Thursday, June 28, 2007

Just Peachy!

I have lately sworn off produce from outside California (or maybe Washington State) for environmental reasons, which means no bananas and no Gala apples from Chile. Until now, I have just eaten apples all year round, regardless of quality and provenance.

Now that I am noticing where items come from and sticking with what’s from nearby, I have made a wonderful discovery: seasonal local fruit! Plums! Peaches! Nectarines! I bought some pieces of fruit lately at Rainbow that I thought at first were plums, but they turned out to be nectarines with purple skin and pale flesh. Their flavor is exquisite.

(I also bought about a cup of bulk peanut butter for what proved to be $16! Then I saw that my sales slip said “almond butter.” I double-checked the numerical code, and they had used the one I specified. So then I went and looked at the actual stuff in my cupboard: almond butter. Rats. Almond butter just doesn’t make a very good peanut butter sandwich.)

This past weekend David, Lisa, Tom and I had dinner at Chef Jia’s and went to see Colma: The Musical, which is a movie, about a town just south of San Francisco which has many cemeteries and is fog-ridden. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the movie, though you might want to go tour the cemeteries in the actual town; Lisa took the three of us on such an outing once and it was interesting.

However, I was extremely impressed to learn that the whole budget for the movie was $15K. One fellow wrote it, directed it, and acted in it. This was obviously his project, and he is obviously the type of person who decides to make a movie and then makes a movie, instead of sitting around saying, “I wish I could make a movie.”

I was going to finish Guns, Germs, and Steel while I was in Ann Arbor, but finally realized it wasn’t going to happen even if I went on vacation for a year. I think I got the gist of it, though: Places where the land lies on an east-west axis have more opportunities to domesticate plants and animals, whereas land that lies north-south has different weather in different areas and so doesn’t as well support having lots of a given plant or animal. Once you can stop hunting and gathering, not everyone has to be involved in food-related activities, and then you can have warriors and politicians and go help yourself to other people’s resources.

I went on to We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, by Philip Gourevitch, about the 1994 genocide in which about a million people were killed, many hacked to bits by their own machete-wielding neighbors, and many betrayed by their own clergymen, police officers and doctors. A person might have his hands and feet chopped off and be left to die in agony on the ground while his killers laughed and taunted him.

Gourevitch’s writing is very clear and this book is recommended if you want to understand the causes of these horrifying events.

I slept over at Tom’s this past Saturday night to test his mattress, which is firmer than mine. The next day I woke up with my back feeling quite fine and decided I would go to Sleep Train and buy a (cheap!) firm mattress and put it next to the McRoskey for a time, eventually selling the also-ran, probably the McRoskey.

But then I slept the next night on the McRoskey and woke up with my back feeling perfect. I’ve been sleeping on it for only about eight weeks, so maybe I am still getting used to it.

My teeth have seemingly been getting more sensitive by the day. I began to wonder if vinegar was the culprit. It is, according to Mrs. Internet. When I was asking my dentist about lemon juice, which he said was terrible for the teeth, I forgot to ask about vinegar. Accordingly, I’ve stopped eating salads and am just having the veggies on their own: sliced tomatoes, carrot sticks, avocado halves. I suppose it’s possible to have a salad that isn’t thoroughly drenched in oil and vinegar, but why?

From the bean and grain cookbook, I made Spicy Slow-Baked Barbecued Beans, which are yummy and spicy (if you double the chipotle en adobo) but rather too sweet. Next time I’ll put in a bit less brown sugar.

Lisa C. and I had our monthly lunch yesterday, at Osha. It’s nice to chat about work and our efforts to fit all of our desired activities into each week.

Unfortunately, the trumpet is gathering dust again, after I noticed the sinking feeling I get when I say “I’ll stay up later than optimum and do …” and the relieved feeling I get when I say, “I’m going to sleep at 10:30.”

Now my weekday nights are very leisurely and simple and peaceful: Meditate, eat, wash dishes, stretch, shower. I miss playing the trumpet, but I love the relaxed feel of the evenings.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Detroit: Green Mecca?

The latest Harper’s Magazine has a really interesting article on Detroit by Rebecca Solnit, “a cautionary tale about one-industry towns.” She describes how you see a burned-out abandoned house next to a little house that someone is living in next to a couple of lots that are covered with grass, as if no houses were ever there.

Vast expanses of Detroit look just like that, like a ghost town, with Tiger Stadium abandoned and the train station unused for 20 years, all the windows broken. The population has declined vastly as the automotive industry has declined. In addition, many white families fled to the suburbs decades ago, giving Detroit an 80 or so percent black population now.

Writes Solnit, “The city, once the fourth largest in the country, is now so depopulated that some stretches resemble the outlying farmland and others are altogether wild.”

She observes that it’s common to have a city grow up where there hadn’t been one before, but almost unheard-of for the countryside to take a city back, as is happening in Detroit. She says while Detroit’s suburbs may become unsustainable when we run out of oil, the city itself may be in the vanguard of urban farming for local food production, which it is now uniquely suited for. One woman bought the vacant lots around her for a small amount of money, and now grows much of her own food on her land.

Solnit: Detroit may be the shining example we can look to, the post-industrial green city that was once the steel-gray capital of Fordist manufacturing.”

Speaking of Detroit, once upon a time, before there were cell phones, my mother’s car broke down on a Detroit freeway at night when she was all by herself. Did I ever mention this before? She sat in the car and mentally rehearsed the steps she would take to switch to the spare tire, and then she got out of the car and changed the tire and drove home. I feel anxious every time I think of my mother hopping out of her car in the urban wasteland at night, even though I know the story has a happy ending.

The most anxious I ever was on a freeway, besides the time the man in Dallas was deliberately tailgating and veering very close to the side of my car, was in St. Louis, when I was driving across the country with one of my relatives. We exited the freeway for some reason or other and were immediately lost in a creepy deserted industrial zone with no sign of an on-ramp. When I described the experience later, my father said he knew just what I meant; he’d had a similar experience there.

As for the thing in Dallas, which happened on another leg of the same trip, I waited until it was nearly too late to take an exit to the right, and then suddenly left the freeway via that exit, thus parting from my new friend.

Here’s a Video of Me Counting My Packages of Dental Floss

I was reading an article in The New Yorker not long ago about Gordon Bell’s project to record every single aspect of his life electronically, along with related material (like maps). I was aghast: Why would anyone do such a thing? Who would be interested in seeing it? If anyone else was interested, wouldn’t that person be too busy chronicling his or her own life? For instance, I can’t go see his archive because I have to spend half an hour now and then doing my blog.

You have an experience that takes five minutes to have. You make a DVD of it, which takes three hours. Watching the DVD takes fifteen minutes (allowing for turning the apparatus on and off). That’s three hours and fifteen minutes during which no new experience will be had, unless you count the experience of creating the DVD and watching it; perhaps the making of a documentary film can be undertaken to capture that part.

Honestly, after I read that, for a moment, I felt like deleting my blog and never recording anything again. As for my journal per se, I find very little occasion to write anything new in it now that this blog exists, so I’m actually thinking of getting rid of it, all thirty years’ worth. It’s not that everything I do or think is recorded here—far from it—but it should be enough to jog my memory, and it seems entirely to satisfy my impulse to record and describe.

When would a person who is trying to live in the moment have time to read an account of three of her own previous decades, anyway? Might I want to read it if I’m in a nursing home someday with plenty of time on my hands?

Presumably, either I can remember past events I took part in without notes (say, one percent of them), or they are events that have so completely disappeared from my memory (the other ninety-nine percent), it would be like reading someone else’s journal, which I don’t have time to do (unless it’s the journal of one of my parents; I’d make time for that).

I think I used to fear that I would somehow lose part of myself if I lost my journal, but I don’t think I fear that anymore. After all, there are billions of people who never kept a journal in the first place.

Lately I’ve been getting rid of something or other from my filing cabinets nearly every day, most recently a stack of dreams I wrote down when I was in high school, for dream interpretation class. I saved one, though I didn’t need to save even that one, since I remember it now and then out of the blue anyway. It’s about having a mostly bald scalp with a countable numbers of hairs sticking out of it, each of which is about an eighth of a inch in diameter.

I’m trying to be much more ruthless about email, too, not saving so much of it. I often check it using the web client, but sometimes I use Outlook Express, which shows me anything I didn’t already delete online.

Last weekend, I knew I had about six undeleted emails, and couldn’t figure out why thirty emails appeared when I started Outlook Express. It was because I had forgotten to check my second-most-important email address, which I had forgotten existed! I couldn’t believe it. Maybe it’s not Alzheimer’s per se, but I can’t remember anything anymore.

Some websites lately have you choose or enter questions whose answers will help in authentication. Recently I came upon one of mine that was “Frank’s favorite drink.” Obviously, I have no idea what Frank’s favorite drink is. Or was that a joke? Did it refer to the time I handed him a bottle of Gatorade whose cap wasn’t entirely on and Gatorade sloshed down his front? (Now, THAT was funny.) I couldn’t remember the word “Gatorade,” either; all I could think was “orangeade,” along with a little worry about whether that’s actually how it’s spelled. In the end, I had to call tech support.

I’ve started to write instructions right on the thing they’re for, in case I can’t remember where else the instructions might be. I’m picturing a tattoo on someone’s forehead of the words “Comb this” with an arrow pointing up to his or her hair.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Scanmaster Bears Slab of Universal Grief with Panache

I have recently returned from a refreshing trip to the mother-and-father ship in Ann Arbor, Michigan, during a period which I understand was on the warm and humid side, though you couldn’t prove it by me, since after decades of suffering, my parents now have central air conditioning.

Just before I left here, my mother wrote that they had turned the A/C on already, because when it wasn’t on, there was an annoying noise: “It’s so HOT!”

Heard in the San Francisco airport; the speaker was a boy of about four: “Mommy, are those things alligators or not?”

Last year my visit home triggered a state of anxiety and low-level distress that took months to abate, but this year I felt very serene, though I was still sad when I left.

Living so far away often seems sad, but now instead of telling myself I am making a fatal wrong choice, I tell myself that this is where I live currently, and that it may change in the future, or not, and that it does entail some melancholy. It is my little piece of the universal grief to bear with fortitude.

Flying was fine, too. By the time I actually step on the plane, I’m prepared to meet my maker, and am also trying to look friendly so no one thinks I’m a terrorist or that I’m the kind of Gloomy Gus who might be going to die that very day (which is one of the ways I used to decide whether it was safe to be on a given flight: did the other people on the plane look like people who would still be alive the next day?), which means I’m smiling and looking calm, so I often end up feeling unbelievably relaxed.

When a blip of fear arises, instead of thinking it means I’m having a premonition of disaster—as I did for decades, even before people had announced explicit intentions to make our planes explode—I regard it as an expected fellow traveler, along with Mara, the whisperer of worrisome things. Sometimes Claustrophobia (doesn’t she have a pretty name?) visits for a moment, too.

I felt more anxious returning than going, which may be attributable to having time to take one extra sinus-drying Sudafed before I went to the airport.

We watched lots of DVDs in the evenings: Stranger Than Fiction, Flushed Away, Collateral, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Letters from Iwo Jima, Barton Fink, The Triplets of Belleville, God Said, Ha!

Top honors go to Flushed Away—it is completely charming, especially the warbling slugs. Don’t miss the slug singing his or her heart out during the closing credits.

In Collateral, Tom Cruise scolds Jamie Foxx for wanting to skip a visit to his mother in the hospital: “She carried you in her womb for nine months.”

“I carried you in my womb for nine months,” announced my mother.

“Thank you for carrying me in your womb for nine months.” Then I turned and said the same thing to my father, who said, “You’re welcome.”

When my mother paused one DVD several times in a row, my father said mildly, “I believe you’re interfering with the artistic integrity of this production.”

Over the course of four days, my mother and I went through several boxes of her mother’s effects, mainly photos, during which project I heard myself referred to as “the hard-driving scanmaster.” The original plan was to scan every photo, but that had to be abandoned.

My mother was hoping to end up with no actual objects in her possession, but there was some evolution there, too. By the end of the project, we were keeping photos of agreeable-looking babies even if we had no idea who they were.

Almost every night, my father cooked a splendid multi-course mostly vegetarian healthy dinner. Every day for breakfast, I had my mother’s excellent home-baked bread. For the first time ever, there was no food frenzy. Such visits used to be one big binge, though it has gotten increasingly better over the years (now decades).

This visit seemed entirely free of immoderate eating, though I realized I was having trouble defining what that is, though if two people sit down with a new gallon of ice cream apiece, that might be an example of it. I guess it's eating you feel yucky about afterwards.

I saw my friend Amy twice. One day we had lunch at Café Zola and then walked around downtown. It was warm and humid, and I took her to a spot where I used to go with Laura Sauve 35 years ago in the oven-like Ann Arbor summers: a bench by the entrance to a University of Michigan library. It’s under a huge overhang and always has a slight breeze and is a bit cooler than anywhere else.

On Sunday, I wished my father a happy Father’s Day. “Same to you,” he replied politely.

Later that day, we had lunch with my mother’s brother—my beloved Uncle Rick—in Trenton.

I took no photos, as it diminishes the pleasure of my hosts, but maybe the Scan Technician will send a scan.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

I’d Like it Bald on the Sides and Four Feet Long on the Top, Please

I’ve sort of given up on the extreme savings plan already and now feel entirely free to have a $115 haircut. I think I can hear that sound my father is making right now from clear across the country. He cuts his own hair, and so does my mother.

I realized things were seeming faintly gloomy after I decided on my projected retirement date. I suppose that’s because “retired” basically means “old,” and, as we all know, old is bad. That is, the explicit message of our culture is that old, not to mention fat, non-white, disabled, poor, un-blond, etc., is bad, so we must keep reminding ourselves that that is true only to the extent we decide to believe it.

Also, pondering retirement carried a not-so-subtle connotation of waiting: I’m going to work for however many years, and then I’m going to have fun.

In retirement I plan to do exactly what I do right now when I’m not at work, just more of it: meditate, play the trumpet, listen to music, write, read, ride my bike, walk, go to the movies, see friends.

Maybe a spot of travel, if there’s anywhere outside the United States a U.S. citizen is welcome by then. I see George is now trying to alienate the Russians. What an unbelievable mess he makes of everything he turns his attention to. It’s disturbing to reflect that Iran was working on our behalf until he announced they were part of the Axis of Evil.

The retirement plan also seemed to lay my life out right up until the moment of death: Work ten years (or fifteen or twenty, depending on number of expensive haircuts). Step up preferred activities. Become ill. Die.

That’s probably what’s going to happen, anyway, but picturing the overall arc makes it seem particularly dreary.

In truth, my life is not something that’s going to begin when I retire, and I hadn’t thought it was, until I picked out a potential retirement date. It’s this here, right now, sitting in front of this computer typing this. That’s what it is right now, and in five minutes, it might be something else that also deserves my full attention.

I have no idea when I will actually retire, what I will actually do when I retire, if I will live for ten more years or ten more minutes. I don’t know if my circumstances tomorrow will be as imagined.

This brings me back, as is often the case, to the question of the job: Is this the right job for me? Does it make me happy? Not particularly, though many moments at my current job, I’m perfectly happy. There are jobs I had more fun doing, but I’m not sure if the ratio of happy moments per se was any higher.

It’s also probable that a job that is more fun would pay considerably less, changing the retirement timeline from a possible ten years to more like thirty or never.

My ruminations about this always end happily, however, with one of two conclusions:

  • This job is as good as any for practicing (as in I’m not good at it so I have to keep practicing) kindness and being present, which is my real task.
  • I’m totally free to look for another job if I feel like it.

I try to avoid constant agonizing about whether there is something else I’m supposed to be doing. While I do believe in better and worse fits (in jobs, relationships, apartments, cities, etc.), I don’t really believe in supposed to.

I’m doing what I’m doing, and later I might be doing something else, and really, it seems to kind of unfold by itself, but it’s also fine for me to make choices and take action, should I be so moved.

The question is how to enjoy the life I have, which can’t be a matter of doing more of anything, since the job takes up eight hours five days a week, and sleeping takes up nine hours seven days a week. Hence, it is a matter of being awake in more moments, at work and not.

How to be awake? Pay attention. To what? Eugene Cash said Sunday night that if in doubt, the body and the breathing are always good objects of awareness.

By the way, when I said recently that Tom’s mother was knocked down by a youngster, I didn’t mean she was decked by a hoodlum. Rather, a two-year-old lost control of his Big Wheel (or whatever they have these days) on a downhill stretch and ran into her, even as his father was calling to him to be careful.

I have to retract my endorsement of the Radio Shack answering machine, as of a few days ago when a friend telephoned in the evening and said, in a flat statement of accusation, “So, you don’t have an answering machine.” I protested that indeed I do, but she said she had called earlier in the day and it hadn’t answered. However, it does dutifully record all hang-ups: Message number five: Click. Message number six: Click. That’s something.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Hammett Rehearsing for His Acting Class

I think here he is portraying a young mother in a dire situation who is determined to protect her children even though the circumstances are daunting.



Pre-Buffet Reconnaissance Lap

Two weekends ago, our friend David received his master’s degree in Public Administration, and on the same day, Tom’s niece Sarah received her B.S. in Hospitality Management. It turns out it’s a good thing to have a loved one get a degree in Hospitality Management, because on graduation day they have a very nice reception with lots of good food. That was smart of us. We got to do what the Car Talk guy calls the “Pre-Buffet Reconnaissance Lap.”

Just prior to that, we attended David’s hooding ceremony, which was wonderful in that, because it involved a relatively small number of graduates, we got to hear something about the various inspiring projects they have been involved in.

One guy thanked his wife “for supporting me all the times I stayed up late working hard, plus all the times I stayed up late for no good reason.”

David thanked his mother, and his parents-in-law (hi, Reggie!), and his wife, Lisa, all of whom were present, but then he also even thanked me and Tom, noting the number of invitations he’s had to decline while pursuing his educational goals. That was awfully sweet of him.

I told him his gracious and thoughtful gesture entitles him to have ten future annoying acts forgiven automatically, so he should try to make them as outrageous as possible. (Now I have to try to think of something really nice to do so I can have ten of my future annoying acts forgiven, too.)

After Sarah’s reception was the enormous 8000-graduate ceremony in Cox Stadium. Tickets had run short, so Tom and I and Steve and Julie watched the proceedings on big monitors in the Student Union. It was grey outside and windy, so I think we actually got lucky there.

Then Sarah’s clan had dinner at the Beach Chalet, on the ocean at the west end of Golden Gate Park.

The following Wednesday, Chris came to the city and he and I and Tom had dinner at the restaurant/bar where Sarah works. After that, we saw Blades of Glory, the new Will Ferrell movie. My taste in movies runs to the lowbrow, so I thought it was quite funny, though Frank writes from Dublin that he thought it merely average.

At one point, Will Farrell’s ankles have been tied up and he says, “Whoever invented rope was a real a-hole.”

I am reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and it appears Cro-Magnon man was the culprit.

It was excellent to see Chris; it happens too rarely.

I have just finished a book called In Praise of Slowness: How A Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed, by Carl Honoré. I was already convinced slow is better, but enjoyed reading some anecdotes on the subject.

He writes about a town in German deciding to perform a piece of music by John Cage called Organ²/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible), whose score is eight pages long. How long should the performance take? Honoré writes that some people felt twenty minutes would be enough, while others insisted on “nothing short of infinity.”

In the end, they decided it would take 639 years, and commenced with a pause of seventeen months, while the bellows of the organ were filled. I love that. It reminds me of the New Yorker profile of the clothing designer who feels that just because humans have two arms, that’s no reason a coat can’t have three, or none.

The next weekend, namely this past weekend, we were going to go to Sacramento for a birthday party for Eva and Sarah, also likely our last sighting of Chris for some months. Tom forgot he had signed up for a 200-mile bike ride, so then I was going to go to Sacramento and Tom was going to go on the bike ride, but then Tom’s mother got knocked down by a youngster and suffered a broken wrist, so we went to Mill Valley on Saturday to help out as we could. It was excellent to see Ann and Mac, as always, despite the unfortunate circumstances.

In the evening, we saw Talladega Nights on DVD (another Will Ferrell movie), which was devoid of humor, though it’s fun to watch Will Ferrell even when he doesn’t actually make you laugh, and it was fun to watch the Borat guy.

On Sunday, I slept until 3:45 p.m. I haven’t done that in a while, and found it just as agreeable as I remembered. That evening, I finally dragged myself over to Eugene Cash’s sitting group, first attending the potluck, and found that about thirteen people I knew were there, including my buddy from the concentration retreats, and a guy who used to go to Howie’s sitting group whom I like very much, plus a guy I used to see at Howie’s who once said something funny that I think of about every two days.

Howie was asking if, when we have an upset feeling, we assume something is wrong, or whether we say philosophically, “It’s like this.” Larry said he says to himself, “It’s like this: Something’s wrong.”

Friday, June 01, 2007

Retirement Countdown!

Finally, a riveting topic that should engage all seven of my readers for decades to come: It’s the Linda Atkins Retirement Countdown!

Can I go out to dinner? No! I’m saving for retirement.

Can I go to the movies? If it’s not a matinee, no! I’m saving for retirement.

Shall I buy a $3750 mattress? Had the countdown begun six weeks ago, no!

Should I order $150 worth of truffle bars from Seattle Chocolates? See answer immediately above.

Might my appearance be enhanced by a $115 haircut? There is no doubt, but I will not do it!

In regard to the truffle bars and sugar in general, I was kind of inspired by Rita L. saying that decades of depression had vanished and that her natural joie de vivre had bubbled forth irrepressibly once she stopped eating sugar, and I decided at least to take my sugars and sugar-based products out of the cupboard and put them into a paper grocery bag for storage in the closet. It would all be there, but just not right in my face.

I must admit I was a little shocked when this project immediately overflowed one grocery bag (granted, I couldn’t fill it all the way to the top, as the items were heavy) and required much of a second such bag.

There were the truffle bars (40 of them?), the Venezuelan chocolate (20 bars?), the Newman’s sweet dark chocolate bars (six?), the brown sugar, the coarse sugar, the powdered sugar, the organic sugar, the this sugar and the that sugar, plus I put the white flour in there, since what would I do with white flour that wouldn’t involve sugar?

Later I had to take the two bags back out of the closet and put everything back on the shelf, because I kept having to go into the closet every two minutes to get a truffle bar.

Anyway, in regard to retirement, I’ve been saving for retirement but now I’m really going to save for retirement, because I would like to retire yesterday at the latest.

I live fairly low on the hog, certain recent extravagances notwithstanding, but my standard of living has inexorably crept up since I got my first job with a grown-up paycheck about nine years ago. It is much easier not to buy something when you really don’t have the money than when you do have the money but are trying to pretend you don’t.

I felt rich when I got that job. I remember telling my therapist I would now pay the top of her sliding scale and her having to break it to me gently that there were actually people in San Francisco with more money than I had, even though I was now making more than $15K a year.

While I vowed to save as much as possible now that I had some disposable income and have done a pretty good job, I don’t think it’s wise to deprive yourself of every possible thing so you can have a lavish retirement, because who knows if you’ll live until the projected day of retirement? Or will still be able to walk, or see?

As for the job, it’s not my dream job. I know if I told Oprah about it, she would think I should go for something where I get to express myself absolutely and that changes the world for the better.

There are many entrepreneurs in my family, including three of my great-grandmothers. (The fourth would have been, too, no doubt, but she died in the flu epidemic of 1918, along with her young son, leaving my grandfather and his father.)

One great-grandmother ran a corset company while her husband was in Florida for a year recovering from TB, and served as her own general contractor for the building of a house (for $18K) that still stands in Ann Arbor and recently sold for 1.35 million dollars.

Another had a candy store and tourist cabins. Another took in boarders, had a soda fountain, and also had the brilliant idea of opening, in the days before movie theaters sold refreshments, a shop located between the State and Michigan movie theaters in Ann Arbor that sold caramel corn. My father worked there sometimes and says it was a little-bitty place, and always sweating hot, with the big vat of caramel boiling away.

Plus one of my grandmothers opened her own recording studio, albeit short-lived. And two of my uncles have their own businesses, so the genes may be there, but I’m way too lazy for anything of this nature. Meanwhile, the jobs that look fun tend to pay about five dollars an hour, except for the ones that are unpaid internships.

Therefore, I have decided to suck it up, as my mother advised in exactly those words not a week ago, and step up my saving and investing, if possible.