Thursday, June 29, 2006

Junker and Cat Trifecta

I’ve changed my mind about the junker. It turns out it’s not actually that easy to find, as David C. agreed, a bike that is functional and not completely painful to ride, but which also looks like a total piece of crap, the main benefit of the junker. (If you want a bike that looks just fine and probably is also 100 percent functional but your budget is limited and/or you want to support something good, visit Pedal Revolution.)

To lock my bike right now, I use a u-lock to secure the frame to what appears to me a permanent structure, and I loop a cable through the wheels on the theory that someone might cut a cable to get a whole bike, but might not go to the same trouble for just a wheel. However, I know people who have lost wheels doing this, and now that I know that I probably won’t be able to get a cab to stop for me, my bike frame and my one remaining wheel, I’m thinking it’s time to improve my security.

My wheels are currently quick-release, which is why I have to put the cables through them. I could make them not quick-release, but then I’d always have to have a wrench with me, and besides, bike thieves can carry wrenches, thinking here of the thief who used an Allen wrench to remove a bike seat of mine.

I did buy a set of fancy wheel fasteners that require a custom key for wheel installation or removal. However, they were so difficult to use that I myself found them burdensome, so I won’t name them here; I do use the third part of the set for attaching my seat. I guess what I’d better do is practice with those things and reinstall them. My wheels should be pretty well protected with those devices plus the cable. If I’m going to a questionable area, I can also bring just for that day a really massive u-lock I have and don’t usually use because I’m afraid it will cause my pannier to fail prematurely from the weight.

Today while I was riding to work a small white car suddenly swerved from the bus lane (tsk tsk) toward me. It gave me quite a fright. Then a police car came by and I realized why the driver of the white car had suddenly been inspired to exit her lane. At the light, I stopped by the car and waved, with a neutral expression on my face, and waited until the passenger rolled down the window a bit and then I said, as pleasantly as possible, “You really scared the crap out of me back there. Thanks for not killing me.” The driver apologized.

Last Friday I asked J. why acupuncture with him is so painful lately, when my first few sessions were pain-free. Years ago I saw another acupuncturist for quite some time, and she didn’t cause me as much pain in all sessions combined as J. does in one. He said we’re working on heat points, which are inherently unpleasant, but also that if a client is OK with it, he works more aggressively. I felt bad for saying “Jesus!” in a strained tone of voice during a particularly therapeutic moment, but I felt better when I found out that my friend who also sees him feels free to yell “Fuck!” at the top of her lungs.

Not sure where I left off on the saga of Thelonious, but she had been prescribed some antibiotics for her irritable bowel syndrome before I went to Michigan. I waited to start until I returned, as I didn’t want to ask Tom to deal with it. (I suppose you’re wondering what happened with the cat poop and the trash bag and all that. My dear friend did put the poop in the toilet; I had taken the precaution of removing the trash bag from the bathroom. He did not flush the toilet.)

I was hoping to find an amount of wet cat food that would be sufficient to conceal the taste of the medication but not be too much for her to eat. It turns out there is no such amount. It takes half a can of food to make the antibiotics reasonably palatable, but she can’t eat that much food in 12 hours, and she has to have a dose twice a day. She probably couldn’t eat that much food even if it didn’t have antibiotics in it.

In addition, switching to the wet food gave her awful diarrhea which has not abated. I spoke to her vet and he said to give her a smaller amount of the medication, so I’m doing that, in one quarter of a can of food, and that’s working reasonably well in that she will almost eat it all, though her symptom (gulping, which her doctor thinks is caused by nausea) remains the same, so probably it’s not working at all, actually.

A couple of days ago, I was in the bathroom while Thelonious came in, had a bout of diarrhea in her cat box, dribbled a bit of poop on the floor as she walked out of the bathroom, and then barfed right outside the bathroom door. I would never get annoyed with her for this—really, I feel awful for her—but I confess I may have let out a sigh after she barfed, the final event in the Cat Trifecta.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Some Trashy Talk

“What would get you to use public transportation for your commute?” was the question recently asked by Two Cents, the feature in the San Francisco Chronicle where the comments of various citizens are printed along with a little photo of the respondent.

Daniel Curzon-Brown of San Francisco, inspiringly, said this: “It would take public transportation coming into my garage when I want it, followed by a carriage or riding area devoid of people, especially threatening or annoying ones, except for me, and a drop-off 100 yards from my office.”

Good lord. No wonder America is in decline, though Ben said he thought the commentator was merely “exaggerating some very legitimate gripes.” Still, it’s disheartening to see people refusing to make the slightest sacrifice when our continued existence is very likely dependent on it. Don’t get me wrong; I hate Muni, too, but if the only choices were to take Muni or to own a car or motorcycle, I would take Muni exclusively.

Today was yet another great day to be a bicycle commuter. I rode to work amid dozens of other cyclists—there seem to be more and more women biking to work—and passed cheery San Francisco Bicycle Coalition volunteers at Van Ness and Market, up to one of their (our) endless improving projects, so many of which have been successful and made S.F. a nicer place to live and bike.

There are some places I don’t like to ride a bike to. My acupuncturist’s office is in a very tranquil neighborhood where the sidewalks are usually empty. It seems to me a perfect place for a bike thief to work in peace for an hour or so while I’m writhing in agony inside—I mean, while I’m receiving J.’s kind ministrations.

I have therefore decided to acquire a third bicycle, a junker I wouldn’t be distraught to lose. Both my road bike (a Bianchi Eros) and my commute bike (a Marin Novato; I would not buy another Marin bicycle, though I have no plans to get rid of mine) were purchased at Freewheel, but I will get the junker from Pedal Revolution, a place in the Mission where they teach young people to refurbish secondhand bikes, thus providing employment and training (that’s lifted straight from their website). I’ll get a bracket for the handlebar so I can attach my light, and a rack so I can attach my panniers, and probably I won’t add anything else to it. Oh, I’ll get a loud bell. Then I can ride the junker instead of taking Muni (or, sometimes, a cab).

San Francisco’s recycling and compost programs have expanded lately. Now I can take home and put in the compost bin the waxed paper I use for the peanut butter and tomato sandwiches I bring to work. I’ve also started taking my teabags home, though I think I’ll try to go one step farther and switch to bulk tea, so I don’t have to throw out the wrapper the teabag came in and the string. The cartons that soy frozen desserts come in can also go in the compost bin.

It drives me just slightly crazy to see people walking along with plastic Starbucks cups and the like, as I’m sure they buy one or two of them every single day and then throw them in the trash.

I have long had a towel at work that I use for face-washing; now I’m trying to remember always to take it to the bathroom for drying my hands. Recently I also brought a dish towel to work for drying off my water and tea mugs after I rinse them in the morning. I didn’t want to use the dish towel to swab off the counter in the kitchen (see “Howard Hughes” below), so this morning I brought a sponge from home, as well. This should reduce my paper towel use at work to nothing.

Not long ago, a sign was put up in the kitchen at work suggesting that people bring cups to work so as to reduce the use of Styrofoam cups. I thought that was fantastic, but after a couple of days, the sign disappeared. Evidently it was “Love the Environment” day or something, and then after that we could get back to hating the environment.

I’m kind of obsessed with reducing the amount of trash I generate, though it conflicts with my Howard Hughes tendencies. For instance, I probably have a friend who uses the same piece of dental floss for a month, but I can’t bring myself to do that. My most embarrassing trash-related secret is that I tend to throw out plastic bags, because the idea of having a lot of soiled plastic bags hanging around distresses me, though I also have many plastic bags that I use for the same thing over and over. For instance, I have a Cal Fed bag whose dedicated purpose is the transporting of my house slippers to other places I might spend the night, like Tom’s brother’s house in Sacramento or my parents’ house.

I wouldn’t put anything else in that bag because then it would touch the same surface my slippers touched, and of course my slippers touch the kitchen floor, which is also touched by my shoes, which touch the sidewalks, which are covered with spit and dog poop. You understand.

Anyway, it’s quite satisfying to see the number of items that must go in the trash decreasing, either because more can be composted or recycled, or because a reusable item or one with less/no packaging has been substituted.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A Liberating Insight

As the days of my visit to Ann Arbor passed, I grew increasingly anxious about leaving again. I left there rather suddenly 24 years ago—it wasn’t what you’d call a well-considered plan—and that has reverberated to some extent ever since.

While I sometimes long for the peace and quiet of Ann Arbor (though I have to remember that if I lived there, I wouldn’t get to spend every day lying on my parents’ couch reading), the main thing that makes me want to move back is the desire to be closer to my parents, who of course are getting older, though they’re not particularly old. At 44, it might reasonably cross one’s mind that one’s parents will die, but I’ve been worrying about this since I was four.

My mother and I talk about death a lot. In the past few years, there have been three deaths in our family, and we recall those people and how they lived and died, and we talk about how things might be as she and my father age.

At my most recent retreat, one of the teachers was talking about a period when he was having a lot of insight into dukkha, which means suffering or unsatisfactoriness, and which is easy to remember because it sounds like “dookey,” which is the word my best friends when I was three or four years old used to refer to poop. The teacher recalled looking at a tree and thinking, “Yes, but soon the leaves will fall and winter will come.” Everything he looked at made him think of sorrow and loss. “Hmm,” he eventually realized, “This might be a little too much insight into suffering.”

Similarly, I look at my cat: “How I love this cat! How sad that she will age and die; how dreadful it will be to lose her.” I’ve been thinking that, not non-stop but frequently enough, for 16 years! So I think I don’t have to worry about not having sufficient insight into suffering.

On this visit, I noticed Mom talking about her own eventual demise in a rather anxious way, which is very unusual. And maybe that’s just because when you get to be 66, you think more about your own death than at 44 or 22. But I also had the guilty feeling that I might be infecting her with my worry somehow, though I don’t fling myself on the ground, grip her ankle and fret explicitly. I think she knows the nature of my fears.

My mother is only 22 years old than I am, and I even found myself thinking, “Well, there’s not really any point in embarking on any major initiatives because my mom’s going to die and then practically right after that, I’m going to die!” Life suddenly seemed extremely short: 20 years of being a kid, 20 subsequent years, 20 years of being 40 (which I just started), 20 years without my mom, and then death. (This might not be so pronounced had I ever cleaved to another person and started a family, but I didn’t, and at this point, I’m not going to have kids, though I still might cleave. I never meant to have kids.)

The last day or two of my visit, I became weepy. I wondered if I should move back to Ann Arbor. I went to bed the last (last!) night feeling like I was four years old again and then I remembered the wise words of Ezra Bayda: Any moment of upset boils down to feelings in the body in combination with believed thoughts. He says if we keep figuring out what our believed thoughts are, we will eventually uncover our core issues, which I find inspiring. I think that’s what he said. Anyway, I reviewed the thoughts I was believing: If I don’t make just the right decision, I’ll wreck my life and live in regret to the end of my years, and suchlike.

One amazing thing about this is that you don’t then have to try to talk yourself out of the thoughts. There’s no harm in comforting oneself by any means, or looking for things to be happy about, or offering oneself some sensible reminders. Deborah recently said a helpful thing in regard to my recurring question about whether to look for another job. She said things will be fine, and good things will happen, if I stay where I am, and things will also be fine and good things will happen if I do something else.

The real magic happens, however, just by seeing the thought as a thought. Eventually it dawns on me that the thing that seems so frightening is not even a thing at all—it’s a thought! It’s nothing more than a thought. And that is wonderfully freeing, without my having made any explicit effort to free myself. It’s like a gift that comes by itself when I merely remember to notice what really is happening.

At the airport, of course I thought, “What if I die a horrible death on this plane?” but it wasn’t preoccupying. I also noticed the expanse of lush greenness outside, the deep blue sky, the cars sailing along I-94, life rolling along eternally. When the plane ride was bumpy, it made me think of mountain biking and it seemed fun rather than scary. I didn’t feel like I was on something that was going to give way under me at any moment, but something that was perfectly solid, just a bit rough in texture at times.

Monday, June 19, 2006

If I May Ask Just One Question

No news extremely recently because I was in Michigan visiting my parents, with whom I stayed in Ann Arbor. We hung out and watched DVDs and watched the news in Spanish. We visited various relatives and I saw the couple of friends who are still in the area. I can’t tell you what the weather was like as my parents, after decades in the horrible heat and humidity of summer there, now have air conditioning, though it did seem to be quite humid once or twice as I was walking between the house and the car.

My visit coincided with my father’s 50th high school reunion. I went along for one event, which was a tour of their old high school building. My father went to University High School, which was sort of a lab for the Department of Education at the University of Michigan, which has now reclaimed the building for its own use. The high school closed in the 1960s. I thought it would be neat to hear people saying, “Here’s where I threw a spitball at you fifty years ago,” and it was. I also enjoyed hearing afterwards my father’s recollections about some of the people who were on the tour. He told me that one pleasant man had been the captain of the football team, the captain of the basketball team, and the head of the track squad, on top of which he was a talented musician who spent his summers at Interlochen! Sheesh.

I think they all would have turned out better if, like me, they had spent their high school years smoking pot behind the building and made do with Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. (Of course, I had many fine experiences at BLFAC, but Interlochen is definitely the fancy place.)

My parents have a very darling cat, Nigel, who belonged to my grandmother before she died. Nigel is unusually long and very skinny and has the kind of fur where most individual hairs are half one color and half another, like squirrels have (agouti, it’s called). She used to be extremely terrified of people—she was invisible to my grandmother’s bridge-playing friends—but she has loosened up considerably, though she will still sometimes trot away from force of habit, or muscle memory. When you come upon her lying down and pet her, she rolls over and stretches luxuriously, exposing her very long stomach, and then, in what looks like an overflow of ecstasy, she gathers what seems to be six or eight of her very long legs into her arms and licks them tenderly while you stroke her belly. She always looks like she’s smiling. My cat, Thelonious, is theoretically wasting away, but when I got home after spending a week or so with Nigel, she looked enormous.

My parents’ home has been the site of a good deal of overeating over the years, and in the past, I often began to eat compulsively the moment I arrived, which then tends to trigger anyone else who is similarly inclined (who then becomes crabby and blames me for making them gain 10 pounds), but I notice that gets better every year, and this time it was five days before there was a hint of overeating, and what there was wasn’t extreme. Friendly relations were maintained throughout.

I had fun being with my mother, as always. One night we were having an idle argument about something. After she’d presented all her evidence, she said, “I rest my case.” I said, “I rest my case.” She said, “But your case is wrong. You can rest your case in the back hall. You can rest it in the trash barrel.”

Yesterday morning I was sitting with her in her sitting room. I said I was going to go get my spectacles so I could see her. “There’s nothing to see!” she protested, and when I came back, she had draped a shirt over the top half of her body, covering her face, and then put her glasses on over the shirt. The effect was a little unsettling.

When I arrived, she gave me two instructions: Not to wash any of her laundry when I did my own and not to ask any questions. Every day I resolved not to ask any questions, but every one of them seemed essential, so she kept having to say, “Stop asking questions.”

A typical exchange. You’ll figure out who is who.

“I don’t understand why, when you listen to Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor never says, ‘This is Garrison Keillor.’ Why doesn’t he say, ‘This is Garrison Keillor’?”

“Because everyone knows it’s Garrison Keillor.”

I don’t know it’s Garrison Keillor. I can’t stand Prairie Home Companion.”

[Look of disbelief.] “Really? Well, then, don’t listen to it. Or do listen to it and sue them for harassment: He’s harassing you with his show.”

“It’s been on for 32 years, right? He’s been harassing me for 32 years and I didn’t even know it!”

[Pause. Same speaker as previous.] “How long does it take to drive or fly from here to Minneapolis?”

“Oh, jesus.”

Friday, June 09, 2006

Darn! You! Garlic!!!

Another thing Tom and I did last weekend was go see Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth. It was very good. I recommend it highly. It turns out I know someone who sees Al Gore now and then, so I am now pestering that person to strike up an acquaintance with him as phase one of an operation whose second phase will be getting me a five-second audience with Al G. so I can just shake his hand and tell him I think he’s fabulous.

It turns out that Thelonious’s blood work was absolutely perfect, which is good, but that doesn’t explain why she has lost weight, so I have to have her weight rechecked this week. Dr. Press says she may be having intestinal problems, and I think that is probably true because her stomach is gurgling an awful lot, poor kitty, and she’s gulping a lot lately, which Dr. Press thinks indicates nausea, though he’s never seen her do it. She does it more when she’s relaxed and she is never relaxed when she’s at the vet’s.

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Dave Grossman’s book, is proving to be very interesting and very readable. It’s in many short sections and I’m finding myself saying, “Huh, I didn’t know that!” a lot, as when I read Fast Food Nation.

Tuesday, 6/6/06, was my actual birthday; I had celebrated over the Memorial Day weekend. I remember on 6/6/66 being slightly disappointed that I was turning four and not six. I got a few emails and phone calls on the actual day, which was very nice as it kind of felt like my birthday was already over a week ago. My parents called and sang “Happy Birthday” in unison, which is very sweet, and I also got a card from them with a $100 check in it, which my father sends every year. Even though I don’t strictly need the money, I love getting a birthday card with money in it.

Yesterday evening I went to a knife skills class at Sur La Table on Maiden Lane, which is something I’ve meant to do for a long time. I’m terrified of cutting the end of a finger off, so it takes me forever to chop vegetables. Improved technique should help.

The class was really great. The instructor was Mike C. of Kitchen on Fire in Berkeley, who bore a passing resemblance to Jerry Cantrell and also had the arms of a rock star—covered with tattoos and very muscular but not bulky like a bodybuilder’s—and who was super-duper enthusiastic. He made me think, in a good way, of a nerdy little kid getting to do his favorite thing in the world. We received Kitchen on Fire cards with a picture of Mike C. and his co-chef, with the caption, “If these two clowns can cook, so can you.”

He talked about how to choose a knife, how to hone and sharpen one, and how to hold it. He explained how the traditional shape of a knife handle came about and why it’s no good —if it gets narrower as it approaches the blade, it will tend to make your hand slide toward the blade, which is not what you want. These days they’re making some knives whose handles are better in that regard.

He said electric knife sharpeners are no good—they are very likely to worsen the condition of your knife edge—but that some of the non-electric ones are pretty good. He explained how not to cut yourself —making your non-cutting hand into “the claw”—and went over various cutting techniques. We practiced on various vegetables and some of the results were turned into tasty pizzas.

He showed us how to make a fanned strawberry and how to section a citrus fruit. He explained that if you buy an orange whose navel isn’t an “outie,” it won’t have that orange-within-an-orange that makes segmenting difficult. And he said that, unlike other herbs, cilantro has the most intense flavor in its root, and then in its stem, with the leaves actually having the least flavor. He said cilantro stems, unlike parsley stems, are not fibrous, so go ahead and chop up and use the stem, too. What he had to say about cutting up a pepper alone is going to save me about a year, as that normally takes me forever.

When it comes to garlic, he said not to use a garlic press but to use the palm of our hand to lean on the garlic clove until we hear the first crack. Then the skin can easily be removed. Then he suggests positioning the knife blade flat over the garlic clove in such a way that the knife handle isn’t interfering, at the edge of the cutting board, and giving the garlic clove a good whack to reduce it to smithereens. After that, a few chops with the knife are all that are needed.

He said the only time to mince a garlic clove is if Jacques Pepin is looking over your shoulder.

When he demonstrated garlic-mashing, he yelled a loud karate shriek when he delivered the fatal blow. Of course, our attempts at both whacking and yelling were feeble. He said, “You might have to hit it more than once. You can yell with each stroke: ‘Darn! You! Garlic!!!’” I’ll probably never see garlic again without thinking, “Darn! You! Garlic!!!”

Mike C. said his birthday is next week and he’s going to have a party at his cooking school. I told him mine was Tuesday and he pumped my hand heartily and congratulated me for having the good sense to be a Gemini. That was good thinking!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Me at the Sequoia Century

Note that this was taken on the initial flat 10-mile stretch, before I was grimacing with misery and covered with sweat. ("Ha," said my coworker, "Kinda like wedding photos.")

Monday, June 05, 2006

A (Seeming) Century Amid the Sequoias

Yesterday Tom and I did the Sequoia Century, an organized bike ride that starts in Palo Alto. If you’ve never been on one of these things, here’s how it works. You send some money beforehand, or register on the day of the ride. On ride day, you sign in and receive a route map. There will also be marks painted on the ground to indicate the various routes. There might be a 30-mile option, 100K (about 62 miles) and 100 miles. Sometimes there is a 200K option. Along the routes, there are rest areas with food, water and portable toilets.

In our case, we rent a vehicle to get our bikes to the starting line. It seems kind of odd to pay so much for something I could do for free, but Tom likes these events, and as it happens, I never actually do go out in the country and ride around for hours unless I’m signed up for a century. Tom, on the other hand, goes out all the time and rides 60 or 70 miles just for fun.

I’m not a fast rider. I believe in a slow start, a slow middle, and a slow finish. The slow start is a choice. The slow finish is usually a necessity. It generally takes me about six hours to ride 60 miles. Because he actually trains, it takes Tom about the same time to ride 100 miles, so it works out well.

The primary reason for undertaking such a thing, of course, is to admire the shapely calves (preferably shaved, as many are) of passing male cyclists.

Yesterday’s ride featured two 100K options, flat and hilly. I asked Tom if he thought the hilly route would be really hilly, as the flat route sounded kind of boring. No, he said, he thought it would be moderate. You have to be really careful when it comes to advice from the naturally optimistic. I’m embarrassed to say how many times I’ve believed Tom when he’s said, “Oh, no, I don’t think it’s going to rain,” or “This should be quick and easy.”

Needless to say, the hilly route was very hilly indeed. First there were 10 miles that were quite flat. That took me about an hour. Then came 1.4 miles that were due uphill, which took me two hours, panting like a dog. My stomach had been upset in the morning (it probably wondered what we were doing up five hours earlier than usual), so I’d eaten only one piece of toast before embarking. I also ran out of water before I got to the first rest stop, so I was basically dying by the time I got there.

Normally I don’t like to hear anything about the route in advance. There are few enough surprises in life that I like to make what humble discoveries I can. I don’t like to hear someone say, “Around that corner is a vineyard.” I like to roll around the corner and think, “Hey, a vineyard!” But the first part of this ride was so difficult that I stopped every ten minutes the rest of the day to rest and study the map, calculating exactly how much climbing was coming and how many miles it would be spread over.

There were a couple of very nice descents. In the North Bay, motorists seem to be rather understanding about cyclists descending in the middle of a twisty road. The cyclist might be going about as fast as a car would go, anyway, and there is no problem, but yesterday, in the South Bay, I was coming downhill—I like to descend briskly but not in a foolhardy way—and some motorist came up behind me and blasted his horn. I saw other cyclists descending very quickly right on the white line marking the right edge of the lane. I don’t think my skills are equal to that, as there is mighty little margin for error. Even Tom said later that he thought there had been some rude motorists.

The final descent had a sign at the top warning of potholes, and it was on a road that was partly in shadow and partly in the sun, where it’s hard to tell if something is a hole or just a shadow, so I had to go down gripping my brakes, stopping now and then to rest my hands, which seemed like rather insufficient compensation for the hours spent climbing!

Adding insult to injury (and besides the fact that my chain came off the chain ring at least 20 times), there seemed to be only about five people signed up for the route I was on (and two of them quit early). All the nice-looking legs were on some entirely different route! I hadn’t brought a cell phone because on these rides, there is always someone in sight behind you and someone in front of you. Not on this one. I did virtually the entire thing by myself. It took me ten hours! Fortunately, there were still 12 minutes to go before they started putting away the food.

And of course there was beautiful scenery and it was tremendously tranquil at times. It was worth it.