Some Days Are Good Enough

It is 5:39 AM as I start writing this post. I’ve been up since 3 AM. There are several reasons for this.

I’ve started taking a medication called Champix, which is supposed to help one quit smoking by somehow reducing the, um, enjoyment one gets from a cigarette and from nicotine. Actually I’d started taking it in November but went off it when my mother died. I’d felt it starting to work and always intended to give it another try and started with it again last week. One of the common side effects is insomnia, which I’ve got. Another is very vivid dreams, which I’ve got. One rare side effect apparently is suicidal thoughts, which so far I don’t have.

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A Few Good Days

I need distractions. I’m so horrified by the events in the U.S. during the past ten days but I don’t know what to say about them, what to add to the discussion. I need distractions.

Friends from Hong Kong (American husband, Filipino wife) have a house in Angeles. We drove up there for the weekend. The drive itself is quite okay – well it’s roughly 60 miles but takes almost 2-1/2 hours if you drive straight through. The NLEX highway has plenty of American-style rest stops – the larger ones not only have gas stations but also have 15 or 20 fast food chains. The ones on the drive south also feature outlet stores from Nike, Adidas and others, crafts shops, even a shop selling ATV’s.

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A Week In Hong Kong

I’ve just returned home after a week in Hong Kong.

The end of this month marks two years since I made the move to Manila. People always ask me if I miss Hong Kong and I do, to some extent, but in the past two years I’ve gotten back there at least once every 2 or 3 months, usually just for 3 or 4 days at a time, so it always feels a bit hectic, trying to fit in all the things I want to do.

This trip ended up being 8 days and spanning a weekend. I was there alone as my wife had several important things to take care of back home and, perhaps surprising to most of you, I did my best to stay out of trouble during the trip.

My company puts me into a small hotel on Lockhart Road smack in the middle of the bar area but also just a 2 minute walk to the office. The hotel is relatively new and the rooms are crazy small. How small? There’s a closet with four hangers but no other place to put your clothes other than living out of a suitcase or stacking them on the floor of the closet. There is one chair, an uncomfortable and unpadded wooden chair by the desk, though in some rooms the desk is so close to the bed that there’s no way to pull the chair out.

The entire hotel is non-smoking, which means every hour I’m standing in front of the hotel having a cigarette and watching what’s happening along Lockhart Road. Standing there I seem to be a magnet for all of the ladyboys and mainland Chinese streetwalkers – it’s not difficult to say no.

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Distractions

Mom is home from the hospital. There is still a long ordeal ahead. At least my wife and I finally don’t have to go to the hospital every day (something we did for 18 days) and can do some stuff for us, getting out briefly on both Saturday and Sunday.  Which was nice.

Saturday we just went out for a walk along Bonfacio High Street. The TLC channel had some huge event going on, celebrity guest that “Cake Boss” guy, not a thing for us. We had lunch at Pink’s, a franchise of the legendary Hollywood hot dog joint, brought to Manila by the folks behind Wildflour. My second time there. I stuck with “the Hollywood Legend” (your basic chili dog), my wife had the “Don’t Mess With Texas” (bacon, cheese, cole slaw, barbecue sauce). We agreed it’s quite okay but still prefer Lazy Bastard.

Sunday we splurged a bit and went to Salvatore Cuomo, the Manila outpost of an Italian restaurant from Japan, and as odd as that concept might seem, it was absolutely fabulous start to finish. Here’s their custom-built pizza oven:

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And here’s the pizza we had:

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A four cheese pizza onto which the server drizzled a small amount of honey – the right flour, the right kind of pizza oven, this may now be my favorite pizza in Manila. I also couldn’t resist their platter of salami, parma ham and mortadella and full marks go to their spaghetti with salmon, mushrooms and olive oil (which also included cherry tomatoes, olives and capers). Knock them down a notch for being a stand-alone restaurant that for some reason did not have a functioning toilet. Nevertheless, we will return. We were there mid-afternoon, were told at night reservations are an absolute must.

Another sort of distraction, looking at this web site that lists every show at the Fillmore East in NYC and trying to remember which shows I went to. I can’t pin down the exact shows (bands often played there 2 or 3 days in a row, 2 shows per night) but …

June 5 & 6, 1969 – The Who, Chuck Berry, Albert King

October 20-25, 1969 – The Who

February 6 & 7, 1970 – Delaney & Bonnie and Friends with Eric Clapton, Seals and Crofts, Wilbert Harrison

May 8 & 9, 1970 – Mothers of Invention, Insect Trust, Sea Train

May 15, 1970 – Grateful Dead, New Riders

July 9-12, 1970 – Grateful Dead, New Riders

September 17-20, 1970 – Grateful Dead, New Riders

(I probably didn’t go to all of those but can’t remember the exact shows I attended)

November 25-28, 1970 – Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells

April 16 &17, 1970 – John Mayall, Boz Scaggs, Randall’s Island

April 25-29, 1970 – Grateful Dead, New Riders

May 20, 1970 – Leon Russell, Taj Mahal, Donny Hathaway

June 5-6, 1970 – Frank Zappa and the Mothers, Hampton Grease Band, Head Over Heels

Suffice to say that for every show I did go to, there were 5 more that I wish I’d gone to. Allman Brothers, Hendrix, Floyd, CSNY. How did I miss a night that had Joe Cocker, Fleetwood Mac and King Crimson?  Big Brother, Tim Buckley and Albert King? Neil Young, Steve Miller and Miles Davis? The Kinks and the Bonzo Dog Band?

The above prompted by seeing on Facebook that my piano teacher Barry Goldberg’s band The Rides (with Stephen Stills and Kenny Wayne Shepherd) is doing some gigs next year with Buddy Guy, and then checking the dates for the one and only time I saw Buddy Guy live.

Other distractions, looking at the mega-box sets coming out in time for Christmas.

Bob Dylan – The 1966 Live Recordings

36 disc boxed set of every recorded show from his 1966 tours of US, UK and Australia. Pretty much the same set list night after night. A relative bargain at US$106, but not so essential. All this stuff has been available on bootlegs for ages but probably/hopefully the audio will be noticeably upgraded.

Pink Floyd – The Early Years 1965-1972

Okay, fasten your seat belts. 11 CDs, 8 Blu-Rays, 9 DVD’s, 5 7-inch singles. “7 individual book-style volumes, featuring much previously unreleased material. The Early Years box set contains unreleased tracks, BBC Radio Sessions, remixes, outtakes and alternative versions over an incredible 11 hours, 45 mins of audio (made up of 130+ tracks) and live and TV performance in over 14 hours of audio-visual material. The content includes over 20 unreleased songs, more than 7 hours of previously unreleased live audio and over 5 hours of rare concert footage, along with 5 meticulously produced 7″ singles in replica sleeves, collectible memorabilia, feature films and new sound mixes. Previously unreleased tracks include 1967’s Vegetable Man and In The Beechwoods, which have been mixed for the first time, specially for this release.”

The price for all this goodness? US$571. I will have to take a pass. Even though this for me covers the Pink Floyd that matters to me. For me the Pink Floyd albums that matter are the live disc from Ummagumma, Meddle, Dark Side, Wish You Were Here. Then Piper and Saucerful. And then everything else (yes, including The Wall).

There’s also yet another reissue of The Band’s The Last Waltz (CD/blu-ray boxed set) and a 5 CD super deluxe version of The Who’s My Generation.

The Rolling Stones are flooding the market – following their recent mammoth Rolling Stones In Mono box (which sounds really great) there’s a new studio album (all blues covers) and the Havana Moon CD/blu-ray box of their recent show in Cuba. I’ve lost track of how many live albums/videos the Stones have released in the past ten years but this new one does have this:

(Watch it to the end – it’s worth it. Or if you’re really impatient skip ahead to 5:12 and watch to the end.)

In terms of TV, aside from The Walking Dead (season 7 episode 1 was so gruesome and sadistic that it took me 2 weeks to watch the entire thing, and I’m someone who is not put off by gore in film and tv), there is Westworld and John Oliver, of course. But also The Good Place (something I should really hate but don’t) and Pamela Adlon’s Better Things (stunning and original) and I’ve only just discovered Black Mirror which is amazing.

And we actually made it out to the movies to see Dr. Strange, and I’m glad I did.

And if all continues well, I’ll be in Hong Kong next week for a few days.

 

 

 

Chotto Matte Kudasai

At the moment, one of the biggest pleasures I’ll allow myself is eating out once or twice a week in a (hopefully) good place. I’m going to recommend three recent spots to you and then a bit of a personal update perhaps.

The first is a Mexican place that’s some out door tables in a parking lot. I know, that doesn’t sound too appealing, but when I took my wife there last week, she couldn’t stop raving about the place. It’s called Lo De Alberto and owner/chef Balam Nazar is from Mexican City, so when this place advertises itself as the “only authentic taqueria in The Philippines,” it’s probably not worth it to argue.

This was two outdoor stalls in the parking lot at City Golf Plaza in Ortigas doing cheapo local style BBQ. It’s been spruced up quite a bit and it’s actually not a bad place to hang out at after dark. The food and the drinks are really tasty (as I recall, my second time there margaritas were like P150 each but they were running a 2-for-1 special that night). The first time there I had tacos and after the first bite basically just inhaled the rest; a little bit smaller than I expected and I probably could have had two more. My second time I had a burrito, slightly different from the SF Mission-style burritos I’m used to but I’d have no problem ordering that again either.

My first night there, Balam spotted me (I guess I stood out being the only gringo sitting there) and we had a long chat. Everything is made from scratch, including the tortillas. He’s only open from 4 PM to 1 AM because at the beginning when he opened earlier, it was just too hot (even for him!) and there wasn’t enough business to justify it. This being Manila, he has further branches planned and he promised me they’d be enclosed restaurants, open for lunch.

The second is called Makansutra and if you know anything about Singaporean food at all you won’t be surprised when I tell you this is a joint venture between K.F. Seetoh and some local entrepreneurs. It’s a large space inside the SM Mega-Mall, divided up into 12 “food stalls”. I tried the laksa there, with some roti and curry on the side, and I won’t say it’s completely authentic but it’s certainly the closest I’ve found in Manila so far.

The other restaurant to mention has two names – Chotto Matte and Izakaya Sensu. I’ve been to this place in the Net Park Building in BGC three times and plan to keep going back. Not only is everything really good but each time I’ve had a ridiculous amount of food and drink and then been stunned by the low price on the bill.

My last visit, I was there with my wife and her kid. Here’s a rundown of what we had, in no particular order:

salmon sashimi

aji namerou – a nice play on aji tataki, something I almost always invariably order when it’s available.

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(all images are just screen shots from their online menu)

The very Instagram-friendly Sensu roll, which really looks exactly like this when they bring it to your table

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Their “dragon roll”

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Like the sensu roll, there’s not a lot of fish in this but the picture is accurate and it’s tasty as hell.

A yakitori sampler platter with 7 sticks, each one different

Ebi (shrimp) tempura

Chicken kara-age (sesame-coated fried chicken).

And, given that they pitch themselves as a “highball bar”, four highballs (one with my current fave Bulleit Bourbon) and a can of soda.

All of that for less than P3,600, which means under HK$600 – and our drinks alone would have probably cost that much in Hong Kong.

After we finished there, we walked around the block and grabbed some ice cream at Farmacy, which is owned by the same people behind Wildflour and Pink’s Hot Dogs, and then waited for Uber to come and bring us home.

That night (just five days ago) was an ocean of tranquility in what has otherwise been an extraordinarily stressful couple of weeks. My mother is barely eating, complains of constant pain (despite the fact that her doctor has tried changing her medication and dosage almost every other day) and sometimes just outright refuses to take her medicine. Her erratic sleep schedule means she has no idea of what time of day it is or what day of the week it is and, well, other stuff that I won’t go into.

Physically she will get better. All it will take will be bed rest. But if she was bored in Manila before this happened, now it’s really a crushing blow mentally. She has her good moments but after 16 days the terrible ones still far outnumber the good ones.

At least I can’t complain about the medical care in Manila. We’ve got a doctor who makes house calls. And next week there’s a crew coming to the house complete with some sort of portable x-ray machine so we can see how the healing is going.

I’ve got two helpers in the house now, in no small part because my mother will wake up almost every hour at night and call for the helper to help her. I’m sleeping just a few hours per night myself and rarely eating more than one real meal per day, even though I’m now handling most of the cooking for my mother since the helpers can’t make many things she would eat. They can do peanut butter on a cracker or mix some tuna and mayo; I’m not a great cook but I’ve got a small arsenal of dishes that she kind of enjoys. Roasted chicken breast with some sauteed onions and peppers, linguini with prawns, stir-fried beef with broccoli, things like that.

Also … okay I hadn’t written about this previously … my wife had moved back to Hong Kong two months ago to work, she was making literally ten times more than she would have made here from the jobs that turned her down due to her age (as in, ‘over 30’). She came back last week to see firsthand what was happening and the result was that she’s returned to Hong Kong, quit her job and is moving back here again to take charge of my mother’s recovery. Aside from me, she’s the only one who won’t take no for an answer from my mother when it’s time to take a pill or eat even a minimal amount of food. (Also she’s a much better cook – and she’ll get me back to a more normal eating and sleeping schedule.)

It’s well after 3 AM now. I should have been asleep long ago. I’m going to get in bed with the new Springsteen autobiography and hope that sleep finds me at some point.

Short Trip to Hong Kong

Allow me to digress from my current If I’m So Smart series.

I went to Hong Kong this past weekend, just Saturday through Tuesday, a quick break. Here’s what I did.

Saturday night, a party with a group of good friends, 4 or 5 hours hanging out in Joe Bananas drinking, eating, talking, followed by a 3 AM late night supper with my wife at Hay Hay.

Sunday, brunch at the Wanchai branch of Le Pain Quotidien. My wife was disappointed that there wasn’t more smoked salmon on her herbed farmer cheese and smoked salmon tartine but I was 100% happy with my “Tuscan platter” (4 different kinds of salumi and ham, ricotta cheese, sundried tomatoes and an amazing black olive tapenade). The price was reasonable – for Hong Kong. I could go to Paul’s or Passion or Dean & DeLuca (or probably half a dozen other places in Manila that I don’t know about yet) and eat a similar range for half the cost, but without the aggravation known as “traffic.”

Then some shopping, mostly picking up some items at the Wanchai Computer Centre (much bigger selection than “cyber malls” in Manila and generally lower prices).

Sunday dinner, nothing remarkable.

Monday, I picked up a new backpack that I’d ordered from Amazon, the Everki Versa. (Odd. I paid around US$170 for it, plus shipping. Now it’s out of stock and once back in stock, it’s US$123 but only available for sale to Amazon Prime members.) I had it shipped to a Hong Kong address because getting it shipped to Manila would have meant an additional US$50 in customs and taxes.

Also on Monday I had to get from Causeway Bay to the ICC tower, and that took me 20 minutes. Traveling that kind of distance in Manila would have taken me at least an hour, maybe two.

Monday night, dinner at the oddly named Spanish restaurant The Optimist. We had zero complaints about our Jamon Iberico, Gambas a la plancha or the flat iron steak with chimichurri sauce, though I wasn’t impressed with the sauce for their Clams Almejas in salsa verde. A very comfortable place to sit for a couple of hours, great staff, we really enjoyed it. The price, again, “good for Hong Kong.”

Tuesday, Airport Express, 23 minutes Central to the Airport. Coincidentally my (second) ex-wife was transiting the airport at the same time so we had a brief reunion while waiting for our flights.

It’s kind of funny. I lived in Hong Kong for almost 20 years. I still work in Hong Kong. But these three days were stress free and totally felt like a vacation.

Then back to Manila. I came out of the terminal and traffic was backed up for miles. It was not moving at all. I got an Uber within one minute – because the guy had just dropped someone else off and was waiting there, stuck in traffic. It took an hour and a half for us to go 12 miles.

Now that I’m back home, I’m faced with a new traffic scheme, starting tomorrow, in which I will not be able to enter or exit through the main gate of my village because the idiot TPMO in Pasig is trying some new experimental traffic “scheme” that bans cars from the surrounding streets – Monday, Wednesday and Friday if your license plate ends in an even number, the other 4 days if an odd number. Instead of going out through Pasig, I have to exit through Taytay, where the traffic is already at a standstill every day due to construction work on a bridge and incompetent traffic enforcers and too many people who don’t know how to drive. On those three days a week, it would now take me one hour to get to the supermarket that is normally 15 minutes away, 2-1/2 miles from my house. To say I am unhappy about this is an understatement.

My friends in Hong Kong think that Manila is starting to get to me. I’m having an increasingly difficult time debating that point with them.

 

Chili Dogs and Backpacks

Who doesn’t love a good chili dog? I won’t say I could eat one every day, but every week for sure.

Pink’s is an iconic hot dog and burger stand in Los Angeles; they’ve been in business for 77 years.

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(not my photo)

Oddly enough, despite working for Warner Bros. for 9 years and spending a lot of time in L.A., I never made it to Pink’s.

Nevertheless, when I found out that the folks behind Wildflour (they have four branches, I visit the Ortigas one regularly) and Farmacy had obtained a Pink’s franchise for the Philippines, I knew I’d have to try it. They have opened their first branch at the new Shangri-La Mall in BGC.

Last night I went over to the Fort (I still call it the Fort, not BGC, I guess that dates me) to look for a new backpack. (More on that later.) I was thinking about going back to Passion for dinner but I realized I was more in the mood for a chili dog and that Pink’s was close by.

I went into the mall, so new that most shops aren’t open yet, what’s there so far is a motley collection of high end furniture and jewelry stores. I finally asked a guard and found out that I had to leave the mall, walk around to the side, and that Pink’s had its own entrance on the side street.

The place was bigger than I expected and, for 8 PM on a Thursday night, at least 2/3rd’s full.

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(my crappy iPhone photo)

You order and pay at the counter, they give you a cube with a number, seat you and you wait for your order. The VW microbus on the side is serving ice cream and other items from Farmacy.

No question about what I was going to order. Chili dog! I hesitated on deciding between french fries and “onion strings”. I asked the girl about the portion size, she said it was small – I think it’s probably small for 3 or 4 people sharing but huge for just one person.

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Anyway, there on the right is the dog, smothered in chili (with beans), cheese and onions.

What did I think about it? I think the dog could have been cooked a bit more. The chili tasted like proper chili but very little heat. I think it would have been nice if they offered different spice levels here, but maybe that’s not what the original place does, I have no idea.

I spent just under P600 for the chili dog, onion strings (so called because they’re sliced thinner than traditional onion rings I guess) and a Coke Zero.

Overall I would gladly go back here but I would still give the edge to the chili dogs at Lazy Bastard – in part because their dogs are wrapped in bacon. Pink’s definitely gives you more chili and more cheese, so some might prefer them. But, let’s face it, bacon!

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(not my photo)

Also, Pink’s closes at midnight, Lazy Bastard is open till 3 AM, and if I have a late night craving, it’s better to wait until well after 11 PM for traffic to die down.

By the way, how useless is Globe as a mobile phone company? There I was, just outside of SM Aura, 4 bars on the antenna and LTE and yet no internet connection.

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The only reason I stick with Globe is because there are really only two choices for mobile phone companies here and at least I can get a 4G signal at home (insanely slow) with Globe, with Smart I get 2G.

Anyway, I need a new backpack. At the moment I’m using a Thinktank Photo My 2nd Brain briefcase

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but it’s really too small to comfortably hold all the stuff I take with me when I’m going to the office.

I also have one of the ubiquitous Swiss Army backpacks you see everywhere but I think mine is close to ten years old. It holds a ton, it has a billion pockets, but it’s starting to show its age.

I thought I’d narrowed it down to two choices – the Thule Crossover:

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or the InCase Icon:

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Once I was actually in the shops I was no longer so sure.

The straps on the Thule seemed very thin and I wasn’t sure how comfortable it would be for a long haul. Another Thule pack, the Escort 2, also had the same thin straps and seemed huge.

The InCase has lots of padding but no outside pocket for a water bottle (not necessarily a deal breaker), no super quick access to glasses, they didn’t have stock in any colors other than red or grey, and the price (in an “official” InCase store at SM Aura) was roughly double the price as shown on Amazon.

So I’m probably going to wait for my next trip to Hong Kong unless I get a recommendation for another brand (easily available in Manila).

What do I carry every day? At a minimum:

  • 13 inch MacBook Air
  • 9 inch Ipad
  • 5200 mAh battery pack
  • reading glasses
  • sun glasses
  • Sony RX100 camera
  • Notepad and pens
  • Headphones (at the moment the Audio Technica’s I bought last week)
  • assorted cables
  • an assortment of smaller items like smokes, mints, etc
  • and space for mail, papers, whatever I may have bought during the day

These days I prefer a backpack to a shoulder bag or messenger bag. Any suggestions?

 

Back From Hong Kong & Happy 95th Birthday Mom & Ramen

Saturday was my mother’s 95th birthday.

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This picture was taken (gulp!) 68 years ago. It’s her with my father the day after they got engaged. She tells me that my father told her when he proposed, “I’m probably making a huge mistake.” But they remained together, for better or worse, for 44 years. On my mother’s side of the family, the men all seem to die in their 70s, the women last well into their 90s. I’m convinced my mother will outlive me.

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Anthony Bourdain and President Obama in Hanoi

President Barack Obama is in Vietnam this week, in part to announce lifting restrictions on U.S. arms sales to Vietnam, something that is probably meant as a clear shot at China.

Obama is also stepping out quite a bit more in his final year in office. He did an episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. He even went to Marc Maron’s garage to tape an episode of What The Fuck. (By way of contrast, Maron had to travel to Lorne Michaels’ New York City office for an extended interview that resolved years’ worth of issues.)

So here’s another unusual Obama move – having dinner in Hanoi with Anthony Bourdain, filmed for an episode of Parts Unknown that will air in September on CNN.

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They ate at a restaurant called Bún chả Hương Liên. As has been widely reported, the cost of the dinner for two was US$6 and Bourdain picked up the check.

I’ve only been to Hanoi once (in 2005). I did have Bun cha on that trip and thought it was one of the best things I ever ate.

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(Not my photo.)

I’ve subsequently ordered it in another places in Vietnam and in Vietnamese restaurants around the world and it has never been as good as that as that first time sitting on a street corner on one of those low plastic stools.

We’ll get to see and hear the edited highlights of their conversation in a few months, but I’ll remain jealous of what they ate and hopeful that I’ll have a chance to get to Hanoi a second time (and file away the details on this restaurant for that trip).