Sunday, August 23, 2015

Memoir Outtake: When Did It Begin?

This is an early chapter I snipped from my book. In the end, I condensed nine pages to a few paragraphs.
Photo by Frankicello

When did I know that my body had a Life-threatening Disease in Residence?

My Long and Winding Road to Diagnosis began in June 2008, ten months before I was given The Bad News. I was at home, chatting in the hallway with my roommate, Adam, after a day at the office. I wore a sky-blue button-down shirt and gray slacks. While we conversed, I touched the area by my left clavicle. There was a lump. It seemed peculiar, though I never made a habit of touching that part of my body. I reached over to my right clavicle to see if I had a symmetrical lump.

I didn’t.

I made an appointment to see my doctor the following week.

“What you have is a swollen lymph node,” Dr. Chen said in the examination room, after he felt it. “There are a number of things that can cause a swollen lymph node. It’s usually from an infection or a cold. Have you recently had a cold?”

“No,” I said.

“Have you been scratched by a cat lately?”

I nearly laughed. It seemed like a curious question, but that’s why he got paid the big bucks and why I forked over $15 co-pays to be in his smarty-pants presence.

“I don’t think so. My parents have a cat, but she hasn’t scratched me recently.”

He went on to explain that cat scratch fever (yes, its not just a Ted Nugent song) can also cause swollen lymph nodes. Other possible causes were HIV (yikes!), histoplasmosis, sarcoidosis, tuberculosis, and lymphoma—a blood cancer. After he asked a number of questions that seemed to eliminate those possibilities—minus cancer—he ordered blood tests to be certain that I didn’t have any of those ailments. A few days later, my results came back fine.

The following week, I returned to Kaiser Hospital for a chest x-ray. Dr. Chen called a few days later. He left a voicemail message, which I played back four or five times, start to finish, to absorb every word, every nuance in his tone. He sounded clinical, devoid of emotion as usual, but I swore I heard a smidgeon of concern when he said that he had spoken at length with the radiologist concerning my x-ray. The space between my lungs, he reported, was “abnormal”—wider than it should be in a normal male due to “a large mass of lymph nodes.” He ordered a CT scan (short for computed tomography, which is a series of x-ray views that combine to make a 3-D scan of your internal body) the following week, along with additional blood tests.

That was June 26th, 2008—the first time my stomach twisted at the specter of C-A-N-C-E-R.

I bicycled to the hospital for my CT scan appointment. In the waiting area outside the CT scan room, I sat wearing only my chonies, socks, and a hospital gown. My hands felt clammy. Beside me was an Asian man in his fifties and a woman of the same age who must have been his wife. He was stripped to a hospital gown, too. They huddled close together while they spoke in their native tongue. I had no idea what they were saying but their body language told me they were deeply concerned about the results of his CT scan. In my experience, Asian people their age typically aren’t affectionate like that in public, which made it all that more exceptional. She was there to support him. When I realized that, I became even more nervous. Hearing the cold, automated voice of the CT scan machine saying the commands “Hold your breath” and “Breathe” behind the closed door didn’t help either. Before I knew it, I felt as though I were in a modern-day hospital episode of The Twilight Zone, starring Hal-9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. (“I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Juan.”)

The CT scan didn’t show much more than the chest x-ray had. My blood counts came back normal. Dr. Chen and I had exhausted all possibilities to explain the swollen gland until the only option was to snip it off for biopsy.

To confirm if I had lymphoma or not.

* * *

Did I know in my heart that I had cancer after I visited Dr. Chen the following week?

I am not sure if I will ever forget that last visit I had with him. I was beat and tired from work. Bags under my eyes from partying a little too much to get my mind off of troublesome thoughts like the possibility of having cancer. Dr. Chen’s tone had become graver with each visit I had since discovering the lump by my clavicle.

A number of months before that final visit, I was having my periodic sleeping problems. I asked Dr. Chen for some pills to help me sleep. I asked for a few—enough to last a week or two. He refused. He told me they weren’t effective long or short-term remedies for insomnia, which I already knew.

But now, months later, I sat across from him in an examination room, beneath that cold, bleach-white light. He leaned forward, his head bent to the side. He looked at me in a compassionate, I’m-concerned-about-you way and said, “Is there anything I can get for you?”

Inside, I shit myself when I heard those words. Inside, it felt like my head rolled off my shoulder, splintering on the floor while it cackled hahahahahahaaaa! I’m fucked! I’m FUCKED! NOW he’s willing to hook a brother up with pills because I am FUCKED!

But instead, I shook my head.

“No, I’m okay,” I said, trying not to hang my head and cry.

When I stepped out of the hospital, I had difficulty thinking. A blustery wind blew. It felt like there was a whirlwind blowing through my head. I had a strong urge to call my co-worker, Caitlin. Until then, she was the only person whom I had confided my health fears with. I had not told my family a thing. I didn’t want to scare them. In the end, I didn’t call her. I didn’t want to burden anyone with my troubles.

I unlocked my bike, put my helmet and gloves on and took my iPod out of my backpack. With my bicycle beside me, I walked to the busy corner of Geary and Divisadero listening to a José José ballad I hoped would settle me. When the light turned green, I hurriedly pedaled across the street. Once across, I rode close to the parked cars while traffic whizzed past me. Then I cycled through a signal. I only realized it was a red light once I crossed it. My mind was so rattled that I couldn’t focus on something as automatic and crucial as not crossing a red light. A car could have smacked me into windshield-wiper splatter long before a potential cancer invasion could kill me.

That night, I went barhopping with Caitlin. I got plastered. Blurred all senses. Uttered those fears. Diluted them by voicing them to her. Early that evening, when I was merely tipsy, I walked to the dark, grimy, graffiti and stickered bathroom at Dalva. I bent over the toilet that stank of urine. I coughed out saliva that was salty from the contrast dye that had been injected into my arm for the CT scan. It occurred to me that I was viscerally spitting out what was plaguing me. “Ha! How appropriate is that,” I thought when I walked to the sink to rinse the phlegm out of my mouth.

* * * * * * *

On July 21st, I met with a surgeon about scheduling a biopsy. We met for about two minutes in an examination room before he escorted me to the receptionist to schedule the “minor surgical procedure.” (Minor? Haa! Dude, there’s nothing “minor” about the potential results.) We were unable to find an available date before I left my job and lost my coverage in four days, before I left on one last vacation prior to starting grad school. I asked the surgeon if I should be concerned that I was not getting this procedure done as soon as possible. He grinned and patted me on the shoulder. “You’ll be fine,” he said. “Enjoy your vacation, Mr. Alvarado.” It was a remarkable contrast to Dr. Chen’s increasingly bleak tone. Essentially, he was saying, “Smoke a blunt, chill out, enjoy the rays.”

A week later, my feet sifted through the soft white sand of Haad Rin, one of Ko Pha Ngan’s tropical beaches. I gazed out to the tranquil ocean. My first afternoon on that Thai island, sitting cross-legged on a blanket at the most beautiful beach I have ever seen, I had a quandary: how can I relax and enjoy this when I’m seriously worried about my health? Everywhere I looked, I saw couples wading and frolicking in the twinkling waves, fellow travelers laughing as they ran and splashed after a rubber ball that they skipped along the blue water, people basking on towels all over the beach, their tanned bodies glistening in the sun. I felt like a pretender. An imposter. Their carefree spirit was something that was not churning within me. Not when I couldn’t help but remember Dr. Chen’s expression when he asked, “Is there anything I can get for you?”

That afternoon was the first time I had to train my mind to do something similar to a Jedi mind trick. It was a trick I had to employ at other intervals of my “cancer journey.” 1 With my eyes fixed on the horizon, where the twinkling ocean seemingly met the azure sky, I straightened my posture while sitting cross-legged on my towel. I concentrated on the lapping waves. I recalled the surgeon’s smoke-a-blunt, enjoy-your-vacation attitude and told myself: while you’re here, there is nothing you can do about your health. Enjoy your time here because you should presume you’ll never have the privilege, the opportunity to be back. Enjoy the present, what you have right now. Worry about your health when you get back.

I lay back on my towel, covering my eyes from the sun. Breathing slowly while repeating those thoughts, I was, to my amazement, able to chillax. The sound of bustle and laughter were drowned out by the meshing of my breathing and the lapping waves.

After my three-week vacation in Thailand and Cambodia, I returned home to begin my graduate studies at Saint Mary’s College in September 2008. It had been seven years since I had been a student, studying Cinema at San Francisco State. (Back then, I dreamt of being a film auteur like Stanley Kubrick, Billy Wilder, or David Fincher.) Being there, walking around campus with a backpack amongst fellow word nerds and teachers who also thirsted and lived to read and write good stories was nourishing for my spirit. From the get-go, I felt at home. Contented. At peace with myself. I had found a corner of this world where I belonged.

It took several weeks before I began to acclimate to the rhythm of being a full-time student, of working my life around my classes and homework instead of a full-time job. Graduate school felt like being swallowed up by a splendid, tubular wave (cowabunga!) That’s why it took some time to get myself oriented to my new life, let alone remember, oh yeah, shit. I might have a serious health problem!—a deadly serious problem. I had done such a bang-up job of pushing those cancer whispers out of my mind while I was in Southeast Asia.

In the fall, I secured health coverage through the city. I was seen by a new doctor who scheduled a biopsy of my swollen lymph node for November 24, 2008. The procedure would take about half an hour. And I wouldn’t have to be knocked unconscious.

I went alone to the hospital. My parents wanted to accompany me but the doctors did not require that someone provide me with a ride after the procedure. Having them drive 40 miles from Fremont to San Francisco to give me a paltry 1.2 mile ride home seemed wasteful. Instead, I took the bus to and from the hospital since the doctor told me I might be too woozy to cycle home.

The week after Thanksgiving—my favorite holiday—I got the results. They were ( - ). It was a relief for my family and me. However—and probably the biggest However of my life—the doctors had warned me that the blood cells from the swollen lymph node could test negative but I could still have cancer elsewhere in my body.

* * *

Did I know I had cancer when the skin on my left calf got itchy?

During November and December, my left calf became unusually itchy. At first, I figured it was due to cycling to Saint Mary’s three times a week in the cold. My legs got super-sweaty from cycling five miles to and from the Lafayette station. I thought my calves were getting dry and subsequently itchy from this. Or perhaps it was mild eczema—something I have never had—since the rashes from itching did look like it.

I thought nothing of the itching—other than it was odd.

Swollen-lymph-node odd.

My first semester of grad school finished in mid December. Christmas passed. The beginning of a new calendar year was celebrated. Physically, I felt great. Normal like I always had. Since the biopsy tested negative, I figured the swollen lymph node that was removed from my body was an anomaly. A freak occurrence that was not indicative of anything bad—graveyard-bad—growing inside of me.

Even though I tried to convince myself that my swollen lymph node was nothing, I became frightened of touching the area where it had been. After the incisions healed, a tiny bump took its place. Scar tissue, I reasoned. As the weeks passed, I could tell it was still there since I felt some discomfort whenever the shoulder strap from my backpack pressed against it when I bicycled. I was terrified that another swollen lymph node would grow back. And so, that part of my own body became off-limits. A no-touch zone. Every morning when I showered, I was careful to gently pass the soap over my clavicle area so that there was NO WAY my fingers would feel a telltale bump.

* * *

Or did I really know I had cancer when two swollen lymph nodes grew back?

Classes commenced the first week of February. The hillsides by school bloomed a verdant green. For my Craft of Fiction class, we had to read Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters over the weekend. I was at home, reading the book in the living room, curled up on our green couch. The house was quiet, tranquil, since my roommates were out about the town.

Near the beginning of Fox’s novel, one of the protagonists—the wife in a deteriorating marriage—is bitten by a cat. Her wound does not heal quickly. She becomes concerned that the cat was rabid. While I kept reading, watching her struggle to assuage and deny her fears, I couldn’t help but think about the fears I had over my health. Ever since the cancer whispers began six months before when Dr. Chen couldn’t figure out what was causing my swollen lymph node, the books and student manuscripts I read for school became a peerless distraction from those fears. But now I was reading about a character, a situation that closely mirrored my own.

The cancer whispers blared while I read the book. I had to close it, set it aside. I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t follow the storyline. I had to face the grave uncertainty I had felt for months. The house was deafening quiet when I raised my hand to my clavicle and pressed two fingers over the scar I had from the biopsy. There was a bump—a round, oblong one that was not scar tissue. My face began to flush hot while my fingers dug into the crook by my clavicle.

Oh my god oh my god oh my god oh my god.

Not only was there a swollen lymph node replacing the one that had been removed, but there was also a smaller one, deeper beneath the surface of my skin.

Oh my god oh my god oh my god oh my god oh my god oh my god oh my god oh my god something’s wrong! something’s VERY wrong! I THINK YOU HAVE CANCER! I THINK YOU HAVE CANCER! I THINK YOU HAVE CANCER!

Now when I look back, that was the moment I must have known I had lymphoma. I knew, without a doubt, that there was something wrong with my body. Despite that, I still clung onto an increasingly unrealistic hope that it was something other than cancer. There was no way I would accept that without an official diagnosis. (And who would?)

Two surgeries 2 and two worry-filled months later, despite the fact that I felt physically great, despite the fact that both sides of my family have no history of cancer, I was diagnosed with Stage 2A Hodgkin lymphoma, a rare dis-ease that annually comprises 1% of all cancer diagnoses in the United States.

I felt like a lamb walking along a plain on a cloudless day before being struck by lightning.

1 This is the term people in and around cancer—particularly medical caregivers—like to use to refer to this period of our lives. It’s a term I was never comfortable with. The word “journey” implies a sort of willingness, which I never fucking had. The word “journey” following the word “cancer” has a softening quality, as though what was happening would ultimately be fine. Safe. Not quite a cruise on The Love Boat, but not too entirely off. But cancer is far from that. More like being dumped into the middle of an ocean at night with only a life vest.

2 I used to get animated when I described the second surgery on My Long and Winding Road to Diagnosis—a CT-guided needle aspiration—to my friends. I usually began by saying, “Remember the scene in Pulp Fiction when John Travolta’s character had to plunge a needle into Uma Thurman’s chest? It was kind of like that.”

A white light glared down on me in the surgery room. Two nurses—a tall, funny, middle-aged guy who was like a less flamboyant John Waters and a heartachingly gorgeous brunette—laid me down on a tray that could slide through the ring-shaped machine. They covered the lower half of my body with a blanket. The CT scan operator advanced me in and out of the whirly-sounding machine a number of times to pinpoint the exact location of the worrisome nodule off my right lung. (A nodule is a term radiologists use to describe a knob, a knot, or something unusual on a CT scan that they cannot identify.) The surgeon—a handsome Asian man who was calm and smiley—made an X below my right nipple with a marker. The nurses injected four numbing medications around it. I clenched the blanket. Then they stuck a small needle into the X spot and left it there like a raised flag. They put me through the CT scan again; the needle planted in my chest was an inch away from hitting the top of the machine. Once they confirmed they had it in the right spot, they pulled me out to lie beneath the bright light.

The surgeon stepped toward the back of the room where the nurses, a pulmonary assistant, and a pathologist stood by the wall. They stood by in case the four-inch needle the surgeon was going to plunge into my body punctured my lung. From my vantage, laying on the sliding x-ray table, I could see and hear the surgeon unwrapping something. But his back was to me. He walked to my left side, holding something against his side.

“Okay—now close your eyes and hold your breath!” he said.

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and held it for a long time before he said, “Okay, you can breathe.”

What he had done was plunge a thin, four-inch long needle within the one in my chest to extract—aspirate—a sample of the nodule. I barely felt a thing but my goddamn curiosity got the better of me; after he did it a third or fourth time, I opened my eyes for a flash. I saw his arm, lift and plunge, lift and plunge what looked like a wire-thin clothes hanger (if it were straightened out) into my chest. He did that horror-flick act at least six times before the pathologist confirmed that a sample sufficient for testing had been yielded. By the end of the surgery, the parts of the blanket I clung to were drenched in sweat.

The result a week later? “Non-diagnostic,” which meant they couldn’t determine if the nodule sample was benign or malignant.

So back to Limbo I went.

(Here’s a kōan: if a man has cancer but is not diagnosed, does he really have cancer?)

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Shit to Do During a Summer Internship in the San Francisco Bay Area

My employer hired a number of fellows and interns to work for us this summer. I was involved in hiring our two undergraduate interns, including one also named Juan who came out from Texas for a ten-week internship. Having grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area I felt a responsibility to make sure he squeezed all the juice out of his time here. This served as the inspiration for this post.

Like anyone, I have my own style. I roll in a particular way. Por ejemplo, when I’m traveling to an unfamiliar city or area I am far, far more likely to gravitate toward a seedy dive bar than some wine-tasting tour. Also, since I’m a restless human being (if I were a dog, my energy would likely match that of, say, an English Springer Spaniel) I like to keep on the move.

And so, here’s a list of activities to do in the San Francisco Bay Area—mostly centered around San Francisco and Oakland—that meets my personal stamp of approval.

1)                Go for a hike!
We Californians are a blessed with gorgeous natural landscapes. Within the Bay Area we don’t have to go far to leave the suburban tracts and urban humdrum behind. The East Bay Regional Park District alone comprises 65 parks. San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area is home to Land’s End, a ridiculously gorgeous trail that hugs the coast. Exquisite natural areas in Marin County (Muir Woods!), Santa Cruz County (Big Basin!) and the Peninsula (Memorial Park!) are within a two-hour drive. Shit, Yosemite and the Stanislaus National Forest can be reached within three hours of driving.

Joaquin Miller Park, Oakland, CA
2)                Ride a cable car
What is a trip to the San Francisco Bay Area without riding a cable car in San Pancho? An incomplete one, I say! Sure, the queues can be long, and the cable car fares are not exactly proletarian-friendly, but I humbly believe it is a uniquely San Franciscan experience. Personally, I enjoy riding a cable car by hanging onto a pole. This way, you can truly feel the wind swirl around you and you can really feel other vehicles swoosh past. From an aesthetic and physical standpoint it’s a complete experience but I imagine sitting on a seat facing the passing streets is aesthetically pleasing as well.

3)                Eat out a lot!
You will never ever catch me referring to myself as a “foodie,” let alone using that word (I happen to think terms like “foodie” or “selfie” are symptomatic of a largely vapid popular culture), but I do love to eat yummy food. I’ve been around enough to know that we’re pretty spoiled here in terms of our dining options. You like eating pizza? We have tons of excellent pizzerias. Mexican food? We got that, too. I have yet to find a restaurant in the Bay Area that prepares genuine-tasting New Mexican cuisine, or good Puerto Rican food, but we’ve otherwise just about got it all. So gobble it all up! (Can you tell I’m an American?) That’s what your mouth and digestive system is for!

4)                Sample the local green (unless you’re not into that)
The late Robin Williams said it best:

Fact: California’s medical marijuana is potent shit, man. In terms of THC content, you’d have to fly to Amsterdam to procure stuff that is as potent as what’s being grown in the Emerald Triangle.

5)                 If you’re 21 and like drinking beer, visit a brewery
The West Coast has some of the top hot spots for craft beer: Seattle, San Diego, Portland and the San Francisco Bay Area. If you love good beer as much as I do my legal counsel would advise you to hit up a brewery or two during your extended stay. Anything less would be a disservice to your liver and kidneys.

In San Leandro you can check out either Drake’s Brewing Company or 21st Amendment Brewery off of the Davis Street exit on Hwy 880. In Oakland you can head past Jack London Square to visit the Linden Street Brewery. In San Francisco you can visit the Speakeasy Brewery or Anchor Steam’s brewery in Potrero Hill (and couple it with a meal at Goat Hill Pizza, which uses mild sourdough for their pizzas). Or, if you want a little day trip, check out the Lagunitas Brewery in Petuluma.

6)                Visit the Golden Gate Bridge

What’s a trip to San Francisco—or the Bay Area—without visiting the Golden Gate Bridge? Blasphemy, I say!

7)                Visit Baker Beach on a sunny day
Speaking of the Golden Gate, this is the place to visit if you want to breath in some super-sexy views of the bridge and the Marin Headlands. A couple of points of caution:

·        True summer-weather days in San Pancho are rare. If you decide to go to Baker Beach on a typical overcast day, it will likely be a bit cold there.
·        If you decide to visit Baker Beach on one of those rare summer days—unless it’s during the week—it will be packed. Parking can be a pain.

8)                Catch a game at AT&T Park
So I’m not a big fan of baseball for several of the reasons Chris Rock pointed out on his recent HBO Sports spot:

But I’ll admit, attending a baseball game is kind of a quintessential summer experience in ‘Murica, no? If you’re in the S.F. Bay Area for the summer, do yourself a favor and catch a game at AT&T Park. Sure, I haven’t attended games at Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, PNC Park or Camden Yards, but I’m fairly sure the Giants home park is one of the most beautiful baseball stadiums. My buddy and fellow blogsmith, Justin—who’s a big baseball fan—lists it as one of his favorite baseball parks. He knows what he’s talking about!

9)                Take a tour of North Beach
If you ask me, a visit to San Francisco is incomplete without a visit to the North Beach neighborhood. Being a writer, I’m biased; I recognize that. And so, it should be no surprise that a neighborhood that used to be the stomping ground for the Beats is appealing to me. It should also be no surprise that a neighborhood with the most iconic book store in the San Francisco Bay Area is alluring to me—and a historic bar where Kerouac and the Beats used to hole up just happens to be next door. Mentally, I always cream myself when I see both establishments, I’ll be honest.

view from Coit Tower
But there’s even more to North Beach: a visit to Coit Tower is a must in my book. You might catch a glimpse of the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill. There are some excellent joints to grab a quick bite: Golden Boy Pizza, Giordano Bros. There are plenty of superb sit-down restaurants that are excellent places to take someone you’re trying to bag, like Rose Pistola, Capo’s (The Dillinger is probably the best Chicago pizza I’ve ever eaten, with all respect to Gino’s East, which I have had the pleasure of eating) and Sodini’s.

And if you’re into strip clubs, sweet baby Jesus this is your part of town!

10)               Check out Dolores Park
In a city composed of dips and hills (that’s not a metaphor)—with a minimal amount of gumption—one can inevitably stumble upon a good vista of this urban jungle. The corner of 20th and Church is one of those outstanding spots—if you can stomach all the hipsters lingering about the park (unless you are a hipster, in which case, this is apparently one of your worldly meccas).

11)                  If you like murals, take a mural tour in the Mission District
mural on the corner of Lexington and 18th St.

El barrio Mission is teeming with murals. Precita Eyes, one of only three community mural centers in the United States, offers walking tours of the murals along two of the main throughways. Their tours are held on the weekends and range from $15-20.

12)                   Go kayaking!
In my adulthood I’ve become a fan of kayaking. Maybe you like it, too? If so, there are various places you can get your kayak on.

In Oakland you can go kayaking out in the bay by renting kayaks at Jack London Square. For a true urban experience you can rent a kayak at the Lake Merritt Boating Center (cash only; Oakland residents get a discount) and steer that baby around the lake. In San Francisco kayaks can be rented from City Kayak at Pier 40 by AT&T Park. (It’s worthwhile to make reservations, especially on a day when the Giants are playing at home.)

13)                   Have a lunch at the Kaiser Rooftop Garden in downtown Oakland
The Kaiser Rooftop Garden in downtown Oakland near the west side of Lake Merritt is a gem. Situated atop Kaiser’s downtown parking garage, the surprisingly beautiful rooftop garden is a delightful, chillaxing urban cove. During the summer they hold free concerts every Friday from 12 – 1 p.m.

Kaiser Rooftop Garden
If you’re in the downtown area during the workweek (the garden is only open Monday thru Friday from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.), grab a lunch at one of the nearby yummy local eateries such as True Burger, Athenian Deli and Cafe (their falafel plate is outstanding), Aroma Bakery & Café, The Lunch Box, Taiwan Bento or Deli Fresh and head up to the rooftop garden.

14)                  Visit the Mountain View Cemetery in Piedmont
Trust me on this: Mountain View Cemetery in Piedmont is a gorgeous place. With the exception of Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, this is the most beautiful cemetery I’ve seen—and I’ve inadvertently visited four of the twenty-one cemeteries listed on Travel+Leisure’s World’s Most Beautiful Cemeteries.

Designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the cemetery provides beauteous vistas of the surrounding bay. On clear days you can see the Bay Bridge, Golden Gate Bridge and the Carquinez Bridge in Vallejo from the same spot up atop the tallest hill. In the mornings you can see locals jogging about the cemetery’s foothills, or walking their dogs. It’s not because Piedmont is teeming with morbid fuckers: it’s just a beautiful, tranquil spot that happens to be home to the dead.

15)                   Check out a film!
My inner geek was bound to make his presence felt in this post, and this is where he comes out.

Although we’ve lost many of our independent movie houses in recent years (RIP Bridge Theatre, Fine Arts Cinema, Lumiere Theatre and UC Theatre), the San Francisco Bay Area still has some wonderful movie houses. My favorite one has always been The Castro in the—you guessed it—Castro District. In my humble opinion, The Castro’s East Bay brethren is the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland. The Parkway closed a few years back but reincarnated as the eclectic, bike-friendly New Parkway in Oakland’s Uptown. Downtown Berkeley still has the California Theatre and Landmark’s Shattuck Cinema with its bedazzling ceilings. Up north in San Rafael they have the Rafael Film Center, which is home of my most treasured movie-going experience when I saw Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange for the first time on the big screen. Oakland’s ridiculously gorgeous Paramount Theatre has their Movie Classics series in which you can catch a classic film for the price of a pint of beer.

All this to say: if you treasure a superb movie-going experience, check out a film at one of our movie houses.

16)                   Catch a music show!
On a similar note, we have a bunch of terrific music venues throughout the Bay Area.
I will inevitably fail to mention a few outstanding venues, but here are a few off the top of my head: Bimbo’s 365 Club in North Beach; Yoshi’s in Oakland’s Jack London Square (or their location in San Francisco’s Fillmore District); the Great American Music Hall in the Tenderloin; the renovated Fox Theater in downtown Oakland; Oakland’s Paramount Theater; Café Du Nord in San Francisco’s Upper Market area, and, of course, the historic Fillmore in San Pancho. Outside of the 415 or Oakland there’s the Greek Theater in Berkeley. The Chapel in the heart of Hipsterlandia (a.k.a. the Mission District) is one of my new favorite venues.

If you’re in town for the summer, you’re bound to find a musical act passing through the bay that’s up your alley.

17)                  Check out the Berkeley Kite Festival

Photo by Daniel Parks
Do you like kites? Does running around with one bring out your inner child? Or does seeing a sky filled with kites make you fleetingly feel like everything is okay in the world? If so, check out Berkeley’s annual Kite Festival! It’s held at Cesar Chavez Park by the Berkeley Marina on the last weekend in July.

18)       Take a cruise or ferry ride on the bay
Consider this advice I wish I would take.

A ferry ride from Jack London Square to San Francisco’s gorgeous Ferry Building should not be missed. For around $5 you can take a ride past Treasure Island, beneath the Bay Bridge with a sexy, sprawling view of San Francisco for the final act.

The Red and White Fleet from Pier 43 ½ out of Fisherman’s Wharf provide an assortment of cruises along the bay. Instead of queuing for a trip to Alcatraz—which is fun to visit—you may want to opt for one of these cruises instead (though they are pricey).

19)                   Hit the beach!
Sure, the ocean water here is dialed to freezing-fucking-cold but that doesn’t mean our beaches should be missed! In San Francisco there’s Ocean Beach although it tends to be overcast and blustery. (I may be in the minority camp here, but I think it’s only worthwhile to visit the beach on a nice day, which means it will be crowded.) If you’re the warm-water beach-bathing type, my sources tell me Crown Memorial State Beach in Alameda—a charming suburban island separate from Oakland—is the place to go in the Bay Area.

Along the coast you might consider visiting Pacifica (which, in all likelihood, has the world’s most beautifully-situated Taco Bell in the world!) or Half Moon Bay for a trip to the beach. If you want to couple a beach outing with a day trip than drive out to Santa Cruz or Capitola.

20)                   Hit up the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk!
If you’re going to be in town for more than a few days, I humbly feel like a pilgrimage to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is necessary for a complete summer experience.

The Boardwalk has been open since 1907. The park charges no admission though it will, of course, cost you to hop aboard their rides. A couple of must-rides include The Giant Dipper, a creaky, hulking wooden roller coaster ride that has been running since 1924. Their carousel ride is my favorite since 1) it’s relatively cheap, 2) it’s charming in a genuinely old-timey way, and—most importantly, 3) the ride dishes out rings you can grab on each rotation to try to toss into the mouth of a clown. (I am easily amused sometimes!)

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
The amusement park grub is okay and reasonably priced. Their arcade should not be missed; they have a corner of the arcade devoted to old school games like Asteroids, Centipede and Tetris. The park has a water ride that may get you soaked—if that’s your thing. It also has a Ferris wheel, a potentially vomit-inducing Cyclone ride (if that’s your thing), a haunted house, a fanciful swing ride, and a few respectable-looking thrill rides.

And the beach is right there. Perfect spot to catch a sunset.

It’s tough to beat all that.

21)                   Three words: Weekend Camping Trip!
I may be a homer, but sometimes I forget just how close we Bay Area folks are to a bewildering assortment of natural parks and areas. Here’s a few off the top of my noggin: Yosemite (3 – 3 ½ hour drive away), Stanislaus National Forest (3 hour drive), Big Basin Redwoods State Park (1 – 1 ½ hour drive from the Bay Area, depending on traffic and starting point), Big Sur out by Monterey (2 ½ - 3 hour drive), and Mount Tamalpais just north of San Francisco in Mill Valley.

Here’s a link to find California State Parks. Reserve America is another nifty site to help you find a camping spot.

Unless you’re not the outdoorsy type—and god help you if you’re not—a summer trip to California would be blasphemous without visiting at least one of our state or national parks.

Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur

What did I miss? I'd love to hear from you!

Honorable Mentions:
·        San Francisco Pride (last weekend of June)
·        A visit to the de Young Museum and Golden Gate Park (if you visit the museum, make sure to go to the top of the tower for a fantastic panoramic view of the city)
·        A visit to the Legion of Honor and surrounding area
·        Ride a bike in San Francisco’s Critical Mass (last Friday of every month starting at 5:30 p.m. from Justin Hermann Plaza in front of the Ferry Building)