I’m not a good shopper nor an artistic gift-wrapper and am sometimes running late before reaching full immersion in the spirit of the holidays. However, I do feel fairly confident a few December rituals will eventually turn things around. Early in the morning, while it’s still dark, I plug in the office lights, turn on the Christmas music and coffee my way toward daylight. While Willie sings “Pretty Paper,” I’d love to share another couple of favorite spirit boosters.
Visiting the lights in whatever place makes a heart feel at home. That works for me. Cities that twinkle all over, or a little tree and a country cabin, I’ll take either. Before I had the opportunity to live in the Bay Area, I declared San Francisco my favorite city and visited often. Then I moved across the Bay where it’s always a thrill to arrive at the Ferry Building. By the end of November, the Embarcadero Four buildings are stunning, outlined in lights. If a person has to shop, a person might as well do it then and there.
My agent’s office was in a beautiful old building on Geary, across the street from Neiman Marcus at Union Square. I’d take the vintage elevator up to Joan’s office, then across the street for a bite inside the glorious rotunda.
Like many broadcasters, I have a substantial holiday music collection, going back to the days when record companies sent them to us. I treasure them.
My website partner, Dave Williams, and I were producing audio for another website a couple of years back and searching for music, I met Chris Whiteman and Colin Tribe on YouTube and have followed them ever since. Their holiday songs are part of my tradition.
My office lights now stay up all year. The old Christmas CDs still work in my computer and when they don’t any more, I’ll keep downloading and carry on.
Here’s Chris Whiteman, who lives in Virginia and plays and teaches everywhere. Click the picture to visit his YouTube channel
Here’s Colin Tribe with grandson, Edward. Colin lives in England where he composes, arranges, teaches and plays the you know what out of that ukulele. Click the picture for his YouTube channel.
California wildflowers poster series from artist Gompers Saijo**
When Spring arrives, most people feel awake, alive, excited. For me it comes with a twinge of melancholy. Right now we’re in the flannel-to-flowers transition in Northern California which puts me in mind of a song, one that haunts me at unexpected times through the year, but always at the start of Spring. And always this song brings to mind a dear friend who shared my love for this ballad. Yes, I’ve written about him before, and may again. That’s what happens when you’re unforgettable.
Ed Wetteland was a keyboard genius in a giant body. He played most of his life in the Bay Area, in clubs and concerts, putting on the tux for big band gigs, working with just about everybody in music who came through The City. When he wasn’t working, he wandered, with some of us in tow, into clubs down hidden alleyways in The City, sliding onto the piano bench, playing a little, slipping back out and on to another club. Everyone made way. Everyone knew Ed. Mercurial. Tender. Then mercurial again.
Home was his country acre in Sonoma County where the other part of his life was spent coaching singers in his studio and holding forth on the deck outside his honest to goodness log cabin in Sebastopol, indulging in very good wine provided by his Bohemian Club buddies, telling stories, stopping to name the notes played by the wind chimes and whistling back at birds.
We were friends from the first hello. We had our little traditions. Wherever he played, when I came in, he’d weave away from the song he was performing and slide into the bridge of one of my favorite songs, It Might As Well Be Spring. This bridge slays me. Melancholy. Plaintive.
I keep wishing I were somewhere else Walking down a strange new street Hearing words that I have never heard From a man I’ve yet to meet – Rodgers & Hammerstein
One Sunday Ed promised friends he’d play at their church in Santa Rosa. He was distinctly un-churchy. He insisted I come and he’d buy brunch afterward. I arrived a bit late. Ed was playing a hymn. I wish I could remember which one. I didn’t think he’d seen me slip into a pew in the back, but obviously he did because he created a seamless segue from the hymn into the bridge above, and right back into the hymn.
He never recorded It Might As Well Be Spring, but here’s another favorite he played often. Sophisticated Lady comes from a recording session in the home of a friend. A few of us gathered in a wine country estate to hear Ed record some of his favorite songs at a spectacular Boesendorfer grand piano.
About this time of year, just before the official start of Spring, Ed would be on his deck, holding forth at length about flora and fauna and especially about California’s native plants.
It’s okay to stare in hotel lobbies. Everybody does it. At Christmas time, hotels in my favorite city will knock your socks off.
When I’m a guest, some people upstairs are having room service coffee, I’m in the lobby with my cup, because I love it there. For this list, it’s San Francisco. I’ve stayed in all these places but you don’t have to be a guest to enjoy them. I also don’t need a city in order to have a good long Christmas gawk. If I’m in a tiny town, I find me an inn. If I’m in the country, I take a day to head to the nearest hostelry that sparkles.
In The City By The Bay , if you drive, park it. Repeat – park the car. Don’t even think about moving it. There are plenty of ways to get around without spending the day looking for elusive parking spots. Coming in from the ferries, visitors hop off and walk across the Embarcadero to the Hyatt Regency.
Hyatt Regency San Francisco
The Hyatt anchors a festive complex at Christmas with an ice skating rink outside and a lobby with a view. There’s music. There’s plenty to sip. A couple of steps away are four skyscrapers, Embarcadero Center, each of them outlined top to bottom with lights, forming a unique shopping place.
Ice skating outside the Hyatt, looking across at Ferry Building and Bay Bridge
Over to Union Square and the St. Francis. You’ll be greeted by their Beefeater doormen, who’ll put on an elegant show finding you a cab. Every year their chefs outdo themselves creating bigger and fancier gingerbread houses – castles even – smack in the middle of the lobby.
St. Francis Hotel San Francisco
Head out and walk around Union Square from there. This could easily take several days, but do your Christmas best to see it. Macy’s windows are justifiably famous, a don’t-miss San Francisco tradition.
Union Square looking at Macy’s
Cross over to Neiman Marcus to see their enormous tree. When they bought the old City of Paris store, they promised to preserve its several-stories-tall rotunda and they did. The tree’s so big you’ll need to look at it from different angles, inside and out.
Neiman Marcus Rotunda Tree
When you can tear yourself away from Union Square, up to Nob Hill you go, cable cars clanging. There’s not a more Christmassy sound. Top of the hill, across the street from each other are the Mark Hopkins and the Fairmont.
When I didn’t live in The City, I stayed at the Mark. You get started at a place and they say hello like they mean it and as a woman traveling alone, I always appreciated the manager popping out from behind a desk to walk me to the elevator, then to my room. Pull up in that courtyard, someone whisks your car away and you won’t need to get it out again. The cable car runs right by. That was my homey place for years, and oh my, the lobby.
Mark Hopkins Hotel San Francisco
Across the street at the Fairmont, the king/queen of gingerbread houses stands two stories tall, and they serve tea inside it. Oh yes they do. Any time of year the lobby at the Fairmont is festive. It’s a congenial place.
The Fairmont San Francisco
One more stop on the hotel tour – back from Nob Hill to The Palace Hotel. During carriage days, guests pulled up and were ushered inside to luxury while someone took their horses away for a stay. Today the former carriage entrance is The Garden Court. It’s indescribable all year and all year you’ll need reservations for brunch, but please don’t miss the gawking opportunity. Christmas at Garden Court is another layer of magic.
Garden Court at The Palace Hotel
Wherever you are, I hope this season you’ll get yourself into a lobby near you and sit a while. Sip something. Listen to the music. Watch the happy people. Gawk.
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Christmas music for the trip. Chris Whiteman on guitar. Right now I’m listening to Chris play “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Much more from Chris at his YouTube channel.
In the 1980’s, when I moved to San Francisco, creative souls were everywhere, up and down the city’s hills. Some of them became a permanent part of my life. I’m grateful for time spent with people who love what they do, whatever they do, generous souls who share their talent. I’d like to introduce you to some of of them from time to time.
My friend, Barbara Wetteland, a glorious singer, passed away a few months ago. I miss her awfully. I met her through her husband, Ed, a Bay Area keyboard legend. In the 1980’s I lived on Green Street in San Francisco, a few blocks up from North Beach and I tripped over to Washington Square Bar & Grill (“Washbag” to media folks) so many times a week I ought to be embarrassed about it. Ed played piano there, holding forth from a space that barely contained him. He was a giant of a man with a big booming laugh, a piano-playing genius who could expound on any subject while taking requests, except when he wasn’t in the mood, and then he played what he pleased and didn’t chat.
Ed and Barbara fell in love and began performing together all over the Bay Area. After every gig they drove away from the city lights, returning to their log cabin in Sebastopol.
Barbara was feisty and restless and loved making things, from soup to needlepoint, embroidery to gardening, quilting to songwriting. She created this for me as a table runner, but then she borrowed it back to enter in the Sonoma County Fair. She took home a ribbon and was as proud of that as any song she ever sang.
Sweet B has now joined Eddie, taking their music to another stage. Please do click the links below the pictures and hear The Wettelands.
Ed at Bohemian Grove playing beautiful music under beautiful redwoods.
Barbara (right) and me at Candlestick Park in the 1990’s waiting for Ed to warm up his keyboard out on the pitcher’s mound where the two of them performed the national anthem.
It may be better to give than receive, but I’d rather read your newsletters and cards than try to remember the past year in enough detail to write my own.
Memory isn’t always accurate in my case.A friend once accused me of “painting the past in pastels.”I beg to differ.Every writer I know paints the past in different colors but not all of them are pale. I don’t always note in which months these things took place, but I do recall the emotion vividly.
Our little Caedan Ray had swine flu.It began with symptoms of a regular flu but perhaps because it happened sometime in summer, an alert doctor tested for H1N1 and that’s what it was.Immediately Caedan was quarantined with her mommy. Even her dad, Edan, couldn’t be close to her.I wanted to go to L.A. to help, but the doctor wouldn’t allow that either.
One of the most frightening parts was that one day Caedan got quieter and more pale and lay down on the floor. Cathleen rushed her back to the doctor where she was found to be oxygen-depleted and put on respiratory therapy. This disease can affect lungs so quickly and with terrifying results. Better news – Cathleen had a “regular” flu, but no one else close to them got Swine Flu.
Caedan started Kindergarten in September, the youngest in her class.She has just now turned 5. So far so good.She loves school.Loves the work and according to her teacher, loves visiting (too much it seems) with her schoolmates.
I remain in Mill Valley, north of San Francisco, while my family is in southern California, so I spend a good deal of time commuting.It’s worth it for the blessed fog and redwoods near me – and then the warm reception I receive when I show up at the door to my girls’ place.
My biggest thrill so far this year (There are still a few days left and I wouldn’t mind another big thrill.Are you listening, Santa?) was winning the John Steinbeck Short Story Award for my story, “Hank Williams Was A Friend Of Mine” which is from my collection in progress.
I hope each of you has some pastel-colored memory to keep.
My only grandchild lives in Los Angeles. I live near San Francisco. It’s a 400 mile trip. I’ve checked flights and with travel to and from airports and renting a car when I get there, it’s easier to drive. I love this place where I live but I also love that little girl, so I drive a lot.
From the time Caedan Ray was born, her mommy always said the same thing at the start of each visit. As I scooped up the baby, she’d ask, “You got your Hammy?” After Caedan learned to talk, when her mother asked the question, she answered with a big loud “Yes!”
During my drive south on I-5, her parents and I stay in phone contact and they tell her, “Hammy’s almost here.” When I pull up in front, Caedan is waiting at the front door or outside, standing with a parent by my parking spot. As soon as I’m out of the car, I hold out my arms. So far she chooses to jump up.
At the end of each visit, after a sad goodbye, I head north toward home, already missing the little family. At my halfway point, Harris Ranch, I feel a hint of “almost home.” The horizon shifts on the last hour of the drive. Northern California skies always hold a promise for me. That’s what I see when I look ahead.
I live in Marin County, in the redwoods. This is a place where the ratio of open space to developed land is astonishing and astonishingly beautiful. Is it foolish to love and need specific surroundings so much? Or is it something we’ve earned at this time of life?
During the last hour of my drive, traffic picks up considerably as I merge with drivers heading home from San Francisco, coming off the Bay Bridge and through several interchanges. The skies shift again. It’s usually late afternoon when I make this part of the trip, and fog rolls in. I love fog. It’s one of the reasons I live here.
From the top of the Richmond Bridge, I see ships alongside the dock. Welcome home. The city shimmers in the distance. Welcome home. Here’s the Larkspur Ferry Terminal. A commuter ferry coasts to a stop as I pass. Welcome home. I approach my exit and see redwoods in the distance. It’s familiar and beautiful and it’s blue and green and peaceful here.
But this homecoming is also teary. As I arrive at home, I’m thinking of the greeting I received from my granddaughter when I reached her door a few days ago. This time, she controlled everything. She didn’t wait for me to hold out my arms. Instead, as soon as I was out of the car, she leaped up and hugged me. She didn’t wait for her mommy to ask the usual question. Instead, she announced by herself for the first time, “I got my Hammy!”
It’s good to be home and it’s sad to be home. This commute certainly isn’t getting any easier.