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True Places

August 24, 2014

“It is not down on any map; true places never are.”
– Herman Melville, from Moby Dick

We all find our own refuge. We find it in a variety of places according to our own interests and desires.

Everybody, even those who don’t care for tracking sand into the car, seems to love a beach sunset. If post cards, vacation photos or advertisements are any indication, there’s something special about seaside twilight. An internet search for “beach sunsets” gave me 17.1 million results in less than a second. The first few images were very pretty, but I will leave it somebody else to view the others. Do you prefer the mountains? The internet will give you 86.2 million choices. Something more focused, “campgrounds by the lake,” resulted in 38.2 million places to look. I’m not a camper and don’t plan to start, so I can skip right past those.

Golfing is a popular getaway for many Americans. By the sounds of Monday morning talk in many offices, it’s practically a religion for some. During the periods before meeting start times, as people are gathering and preparing themselves, the believers will talk about tee times, scores, shots, water hazards and other golf course peculiarities in endless and numbing detail. Eyes of the non-believers glaze over and some will scan their watches, hoping (and perhaps even praying) for the meeting to start.

Those that want the real thing may want to head to church for their peace. An internet search gave me 1.2 billion results for “church” in .44 seconds. There were plenty of choices for “temple” (493 million/.44) and “mosque” (82.8 million/.39) also.

Of course, there aren’t direct correlations between internet search results and opportunities for tranquility. In fact, maybe there is an inverse relationship. Popular internet searches (trending is the trendy word we’re supposed to use) aren’t always going to lead us where we want to go. Type in “Syria” and you’ll see the figure 391 million in .3 seconds. Move your sights to the east and spell “Iraq” and you will receive 3.1 billion results, which is more than Syria and all the other topics above combined. The only people who are lining up to travel to Iraq, Syria or the caliphate that now fills the border area to find their peace are those devoted to their religion of conquest. Everyone else will be just trying to survive the aggressors’ mission and get out alive. It’s hell on earth brought to us by religious zealots and armed thugs in the name of their gods, causes and books.

News reports about these wretched conditions and any thought or mention of their wicked sponsors are just one element that sends us to the refuge of our favorite spots – the beach, mountains, golf courses and elsewhere. Trying to “get away from it all,” we head to the place where we can enjoy ourselves.

My spots are not spectacular. I love a pretty sunset as much as the next guy and probably the Redwood groves more than most. But I can get a whole lot of mileage from rather pedestrian activities. Some of them are down the road in the good old People’s Republic of Berkeley. It’s not for everyone, but a little weekend time over there, alone or with others, rejuvenates me plenty.

Since Berkeley is not for everyone, it doesn’t make sense to go over there with just anyone. Fortune came to me with K, a friend who also goes out of her way to be there. K’s been all around the world and seen more than I ever will. She’s been in mountain ranges, some familiar to me and some with names I can’t pronounce. She’s walked on beaches with sunsets and on beaches with sunrises. Her wanderlust will keep the list of faraway places growing. She golfs, but not as much as she once did and goes to Sunday services, more often than ever before. But like me, K doesn’t like to go too long without a visit to Berkeley. It provides her, in its unique way, an occasional break from responsibilities with a prestigious firm and the steady beat of a demanding career. We’ve made our way over to Berkeley together, sometimes for a planned event or a particular destination in mind, but other times with nothing specific in mind. Just Berkeley. If the place speaks to you, you’ll understand. Others will simply avoid the place altogether.

One of my favorite spots is a simple coffee shop in Berkeley. There’s not much to it – maybe six or seven hundred square feet if you stretched your arms like a fisherman’s lie. There may be eight or ten seats along the window. I’ve never counted and don’t think that I’ve sat in them more than a total of ten to twenty times, even though I’ve been going there more than three decades. I prefer sitting outside, either on one of the street benches or in the small courtyard off to the side, depending on the time of day, the weather and whether or not I’m looking for shade from the neighborhood’s trees or the warmth of the sun. Rain or shine, I’d rather drinking the coffee outside instead of inside the shop. If it was closer, I’d start every Saturday morning there with a coffee and The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books.

We cherish destinations for all sorts of reasons. Usually for the association that they have with a time in our lives. I hold the coffee shop special because it was part of my Bay Area initiation. J, my dear cousin, taught me about good coffee right there. I learned about beans, roasts, coffee-growing regions and all sorts of things that were pretty exotic at the time. A cup of this delicious elixir was a sixty cents treat that wasn’t always in a student’s budget. But J knew this and didn’t hesitate to reach into her wallet to get me through it. I suppose she received her own reward because she knew how much I enjoyed it. She and her husband, C, who came out here together a few years before us, helped us get started in our young lives in so many ways. Things were so much easier because of them. More important than that was the fun that we shared. We had a real good time and have many memories that cannot be taken away from us.

As things go, we moved away from the Bay Area for a year in the early 1980s, came back for a few and then moved away again for another five years before we returned. And wouldn’t you know it? While we were away the second time, J and C moved out of California themselves. The two people who introduced us to the Bay Area are now nowhere near. No more spontaneous meet-ups for Mexican food, Oakland A’s games, or to browse the Berkeley bookstores.


With J in the coffee shop courtyard. The picture tells the story.

As unfathomable as it once was, the past six years passed without seeing them at all. There are no good reasons for this, just life’s strong and clutching arms. But that all changed when we met at our coffee shop a couple weekends ago. Easy and breezy for me. No particular focus on “what’s new?” or “remember when?”, but a pleasing and wide-ranging conversation that would match up nicely with any we had when we were all young and getting started. It suited my idea of a respite. I didn’t need mountains or a beach sunset to enjoy the moment.


Here is a Bonnie Koloc album I borrowed from C in the early days. One of the puppies got to the jacket corners it in the intervening years. It gives “dog-eared” another level. I’ve forgotten who did this, but Max, a 110 pound Queensland Blue Heeler, is the lead candidate. I’m not sure how the LP survived. C has packed away his turntable, so the album remains (safe?) with me.

There’s not much more to say about it. Everyone fortunate to have an old friend gets it. I won’t repeat the conversation. It doesn’t matter. Just like most of us don’t need to hear about the dogleg on hole 7 or the water hazards on the back nine to know that golfers had a good time last weekend. I’ll keep my scorecard in my back pocket and spare everybody the details.

Every time someone shows photos of a beach sunset, they say that the photos just don’t don’t capture the beauty of it all. (“But let me show you anyhow…”) They just don’t compare with the colors, the sounds, the smells, or the breeze that we experienced. The photos simply can’t elicit the same feelings and emotions that the person on the beach had when they took the photos. How could they?


From J’s brother’s sketch pad. We remember him fondly. He too taught me a thing or two, including when I was a boy, how to enjoy baseball. I wrote about it here:

  1. the only problem with this post is that I want more of it. You express everything so beautifully and realistically. True, there is no time gap when reuniting with good friends, xo LMA


    • Well, thank you so much LMA. Kind of you to say. Brevity is always looking over my shoulder; I try to comply. Not always with success.


  2. I’m not quite sure where I read this, but it was a discussion about photography and how many photos we take, and because we take so many, we are missing so much else.
    Different than your point about photos and eliciting emotions … but kind of similar, right?
    Easy and breezy is the way friendship should be and I’m so glad you have those kinds of friends!
    And someday, if I get to Berkely, can we go to that coffee shop? 🙂


    • See you there, Laurie. Cream or sugar with that coffee?

      Taking photos demands its own focus and so sure, other matters will be missed. Could be a good thing in some cases. Think of weddings, dog shows….

      In the paleolithic era, before digital cameras, I would sometimes carry a camera to rock concerts. It wasn’t always easy for me to listen to the music and try for a good photo. It wouldn’t last too long – one roll at the most. Film didn’t grow on my backyard trees.


  3. When I was traveling the world, many years ago… one of my favorite places was Berkeley. That was the only place outside of Jerusalem, where I felt at home. And I made some friends there who’ve managed to keep in touch over the years… one of the reasons I first started blogging.


  4. A tribute to friendship as much as places. Your genuine appreciation for the people in your life is evident here.

    And perhaps it’s the friends that make the places sometimes. To be honest, I visited Berkeley dozens of times with a UC student in 2003, and pretty much couldn’t stand one bit of it. I like that you said, “some people get it,” so you let me off the hook to love other places instead. 🙂


    • Hi Crystal, I chuckle to read your comment about Berkeley. It’s curb appeal is a little worn and looking deeper won’t always be sightly. I have no doubt that a portion of the appeal to me relates to familiarity. Mt. Hood, Columbia River Gorge… Who needs Berkeley?


      • And yet… you are not the first I’ve come across to have a great love for the place. I defer to those who love Berkeley, as you are certainly the best people to sing her praises.


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