Mission Santa Clara

Mission Santa Clara was established in 1777, and was the first mission christened after a woman. It changed sites five times, until settling permanently on this site, near San Jose, in 1822. This chapel is not the original, but rather a replica that was built in 1929. However the large wooden cross in front is original, dating all the way back to 1777.


Imagine you’ve traveled for many months to reach California, in search for gold. But after all that travel, and all that grueling hard work in the gold fields, prospecting, staking claims, and panning, the magical yellow stuff eluded you.

That happened to thousands of California immigrants during the gold rush. In fact, the vast majority of 49ers came up empty-handed. Only a few struck it rich and threw their can of beans out the window.

The rest had to eat their beans and find an alternative way to make a living. And some were weary of grunt work. They wanted a better education, so they could make some big bucks, while sitting on their big asses. But California was a brand new state, and thus far had no higher institutions of learning.

Reverend Joseph Alemany was the Catholic bishop of California, and oversaw all the missions still under control of the Catholic church. He also belonged to the Franciscan Order. He recognized California’s dire need for schools, and in 1851 said to hell with his fellow Franciscans, and turned Mission Santa Clara over to the more scholarly Jesuit Order.

Within months, the smartass Jesuits converted the mission into California’s first college. At first there was a shortage of teachers and money, and the college had a tough time obtaining a state charter. But fortunes eventually turned around, and today Santa Clara University is still operating. In fact it was named as the top-ranked regional university in the western United States in the 2019 U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges rankings.

And Mission Santa Clara has the unique distinction of being the only mission to have become part of a university.

Inside Mission Santa Clara’s chapel. This is where students go to pray for good grades.

In fact if you want to visit the mission, you must drive onto the university’s campus. Then you must inform the guard at the gate that you are a tourist, and not a student. He will look deep into your eyes and determine if you really are a tourist, and not a terrorist.

You are then given a visitor’s pass, which you must display on your windshield. Then you park in their massive, multi-story, concrete parking garage, and walk about a quarter mile to the mission. You’ll find it if you read and follow the signs. It’s surrounded by a warren of the university’s halls of education.

Most churches have organs. But the rebellious students at Mission Santa Clara have opted for a grand piano.

This is the only mission my wife and I have visited that has not charged an admission fee. That’s generous of them, but I wonder if they have to jack up the tuition to pay for freeloaders like us.

The altar. Those students who fail exams are executed, and their heads are put on display at the altar, as a warning to others.

The chapel is actually a replica of a replacement. The original mission church was destroyed by an earthquake in 1818. Its replacement was completed in 1828. This replacement was then destroyed by a fire in 1926, and was replaced by the current replica in 1929. Good thing they had Allstate.

An adobe wall. This wall, plus an adobe lodge that currently houses school faculty, are all that remains of the mission structure built in 1828.

However, it still sports its original bells, which were imported from Spain several hundred years ago. It’s claimed that these bells have rang each evening at 8:30 pm, for more than 225 years. But how would you ring the bells after the supporting structure beneath has crumbled to the ground from an earthquake or conflagration? Surely there must have been a few episodes when the bells were silent.

This sprawling wisteria covers an extensive arbor, in the garden beside the mission.

If you want to hear the bells, good luck. The mission is open seven days a week, from 7:00 am to sundown. And the sun usually goes down before 8:30.

But there’s one sure way to hear the ding-a-ling after dusk. Just be like one of those early 49ers. Sign up as a student and matriculate into Santa Clara University’s education program.

A bench beneath a magnolia tree offers a place for reverie, for those consumed by the numinous atmosphere of this old mission.

See ya in study hall!

King Spam

Yesterday we played the Silly Spam Game. I challenged my followers who were pre-approved commenters to make silly comments that my spam filter might catch. Thank you to all who tried their hand at spamming. Unfortunately, only one succeeded.

Colin, from A Dog’s Life? (Stories of me and him) created the perfect mix of spam, with a comment that looked sort of like something from a mad Russian hacker. And my spam filter grabbed that comment and stuffed it deep into its hidden spam dungeon.

Colin is King Spam!

And so, Colin, you are the winner. Today I crown you King Spam.

Ta-ta-da-dahhh!

A runner-up who I think merits mention is the Nowhere Tribune. He created a comment that consisted of three successive links to his blog. My spam filter didn’t quite stop it, but I did have to approve his comment before it would appear.

And so, Nowhere Tribune, you came in second. I crown you Viceroy of Spam.

Ta-dahhh!

Joyroses13, nrhatch, and Gibber, thanks for trying so hard. But it looks like you’ll have to eat more spam to improve your spamming skills.

And me to, because try as I may, I couldn’t even spam myself.

The Silly Spam Game

A few months ago, joyroses13, one of my more annoying pleasant followers, made the following silly comment: “…..!!!!” In fact, she made three such comments. All three were caught and flagged by my spam filter. As far as WordPress was concerned, joyroses13 was a spammer.

This left me wondering what the heck is going on with WP? Doesn’t WP realize she’s an approved commenter of my blog? So why would WP flag any comment from her, or any other of my approved commenters? Because this sort of thing has happened to others, as well.

There’s something fluky going on with WP’s spam filter. And that gives me inspiration for a little game. How about if we use this post to see how many silly “spam” comments we can make?

The way this game works, is rather than make a normal comment, try to make some crazy kind of silly comment that WP might flag as spam. Because this blog is about unicorns, which are unique creatures, your comment has to be substantially different from anyone else’s. So you can’t cheat and repeat joyroses13’s “….!!!!” comment.

Whoever makes the most amount of unique, silly “spam” comments, that are flagged as spam by WordPress, wins. How about if we make the prize a photo of a can of spam? I can post it tomorrow, with the name of the winner beneath it, along with a link to the winner’s blog. Wouldn’t it be a great honor to win such a fabulous prize?

And I’m going to see if I can spam myself, with this silly comment: &&&&$$$$whoooowheeee?????….

Alright everyone, let’s get on with the Silly Spam Game. Try to spam me.

Go ahead. I dare ya.

Superbloom

The Yucca schidigera, aka Mojave Yucca, aka Spanish Dagger. I prefer Spanish Dagger. It sounds dangerous and romantic, and it also reflects what this plant will do to you if you’re not careful around it.

This spring we’ve had a superbloom in the Mojave Desert. We get these every so often, when the rain gods feel generous and bestow a few extra inches of precious precipitation upon our parched earth, during the Fall and Winter months.

Purple sage embowered beneath the reticulated frame of a dead cholla cactus. A copse of Joshua Trees (Yucca brevifolia) in full fruit, stands guard nearby.

I thought I’d share some photos of our current superbloom as a little Mother’s Day gift, for all the mothers who follow this blog. But the muthers are welcome to enjoy it, too.

The fruit of the Joshua Tree. This fruit has a soapy, bitter taste when eaten raw. Native Americans were outstanding chefs. They figured out how to roast it just right, to remove the bitterness.

I can’t show you all the different kinds of flowers that have bloomed this year, because there are just so many. Deserts have as much diversity in plant species as found in tropical rainforests. This becomes most apparent during a superbloom.

California Manroot. This vine makes tiny parts of the desert resemble a jungle, as it festoons California Junipers with its lush green leaves and spiky fruit.

A Spanish Dagger, with Purple Sage in the foreground, and purple and white mountains in the background. That’s Mount San Gorgonio, which is the tallest peak in Southern California, at 11,503 feet.

Superblooms attract hordes of tourists that can make viewing a hectic or commercial experience. And so, while the flowers bloom, your spirit is left barren.

Encelia farinosa, aka Brittle Bush. These happy yellow bouquets spring up to greet you, in unexpected corners and alcoves of the desert.

You must know the secret places, to enjoy a superbloom in peace and quiet. And you must take the trails less traveled, that lead to magical glens guarded by rattlesnakes and loneliness.

Rancher’s Fiddleheads, with stands of Purple Sage in the background.

A hillside of white flowers.

Every caring mother wants her child to bloom. But to bloom you must take risks, and go to places and do things that may leave your mother worried, if she only knew.

This Spanish Dagger seems to have strayed a little ways from its family.

You must develop courage. Strike out on your own. And avoid the trammeling crowds.

Then look to the skies and fervently pray to the rain gods.

A Monoptilon bellioides, aka Mojave Desertstar. These cheery members of the Asteraceae family, erupt after periods of heavy rainfall.

You may endure many years of thirst, heat, and dry seasons. But one day the rain gods may hear. And you, too, will have a superbloom.

Another Spanish Dagger. This one has gothic, purple petals that resemble corn husks. You may have noticed that every yucca produces a unique flower. No two yucca flowers look exactly the same.

A superbloom you can proudly share with your mother. On Mother’s Day.

Happy Mother’s Day!

My Magic Bag of Chocolate Eggs

Could this be magic?

Easter was a month away. My wife always makes an Easter basket for me, and fills it with candy. Including chocolate eggs. Which is a problem.

If I don’t watch my weight, I’ll balloon like a Zeppelin. So I asked my wife to please go light this year. Don’t buy the chocolate eggs.

Her face dropped. I sensed something was wrong. “W-well, I may have already bought them,” she sheepishly admitted.

Well, hell.

“Oh, that’s okay,” I sighed with resignation. “Don’t worry, I’ll eat them.”

Sure enough, on Easter Sunday morning, there waiting for me on the kitchen counter were some Peeps Marshmallow Chicks, a bag of Brach’s Classic Jelly Bird Eggs, and a 10 ounce bag of Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Eggs.

I decided the chocolate eggs must be eaten first, as the weather was getting warm, and they were in danger of becoming a melted, gooey mess. But I must watch my calories. So I announced to my wife that I would only be eating five chocolate eggs per day.

According to the nutritional information on the package, a serving size of five eggs contains 140 calories, and there are 10 servings in the bag. So I calculated that I could safely finish this bag in 10 days, at five eggs per day, without gaining weight.

I ate my first five eggs on April 21st. So I anticipated my last five eggs would be consumed on April 30th. And I very much looked forward to chomping on those Peeps Marshmallow Chicks on May 1st, after the chocolate eggs were conquered.

But along about April 28th, I sensed something was amiss.

My bag of chocolate eggs was still about half full. This was not right. The math didn’t calculate. There should only be 10 eggs left in the bag, but there appeared to be about 25 or 30. Was this bag magical?

On April 30th I put my bag on a food scale. It weighed 4.4 ounces. That meant there were still about 22 eggs left in the bag, when there should be zero. Could the factory have made a mistake, and put too many eggs in the bag?

Or was this bag really magical?

The thought of a magical bag of chocolate eggs captured my imagination. I felt a frisson when I wondered what sort of deity might be favoring me, by spontaneously generating free chocolate eggs and implanting them in my bag. Could there really be an Easter Bunny after all? Or am I favored by some other Cosmic Power? Perhaps a unicorn?

I decided to start eating seven eggs per day, rather than five, to see if that would make the bag decrease in weight. But every day it hovered right around 4.4 ounces. Amazing.

My wife would think I was crazy if I told her about this, so I waited for the right time, and the right way to reveal my supernatural discovery.

One afternoon we were sitting together in quiet, relaxed reverie. It was a tender moment when guards came down and vulnerabilities could be exposed. I was searching my mind for the right words, when she decided to share something with me first.

“Have you noticed anything unusual over the past week or so?” she ventured.

My antennas came up. I felt suspicious. “Like what?” I asked.

“I have something to confess to you. I hate it that you’re so skinny and I’m so fat. So I bought you two bags of chocolate eggs for Easter, not one. The other is Hershey’s Big Bag. 18 ounces. Every day I’ve been sneaking eggs from that Big Bag into your regular size chocolate egg bag.”

“Ohhh? Well I HAVE noticed that my bag stays the same weight. I figured it was you.” Okay, so maybe I fibbed a little, but the possibility of it being her did fleetingly cross my mind. Once.

“I’m sorry, it’s not right for me to do that. This was a bad April Fool’s joke, and I didn’t even fool you. You can get mad at me if you want. But I hope you’ll forgive me.”

We kissed and hugged, and I forgave her.

How could I not forgive her? She stepped up, admitted her crime, and was willing to accept the consequences. This is responsibility. This is maturity. She did the adult thing.

Most importantly, I’m sure glad she came clean when she did, right before I was about to brag about my magic bag of chocolate eggs.

China Without a Passport

Want to know how to visit China without a passport? Just do like my wife and me, and head to Grant Avenue, near downtown San Francisco. That’s the heart of Chinatown.

Our Muni bus regurgitated us into a crowd of Asians, like we’d been shanghaied, and sped away on it’s electric cable, leaving us disoriented in the Orient.

The iconic Transamerica Pyramid building towers above nearby Chinatown. At 853 feet, it was the tallest building in San Francisco from 1972 until 2018, when it was surpassed by the 1,070 foot Salesforce Tower.

Chinatown is aptly yclept. It’s abustle with throngs of Chinese immigrants, peppered with a few befuddled, agog, and somewhat frightened tourists. It occupies 24 square blocks of steep boulevards, mysterious alleyways, and hieroglyphic Hanzi characters on storefront signage.

Notice the alley beside this Buddha shop? Chinatown is famous, or perhaps notorious, for its alleys. Here, hidden from street view have been brothels, gambling halls, and other disreputable or low-profile establishments. And a Chinatown alley hosted the secret office of exiled Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, where he raised money to support the Chinese Revolution of 1911.

Most of the denizens of Chinatown are immigrants from Hong Kong or mainland China. They speak little or no English. And they eye foreigners like my wife and me with wariness and animosity. Or so we imagined.

A typical Chinatown street.

If you visit Chinatown, I suggest you learn Cantonese first, or bring along a translator. Mandarin was once the dominant language. But that started to change in the 1960’s, when Cantonese-speaking immigrants began arriving in earnest. But hell, it all sounds Greek to me.

We wandered the streets like lost foreign tourists, eyeing the exotic goods offered at storefronts with a mix of wonder and morbid curiosity. The sidewalks were difficult to navigate, due to the ruck of Asian pedestrians on this Wednesday afternoon. I understand that weekends are even worse.

Red seems to be the favorite color of the Chinese. Red represents good luck, in Chinese culture, and is also thought to scare away evil spirits.

Chinatown is the most densely populated community west of Manhattan, with 54,000 people per square mile (Manhattan has 70,000 per square mile). Many of the immigrants here were professionals of respectable status in China, but have had to settle for low-paying livelihoods in restaurants and garment factories, upon arriving in Chinatown. As a result, they live in impoverished and overcrowded conditions.

I wonder if these red cat souvenirs are meant to scare away evil mice?

I put my wallet in my front pocket, and kept my hand close by. My wife clutched her purse. We chuffed and staggered up and down steep streets, trying to figure out what to do in this byzantine warren of legs, traffic, and loud city noises.

My wife caught my attention and cupped her hand to my ear. “I’m scared!” her voice quivered. “Get me out of here.”

That’s all it took to bring out my knight in shining armor. “Of course, my fair lass, I shall lead you to safety! Just follow me!

“But first, I’m hungry. I want to try some Chinese food.”

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None of the eating establishments looked very palatable for western stomachs, until we passed by a rather large-looking restaurant buried in one of the many, ubiquitous old brick buildings. My wife’s face brightened and appeared relieved. “Hey!” she shouted above the din of traffic, “this place looks big and clean, like they cater to Americans!”

We stepped inside. It was a grand, brightly-lit, high-ceilinged eatery, decorated in traditional Chinese ornamentation. A clean-dressed waitress walked by, pushing a stainless steel cart, and smiled at us. She gestured for us to come in further. Hers was the first friendly face we had encountered in this suspicious community, and it helped us regain our confidence.

We were seated at a large table by a waitress who spoke a bowl of Cantonese with one or two garnishments of English. We had captured one of the last available tables. This large eatery was packed with jabbering diners of eastern dialect. We were the only westerners in the building.

Suddenly a train pulled up beside our table. It was two waitresses pushing and pulling a large stainless steel food incubator. They opened up covers, displaying various Chinese dishes. “You want? You want?” They inquired as they pulled out steaming dishes and proffered them under our noses.

We were flummoxed. We’d never encountered this type of food service before. We were accustomed to menus, indited with English descriptions, and with numerical price tags. You know, where you choose from the menu, and someone writes down your order, as you calculate in your head how much this is going to lighten your wallet. We waved off the waitresses, hoping for a menu option.

They gave us annoyed looks and pulled away. But within seconds a new train pulled up, with new waitresses, and new offerings of exotic meals.

At this point we realized there would be no menus. So we carefully examined each dish. Finally we chose some spicy barbecue pork, and wontons that turned out to be stuffed with ground shrimp.

“Drink?” a new waitress walked up and inquired.

I wasn’t sure how much all of this was going to cost, so I decided to just order water.

“No free wata!” the waitress scolded. And she left in a huff.

Fortunately, complimentary tea was served, and although tea is poison I went ahead and slaked my thirst with the hot leaf juice anyway. And come to think of it, I’ve heard you should never drink the water in China, so perhaps tea was a safe choice for the circumstance.

I could take or leave the wontons, but the pork was heavenly, and I slurped and smacked down as many helpings as my clumsy chopsticks could handle.

As we ate, more food trains pulled up, with multiple offerings of delectables. The waitresses were pushy, and I began to wonder how much they expected us to eat here. Finally I shouted in my best Spanish, “No mas! No mas!” Spanish is the foreign language I’m most familiar with, so this was the best I could do for communication. But I think my angry look got the message across, and the food trains ceased.

I quaked in my hiking boots as we approached the cashier. The check was written in Hanzi characters, so we had no idea what this would cost. Were they going to try to soak us for $100? $500? $1,000? Would we be thrown into a Chinese prison if we refused to pay an exorbitant tab, and then have to contact the American Consulate?

It came to about $23. We threw in a $4 tip and then got the hell out of there.

We finally found a Muni and got on board. Within minutes the bus transported us back to America and dropped us off near our hotel.

We were back home safe, in our motherland. And we did not have to pass through Customs, or show anyone our passports. Which kind of surprised us. The contrast between Chinatown and the rest of San Francisco is very stark.

And as for China itself, we have both concluded that it’s a country we never have to visit. Because we’ve already been there.

We’ve been to Chinatown.

Alcatraz #1259

Tired, broke, and homeless, Bill Baker found an unlocked car door and got out of the weather. He lay sleeping there for a while, until a rap on the window woke him up. It was the cops.

He got four years in the Oregon State Penitentiary for attempted car theft. Even though he had no intention to steal the car, nor did he possess the keys.

Thus began a lifetime of revolving door incarceration for this 19-year-old.

He was a hell raiser in the Oregon Pen, and spent much of his time in the hole with other hell raisers. Together they attempted a daring, and nearly successful escape.

Soon after being released he was arrested again, in Portland, for stealing cigarettes from a warehouse. But this time he actually succeeded at busting out of jail. He stole a car for real, and fled to Washington state. That was a big mistake, crossing the state line, because there he was caught and charged with a federal crime for the interstate transportation of a stolen auto.

He was sent to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas. But on the long bus ride, wouldn’t you know it? He tried to escape again. They weren’t having any of that, so shortly after he arrived in Leavenworth, this now 23-year-old recidivist was shipped back West, for the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary.

That was in 1957. As inmate #1259, he spent the next two-and-a-half years in this supermax. But he was getting older and wiser. He decided to grow up and make something of himself while in Alcatraz. So he learned a career. He found a mentor, who was a fellow inmate, and this man taught him how to write hot checks.

That earned him multiple stints in prison over the course of his working life. But he finally retired from the business of hot check writing at the age of 80, and began a new, more honest career as a celebrated author. He wrote the book, Alcatraz #1259.

Bill Baker is one of only two former inmates of Alcatraz who is still living. And these days he’s a celebrity at Alcatraz Island, rather than a prisoner. He talks to tourists about his experiences in Alcatraz prison, and signs copies of his book they purchase in the gift shop.

Alcatraz #1259 tells about this penitentiary from an inmate’s perspective. Baker’s writing is raw and candid. There’s no sugar coating, but there’s no bitterness either.

He treats guards and wardens with both respect and contempt, in measures he believes are well deserved. He humanizes fellow inmates. He makes no excuses, nor apologies, for his crimes. And he warns of the consequences for choosing a life of crime.

His writing style is folksy, reflecting his rural Kentucky background. And it’s also friendly and laced with humor. Bill Baker comes across as a down-home character that anyone would love to have as a cellmate.

This seems to be his first and only book, and his dearth of writing experience is detectable through occasional misspellings and unpolished grammar. But that only adds to his story’s authenticity, in my view. It leaves the impression he’s not trying to pull anything over on the reader.

Even so, some passages came across to me as startlingly eloquent and thought-provoking. I’ll just steal a few quotes from this ex-convict, to show you what I mean:

“A water tower rises high above Alcatraz Island shivering on long iron legs in the cold January wind.”

“Happiness comes in small packages in prison. But it comes. It has to get through the gray filter of awareness that you’re locked up. But it gets through, somehow, maybe not as powerful as cruising down the road with the wind at your back and all your red lights green, like when you’re free, but it gets through in smaller portions. It’s all relative. To a junkyard dog a bone is pure heaven.”

“Love is a four-letter word in prison, one you don’t use when fuck will do, for you dare not show your weakness in the middle of a jungle where a spear may pierce that most vulnerable place in your heart. And loneliness is a word you never use even in a whisper.”

“I have no love for the law, nor they for me, but me and the law had a congenial dumb and dumber relationship, they being dumb and me being dumber.”

“If you’re thinking about going into hot checks as a criminal career you might ought to toughen up your immune system so you can eat a lot of rotten prison food.”

“Never make somebody afraid of you, because a coward can be just as dangerous as anybody if he’s afraid you’re going to do something to him.”

“It’s easier to do time if you don’t fight it.”

“THE FIRST LAW OF SPACETIME: Space and time are equivalent, and neither space nor time can exist independent of the other.”

“My church is a place where space is equivalent to time and Mother Nature is equivalent to God. It’s a place also where the good and the bad are equivalent, where neither the good nor the bad can exist independent of the other, for if it wasn’t for the bad there wouldn’t be any good.”

My wife and I met Bill Baker. We shook his hand in the Alcatraz Island gift shop, and he kindly signed our copy of his book. He came across just as folksy and friendly and funny as he comes across in the pages of his autobiography.

Bill Baker is the real thing. The genuine article. And a national treasure. He’s 85 now, and I suspect he hasn’t much space or time left on this Earth. So don’t waste your space or time. Steal a car, write some hot checks, or do whatever else it takes to get inside Alcatraz and meet the man.

But lacking that, just order his book through Amazon.com, and let yourself have a fun little reading escape.

When you get on Amazon, aim your searchlights for Alcatraz #1259, by William G. Baker.

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