A Pair of Birthday Girls!

April has been a very busy month, what with work, income taxes, getting used to a new season and a new schedule. Fortunately, there were other, more pleasant reasons for this busy-ness–namely, two birthday celebrations I had the honor of attending just over a week ago, in Palo Alto.

LongevityFan2The first honoree–an old friend of the family, especially of my mother who has known her from more than 50 years–was observing her 99th birthday, a watershed marked by the Longevity fan on prominent display at both parties. The matriarch of a large, far-flung family, she has lived a rich, full life, is still as sharp as a needle, and was apparently pleased and excited to see so many friends and relatives in attendance at her party.

RedEggs2By contrast, the second honoree–great-granddaughter of the first–has just turned one, an occasion marked in Chinese tradition by a “Red Egg Celebration” (where hard-boiled eggs, colored pink by red calligraphy paper, are served to the guests as symbols of a fresh start and new beginning). All things are still to come for her (including her first set of teeth), but she too was majorly stoked about her birthday party, if for a slightly different reason. As her fond mother reported with pride, “This girl loves to eat!”

Which turned out to be a very good thing, as both birthday dinners were Chinese banquets featuring a multitude of dishes and courses. My advice to anyone who happens to attend such a dinner: Pace yourself.  In between the cold meats and salads that began both meals to the noodle dishes (for longevity) that ended them, there was soup, Peking duck, Chinese-style fried chicken, rice-stuffed chicken, Mongolian beef, beef with broccoli, sweet and sour pork, shrimp with glazed walnuts, and steamed fish (the last carefully deboned at the table by the waiter). It’s possible to sample everything, but, depending on your capacity, keeping your servings small to moderate is generally a good idea! I managed by restricting myself to single servings on most dishes (with a couple of exceptions–could never resist Peking duck!), and bypassing a few others (like the jellyfish–it’s the texture, not the taste, that puts me off!). Dessert on both occasions was thoroughly Western birthday cake: strawberries and cream the first night, chocolate and raspberry the second.

(Strangely enough, the red eggs never did get eaten, possibly because they were eclipsed by everything else on the table. But they were carefully packed away in styrofoam cartons for another occasion. I overheard someone murmur something about “egg salad” the next day.)

My mother (left), with the first birthday girl
My mother (left), with the first birthday girl

A very happy birthday to both honorees! Thank you for inviting us, and we were glad to be there, celebrating with you.


Stepping into the Past: The Lure of a Historic Hotel

I have a thing for historic hotels–the Empress in Victoria, B.C.; the Coronado del Mar in San Diego; the Savoy in London. But, as I have neither the occasion nor the wherewithal to stay in any of them, my interest has remained purely academic. (Although I have at least visited the first two, and taken copious photographs!)

That changed last week during a brief visit to Northern California to celebrate the birthday of an old family friend–details to come in a later blog post. My traveling companion wanted to be as close to the restaurant as possible, so after some searching, I secured us a room at the historic  “art-deco” Cardinal Hotel in downtown Palo Alto, less than three blocks away. My initial goal had simply been to find clean, affordable accommodations for a couple of nights–and while that goal was satisfactorily met, the charming detour into the past was an unexpected bonus.


Walking into the lobby of the Cardinal was like walking into a more elegant, leisurely era, or so it seems to the harried, 21st century traveler. Tiled floors, wrought iron chandeliers shaped like acorns, a Batchelder fireplace flanked by a pair of tall wrought-iron torchieres that haven’t been moved from their original placement since the hotel was first built in 1924.

Other furniture included well-padded leather sofas and upholstered armchairs, gilt-edged mirrors that made the room appear even larger; an antique piano by the fireplace; a disabled telephone switchboard in one corner and two wooden phone booths at the far end of the lobby; and even a pair of octagonal game tables complete with old chess and checkers sets to occupy guests in the evenings or while they waited for the dining room to open. GameTables

The Cardinal also once boasted a restaurant called Wilson’s, and according to a posted menu from the 1920s, the price of a lavish meal there could be reckoned in cents, not dollars! Alas, that was one custom that did not survive the passage of time! Still, complimentary coffee, tea, and hot chocolate were available at all times in the lobby, which was a nice courtesy, especially in the morning.

Upstairs–reached via an old-fashioned elevator with an outer door you had to open manually before entering–the decor was much more modern. No air conditioning, but a large ceiling fan revolved almost soundlessly and kept things nicely cool. The plumbing was (mercifully) up to date, and there was a large color TV and wireless internet access. Some bedrooms shared a hallway bathroom and shower–a practice in some European hotels, while others had private baths. (We opted for the latter–in this case, convenience trumped style!)

Not everything about the Cardinal was perfect. There’s no on-site parking, for example, and you have to stow your vehicle on the streets, the public lots, or the parking structure across the way.  The good news is that on weekends–after 5 PM Friday until 8 AM on Monday–you can park pretty much wherever you want for as long as you want. This was just about about ideal for us, as we checked in Friday afternoon and stayed until Sunday morning. But the staff was unfailingly helpful and courteous, the amenities provided were of good quality, and the period ambiance irresistible. For a few days, the Cardinal Hotel provided us with the perfect escape.

In Further Praise of Poetry: The Sonnet

Last week I sang the praises of poetry in general. This week, I’m focusing on the sonnet, possibly my favorite piece of formal verse. Down through the generations, poets have enjoyed stretching and occasionally twisting the rules of this intricately rhymed, tightly structured form, but a whole world of emotion and experience can be packed into those fourteen lines. Here are three sonnets, by three different poets, from three different eras–all of them distinctive, each of them impossible to forget.


Sonnet 130

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
     And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
     As any she belied with false compare.

–William Shakespeare (1564-1616)



Leda and the Swan

 A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
    Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
    By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
    He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

    How can those terrified vague fingers push
    The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
    And how can body, laid in that white rush,
    But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

    A shudder in the loins engenders there
    The broken wall, the burning roof and tower,
    And Agamemnon dead.

                        Being so caught up,

    So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
    Did she put on his knowledge with his power
    Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

–William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)



“next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?”

He spoke.  And drank rapidly a glass of water.

–e.e. cummings (1894-1962)

Do you have a favorite sonnet? Or a poet who writes sonnets that you admire?

Whanne that Aprille . . .

Poets_cornerApril brings a number of things: warmer–if sometimes untrustworthy–weather, spring flowers, Easter (some years), income taxes (every year), and . . . National Poetry Month.

Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey. Geoffrey Chaucer was the first poet to be interred here, in the sixteenth century

Personally, I think poetry is worth celebrating any time, but I have no objection to there being an official month to recognize its awesomeness. I’ve never understood why some people dislike or seem afraid of poetry. Yes, some poems can be hackneyed, clichéd, obscure, or poorly constructed, but when written well, poetry can be sensual, passionate, witty, romantic, sharp, provocative, heartbreaking, hilarious, and eloquent as few other things can be.

My own love affair with poetry dates back to childhood, to Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and A. A. Milne. To whimsical poems that made me smile, to nonsensical poems that made me laugh. Later there were poems that moved, stirred, inspired, and sometimes inflamed me. I used to have a blog that I’d update every day in April with a poem. At the moment my life is a bit too busy to keep up that practice but for old times’ sake, I’m posting one today–a witty tongue-twister (just try to keep the words–and your face–straight, when reading this aloud!) by the one and only Ogden Nash!

The Private Dining Room

Miss Rafferty wore taffeta,
Miss Cavendish wore lavender.
We ate pickerel and mackerel
And other lavish provender,
Miss Cavendish was Lalage,
Miss Rafferty was Barbara.
We gobbled pickled mackerel
And broke the candelabara,
Miss Cavendish in lavender,
In taffeta, Miss Rafferty,
The girls in taffeta lavender,
And we, of course, in multi.

Miss Rafferty wore taffeta,
The taffeta was lavender,
Was lavend, lavender, lavenderest,
As the wine improved the provender.
Miss Cavendish wore lavender,
The lavender was taffeta.
We boggled mackled pickerel,
And bumpers did we quaffeta.
And Lalage wore lavender,
And lavender wore Barbara,
Rafferta taffeta Cavender lavender
Barbara abracadabra.

Miss Rafferty in taffeta
Grew definitely raffisher.
Miss Cavendish in lavender
Grew less and less stand-offisher.
With Lalage and Barbara
We grew a little pickereled,
We ordered Mumm and Roederer
Because the bubbles tickereled.
But lavender and taffeta
Were gone when we were soberer.
I haven’t thought in thirty years
Of Lalage and Barbara.

–Ogden Nash (1902-1971)

Do you have any favorite poems or favorite poets?