Silicon Valley Thanksgiving
Thursday, November 25 2004
setting: Santa Cruz, California, USA
Perhaps it's the lack of warning or pattern that accompany the ear-piercing shrieks of a small child that make them particularly grating in the morning, even when one doesn't have a hangover. It is said that cuteness is what God gives children to keep them from being killed by their parents, and I believe this is true.
The California sun felt good on my face this morning as I sat outside talking to one of our hosts about things ranging from the failure of American democracy's powers of self-correction to the local Santa Cruz climate (it does freeze once every few years). For some reason I kept having the opportunity to reference "spoilers" - those ærodynamic fins on the backs of meatball cars supposedly designed to make them hug the road when moving at high speed.
Today Gretchen and I set out for the city of
San Jose, which (given its population of nearly a million people) is a substantially bigger city than San Francisco. Before we left Santa Cruz, though, we drove down the deserted streets to a taqueria recommended by our hosts. It was a little kiosk kind of place without a dining room next to a bus stop. Gretchen placed her order in Spanish, which made the woman waiting on us more (not less) comfortable.
From Santa Cruz we headed inland on route 17, crossing the Santa Cruz mountains. Though Route 17 is spoken of as a freeway, its mountainous parts are so twisty that traffic speeds typically stay at 55 mph or less. There was a lot of traffic today as people zeroed in on their respective San Jose Thanksgivings, though there were never any situations of gridlock.
At the south end of Silicon Valley is a cluster of hills that Gretchen thinks look exactly like the hills shown at the beginning of the classic comedy series M*A*S*H. Tucked into these hills is Hidden Villa, a demonstration farm where Gretchen worked for a year soon after getting out of college back in the early 1990s. The farm is designed to teach kids about nature and the process food goes through before it ends up in a grocery store. Gretchen's memories of life at Hidden Villa weren't entirely pleasant; though she likes nature and animals, she quickly found she couldn't relate to either Californians or kids. The people she was able to bond with tended to be foreigners, other transplants from the east coast, and folks whose parents had been members of the Communist Party. Gretchen showed me around the various buildings and animals, marveling at all the nice new buildings that farm has acquired since she lived there. Later we learned that the farm, being a local non-profit, had benefitted enormously from the dotcom boom.
Eventually we took a hike up one of the forested canyons until we climbed in elevation enough for the trees to thin out. Then we followed another trail along a water pipeline that travled with the contour all the way back to the vicinity of the farm, though high above it. Here there were a couple large tanks storing the farm's water supply.
We followed a set of unmarked trails steeply down the hills and wandered into one of the new administrative buildings, where the farm's grand pooh bahess was entertaining five or six young adults in the lull that inevitably comes to a Thanksgiving afternoon. While Gretchen caught up with the grand pooh bahess, I explained to her husband what equipment he needed for digital photography.
On some anonymous Silicon Valley freeway, Gretchen (who was driving) started complaing about how tired she was. She'd been suffering from a mild cold and had taken some drowsiness-inducing medication to help her cope. (She'd been, as she'd said, "feeling no pain" during our little hike at Hidden Villa.) I was also feeling strangely fatigued and we wondered if we should just take a nap when we got to our next destination. We'd be doing Thanksgiving with various second cousins, removed and otherwise, of Gretchen's father, and it seemed like a shame to just go there and crash. So I pulled out the pseudoephedrine that I use for situations like this and we both took some. Gretchen's dose could have been construed as a therapeutic one (and she actually did have a cold), but mine strayed somewhat into recreational territory. By the time we got to our destination, we were wide awake and feeling sociable.
The site of tonight's festivities was a basementless ranch house in a walled, tightly-packed suburb full of such houses. The chief difference from one house to the next was the nature of the roof. All of them had ceramic tile roofs, a fire code requirement this close to Guadalupe Oak Grove Park, though the colors and styles were all different. (I particularly like the rooves made of little pink half pipes.)
It was a great Thanksgiving, with a range of ages extending from the 20s into the 90s, but, amazingly, no children. One of Gretchen's cousins, Joel, had a couple of black Labrador puppies he and his girlfriend had just adopted, so of course we had to go out to the garage to play with them.
Thanksgiving is a little like Jewish Christmas in that anticipating the food is much more fun that actually eating it. The sad fact about Thanksgiving food is that it just isn't all that exciting, particularly when you've become accustomed to all the garlic and flavor that goes into the most ordinary pasta dish back at home. There were so many vegetarians at this particular Thanksgiving that the only non-vegetarian food was the hapless turkey itself. Once he saw all our plates, Joel made the observation that the only vegetarians at the meal were women.
The conversations swirled and ebbeded and flowed. One of Gretchen's uncle-type cousins kept using his laptop like a family album (running in Windows XP's slideshow mode, something I didn't even know existed). The sister of his wife told us about Astoria, Washington, where she lives. Evidently its rainy Victorian atmosphere is a popular set for movies. She'd painted a mural seen in Kindergarten Cop not once but twice. (For the movie it had to be sandblasted to make it look old, and then the school wanted it fresh again.)
Later, Joel's girlfriend told us about life back in Oklahoma, where her parents received a long anonymous letter after posting a Kerry/Edwards sign in their yard. She actually had the letter with her and passed it around. What was interesting about it was that it seemed as if it had been written by the Republican National Committee's Central Bureau of Propaganda. It hit all the talking points, from "voted for partial birth abortion" to "voted to increase taxes [however many] times" to "voted to slash intelligence budgets even after America was first attacked."
Later, after all the people over forty had either gone home or gone to bed, the younger people stayed up for at least another hour. Since we were still running on Eastern Standard Time, it felt very late to Gretchen and me.
At Hidden Villa just south of San Jose: A demonstration of how compost decays, from left to right.
At Hidden Villa: A view from near the water towers above the farm.
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