Saturday, January 24, 2009

I Didn’t Mean That the Way It Sounded!

It’s going to be two more weeks, probably, before I can post at length, so I must also say I didn’t mean to imply that I felt David and Lisa had visited upon me a, pardon the expression, task. David’s request for a recording of my composition was very flattering; I myself turned it into a task by the simple method of failing to do it right away, ditto the next month, and the next …

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

President Barack H. Obama

All right, I’m sick of looking at that perimenopause thing myself, even, so I’ll just quickly note that I got over my ire about Rick Warren enough to get excited about the inauguration again, and I did stay home and watch the ceremony, and cried through most of it, though it was hard to be sure exactly why: relief that George’s presidency was ending, distress at how he broke our country, joy at seeing an African-American sworn in as president? All of that.

They said on NPR that President Obama plans to be known as “Barack H. Obama,” and I think I did detect a malicious gleam on Justice Robert’s face when he said “Hussein.” I think he also went too quickly when he told Obama what to say on purpose so that Obama would mess it up, which he did. But it's probably not a bad thing for a president to have a humbling moment now and then.

Question: If you don’t say the oath exactly the way it’s written, are you still really the president? My mother said right after Obama’s fine speech that there are probably Republicans getting ready to sue right this minute.

Fortunately, the thing I was really nervous about went fine: that guy playing the clarinet outdoors in the freezing weather.

P. S. My online news purveyor says it was Roberts who messed up the wording. Obama probably had the oath memorized to make sure it would go smoothly, hence the dueling versions.

Friday, January 02, 2009

The Citizens are Revolted

The perimenopause symptoms I was complaining about not long ago all turned out to be short-lived: there was only one mega-period with gallons of blood, the sleep problems disappeared, and I’m back to my normal level of irascibility, or maybe even less, thanks to meditating in the morning, or maybe more, given what happened New Year’s Eve.

However, one weird thing has cropped up, which is nausea. Normally, while eating I can listen to someone describe his or her bout with explosive diarrhea or just how much pus was in his or her infected wound without any distress whatsoever. You have to have a cast-iron digestive system to eat as much junk food as I do. Before the past month or so, I could have counted on one hand the number of times I'd felt nauseous since quitting drinking 29 years ago.

But now it happens quite frequently, and I feel like I’m going to heave if, for instance, someone says something about green beans while I’m eating. “Green beans!? Blech … ”

Jeff is treating it with acupuncture, I have stopped taking fish oil in hopes that is the culprit, and Jack recommends eating fermented sauerkraut made by a woman in Berkeley.

It’s been raining lately, so my ant friends have returned. Some years I leave them unmolested, and some years I get in the habit of killing them, these small creatures who want to live as much as I do and fear death just as I do.

This year I strongly feel I don’t want to harm them, so I have been using a little piece of scrap paper to scoop each one up and tap it onto the Bianchi’s rack so I can go ahead with washing dishes or cooking. I seem to have far fewer ants this year than in the years when I make every effort to eradicate them. It’s almost as if when I treat them with respect, they treat me with respect.

To keep ants out of Hammett’s food, I put the bowl in a shallow baking dish with water and a couple of drops of dish soap in it. This eliminates the surface tension that would allow ants to make their way over to his food bowl. Ants are good swimmers, or at least good floaters. I often find one or two gamely performing the Limp Ant’s Float while waiting for rescue from Hammett’s water bowl, which of course does not have dish soap in it.

Hammett is doing fine. He’s full of energy, as always. This morning he used my trumpet case to get onto the bookshelves and knocked an item or two to the floor. Then he noticed there was a bird outside and rushed to the window. Then he spied a malicious enemy leering at him from the iMac’s shiny monitor and stood glaring at it for several moments. Then he seemed to relax suddenly: Is that me? I thought I was a beefy bruiser. You mean I’m just a fuzzy little cat?

Then he went to dig in the tub a bit, and then he pulled the springy door stop near the front door and let it go several times in a row, making a loud spronging sound, until its white rubber tip came off—a new toy!—and then he walked under the canopy of the sweatshirt draped over my knees and poked my inner thigh a time or two with his front fingers to see if it was time for him to be picked up and told again what a remarkable cat he is, the best cat there is. It was that time.

Good news at work, regarding the proposal I wrote a year or so ago for the installation of bike racks: A high-level manager has agreed to fund a pilot project at three to five locations. We’re hoping to produce a process guide that can be used by other sites that want bike racks. My company employs 150,000 or so people, and makes changes very slowly, like any large company, so it’s exciting to see this gathering momentum.

Two very pretty songs: “Take the Hand,” by Nazz, Todd Rundgren’s early band, and “Second Nature,” by Utopia, another Todd Rundgren band. A song I would never have thought would be good, but is: “I Kissed a Girl,” by Katy Perry. The lyrics probably don’t bear close scrutiny, but it is catchy. Also very good: “Remedy,” by Seether.

Just after I was raving about my chiming clock here, it quit working, so I have tried to rig up a poor woman’s version of it using multiple timepieces, and it’s sort of doing the trick, but not really. I feel groggy in the mornings again, and today I just turned the final clock off and went back to sleep for two more hours, followed, after meditation and breakfast, by a three-hour nap tucked under the flannel sheets with Hammy, who stayed the whole time.

I’m managing to get up in time to meditate before work, but I fear the day will come when it is impossible, so I can’t wait to get my replacement chiming clock in the mail. What I had was the Digital Zen Alarm Clock, from Now & Zen. It costs a ridiculous amount, and is not all that reliable, based on online reviews, but most people still say they are crazy about their clock, anyway. That is, roughly five percent say, “This clock was a piece of crap—it broke after six months,” and the other 95 percent say they can’t imagine waking up any other way.

There is also a non-digital version, which may be a bit more robust. I’ve seen reviews mentioning that the non-digital version has been going strong for 15 years, and the customer service person at Now & Zen, while assuring me that both clocks have a low failure rate, did say the non-digital one might be a bit less prone to trouble, since it is of simpler design.

So I have sent my digital clock back—it had lasted nine months—and sent ten more dollars to get the non-digital version instead. It’s larger, which is not good, but if it works reliably over the long term, that’s the main thing.

Tasks Are Things I Cannot Do

On New Year’s Eve, I ordered a pizza from Marcello’s on Castro for me and Tom, and then got into the shower. A couple of minutes later, the phone rang. I worried that it was Marcello’s, calling to confirm my order and that they would cancel it when I didn’t answer. A short while later, the phone rang again—two rings, meaning someone was at the front door.

I leaped out of the shower and tried to buzz the person in, presumably the pizza delivery person, but it didn’t seem to work. The phone rang again and again. Finally, I called Tom and asked (well, instructed) him to go downstairs and let the pizza delivery person in.

Then I listened to the earlier message, which was Marcello’s saying they were out of potato skins and giving me the new total for the order, so I got out that amount plus tip, and when I heard rustling at my door, opened the door a crack—I was still dripping wet, wrapped in a towel—and reached for the pizza.

The front end of the box entered my apartment, but when I tried to take it, there was some resistance, so I pulled harder, and then harder still.

I know I have at least one reader who is hoping I’m going to say the whole pizza slid out of its box and landed, cheese down, on the carpet. Well, it didn’t, but I could hear Tom giggling outside the door as, with one last mighty wrench, I wrested the pizza from the delivery person’s grasp and then slammed the door as hard as I could—it was instinctive; what the aitch ee double toothpicks is going on here?—and then, instantly remorseful, yelled, “Sorry!” I hope my tip made up for it.

Tom explained later that the poor fellow was trying to balance the big box and take the money and stash it somewhere, all of which required about three hands.

New year’s resolutions, besides being more patient when receiving a pizza: To take fewer cabs, and not to buy any more CDs. I did buy a couple of CDs in the past year on which every single song was good, such as The Best of Gino Vannelli and Seether’s Finding Beauty in Negative Spaces, but that was more the exception than the rule, so from now on, I’m just going to buy songs from iTunes.

Tonight, for the very first time in my life, I heard the music of Britney Spears! And I even bought one song: “Toxic.”

Yesterday I completed a task that had been on my list of things to do for 16 months, which was to figure out how to get a piece of music (a classical composition I wrote while in music school, for solo piano) from cassette tape into the iMac, so I could make an MP3 and send it to David and Lisa.

(At David and Lisa’s going-away party in late August or early September of 2007, guests were encouraged to bring an artwork to share, a poem or picture or song. I brought a recording of my piano piece, and David asked afterwards if I could make them a copy.)

I figured it would take five minutes and I’d be chagrined at having delayed for so long, but it did actually take a few hours and quite a bit of hair-pulling. In the end, I got it working, and learned how to edit the digital sound file to remove unwanted parts, which is very easy, and how to make it fade in and fade out.

I also tried making a recording from a vinyl LP and that also worked, though it doesn’t sound as good as the file that came from the cassette tape.

This piano piece was performed at a Friday noon recital at San Francisco State University, not by me, since I am a very junior-level pianist, but by a graduate student named Kerri Dillman, if I recall correctly. She did a great job, and afterwards, the piece received about 30 solid seconds of applause, all captured on the tape, so that is basically a tape of the happiest 30 seconds of my life.

Once I was done with this piece, I did the same for another piece of mine, for bassoon and tenor saxophone, and then, for just a moment, I had the crazy idea of sifting through my tapes and extracting everything worthwhile to digital files and junking the actual tapes, but I was able to cleanse my mind of this ludicrous plan right away.

It would just be way too much work. I might even listen to the digital files more than I listen to the tapes, but I’m still not going to do it, and I’m not going to get rid of a single one of my cassette tapes, either. I like to look at them and remember the sound of what’s on them.

As for vinyl LPs, I have been assured that there will always be turntables, because the true audiophile will always prefer to listen to records, so that part should be fine. I have all my LPs, too, from the first one I ever bought, the greatest hits of the Friends of Distinction.

I did learn something from having procrastinated for so long on my little recording project (I also made David a promised CD or three containing some metal and Todd Rundgren favorites), which is never to agree to do anything for anyone, including myself, ever again.

As Gertrude Stein said, or should have said, or could be imagined saying, “Tasks are things I cannot do.” (I think this line may come from a one-person show about G. Stein, so it's not original, but I don't know who the author is.)

Marrying a Person of Your Own Gender Is Not Required, but Encouraging Homophobes Is Not Good, Either

After I saw High School Musical, I saw High School Musical 2. Neither is very good, though Zac Efron is cute. He’s cuter in the recent version of Hairspray, however, and the music in Hairspray is lots better, too.

I’m still working on the book about Henry Ford, and now that I’m out of renewals, it’s costing me 10 cents a day. The fine will be capped at $5.00, which is good, though I don’t mind supporting the library.

In the dharma department, I just finished Ajahn Sumedho’s Teachings of a Buddhist Monk. It’s extremely off the cuff. Some dharma books someone actually sits down and writes, and some are collections of transcribed dharma talks. This one sounds like Ajahn Sumedho drank a few beers, which we know he didn’t, and rambled very informally and freely to a longtime friend who is a good listener.

The final chapter, “He Did Not Pass the Cakes,” is full of useful stuff that is highly pertinent to my situation at work, and in general. It’s about the friction and irritation we encounter all the time, and how to work with it.

It is clear that Ajahn Sumedho has put in his time wrestling with this stuff, and he makes it sound like the fruits of learning to direct attention inward will be very much worth having. I’ve read or heard this exact advice approximately 2000 times and still manage to forget about it when it’s most needed, so I appreciate bumping into something that inspires me anew.

I’ve been reading a little bit of this chapter each morning to remind me of my intention. I really don’t want to be run hither and thither all my life by this or that thing that someone else might be doing, and I do want to be a kind and patient person.

Meditating in the morning is making it so much easier to be tolerant at work, and to listen to my “customers” attentively.

I am reading, at night, Awakening the Buddhist Heart, by Lama Surya Das. So far it hasn’t offered any notable revelation, but I like his down to earth, friendly style.

I recently got two Etta James CDs, Heart of a Woman and Blue Gardenia. There are several songs on both that I like. It’s neat, too, to hear the lyrics to several jazz standards I’ve played many times on the trumpet. Listening to Etta makes me think of Amy Winehouse; some of Amy’s phrasings are identical to Etta’s. It’s easy to be critical when a musician displays her influences so obviously, but I think it takes talent to be able to analyze what another musician is doing and reproduce it so faithfully. I guarantee I can’t sing anything that sounds like Etta James.

I have also obtained three Jonatha Brooke CDs, including The Works, the one that uses the Woody Guthrie lyrics. It is charming and lovely, incredibly sweet and passionate. Woody Guthrie evidently often wrote from a woman’s perspective.

I discussed my co-worker’s web surfing habits with Tom, whose advice in any situation of undesired behavior is almost always to ignore it, but in this case, he said that was absolutely not OK and that I should have a word with the person’s team lead. As soon as I had Tom’s permission to make an issue of it, I decided I could live with it: the miracle of reverse psychology.

My parents have lately acquired digital cable in their new house. My mother wrote me this:

“Our cable TV is hooked up. The installer said to us, ‘Are you familiar with digital cable TV?’ I said, ‘No. Will I still be able to use my La-Z-Boy?’ He said, ‘Yes, but there will be an extra charge.’”

I’m sorry to say that, after being excited for months over Obama’s candidacy, I’m angry and disappointed about him inviting Rick Warren to participate in the inaugural ceremony, and I wish I had back the money I sent him.

Gay people worked hard to elect Obama. They (or we; I’m bisexual) sent money and spent time volunteering, and voted for him three to one. Rick Warren has likened gay marriage to pedophilia and worked to pass Proposition 8, denying certain human beings and American citizens the right of marriage enjoyed by nearly every other adult; I guess if you're in San Quentin on death row, you also can't get married.

I was actually going to take a vacation day so I could watch the ceremony on TV, but now I probably won’t watch it at all, let alone use a vacation day for this purpose, and I took the “Yes We Did” button off my backpack, because it made me feel a bit heartsick every time I saw it.

I don’t buy the “reaching across the aisle” thing, because there is absolutely no way Obama would have invited an avowed segregationist or KKK leader to participate, because THAT would have been offensive to people he actually cares about not offending.

In the past day or two, there was a report on about a lesbian who was gang-raped by four men who made clear the attack was based on the victim’s being gay.

As one commenter wrote (I have removed an errant apostrophe and added a comma), “I'm convinced that the passage of Prop. 8 and its attendant marketing contributed to [these] other recent instances of hate crimes against perceived LGBT people. Words are powerful, and hateful rhetoric designed to take away people's civil liberties encourages hateful people who act to fulfill their sentiments.”

Rick Warren’s insulting comments about gay people are on the same continuum as this dreadful crime. Maybe they are near opposite ends of the continuum, but it’s the same continuum. When I think of Rick Warren praying at Obama’s ceremony, all I can see is Matthew Shepard’s battered body hanging from the fence in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming. He was still alive then, barely, but died later at the hospital, leaving his family and friends to grieve forever.

It makes me cry, and to think that our new president has so honored an open bigot makes me really, really angry.

I’M Looking at YOU: Christmas 2008

I was recently telling a friend about the box of gifts I get every year from Santa, with a charming note explaining why Santa thinks this year’s garlic press is better than the one he sent last year. Over the years, I have probably gotten three garlic presses from Santa, and five implements for sharpening a knife, and a lot of other stuff I’m very fond of: a Wüsthof knife, a red silicone scraper, my current garlic press, my current knife-sharpening implement (the DMT Double Sided Diafold, which is excellent), a pair of gizmos that can be used in tandem to get stubborn jar lids off, a particular silicone spatula I use nearly every day, and much else.

My friend thought that was perfectly delightful, and I have always concurred. Not two days later, I discovered that last year was the final year for this particular tradition, as Santa went green this year, “in more ways than one.”

Santa’s holiday letter, entitled “New Paradigm,” explained Santa had realized maybe it would be better to send the “wee ones on his gift list” ideas instead of “actual hardware.” He went on to describe the kitchen gadgets he currently likes, and I’m guessing that if I were to obtain them all, they could be had for $60.49, the amount of the check that accompanied the letter.

Santa also switched from Christmas cards to an emailed year-end missive, in which he struck the perfect holiday letter tone. I was admiring, but not surprised, since the letters that accompany Santa’s gifts are always just right—witty and informative.

Now I’m feeling a bit guilty about my own Christmas card habit. I suppose it’s time to give it up, and maybe 2008 will prove to have been the final year for Christmas cards. I recently bought a fresh supply of stamps, even as I wondered if I’ll have occasion to use that many stamps in the entire rest of my life, what with nearly all bills being paid electronically. I do still believe in the handwritten thank-you card.

On Christmas Eve afternoon, Tom and I took BART to Richmond and there boarded an Amtrak train to Sacramento. Tom had a special gift for one of his brothers—a used bicycle that he’d been working on and finding parts for for about nine months.

The train was so packed there were people sitting on the floor between the bicycles hanging from hooks. The train was not that crowded last year on Christmas Eve, and there weren’t that many bicycles aboard, either, I’m sure. It’s good that more people are taking the train and bringing their bikes aboard.

We were able to find a four-seat area to share with a young Indian woman and an elderly Dutch lady. She must have been a knockout in her day. She still looked fantastic at 80-something. She told me I looked very much like her beloved aunt, which I thought was very nice. She was eager to talk. Alas, with the train rumbling along and the fans blowing, I could make out very little of what she said, though Tom and I gathered she doesn’t care for Salt Lake City.

Christmas with Tom’s family was as magical and wonderful as ever. Tom’s sister-in-law Julie's mother, Diane, came from Michigan this year to join us. She had made every single person quite a quantity of chocolate goodies. It must have taken her hours and hours, and she must have spent a small fortune on the ingredients. I was so touched by that.

Tom’s niece’s live-in boyfriend was with his own family in Seattle this year. On Christmas Day, Sarah told us that a certain gift from the night before had been from both her and Josh. Tom’s brother Steve said, “Good. I was starting to think he’d stiffed us, that we’d gotten the full doughnut hole.”

Also, after we got the aforementioned chocolate, Steve said, “OK, I’m setting my chocolate RIGHT HERE and I expect it to be here later. I’M looking at YOU,” and here he made a gesture where he pointed two fingers at his own eyeballs when he said “I” and then pointed the same two fingers at my eyeballs when he said “you.” He really makes me laugh.

It was also funny when Chris, who is allergic to nuts, received walnuts in his stocking and said, “Walnuts—you remembered."

We spent Christmas Day afternoon with Ann and Mac
—Ann made us soup, and Steve, Julie and Diane came over to help eat it—and then, before we knew it, it was time to get on the train to come home.

A couple of days later, Steve’s wife Julie came to San Francisco, along with her mother, Diane, who made us all the goodies. It was Diane's first visit to San Francisco. Tom and I met them downtown. Our goal was to ride the cable car, but that turned out to be the one thing we didn’t do, because the line was way too long both at the Market St. end and at the wharf end.

We met at 4th and Mission, and walked through the Bloomingdale’s mall to Market St. When we saw the cable car wasn’t going to be feasible, we took the historical streetcar to near the foot of Market St. and admired some giant Christmas ornaments inside and outside of what is possibly 101 California St.

We went to the Ferry Building and poked around—Julie bought us each a cupcake at Miette—and then had lunch at Fuzio in one of the Embarcadero Centers, a pasta restaurant where fresh-squeezed lemonade can be had. We took the bus to Pier 39 and looked at the water and the boats and the sea lions. I discovered, with regret, that San Francisco has a Hooters restaurant; it’s near there somewhere.

We went to Starbucks and had caffeinated libations and ate our cupcakes. Diane told us a funny story about, years ago, moving heaven and earth to get to New York, I believe it was, to join Julie and a friend for the opera. Diane and her sister were so exhausted, they ended up falling asleep at the opera and snoring.

By this time, it was dark. We took a cab to Chinatown, passing Coit Tower, which was glowing with beautiful red lights, and walked around Chinatown, including up an enormous hill. Then we took the 30 Stockton bus back to 4th and Mission, where we began, and walked through Yerba Buena Gardens, by the huge fountain, and admired another burning-red lit-up building, the Museum of Modern Art.

We ended up at the Thirsty Bear, where Sarah was working, and Julie treated us to snacks there. Then Tom and I took a cab home, dropping Julie and Diane near their parking garage on the way.