Stamps in My Passport: France

FranceElectrical adapter plugs are an unfathomable dilemma to many travelers. They come in many sizes and many shapes. The outlet into which you plan on plugging your appliance may have anywhere from two to five hole, and is commonly referred to as the female end. The other end, called the male or connector end, can be equally confusing with either two, three, or four pegs, prongs, or slotted protuberances. To the best of my knowledge, the outlets and plugs of choice by each country are independent of any national anatomy.

We had just spent several days visiting the children of a friend of ours who were fortunate enough to be working in Brussels. The visit had been enjoyable. The couple had lived in Belgium for about two years and knew not only the common tourist attractions but also those pleasant and unique out-of-the-way spots as well. We dined like royalty in well-hidden kitchens, visited ancient and modern historical sites, and generally felt relaxed and content. But now it was time to head south in our little rented red Fiat.

A neighbor in California who had recently returned from France had found a delightful little hotel on a hill just east of Nice called Le Perousse. They had described the view as typically Mediterranean with yachts, azure water, and endless beaches – surpassed only by the fresh seafood dinners along the waterfront. Not to be outdone in the traveler’s game of “I’ve been there also,” we headed off toward Nice. 

In a typical Californian’s decision, we decided to use the piage rather than the slower, more scenic back roads. The piage is equivalent to our toll roads and offers less traffic, more speed, and fewer stops. We were a little behind in our schedule so tossing coins in the toll box would save us at least a day or two of driving and at least six or seven arguments about which way to turn while going through those little towns along the way.

The kilometers clicked by, and before long we were discussing in which city we should spend the night. In an unusually short dialog, we zeroed in on the city of Vienne, a historically well-known town just a bit south of Lyon. The compromise was chosen because it was large enough to have a comfortable old hotel, but small enough so that we would not get lost looking for the downtown. The advertised Roman ruins would give us a chance to stretch our travel-cramped legs. We were right on all counts.

The name of the little hotel of choice escapes me, but the date chiseled in the sandstone over the hotel door predated our own civil war. The establishment consisted of an original section containing three floors with about four rooms per floor, and a somewhat newer section of four floors with about the same number of rooms. We settled for a room on the third floor of the old section, a good choice, except for the omission of either an elevator or a bellboy. But having been sitting all day, the exercise was welcome.

We settled into our room and discussed our next move. Both of us needed to freshen up, and Barb wanted to do her hair before we ventured out on our next adventure. This gave me a chance to sit back and read up on this village.

Then came the challenge. I was sitting there patiently reading about Vienne when I became aware of Barb prowling around the room. I ignored her for a little while, but she continued. Finally I gave in.

“What’s going on?” 

“I can’t find a plug for my hair dryer. Oh, ah – here’s one that looks like it fits the adapter.” A relieved “Oh.”

The next second can only be described as chaotic. A flash of lightning filled the room accompanied by a loud, hollow clap. This was instantly followed by absolute silence and total, complete darkness. We stood there transfixed, assuring ourselves that neither of us was hurt. I did notice that some of Barb’s newly washed hair looked a trifle singed, but otherwise nothing.

Soon the silence gave way to a buzz that began to build in the hallway. Heads were popping out of rooms, and agitated French men and cool French women were demanding explanations. I attempted to look puzzled and began demanding an explanation in English myself, feeling that the best defense was a good offense. In a few short moments a bespectacled maintenance man in soiled coveralls and a beret on his head arrived on the scene. With wild gyrating arms and a steady flow of indiscernible French, he calmed the gathered tenants, smiled, and calmly walked over to a service door, halfway down the hall. He undid the lock and with a flourish threw open the door. Out came a huge cloud of black smoke almost filling the entire hallway.

“Mama MIA sucha smoke,” he yelled.

The inside panel was a total mess. Three of four spots that looked like they may have held fuses at one time were permanently welded together. The entire panel itself was glued into one gigantic smoking collection of relays, fuses, capacitors, wires, and connectors.

“I don’t think we should say anything” I advised Barb, as now the entire hotel staff stood there staring at the mess. “They may charge us for rewiring the whole hotel.”

Well, it didn’t end up too badly. They had to move all of the guests from this floor of the old building to the new wing, as fixing this panel was going to be a long proposition. Barbara’s conscience would not let her play innocent, so she bravely marched up to the manager and confessed, although she did not really quite understand what she was confessing to. I pretended I didn’t know her, which saved me some embarrassment, especially when we checked out the next morning. The entire staff came out from behind closed doors to look at her. There was a great deal of pointing and much dialog. Apparently they were awed by this American woman capable of totaling destroying one floor in just seconds. Me, I just pretended I wasn’t there and got us out of town as fast as possible.



2011 Land Rover LR4 – Rugged Luxury!

Land Rover
Have you ever wanted to take the road less traveled or traverse up a hill just to get to the other side? But wait; there is another side to your driving adventurist-self that involves trips to work, the store, and the opera. Perhaps it’s in the need to show that you appreciate how you get there versus just getting there. You possess the desire to blend go-anywhere skills with high-tech comfort attributes. If this describes you then the 2011 Land Rover LR4 is calling to you.

The Land Rover LR4 was redesigned in 2010 and grew up from the previous generation known as the LR3. For 2011 the exterior remains mostly unchanged. With an upgraded interior, a new engine, a fresher exterior, and enhancements to the Terrain Response system, the 2011 LR4 is ready to take on the toughest terrain with an almost auto-like ride.

The model lineup for the 2011 Land Rover LR4 is as follows: LR4 (47,650), LR4 HSE ($52,750) and the HSE LUX ($57,665). The two HSE versions come in a 7-passenger configuration. You can add the 7-Seat Comfort package to the base model for $1,150, which includes a third row of flat-folding seats, head curtain airbags, map lights, climate controls, and an accessory power outlet.

The LR4 is probably the most conservative in styling of the Land Rover models, but still pulls off a beautiful unique profile. It continues the tall boxy shape of the LR3, but with rounder lines and angles. The design is a big improvement over the LR3 granting a more powerful presence in part due to the large fender flares. The raised roof in my test model had three sunroofs and the rear side windows extended all the way to the top of the raised-rear roof line. The LR4 grille features two horizontal bars with stretched honey-comb like cavities. Large square blocks of glass with round inserted headlamps stand guard on both sides of the grille. Chrome side vents add a flare of sportiness.

The wheels are extended outward creating short front and rear overhangs to avoid damage during an off-road rugged terrain adventure. New for 2011 are enhancements to the Terrain Response system including the new Hill Start Assist and the Gradient Acceleration Control. There are several other new standard options and features to enjoy.

The interior of the LR4 has been upgraded tremendously replacing cheap plastic trim with a leather-trimmed dash with rich wood trim, softer touch materials and improved placement of controls and knobs. In other words, the LR4 receives high marks for comfort, luxury, and utility. The quality of the fit, finish and materials are outstanding. The leather seats are comfortable and the LR4 has an innovated 35/30/35 split for the second row seats with each section folding flat.

The door panels are a combination of wood and chrome trim with big bold handles to either close the door or hold on tight while venturing off-road. The keyless entry system with Perimetric Sensing Security system can remain in your pocket or purse as the LR4 has push button start. The optional surround camera system uses five cameras – two facing forward, one on either side of the truck facing down, and one at the rear to give an approximate 360-degree view.

The Land Rover LR4 is equipped with the new 5.0-liter DOHC V8 with direct fuel injection and variable camshaft timing that launched on the 2010 model. It produces a respectable 375 horsepower and 375 foot-pounds of torque. The engine is mated to a 6-speed ZF automatic transmission than can be placed in Normal, Sport and Manual modes and the electronic two-speed transfer case can be shifted on the fly. All-wheel drive is standard.

The suspension uses electronically controlled air springs and shock absorbers. The ride is smooth and the steering is responsive especially for a vehicle as tall as the LR4. The Terrain Response system has five settings: Highway, Grass/Gravel/Snow, Mud/Ruts, Sand, and Rock Crawl.

Room for improvement:

  • Poor fuel economy at 12 City and 17 Highway

Cool Features:

  • The Terrain Response System
  • Nine Speaker Harman Kardon Sound System
  • Start Ignition Button

The Land Rover LR4 safety equipment includes six airbags (eight with third-row seats), Dynamic Stability Control, Collision-activated inertia switch, ABS with Electronic Brake force distribution, Emergency Brake Assist, and tire pressure monitor system.

In Summary – The 2011 Land Rover LR4 with a starting sticker price below the $50,000 mark truly feels like a premium luxury vehicle. It comes with a long list of standard features and high-tech components including Bluetooth connectivity and a navigation system with off-road features. If you are looking for an extremely capable off-road vehicle with a combination of elegance and sportiness then check out the new 2011 Land Rover LR4.

2011 Land Rover LR4

Base price: $47,650 as driven: $52,850 (including destination)
Engine: 5.0-liter V8-cylinder
Horsepower: 375 @ 6500
Torque: 375 foot pounds @ 3500
Transmission: 6-Speed Automatic with Overdrive and CommandShift
Drive: Four Wheel-Drive
Seating: 7-passenger
Turning circle: 37.3 feet
Cargo space: 90.3 cubic feet
Curb weight: 5,833 pounds
Fuel capacity: 23.3 gallons
EPA mileage: City 12 / Highway 17
Wheel Base: 113.6 inches
Warranty: 4 years/50,000 miles bumper to bumper
Also consider: Acura MDX, BMW X5, Lexus RX 350, and Mercedes-Benz GLK

On the Case – The Personal Security System

Being the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I thought I would reflect on security issues facing Americans at home. I will dissect the pitfalls of relying on others for one’s safety and the dangerous false sense of security it creates.

It was right after 9/11 that I joined the Army, completed Ranger indoctrination and deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq. I conducted numerous combat missions— including hostage rescues, raids and direct action operations. I was decorated for actions under fire in Iraq. In addition to working as a private investigator, I am also currently a firearms instructor. My experiences and training made a lasting impression on me. I want to share some lessons.

Every year in this country we spend billions on “security” related expenditures such as car alarms, home security systems and the like, while leaving the planning and execution portion of personal safety in the hands of first responders, law enforcement officers and private security professionals.

Even though we are fortunate to have the best safety providers in the world, even these pros are not capable of keeping you and your family safe from random and catastrophic dangers. Police can’t be everywhere at once; if they could I wouldn’t be writing this article. Government aid is slow to arrive in disaster situations and often underwhelming. Relying solely on others sets one up for terminal failure when the systems fail due to serious calamity. A good example of this is Hurricane Katrina where the entire government and social infrastructure was decimated. When the system fails, so do those who rely on it.

This reliance on a false sense of protection is nothing more than hoping and dreaming that others will save you. If you are like me and don’t want to entrust someone you don’t know with your personal safety, there is a better way. In both security and investigations, you have the advantage when you take action first.

This is where the “personal security system” concept comes in, developing and planning one’s ability to survive in adverse conditions without the help of safety providers and/or systems can increase situational awareness and create a new found personal courage. This will be the key to surviving, escaping and dealing with an attack on one’s security.

How does one go about increasing their Personal Security System? The answer is simple and much more effective than relying on hopes and dreams: Research, plan and train. There are many threats and it requires a multitude of skills and strategies to guard against them.

Creating plans for each takes just a bit of time. However according to the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American watches more than four hours of TV each day. Skipping a few TV shows a week to research and plan for your safety is a small price to pay for a real essence of safety.

In future columns I will write more specifically about certain threats and what plans you and your loved ones or business can take to be more secure.

Bummed Out by NBA Lockout? Sharks Can Fill Sports Void

Baseball season will end this month. Football is mainly limited to weekends. Local college basketball teams play only about twice a week. With the NBA lockout you, the dedicated sports fan and Off the Bench reader, will have plenty of spare time to fill this winter.

Why not follow the team that has won more NHL regular season and playoff games than any other team over the past five seasons? That team, the San Jose Sharks, is located down the road and has reloaded this offseason to take another run at its holy grail, The Stanley Cup.

While the players the Sharks have added; Brent Burns, Martin Havlat, Michal Handzus, James Sheppard, Jim Vandermeer, and Colin White are not household names outside of Canada and parts of Europe, suffice to say that among them are a couple of top tier defensemen, penalty killers, and reliable scorers that Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson believes could help the team attain its elusive championship.

“We have high expectations, but we have not yet achieved our goal,” said Wilson of the Stanley Cup title. “We are always seeking ways to get better. We think we have a three-year window with our best players…we try to live each year in the moment and add the pieces we need. Our primary focus is on today.”

Fans tend to have a win-now mentality, which is a good match for Wilson’s approach. So those who follow the Sharks can be assured that management is doing everything it can to win, meaning following the Sharks can be a very satisfying experience.

What has been less satisfying is the annual disappointment in the playoffs. Despite the team’s regular season success it has never played in the Stanley Cup Finals. Not surprisingly, Wilson is proud of what the team has accomplished and is optimistic for the coming season.

“We have been in the final four the last two seasons (though they went 1-8 in those two semi-final series) and in the process we beat one of the most dominant hockey teams, the Detroit Red Wings, twice.

“Last year we got off to a slow start and were 12th in the conference in mid January. We had to finish strong to make the playoffs (the Sharks went 24-4-4 down the stretch and earned the second seed in the Western Conference). That gave us very little margin for error. The rush we put on at the end of the season led to injuries. We will not accept a slow start this season.”

Wilson said that the greatest area of focus this coming season will be improving the penalty kill. The Sharks had been a top five team in that area for most of the past five seasons before dropping to 24th last season. “Handzus, White and Vandemeer are great penalty killers, which is part of why we acquired them. Penalty killing is execution of everyone on the ice. We are driven to get back into the top five.”

To improve in that area, and to acquire top defenseman Burns, the Sharks gave up two big scorers and popular players, Devon Setoguchi and Dany Heatley to the Minnesota Wild in separate deals. “We wish Heatley and Seto all the best,” said Wilson. “We think players like Joe Pavelski and Logan Coture are ready for an expanded role. We don’t think our scoring will fall off.”

The NHL has a hard salary cap, but unlike most good teams the Sharks have never had to dismantle their roster in a salary cap panic. “It starts with our ownership group and the discipline we need to make our players want to play here. We have a full building every night, we are committed to winning, and we try to treat our players fairly. That allows us to structure our contracts the way we do. Players want to win and they want to be in a winning environment.”

Essentially, the Sharks are able to offer players less money in exchange for a winning environment while selling them on the notion that if everyone sacrifices a little the team will keep its best players together and succeed. The franchise cornerstone players, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle, have bought into this and the supporting cast has universally followed.

Those who follow the Sharks this winter will get to watch a skilled, championship-starved team play an exciting brand of hockey in front of a passionate fan base. The Warriors haven’t offered that combination in more than 30 years, and this winter they probably won’t even play.

There’s room on the bandwagon for anyone who wants to climb aboard. Who knows, you may even get to bask in that championship glow come June.

The Golden Age of Radio

Every radio program began with a musical theme…

Remember radio? If you or perhaps your parents were growing up in the 40’s and 50’s then an important part of your life was spent listening to countless hours of exciting and original entertainment on the radio. Almost all of my boyhood heroes appeared on radio shows. These heroes had marvelous adventures in glamorous places and did exciting things. And most of our music of the day, and the past, was heard listening to the radio. 

As a young boy, growing up in what is referred to as “The Golden Age of Radio,” I could not wait to get home from school.  I would turn on the radio at 5:00 to hear what “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy,” would encounter in today’s episode. “Sgt. Preston of the Yukon” and his faithful dog, King, closely followed.

After dinner our family would go into the living room and dad would turn on the big console radio for the evening programs. Every night, families and their neighbors would come together and listen to radio broadcasts and radio drama. An astonishing 82% of Americans were radio listeners during this time, according to a research study by

Radio Drama

Radio Drama is defined as an acoustic performance broadcast on radio with no visual component. It depends on dialog, music and sound effects to help the listener imagine the characters and story line. It is auditory in the physical dimension but equally powerful as a visual force in the psychological dimension.

By the late 1930’s radio drama was widely popular in the United States. Dozens of programs: mysteries, thrillers, soap operas, comedies, adventures, westerns, dramas and romance stories, were listened to and enjoyed by millions who tuned in every day. By 1940 radio drama was the leading international popular entertainment.

Radio allowed the listeners to create their own image of characters and settings—a luxury we no longer have in the medium of television. Old time radio shows were pure fun and entertainment. You used your imagination.

The very stuff of radio was imagination, the very antithesis of television, writes Jim Harmon, in his book, The Great Radio Heroes.  Radio drama required great imagination and those series that best provided it were rewarded with the greater success. Radio was willing to preserve the best of the past and constantly experiment for better, new shows. Clearly television is a different world from “Golden Age” radio, but they are a clearly different species, according to Harmon.

A most unusual and very chilling program in 1938 was Orson Well’s adaptation of H. G. Wells War of the Worlds.  It was so well done and realistic it literally panicked most of the entire nation as it described an impending invasion of Martians. This was undoubtedly one of the most talked about and famous radio shows ever produced—then or now.

Radio Music Themes

Every radio program began with a musical theme and a fixed dialogue guaranteed to capture the imagination and interest of the audience in the show. It was designed to create a mood and expectation for what was to come. The theme music was specific for that particular program. Some of the themes had lyrics, most did not however. Some of the themes were identified with a particular person. For example: Bob Hope; “Thanks for the Memories,” Liberace; “I’ll be Seeing You,” Bing Crosby; “Where the Blue of the Night,” and Roy Rogers; “Happy Trails to You,” among many others.

The Lone Ranger and his faithful companion, Tonto, tracked down and outsmarted even the cleverest of bandits and outlaws of the old West. The Lone Ranger’s musical themes were drawn from classical music including Rossini’s, “William Tell Overture,” Mendelssohn’s, “Fingals Cave Overture” and Liszt’s, “Les Prelude.”

Many listeners who were never exposed to music before heard great music, both classical and popular, on radio. “Your Hit Parade,” a musical show with orchestra and various singers, was broadcast every Saturday evening. The program offered the most popular and bestselling songs of the week. Many great singers sang on the show including the very young Frank Sinatra. The show was broadcast each Saturday from 1935 until 1955, then it was broadcast on television.

Some radio show themes, because of their longevity have become household fixtures. As more and more listeners heard the shows the themes became almost as well known as the programs themselves. Many radio themes were drawn from classical music, as mentioned, others from well known tunes from earlier eras. The organ was used as the instrument of choice in many of the soap operas.

After the introduction of television programming, radio drama never completely recovered its popularity in the United States. Most radio dramas were cancelled by 1960. The last shows from the “Golden Age” were; “Yours Truly Johnny Dollar,” and “Suspense.” Both were cancelled in 1962. A remaining vestige of radio drama on Public Radio today is Garrison Keillor’s, “A Prairie Home Companion.”

This writer, for one, misses the great programming of the “Golden Age.” I am so glad that a part of my youth was spent listening to memorable programs which so stretched my imagination and filled me with wonder and delight.

Please submit your questions and comments to Visit our website at for up-to-date information about the Danville Community Band.

Mrs. Doubtfire: ALIVE at the Movies

I went to a wedding the other day. It was a beautiful summer day and I was listening to the heartfelt vows of some dear friends who probably didn’t expect to find new love in their golden years. The garden location was perfect and as we went inside for the reception I was taken back to 1993, not because of something that happened to me, but as a reminder of a movie that was filmed in this very location, Mrs. Doubtfire. We were seated in Bridges Restaurant in Danville, California.

Daniel Hillard (Robin Williams) is a kind, loving father. He is also a poor disciplinarian and a generally shaky role model for his three children. Miranda (Sally Field), his wife had definitely had to take on the role of “bad cop” in the family. After quitting or losing yet another job, Daniel picks up his kids at school and throws together an impromptu birthday party for his son. Miranda is called home by a neighbor to find a huge petting zoo parked on her quiet San Francisco street with ducks and geese, little horses and rabbits inside and outside her lovely home. The police have just arrived and her husband and children are dancing on the fancy dining table. This is the final straw, there is no room left in her life for the eccentric, fun loving actor who specializes in dubbing cartoon voice-overs.

Miranda goes to divorce court and gets custody of the children. Daniel has ninety days to redeem himself. Now 90 days isn’t a lot of time when you unemployed and homeless, but Daniel finds a small apartment and get a boring job. It really gets interesting when he hears that she is going to hire a Nanny-Housekeeper for his children and Daniel applies for the job; basically in drag…enter Mrs. Doubtfire.

Mrs. Doubtfire is an elderly woman created by Daniels brother, Frank a special effects make-up artist and she gets the job. Frank does such an amazing job that no one seems to recognize Daniel. Life is beautiful. Miranda has an amazing Nanny. The kids have someone they adore and Daniel finally figures out how to be a parent.

Oh, yes, there is the resident hunk, Stuart (Pierce Brosnan). He’s an old friend, new client and wannabe new mate for Miranda which really steams Daniel. Back to Bridges. There is an incredibly funny scene at our local restaurant where Daniel is doing what Robin Williams does best, mastering chaos.

All in all, Mrs. Doubtfire is a poignant romantic comedy where Robin Williams will keep you in stitches with his improvisational antics. Sally Field will totally endear you and the children have some of the best lines. As always, tell me what you think at

Class in Back in Session: Did you learn from 2008?

Here we go again. Extreme market volatility has come back to the markets over this summer. Unfortunately, we have had to endure yet another nasty and rapid decline in the world’s stock markets. Fear and pessimism once again are dominating the headlines. With all of this going on, I believe that now is a good time to ask ourselves how well we learned our lessons from 2008.

Probably the biggest lesson from 2008 is to keep your emotions in check. Many investors sold in a panic when stocks were at their lows back in late 2008 and the beginning of 2009. Sadly, many are doing the same thing right now. I have been in this business for over 20 years and have seen my share of bear markets. During this time, I have never seen a client get it right when it comes to market timing during a downturn. Those who get out may miss the absolute bottom, however, they never get back in until after the market rallies and is at a higher level than when they exited. In every case, missing all or a portion of the rebound resulted in them having less money in their accounts down the road. As generic as it sounds, staying the course does prove to be an effective strategy over the long term.

A recent study of 401(k) participants by mutual fund giant Fidelity Investments confirms this point. The study concluded that investors who sold equities during the market volatility in 2008 and 2009 did worse than those who stayed in stocks. The study showed that 401(k) participants who dumped stocks from October 1, 2008 to March 31, 2009 (when the S&P 500 dropped 31%) and had not returned to equities as of June 30, 2011, had an average account balance increase of just 2%. Those that maintained some equity allocation in their accounts during the same period saw their balances rise 50% on average.1 Even a temporary exit from the market was enough to damage future account values. Participants who exited the stock market completely, but then returned to some level of equity allocation after the market decline, saw an average account balance increase of only 25%.2

So here we are today confronted with the same type of uncertainty and fear as before. The question is; did we learn anything from 2008? No doubt we have some serious headwinds facing our economy. Now, however, is not the time to panic out of the stock market. If you plan to reduce you stock exposure, do it later, after the markets recover, not now in the midst of a downturn. Exiting stocks during a downturn has proven over and over again to be a losing proposition.

1. Bloomberg, Selling Burns 401(k) Investors Who Dumped Stocks, Fidelity Says, 8-18-2011
2. U.S. News & World Report, Planning to Retire, 401(k) Savers Who Stuck to Stocks Saw Gains, 8-19-2011

Damien helps individuals invest and manage risk. He is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional and a principal of Walnut Creek Wealth Management. These are the views of Damien Couture, CFP® and should not be construed as investment advice. The Standard & Poor’s 500 (S&P 500) is an unmanaged group of securities considered to be representative of the stock market in general. You cannot invest directly in an index. All information is believed to be from reliable sources; however we make no representation as to its completeness or accuracy. Not all recommendations are suitable for all investors. Each investor must consider their own goals, time horizon and risk tolerance. Your comments are welcome. Damien can be reached at 925-280-1800 x101 or

Market Fresh – Heading for Fall

I always savor the gentle change of seasons, but the transition from summer to autumn may be my favorite of all. Crisp mornings, shorter days, and cozy evenings at home rekindle my nesting instinct. The backyard grill enjoys a temporary reprieve while soups and stews simmer in the kitchen. There is a wreath on the front door; a family of big bumpy pumpkins and other winter squash arranged on the porch; and crackling flames flicker in the fireplace. Providing I avoid the glitter-laden department stores already broadcasting carols on a continuous loop, this is also an ideal time to reflect upon the year—both the months that have passed, and the months ahead.

This natural evolution is apparent at the farmers’ market, as well, where the vibrant colors of summer produce are replaced by soft golden hues that mimic the leaves of autumn.

It seems friends gravitate toward each other more than ever this month, as our calendars begin to fill with gatherings of every variety. Halloween holds a special place in my heart, along with plenty of others who refuse to give kids a monopoly on this spooky/fun night.

In the sweet spirit of Halloween—and with more than a passing nod to the upcoming Day of the Dead—consider casting a spell with a deep dark chocolate fondue that’s fragrant with classic Mexican flavors—not the least of which is a devilish kick from chipotle chile. Serve this to your friends and family, and don’t be surprised when boys and ghouls of all ages bypass that platter of pumpkin cupcakes with garish orange frosting.
There is only a ghost of a chance you’ll encounter someone who expresses disappointment when faced with a mini-cauldron of silky chocolate, but an inspired selection of dippers will elevate this fondue to a whole other level. Oh sure, you can serve it with the usual lineup of suspects like banana chunks, pineapple spears, marshmallows, biscotti, donut holes, pretzels, or even warm flour tortillas. But a quick visit to the farmers’ market will give you a bewitching—and dare I add healthy?—roundup of seasonal dippers to assuage any chocolate-covered guilt guests might feel at consuming such an indulgence.

Haunt the farmers’ market and you may come across some late-season strawberries—always an extremely popular choice for dipping. Other sure-fire hits include:

  • Wedges of crisp apples and juicy pears (leave the skins on, so guests can spot different varieties)
  • Chunks of peeled cantaloupe and honeydew melon
  • Kiwi fruit, peeled and cut into thick slices
  • Fuyu persimmons, cut into chunky wedges
  • Seedless grapes
  • Fresh and/or dried figs and mango
  • Dried apricots
  • Pitted dates
  • California almonds and walnuts

If you don’t own a fondue set, just serve this directly from a nice-looking saucepan or a heatproof bowl, and offer bamboo skewers instead of long-handled forks.

Mexican Hot Chocolate Fondue

  • 1 cup heavy (whipping) cream
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 3 cinnamon sticks (each about 3-inches long)*
  • 1 pound bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
  • 1 teaspoon chipotle chile powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  1. In a medium saucepan, combine the cream, milk, and cinnamon sticks. Cook over medium-low heat, watching carefully, until small bubbles appear around the edges of the pan. Reduce the heat to low and cook 5 minutes longer. Carefully remove the cinnamon sticks and discard, or reserve for another use.
  2. Gradually add the chocolate to the cinnamon-infused cream mixture and cook, stirring, until melted and smooth. Stir in the espresso powder, chipotle powder, and vanilla and continue cooking over low heat for 1 minute longer. Transfer to a fondue pot and serve warm, not hot. Makes about 3 cups, to serve 8 to 10.

*Cinnamon sticks infuse the cream with a subtle yet distinctive undercurrent of flavor; but if you have none on hand, simply add 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon along with the espresso and chile powders.

Adapted from Great Party Fondues by Peggy Fallon (John Wiley & Sons, 2008)
The Danville Certified Farmers’ Market, located at Railroad and Prospect, is open every Saturday, rain or shine, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. For specific crop information call the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association at 1-800-949-FARM or visit their web site at

Legal Lines – What About Your Pet

For many of us, pets contribute greatly to our happiness and well-being. Because they are such an important part of our lives, we worry about what would happen if we are hospitalized or otherwise unavailable. 

The most important thing is to make a plan. Consider who might be willing to take your pet. Is that person is capable of the care that your pet requires?  Have a discussion to be sure they are indeed willing to become the pet’s new owner, with all of the responsibilities that go along with pet ownership. You may also wish to have a backup person, should the first person be unable or unwilling to take the pet when the time comes. Another thing to think about: Is there a need to have someone who can take custody of the pet temporarily, if there is travel or other arrangements that need to be made?

Sometimes, there is no one that you can think of who would be willing or able to take your pet. Other local options include the Guardian Program run by the Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF), and the SIDO program run by the San Francisco SPCA. Both have arrangements where they agree to care for a pet temporarily while finding it a new home, and both require advance screening and paperwork prior to making such a commitment.

Once you have decided who is going to take your pet, it is a good idea to put the arrangements in writing. Instructions regarding the ownership of your pet can be done in a Will or a Trust. Often, pet owners will make a gift to the new owner to ease the financial burden on the new owner, informally ensuring that funds are available if needed. If you wish to document the arrangement more formally, California law allows for a Trust to be set up specifically to take care of your pet. Making a plan, and having it in writing ensures that your loving companion gets the care you would desire.

Funny Side Up: I’m a Walking Thesaurus

I’m a walking thesaurus and it’s becoming a problem … or is it issue? I do it sitting down too. While someone is talking, I blurt out their last word for them or I’ll throw out a better, more descriptive, illustrative, colorful, eloquent and vivid word to help them out.

But they don’t want my help – wherein lies my problem (and possible speaking restraining orders called peaceful contact). I know what you’re thinking too. Who died and made you Ms. Verbal editor, eh? I can’t help it. It’s not like I’m from New Jersey and talk a-mile-a-minute, but it seems everyone around me (here in California) talks very slow, like I’m in a dream. 

It’s they who come up with the worst words to describe their experiences. Or they do that long minute, minute-and-a-half pause with the annoying “um” to go with it. This type of communication just screams inside my head with, “Charleen, help him out quick, what’s the word he’s wanting to use right now?” It’s not me, it’s them, I convince myself.

If they’d just be more accurate in conveying their messages, I wouldn’t have to jump in and save their verbal-communication-day with an amazingly precise and scrupulous word.

Not trying to toot my own vernacular horn, but you’d think they’d be thanking me. Instead they roll their eyes, grunt, reluctantly repeat my word with disdainful resolve, or (and this one hurts) ask me to let them finish their own sentence pleeease. It happened today. When I get that type of “shush,” I realize I have a dilemma and things are getting way out of control. Is there an AA program for this? Hi, my name is Charleen and I’m a sentence-finisher. Welcome Charleen!

Only I’m not welcome. People around me would rather polish off their sentence with the most tedious, dreary, unexciting, wearisome, humdrum, uninspiring, un-thoughtful, non-descriptive, mind-numbing, inaccurate, lackluster word they can muster. And they’re perfectly happy with it too, borderline proud. Seriously?

So I muster a silent prayer. Forgive them Father, for they know not what better word to use. I also pray (heavily) that those around them will somehow miraculously understand the message conveyed. They usually do.

So it is me. Ultimately, I’m learning to keep my mouth shut; to speak and let speak; and to toss out my internal thesaurus while others are talking … or is it yapping?