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valley sunse

After the disappointment of the Bay Area, I was excited to get to Yosemite — one of my favorite places in the world. I went there often during my San Francisco days. But I hadn’t been in over 20 years. I couldn’t wait to bask in the magic of this natural wonder — and to share it with Mtuseni.

I love the drive from the Bay Area to Yosemite. On the southern route from San Jose, you cross the flat farmland of the Central Valley. After a couple hours, you notice a few rocks and some grassy bumps — then bigger rocks and small hills. You’re gradually, almost imperceptibly climbing into the foothills of the Sierras and then into the mountains.

Along the northern route from San Francisco, you also drive straight across the Central Valley. But then suddenly you come to a steep, narrow road of hairpin turns, where you quickly rise in elevation, like a twisty elevator. Bye-bye valley; we’re in the Sierras now! 

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sno whites

I was so happy to see Sno-White’s is still around — so many memories of stopping in for a thick cheeseburger and classic crinkle-cut fries.

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That’s my preferred route. Not only because it’s more fun and familiar — but because you get to stop at Sno-White’s… a classic car hop from 1952, with perfect cheeseburgers, thick shakes, and crinkle-cut fries. So. Damn. Good.

I discovered the place in the 1990s on a ski trip to Yosemite with a kooky friend who’d been there before. As we walked in for the first time, she inhaled deeply and happily announced, “Ahhh, smell the grease! It’s fresh grease!” I will laugh about that ’til the end of time.

Unfortunately, this time we were there too early; it wasn’t open. But in this era of nostalgic old places closing left and right, I was happy and relieved to see that Sno-White’s is still there.   

Driving across the Central Valley I could smell smoke; there were fires burning everywhere in California. I didn’t think too much of it… until we were descending into Yosemite Valley and I could see the haze. It wasn’t thick, but it was there. We pulled off the road for a quick photo by the Merced River. Out of the car for five minutes, I slipped off a rock and got one of my shoes soaked. I’ve never been an outdoorsman, but that was pretty ridiculous. Luckily I had multiple pairs of shoes!

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merced river 1

Less than five minutes inside the park, I slipped off this rock and submerged my shoe. Nobody has ever mistaken me for an outdoorsman!

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Following my itinerary for everyone I’ve taken to Yosemite, we first headed up to the famous tunnel view of the valley. And, sure enough, the smoke from a fire in the Sierra foothills obscured that iconic view. You could barely make out Half Dome. That introductory “Oh, wow!” factor was not to be.

mtu valley view

The Merced wildfire filled the park with smoke, spoiling the iconic tunnel view of the valley. Half Dome is in the center — lost in the haze.

We then headed down to Bridalveil Falls — which I knew in October would be a wisp, if anything. Still, Mtuseni was excited to see a waterfall. And just being out in the grandeur of Yosemite … you can’t not be swept up in the natural beauty. 

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bridalveil duo

Bridalveil is always a wispy waterfall. We were lucky to see any water in October!

From there we stopped to gape at El Capitan. I’ll never forget seeing it loom up on us for the first time on a trip with an old boyfriend in 1991; we were awestruck. You can’t explain the sheer scale of that 3,000-foot tall granite monolith. You just have to stand in its presence. 

Then we parked and headed on the trail to Vernal Falls, completing the classic first day visit. It’s a paved trail with some steady elevation, not much. I’d buzzed up there so many times I didn’t think about it. So I was stunned to be huffing and puffing halfway up the trail. I even needed to stop and catch my breath a few times. I was disgusted with myself! How could I be so out of shape?

Then I remembered: On prior visits, I was living in San Francisco. I walked five miles … and many steep hills … every day; I didn’t own a car. And I was in my 30s — not rounding the corner to 60! Plus, I’d been going nonstop on the road trip and sitting and driving for more than five weeks. And the valley air was laced with smoke. Those are all perfectly rational, valid excuses — but I was still bummed out. It was the age thing that bothered me most of all.

Mtuseni zoomed past me and went straight up the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Falls and the Emerald Pool. I kicked back at the base of the falls — which was also pretty minimal compared to its roaring springtime state. I was just happy being there and remembering past visits with different people. Back in my youth. 

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Vernal Falls in Yosemite.

Vernal Falls is like a mini Niagara in the spring. But Mtuseni wasn’t disappointed by the meager autumn falls. Everywhere you look in Yosemite there’s beauty.

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View from the top of Vernal Falls in Yosemite.

The view from the top of Vernal Falls. I only made it up there once, when my boyfriend cajoled me into climbing the precarious Mist Trail. (It was terrifying, but worth it.)

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After returning from the falls, we stopped in the valley meadow to gaze at Half Dome. Normally as the sun begins to set, the flat face of the granite monument glows with gorgeous color. But not when the valley is hazy with smoke. I was disappointed, but thankfully my spirit tree was still there: the lone California oak reverently keeping watch over Half Dome.

I’ve sat by that tree so often, in various states of mind, alone and with others. There’s something sacred about that tree; we have a relationship. Like Sno-White’s, I’m happy and grateful to see it’s still there. I was surprised that it’s gotten much bigger. (Duh, it’s been over 20 years!) But thankfully the tree’s distinctive shape hasn’t changed. It’s been waiting for me to stop by and say hello. We had a nice little talk.

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Half Dome from the meadow in Yosemite Valley

My spirit oak tree in the meadow, keeping watch over Half Dome. The National Park Service may have a different opinion, but that tree is mine. Just sayin’.

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Our hotel was outside the park, past the southern gate. I’d hoped to get a room at the historic Wawona Hotel, where I’ve stayed many times. It’s part of my Yosemite ritual: having coffee on the broad porch to start the day and dinner in the stately old dining room with the tall paned windows. Alas, it was all booked up.

I stopped by to see if we could have dinner. It was full, so I made a reservation for tomorrow. Just being in the lobby, steeped in classic old resort history, I was flooded with memories and happily choked up.

But on the way to the Wawona, we encountered something I’d never seen before in Yosemite. Or anywhere. The smoke from the wildfires west of the park — the source of all that damn haze — created the most stunning sunset. Cars were pulling off the road everywhere to marvel at this breathtaking event. 

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Sunset from the Wawona Road in Yosemite.

The setting sun shone blood red through the wildfire smoke. This looks like a piece of collage artwork… but it’s real.

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As I’ve always said, Yosemite never disappoints. We may have had a hazy view of Half Dome, but the gods traded us up for an epic sunset. And we still had two more days ahead!

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sunset wawona road

 

 

mtu gg bridge

San Francisco. The City by the Bay. My old haunt. I was so looking forward to this leg — I had the best decade of my life here (so far, at least). And I’d really talked up the place to Museni. So I was stunned that it turned out to be one of the few low points of the whole trip. (Not the lowest; that accolade goes to Montgomery — aside from being able to celebrate Mtuseni’s birthday there.)

I set aside a longer stretch of days here than usual, because I wanted to show Mtuseni everything. And being so far apart, we’re continually learning about each other. This would give him a chance to witness my life in my 30s… when I was only a few years older than he is now. And of course, I wanted to see old friends. 

We parked downtown and walked to Powell and Market streets, where the cable cars turn around. Right away I felt something was off. The streets were oddly quiet for a Saturday. And they were filthy. And smelled like piss and shit. And there were so many homeless people camped out. Now, there were homeless when I lived there in the 90s; I was regularly panhandled every other block. But this was another level entirely. And everything felt flat. Even the tourists lined up for the cable car seemed oddly subdued. 

As we walked down Market to grab a car at California Street, I kept saying, “Where is everybody? What’s wrong?” Mtuseni could see how perplexed and unnerved I was — and he’s not known for being emotionally perceptive.

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cal st hill

My commute to work, which I usually walked. No wonder I was in such good shape back then — I had to climb Nob Hill whenever I went home!

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We hopped on a cable car and the familiar rock and grind and clanging bell made me feel a little better. Nothing can spoil that view as the car climbs up Nob Hill and you can see the Bay Bridge. This was my commute to work — by cable or foot — and not once was I unmoved by it. I took that ride one last time the night before I moved away, and cried.

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Mtu cable car bench

On the cable car. It took some convincing, but I finally got Mtuseni to stand on the running board. That’s the best part! Once he did, he got it.

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cal st cable view

This view down my street on the way to work never got old.

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But at the top of the hill, my local park across from Grace Cathedral seemed small. My old apartment building was covered in grime. The sweet Chinese couple who owned it back in my day never let that happen. (And I paid $600 for a one bedroom with parquet floors and stained glass!) My local grocery store with the freaky, upside down parabolic roof was gone, split into a Trader Joe’s and CVS. 

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me apt

How many times I walked through this door! It was a great apartment. It was a great life.

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My friend Kelly, our crazy host in Los Alamos, moved away from San Francisco a few days after this was taken outside 1271. I left a week later. Note how grime-free my building was!

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And it hit me — my life there was long, long ago. And by the time I had left, I was ready to go. I’d gotten everything I wanted out of the place. That didn’t completely surprise me. The last time I visited 15 years ago, I had the same “been here, done this” feeling. But the city still had that quirky, nowhere-else-but-San Francisco energy back then. Now it was gone. 

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crowbar

I loved the Crowbar in North Beach! It had great beers and a killer juke box of punk and alt-rock! Seeing this sign crushed me. You can’t go home again.

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I described the feeling to my friend Patricia in Silly Valley, who was my upstairs neighbor on Nob Hill. “What happened to the city?” I asked. “Something feels off. I can’t put my finger on it.”

Her reply: “San Francisco lost its soul.”

She captured it perfectly. And this fact combined with it no longer feeling like home, not even nostalgically, made me sad. I was in a funk and just went through the motions the rest of the visit. I barely took any photos. If we didn’t have social events planned with friends I would have left after a day. These get-togethers were the highlight of the visit. And I realize that what made my 30s so wonderful wasn’t the place, but the people. If I could carry them around in my pocket wherever I go in life, I would. 

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gang edit_2

It’s so great to be able to pick up like no time has passed — and to have a new face in the gang! Sometimes, it’s the people that make a place.

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Mtuseni and I did have a couple of nice times on our own. At dinner in a North Beach trattoria, I noticed the imported goods on the walls and remembered that I’d been there with my parents in the early 90s. As I’d just lost my father a few months earlier, it was a nice memory and felt like dad was with us on the trip for a moment. 

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north beach

It wasn’t until I looked up from my wine and saw the products on the wall that I remembered being here with my parents in the early 90s.

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And my favorite little pub on Polk Street was still there — and hadn’t changed a bit. Thank god! I had so many laughs and heart-to-heart talks over burgers and pints at The Bell. A quick walk from my apartment, it felt like my Cheers — though nobody ever knew my name. (I don’t need that. Boundaries!) I ordered a cheeseburger, which I rarely eat these days, and it was exactly the same — right down to the pickle spear! I ate every bite.

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the bell out

How many times did I walk to The Bell — and sometimes stumble home from The Bell! I love this place… so happy it’s still here.

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I told Mtuseni about all the times I’d been there — often with Annie and Kelly and other friends he met along the trip. I was able to show him a slice of my life as a young guy. He saw me in another dimension — and could possibly see a life of fun and freedom for himself in his next decade. And in the end, that made the San Francisco visit worthwhile.

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bell bar

I downed many pints, had many laughs, and talked through — and listened to — many dramas and traumas at this bar.

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When we finally left for Yosemite, I watched the skyline fade in the rearview mirror and said goodbye. I knew that chapter of my life was forever closed. But I’ll always be grateful. I learned how to be me in San Francisco. I learned how to live. Everyone should have a chance to do that.

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bay bridge

A few years ago an old friend created the light show on the Bay Bridge, which I could see from my office right on the water. I think those lights would have bugged me after a while.

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big sur silhouette

After getting on the wrong highway in Pasadena (Did I mention how much I hate LA?) we finally headed north up the Pacific Coast Highway — our westward days were behind us.

Mtuseni was excited to drive past Malibu, though I’ve always wondered why celebrities like the place: you’re jammed between a narrow beach and a highway. And then canyons that occasionally burst into flame. 

The drive up the coast was gorgeous as always, though I’d forgotten how twisty and narrow the road is south of Monterey. It’s hard to take in the scenery while keeping an eye on the road. We pulled over many times — along with many others — to marvel at the sunset colors.

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mtu rte 1 coast

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route 1 bridge tall

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It was long past dark when we pulled into our Monterey hotel, and true to form Mtuseni went right to sleep. I went into town to grab some dinner.

Walking among the shops and cafes, I had a familiar feeling of autumn in Northern California, and for a moment felt a twinge of nostalgia. Then I remembered how underwhelming it is: gray, shriveled leaves scattered on the sidewalk, a slight but not brisk chill in the air. Nothing like New England’s big fall show of eye-popping colors, earthy-smoky scents, and bustling winds: You know change is happening! Growing up in Boston and having the peak of foliage hit on my birthday week, I was always disappointed by fall in San Francisco. 

But downtown Monterey certainly is pretty. I had fish and chips and local brews at a dark bar, then the next morning Mtuseni and I had breakfast on the same street at a old-time cafe. After doing laundry in nearby Pacific Grove, with a sweet view of the ocean, we walked along the water in Monterey for a while.

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monterey coast

Mtuseni and I pretended we were shopping for a house on our walk. I might be able to afford one of the mailboxes!

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Check out our Instagram from the Monterey coast!

One problem I had when living in Northern California is that the ocean has a look-but-don’t-touch quality. It’s undeniably beautiful, but it’s cold and rough compared to the Atlantic. Ten years in San Francisco and I only got up to my waist at the beach a few times on strangely hot days in October. I like to commune with the ocean, not gaze at  it from a distance.

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monterey coast 2

The water in Monterey is always such a striking blue. And the windswept cypress trees remind me of the umbrella pines in Rome.

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Feelings of disconnection and memories of visits with an old boyfriend made Monterey feel melancholy for me. I didn’t realize this was a harbinger of the days ahead as we drove to stay with a friend in Silicon Valley. (Have I said how much I hate Silly Valley? Not as much as LA, but it’s right up there.)

big sur sunset clean

Sunset at Big Sur… stunning.

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Check out my new Beck’s Next Act blog on life transitions… and other stuff!

beach pair2

“Out in California, we touched the other ocean. And I still have that jar of sand.” I love these lyrics from the Antje Duvekot song Long Way — which was sort of my official theme song for the Long-Distance Dad road trip. It poetically describes different experiences of a driving across America. Touching the other ocean marks the milestone of reaching the opposite coast. You gotta do it!

Seeing the Pacific wasn’t a huge deal for me; I lived in San Francisco. But for Mtuseni he’s now seen three oceans: the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian. I was lucky enough to witness him see an ocean for the first time, on our trip to Cape Town. It was pretty cool — he was fascinated but a bit wary. The ocean can be overwhelming.

I would have skipped southern California; I’m not a fan of LA, to put it mildly. With a degree in TV production and some time spent writing screenplays, I’ve made three brief attempts to live there. Let’s just say it doesn’t suit my Northeast sensibilities, and leave it at that. 

But Mtuseni wanted to see LA … which in his mind is essentially Hollywood. And my old roommate Connie from Boston — who sent me off on my first cross-country drive 30 years earlier — lives in Santa Monica, so I could sort of complete the circle by seeing her.

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Just before heading out to California in July 1989. We always laugh that Connie was so upset her head shrunk; she looked like an apple head doll that day!

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connie car

Standing with Connie in the same position by the “other ocean” in Santa Monica — 30 years later. Wow!

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After driving through the desolate western Arizona moonscape and then over the San Gabriel mountains, we landed in Pasadena — then headed to Santa Monica for some Thai food with Connie. Afterwards, her partner Dan, a SoCal native who worked “in the industry,” drove us around Venice and gave us dirt on local characters and bit players. It was a warm-up for our day in Hollywood — which I was dreading.

LA stresses me out like no place else — the cars and traffic and parking. It’s just not a walkable city like Boston or New York. And the highways are 27 lanes wide with 4 seconds warning before your exit appears. I needed to get to Hollywood Boulevard and also find a place where Mtuseni could see the Hollywood sign. That’s all the LA he was gonna get out of me. (It was really all he knew and cared about anyway.)

After crawling in traffic, I abruptly turned into an underground garage, which I thought would be quick and simple. But cars were backed up inside because it was valet parking. What is with LA and valets? Can’t people walk a couple blocks?

I didn’t have time for that rigmarole. So I negotiated a tight U-turn at the valet station and headed back to the escape ramp. A tiny 3-foot tall Asian girl in a shiny black SUV the size of Nebraska was straddling the lanes waiting to get in. I thought I could edge past her. Then I heard the bumper contact the wall. I hoped for the best, but got out on the street to see a big white scrape on the corner of the black bumper. Surprisingly, I didn’t go ballistic — even though I’d owned the car for all of 60 days. God, I hate LA!

manns chinese

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But… we ended up having a fun time. I grabbed a spot in an outdoor lot and we headed to the Chinese Theater. Mtuseni didn’t get the concept at first and was unimpressed: the names and footprints of Hollywood’s Golden Age were unknown to him. But once he saw familiar names, he got excited… and we both became lost in the celebrity treasure hunt among slabs of concrete. 

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mtu capitan therater

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arnold s

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Mtuseni will sometimes surprise me with things he knows or likes. His quest for action heroes was obvious, but I was shocked when he suddenly said, “Oh wow, Meryl Streep!” and grabbed a photo of her signature and tiny shoe prints. Hmmm… maybe she played Ironman’s mother or something.

Though I’d been to the theater before and was underwhelmed, this time I fell under the spell of all those Hollywood spirits…

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jack lemmon

Jack Lemmon is one of my favorite actors of all time — brilliant at playing the everyman. It felt like Magic Time being in that spot. “I love you, Miss Kubelik. I absolutely adore you.”

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west side story

I don’t fit the gay-male stereotype of loving musical theater. I can’t stand it. But West Side Story is … brilliant!

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judy

I’m also no fanatic for Judy Garland. But for whatever role her death played in the 1969 Stonewall gay liberation riots, I have to pay homage to her. #SomewhereOverTheRainbow

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After the theater we followed the Walk of Fame. Mtuseni was totally into it; I think he took 50 photos! He was so proud when he discovered a name he thought would be there.

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hwood blvd

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tyler perry

It took a while, but Tyler Perry’s star finally appeared. Mtuseni “just knew it would be here, oh yeah!”

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charlize

Meeting a fellow South African on Hollywood Boulevard! During his internship, Mtuseni stayed with his pastor in Benoni, the Johannesburg suburb where Charlize grew up. #JoziPride

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Again I was surprised by names that captured Mtuseni’s attention. I certainly didn’t expect a fan of The Rock and Ironman to take pictures of stars for Mickey Mouse and Goofy! Then again, Hollywood’s magic is global. For a boy who was raised in shacks half a world away, being in the spot where these childhood icons were born… it has to be pretty cool.

Thankfully, at a mall near the theater something caught my eye: the Hollywood sign! I wouldn’t have to drive to find a picture-perfect view. This one was good enough for Mtuseni! 

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mtu hwood sign2

hollywood sign

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My work in LA done, we headed back to the beach in Santa Monica. It was a beautiful early fall afternoon. We took a long walk along the beach — and though Mtuseni stated that he didn’t see the purpose of walking to nowhere, he ended up talking about some pretty deep stuff. One day he’ll realize the effect the ocean has on him. Whether we’re on a beach or a boat, he becomes tranquil and relaxed. Like father, like son — just without the genetics.

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mtu sm beach

I can see the zen beach vibe face that Mtuseni gets whenever he’s near the ocean. He should work on a cruise ship or something.

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mtu truck

Just like when we were in New York, Mtuseni has to get photos of emergency vehicles. I think it’s more having the locale in the photo, to prove… “I was here!”

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We met Connie and Dan on the pier and watched the sunset. Dan reminded us to look for the elusive green flash that appears for an instant when the sun rises and sets. For the first time, I actually did see it! Everyone on the pier applauded. Mtuseni said he didn’t get why people were clapping because the sun went down… but inside, I know he did. 

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mtu pier

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We walked from the beach and had dinner in Santa Monica: my best meal of the trip, pappardelle with short rib sauce. Its one of my top ten meals ever. And just like when we lived together way back in the 1980s, it was a nonstop gab and laugh fest for Connie and me. 

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restaurant

All in all, not a bad time in Southern California. But I wouldn’t want to live there!

sm sunset

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Check out my new Beck’s Next Act blog on life transitions… and other stuff!