Of Flexible Light, French Vanilla Umbrellas, Hot Chocolate, “Ridgetop” & a River of Rain

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Good Morning:

1. Multiple personalities in the sky.

Walking up Van Ness Avenue in front of the west entrance to City Hall: brilliant lapis lazuli sky overhead, sunshine on my back, a rainbow to the west–and rain dumping on my 52″ umbrella from the east.

Welcome to San Francisco.

2. Flexible Light.

I did not know how else to describe it.

During another one of our seasonal rainstorms, the weather suddenly broke and the sky lightened, although still overcast with an even layer of clouds. But the eastern part of the building across from us on Redwood Alley (the Superior Court building) remained shrouded, whilst the western half brightened considerably. But the same sun shone down equally upon the east and the west. Why did one part of the same side turn bright and the other remained dark? One of my co-workers, an excellent photographer, joined me at the window to discuss the odd phenomenon.

“What do professional photographers call this?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Perhaps ‘flexible light?'” I replied.

Flexible light. I do not know the correct term for the rest of the universe, but “flexible light” feels like the correct term for San Francisco.

Cigarette Break in the Rain, Redwood Alley, San Francisco

Cigarette Break in the Rain, Redwood Alley, San Francisco (taken with an iPhone 4, I deliberately pixelated the picture by cropping and blowing up the digital file to create almost a pseudo-watercolor effect)

3. The French Vanilla Umbrella.

You might have noticed that I have an enormous umbrella; 52 inches at full expansion is huge and requires 16 ribs to hold it together. Even in San Francisco, I do not often see its like, and still more rarely do I see its like in something other than black. Therefore, I noticed the 52 inch light yellow umbrella, rather like French Vanilla ice cream, also with 16 ribs, black, at the westbound bus stop at Haight & Divisadero.

But it wasn’t raining.

In fact, the young woman in her twenties who had opened her umbrella stood in the bus shelter; even if it had rained, she did not need her French Vanilla umbrella. But this five foot eight inch tall woman with an olive Mediterranean complexion kept her light yellow umbrella open behind her head, highlighting her long wavy black hair, olive complexion and wide smiling mouth.

She looked magnificent.

City Hall During a River of Rain, Black & White

City Hall During a River of Rain, Black & White

4. Hot Chocolate.

I am not a snob of hot chocolate. If you use a mix to create one of the best reasons and excuses for a winter day, I will not excoriate you with verbose bellicosity or ever worse, use subtly ironic demeaning sarcasm as an assassin uses a stiletto. You don’t have to create hot chocolate from scratch, as wonderful as that tastes and feels. I have a few favorite mixes myself, from Penzey’s and Lake Champlain Chocolates.

But I must insist upon milk.

“Just add water” just doesn’t work. Have you seen that junk? It’s grey chemicals. You dissolve grey chemicals in hot water and then pour them down your throat. Yuck! Pardon the high-falutin’ language. And those grey chemicals are not even the beautiful underrated shade of grey that I like so much (see here and here); this grey looks toxic.

If you do not want to risk ruining hot chocolate by accidentally boiling the milk (I like to add half-and-half or cream for extra richness), and you lack the patience to stir the chocolate constantly, a simple solution exists. Use a double boiler. The double boiler is one of my favorite tools in the kitchen, one I use for roux, cheese sauces, Alfredo sauce, and especially for hot chocolate.

Hot chocolate mix, milk, double boiler. Paradise indoors.

5. Music for a Grey Day.

Jesse Colin Young enjoyed a brief vogue in my Connecticut high school during the early Seventies for his solo albums Light Shine and Song for Juli. He should have enjoyed huge worldwide success on a par with other California artists and groups of the era, but never mind. “California Suite: Grey Day” and “Ridgetop” remain two of my songs for “rotten outside, paradise indoors” days (in fact, I’m listening to the saxophone solo in “Grey Day” right now). The funny thing is that the music felt perfect watching the New England snows of January, when after 30 years in San Francisco it becomes obvious that Young lived in either Marin or Sonoma County when he released the two albums. One comment by “KINDOY2” on a YouTube video cites Point Reyes Station (an unincorporated town near Tomales Bay) as his home at the time.

Hot chocolate, “Ridgetop.” Paradise indoors, improved.

Market Street During Severe Rains

Market Street During Severe Rains

6. A River of Rain.

San Franciscans sometimes use the term to describe a day like today, Sunday 23 December 2012. Depending on the storm system, the rain changes: straight down and hard; from the west at an angle; steady from the north; light enough for the wind to shove every which way; driven almost parallel to the ground by the violent winds in the Financial District; but one storm after another, rarely with a pause between storms. I cannot complain. Aside from the fact that we only need six weeks of rain to avert drought, aside from the fact that the remaining 46 weeks of the year we live in a beautiful “cool summer Mediterranean climate,” I think the bad weather  helped San Francisco develop, establish and maintain its reputation as one of America’s literary capitals.

On a day like today, of course you remain indoors and write a poem, a play, a novel, a blog post. What else can you do? Well, you could make hot chocolate. Which has begun to feel like a very good idea.

A river of rain, writing, “Ridgetop,” and hot chocolate. Paradise indoors, perfected.

Vonn Scott Bair

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