Friday, November 30, 2007

Home for Thanksgiving

The week of Thanksgiving, I went to Ann Arbor to say goodbye to my parents’ house, which they are selling after 38 years. It was much bigger than our previous house and so seemed like a palace to a seven-year-old, plus it had a nice kid-friendly feature: You could run through the dining room, living room, front hallway and kitchen in a continuous loop. It had a small bathroom off the library with a push-button lock on the door, a good place to take refuge from one’s pursuers.

It had a fantastic yard, a paradise (as long as someone put in a million hours of gardening every year) with, among other things, fruit trees, a handful of redwoods, vegetable garden, grape arbor, compost heap, sandbox, jungle gym, many flower beds with a gravel path winding around them, a small fountain in the center of the flower beds, an expanse of lawn where croquet or badminton could be played, a tree with large horizontal branches on which children could sit hidden from view, and an enormous willow tree.

In the winter, the thousands of little branches each topped with snow made a magical fairyland of a different sort.

Looking in most directions, you can hardly see another dwelling in the summer, though they are not far away, so there is a fine sense of seclusion and tranquility. Sometimes I meditate while sitting on the wicker couch on the glassed-in sun porch. When I pause to notice the sounds around me, I hear—nothing, for the most part, beyond the quiet ticking of a clock in the next room. There might be the occasional bark of a dog, or a car passing by now and then. So peaceful.

On the second floor, there is quite a large master bedroom, which my parents now use as an office, and three other bedrooms, which non-parents took turns occupying once upon a time. The bedroom I had when we first moved in is right next to the bathroom, so most days began with the sounds of Dad’s morning routine: the glass door to the shower whirring as it slid back and forth on its track, the little plick of the light next to the mirror being turned off.

When I visit, I sleep with my door open a bit so Nigel can come in if she wants, and so I can hear those comforting well-known sounds, along with the sounds of Mom and Dad talking to each other.

I stay in a different room these days, one with its own set of memories: Listening to Jim Morrison sing “Light My Fire,” the song taking on a creepy air as I read about Mordor in The Hobbit series. The school violin that got smashed when I fell on it while climbing up the built-in shelves. This led to my taking up the cello, which seemed more able to defend itself.

In that room, my friend Feo Lee tossed my pet gerbil up in the air—I didn’t realize he was going to do this—and when it came down, naturally enough, it bit me. I still have two little round marks on my arm where it sank its teeth in and held on.

In recent years, I arrived for a visit one late afternoon and the next morning, woke up to a dazzlingly sunny summer day, with lush green everywhere and the white paint of the neighbors’ house glowing. I felt like I’d woken up in heaven, it was so beautiful.

And I was in that room the morning of 9/11, when my father knocked on the door to wake me up, saying, “You might want to get up—history is being made.”

On my recent visit, I wandered from room to room taking photos and having a good cry now and then.

I also had dinner with my friend Amy and her extremely cute new boyfriend, went out to lunch with my father and some of his high school friends, and saw a bunch of DVDs with my folks: several episodes of the TV show Dark Angel, the first two Harry Potter movies (which my mother kindly moved to the top of her Netflix list for my sake; I’m reading the fifth book now), Live Free or Die Hard, The Birthday Girl, Balseros (a documentary about people trying to make it to the United States from Cuba by sea), Citizen Cohn (about Roy Cohn; excellent) and Away from Her, about a woman with Alzheimer’s.

The ending of the latter is somewhat ambiguous. Dad said maybe all questions would be answered in the sequel, Son of Away from Her. Mom thought the sequel might be called Away from Her or Die Hard.

My father made us a tremendous vegetarian Thanksgiving feast, featuring nut loaf with vegan gravy, baked fennel, stuffing, and deviled eggs. Mom made cranberry-orange relish, cookies, cranberry-nut bread, and a perfect pie crust which Dad used to make pecan pie where the nuts go all the way to the bottom instead of sitting on a layer of goo.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Bikes Hither and Bikes Thither

I’m pleased to announce that I have reached the Fourth Phase of Vehicular Cycling, and thus may actually be closing in on a leakproof theory of life happiness. It’s starting to look like this may consist of vehicular cycling plus doing what Byron Katie says to do.

Phase One was “I’m doing it, but I am really, really scared!” I was so frightened that I lost consciousness of everything other than the wish not to be killed. Truly, at some moments I couldn’t see or hear much of anything—and I was in the middle of the street! On a bicycle! During rush hour!

Phase Two is the same as Phase One, but undertaken in a professional-quality safety vest, even in broad daylight.

During this period, I got an email from Mily saying she was now positive I was a lesbian, since no straight woman could get so excited about a safety vest. The subject line of her email was “Excuse me … but you are such a DYKE!”

Phase Three was “Maybe I shouldn’t always ride smack in the center of every lane. In fact, maybe I should edge over here to the right more. Yes, that does feel better! Oh, but now cars are passing me way too closely again.”

In Phase Four, I’m back in the center of the lane most of the time, but not as a religion, and I try to keep my focus on myself—la la la, here I am enjoying a nice ride up the street!—instead of on the driver behind me and what he might or might not be about to do.

If I must think anything about that driver, and it's not really required, this works well: The driver behind me has no doubt dealt with a million cyclists, is probably perfectly calm, and will either pass safely or continue to motor suavely behind me.

Funny how many fewer would-be murderers I’m encountering now, though I still get freaked out fairly regularly. At least I’m not colluding in it so much.

Yesterday I saw a cyclist get doored as he approached a red light on Market St. He was riding between the stopped cars and the curb, and a car door began to open. The cyclist said, “Whoa, whoa,” and kept coming. So did the door. The cyclist was going very slowly, and the door was also opening very slowly and wasn’t open very far, but the cyclist was suddenly lying on the sidewalk with his bike on top of him, which just goes to show you how dangerous this is.

If the cyclist had been going very fast and the door had been flung entirely open very suddenly …

Technically, this is entirely the fault of the motorist, but it’s good to remember that this cannot happen to a cyclist who hasn’t placed himself in dooring position, assuming that motorists won’t drive right up next to a moving cyclist and throw open a door. I suppose that has been known to happen, but, generally speaking, doors on moving cars do not open, so in that respect, moving cars are safer than stopped ones.

This morning I saw a motorist nearly hit three cyclists who were in a bike lane. The motorist wished to turn right and, instead of merging safely into the bike lane and turning when he reached the corner, simply went for it.

I noticed this was happening when I heard the cyclists yelling “Hey!” and was immensely pleased to see that one of the three cyclists was a uniformed police officer. This should make an indelible impression on the driver, for one thing, even though what the police officer was saying to him (“You need to use your turn signal”) wasn’t quite on the mark.

More gratifying and correct would have been “You may not turn across the bike lane, and you need to watch carefully for cyclists. Next time, merge safely into the bike lane behind the cyclists, and then turn.” (Alas, even some cyclists don’t know this. It’s disheartening to see cyclists screaming at a motorist who is doing the exact right thing.)

But it was also good because that police officer got a taste of what other cyclists deal with all the time. I see quite a few police officers on bicycles, but if they are moving, they are generally on the sidewalk, where the risk of being struck by a car certainly is reduced, though, again, not eliminated.

When it comes to teaching motorists that cyclists are entitled to use the roads, being behind a car is just as good as being in front, because the motorist who sees a cyclist right smack behind him in his rearview mirror is getting yet another view of a cyclist safely and properly using the road. Sooner or later it will begin to look almost normal.

When I’m stopped behind a car at a stop light, I like to say this little mantra to myself: Bikes behind, bikes in front, bikes to the left and bikes to the right. Bikes all around.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Money Safely in New Bank, or Wherever

Last week I went to see Deborah, my mental health professional, for the second time in a month because I was having trouble making a small decision that involved air travel, which makes it a largish decision. “Also,” I told her, “my life is completely miserable and I have no friends; maybe we can tackle that after the other thing.”

Close questioning revealed that I do have friends, but most of them don’t live in San Francisco anymore, if they ever did. I said I’d like to have a few new friends as long as it doesn’t take any time. She rolled her eyes and said that she’s been hearing about this time thing for many years, and that maybe it’s time to stop announcing to myself that I have no time.

Possibly that is a good idea. Possibly it is also a good idea not to argue with my therapist about every little thing. Possibly there are a few other things I should stop announcing to myself, such as that there is no way I will ever have a primary relationship again.

That the best years of my life are behind me. That I have such-and-such job and I have no fun and that’s just how it is—oh, until I get sick and then die. That, basically, I’m just letting the clock run out.

I tell myself those things all the time, and then wonder why I’m not cheery. Actually, I’m amazingly cheery for someone with so many anti-cheer practices, come to think of it.

The vast amount of grief I cause myself is becoming glaringly obvious, and I have recently vowed that if I accomplish nothing else in this lifetime, I will learn to accept my life as it is and I will rid myself of the habit of agonizing about the future.

My biggest problem is that I believe everything I think.

It might also be not a bad thing to learn to mind my own business and to take responsibility for my own happiness and pleasure in life, but then, anyone who has just finished Eat, Pray, Love thinks that.

Deborah pondered my problems and said, “You need more yummies.” That’s exactly what I need. Now I need to drum some up, and I think she can help with that. She said that on the weekends, I need to do things with people, and also suggested that a book club might be up my alley. It sounds simple, but these are some of the building blocks of a satisfying life, and the results depend on whether the actions are actually undertaken.

But in the end, book club or no, it is mostly to do with attitude. As they say of peace, there is no way to happiness: happiness is the way.

Per Deborah’s instructions, I went to the birthday party of a friend of Tom’s family this past weekend in Sacramento, and had a really great time. Sarah and I took the train together, and the party itself was wonderful, and then I spent the night at Steve and Julie’s.

My bank failed, but I only found out about it when I got a letter from the bank that bought the old one. The new bank has one nice feature that probably no other bank on earth has: an opt-IN policy regarding sharing of customer informationthey won’t share your information unless you ask them to.

When you call them up and are on hold, a recorded voice says, “It’s way cheaper just to bring a sandwich to work than to go out to lunch! Don’t buy a bottle of water every time you feel like it—refill an old bottle!” Etc.

The transition has been a bit confusing so far. One day they say there is nothing I need to do, then that there is, then that they don’t provide checkbooks to customers (so old-fashioned!), then that they are going to provide customers of the failed bank with checkbooks since we’re used to having them.

I was told to relax and let them move my accounts over, then that I’d better get in there and do it myself, then that if I touched any piece of it, I’d end up having to do the whole thing (all my BillPay arrangements, for instance) myself manually.

I also got a letter saying my ATM card won’t work after such-and-such day, with no mention whatsoever of when I would again have an ATM card that works.

Finally I went ahead and opened a couple of accounts at the new bank. I happened to be on the phone with my mother when I was choosing my “security image.” I chose a photo of a green rotary phone and named it “Good Old Landline.”

My mother said, “That’s sick. I didn’t realize where this was going.”

I transferred some money (a fair amount, by my standards) from the old account to the new bank and received a confirmation number of 15. Good to know they got to try this 14 times before I entrusted them with my money.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

I Guess I Told Her

Last weekend I saw Rendition, and Tom and I saw Michael Clayton. Both were good.

I made Deborah Madison’s garlic mayonnaise and it was dreadful, worse with each passing day in the fridge, maybe due to using unrefined peanut oil instead of refined, and garlic that had been minced instead of mashed into a paste in a mortar.

Hammett’s switch to wet food is requiring much patience. Some days he eats what seems to be sort of enough, and other days hardly anything, though his vets assure me I am not going to starve him to death. His little pot belly is going away, but he seems full of pep. Maybe he’s full of pep because his little pot belly is going away.

The Internet advises warming up food that has been refrigerated, so I was doing that, but on a hunch, I tried food straight out of the fridge one day, along with some that had been reheated, and he ended up eating all of the cold food and none of the warmed food, which was great. I’d thought I was going to spend the rest of my life reheating little dabs of cat food.

In the past day or two, I realized that Hammett is mainly licking his wet food and was trying to figure out what I could do to get him to bite into it, but then came upon something online that advised mixing water with wet food so it becomes something the cat can slurp up. I was asking myself the wrong question.

Note that a cat who eats wet food always needs an abundant supply of fresh water, too. I accidentally killed two or three pet mice when I was five or six due to confusion over something related to this: My mother said that mice can extract a certain amount of water from their food, so I quit giving them water; or else I got it backwards and thought they would extract nutrition from their water, so quit giving them food, one of the two.

Then one day I looked into the cage, which was in my bedroom, which my parents entered rarely, if ever, and saw the mice were dead. I felt terrible about it, of course, and to this day have a bad dream now and then that I’m sure pertains to this, about coming upon several tanks full of enormous silver fish in my parents’ basement and seeing that the water has completely evaporated in some of the tanks, and that some of the fish are near death and others already dead and starting to rot. The fish are so big that they nearly fill their tanks, like cows wedged into too-small pens.

My mother has gotten cell phones for herself and my father. My mother loves her cell phone. She likes gadgets. We had a genteel argument over the merits of the cell phone versus the landline. She was on her cell phone, but I could still make out most of what she was saying. Heh.

“So, were you saying your landline costs you $23 a month, while the cell phones are, what, a hundred bucks?” That’s for the phones and wi-fi and all those things you can have if you don’t mind reading instructions, which I can’t do in my fragile condition.

“The cell phones are more expensive, true, but if you drive your car into a ditch and you’re upside down far from home, your landline is not going to do you that much good. That’s where you’d want a cell phone.”

She added, “Now, if you drive into a ditch in your own backyard, then I suppose you could crawl into your house and use your landline.”

I countered, “A landline is a nice thing to have if, say, there’s a tornado and you happen to have a stroke during it.”

“How likely is that?”

“Not very, but do you not put your seatbelt on when you get into the car because it’s not very likely you’ll get in a crash?”

“What if I do have a stroke? I’m not saying you should get a cell phone, but if you did have one, then if I did have a stroke, I could call you.”

Here I made a mental note to get a cell phone, but not wishing to appear a pushover, I said that I can’t hear anything anyone says to me when I’m on a cell phone unless I’m inside a quiet room, anyway, and in a room like that, there’s usually a nice robust landline.

My mother said that even if I can’t hear her on my cell phone as I cycle up Market St., at least I could see that she had called, and when I got home to my landline, I could call her back.

But if I’m going to do that, I could just as easily be apprised of the fact that she had called by my Radio Shack TAD (telephone answering device).

I’m sure you can easily see who won this argument: everyone on earth besides myself.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

You There with the Speakerphone!

I am reading the Harry Potter books, with pleasure. They are not great literature, but they are crammed with lovely imaginative touches.

Before I start the next one, I’m reading, also with pleasure, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, Elizabeth Gilbert’s account of her year spent in restorative travel after a horrible divorce. She wanted to rediscover joy, and did.

Lisa M. recommended the above and also Byron Katie’s Loving What Is. It didn’t sound appealing, but it’s actually very good. She says that emotional distress is caused by thoughts that conflict with reality, and that when we go up against reality, we will lose, but “only every time.”

She prescribes writing down our grievances and asking the following questions in regard to each sentence we have written:

Is it true?

Can I absolutely know that it’s true?

How do I react when I think that thought?

Who would I be without the thought?

For instance, “Such-and-such person is wrecking my life with her selfish behavior.” Is this true? No, not literally. How do I react when I think this thought? I feel angry, I think of awful things to say, I spend a lot of time brooding about it, I feel tense and upset. Who would I be if I suddenly lost the ability to have this thought? I would be peaceful and calm.

A thought like “This person should not be doing X” is false because the person is doing X, even if it is true that I think she shouldn’t be. My misery comes entirely from my thought, contrary to reality, that she shouldn’t be.

“We should not be at war in Iraq.” Indeed we should not. But the truth is that we are, and my effectiveness at whatever pro-peace activities I undertake will not be greater if I am enraged or depressed that things are as they are. I will more effective if I can calmly say, “This is how things are. What can I do that will be helpful?”

Byron Katie thinks everything falls into one of three categories: My business, someone else’s business, and God’s business, though the term “God” need not be used. This is tricky. I tend to regard 95 percent of everything as my business, and I feel the remaining five percent is someone else’s business, and he or she should do something about it, pronto.

The first of the Twelve Steps concerns this: I am powerless over such-and-such. It is out of my control. However, I feel that if I can talk someone else into doing what I want, then it wasn’t out of my control. If I can argue or bully someone else into making things the way I want them to be, then it wasn’t exactly out of my control, was it?

The other day, my coworker said, “I’m trying to think of a way to communicate something tactfully.”

I said, “You’ve come to the wrong place, but tell me anyway.”

She said one of her team members is spelling their new boss’s name wrong in emails, and she couldn’t think of a way to let him know without making him feel criticized.

I am a person who thinks nothing of instructing a complete stranger to stop using her speakerphone (because she should not make so much racket at work), so the idea of hesitating to tell a coworker a simple thing that would spare future embarrassment is incomprehensible. I swear, I had to refrain from walking over and telling the person myself that he’s spelling his boss’s name wrong, even though it’s not my boss!

It made me think I might be worse off than I thought, though I do draw the line at using a weapon: Anything that can’t be achieved without a gun I do consider to be beyond my control.

Needless to say, this approach brings a certain amount of misery, so I think Byron Katie is onto something, ditto the Twelve Steps (for 68 years now), plus my mother has been onto it my entire life: “Don’t worry about it, and don’t nag [whoever the current nagee is]. You’re just going to make him/her unhappy.”

For that matter, I suppose every great world religion covers the same territory, not to mention Abraham Lincoln: “A man is about as happy as he makes up his mind to be.”

But Byron Katie makes it very simple, with this little process that makes it clear how one is creating one’s own misery, so go ahead and read it.

You can follow the four questions with a “turnaround”: “He should care more about my feelings” could become “I should care more about my feelings” (and so take better care of myself by not stewing so much) or “I should care more about his feelings”—after all, I have already put quite a bit of time into worrying about my own feelings.

Or even “He should not care more about my feelings.” Maybe whoever it is has already done everything a reasonable person would consider reasonable.

Monday, November 05, 2007


This got overexposed when I opened the back of the camera without having rewound the film (thus making vanish two pictures of Tom), but this is my fab new kitchen table and microwave, courtesy of David and Lisa! See how it all nestles so perfectly next to/behind the bikes.

This happens to be a picture of one of the blocks where I used to be scared to take the lane, though I took the picture because of the blue building at the end of the block. Now I do always take the lane here, and it's fine.

My Marin Novato, with panniers.

Ham resting.

My bookshelf.

The flowers sent by Lisa and David, after the pink ones had given up the ghost. They lasted a long time.

The sky the day after David and Lisa left, when there was a fire somewhere. Cheery, isn't it?

Middle of the Road, Sort Of

After taking the Road I class, I had resolutely been cycling smack in the center of any lane that is not definitely wide enough for a car and bike side by side with three feet of space between them, and then had a couple of experiences of being honked at and chickening out, or, worse, of chickening out even before the person honked.

After each incident, I spent several hours, off and on, mentally lecturing the driver: “Why am I in the middle of the road? You mean, besides the fact that I’m legally entitled to be, besides the fact that I pay taxes to use this road just like you do, and besides the fact that any bicycle safety class in the country would tell me to do exactly what I’m doing?”

This is an attempt at control: If I can make my case strongly enough (in my head), everything will go my way.

But of course what drivers do is beyond my control. Whether I’m on the right, on the left, or in my apartment having a little snack, they will do whatever they do, and I will have some good experiences and some bad experiences. Most drivers will be respectful, some are alarmingly self-entitled, and a tiny minority are murderous sociopaths.

Why can’t everyone be relaxed and considerate all the time? Why can’t all drivers exercise self-restraint? I suppose for the same reasons I can’t stop myself from delivering mental lectures or doing other things that aren’t constructive: Force of habit, bolstered, in the case of mental lecturing, by self-righteousness. But I wouldn’t say all this silent argument makes me happy, and I’m sure the driver who honks belligerently doesn’t feel happy, either.

I revisited the subject with David on the phone and found out he does not necessarily advocate planting oneself in the middle of the lane and staying there no matter what, but rather being more to the right when reasonable, but taking the lane decisively when it is a matter of safety.

For instance, once when I was going straight on Market St., a woman in a car to my left turned right and cut me off, nearly hitting me; fortunately, she wasn’t going fast. In the ensuing discussion, she claimed it was my fault—that I had veered into her! She called me a “cracker” for good measure.

David says he takes the whole lane in that particular spot to prevent that exact thing. If I’d been in front of or behind the woman, she couldn’t have affected me with a turn to either direction.

Two Saturdays ago, I went to Rainbow, and then to see Gone Baby Gone. The plot twists baffled me, but I enjoyed its grim tone, and thought Casey Affleck’s performance in a lead role was wonderful.

I spent the rest of the day cooking and listening to my two favorite new CDs: Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, and Macy Gray’s Big. I made brown rice, yellow-eye beans, squash soup, a vat of tomato sauce, and peanut butter cookies—someone had eaten all of the previous week’s batch and, trying to thaw frozen cookies in a rush, had gone so far as to burn five of them in the microwave, creating quite an unpleasant stench.

On Sunday, I thought I should balance Saturday’s dark movie with something more uplifting, and so saw Dan in Real Life, which I regretted. I don’t think there was one genuinely amusing moment, though I liked the teenage boy character saying “Love isn’t a feeling, it’s an ability.”

Leaving the theater afterwards, I ran into Tom’s niece, Sarah, and her boyfriend, Josh. It was such a nice day, I walked all the way home, which took about an hour. I stopped to try a new restaurant, Mi Lindo Yucatan, at the corner of 15th and Valencia. I can’t say what I had, because Mily is reading, but it came in a vivid red-orange-pink broth that was very pleasing.

Since then, I have joined PETA and received my first periodical full of pictures of suffering and dead animals, including a chicken that had been boiled alive, so I think it’s safe to say I won’t be eating meat, fowl or fish for a time, though I don’t think I can give up eggs and butter right now.

A couple of blocks beyond Mi Lindo Yucatan, I stopped at the Bombay Creamery to get a pint of green tea ice cream.

Later I took the bus to Eugene Cash’s Sunday night Buddhist meditation group. Usually I’m still cooking on Sunday evenings, but I would like to make a couple of new friends, or at least spend time with a congenial bunch of people, and Eugene’s group is a large gathering of like-minded souls. Last time I went, I noticed a lingering good effect, so I am going to make it a point to get there.

He puts a big emphasis on community, and members of his sangha do volunteer projects together and meet in small groups to pursue particular interests, such as book study.