Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Can I Have Seconds, Please?

Last Friday night, Tom and I saw In the Valley of Elah, which was very good. It’s about a man who is trying to find out what became of his son, who disappears right after returning from Iraq.

On Saturday things were off to a slow start, but I made it to Rainbow by mid-afternoon. Then I was going to go to the movies by myself, but heard Tom talking in his apartment to what sounded like his brother Dan, which it was.

The three of us went to Papalote at 24th and Valencia for burritos and then Dan gave us a ride down to the airport—what a pleasure it is to be at the airport but not have to fly!—so Tom could pick up a rental car he needed to get to a hundred-mile bike ride the next day. It’s always great not to be flying, but being near the airport is when it’s easiest to appreciate it.

It was too late for my movie, and for the thing Tom had planned to do, so instead we watched two DVDs, including American Psycho, which neither of us had seen before because it sounded too violent, which it is, but the preeminent actor Christian Bale is in it. We have lately seen three Christian Bale movies, and Tom said he’s coming to think he is quite a fine actor.

We also saw Cry-Baby, a somewhat depraved piece of camp, which I mean in the most complimentary way, written by John Waters and featuring Johnny Depp (absolutely perfect in this role) and Iggy Pop.

It’s amazing to think that John Waters also produced the current version of Hairspray (he directed 1988’s version), which couldn’t be more family friendly.

On Sunday I made two things I’ve made before: Two-Bean Chili with Bulghur, from 366, and Pasta Puttanesca with Artichokes, from The Complete Vegan Cookbook.

The power was out in our apartment building on Monday of this week because PG&E was doing something or other. I came home to find my outgoing answering machine greeting had been erased, and all the messages I’d been saving to listen to in my old age were gone, including the first message ever left on that machine, from David C.

My alarm clock was blinking the wrong time, pleading silently to be reset. I called the time lady and heard this: “Effective September 19th, 2007, the time announcement information service has been discontinued. We apologize for any inconvenience.”

Any inconvenience?!? Such as never knowing what time it is again?!?

“How the hell are you supposed to know what time it is?” I howled at the very top of my lungs, twice or thrice.

Why, only a week ago, the time lady and I had had a nice heart-to-heart. I told her my problems: “My Casio electronic watch started blinking and all the characters turned to little u’s, and then it was blank, and now it’s back, but set to 12:00. Time lady, what time is it?”

And she said, in her kind and placid way, just like always, “Good evening, at the tone, Pacific Daylight Time will be …” She even told me how many seconds, not just how many minutes.

And now she’s gone.

I called my mother, who said, “You called your old mother in the Midwest to see what time it is? It’s 10:10, more or less.”

“More or less?!?”

“If you really want to know what time it is, go online—”

“Go online?!? What about all the people who don’t have computers?”

My father got on the phone and also advised going online. I said it takes me approximately five minutes to go to a different web page, and that’s with DSL. “Sounds like you need a new computer,” he said. “That’s what Mom keeps saying,” I said.

Today I made my way to the Fort Collins website that has the exact time due to a rocket ship or something, and it doesn’t have the seconds!

However, it explained how to change the registry setting that governs how often one’s PC is set to the right time; you can set it to check more often, if you want. And then you can go to Start—Settings—Control Panel—Date and Time (if on a PC rather than a Mac) and see the seconds.

It so happens I actually have been contemplating buying a small electronic clock because I can’t see all the way across the room to my alarm clock anymore, so I have just invested in two Sky Scan Atomic (sounds like the 50s) Travel Alarm Clocks, for $8.60 apiece. These clocks will reset themselves to the correct time once a day.

One can go on the bookshelf in the living room and one can go in the kitchen, and then I won’t have to carry my Casio wristwatch from room to room in order to see what time it is. I suppose now someone is going to suggest I strap the watch to my wrist. I'm desperate, but not that desperate.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Let’s Hope Grandpa Ernie in Heaven Doesn’t Hear About This

Dan at Freewheel has, unbeknownst to himself, convinced me that it’s time to join the modern era, via a conversation we had about the Marin’s shifting, which is not very good. I bought a low-end model, figuring it was merely to be my commute bike, but I should have remembered that my commute bike is one and the same as my main bike and invested in something a bit more deluxe.

Dan said the frame is the same whether you get the low-end or the high-end Marin, and that we could make a noticeable improvement by switching out some components. He added that part of the issue is my preference for (he politely didn’t say “insistence on”) friction shifting. Everything these days is geared to index shifting, though I feel that if friction shifting was good enough for my grandfather, it’s good enough for me.

Friction shifting is where you put the bike in gear by feel, moving the lever until things are as desired. Index shifting is the click-click-click thing, one click per gear. I gave it a whirl back in the 1980s and concluded that when it worked, it was great, but usually what happened was that every shift worked but one or two, and when you tried to make those shifts, nothing would happen, and you couldn’t nudge it into gear, so it was very frustrating.

Apparently index shifting has come a long way since then, and most components are built to work in conjunction with index shifters. So you can still get friction shifters themselves, but then the whole system might not work quite properly, and you will have shifting when you don’t want it, or lack of shifting when you do want it, and scraped ankles, from the pedals, and a bruised butt—speared by the pointed front end of the saddle—when it suddenly skips several gears as you are taking off.

Shameful recollections came unbidden as Dan and I talked. In Macy’s a year ago: “Where on earth are the cloth handkerchiefs?!? If a cloth handkerchief was good enough for my grandfather … ”

Talking to a coworker a month ago: “What’s a Blackberry?”

In a pet store I happened to be passing a few weeks ago: “Where in heaven’s name is the plain, unscented, clay cat litter? You know, the stuff they dig out of the plain old ground. What do you mean there’s no such thing anymore as non-clumping cat litter? If clay cat litter was good enough for my grandfather … ”

All of that old stuff really was better, but what are you going to do? I would have stuck with it all forever, but it’s all gone.

In regard to the cat litter, I’ve been using Scamp. It’s plain, unscented, clay cat litter. It comes—used to come—in 25-pound bags. I ordered 150 pounds of it at a time. The pet store (a different one from the aforementioned) gave me a break on the price because I bought so much of it at a time.

However, the last time I ordered it, it could no longer be obtained. “How about switching to this pineapple-and-mint-scented ultra-clumping product with satellite GPS, glare screen and SPF of 73?” asked the pet store guy, or may as well have.

“Listen here, young feller. If Scamp cat litter was good enough for my grandfather—oh, never mind. Do you have anything else that is plain, unscented clay?”

“Yes, we do. We have two choices, at least.”

Needless to say, I rode my bike up, and I do mean up, to the store to find out they had nothing that fit this description. Of course. “Fine, fine, let me have some of that clumping stuff,” I said, and rode on (down) home with it.

Then I called my father to find out if there is a clumping cat litter he likes. There is not. He likes Feline Pine, very much.

Up the hill I went again to return the clumping stuff. They have Feline Pine, but I didn’t buy it there, because I know I can never think of that store again without feeling a frisson of Scamp-related heartbreak, and in any event I cannot go to that store without working up a really major dripping sweat.

I went instead to Amore, at 18th St. and Valencia, right on my way to and from work, formerly a pet store/beauty salon, now just a pet store, and bought some Feline Pine. Feline Pine is very unlike what I’ve been using, so I had to buy something that sort of approximated Scamp, as we’re down to the dregs, in order to effect the transition, so I got some of The World’s Best Cat Litter, made of corn.

I might end up just sticking with that, it turns out, because it does actually clump very nicely, and it does in fact eliminate the smell of cat pee, just as advertised.

As for the bike, Tom reminded me that my friction shifter does actually also function as an index shifter, if you flip the doohickey. I did that, and the vexing symptom disappeared.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Black Bean Fool

Some nights ago, I woke up in the wee hours to feel what seemed like an alarmingly large index finger poking me in the chest, as if someone were determined to change my mind about something. It turned out to be Hammett’s whole front arm. A good portion of the rest of him was entirely under me, but he was still alive.

Two Fridays ago, Tom and I went to see Hairspray, I for the second time. He liked it, too. Then we had Thai food at Bangkok 16 on 16th St.

That Saturday I attended the first part of the League of American Bicyclists’ Road I class, a prerequisite to their League Cycling Instructor seminar.

The class was held in the Presidio, and I managed to get lost on the way there. It was a good thing I’d brought a map along. I rode into Golden Gate Park, turned right, and exited the park, thinking I should be heading north.

But looking to my right, I saw something that looked strangely like the Panhandle, which should have been behind me. “Wow! A whole park I’ve never seen before in my 25 years here,” was my first thought. “That is the Panhandle. What’s it doing there?” was my second.

It was a gloomy morning and the ride was longer than I thought and I was kind of dispirited when I finally got to the Presidio. I went down the big hill and the radar said I was going 37 miles an hour, and then the sun came out and it was an absolutely beautiful day and I was right on the water looking at the Marin hills and then I was happy again.

The class was good. It was taught by John Ciccarelli, who reminded me in appearance a bit of David Strathairn. John Ciccarelli said to figure out what part of the road isn’t safe to ride on—e.g., the door zone—and don’t ride there.

I asked, “What if someone is driving right behind you, honking their horn nonstop and screaming and swearing?”

“So what?”

“It’s frightening. You don’t know if they’re going to run you over or what.”

He said you need to distinguish between a lack of safety and a feeling of discomfort. That struck me as having applications well beyond cycling. I feel uncomfortable when the motorist behind me is enraged, but I am less safe if I start riding right next to parked cars so the motorist won’t be angry.

Of course, if there is going to be a long stretch of this, it’s perfectly fine to decide to pull over and let the impatient one go by.

John ended up giving me some good information via email for the bicycle commuting proposal I was putting together at work. The proposal was due the Monday right after the class, so I met him just in time.

Lisa M. had called the day before the class to say she was going to be in the city on Saturday, and did I want to get together? She said she was coming to town to do the Beach Impeach, where a lot of people go to the beach and form the word “IMPEACH” with their bodies. As it happened, the Beach Impeach was right next to where my class was, and both events were ending about the same time.

In the evening, she and Tom and I saw 3:10 to Yuma. When it was over, Lisa, thus proving she had missed the entire point of the movie, said, “Russell Crowe is gorgeous.” Ach! No, no, no! Christian Bale is gorgeous.

Just to be sure, I asked Stefano at Vertical Clearance when I went in for my latest haircut (“I’m going for a Bay City Rollers look”).

“Important question: Russell Crowe or Christian Bale?”

“Mm, Christian Bale.”

“That’s the correct answer.”

On Sunday I made Millet and Chickpea Pilaf with Saffron and Tomatoes from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, which is serviceable—canned beans are kind of yucky but cooking garbanzo beans in order to end up with one cup or so would be rather arduous—and Lebanese Navy Beans with Tomatoes and Onion, which, with the oil quadrupled, is very good, except that the beans themselves were a bit gritty. I think I’ll use some other kind of light-colored bean next time.

Lisa C. liked one of the recent dishes I mentioned. She wrote me this: “I wanted to tell you I made the Black Bean Ful recipe you recommended from Sundays at Moosewood. Great tip! It was absolutely superb with grilled wedges of radicchio (grilled on the stovetop grill pan with a light coating of olive oil); the bitter greens made the beans taste even better, and vice versa. Do try it if you like radicchio or other bitter greens; you can just sear the radicchio in a regular frying pan if you don't have a grill pan.”

I’m slightly embarrassed to say I have never bought or prepared radicchio, but I did buy a pepper grinder for work, so I feel I should now qualify for foodie status.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Burning Orange Moon

This is my 200th post. Surely enough for a book. (Or do you need 200 good posts to have a book?)

After Lisa and David left for Seattle, driving off in their rented truck, I figured I’d get a good night’s sleep and feel much cheerier the next morning, but in fact woke up to kind of an alarming sight.

It was about 7:30 and the sky was uniformly a dull slate grey, except for a perfectly round brilliant orange disk, as if the moon were on fire.

Indeed, Tom said later that one of his coworkers had remarked on how strange the moon had looked. He’d had to remind her that she’d been looking east, hence it was the sun.

I called Tom to look at it with me, but he had already left for work, so I called Sir Dave, who answered with his customary wan “How may I help you?” He sounds exactly the same in the middle of the work day and awakened from a sound sleep.

“Can you see the sun?” I asked.

“I can try.” Pause. “Oh, my. That was worth getting up for.”

He added, “Don’t look at it,” which was a good reminder, because I had been staring at it. It was mesmerizing.

It turned out it was caused by various fires burning here and there, some as far as 200 miles away. The newspaper’s lead story was about the fire and the “eerie pall” it cast. Just what I needed, an eerie pall.

I checked my email later in the morning and was relieved to see there had been no response at all from the building manager to my note about her grilling on Labor Day.

I gave the Fire Department a call to see how far from a wooden building you have to be before you light a fire or grill, and the person there said twenty-five feet, which was great, since our back yard is nowhere near that big.

I sent another very mildly worded note apprising the building manager of this and suggesting she look into an electric grill, which would not have the same restrictions and to which no one could possibly object.

She wrote back that she was understanding me to say it would be fine if she used a gas grill. I wrote back and said, in my friendliest manner, that the item under discussion was an electric grill and that I would help her pay for it, as a contribution to the environment. (Though of course the energy for an electric grill must come from somewhere, so there is an environmental impact.) I have heard no more, but I have concluded that if she gets a gas grill, it will be OK with me, since that’s pretty much like a gas stove.

What’s not OK is having a roaring wood fire right outside my window, or lighter fluid burning.

However, no sooner had a huge fight been avoided over the grilling than problems cropped up again at the garage where I park my bike while at work. There has been an ongoing issue about access to the bike racks. This garage has never been in compliance with the city’s Bicycle Parking Ordinance in this regard, but things have been particularly bad lately.

I arrived one afternoon to find that, while I could make my way to my bicycle, I couldn’t leave with it, without picking it up, hoisting it way up and squeezing back past all the other bicycles.

I have had several very low-key conversations about this with the various building managers over the past three and a half years, and have tried to be patient, but this did it.

I called the city the next day to confirm the access requirement, and was advised to go ahead and send the building manager a letter, and copy the city’s enforcement person. I called the building manager to tell her I was going to do this, and to ask for her boss’s name and address so I could copy her boss on my letter, and voila! A cone appeared in the offending car space and has been there ever since.

The question is why such a simple thing took three and a half years, ten phone conversations, two in-person meetings, and finally having to escalate to the city. I went ahead and sent the letter, just in case.

The weekend after David and Lisa left, Tom and I saw Once, which was good. He bought the soundtrack, but made the mistake of leaving it at my house, so it has now become my CD, but I’ll pay him for it.

The next day, I went to see Hairspray (Tom was indisposed) and absolutely loved it. In the evening, Tom and I saw Casino Royale (again) on DVD, and talked to Lisa and David on the phone, which was great.

On Sunday, I made Black Bean Ful from Sundays at Moosewood, which is really, really good, and Tamale Pie from 366 Delicious Ways to Cook Rice, Beans, and Grains. My mother said she has not had good luck with tamale pie, but I was pleased with the results.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

How About Giving Me a C-Note?

I took the Tuesday and Wednesday after Labor Day off work so I could assist with last-minute tasks at David and Lisa’s place in North Beach. I was in charge of bubble wrap (“Do you just want it covered or do you want it like Fort Knox?”), helping David wrap up the TV, and running errands (“Sure, I’ll go to Walgreens for more tape. Can I have a c-note?”)

I got to know their neighborhood, which is wonderful, better in those 24 or so hours than in my previous 25 years in San Francisco.

Their apartment, not to induce any regrets at this point, was absolutely enormous, which of course is that much more stuff to move, recycle, sell, or bestow on someone else. I personally scored a sturdy kitchen table and a microwave (formerly Lisa’s parents’) that fits under said table.

They had another errand to do that day, so they dropped the table and microwave off at my place, and then David joked that I had been smart in choosing to go to their place to help after everything would be done. He pretended to be me saying, “Are you sure there’s nothing at all I can do? Say, can I have some more apple juice?”

These items were offered first to Tom, who declined because he didn’t have room for them. Our apartments are identical in layout, so when he saw them in my place, he said with a faintly gloomy air, “Oh, I didn’t think of that spot.” I had to move a bicycle; he has a bicycle in the same place in his apartment.

I called my mother and said, “I’m a real person now! Tengo un microwevo. I made that last word up.”

“Great,” grumbled my mother. “It’s hard enough to learn Spanish without people making up new words on the spot.”

Besides being capacious, the ex-apartment of Lisa and David afforded splendid views. From the comfy chair in David’s ex-bay windows, you could see Coit Tower close at hand in one direction, and the spires of St. Peter and Paul church in Washington Square Park in another.

Once ensconced at their place—the comfy chair was quite a good spot to sit while awaiting assignments—I further acquired some pens, a bizarre crimping implement, and a crystal, over which we did a brief ceremony to imbue it with lucky powers. David performed the incantation while the three of us held hands.

There was a stipulation, however. David said, “If we start having bad luck in Seattle, you have to send it to us.”

“Fair enough; will do.”

“And if you start having bad luck, you can pass it on to someone else.”

“Oh, good idea.”

In the afternoon, David and Lisa went to fetch the truck, a dauntingly large 22-foot rental. David had arranged for a permit to park it in front of their apartment. He’s a great organizer; he thinks of everything.

We were up until 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday night and on duty again at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday. At 8 a.m., the two Irish movers arrived. When David called the day before to confirm they’d be there, the proprietor said, “Sure, they’ll be there—that’s when the bar closes.” Or at least that’s what David said he said.

The movers spent about three hours putting everything into the truck. Lisa and I walked to Liguria Bakery for focaccia, including pizza flavor, which was fantastic. Liguria is a historic bakery kitty-corner from the northeast corner of Washington Square Park. It was extremely civilized to sit down and have focaccia the very day of moving.

About then, it hit me that Lisa and David were about to drive off; it had been easy not to think of in all the activity. How amazing to think that all this should have resulted from David’s decision to return to school a handful of years ago.

David insisted on giving half a dozen pieces of focaccia to the movers, which mitigated my grief somewhat. In fact, I told him I would never forgive him for squandering it like that. Why do movers need focaccia more than I do?

Then the apartment was somehow empty and we were walking out the front door for the last time and they were putting their cat, Simone, on the bench seat of the big truck and securing her carrier with the third seatbelt.

I was fairly stricken by then and in tears by the time the big yellow truck turned the corner and was gone from sight.

I considered walking down to Market St. to metabolize the sadness, but decided I should just get on home and eat and take a nap, so I took a cab driven by an Indian who sang loudly to himself in his own language.

He noticed I was crying in the back seat and asked what the trouble was. I said my good friends had moved away. He said that’s what his song had been about. I’d intuited as much from the air of lamentation. Of course, he also said he'd like to live on another planet, so who knows what the song was really about?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Grotesque Affectation

Three Saturday evenings ago, Tom and I went to a goodbye/birthday party at David and Lisa’s. It was a really nice party, full of congenial people, including Lisa’s parents (hi, Reggie!). We had an open mic and people read poems, their own or others’, and I brought along a tape of a gloomy piece of music I composed.

When Tom and I arrived, we threw ourselves on the ground and hung onto David and Lisa’s ankles and wailed, “Don’t go!” At least, I clutched David's ankles; I trust Tom was doing the same with Lisa. We knew it wouldn’t work, but we had to make at least a token effort.

When I said on the bus over that maybe we should do this, Tom said Lisa’s parents would think we were idiots. I said that they like us (as we like them) and they would understand, but it turned out we were the first ones there, anyway, not to mention the last to leave, because that’s the type of guests we are.

That Sunday I made Jamaican-style rice and beans, peanut butter cookies, and lasagna. The lasagna recipe came from Lisa C. and I have always made it using fake cheeses, to make it vegan, but my lady acupuncturist has discouraged the use of fake food items, so I made it with the required ten pounds of so of cheese, and must admit it was scrumptious. I cut it into itsy-bitsy pieces and froze them.

I was reading something lately about how food reviewing is hard because there are few adjectives to use after you’ve used “tasty,” “yummy,” “delectable” and a few others. I like to listen to the stock report because they think of so many great ways to say “up” and “down.” I was delighted to hear an announcer say the other day that some index had “sanded off” however many points.

I was also delighted to hear Terry Gross interviewing James Hetfield recently on Fresh Air, during her Labor Day heavy metal series. It was actually a repeat of an interview that was done after Some Kind of Monster came out. She played my favorite bit of dialogue from the movie, where James says to Lars something like, “Uh, I think of the drummer as being the one who keeps the beat,” or words to that effect.

James Hetfield has a really lovely speaking voice, low and resonant, and he did not interrupt Terry Gross, unlike Rob Halford, lead singer of Judas Priest, in another interview in the series. Rob Halford interrupted Terry Gross virtually every time she opened her mouth.

James Hetfield sounded very relaxed and genial, and like he had all the time in the world, not like he was in a huge rush for Terry Gross to shut up so he could talk.

Emily Post, in Etiquette, on handshake firmness: “Who does not dislike a ‘boneless’ hand extended as though it were a spray of sea-weed, or a miniature boiled pudding? It is equally annoying to have one’s hand clutched aloft in grotesque affectation and shaken violently sideways, as though it were being used to clean a spot out of the atmosphere.” And there is 400 pages of this! It’s wonderful.

I was feeling a slight sense of dread in regard to the long Labor Day weekend because I knew Tom would be out of town and David and Lisa would be busy packing. It turned out to be as bad as feared. I had meant to go to a couple of matinees, but felt like I was coming down with a cold, so instead skulked around my apartment.

By Monday, I had recuperated enough to make Deborah Madison’s mushroom-barley pilaf (very good, especially reheated with olive oil and served with avocado slices) and West African peanut soup, also good.

Monday afternoon the building manager called and said she was going to cook outdoors. “Oh, no!” I said. “I haven’t gotten the supplies,” meaning the plastic I had offered to try putting over the windows.

“This is going to be different,” she said. “No grilling. We’re going to barbecue.”

“What’s the difference?”

“No fire.”

“No fire?”


“Then have fun!”

Of course, there was fire, and charcoal, and lighter fluid, and 90 minutes of near-carbon monoxide poisoning in my highly porous apartment.

I hastened into the bathroom with Hammett. Fortunately, there was something I could do in there that hadn’t been done in a long, long time, namely clean it. After a while, I thought, “This is ridiculous,” and called the building manager to say I was not going to be able to stay in the bathroom for hours and could she please let the fire go out?

Later I sent a mildly worded email saying perhaps she could consider cooking inside and then taking the food outside, and that in any event, I need 24 hours’ notice next time. I would have been enraged if I’d been out that afternoon and come home to find Hammett sitting innocently in a cloud of lighter fluid fumes.

Then I spent the next several days worrying about getting a nasty response.