot of tall glass for taking in the view (except on one stone wall that has a fireplace), but the most beautiful room in the house was the “sun room” that my sister had added, which has floor-to-ceiling glass on the three sides that are exposed to the lake, and the ceiling even has clear-glass skylights. This room (larger than my apartment) served as the dining room for our Thanksgiving dinner, and also my bedroom for the two nights I stayed there.

Outside beyond all the glass are a couple of layers of large over-water sundecks, and over in the corner of one of the decks is a four-person hot-tub, always piping hot and ready for soaking! What a magnificent spot that was, to be soaking in that hot-tub late at night with a drink in our hand, a bright moon overhead, and the sound of the waves lapping against the shore beneath us!

Beyond the sundecks is a long “pier” type of walkway that extends further out over the lake, taking you over to the built-in roof and pier of the boat house, which is a motorized dry dock and is surrounded by a swimming deck so that when lowered down to the waterline, allows the water skiing boat to be taken out, and the deck with its ladder gives swimmers easy access to and exit from the lake.

In addition to the motor boat, which my sister’s fiancé bought for them to have at the house, there is also a small sailboat on a trailer (which can be launched via the house’s boat launch), which my sister bought as a gift for her fiancé, and several kayaks. However, during this short trip, we did not go out onto (or swimming into) the water. We’ll save all the water sports, for, for sure, a summer-time visit.

As my brother said, “What more would you want?” And in a way, its only disadvantage is that it is too far for my sister to commute to work, but its very isolation is actually one of its main assets. We’re all aware of the potential for various national or local disasters, although each one of us seems to believe strongly in some of them and just as strongly disbelieve in others—such as “peak oil”, “global warming”, “collapse of the dollar”, “World War III”, domestic race war (“Civil War II”), “terrorist attack,” “martial law,” and various other assorted “earthquakes, landslides, pollution, brush fires, running out of water” and so on. I kept noticing that if my sister and her kids really had to, they could actually survive out there—they could catch fish in the lake and terrace and plant the land she owns up the hill across from the road (Lake County is a very good agricultural county) and therefore have food to eat; they could purify the lake water for drinking, and so on.

It’s perhaps odd that I even think in such terms (I DON'T believe in “peak oil” and “global warming”, am about 50/50 on “World War III” and feel that “Civil War II” is about 25% likely, and further terrorist attack a little more likely), but the two that actually DO worry me as more than likely are “economic collapse” and “martial law”, so yes, I do think of such things and I am deeply aware at how terribly dangerous my own personal situation is, living like I do in a place and circumstance where I most likely would NOT survive any of these things. But THAT is soon to change.

Thanksgiving dinner was all about good company and good food and drink and for me it was especially wonderful to be among people who, while we lovingly disagree over things like politics (my brother and his wife are Hillary supporters; my sister and her fiancé are Edwards supporters, and I am way over on the other side supporting Ron Paul), deep down inside, we all come from the same root stock and fundamentally understand, support, and love each other. We’re way more alike where it really counts than we are different. All except one sister who was not present except for one miserable period when my brother’s wife, in a moment of loving compassion, called this sister to tell her we were thinking about her and “wished” she were there with us, and put her on speaker phone, during which we were treated to her unique brand of obsession and insanity, which soon enough degenerated into evil and finally the necessity of hanging up on her.

But after that, the fun resumed.

Being together with these people always helps me to remember (to feel more deeply) who I really am, and I greatly appreciate that. And in fact, that was the kind of thing I was most thankful of this Thanksgiving. I know who my parents were and who our extended relations were (and by this I don't mean their identities, but their value); I understand how proud I can be of my heritage and background and can appreciate the immense quality of the people that I am a part of. When I find myself surrounded by, listening to the din of, and being brought down by the hordes who are NOT that and wouldn’t come CLOSE to even imagining that level for the next two thousand lifetimes, all too easily I can feel alone and shipwrecked on a charred and burning planet, overrun with trilobites. But then I get together with these good people and I am uplifted once again.

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