Friday, June 26, 2009

A Bicycle Lane of One’s Own

I’m working on a new route home from work, to avoid being in the Valencia St. bike lanes during afternoon rush hour. It’s OK in the morning, but is too full of adventurers in the afternoon.

There is a rather alarming spot on Folsom with a bike lane that ends abruptly mid-block, leaving one BETWEEN two lanes that are potentially turning right to get onto the freeway. That was an exciting moment, particularly as the motorist to my right, in a freeway-only lane, decided she wasn’t in the mood to get on the freeway, after all, and went straight. I’m here telling the tale, and I might see if I can make that work—I see other cyclists there, a couple—but I’m exploring other options.

My new route goes past a very beautiful little marina I’d never seen before that is full of well-kept boats. It continues behind the ball park and goes near Potrero Hill, a neighborhood I’m especially fond of. There’s a nice view of big ships in the bay and some ancient dry docks, or wet docks? Big metal rusting things from long ago. A rather desolate and industrial route in general. It’s nice and atmospheric, and I have several stretches of it all to myself, bicycle-wise. It’s about 12 minutes longer than the old way, and has more hills, so it’s a bit more exercise.

Instead of taking Folsom to the Embarcadero, I tried Second St. yesterday and today and that was not bad. It was quite congested yesterday and therefore slow for the cyclist who eschews squeezing along between the moving cars and the parked cars, but I recalled afterwards that Second St. is due for a bike lane, one of the many projects held up in recent years by a lawsuit that has prevented us from striping a single bike lane or installing a single bike rack.

On August 20, 2008, an article by Phred Dvorak began this way in the online edition of the Wall Street Journal; maybe it was in the print edition, too:

“New York is wooing cyclists with chartreuse bike lanes. Chicago is spending nearly $1 million for double-decker bicycle parking.

“San Francisco can't even install new bike racks.”

How humiliating!

Today, I’m very happy to say, the bike plan was finally approved, with 45 of 46 planned projects given the green light. The one project that wasn’t approved was the Second St. bike lanes.

The fellow who filed the lawsuit in the first place is going to appeal this ruling, so it might still be a while before new bike lanes appear. It’s amazing to think how many good things this one person has held up.

But maybe it’s just as well. From an SF Weekly story of 5/26/09 by Matt Smith:

“Bureaucrats, advocates, and local policy wonks say bicyclists' rights have progressed more thanks to [Rob] Anderson's suit than they would have without it.

“Anderson's lawsuit ‘increased the resources the MTA [Municipal Transportation Agency] put into the bike plan, the traffic analysis, and the outreach, by a factor of three at least,’ said Dave Snyder, transportation policy coordinator at San Francisco Planning and Urban Research, a private smart-growth think tank. ‘It encouraged them to consider all of the bike lanes as a package, and introduce them and get them approved as a package, which is way more efficient than what they planned to do’ before Anderson's lawsuit.

“Under California environmental law, projects must be studied and approved in their entirety. But under the original 2005 plan, city leaders had intended to add individual bike lanes incrementally, striping a bike lane here, adding a few racks there, until a network fell into place. That's an impractical way to construct a transportation system: Imagine the chaos that would ensue if the street changes needed to accommodate a light-rail line were added piecemeal.

“But Anderson's lawsuit has fixed that. It has forced the city to make a detailed, highly engineered project out of a bike plan that five years ago was, comparatively speaking at least, more of an empty political gesture.”

OK, then! Thanks, Rob Anderson.

I'll Grant You the "New" Part

I’ve been using Lubriderm lotion on my hands and forearms when I go to sleep for many years, the fragrance-free edition, and was startled lately to find a noxious smell wafting toward me after my nightly ritual. Can Lubriderm lotion spoil?, I wondered. A dark suspicion grew in my mind. I turned on the light, fearing the worst, and sure enough, there on the container were the highly unwelcome words “new and improved.” Those scoundrels.

I had to dump it all down the drain (and recycle the container, of course) and start a search for a new emollient. Eucerin’s Original Moisturizing Lotion actually seems a bit drying, and has a slightly animal smell, but their Original Moisturizing Creme might be a winner. For starters, it’s the most unscented skin care product I’ve ever encountered—it smells like nothing. It’s a thick white paste that rubs in and becomes transparent nearly instantly, and while it can be felt on my skin for some time, it doesn’t seem to get on the sheets. Those people at Eucerin are geniuses, like Heidi Julavits (more on her later). By morning, the Eucerin has absorbed completely.

The global flow of information is so swift these days, I got to break the news about Michael Jackson dying to only two people, my parents. What a day that was: Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson gone within hours of each other.

I said to Tom later, “Poor Farrah Fawcett—what bad luck to die the same day as Michael Jackson. She was completely overshadowed.” Tom said, “Farrah Fawcett is dead?”

When I called my mother after seeing the news on TMZ (they knew it before anyone else; from now on, that’s my main news source), I asked, “Guess who died?”
“Farrah Fawcett.”
“Michael Jackson.”
“No kidding!”

She turned to my father and asked him in turn, “Guess who died?”
“Michael Jackson.”
“No kidding!”
“Did you know Farrah Fawcett had died?”
“No; when did Farrah Fawcett die?”

I added that I was waiting for a reputable news source to confirm that Michael Jackson was dead. To my mother, this meant he was alive and well; my father joked, “I hope Linda knows she’s putting me on an emotional roller coaster.”

After that my mother and I discussed a subject that is classified, as so many are; lest I was having a lapse of good judgment, she added, “If this goes in your blog, I’m going to pound you to a jelly.”

I told my mother I was still waiting for The New York Times or the San Francisco Chronicle to confirm that Michael Jackson was dead. My mother said, “It’s too late: Your father has already run down the street in his socks to tell everyone.” (There’s nothing on earth my father would be less likely to do.)

Then, as if talking to herself, she added, “I hate all this misinformation.”

Then, to me, “You got it from TMZ, I got it from LWA [that’s me], which is known for being early out of the box, but there might be a correction later.”

That’s a polite way of saying I’ve developed a reputation for incessant exaggeration.

In the evening, I listened to Triumph—that is a great album—and to my favorite songs on Thriller, nice and loud. My favorite song from Thriller is “P. Y. T. (Pretty Young Thing),” so I turned it up extra loud for that, and then the phone rang. It was the crank who lives upstairs, Tom something or other, asking if I could turn the freaking music down so he could get some freaking sleep.

I called him back and said, “I can’t believe you interrupted the Michael Jackson Tribute with that petty complaint.” Tom does hate what he calls “disco,” which to him means pretty much everything other than the Grateful Dead and Tom Petty, so he probably had had enough by that point, to be sure.

It was kind of refreshing to be the annoying neighbor instead of the annoyed neighbor for once.

For the King

Here are the instructions for how to play Sneaky Pete:
2 decks, 12 cards to each person. Can use 3 decks if more people.
Aces are high/low/both. Joker = wild. (It’s optional to play with jokers.) After deal cards, put remainder of cards in a stack face down, turning one up.

Seven hands are played. Requirement to meld for each hand:
1: 1 set, 1 run
2: 2 sets
3: 2 runs
4: 2 sets, 1 run
5: 1 set, 2 runs
6: 3 sets
7: 3 runs—no discard—basically, 2 runs of four cards and 1 run of five cards

Set = three of a kind (e.g., three eights).
Run = four in a row, same suit (e.g., 4-5-6-7 of hearts).

Play: Each time a player has a turn, she/he chooses either the top card from the face-down stack of cards, or the top card from the discard pile. Each player tries to meld as soon as possible (see “Melding,” below) and, generally, to get rid of all the cards she/he holds. A given hand is over when one player is out of cards, through melding, adding to the sets or runs of other players, and/or discarding.

Melding: “Melding” means to lay down the set and/or run requirements for the hand. Can only meld when have entire requirement for that round. After a player melds, he/she can add cards to other players’ melded runs or sets, but not before. After a player melds, she/he cannot put down any additional runs or sets; that player can only add to any run or set on the table. At the end of any hand, players can discard or not, with the exception of the seventh hand, where having no discard is required.

Melding restriction: If another player puts down a set consisting of three jacks, I can’t myself put down a set consisting of three jacks, because I could add my three jacks to the three already melded. Similarly, if another player has put down a run 4-5-6-7 of hearts, I can’t put down a run that is 8-9-10-J of hearts, because I could add that to the run already melded. However, if the other player later adds the 9 of hearts (or 9 plus 10, etc.), I can then play the 8-9-10-J of hearts as a run of my own because it would no longer be possible to add that to the other player’s run. If another player has put down a run 4-5-6-7 of hearts, I can still put down a set that contains the eight of hearts; there’s nothing wrong with that.

Runs: A player can’t put down, for instance, 4-5-6-7 of hearts as a run plus 8-9-10-J of hearts as another run—there has to be a break. The player could put down 4-5-6-7 of hearts as a run plus 9-10-J-Q of hearts as another run, even if he/she has the 8 of hearts. On a subsequent play, he/she can add the 8 of hearts to either run.

Jokers: Jokers may be used in order to meld, and may be used as needed after melding. If another player melds using a joker, I can replace that joker with the card it represents and use the joker myself to meld, or to make a play after melding; can’t do this before I meld. I can also replace a joker I have played formerly myself and put the joker to new use.

Boinging: If person whose turn it is doesn’t want face up card (person whose turn it is has dibs), someone else can take it; if two other people want it, the person closest to the person whose turn it is, per the direction of play, has priority. This is calling “boinging” and requires the person to also take a penalty card from the face-down pile of cards.

Penalties: A player who accidentally discards a card that could have been added to a previously melded set or run or that could have been used to replace a joker must take the card back plus take a penalty card; on a subsequent turn, the player can add the card to the melded set or run. A player might choose to do this on purpose, as well, as a strategy.

Scoring: Once any player is out of cards for a given hand, the points for the cards still held by other players are totaled.

Joker = 50 (if jokers have been used)
Ace = 20
9-K = 10
2-8 = 5

Winning: At the end of the game (seven hands), the player with the most points loses.

A Morbid Dread of Kneading

I have probably mentioned that my mother makes delicious homemade bread, which had belatedly—35 years after she started, give or take—inspired me to try making a loaf or two myself. I got the book Kneadlessly Simple, but concluded that it was going to be much more trouble to avoid kneading than simply to go ahead and knead. Why, after all, this morbid dread of kneading?

I consulted my mother, who pointed me to a recipe or two, and I wrote down the ingredients in my favorite Vital Vittles bread (tsk; it contained sunflower oil, which does not have a favorable Omega 6:3 ratio), and then I mentally prepared for a few more months.

Meanwhile, I started looking for a grain mill. Some months ago, Darryl S. brought homemade chocolate-chip cookies made with whole-wheat flour he’d ground himself to dinner at Terry and Nancy’s, and I had ever since wanted to grind my own whole-wheat flour and make chocolate-chip cookies with it. When I decided to attempt the baking of bread, I figured I might also want to grind my own flour for that.

I called Darryl to see what kind of grinder he uses and he said that, by chance, he had spotted the same thing in a store near his place. Tom happened to be going near there in the course of his workday, so he went and bought one—it was only about $20—and left it on Darryl’s porch for a modification Darryl thought it would need. Darryl is a master metal fabricator who once made something for Tom’s bike that Tom raved about for months.

A couple of weeks passed, and then Darryl came over with the grinder and the extra parts he’d made for it, which were beautifully created. Alas, the test wheat came out very coarse. It turns out that a really good grain mill can cost four or five hundred dollars, so it’s little wonder the $20 grinder didn’t provide satisfaction.

Darryl said he could see what the grinder needed and that he would tackle it anew. I was pretty sure nothing was going to help this particular grinder, and I hated to have Darryl spend any more time on it. I consulted Tom—I didn’t want to hurt Darryl’s feelings by suggesting he wasn’t going to succeed, but I also didn’t want him to engage in further fruitless efforts.

Tom said Darryl knows a piece of junk when he sees one, so I called Darryl and said his work is gorgeous, but I didn’t want him to spend any more time on the grinder and that I was prepared to buy a better one, but he said he was sure he could fix it and to hold off on purchasing.

I agreed not to—this was about two months ago—and there the matter stood until this morning, because I couldn’t exactly buy a grinder after I said I wouldn’t. Or at least, I couldn’t have done it right after I said I wouldn’t. (Tom said to just buy a grinder right away and fib if necessary, but one’s better relationships don’t rest on a tissue of lies, though I know Tom, ever the peacemaker, just wanted me to have my grinder and also didn’t want Darryl’s feelings to be hurt.)

In any event, probably I should confirm that I can produce a pleasing loaf of bread with Rainbow’s bulk whole-wheat bread flour before I make a substantial investment in a grinder.

As for the $20 grinder, I did throw it away just this morning. I thought of trying to find a new home for it, but since it’s clear the world is going to piddly-pot on a pumpstick, in the precise and accurate phrase of my old friend Marie, what’s one more $20 grinder in the trash? I’m not saying I’m going to go out and buy a Hummer, but I guess I concede at this point that, given the overall state of affairs, a grinder in the trash probably isn’t going to hasten the end of the world appreciably.

My friend Amy in Michigan (my friend I’ve been friends with for FORTY years) is an expert bread baker for Zingerman’s Bakehouse and gave me some tips while she was making pizza. For instance, she explained that an instruction to “punch” the dough is not referring to a right hook.

My first attempt was moderately successful. My oven more or less cooperated (it waited until I was baking cookies later to unleash its full malevolence) and the result was edible and tasted fine, but was short in stature. Either it didn’t rise enough, or it rose and then it unrose, but it was a thrill to eat toast made with bread I made myself, short or tall.

After that, I took my mother’s advice and acquired an instant-read thermometer; I had probably killed the yeast the first time with too-hot water. The hot water out of my tap is fairly reliably rusty, so I had to heat the water on my gas stove and I’m sure I overshot.

By this time, I had many pages of recipes and instructions culled from various sources. My second loaf came out almost exactly the same as the first, only half an inch taller, though both had pleasing flavor, as anything with a quarter cup of butter spread on it tends to have.

In despair, I appealed again to my mother, who persuaded me that you do have to knead the dough. Here I had bravely resolved to knead, and then not kneaded, this because I was extrapolating from a recipe designed for someone using a food processor, and hadn't realized that the 10-12 seconds of processing equated to some minutes of kneading.

Oh, it’s also not good to mash the dough into the loaf pan so it forms a perfect rectangle, which is what I thought was meant by "shape the loaf" until the Internet clued me in.

So my hopes for my next loaf of bread are high.

The Word “Shoot” Means Something Entirely Different Here

Friday of my week in Michigan, the day after I said goodbye to our old house, was the one really pretty day of my visit. I listened to the Beach Boys while I stretched, and then meditated on the deck off the kitchen, the first time I’ve ever meditated outside. It was nice—warm, with the sound of the wind in the treetops and a nearby bell tower chiming twelve chimes at noon.

On WRIF, while I showered, the DJ said, “Note to movie people who are new to Detroit: The word ‘shoot’ means something entirely different here.”

I set out to walk around Mom and Dad’s new block, but it’s not a square block you can easily walk around, so instead I went to read the plaque at the historical Ypsilanti Water Tower and gaze somberly upon the bust of Demetrius Ypsilanti, a hero of the Greek War of Independence.

I made my way past the compound of another relative and to the main thoroughfare, two sleepy blocks of Michigan Avenue, plus there is a block or two of historical Depot Town not far off. I went into the district library, and into the convention and visitors’ bureau, where I was directed to the Ypsilanti Historical Museum, on N. Huron St.

At the historical museum, which is housed in a private home built in 1860 and restored to that era, I received a lengthy and detailed tour from the knowledgeable historian on duty. I liked that contributions of non-white persons were highlighted at every turn, including those of Elijah McCoy, an African-Canadian inventor who, in his Ypsilanti machine shop, “invented an automatic lubricator for oiling the steam engines of locomotives and boats” (that’s from Wikipedia).

This meant that trains no longer had to stop periodically to be lubricated, and is one possible origin of the phrase “the real McCoy.”

The white couple who originally built the house supported the Underground Railroad; their son was an attorney who was obliged by his employer, against his own sentiments, to argue for the continuation of slavery in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case.

Right across from the museum is the Towner House, the oldest house in Ypsilanti on its original foundation. It dates to 1837; my great aunt and uncle lived in it from 1951 to 1968, the first people to occupy it after members of the Towner family.

After the museum, I went to Depot Town and had lunch at Café Luwak (42 E. Cross St.), sitting out front at a metal table, and purchased a scoop of ice cream for the walk home.
In the evening, my sister and I walked downtown again and had dinner at Haab’s, Ypsi’s (“ip-sees”) best-known restaurant.

I returned home on Saturday so I’d have Sunday for cooking: lentils, brown rice, kale-potato soup, chocolate-chip cookies and whole-wheat bread.

Ypsi Facto

On Saturday, June 6, my 47th birthday, I flew to Michigan for a visit, my first time staying at my parents’ new house in Ypsilanti, just east of Ann Arbor. (Ypsilanti is pronounced ip-sil-AN-tee, if you must know.)

On Sunday, we went to my parents’ old house in Ann Arbor and did some gardening, along with my sister. It was wet and grey; most of the week it was at least overcast. It was startling to see the house in such disarray, most of the familiar objects gone and tarps spread here and there, but that was probably useful for the separation process.

On Monday, my mother and I argued about CFLs and then about 9/11. There aren’t as many places to sit in the new house so far, so instead of everyone having a wing of the house in which to sulk privately, we all sit in the same cozy little room, which naturally leads to bitter recriminations, proximity being a chief cause of discord.

My father made special birthday cookies, based on a recipe I found on the Internet and sent him months ago for chocolate-chip cookies made with oil instead of butter. It sounds not that great, but these cookies are extremely good, as good as cookies made with butter, in my opinion. My father, typically, has modified and improved the recipe. Among other things, he replaced some of the flour with cornstarch, and he put in a subtle hint of orange extract for an outstanding—I had 12 at a sitting—result.

I tried to make his recipe after I got home and the result was pretty good, but my oven changes temperature at random, which makes baking anything a hit-or-miss operation. Also, it appears I had at some point gotten rid of almost all of my 1/3 cup measuring cups—after all, how often does a recipe call for 1/3 of a cup of anything? Well, this recipe of my father’s calls for 1/3 or 2/3 of a cup of three different things. Fortunately, I do have one such measuring cup, because that happens to be the amount of water that gets added to Hammett’s food each day.

On Tuesday of my week in Michigan I went to Chelsea for a delicious birthday dinner at Amy’s house. She made pizza from scratch, crust and all, and a beautiful white cake with white frosting. We were joined by her boyfriend (Mark), her two sons (Mike and Chris), and the newish girlfriend of Chris. Now that I’m 47, I can say that Amy and I have been friends for FORTY YEARS, and we have never had the merest fight. She is an excellent, fabulous friend. My oldest friend.

On Wednesday, my Uncle Rick and my parents and I had lunch at Café Zola on W. Washington in Ann Arbor. (Streets to the west of Main are called West whatever, and streets to the east are called East whatever; similar arrangement for north and south of some other street. I lived in this town for 20 years, have been visiting it for 27 years since, and never noticed this until this visit.)

I had the roasted vegetable salad, which has lots of yummy eggplant in it and is studded with tangy feta and drenched in thick Turkish vinaigrette (if you upend your whole container of dressing over it).

After lunch, we went across the street to Sweetwaters Café for post-lunch refreshments, where it was quieter.

On Thursday, a very wet day, I took Amy out to lunch at Seva. I had a salad somewhat similar to the one I’d had at Café Zola, and orange cake with buttercream frosting for dessert, plus a scoop of green tea ice cream, a perfect combination.

After lunch, I went to say goodbye to the old house, starting my farewell tour in the garage, amid the safety flags Dad bought us long ago for our bikes, the orange life vests for sailing, an old Bell bike helmet with a rearview mirror, the ancient filing cabinet that once held various kinds of balls.

Before I went inside, I circumambulated the house; when I got to the front porch, Melvin, the very friendly lead painter of three, was on the porch, smoking. After he went inside, I sat down on the top step, one of my favorite things to do, even just for a moment now and then. It’s a nice place to observe the weather and get some fresh air. When I stood up and brushed off the seat of the raincoat Mom had lent me, there was grey goop on my hand—Melvin’s dampened cigarette ashes. I wouldn’t be sitting on those steps again, and so that was goodbye.

I went inside, into the little bathroom of the study, and heard the click of the door lock for the last time, reminding me of little girls chasing each other around the house decades ago and that feeling of relief when the lock clicked into place. From the bathroom, I could just hear Mom mock-berating Melvin about the carpeting, which saw its best days some decades ago: “You’ve ruined my lovely carpet!”

When I’d said I was planning to say farewell to the old house that day, my mother had politely inquired, “Are you going to keen?”

I was certainly planning to keen, and had brought my keening supplies: a fresh cloth handkerchief. I’d also decided to take one mindful breath in each room/area of the house, which turned out to be functionally incompatible with crying and thus cut down on the anticipated keening quite a bit, as did my mother standing behind me pretending to bawl loudly and uncontrollably while I reviewed my memories associated with the southwest bedroom.

The final phase of leavetaking was to lie in the side yard, erstwhile and occasional badminton court, on my back—happily, the sky was dull grey and it was pouring rain—to offer my thanks for the foliage that so sheltered me, the earth, the trees, the rain, the wind, the sun.

Tom’s Excellent Adventure in France

Re: the font of my blog looking weird, if it does, for some posts. I lately went mano a mano with Blogger and I don’t have to tell you who won. Adding injury to insult, the struggles generated so many HTML errors that my blog got flagged as a “spam blog,” whatever that is.

The day before Memorial Day, I went without Tom (he had left for a five-week bicycle tour of the South of France) to Sacramento for a birthday party for Eva and Sarah, which was well populated and very nice. A long table full of mouthwatering edibles was set up in the backyard and we ate outside as the sun set.

On the train trip there, I was joined by three tiny girls, ages four, five and six, who sat facing me, and their grandmother, who sat next to me.

The parents of the girls were both deaf and were seated across the aisle. All three children had long hair in braids: one with blue eyes and blond hair, one with dark eyes and dark hair, and one with reddish-brown hair and a ruddy complexion. They were adorable.

After we’d all been talking for some time, the most talkative one—the middle one—announced, “We’re chit-chatting.” The youngest one confided that she was “in pre-school, but I’m on vacation right now.”

After I returned from my retreat in mid-May, I took a couple of additional vacation days, so I was off work clear through Memorial Day. I really enjoyed having several relaxed days to myself at home, and it was also good because it’s not unheard of for there to be some type of conflict right after a retreat. In fact, near the end of this one, during a question and answer period, another retreatant said she ALWAYS gets in a fight with someone right after she gets back from a retreat.

I suppose that’s because one is ultra-sensitive for a while? Or maybe one just gets used to the silence and to being around people who are on their absolute best behavior?

Sure enough, when I returned to work on Tuesday, I found myself feeling extremely annoyed with the slurping co-worker and said something critical to him, which I’d avoided doing for months and for which I had to apologize later. (Hence the need for a class on integrating meditation with life.)

The following Sunday, I got a call from Nancy, whose partner Terry was traveling with Tom in France, saying that Tom had not been seen by his two companions for five hours. In the end, he was missing for more than 48 hours, and there was much concerned consultation on the phone between various parties, and plenty of speculation: why didn’t he call? Was he lost? Was his bike broken? Was he, heaven forbid, lying in a ditch somewhere?

When night fell the first night, it was gloomy to think of poor Tom goodness knows where, all by himself, unable to speak a word of French and without a cell phone. The second night was more so. But on the third day—by which time Ann had called the State Department for help finding Tom, and Terry had contacted the local police in France—Tom rolled up and cheerfully announced he’d taken a wrong turn a couple of days back. Ann said that was good; she would now tell the State Department he was found. She said he replied, “Mom!!!”

Various theories had been proposed and developed during the fifty or so hours: He was lost, he had suffered mechanical difficulties, he was having trouble making an international phone call, he had met two comely young French ladies and decided to stay with them permanently, he had deliberately dropped out of society. It turned out that almost all were partly true (he had not deliberately dropped out of society, and it was actually two English paramedics).

Apparently only one person in Tom’s group of three had a cell phone—which Tom didn’t have the number for—and they had not made a plan for what to do in case they got separated, though, as Nancy said, it happens at least once on every such trip. It was a big relief when Tom was back in hand, and good to know he had been perfectly unconcerned himself.

I’ve been working on replacing more incandescent bulbs with CFLs, though I still think the latter die too soon, and I’m still worried about mercury in the water. At the moment, I have two “daylight” CFLs in the bathroom, and it’s so blindingly white that when I step out of the bathroom, the rest of my apartment looks like it’s drenched in melted butter. In fact, when I just look out of the bathroom window, the dull yellow wall of my own building and the off-white paint on the next building appear as luscious shades of gold and pearl.

Every other CFL I’m using is “soft white,” which is nice and yellow, plus I still have some fixtures where CFLs won’t fit. Cole Hardware on Fourth St. is ordering me smaller 23W CFLs that might do the trick.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Several Restorative Naps at Spirit Rock

The evening of the day I returned from the hospital, temperatures were near freezing—65 or below. Tom and I huddled together on his small couch with a fleece blanket draped over our knees, clutching large mugs of hot tea to try to keep frostbite at bay.

After a whole week of not sleeping well followed by my night in the hospital, during which my self-image changed radically if temporarily from “perfectly healthy” to “invalid,” I was feeling a bit vulnerable. Tom said I was welcome to sleep over, but I suggested we both sleep at my place, platonically speaking, of course. (One does not necessarily trust the freshness of the bedding of the confirmed bachelor.)

He said, “Oh, very comfortable!” when he sank onto the McRoskey, and in the morning, he reported that he’d slept “very well.” He went off beaming, and with a spring in his step, but then, that’s how he always is.

Not so Hammett, who had the worst night of his life: another man came and slept in his half of the bed, right in front of his disbelieving eyes. I heard a couple of sounds in the night that made me think he was trying to shred Tom’s sweater, bunched up on a chair, and around 6 a.m., he meowed for half an hour, plaintive cries that got louder and louder.

Then it was quiet, but when I got up, I found him concealed in his most secret hiding place, burrowed under two or three layers of blankets on the back of the upholstered chair. I’ve never known him to go there when I’m home, though I sometimes find him there when I get home from work.

I think that when his loud laments failed to scare Tom from the apartment, he concluded he was dealing with a much more formidable enemy than he’d at first thought and prudently retreated.

As for the gastritis, two seconds after I took Pepcid, as directed by my doctor’s office, the pain went away, and when I quit eating so much vinegar, the pain stopped arising at all.

When they said in the emergency room that they were going to admit me, by the way, my first thought was that this evening of entertainment was starting to add up, monetarily, and when I discovered I was being admitted to a private room, I thought, “Uh oh, this looks expensive,” and I asked, “Is this going to cost a fortune?” A nurse answered airily, “Do you have insurance? It will probably be covered.”

In the end, it was pretty near $11,000—the ambulance ride alone was $1,000—but indeed my insurance did cover almost all of it. If I hadn’t had insurance and if I worked at McDonald’s or had no job, that could have been a major financial crisis, and so it seemed a bit irresponsible of the medical personnel to be all, “Let’s do this test! Let’s do that test! Stay overnight!”

But upon further reflection, I decided that that was much better than if they’d said at every turn, “Can you pay for this? Are you positive you can pay for this?” That would make people reluctant to seek care. Or then again, maybe it was simply a matter of CYA, as Ann, Tom’s mother suggested—avoiding liability.

The following weekend I went by myself to see the musical Wicked, at the Orpheum, which was pretty good.

The Friday after that, I went to hear Jon Kabat-Zinn speak at the Unitarian Universalist church at Geary and Franklin. I’d read his book Full Catastrophe Living about 20 years ago and liked it. I wanted to hear him speak because I’d liked his book, and I also thought it would be good to get an extra bit of inspiration before my annual meditation retreat began two days later.

This was a concentration retreat—samatha practice—the only one Spirit Rock offers each year, and I was looking forward to at least a moment of blissful tranquility. I did generally feel calm, but most of all I felt sleepy, and I slept, and slept, and slept, and slept. Some days I went back to bed after lunch and stayed there until dinner. It was very nice, but maybe not necessarily what I had gone there for.

I had a room on the back side of my dorm. Out my window I saw trees and a little stream, and heard the wind rustling the leaves and deer nosing about. Toward the end of the week, I got a bit concerned that I was doing it wrong, or wasting my retreat, and I had an an hoc meeting with one of the teachers, who said maybe I needed all that sleep. He added in firm tones that “Gandhi, the Buddha and Mother Teresa put together couldn’t have done any better.”

One thing of immense value that occurred was an exceedingly clear look at the workings of my mind, a tour of my thoughts in detail that made it glaringly obvious how much misery is self inflicted. It's also very impressive how the mind can create an entire vivid world full of convincing color and detail in no more than two seconds.

Since coming home from this retreat, I’ve found it almost effortless to notice what I’m thinking after a moment or two rather than after two hours or two weeks, and to let the stories go, not that the next story doesn't arise a split second later.

Another good thing happened at this retreat which was that there was a woman there with a very pleasing swagger—an obvious swagger is a good thing for a woman to have; few do—who turned out to be my across-the-hall neighbor, which I didn’t figure out until maybe one or two days before the retreat ended.

We talked at the end of the retreat and it turned out that she lives in San Francisco and that she is participating in an ongoing class at the San Francisco Zen Center which is about integrating meditation practice with daily life.

That sounded really great to me, so I called the Zen Center and asked if I could join late, and was allowed to; so far I’ve been to one class meeting. I’d never been to the Zen Center before. It has a very nice, tranquil atmosphere. I will enjoy going there.

The Case of the $11,000 Case of Gastritis

The Friday following dinner at Ramblas was very stressful at work, and in the middle of the afternoon, I started having chest pains, which I have experienced now and then over the past six months. On this day, the pain was greater and more persistent than ever before.

I’d taken BART to work for some reason or other (i.e., not ridden my bike) and had planned to take BART home, but I felt so lousy when I left work that I took a cab to El Toro, where I got a tofu burrito which I expected to restore me to full health, which it didn’t.

I called Tom and said I was having chest pains. He said to call my health insurance provider. The lady there said to call an ambulance and go to the emergency room. That sounded expensive, so I asked if I could call a cab and go the emergency room. “That’s fine,” she said, “but do it right now.”

I called the cab and went outside to wait. While I waited, I considered that I might actually be having a heart attack and would never see my green home state again, which caused me to burst into tears. After five or ten minutes had passed with no sign of a cab, I asked Tom to go ahead and call an ambulance, and a fire truck and ambulance came flying down the street ten seconds later the wrong way with sirens blasting, as I stood on my porch having a good cry. (Naturally, one of my grilling nemeses came home just then. Of course.)

I was helped into back of the ambulance by a particularly good-looking paramedic and Tom hopped into the front seat with the driver. At some point, we had a police escort through the rush-hour traffic. I was given nitroglycerin in the ambulance, which didn’t seem to help, probably because nitroglycerin doesn’t help gastritis.

In the emergency room, they stuck EKG patches to me and perhaps started an I.V. They gave me two more doses of nitroglycerin and a cocktail of stuff for gastrointestinal problems, just in case. Nothing seemed to help. They were going to give me morphine in a last-ditch effort to get the pain to go away, but I said I’d rather not take that, and didn’t.

I was wheeled to another department for a chest X-ray, and blood tests were performed.

Tom, good friend that he is, sat in the waiting room for several hours holding my backpack, out of which he’d dug my insurance card. I assumed they would eventually say, “We can’t find anything; go along home,” but instead they said, “We can’t figure out what it is; we’d better admit you.” This was on a Friday night, as mentioned, and there was talk of having me stay in the hospital all weekend! Tom brought in my backpack and I explained to him how to feed Hammett, and then he left, which was kind of a lonely feeling.

Then I was wheeled into a big elevator and up to the telemetry unit, where I stayed until late the next morning. I actually slept rather well considering that I had EKG patches all over me, an I.V. stuck in the back of my right hand, oxygen tubes in my nostrils—turning over was not possible—and received periodic visits for further blood tests.

At approximately 3 a.m., the nurse assigned to me, who was darling, said my latest blood test had revealed elevated cardiac enzymes, which was startling; all prior tests, including the X-ray, had been normal. The only abnormality was my low pulse rate of 50 beats per minute. (Normal adult pulse rate is 60-100 beats per minute; frequent worrying about whether people may or may not grill in the future can bring it down, like mine.)

Ooh! The Internet says “well-conditioned athletes may have a healthy pulse rate lower than 60 BPM.” That proves it: worrying is excellent exercise.

However, they repeated the blood test, got normal results, and concluded the determination of elevated cardiac enzymes had been in error. I should say I continued to feel the original pain all night long, and even when I left the hospital the next morning, it was still there. But by then it was clear that there wasn’t anything going on with my heart.

By the way, the reason I hadn’t called my doctor’s office to say I was having chest pains was that my primary care provider is an AIDS specialist, so I hate to bother her with my little chest pains or dripping blood or throbbing goiter or whatever. I secretly suspect that she thinks that if I’m able to ride my bike to her office, I have nothing to complain about, which is probably more or less correct.

I knew that I would probably talk to her lovely and very competent but eternally harried assistant, who would say, “I doubt you have heart problems. Do you have a family history of heart problems? It’s probably heartburn. Take a Pepcid.” And that is exactly what she did say after my stay in the hospital, the difference being that after my night in the hospital, I believed her, whereas if I’d called her before going to the emergency room, I would have just kept worrying that there was something wrong with my heart.

Pete at Peet’s

Early in April, I gave in to maternal pressure and saw Men in Black, which I loved, especially the scene where Tommy Lee Jones goes into the cafeteria at work, where a gaggle of tall skinny French-speaking aliens are chatting, and asks, “How you doin’, fellas?”

“[Mumble mumble mumble] O-KAY!”

Another day I took the bus to Novato see Carol Joy and we had lunch at a restaurant called Toast, saw the movies Duplicity and Sunshine Cleaning back to back, had dinner at Thai Smile, and retired to her place for a game or two of Sneaky Pete.

The next day we had breakfast at Toast and played more Sneaky Pete at Peet’s before I took the bus home. I always have a splendid time with Carol Joy.

One day at work we had a fire drill. Normally we gather at a certain location outdoors, but there were signs up saying we were supposed to go somewhere different, so I went there, by myself except for two Indian fellows who were chatting with each other and soon fell far behind me.

Almost everyone went to the former location. When I got to the designated corner, there was only one person there, a guy who has worked on my floor the entire time I’ve been there, maybe four years, but whom I’ve never heard utter a single word, not to me or anyone else. He walks around staring at the ground and has an air of being extremely taciturn.

However, when I walked up to him that day, I introduced myself and he shook my hand as warmly as if he’d been waiting for me and smiled what turned out to be a beautiful, friendly smile. His name is Eric. He’s just very shy. He also is about ten years younger than I had assumed.

The next time I saw him on our floor, I said hello and he said hello back, but since then, it’s back to the customary procedure, almost as if we had never met, but now I know better than to think he’s grumpy.

In mid-April, Tom and I went to Sacramento for Easter and, if memory serves, we slept on an air mattress at Paul and Eva’s. It’s fairly entertaining to writhe around on an air mattress one’s neighbor is sound asleep on even if you don’t manage to wake that person up. There’s something endearing about a person, innocently asleep, bobbing up and down unbeknownst to himself.

On April 14, my extraordinarily sweet cat turned three. I brought Ham home the exact day he was six months old, so he’s been with me for two and a half years.

Around then, I heard a Professor Cole of the University of Michigan say on the radio that while women’s lives in Iraq are much worse, that’s not to say human rights have declined. I sent an email saying I'm inclined to think that if half the population, give or take, has been stripped of many rights, it would be fair to say that human rights in general have suffered: Women's rights ARE human rights.

Further, to separate one from the other is to fail to consider that if the potential of even one member of a family is stunted or denied, the malign effects will be felt by the entire family, the greater community, and the country as a whole.

I was having a weird problem with my iMac where it refused to go to sleep on its own but had to be instructed to go to sleep; then, if it happened to wake up on its own, like if the cat bumped it or there was a small earthquake, and then it tried to go to sleep on its own, it would get stuck and be unable to be roused. I would then have to do a forced shutdown.

On or about April 18, I figured out the problem was the hub I was using to provide more USB ports. No hub, no problem. But: no hub, not enough ports. In the end, I decided to re-attach the hub and just not use the sleep function. When I want to use the computer, I turn it on, and when I’m done, I turn it off, just as I did with my prior computers.

Right about that same time, Tom and I had dinner at Ramblas on Valencia St. with Sarah, Chris and Kristin. I’d never been there before. The ambience, food and company were excellent.

Dinner, Complete with Two Shannons

Many things have happened since my last substantive update, but before we get into all that, first you’ll want to know this about Hammett: Sometimes he likes to topple the brown paper grocery bag I use for recycling in the living room and claw his way into it, kicking debris out behind him as he goes.

I have now and then found him after such an operation lying atop the pile of paper with a spent but pleased air; one on such occasion, one of his long skinny legs was still thrust through a toilet paper tube when he was apprehended, leading to a moment of bafflement on his part when he tried to stroll off.

“Did you ever hear of a cat doing something like that?” I asked my mother.

“No, that sounds more like a dog,” she agreed.

Back there in March, in front of MOMA I gave $20 to a panhandler with giant expressive eyes—I had just gotten a raise and felt I could share—and she walked with me all the way to Market St. and told me about being in Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Before we parted, she darted in and gave me a quick kiss on the neck.

I had some work done on my brakes at Freewheel and asked the fellow there (I still miss Dan!) to make sure they were tight, but not so tight I wouldn’t be able to get them undone. I don’t know what you call the kind of brakes I have, but whatever they are, it’s always extremely difficult for me to unfasten them (which you need to do when fixing a flat tire, for instance).

I didn’t want to wait until I had a flat tire at night in the rain before finding out I couldn’t undo the brakes, so I checked when I got home, and sure enough, I couldn’t do it. After struggling for a bit and getting more and more frustrated, I called Tom and told him I needed help.

I’m glad to report that he couldn’t do it either, which was soothing to my nerves. He told me that if it came right down to it, I could undo the brakes completely when I needed to fix a flat; it turned out I already had the right hex wrench in my bike bag. He showed me how, and how to adjust the brakes in general.

Thanks to Tom, for the first time in the four years since I got the Marin, I’m entirely free of worry about its brakes.

In late March, my old friend Frank Manahan came to town from Dublin, Ireland, with his girlfriend. We had dinner in North Beach along with a heterosexual married couple who live here in San Francisco, BOTH of whom are named Shannon and BOTH of whom are tax attorneys. That is to say, they both have the exact same name: Shannon Drexler, or whatever their last name is, which I’ve forgotten, but wouldn’t have used here, anyway. Lochlainn, Frank’s close friend and an ex-coworker of mine, was there, too.

Shortly thereafter, another old friend, Elea, visited from Poulsbo, WA, with her charming young son Jack, who immediately stuck his hand into the open window of my cab, ready for a polite handshake. We walked around Chinatown and had lunch there, and then spent the afternoon at the zoo.

At the end of March, about a year and a half into my project at work to install secure bicycle parking company wide, we finally identified the first site, in Salt Lake City, that will install racks! We’re gathering quotes now.