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July

The month has flown by in a whirl of birthdays and family fun.

Kept informed by texts and pictures, I watched the Nephews enjoy the lavish trip to Disneyland that Sis and Ian have been planning for them for so long, and it was pure childish joy all the way. They are at the perfect ages, 5 and 10, to enjoy that magical park in the exact manner Walt surely intended.

And now the Little President is six, and we've had our first 'date.' He's been watching for the last few years with a sad, pouting frown as I took his older brother out for movies and other Auntie adventures and he had to stay home, so he was ridiculously excited to have lunch and the Minion movie with me.

Conversations with that child are pure hilarity. "I don't pick my nose anymore," he confides from the back seat of the car, "But Brother still does. And sometimes Dad, too."

"Why don't you come and live with us? You could bring Minnie."

"You don't want me, you really just want Minnie," I countered. "Well, yes," he says matter-of-factly, deflating Auntie's ego entirely.

I'm spending as much time as I can with them now, taking days off or afternoons from work and going to the zoo, the park, a movie, camping. Sis hasn't said so, but we both know I'm trying to help fill the gap that Grandma left when she died. She was a huge part of their daily and weekly routines, and these are all activities she used to share with them.

But it's selfish, too. They fill me with joy and wonder and I adore them hugely and love spending time with them.

In the realm of adult fun, I've done the museum with the girlfriends, finding myself entranced with the work of JMW Turner which I hadn't seen much before.

And last weekend, Weezy took me to see Kevin Spacey perform live. The actor's secret passion since childhood has been singing, and the success of his career on stage and screen has given him the freedom to get out and perform concerts now and then.

The man can sing! And he was especially poignant performing Mr Bojangles, which is a story in a song, and he the minstrel, bringing us nearly to tears.

Our new concert hall at my alma mater, Sonoma State U, is so acoustically well-crafted that it's already being courted by musicians who want to come and play in it. Weezy and I were awed by the hall and are eager to go again and hear anything they want to throw on.

At work we are gearing up to host our third professional conference on August 19th, and my staff have the needs and rhythms of it down so well now, that my burden is halved and they are all doing a marvelous job on their parts. Bibi, our talented art director, is loaning us her college daughter for most of August to handle the grunt work, help with the packing, and assist on the ground at the event.

The trade show and sponsorships are sold out for this second year, and registrations are starting to pick up as they tend to do in the final 30 days. We're always biting our nails until this happens.

I'm giving bookstore my weekend, putting in time this Saturday night on the Mystery Writers conference, and Sunday to assist with Tony Bourdain's appearance at a hall in San Francisco. Should be fun in both cases.

And then it's on to August!

July 4th weekend--cookout

We held another summer cookout on the 4th, and this time our widespread invitations brought a different group of people, who came together amazingly well and compatibly and stayed well into the night, delighting us and each other with their company.

First to arrive was Jean, the former partner of the man who originally hired me at bookstore. He and Cal, still the best of friends, amicably uncoupled this past year and are getting out on their own again. This was the longest I'd ever spent in Jean's company, having been on a just few wine adventures with him in Cal's company in the past. He is just wonderful; a witty conversationalist, widely traveled and with a huge knowledge of wine and the local wine people, well-read, high up in his field of work. He's a nurse practitioner, originally in the Air Force for several years where they diverted him to service as military police in K9 division, then finishing his medical training when he got out. Now he runs entire medical staffs in his field, and sits on an international committee which reviews and approves medical research funding.

Gisela, my shy German friend who longs to be more social, came to the party and I sat her next to Jean because many of his Air Force years were spent in Germany and I knew he'd put her at ease. They had a marvelous time together.

Leila and her Catherine came, and they also had a great conversation with Jean about San Francisco in the 70s and 80s when they'd all lived in the city and begun their lives with their respective partners.

All of us spent time playing with the dogs and discussing our mutual pets. Leila and Catherine brought their Toby so we had four at the party. Jean didn't bring his dogs but he has two, and he explained how he'd never known dogs until the Air Force assigned him to K9 duty but he'd loved them ever since.

Toward evening, two elderly neighbor gentlemen who'd been invited, joined our party, and Jean the Ultimate Party Guest also charmed them with polite and lively conversation.

Since I guess every party gets one bad apple, ours got Virginia. This lady in her 60s is a bossy nurse who met Mr Anderson, our 90-year old neighbor, in grief counseling a few years ago and has become his frequent companion. While she has done him much good in a sort of Bossy Daughter fashion, we find her grating, and she was at her worst at our party.

Part of the problem was the champagne. Though I set out a wide array of drinks, we started the party about 1pm with Jean by opening a magnum of bubbly. And everyone was enjoying the bubbles so much that we stuck to them, with frequent breaks for iced water, through the day and into the evening. Everyone else paced themselves well, but Virginia, arriving about 5:30, starting downing the bubbly with gusto and soon began raiding my wine fridge and opening more.

At one point, hoping to stem the trouble, I told her we were out of bubbles and offered her some of the many other beverages I had in an iced bin out in the yard. A few minutes later she mentioned her sorrow over the lack of bubbles to Weezy, who didn't know what I'd said and hospitably showed her the wine fridge in the garage.

In the end, we went through the magnum and 10 bottles, and though there were a dozen of us at the party, I'd put at least 5 bottles down to Virginia's avarice.

Loud and nosy in an embarrassing interrogatory fashion, she eventually drove some guests to the door. Sweet old Mr Petrovsky from next door quietly told Weezy in the kitchen that he had rescued several wine glasses from being broken by her wild gesturing and that he was tired and needed to go home. We suspect he was tired of being grilled about the recent death of his wife and Virginia's proclamations about heaven and " a better place." We gritted our teeth and tried to shut her down where we could.

In spite of the bad Apple, everyone had a grand time and Jean told us we had the most amazing and interesting group of friends. Late in the evening before he left, I toured him through our wine room and we talked of wines we liked and wineries and people we knew in common in the wine industry. I laughingly mourned my depleted Pinot Noir rack because I love the stuff, and he drooled over our goodly stash of Merlots which he loves.

Next day when Weezy and I returned home from an outing, we found on our doorstep, a full case of wine, a mix of many fine Pinots, a special red blend he had told me about, and a funny deck of Doggie Tarot cards. I got onto instant messaging and thanked him profusely and invited him back very soon for dinner, promising all the Merlot he could want. Best.Party.Guest.Ever.

July 4th weekend--boys

Our office took the Friday off as the holiday, so I invited Sis to bring the boys to our house to play for the day. Ever prepared like the best of Girl Scouts, she had them pack Legos, had a spare craft project for the little one making Juky 4th pinwheels to decorate my house, and secretly packed water balloons and a change of clothes for them. I supplied food and kid movies.

It was a hilarious and fun day with them. Weezy cemented their love by sitting through an exhaustive catalogue of their Lego figures' life stories and watching an episode of Ninjago with them, asking relevant questions they were delighted to answer about the plot.

The water balloons were brilliant. Some clever Aussie has come up with an arrangement whereby 50 balloons with rubber bands affixed, sit on filler strands of a garden hose attachment and all fill at once within minutes, dropping off already sealed and ready to throw. The boys went through 100 in short order, squealing merrily and darting about the yard getting each other nice and wet.

The WCN loves smoothie fruit drinks and since Weezy is a longtime avid smoothie maker, she held a workshop and taught him how to make them himself, gifting him with a spare blender and a huge box of chia seeds to take home and make his own. He was entranced by the science of the chia seeds, which form a gel when wetted and make smoothies creamy in consistency and taste, sneakily imparting extra nutrients along the way.

I fed them gallons of cut fruit and grilled hot dogs and chicken and ice cream. And they went home at dark, tired and replete.

Little boys make a fine summer day twice as nice.

Memorial Day cookout


We are hosting an all-day cookout starting at noon tomorrow.

The yard is at peak gorgeousness thanks to Weezy, and the weather looks like sunny, 70 and dry (see also, drought). The evenings lately are foggy and almost cold but still enjoyable if you bring a light jacket.

What we told our guests was, bring a single item for yourself that you want me to throw on the gas grill. We've got nibbles, sides and beverages covered.

So we have wine coming out our ears (I told you the story of my editor moonlighting as a wine reviewer for the Enthusiast, right?), and I picked up a mixed pack of craft brews at Costco, as well as fizzy waters and drinks yesterday. And I made some spiced iced tea this morning. We'll toss all of those in a giant washtub full of ice in the yard.

I made a big batch of heart-attack potato salad this morning, and one pal is bringing a broccoli kale green salad.

For nibbles, we've got sliced cheeses, olives, crackers, chips and salsa.

For my grill protein, I'm brining a whole chicken that I cut into large pieces, and will use the Cooks Illustrated recipe for smoking it on my grill with a sweet-spicy glaze.

For dessert, I'm putting on a pot of chocolate fondue. I'll cut strawberries and bananas, and got a pound cake at Costco. Weezy is making Rice Krispy treats which we'll also cut into dipping pieces. People can help themselves to everything all day.

We invited about 50 people, and think 20-25 of them are coming, based on the RSVPs. If we need another side dish, which I doubt, I made and froze a batch of Ina Garten's orzo with roasted veggies.

Other than setting it all out and manning the grill occasionally, it's going to be a lovely easy party to manage and we're looking forward to good company all day and evening.

Eating our way through Vegas, the rest


On the Saturday of our Vegas trip, Jeff and Mary from Twisted Oak arrived and the foodie fun multiplied.

We met them at Bouchon, Thomas Keller's signature bistro at the Venetian. My memories of the exact foods ordered are getting fuzzy now, but I remember the foie gras on toast points was phenomenal, and the salmon-in-a-jar, ditto. The wines were incredible, and Gary, our waiter, was in on the fun from start to finish.

The next night found us at Mesa Grill, Bobby Flay's place, where we confounded the waitstaff by announcing we wanted to order the entire appetizer side of the menu.

When they got over being flummoxed, the dishes started coming out. A woman at the table next door, at dinner with her husband, delightedly asked about some of the dishes and even popped over at our invitation to sample some.

Standouts for me were the shrimp tamale with a rich corn sauce, the teeny tiny lobster tacos, and the duck tacos, which Jen is still raving about today. Then Jeff, at the suggestion of the lady at the next table, had to try the signature pork medallions on the menu and ordered those. That was probably the best pork tenderloin any of us had ever eaten. It melted in the mouth.

We waddled out of Mesa Grill.

Next was Julian Serrano, Spanish tapas. We ordered two flights of the Introduction to Sherries, and our sommelier (it's a small world!) was delighted when she found out who Jeff and Mary are because her mother once lived very near to Twisted Oak and was a big fan. She had explored the Rubber Chicken National Forest and knew their wines well.

The white anchovies were delectable, and Jeff, ever on the hunt for foie gras, ordered their seared version and enjoyed it muchly.

I should mention the brunches. At Paris Las Vegas where Jeff and Mary stayed, we had brunch on Mothers Day at Hexx. I had an enormous ham and cheese croissant and the largest and most diverse fruit bowl I've ever been given in a breakfast place, with a dozen different types of cut fruit at peak ripeness. At the end of our meal, the waiter presented us females with a rose and a little box of their special chocolates.

Another day, Jen and I went to Yardbird Southern Kitchen, whose chef was a James Beard finalist and voted Best New Eatery in Vegas last year. Yardbird (tag line, Run Chicken Run) is all about the fried chicken. They brine it for 27 hours, then give it the buttermilk and batter treatment. The result is crispy yet tender skin, and moist flavorful meat.

Jen and I had ours atop a homemade biscuit with gravy and with moist delicious scrambled egg on top.

They serve nearly all chicken dishes with a side of fresh watermelon chunks, and they've dusted the watermelon with chili powder and fine-chopped basil. I was dubious but it was brilliant! Cool and refreshing with a little spice-herbal bite.

Our final meal in Vegas was sushi at Yellowtail in Bellagio, over which we spent three hours tasting small pieces of heaven. The pacing of the kitchen and waitstaff was unhurried and glorious, and I think we went four or five rounds around the menu.

Jeff had the full attention of our Sake Sommelier, Yukiko, who read our desires perfectly and brought out several different little bamboo carafes through the evening as each course changed our palates.

All of their sashimi tuna bites were superb, and the Kobe beef tartar was delicate and exquisite. We also had a dainty crab tempura that rocked.

I think that many people dismiss Vegas as a simple, brash gambling hub. These days, it's not only full of wonderful shows, shops, salons and other grown-up entertainments, it's a Food Mecca.

And we took full advantage to have the foodie adventure of a lifetime.


Eating our way through Vegas--Batali


On our second night in Vegas, Jen and I went to see the Blue Man Group, performing at the Monte Carlo hotel. It was great good fun.

But the Monte Carlo had no restaurants to tempt us for our late dinner afterward, so we went back to our Venetian hotel, up to the second floor, and explored possibilities in the Grand Canal shops and "streets."

Side note: the fake Venice created by the hotel is actually quite lovingly realistic. You wind your way through cobblestone streets dotted with tiny bridges over the canal, which has actual gondolas gliding along filled with tourists. The gondoliers occasionally burst into song, singly or in groups, and are quite talented.

You sometimes see white pedestals in your path, inscrutable until you see a "living statue" dressed all in white, standing on one and posing perfectly still while tourists snap pictures.

In "San Marco Square" we found Otto, the pizzeria run by Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich (Lidia's son), and stopped for our late supper.

The center of the dining room is taken up with a lovely circular marble bar, and in the center of that is an octagonal tower of warm wood and glass. I slowly realized that the tower was not just a pretty furnishing. It is a low-light, temperature-and-humidity-controlled salumi cabinet. And the "bartenders" were not serving drinks, but slicing portions of perfectly-cured fine meats to go onto appetizer plates or finished pizzas.

They serve only craft beers and wines here. I ordered a rose Prosecco from Italy, and Jen ordered the Bastianich rose wine. Now, I had the Bastianich red wines way back when Lidia was touring with one of her cookbooks and the family were first launching the wines. They were, fine. No great shakes. But this rose was truly outstanding. I highly recommend you search it out if you like roses!

We split the mushroom bruschetta, just perfect. Jen had a pasta dish she raved about, and I had a small pizza Carbonara, with prosciutto from that glorious salumi cabinet and a small drizzle of fresh egg in concentric circles. The crust reminded me very much of the thin cold-risen crust at my beloved A16 in San Francisco. Fantastic pizza.

Our second fabulous Vegas meal was serenaded by minstrels doing light opera in the duplicate San Marco Square.

The magic continued...

Eating our way through Vegas, Boulud

Preface:
With the legacy from my Mom, in addition to sensible retirement investing, I started a travel fund.

Since my passport is not renewed just yet, I made this first vacation domestic, and chose Vegas because Mom and I had gone a few times together, many years ago, and it was one of her favorite places to play.

I took my best pal Jen, and booked into the Venetian for a week.

And now that Vegas is such a food Mecca, we really ate our way through wonderful places all week.

Our first find was the DB Brasserie, Daniel Boulud's casual French place on the casino floor at Venetian. It was 4pm on our first day, we'd been there several hours and were hungry.

They have a Happy Hour in the bar lounge with beautiful small plates and exquisite drinks to try.

We had chick pea "fries"--formed rectangles of goodness made from chick peas, coated in chick pea flour, deep fried and served with a delicate flavorful red sauce for dipping.

And the house Caesar salad, the memory of which still makes me smile. Jen proclaimed when I urged her to try it, "I didn't come to Vegas to eat salads!" But once she'd had her first taste, she inhaled more with glee. It was probably the best Caesar that either of us ever had.

And finally, we split a small hamburger, which was a perfect medium rare and beautiful bit of prime beef, topped with Gruyere cheese and some kind of incredibly happy pig (I think it was a bit of pork belly), a house sauce, lettuce and tomato.

The meal was proof that the simplest foods, with quality ingredients in good hands, can be pure delight.

The Brasserie was the rare place we repeated on the trip, me going back once more and Jen twice. With so many choices in Vegas, we tried otherwise to adhere to two rules: not to repeat a restaurant (Boulud, a lobster place and the Bouchon Bakery at the foot of our elevator were the exceptions); and not to eat at any old chain whose food we could get at home.

Two more notable dishes at Boulud. We had a salmon rillette that was composed of lightly cooked fresh salmon, pressed together with good smoked salmon into pretty little round cakes, topped with creme fraiche and a sprig of dill, served with croutons of baguette.

And a pasta dish with handmade spaghetti noodles featuring spring peas. They had pulled the fresh peas out of their pods, blanched them soft and pulsed them into a sauce with cream. They took the tender pods, cooked them just past al dente, and tossed them with the pasta and sauce. It was outstanding.

More reports to come from this awesome foodie adventure!



Vacation

Given that my passport was expired, I'm doing domestic travel this year. Starting with the next ten days!

I'm taking JRo and we're going to Vegas for a week of indulgences. After much searching, we found a suite at the Venetian that we like. Of the amenities we looked for, the most amusing was the in-room coffee. The Venetian doesn't offer it because they are coffee snobs; they don't believe you can make a decent cup on a small drip brewer in your room. They source a unique South American bean they liked on which they have a monopoly, and they roast it fresh every day in their own roasting room and serve it to guests. The booking agent on the phone waxed rhapsodic over the stuff, bemoaning the fact that they won't even let employees buy it to take home.

Our suite has a lovely bathroom and sleep areas, and the long room ends in a large sunken living room with a wall of windows looking out to the pretty lights of the town.

And it came with free show tickets to Rock of Ages, the musical full of 1980s Rock-pop tunes which will be fun. We're also seeing Blue Man Group, Penn & Teller, and O, the water show by Cirque du Soleil. We've paced our bookings so that we have a day off between each show date to relax.

The Bellagio, across the street from our hotel, is an art museum in many forms, with installations throughout, and we're going to explore it. One restaurant inside it is called Picasso and has seven original works hanging on its dining room walls. There is a full art museum as well and it's carrying a special exhibit from Faberge this month.

We're bringing swimsuits and books and magazines and will definitely spend some time poolside. Another reason we chose the Venetian is that the pools are guests-only. Some of the Vegas hotels have pool complexes that are more like giant family water parks and they allow day users in for a small fee. We wanted something a little quieter.

And I'll find a modest salon one day and fool around with girly stuff like hair and nails.

I was visiting Jeff and Mary at Twisted Oak in Calaveras in early April and mentioned that we were going to Vegas, and it turns out this is their favorite playground. They started giving us all kinds of great tips on where to eat and what to see, and one chat led to another, and now they are joining us for the fun. They'll arrive on Saturday and have booked some of our shows for us because they know just ::exactly:: where we should sit for maximum enjoyment. :-)

Once back in CA on the 14th, we've got a day off for laundry, and then we are packing up girls and dogs and heading down to Paso Robles for a weekend wine festival.

I really needed this total unplugged from work break and can't wait to start!

The house, or, one thing leads to another

When deciding how to put myself into improvements on Weezy's house, of course I looked to the kitchen. Weezy does not cook, so its rundown state was not a great concern to her.

I bought a new cooktop and a dishwasher. And when the nice Sears guys came to install them --I expected this, but Weezy was unpleasantly surprised-- they told us that internal upgrades would be needed before they could get them in. The old appliances were so old that the electrical was hard-wired into them, whereas newer ones merely plug into modern electrical outlets installed to receive them.

In addition, the dishwasher needed a new plumbing valve, and some floorboards would have to be removed in order to get it out. It had to come down, then out to avoid damaging the lip overhang of the tile countertop.

George from Sears ("Don't tell my bosses") did the electrical and a slight bit of carpentry and got the cooktop installed. Bless him.

With a referral from Lori who works at a construction company, next we brought in Tom the Electrician. Tom spent an entire day here, not only on the electrical for the dishwasher but also on small jobs all about the house that it needed. He installed all of Weezy's ceiling fans, some outdoor lighting, and upgraded sockets to three-prong grounded outlets. With the helper he'd brought along, he also got the old dishwasher (circa 1985) out.

Tom will be back for round 2 of little things we need him to do, but meanwhile today, at long last, the Sears guys come back to insert the new dishwasher.

I also bought a wine refrigerator, stocked it with bubbly, whites and rose wines, and a new patio table (Weezy bought the matching chairs).

Our first dinner party with all of the improvements is Friday night. Friend Thomas is visiting from D.C.

The Mom legacy

Sis, the Trustee of Mom's estate, paid out the bulk of it in thirds to herself, me and Bro at the top of April, prudently holding in a goodly amount to cover any last taxes, bills and expenses which might be presented against it in the year to come.

I banked mine and when the banking dust settled, immediately paid off all remaining credit cards (I had it down to three by then), and the car. Rendering myself debt free for the first time since I was about 20. :-) And that was a pretty marvelous feeling.

I put a few thousand into improvements on this house, for my own comfort but also as a payback for the generous terms on which Weezy has opened her home and her life to me and my dogs. She's the best of friends.

I opened a travel savings account, and then with the help of a financial advisor at my credit union, plunged all the rest into a portfolio with tax-deferred earnings to be my retirement nest egg.

And at work, I increased my contributions into the company 401k plans to their maximum.

That done, now I can play. The travel fund is being replenished with automatic withdrawals every month. My financial advisor thinks of it as my Emergency fund, but to me it's the travel fund, giving me the freedom to travel more, as I've long wished to do.

It's still kind of overwhelming, this unexpected inheritance. I find myself sending little prayers of thanks to Mom each time I'm able to do something that her gift made possible, even as small as buying dinner for a friend.

And the daily comfort and joy of her other legacy to me, the adored little Minnie, our own bouncy princess of a dog, is priceless.

So thank you, Mom. I love you, I miss you, we all still hate that you left us so soon and so fast. I hope I am treating all the gifts you gave me, in ways that would make you proud.