Monday, April 28, 2008

The Worst Kind of Suffering: Mine

This past Saturday, I sewed a pair of pants and hemmed pieces of cloth to cover two doors that have windows in them. My pants are normally very baggy and where’s-the-flood short; recently I made a new pattern, with the goal that the pants would be longer and narrower, but a bit fuller at the bottom, so I can more easily roll them up to my knees for cycling.

This first pair of pants using the new pattern certainly is longer, but making the bottom opening larger made the legs much baggier than before; I didn’t realize those two goals were contradictory. The legs of my new (green) pants look like two giant stovepipes reaching down to the floor.

I tried them on for Tom and he said, “We could probably both fit in there.”

“Can I leave the house in them?”

“Sure,” he said without hesitation, which meant, “If you can leave the house in your regular pants, you can certainly leave the house in those. Why ever not?”

Saturday evening, we saw Crank, which wasn’t very good, despite starring Jason Statham. It was full of cartoonish, overblown violence.

I had reported chest pains here not long ago. Tom said it was probably indigestion, and as soon as he said that, it went away. He was probably right.

Tom is like the oracle, the person I consult when I have exhausted all other avenues and want a simple, brief and correct answer from someone who is incapable of entertaining a suspicious or combative thought; i.e., someone who is the exact opposite of myself.

“Why is this guy making these horrible eating noises?”

“He probably has no idea he’s doing it.”

“How can he think that when I told him I can hear it?” Which you bet I did.

“He’s probably been doing it for decades and thinks people in other cubes can’t hear him.”

“What will I do?”

“Move to another cube.”

“I might not be able to.”

“Maybe get an iPod.”

He turned out to be right, of course.

When I got to work this morning, I found out I’d received permission to move back to my old cube. Here I must make a shameful confession: I was so angry at my loud eating coworker last week that by Friday I wasn’t speaking to him, though I’m not sure he even knew, since he didn’t have occasion to address me directly that day.

I tried to convince myself that it felt fine and that I could certainly maintain this resentment for the rest of my life. I’m sorry to say it was my actual intention never to speak to him again, even if I did end up being able to move to another cube.

Sunday night, Eugene was talking about how to deal with this kind of thing: to note objectively what is happening and observe our own reactions, instead of seeing the other person as the cause of misery, but he also mentioned remembering that other people are suffering, too, and that everyone is always doing the best he can.

I decided that if I got permission to move, that would be great, but if I didn’t, I was going to redouble my effort to be present with my own irritation, and to remember that my coworker is doing his best, and that he is suffering, too, though not necessarily from the exact same thing that’s making me suffer—his eating noises probably don’t bother him a bit—and of course, my suffering is considerably worse because it’s mine.

So when my coworker came in this morning, I made a point of calling out a hearty “good morning,” and he responded in like manner.

When I saw the email saying it was OK to move, I lickety-split piled a load of stuff onto my chair and rolled off with it. The coworker asked in amazement, “Where are you going?”

I told him that the singing, whistling, loud earphones and eating sounds were too much for me; that I like him, but that it’s hard to sit near him. He said, “Oh, maybe when I was eating an apple?”

It was considerably more than that, but I didn’t elaborate. He mentioned that he is having some problem with his teeth, and also said that he had been going over to the lunchroom to have some of his snacks, bless his little heart, and then I saw how incredibly wrong I was to think he’d been doing anything on purpose to get my goat.

But, at the same time, I’m really glad I told him what I didn’t like, because if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have found out that I was laboring under a giant misapprehension. It also felt great to be friends again—nurturing a resentment for another couple of days would have been miserable, let alone forever.

The lifelong resentment: such a beautiful idea, but so hard to execute.

At the end of a lovely day back in my good old ex-cube, I stopped by to say goodnight to the coworker and he said something about the eating, and I said I was positive he hadn’t meant any harm, and he said that, actually, it wasn’t him doing those bad things at all, and we agreed it had been his evil twin.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

See What a Simple Word of Encouragement Can Do

I woke up this morning thinking about my cube at work and then saw Stacie’s excellent comment on the same, so herewith, a few more thoughts on this subject. Ahem.

So, once upon a time, I sat in a really, really fantastic cube we’ll call Cube A. Then my boss at the time (a boss or two ago) decided he would like all of his people to sit closer to each other; this was back when there were people. Now there’s just me.

Thus I moved to Cube B, also a very nice cube, and the one I recently vacated. I’m not sure if that was an official move or what. At my company, a given group has to pay for the cubicles it’s using.

A couple of months ago, we heard from the Cube Organizer Lady, who I’ve never met, who was trying to sort out who owned what and who was sitting where. She told my boss that we didn’t own Cube B, but that my boss was actually still paying for Cube A.

“Fine,” said my boss. “We’ll take Cube A back, then.”

“No, no,” said the COL, “I’m going to transfer that officially to the group of the person who’s been sitting in it.”

“OK, then,” said my boss, “Please transfer the ownership of Cube B to me, since my person has been sitting in it for a year or two.”

“Oh, no can do. That’s our cube, because we are paying for it.”

Do you see the absolute wrongness of this? “If our person is sitting in the cube, it’s ours, regardless of who’s paying for it. On the other hand, if we’re paying for a cube, it’s also ours, regardless of who’s sitting in it.”

Unfortunately—and this should make it clear that all of my recent problems have been caused entirely by Emily—Emily was just then vacating Cube C, seemingly a desirable location, large and with a window. Ah! Simple solution! I would take Cube C.

Because of that, my boss allowed the COL to transfer the ownership of Cube A (really the best of the bunch) to the other group without a fight, and I physically vacated Cube B, thus substantially weakening my case for re-occupying it, though it’s only been a few weeks.

If it were up to me, I would go right back to the COL and say they can’t have it both ways. In fact, my boss did agree with this and even asked her boss to be ready to ride into battle, but just then, Emily departed, drat her.

Due to the amount of gossip that rightly and properly churns through my little group constantly, via phone and email since we’re all over the country, I know that my boss has lots of other vexing stuff to deal with, not to mention having to do her own job and live her own life, so I feel bad making an issue of this, which is why I particularly appreciated Stacie’s comment. I am right! Or, at least, my feelings are not unreasonable.

In case you’re wondering, Emily said the eating sounds didn’t bother her. If I could be like her in one way, that would be it. If I could be like her in two ways, I would be the type of person who sits quietly in my cube for six months and tries one thing after the other until I find a solution, as opposed to the type of person who works on something for ten seconds and then asks someone else, “Hey, ever seen something like this?”

I do have a theory about that: I think questions are my little way of ensuring I’m still connected to the human race and haven’t been completely abandoned. (Actually, I’m not sure I arrived at this theory on my own. I think my mother may have said something about this in past years, something like, “Questions are the way you relate” and “Jesus Christ, stop asking so many questions,” or words to that effect.)

Last night I dreamed of being in a completely empty house, because my housemates had all moved out, including my close friend Elea, without saying goodbye. I wandered the house calling, “Elea? Elea?” That’s pronounced “Ellie” but think “Elea.”

I was kind of excited about this dream, because I was thinking just last night, for the millionth time, about the purpose excess flesh serves in my life—flesh that is the result of food eaten that my body wasn’t hungry for. Jane and Carol recommend doing something they call the “thin fantasy,” in which you picture yourself smaller, see if there is any downside, and consider if you had that same problem in your childhood, and how you could help yourself with it now.

The goal here is not to be thin, but to sort out what is the most effective response to what and provide for oneself accordingly.

“You’re starving? Gosh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” is a mismatch.

So is, “You’re upset? Have a cookie! Have the whole box!”

When I tried the thin fantasy last night, I got that the extra flesh is a way of signaling that I need help, that I need the attention of others: that I don’t want to be alone, or am scared of being abandoned. So that dream seemed like a sign that I’m on the right track in identifying the underlying anxieties.

J & C, as we Overcoming Overeating practitioners call them, recommend developing a relationship with an “inner caretaker,” who helps us think through things and provides consistent encouragement and affection. I’ve had pretty good luck with this, but often go months without consulting my inner caretaker, maybe because I gave her a really over-the-top gooey affectionate voice that no in my life has ever sounded like or will ever sound like.

I think I have a better one now, as of this week, one who sounds pretty much like myself.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Why It’s Very Front-Page to Gossip Constantly

(Title courtesy of my wonderful thesaurus, which claims "front-page" is a synonym for "important," which I used a few titles ago.)

As mentioned, I’m hating Emily’s ex-cube for various reasons: it lacks privacy, it’s dark and chilly until 3:30 in the afternoon due to its western exposure, and, most of all, it is near the cube of someone who makes noise nonstop, including the particular noise that makes every nerve in my body twitch unpleasantly, which is eating noise, and we’ll leave it at that.

Now, how can you possibly—oh, I guess we won’t leave it at that—tell someone their slurping and tooth-sucking is driving you crazy? Emily Post would say there is in fact no way to do this, but I did actually try it, to no avail, and now it’s even worse because there’s the irritation of the sound itself, plus every single occurrence strikes me as an act of blatant disrespect—of naked defiance.

So, just weeks after sending my boss a million emails about cubicles, I’ve sent her several more begging to return to my previous cube. To recap, the previous cube was not being paid for by my group and the Cube Organizer Lady had said I would have to move out of it when the people who are paying for it want it back, but also said it would be fine if I wanted to sit there until then.

When Emily left, my taking her cube seemed like a tidy solution. Since it has turned out not to be so, it seemed to me I could just slide back into that old cube until we hear from the Cube Organizer Lady again, but my boss has asked for official permission, so we’ll see. (I came very close to just going back there without saying anything to my boss—I have buddies in the phone-number-switching department—but it would have been discovered sooner or later and caused an element of mistrust to slip into the boss-employee relationship.)

I visit my old cube every day to keep my spirits up and interrupt my old neighbor’s work so it will seem like the norm when I start doing it again every day, as is my fondest wish. Now, when Emily vacated her cube, my old neighbor’s team lead said he thought Emily’s cube would be a nice place for my old neighbor, as it is near the rest of her group.

So yesterday I said to my old neighbor something about how maybe she would like to sit in Emily’s cube, and she got almost angry: “Why would you think I would want that cube?”

“Why would you not?”

“For the same reasons you don’t like it!”

Now, she put in her time sitting near the guy who makes all the noise, but when I was getting ready to move over near him, not once did she say, “Oh, boy, you’re not going to enjoy sitting there.” And when I’ve visited in the past couple of weeks and said, “So-and-so is driving me crazy,” not once has she replied, “Yep, I know what you mean and I’m delighted to be away from him.”

Therefore I had no idea these sentiments extended beyond myself. I may gossip too much, but that right there is an example of way too little gossip.

I must now put in a plug for the Digital Zen Alarm Clock. My former alarm clock probably cost $10 twenty years ago and has served faithfully the whole time. Once, in a tantrum in my more volatile twenties, I tried to break it and couldn’t. Over the years, though, it has become more and more jarring to be awakened by its loud buzzing, so I started doing some research on other kinds of alarm clocks.

They have progressive auditory alarm clocks these days, whose alarms start out soft and get louder, but what I ended up with was the Digital Zen Alarm Clock, which costs about $100, which is kind of embarrassing, considering that more and more people are going hungry every day in other parts of the world; even here some rice purchases are currently limited. (Are we in the beginning of the end times?)

When the clock arrived, the first thing I noticed was that the cover was crooked. Inside, I saw a scuffed chime, long and skinny, atop a cheesy expanse of black plastic styled to look like wood. It looks like “wood.” The way it works is that a striker pops up through a little hole and hits the chime, so it’s an actual acoustic sound heard just once at the time you set it for, and then there is silence for three minutes and forty-eight seconds, during which you can finish your dream or say your affirmations or whatever.

The chime sounds again and then there is silence for two minutes and twenty-one seconds. The period between chimes gets shorter and shorter until it is sounding about every five seconds. It won’t do that forever, but I’m always entirely awake and feeling not at all groggy by the time it gets to the five-second interval, whereas I could and often did hit the snooze button on my old alarm clock every nine minutes until five in the afternoon!

Maybe it’s the placebo effect, but this thing is working exactly as advertised. The other day, I was actually able to finish my dream—about being fatally attracted to a completely unsuitable man, just as in real life—between the first and second chimes.

I was debating whether or not to return the clock for one whose craftsperson was experiencing more mindfulness. It seemed kind of wasteful, but in the end, I did exchange it, and was glad I did.


Last Sunday I went to Eugene’s sitting group. After we meditated, he shared with us the highlights of a discussion the Spirit Rock teachers had with another teacher whose name I didn’t catch. The other teacher talked about how students can plateau at various points, including when life seems easy and pleasant.

What you’re supposed to do in that case, according to this teacher, is strive to keep noticing impermanence.

While I was cooking earlier that day, Hammett sat down in a little patch of sun right where I normally stand to chop vegetables and looked contemplatively at the top of the stove until he evidently decided that whatever he was thinking of doing was likely to be discouraged or even to meet with censure.

On Monday I stopped by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition office to pick up stuff for an SFBC table at my company’s Earth Day event. The event, the following day, was much smaller than last year’s, but I was gratified at the number of people who told me that they would like to bicycle to work, but there is nowhere to park, because that is the project I’m working on: secure bike parking.

I took their names for my fledgling network of company cyclists.

Wednesday evening found me back at the SFBC for Volunteer Night. A time or two before, I had seen S. with some small children, so I asked him if those had been his children. He said no. I said, “Oh, you must have just been sitting next to someone else’s kids.” S. said, “No—they were sitting next to me,” which I thought was funny.

I’ve been trying to identify a day on which I could do some sewing projects, which is like trying to pick a day to have dinner with a friend: Not that week, not that week, not that week. I finally decided just to do what I could weekday evenings, even though that means no reading, so on Thursday night I mended a pair of pants, hemmed a piece of cloth for draping over my sewing machine (I’ve been using a relative’s shredded towel for some years; I don’t even know how that item came into my possession), and began hemming a cherry-red piece of cloth I will hang inside a windowed closet door to protect the stuff in the closet from the curious gaze of myself.

Last night I saw the world's worst movie: London, which consists entirely of people snorting cocaine and screaming at each other. Jason Statham is in it, which is why I watched it, but he wasn't nearly as attractive as in the Transporter movies and the movies with "Job" in the title.

By the way, apparently there is a sequel to The Italian Job called The Brazilian Job, never yet released; I'm not sure if it was even made yet. That is something I must see.

Email exchange with Frank in Dublin which I subsequently forwarded to my parents, verbatim:

I wrote: I know you’ll be pleased to hear I have a sty. Unfortunately, it’s not large or painful, but it is red and unsightly, and has lingered for a few days so far.

Just trying to keep up the spirits of those in lands far away!

What’s new with you?

Frank: Ahhh, the old STY in the EYE!! Been there Atkins, been there. They are painful little buggers, they lie dormant for years and then when you least expect it................................BANG...........a giant snot-rag in your face. Memories.

Not much new on this side, did I tell you that I entered the L'Etape Du Tour this year? It is the cycling race where 8000 amateur cyclists from around the world can bike one stage of the Tour Du France. This year it's on stage 10. There is some very serious climbing in it!!! I have Wildflower in just over 2 weeks, can't wait for that. You know, I was thinking the other day, it's been over three and a half years since I left, and I have not returned to San Fran ONCE in that time. That's hugely unusual for me. I thought a bit about it, and eventually came to the conclusion that unless I am actually moving back there, I think it would hurt too much to go back. I really do miss the place. I miss the madmen on market street, the hussle and bussle of time square. My walk home up the streets to Pine. I miss the bay, the golden gate, I miss hearing that little tram as it struggled up Powell or California. And most of all I miss Trader Joes. What a place. Isn't it?

Tell me, what do you miss about dublin?

Linda [who has never been to Dublin]: Yes, you told me something about that race. It sounds incredible.

I’m going to do the 73-mile loop of the Grizzly Peak century in a couple of weeks. I think that is also hilly. I’m going to do it on my plain old commute bike plus fenders, because I haven’t been riding my Bianchi much, and therefore find it uncomfortable when I do.

Ah, good old Dublin. I miss the misty evenings, cool outside but warm and cozy inside with a pint or two and my mates. I miss those old characters sitting in the corner at the neighborhood pub. And, of course, Dublin in springtime! When the sun and flowers finally appear, it’s heaven.

You’ll be happy to hear my sty is stubbornly refusing to abate. It’s been exactly the same for four or five days now. Once in a while, it itches, and then I rub it vigorously, which is probably why it’s not going away. But really, I don’t think I’ve ever had one last more than a couple of days before.

Frank: You have the gift of chat Atkins, I can picture you now sitting in an old mans pub, sipping back a nice capari and soda, giving the finger to customers as they pass on through. 'Burly' they will mutter to themselves as they pass, referring to your inate ability to create as hostile an environment as possible. Little do these things worry Atkins, as she sits next to the fire vicourously scratching her left eye.

(End of exchange)

My father wrote back that he thought this was “highly chuckelacious.” (Note the crafty respelling of “chuckle” to make the extended form comprehensible. “Chuckleacious” wouldn’t have done the trick.)

On the phone, my mother said, “I don’t get it. What does burly mean?”

“Burly. You know what burly means. It means burly.”

“That’s not a definition! You can’t define a word by using the same word. If you look it up in the dictionary, it wouldn’t say ‘The definition of burly is burly.’ I mean, I know what burly means; it means big and strong, but he must have meant it in some other way.”

“No, that’s what he meant.”

“Why is that funny?”

“It’s funny because it’s not something people usually say about people. They might say, ‘Ooh, grumpy’ or ‘Friendly!’ but they don’t usually say ‘Burly.’”

“Was he saying he was burly?”

“No, he was saying people would say I was burly, as I sat there scratching my eye.”

There was a sincere-sounding gale of laughter—finally—and then a dry, “Yeah, a joke is always funnier if it requires several paragraphs of explanation.”

Saturday, April 19, 2008

I’d Like Much, Much More

I’ve been having some chest pains lately, obviously nothing to worry about, since I’m only nearly 46, a veritabobble little spring chicken, meaning it’s one hundred percent impossible that I could experience a heart attack, but I thought maybe I would assess my saturated fat intake, just in case. Yep, the Wholesome & Delicious Heaven Scent cookies have some, as do the Barbara’s Bakery Original Cheese Puffs, yum and yum, but it’s the pint (the basic unit) of ice cream, ingested on a regular basis, that weighs in at 44 grams of saturated fat. Is that a lot? It sounds like a lot.

While Tom and I were visiting Ann and Mac, I told him his moderate habits were making me look bad and that he should try to eliminate this noxious phrase from his vocabulary: “Thanks, I’ve had enough.”

I’ve tried a number of brands of t-shirts lately and none has been satisfactory. Both Eddie Bauer and Lands End t-shirts are bad right now; both are too big in my size (men’s XXL, for the not-so-form-fitting look). Going down a size would not solve the problem. The size is right; the cut is wrong.

So I’m heading once again down a path I trod unprofitably in the past, that of attempting to sew my own camp shirt. When I tried it before, it took a long, long time—much longer than to make baggy pants—and I think I wore the result only once. But that fabric was sort of a flannel. Maybe I’ll have better luck with cotton broadcloth, or whatever you call it.

The Master Seamster (my mother) is enthusiastic about this project and has offered some advice. I ordered a pattern this past week, and I already have a pile of cloth from my last trip to Stonemountain & Daughter, so I should be able to start soon.

Not long ago, my mother said it had suddenly dawned on her that my problem is that I'm turning into an old fart and that that's why I don’t want a cell phone and so forth. I could have told her that long ago.

This past week I called her to get a snippet of information for a form I was filling out and she said she was in the car, adding, "I'm not driving. I'm just rolling along."

"That's good," I said, "because it's dangerous to drive while talking on a cell phone."

"Oh, my! You sound like an old fuddy-duddy," she replied, and I believe that moment marked the completion of our role reversal. Once upon a time she was all grown up and I was a tiny kid and she told me not to carve on the table with a knife, or at least I assume she did, since I never do that.

But now we're both adults, and, as my mother said, we're now converging in age. One day, she said, we’ll be 80 and 102, though I think that's a bit optimistic on both counts. But if we make it, we'll both be the same thing: elderly.

Of course, my mother at 102 will probably be saying, "My robot housekeeper is down, but I've been reading the manual, and I think I've just about got it figured out," while I'll still be saying, "Why doesn't the damn pet store carry clay cat litter anymore??? If it was good enough for my grandfather ... "

Before we hung up, my mother said mournfully, "I can remember when you were cool and hip."

Last night Tom and I watched The Transporter, which stars Jason Statham as a driver who can be counted on by his criminal clients to keep his nose out of their affairs, until his discovers his cargo, inside a bag, is a young woman who is very much alive. We both liked it a lot.

Today I joined Bicycle Coalition members in a project to mark potholes and broken pavement with colorful stencils, to point out what bad repair many San Francisco streets are in, more of an issue for people on bikes than those in cars. My group of six people was congenial and worked together well. We were assigned to Polk St.

A TV camera crew followed us for a time, and so the astute viewer, watching the 6 o’clock news, would have caught about a seven-second segment on our operation and seen my very hand wielding a spray paint can—it was actually spray chalk, not permanent. Tom said he also saw a shot of all of me, but I missed that. I could only tell it was my hand because I recognized my new Pearl Izumi glove.

The wind was very ferocious today, making for strenuous and sometimes unpredictable cycling. As I have said before, I think high winds are going to get to be quite a factor as the climate changes. This week, a woman in San Francisco was killed when the wind blew part of a tree down onto her, and this morning I read online about a toddler in Chicago being blown, with his stroller, into Lake Michigan.

At Tom’s place, where I went to watch the news, the windows were rattling in the frames, making a tremendous racket, which he said he’d gotten used to. It was driving me crazy after 20 minutes, so during the sports I rushed downstairs to get some cardboard to fold up and stuff between the windows and the frames, which silenced the din.

Tom made us a tasty dinner of Cajun catfish and toasted sourdough. Back at home, I had to put cardboard in some of my own windows that had never needed it before.

A bit later, after I had a chat with Lisa M. on the phone, Tom came down and we watched The Transporter 2, directed by the person who had been the assistant director on the first one. We both agreed we liked the first one more. The music in the first one was also much better, by Stanley Clarke, the bassist and composer.

When I get up in the middle of the night to pee, though no one’s making him, Hammett always gets up, too, rushing into the bathroom to sit before me, rumpled and bleary—downright haggard—his expression unmistakably accusing.

Pictures from The Sea Ranch

Me and Sophie

Tom and Sophie

I actually meant to be gentlemanly and put Tom, the gentleman, first, but I haven't quite mastered photo uploading. Both photos by Ann.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Important Hair Advice

This brouhaha about the remarks Obama made in San Francisco about disenfranchised citizens has turned me off Hillary Clinton permanently, meaning that I now support no candidate at all. As a Newsweek column by the Daily Kos guy points out, unless she has a massive victory in Pennsylvania, her only hope is to convince the superdelegates to ignore the will of the people, which is a contemptuous and cynical strategy. I would not want a president who had done that in order to win, though I suppose it would be a step or two up from what Bush did. Twice.

I also am tired of finding out that Clinton has lied about this or that. Veracity is fundamental, or should be. I don’t want a president who can’t be trusted to tell the simple truth, even though we probably haven’t had one for a hundred years, if ever.

The day the Olympic torch was supposed to pass through San Francisco, I went down to the starting point, at Third and King, and waited around, with many other people, for an hour, but of course they ended up changing the torch’s route, so in the end, the most exciting thing that happened that day was that an acquaintance of mine, down at the Embarcadero, saw Elton John strolling casually through the crowd, alone. She said hello to him and he was really nice and stopped and let her friend take a picture of the two of them together.

Did I tell you about my new neighbor? I have a new neighbor, in the next building, but her bathroom window is five or six feet from mine. She is very nice and her name is Sara and she likes music very, very much, from early in the morning until late at night and all points in between, except when she’s at work.

I made a point of meeting her right away—by screaming into her bathroom window—so that if we ever had any issue to discuss, we’d have a friendly basis for doing so. She’s been here maybe a month, and quite a few times her music has kept me up until 12:30 or so, so I finally spoke to her about it, again calling to her from my bathroom window, emphasizing that I was not mad, that I like her and I’m glad she’s my neighbor, but I feel kind of lousy when I don’t get enough sleep.

She was super-nice in return and said she would turn her music down at 10:30, and that I should let her know if problems continue. So far, I have noticed a big improvement. Life is good.

I’m pleased to report that it’s now OK that my coworker Emily is gone, and also OK if we don’t keep in touch, or if we do. I crossed over the magical line between “absence makes the heart grow fonder” and “out of sight, out of mind” last week, and was relieved.

Last Thursday evening I finally did my taxes and on Friday, Tom and I drove up to visit Ann and Mac and Sophie the dog at the Sea Ranch, getting extraordinarily lucky with the weather. It was positively boiling in Santa Rosa, where we stopped for lunch, and at Ann and Mac’s peaceful and lovely place right on the coast, it was sunny, warm and clear.

Tom took a couple of long walks and I took a couple of long naps. A nap is always a nice thing, but it seems to be even better with the ocean sparkling right outside. I also made a tremendous amount of headway in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which my book club will discuss in a couple of weeks. It’s well written, but I’m finding it a bit emotionally uninvolving. Like, I don’t care if the main character’s wife comes back to him or not. In fact, I guess I think she shouldn’t.

When we were driving home again on Sunday, I found myself on the verge of nausea on twisty Highway 1, but taking the wheel myself relieved it.

As mentioned, I am now occupying the cube at work that Emily vacated, and it turns out to be the worst cube I’ve ever sat in. It’s large and has a nice view, but it’s open to the back, so people can and do stand behind me while I’m working, which erodes privacy and is also distracting.

A month or so ago, we got a note about cubes and who is sitting where and who’s paying for what. The cube I was sitting in at the time was not actually being paid for by my boss, and so I swung into action, sending my poor boss a slew of emails on the subject. Meanwhile, my immediate neighbor, also sitting in a cube not paid for by her group, said nothing at all to her own boss and just kept on as usual. (We have two different bosses, both located in some other city.)

In the end, my boss decided that it would solve all problems if I simply moved to Emily’s cube. My ex-neighbor said nothing to anyone and therefore is still sitting right where she has been for the past year or two, and so would I be if I hadn’t tried to manage the situation, alas.

Not long ago I found something on the Internet about a shampoo ingredient that can be a culprit in itching and other skin conditions. I sent the info along to my parents and my father said he stopped using anything containing this ingredient long ago and my mother said this:

“I have several bottles of shampoo and I am not going to try anything new right now. Look at it this way: when all the hair is gone, you can save money and just use face soap, as your face will reach all the way to the back of your neck.”

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Thoughtful Gift from the Universe: Why, You Shouldn’t Have!

In response to “Daughterly Musings,” my mother says it will probably even up after I’ve had to wipe her butt for a year later on. She says if she had it to do over again, maybe she wouldn’t have gotten married and had kids, not because those things were bad, but just to do something different (which assumes you can do the whole thing over again using the knowledge gained the first time, which of course you can’t).

She added, “You can’t really say, ‘I’m so happy because I’m married and have kids,’ because then everyone who’s not married or who doesn’t have kids would feel bad. And besides, you’re not married and you’re not unhappy.”

“Not totally unhappy, true. Or if I am, it’s because of my bad personality, not because I’m not married.”

“Right, that’s what I mean,” she happily agreed.

Last Saturday I meant to do my taxes, but worked on my blog instead. In the late afternoon, Tom and I went to see Stop-Loss, about soldiers being recalled to the war in Iraq, which was wrenching. When it ended, I sat in the dark theater with tears dripping down my face. Ryan Phillippe and Abbie Cornish were good in the lead roles. Afterwards, we had Thai food at Bangkok 16.

It turned out that, despite the million times I’ve been angry at her, the Emily-shaped hole was bigger than I would have thought, and I spent Sunday feeling surprisingly grief-stricken about her physical departure from my life.

In between doing things to make myself feel worse, such as thinking of all of Emily’s fine qualities, I also periodically noticed, “Oh, having such-and-such a thought,” and by Sunday evening I felt a bit better. I went to Eugene’s, which was very nice. I sat near the same two people I sat near last week, and it felt quite cozy.

I do wish Emily and I had talked about things much sooner, even at the time of the original ill feelings, years ago. I wish I hadn’t clung to my negative judgments so fervently. What she did seemed wrong to me (and you won’t hear what it was here), but no doubt there are things about me that others think are really wrong, and I’d be crushed if that was all they could see of me.

I wish I’d been much kinder and more forgiving, but I wasn’t, and it’s not one of the choices now to do that, at least in person. What I can do is be kind and forgiving with, say, Tom, or the person who needs my help at work, which of course seems much less appealing. I can also be kind and forgiving with what is happening in the moment.

Eugene spoke Sunday night about noticing what is happening at this moment—the state of our bodies and moods—and not being in contention with it. “Ah, my back hurts and I’m sad.” “I’m sleepy and I feel happy.” Whatever it is. I thought “not being in contention” was a nice way to think of it.

Yesterday morning, as I left for work, I decided to go one better and not think of the loss of the person of Emily as a bad thing to be tolerated or overcome, but as a good thing, somehow: This is what the universe has sent, and I will find a way to be happy with it. This is a tremendous gift the universe has sent me! (I guess.)

And I was extremely cheerful then, and when I ran into the manager of the building I work in, instead of thinking, “Here’s the person who keeps ignoring my requests in regard to bike parking,” I thought, “How lucky! What a nice lady this is! What a lovely smile she has!”

(My life is all about building managers: At home, at work, where I park my bike. That's kind of weird.)

We spoke for a few minutes, and she offered a possible place where we could park extra bikes in the building garage on Bike to Work Day, coming up May 15, and she was friendly and enthusiastic.

Back to Emily, which happens a lot these days, mentally: We are of course friends. We have been for years. But I’m having trouble remembering how to act after having gone through the internal upheaval of the past week. Would I send her a funny email? Sure. Would I call her up to ask a work question and then chat for a bit? Sure, and I have this week and it has been very nice.

But I don’t think I would call her up every 30 minutes, nor tell her that I want to be best friends and come to her house every weekend, because I wouldn’t like it if someone started acting like that with me out of the blue. In fact, I’d call the police: “Police? Send help—I have a stalker!”

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Daughterly Musings

I had another conversation with my mother lately about why I don’t have a cell phone, in which I pointed out that if she has a catastrophe, there’s not much I can do about it from 2500 miles away. It emerged that she doesn’t expect to have a catastrophe; she expects me to have one, here in San Francisco, and she’s probably right, but she said that at least we could say goodbye.

“Well,” I said, “we can do that right now: Goodbye! I love you! Thank you for everything!”


“What about the ‘I love you’ and ‘Thank you for everything’?”

“Thank you for what?”


There was a pause while she considered, and then she said, “I’d say it’s a wash.”

A wash! This was shocking news—which in my heart of hearts, I didn’t actually believe—but then I thought about the severe impact having a child would have on my life.

What if, instead of sitting my chair reading or eating cheese puffs or going to get a massage or having brunch with Ann and Mac in Berkeley, I had to take care of a passel of small children, and not just that day, but every day for years and years, and then when they grew up, they blamed me for all of their problems and wrote over and over in their blog, “Have I ever told you how nice my father is?”

The fact is, I never wanted to have a child. I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but I’ve reached that age where I’m going to tell my couple of stories over and over, so:

At the age of four or five, as I made my daily rounds on our little street, one block long, it dawned on me that children and mothers came clumped together: one observed a mother, and a couple of kids attached to that mother. I rushed home to ask my mother how this was. Why do all the women around here have children?

Wonderfully, my mother somehow knew I was really asking, “Do they have to? Is it required?”, and told me that once you got to be a grown-up, if you wanted to have a child, you had one, and if you didn’t, you didn’t, and I was very relieved. I don’t have to!

By the way, have I ever told you how nice my father is? Among other things, he almost never says anything that could possibly cause hurt feelings. I’m sure he has just as many opinions about the people around him as anyone else does, but if they would wound the listener, he keeps them to himself.

Though now that I think about it, I recall that when I was about 14, he crankily accused me of putting this or that piece of Dansk Variation V flatware into the wrong compartment of the flatware drawer on purpose, and would not believe me when I said, truthfully, that I was not doing that. So he’s not perfect, but pretty dern close.

Of course, that’s my perspective as a daughter, not as a spouse. And of course he was away at work all of those years, which, in part, meant that his full personality wasn’t on display every day, let alone under the stress of dealing with X number of children.

In those days, it was just about always the mom who had to leap into the fray and have her every failure to achieve perfection carefully catalogued and brooded over and mentioned every now and then for the rest of her life.

But perfection or the lack thereof aside—and despite the absolute-sounding name, it’s subjective and no one ever achieves it—people come with a variety of personality traits and talents.

Thus I have one parent who never says anything to hurt anyone’s feelings and one who makes me fall on the floor laughing. One who cooks great meals and washes almost all the dishes, too, and one who buys Metallica and Alice in Chains CDs and actually listens to them, just because one of her kids likes that stuff. One who climbs a ladder and cleans the roof gutters and one who can take the dryer apart and make it work again. One who can watch a movie in Spanish and understand the whole thing and one who can play the piano, put up wallpaper, and weave baskets. One who took us to play tennis and one who made sure we had music lessons. One who, without a word of complaint, missed out on a lot of stuff in order to make sure we were cared for materially and one who is wonderfully enthusiastic about, seemingly, every last thing on earth. One mechanical engineer and one marine engineer. One who was named for a jazz pianist and one who used to remind us that spiders are our friends and sisters.

One person couldn’t do all of that stuff, probably.

In sum, my parents are two different people, easy to tell apart, and I love both of them very much.

The Bank Job, The Italian Job, the This Job, the That Job

As you may or may not have noticed, my blog entries are always just about 850 words long. As of today, I abandon that constraint, simply because my story about Emily was longer than that. Letting go of my own rule will be my homage to Emily.

You may also have noticed that some entries don’t have the date at the top. That’s because the HTML that generates the date does it per day, or something like that, so if you post more than one entry on a day, only the top one will show the date. It’s fixable, I gather, but I don’t have time to mess with that.

(Mom! Why don’t you get a blog, solve this problem and let me know the answer?)

When I was riding my bike on Valencia the other day, a big red pickup pulled up next to me and the woman in the passenger seat asked where there was a Kinko’s. I thought, but couldn’t picture one, so they drove off. I was thinking that I’ll bet my neighbor Molly knows where one is (I think that because she once told me she worked at a nonprofit), and I actually sort of looked around, in case Molly should be strolling by, which of course she wasn’t.

When I got home, some blocks and a couple of turns later, there was a big red pickup in front of my apartment and Molly was talking to the person in the passenger seat. When she was done, I said, “They wanted to know where Kinko’s was,” which she knew, of course, and I told her that I had seen the same people over on Valencia and that I had thought “I’ll bet Molly knows where there’s a Kinko’s,” and we marveled at the weirdness of that, that they had ended up getting to consult the very person I had thought of.

Hammett is also psychic: Though his cat sitter, Pat, hasn’t been here since November, he must have picked up her vibe due to my talking to her on the phone in the past couple of days, because he rushed to the door when he heard a noise in the hall last night, hoping it was her. I know he hoped it was her, because she’s the only person he knows and likes besides me. (He knows Tom, but doesn’t like him very much.)

I will be going away on vacation a few times in the coming months and so have been pondering Hammett’s care. He eats only wet food now, but I’m not sure Pat could give him wet food, because she wouldn’t be here to move it somewhere else once the ants found it.

I called Dr. Press and he said if Hammett suddenly switches to dry food while I’m gone, it could cause an attack of FUS, particularly coupled with the stress of my being gone, but he said “You gotta do what you gotta do,” and that it would also be OK for Hammett not to take his glucosamine while I’m gone.

Lately Hammett has been smelling a little butty (butt-juice-like), and I got to wondering if expressing anal glands is something a cat owner can do herself. The Internet says it is, though I didn’t have immediate success when I tried it yesterday, with the latex glove and all. One of these days I’ll take him over to Mission Pet Hospital and have someone there show me how they do it. Maybe it’s something one person can’t do alone.

Then I also got to wondering if Mrs. Internet knows how to keep ants out of cat food, and it turns out She does. (Capital S for a deity.) I tried this last night and it worked perfectly: I put some water in a shallow baking pan, put a couple of drops of dish soap in the water to break surface tension, and put the bowl of food in the corner of the pan, though not so near as to touch the sides. There were ants on the floor and on the rim of the baking pan, but not one made it to the food bowl, so Pat will be able to give Hammett wet food while I’m gone after all.

Last night I saw The Italian Job, which I loved. I have resisted putting it on my list because I thought it would be one of those murky crime dramas whose plot I wouldn’t be able to follow, full of a bunch of guys I wouldn’t be able to tell apart. How wrong I was! It’s beautiful, first of all, set in Venice and Hollywood, and the music is great, the story was easy to follow (except for something about Ukrainian cousins later on) and was audaciously delightful at several points, the extremely pretty Charlize Theron is in it, and so is Mark Wahlberg, whom I like a lot, and for goodness’ sakes, so is Jason Statham, looking very, very cute, because that’s just how he looks.

I loved this movie! I called up Tom afterwards to ask why he didn’t tell me The Italian Job was the best movie ever—it turns out he doesn’t think it is—and then I watched almost all of it again right away, rewinding all of Jason Statham’s scenes to watch them three or four times in a row before going on.

When I go to a movie theater these days, my remote-holding hand twitches in vain: Wait! I want to see that again!

End of an Era

A longtime colleague of mine, let’s call her Emily, recently received permission to move to an office location closer to her home, which will save her time and money, and which triggered a small move of my own, because my boss wanted me to move into Emily’s cube once she had vacated it. It also triggered a wavelet of celebrations/goodbye lunches.

I joked that the person I’ve been sitting next to would want to have a party to celebrate the fact that I was departing, and Emily and I would need to have a goodbye lunch, and then we would need to have a party to try to cheer up my new neighbors—at some point, before we knew Emily was leaving, the idea of me sitting next to her was proposed and she said, “No! I don’t want that—the noise, the laughing, the coughing.” I’m so sure!

Emily and I did go out to lunch on Thursday, of which more later, and my closest neighbor, Jan, and I went to lunch on Friday, confusing Jan’s colleagues. (She’s in a different group from me. The only person I physically worked with who is also in my group was Emily, now gone. I’m all alone.)

Jan explained that there were two different lunches and that I believe in overdoing it, which I thought was a very nice compliment. While Jan and I were walking back from our lunch, at California Pizza Kitchen, where we went just to see what it was like, we encountered Willie Brown walking toward us. “Hey!” I said involuntarily. It was odd to see a face that is so well-known from the newspaper right in front of my eyeballs. He ignored me, but genially greeted another man who called, “Hey, Willie!”

As for my lunch with Emily, that really was interesting, because we have taken turns over the years, five or six years, not speaking to each other, sometimes for months. She is extraordinarily prickly, and some have said the same of me. She has a long list of dreadful personality traits and a long list of excellent personality traits and talents; perhaps she would say the same of me.

We have never discussed any problem openly, and I figured she wasn’t interested in doing that kind of thing, at least with a coworker, so I just assumed we never would, and it was fine with me. However, there was just one thing that was nagging at me that I needed to say, so a few days before she was to leave, and before our lunch, I said I was sorry I had been mean and grumpy the first year we worked together. She said she remembered it as being just a couple of months, whereupon I retracted 5/6 of my apology.

She said she figured it was for X reason, which it really wasn’t, but I suppose that was sort of part of it, tangentially, so I said, “That was part of it,” and left it at that, because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings at this late date, and also because I have reliably been able to get angry about Y and Z pretty much anytime I think of them, even all these years later, and I didn’t want to again.

So I was really surprised when, at our lunch, she asked what else had made me upset back at the beginning. I said it was brave of her to ask and she pointed out that she had waited until we were done eating to do so (which reminded me of another, much closer relationship that ended right after lunch in a restaurant). I said I would tell her if she wanted to know, though I hoped it wouldn’t wreck our relationship, which has come to be quite good on the whole.

And then I just told her: Y and Z. She received this calmly, and said that what I had thought was true at the time had indeed been quite true.

After we discussed that, I remembered a time she hadn’t spoken to me for many weeks and asked what that had been all about, and she told me. And then I told her a couple of pieces of extremely juicy gossip I would never have imparted in a cubicle at work, and she told me one in return.

I also told her the things that had made me stop hating her and start liking her: how I came to admire her ability to plunge into things and figure them out on her own, and how I realized she is on the whole a kind and peaceful person, and one of immense discretion. I know I can tell her any piece of gossip without fear because she never, ever tells me anything she has heard from anyone else.

Thus it was an extremely satisfactory lunch, much more so than I could have imagined, had I imagined anything.

So I am sorry to say that on the actual day of her departure, we had another fight before we had even looked at each other, and my last sight of her, after certainly no hug, no handshake, and not even meeting each other’s gaze, was of her stalking off down the hallway, shoulders set, a sight I have seen many times and will not miss not seeing again, but there are many other sights I will miss seeing. Plus, as mentioned, I’m all alone now.

(I mentioned to another coworker that Emily and I had a fight and he said, “Wow, you guys must really like each other if you can say those kinds of rude things to one other,” or words to that effect.)

As for Emily’s cube, I had to spend a good while cleaning it, which did mitigate my feeling of loss. I’m kidding; no, it didn’t, but I was slightly irked that she left actual items for me to discard.

The cube is larger than my old one and has a much better view—I brought my binoculars to work to take advantage of it—but it also has way more neighbors, and people can sneak up on you from the back. In fact, if they want, they can actually walk through the back of my cube to get to some other place.

The same coworker who admired the closeness that permits Emily and me to be angry with each other said, “Would you say your ass is hanging out in the breeze?” That’s a good description. I was happy in my smaller cube with Jan as my neighbor and with my back firmly to the wall, but cube assignments do tend to change not infrequently, along with managers. I have had nine cubes and eight managers in nine years. This is more good than bad, because you know any situation will change in due time, and not even that much time.

You Probably Don’t Remember Me (Because You Didn’t Know Me in the First Place), But …

I got to thinking about an old dance teacher this week, someone I took a class from 30 or so years ago. It was a wonderful class, devoted entirely to stretching. Our teacher was beautiful, with dark hair and eyes and a strong, lithe body. She seemed much older than we were, but she was probably only 19 or 20 years old to our 13 or 14, a dance student at the University of Michigan.

Whitley-Anne Setrakian was her name then, and this I have never forgotten, because every time I do the face stretch where you grin hugely and then pull your mouth into pleading fish lips, I think of her, which means I think of her three or four times a week.

Other parts of my routine make me think of other people: Of a certain physical therapist, of dance teacher Chris Van Raalte, of Greg Kehret (who has nothing to do with dance or stretching; why do I think of him when I do a certain stretch? Maybe for the same reason I think of Michael Paoli, an ex-coworker, when I slice mushrooms: no reason, or some weird reason even I don’t know), of tai chi teacher C. K. Jeong, of Lexie, and finally of Amy.

So I Googled Whitley-Anne Setrakian and found out that she is now Whit Hill, still in Ann Arbor, and a respected alt-country musician, after having been a dancer and choreographer for a long time. I went ahead and emailed her—“Hello from a long, LONG ago dance student”—and said she shouldn’t feel obliged to write back.

However, when she didn’t, I felt faintly injured, but then got to thinking maybe it’s just weird to email people from long ago out of the blue, especially if you hardly knew them in the first place. I’m sure Whitley-Anne Setrakian would not have been able to call me by name two weeks after I finished taking her class, because there was just one of her and several of us, and, believe me, nothing distinguished me as a dancer or stretcher.

Is it just as weird to email someone out of the blue as it would be to telephone them? I think not, simply because I would never telephone someone in those circumstances. Telephoning would trip my own internal Weird Meter, and emailing doesn’t. Maybe because while telephoning can be asynchronous, if the person doesn’t happen to answer, emailing always is. There is no possibility of making direct sensory contact via an email; the recipient sees an email, welcome or not, but doesn't see, hear or have to touch the sender.

I have sent a handful of emails to people from long ago that have gone unanswered, so you’d think I might have learned by now, but I have also had an extremely rewarding experience or two. Some years ago, I emailed my junior high Spanish teacher, Mr. Puente, and we had an absolutely delightful exchange.

He remembered me perfectly well from 25 years ago, because, as he told me, he had pictures of several students under a piece of glass on his desk, and one of them was of me.

In the end, Whit Hill did write back and say she’s in the middle of a move to Nashville (I suspect this fact will be readily available elsewhere on the Internet, such as her own website) and is always glad to hear that people liked what she taught so long ago. I replied that Nashville sounds like a fantastic place for her—it really does—and that was that, and it was a very satisfactory little thing in the end.